Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Allegrezza Ficcione, Part 13

There is a feeling of familiarity when you sometimes venture out into a new place, a similar feeling to that you get when you enter a secondhand book shop & know that the book you've been looking for for ages will be found here. Allegrezza got none of this with Tabriz.

He'd gone straight to the hotel & sleep when he arrived, decided in the morning to have a look around, pick up the feel for the place, before he started searching for any information about his ancestor.

He played the tourist. Went out to look at the Talkheh Rood, the Bitter River, where it flowed past the north of the city on its way to Orumiyeh Lake, thought of the earliest maps, where the known world was an island around which ran the Adjai-Tchai, also called the Bitter River. He worked his way back into the city, along the Mehran Rood, the Sweet River, now a playground for children & a parking lot for cars because the only flow ever in it was sewerage or industrial waste.

Tabriz used to be a great cultural centre, a major stopping point on the Silk Road, one of several places that had at various times been known as The Dome of Islam. Taken without bloodshed by the Mongols in the 13th century C.E. it had thrived. It was where the Ambassadors from Venice were received. The Blue Mosque – the Jewel of Islam – was built. Several of the greatest religious schools of the period had been established here. Now of the schools only the towers of the Shanb Gazan survive.

Tabriz had come apart during the war between the Safavid Dynasty & the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. The artists & many of the carpetmakers fled to Isfahan, the only poets left were those buried in the Poets' Cemetery. It became a city modified by each successive modern era.

It had been the capital of Persia during the Qajar dynasty. The Constitutional Movement was born here in the 19th century, revitalised again in the first decade of the 20th when it had succeeded in forcing the creation of an elected parliament despite the execution of two of its leaders. The first modern school was founded in Tabriz. The first printing hall, the first theatre, the first periodical, the first municipality, all were established in Tabriz. The first Town Hall in Iran was built here, designed to resemble "an eagle with widespread wings". What was perhaps the major demonstration that led to the exile of the Shah & the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini had taken place here in 1978.

But modification & modernity at a price. The best carpets are no longer to be found here. The market has been reduced to a fraction of its former size & its infinite variety.The Poets' Cemetery has been built over with apartment blocks & shopping malls, the graves replaced with markers & a monument erected in 1976. Only the death of Shahryar, author of the famed "Haydar Babaya Sallam", in 1988 & the subsequent creation of a small park around the monument to celebrate his life & writings have a left a whisper of the former glory.

Allegrezza left a small poem in the visitors' book & returned to his hotel. He knew before he even started looking that his quest would have no joy here. But he would look anyway.

He set out for the University in the morning, to start at the library there & see if it led him anywhere. All he could find in the catalogues on Hassan-i-Sabbah under any of the variant spellings were encyclopaedia entries.

He went across to the librarian, to ask him if there was any more material, was told that what was in the catalogues was probably it, but there were some uncatalogued secular manuscripts in the cupboards on the next floor up & there might be something in those.

It was there that the police found him fifteen minutes later. He was asked to come with them, was informed that the reason for his detainment would be explained at the station. Allegrezza went with them; there seemed little choice.

"Why are you looking for hashish?" he was asked in the interview room.

"I'm not."

"Then are you looking to sell it? To corrupt Iranian youth with your western wickedness?"

"I'm not trying to do either. I'm looking for information on Hassan-i-Sabbah. Surely you must have heard of him?"

The policeman laughed. "So it's the secret gardens of The Old Man of the Mountains that you're looking for."

Allegrezza began to protest but the policeman held up his hand to stop him. "The West seems to have lost its ability to embrace martyrdom. It cannot accept that we Moslems regard it as a holy act but instead now believes that people must be" – he broke off, searching for a word, seemed to find no other than the English term – "'stoned' before they can do it. You have so much to learn.You're probably not a criminal but you are rather foolish. I'm going to let you go, but your name's going into our files immediately. Take this as a warning."

Allegrezza flew out to Tehran that afternoon. Shaken, debating whether to stay in Iran, deciding to have one last shot at finding something. Perhaps there was more chance in the capital.

Next morning he went to the State Library, registered as a researcher, went off to look through the catalogues. Twenty minutes later the police arrived.

"So, the hashish searcher of Tabriz has come to Tehran. Please accompany us."

It was a similar sceptical interrogation to the day before's, but this time Allegrezza was a bit more forthcoming, explaining about his search for information about his ancestor, about the connection with Hassan. He was dismissed after an hour, told to remain at his hotel while they decided what to do.

That evening there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find two men standing there, one a mullah, the other in a dark suit that appeared to be of good Italian manufacture. They produced identity cards. They were members of the Religious Police, what was, essentially, the Secret Police.

The questioning began again, with only the cleric doing the asking. Allegrezza explained his reasons for being in Iran, explained them again, denied looking to buy or sell hashish. Was warned that his behaviour was bordering on the anti-religious, was antisocial, may even be considered criminal. Finally, after his credentials had been examined again, the two men got up to go.

The suit spoke for the first time, told the Mullah to go & get the lift, that he needed to have a piss before he left. Then, when the Mullah had gone, he turned to Allegrezza.

"I will check if there is truth in your story. If there is then I will help you. Otherwise....."

Allegrezza looked at him, puzzled. "How can you check the historical truth?"

The suit smiled, somewhat coldly. "I have access to the original records. I am a follower of Hassan. I am an Assassin. If what you have told me is true I will come for you tomorrow. If not, then you will never know when I am coming."

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