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	font-family:Times;}     It’s gone 2:00 in the afternoon and despite three hours of driving, it feels like we haven't moved.  One reason is the desert plateau is spectacularly unchanging.  A second reason is traffic.  "They should all stay home, along with their mullahs," are the first words spoken in twenty minutes.  They're from our driver, Khalil Afkhami, a respected architect in Tehran and the leader of our three-person expedition to film a dozen historic Persian gardens.  "At this rate, we won't reach Tehran until well past tea."  None of us realized, when we left Kashan this morning, that today's the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death.  The two-lanes on the northbound side of the highway are choked with vehicles carrying Muslims to Iran’s grandest mausoleum, just south of Tehran, that commemorates the Republic's first Supreme Leader.  The mourners are packed into rickety buses and boxy, four-door sedans, none of which has air conditioning or reflects any advances in automotive engineering since the Revolution in 1979.  Our pace averages 35 mph.  Many families, numbering two to five persons, ride on the handlebars, gas tanks, seats and fenders of single-cylinder motorcycles which, running at open throttle, strain along the road’s disintegrating shoulder at half the speed of other traffic.  The women on the motorcycles seem unconcerned that their chadors furiously flap close to wheels and chains.  Fortunately, the air conditioning in Khalil's Peugeot works fine.  I couldn't feel safer as he's been like a brother to me since I arrived on my maiden visit to Iran.  Khalil did the pre-production groundwork by listening to my goals, arranging a two-week itinerary to distant gardens, and obtaining the sanctions for me to film them.  We are returning from the first location shoot.  I slouch in the front passenger seat, absorbed by the monotony out the side window.  In the back seat, also from Tehran, is my guide and historian, Dr. Laleh Noorani, a landscape architect and university professor.  We have all lapsed into the torpor brought on by the mid-afternoon haze and the drone of the automobile.  The temperature outside is 114 degrees.  I’ve never encountered such fiercely dry heat.  My sinuses are nearly swollen shut and breathing through my mouth is such a strain that I sound like a respirator.  Yesterday's ten hours in the leeching sun may have vaporized half of my body's 60% water component.  No wonder the faces of many Iranians look drawn, caved in.  Complicating matters is the delirium I feel in my third day of hosting diarrheal drainage.  My two companions, on the other hand, are in good spirits.  They pass the time commenting derisively, in Farsi and English, about the poor pilgrims we can’t seem to overtake.  For the professional classes, life was better under the Shah's rule before the Revolution deposed him.  Only fools would honor either Khomeini’s death or his legacy of a repressive theocracy and moribund economy.  Over the privileged, the imperatives of Islam hold less sway.  We pass the outskirts of Qom, Iran's educational center for the mullahs or Islamic clerics.  Blonde brick buildings and walls are in shambles.  Construction debris and human refuse border the foundations.  It is impossible to tell if the structures are in the midst of assembly or disintegration.  When the final crumbling facade wipes past my view, a stunning vista of the Dast-e Kavir desert to the east is revealed.  Past the parched scrabble of the low, softly sloped hills that rise and fall near the highway, the desert flattens without a break for the next 575 miles before reaching a mountain range.  The next town is beyond that.  600 plus miles of blinding blankness without a scrap of vegetation.  The food chain climbs no higher than the pores on the surface of gravel and outcrops.  I think,  This is what is meant by "godforsaken land. "  “Look,” Laleh exclaims, “Isn’t that beautiful?”  She points to a sliver of white near the horizon, a crack in the desert’s ocher color.  “It’s the salt bed of what was once a lake.”   I’ll suck anything that doesn’t move  is the promise from forces below and above.  I'm the only one to respond.  “Very nice.”  Torpor returns.  Later, I don’t know how much, I turn forward.  Approaching us on either side less than a mile ahead, are two bluffs, 60 or 70 feet high - the divided halves of a hill situated transversely in the path of the highway that cuts through it.  The bluff on the left is bare but the bluff on the right is topped by the silhouetted remains of a tree.  There isn’t much left - a trunk and the stumps of a few branches.   Maybe burnt by a storm , I think.  The assessment is quickly erased by a more alert thought:  There are no trees out here.   When we get closer to the hills, the frozen shape at the edge of the bluff resembles a human figure on a pedestal - perhaps a statue of a martyred war hero, the sort of memorial common in Iran.  We're nearly upon it before I squint in disbelief.  Neither judgment is correct.  The statue is alive.  A man is perched on the back of a donkey.  He faces the traffic below and a hard head wind which wraps the loose black fabric of his long-sleeved shirt and pants tightly to the front of his body.  He's slender, bearded and barefoot.  In spite of the wind, he maintains a balanced composure with hands at his sides.  The donkey, equally rigid, is strapped with burlap saddlebags loaded with something bulbous, maybe fruit or vegetables.  The man fixes his gaze just over the roofs of passing traffic.  The figures and expressions of man and beast are the same - impassive and unflinching.  Although acts of asceticism are often public, my friends have never seen anything like this.  Khalil says something to Laleh in Farsi that makes them both laugh.  Long after we drive past the bluffs, I stare out the back window and over the line of vehicles.  With one exception, all of us are channeled in an unending caravan of overheated mourners on a strand of pavement in a sea of salt and grit.  One man registers his opposition.  He will move no further.  A strip of clothing flaps madly along his spine, like the tattered sail of a lost galley.  Ted Samore ©2002
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