Friday, 13 November 2020

Translation: ‘Obstacles on the journey’ beyond Isfahan


Maidan, Isfahan, the Imam Mosque: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives

In this earlier post, I translated Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s description of Mount Demavend, from Das glückliche Tal (pp 62-64), a personal and visionary account of her experiences in Persia.

This passage immediately follows (pp 64-67). Annemarie is travelling with her colleague Friedrich Krefter, an architect working at Persepolis, (whom she calls Berger) from Isfahan to Tehran. This is at the end of her first visit to Persia in the spring of 1934. She describes their experience of trying to cross a river in the flash floods of spring, on their night journey from Isfahan. After a long struggle to get the car out of the water, she has her first sight of Mount Demavend, visible from a distance of eighty kilometers away. 

Mount Demavend: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives

 A little more than a year later, in the summer of 1935, she would spend time in close proximity to Mount Demavend, in the Lahr valley (known as the Happy Valley/Das glückliche Tal) but of that, she had no idea, in that early morning in 1934, on the way from Isfahan to Tehran. 

 My translated excerpt from Das glückliche Tal 

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan: photo credit Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Archives


We left Isfahan in the evening, my colleague Berger and myself. Alongside a camel caravan, our vehicle passed through the colourful city gate and beyond it we overtook one camel after another – the whole length of the road awash with the ringing of the camel bells. One driver called out a warning to us. He was sitting on his camel’s hump muffled up in a felt overcoat which was pulled up over his head.
What is he shouting?
Slow, slow down, there’s deep water ahead...
That’s when Berger hit the brakes. The road broke apart, the earth split, and a black current surged through the yawning crevice. In the middle of the water lay a truck like a felled creature on its knees. We connected a torch to the battery, scanned the further bank. Up to our haunches in water, we searched for a ford. Nothing but shifting sand underfoot! And the strong current almost pulled me away with it! I groped my way forwards, behind me I heard the engine turn over, the headlights swept over the river, Berger steered the car up the slope, the wheels splashed, water was washing over them, but the car was moving! I shouted: Keep going right – then the engine died. The wheels had twisted left, and dug themselves into the sand. I went back. We can get it free, shouted Berger, as long as the engine doesn’t get wet!

Battling with obstacles, struggling against the current, against a river with no bridges, against the sand, against the cold, against the darkness. Shouting to each other to make ourselves understood over the roaring of the river. Working together to dislodge the car, to reach the bank. We opened the bonnet and wrapped my scarf round the engine. We managed to wedge the car jack between stones. We pushed our goatshair blankets under one wheel and got the motor to start up. It spluttered, it turned over – the car made a leap forwards then sank again. We groped for the blankets, pulled them out of the water, one of them ripped. Standing on the running-board, we paused to catch our breath, lit cigarettes. Then, once again … we laid stones on the bed of the ford, our arms freezing in the icy water. It was midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock. Finally there’s the embankment, steep, slippery. Impossible? Berger was already sitting at the steering wheel, the engine caught, the car lurched forward, the front wheels slid over the rim of the bank, the axle hit it. I was still standing in the water, holding my breath: We made it!
Why do I remember this so clearly and even now I’m holding my breath? And forget the faces of people I have loved –  forget their names even?
The car was back up on dry land, the engine still juddering from the effort. Berger gave me whisky to drink, placed a dry blanket round my shoulders. The first glimmers of dawn were brushing the dark plain. This plain spread out in front of us was a desert: arid, empty, stony, just a sprinkling of earth for the winds to play with – stray tufts of lifeless yellow grass.  What a spectacle! - The eyes strained to make out the horizon. - Patience, it will soon be day. Rays of golden light will flood the desert. Patience . . . And there, on the outermost edge of the plain, was the Demavend. A diminutive triangle in the blue night sky, pure white, shining – and I saw it for the first time! Berger, as excited as I was, held up his Leika. ‘It is eighty kilometers away! We must wait for the sun!’ he called out to me. We waited. We photographed the Demavend, eighty kilometers distant from us. And the sun warmed us and dried our clothes. 

Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Khaju bridge Isfahan, today: photo credit Wikimedia commons



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