Home » Travel » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel–AROUND THE WORLD-Tehran.Tokyo 1



You know, I’ve noticed that there’s a fantastic amount of news here lately on the cockroach.  Can’t explain it.  Oh, I guess I can explain it—they’re taking over the world.  As a matter of fact, the biggest cockroach I have seen in recent years—and I’m quite an aficionado of the cockroach—I saw in Tehran.  I’m telling you, what a mean-looking cockroach.  I was sitting in a restaurant in Tehran and I was reading a newspaper, published in Iran, and they had a news item on the front page that said that there were over one-thousand-six-hundred types of cockroach in the world and that, “We here in Iran, have over eight-hundred of those varieties, right here within our borders.”  I don’t know whether this was chauvinism or not, but nevertheless, they just let it hang there.  Well, I ‘m happy to admit, he was not in my hotel.  As a matter of fact, the hotel that I was staying in was so elegant that I felt a little embarrassed even being there.  Apparently in the Middle East there’s only two kinds of people. There’s the very elegant and there’s the rest of ‘em.

I see our president is going to drop by Tehran on his way back from Moscow, which is a kind of roundabout way of getting back from Moscow.  But nevertheless, he’s dropping by Tehran.  I can give him words of advice.  There’s a rather shifty silversmith who keeps up the appearances of his trade in the bazaar and I’d stay clear of him.  He tracked me for about a good four-hundred yards, plucking at my elbow all the way, and barking in Farsi at me.  At first I thought he was trying to sell me silver, but from the leer on his face, I knew it was something else, which we will not go into.  I’m not even going to say what it was.  I have no idea, but I have suspicions.

For those of you wondering what this is all about, as you probably know, last week I went around the world.  And before we get into some of these tapes I made in various places, understand that I do not interview people when I go places, I have a terrible thing against interviewing.  If you’ve got any Chinese punk around, start burning it, and at the same time get somebody to set fire to your rug and get some cheap, dime-store perfume.  Mix it all and you will have the heady, unforgettable aromas of the Iranian bazaar, which is guaranteed to put you off your food for a couple of weeks.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, you know, it’s well known that the early Romans traveled all over before their empire collapsed.  And before the British Empire went down the drain, one could hardly go anyplace without running into some Britishers, bringing civilization to the natives.  Well, I have to admit that now the American’s totally ubiquitous.

no tourists

 There’s an almost insatiable desire on the part of—particularly elderly ladies with blue hair and tennis shoes, bearing strange knit shopping bags—to travel all over the world with dogged determination, dragging behind, their tired, protesting husbands.

You find this everywhere and they carry notebooks—very serious.  And one of the most exotic crews that I ever ran into was a crew in Tehran, and they were in a bus.  To me, this was almost more exotic than anything I saw in the whole city.  It was a determined-looking group of what appeared to be retired dentists and retired schoolteachers.  Ladies with flower-print dresses with low, sensible shoes and they were doggedly travelling in this bus. A tour that had begun in Afghanistan and they were taking a bus to Munich for some curious reason.  Now get out your globes.  You’ll see that’s one hell of a bus-ride.  Here they were.  They were running around in Tehran.  You could see that there was ill-concealed hatred in this little crew that had traveled by Iraqi bus over bumpy roads from Afghanistan, and they’d now arrived in Tehran, which is about half-way through the trip.  You could see underneath, clenched teeth, and you could see who the horse’s you-know-what were in the crowd, you could see who the passive ones were.  It was like a ship of fools.  And you could just see there were life-long hatreds being formed on this trip.  Somehow I got thrown into this mob for one brief moment.  It was like suddenly being thrown into a hothouse.

They began to pluck at my elbows:  “Don’t get near him.  There’s something wrong with that one.”  Five minutes later the one that they’d been pointing out was plucking me on the elbow:  “Don’t go near that one.”

They were right in the middle of Tehran and there seems to be something uncontrollable about little old ladies who travel.  I don’t know what it is.  American old ladies.  And the husbands always look resigned, very tired, and they have the look in the eye of the man who wonders: “Why?  What the hell am I doing here?”  You see them once in a while getting away from the crowd and sitting in the bar looking off into the middle distance and they’re usually drinking Jack Daniels—doggedly.

While in Tehran, among other things, I decided that the one thing you don’t want to do when you get into any of these places, is get involved with the so-called classical tours—although I did take the occasion to go and see the Shah of Iran’s crown jewels.  Fantastic scene.  It’s totally beyond my comprehension why people—.  The design reminded me of the kind of things my aunt Clara liked.  Paisley shawls and stuff like that, beads all over them.  But I went there and I saw this.  I was instantly reminded of Topkapi, the movie with Peter Ustinov in it.  Where they run a big caper on how to steal the crown jewels of Istanbul.  All the ladies crowded around to look at the largest diamond in the world.

So I finally split away from that hothouse crew.  In Iran, which was ancient Persia, a lot of ancient Persia still remains.  It’s a curious modern/ancient city.  They talk about Omar the Tentmaker.

rubiyat in persian


This is his country.  They talk about him as if he was just working in front of the local newspaper office a couple of weeks ago.

When in Tehran, you’ve got to go to the bazaar.  They don’t know when it began, but it goes back a couple of thousand years and it’s right in the middle of Tehran.  You seem to go underground in this thing.  It’s not one building, it’s like a giant rabbit warren.  It’s thousands and thousands of passages between buildings and it’s covered over.  I don’t know anything that’s even a parallel to it in our country.  It stretches for miles, with water trickling and little burros walking around and stepping on your feet and millions of guys yelling.  This is the bazaar, the end point of many of the caravans that would go all the way to Europe in the medieval days and later when they would travel to the ancient and storied East, to places like India, for spices and gold.  This is where they came.  It would take them years to get, finally, to this bazaar, which is the center of all the Eastern, ancient bazaars.

So I went down there in the middle of the afternoon.  You could smell everything—no way to describe the smell.  Fantastic fish, there are goats and burros running all over the place.  Thousands and thousands of peddlers, and you can just feel, in this scene that goes all the way back to the days before Christ, that they look exactly the way they did then.  They squat in millions of little cubicles selling everything from buttons to balloons with Mickey Mouse pictures on ‘em, every conceivable thing.

tehran bazaar

As I walked into the bazaar by the main entrance, a big, arched gateway, that heads down into what looks like a subterranean cavern, I turned on my tape recorder, just let it run so you could hear the sounds of what the bazaar, the ancient Persian bazaar in Tehran, sounds like.  [Sounds of talking, walking, motor scooters]  “Like a giant human beehive.”  There’re millions of samovars for sale, all kinds of ancient Persian bazaars.  There’s a curious esthetic in that area.  This is probably the worst world headquarters of slob art.  You’ve never seen such terrible-looking stuff in your life.  Glassware.  In fact I saw a salt-and-pepper shaker made out of blue glass in the shape of two hippopotamuses wearing birthday hats.  Figure that one out.  These are all guys calling out the stuff they sell.  You smell all of that strange Greek pastry they sell, dried fruit, raw fish, tea.  At that point I was bumped in the back by a burro—just nudged out of the way.    That’s the sound of the bazaar.]

There’s a curious thing about traveling.  You get addicted to it.  At this point in my life I couldn’t imagine not having in my mind another trip to take.  I’d rather spend money on travel than on anything I can think of.  For one thing, once you’ve traveled, that’s one thing you can never lose.  You can’t lose it—once you’ve walked through the bazaar of Iran, it’s in your head forever.

After I left Tehran and that country, which was different from any place I’ve ever been, I was reminded a lot of Greece.  And yet not quite.  On the other hand I was also reminded of other places in the Middle East like Beirut, but not quite.  Each one of these countries is distinctly different from the next.

After leaving Tehran, I flew on to other places including Lebanon, Beirut, Karachi—I’ve been in Karachi several times—Istanbul, and finally Bangkok.  And then eventually I got to Tokyo and I think Tokyo is a far more relevant place to talk about if you want to study a place I’ve been.

I was in Tokyo once some time ago and I couldn’t believe it when I got back.  Everything you have heard about Japan as being swinging, is minor compared to the actuality of it.  As a matter of fact, I have to say that Tokyo is the closest to New York of any city that I have seen in the world.  It feels like New York.  I felt totally at home in Tokyo.  Did not feel at any point that I was out of my element in Tokyo.

They have department stores in Tokyo that make Macy’s look like a little crossroads general store in Michigan.  Incredible!  It’s not tourists who are buying this stuff, it’s Japanese—by the millions.  Crowding the stores.  Entire families moving around the streets carrying their shopping bags.

You see a lot of curious things in Japan.  For one thing, the Japanese love to have little uniforms.  Whenever you see a Japanese tour or a group of schoolchildren, they’re all wearing little yellow hats, or they’re carrying little sticks with yellow balloons on the top so they can be identified, and there’s a little crowd of them all carrying balloons.  They love badges with the things hanging down.  And you just can’t quite get used to that and the Japanese men all look alike in many ways because of the clothing they wear.  They tend to all wear dark, very conservatively cut black suits and white shirts.  Japan must be the last stronghold of the white shirt.  And knit ties.  Look very elegant.  And they always carry cameras.

Millions of Japanese cars going up and down the streets like mad.  I got up late the first day, because I had been on this trip for what seemed like months by this time—by the time I got to Tokyo, so I just had to get some sleep.  I had this elegant room that was in the tallest building in Tokyo—the Keio Plaza Hotel, a fantastic, modernist place, and you look out over the entire city.  As I swung the curtain back covering one entire glass wall from floor to ceiling, I was looking at all of Tokyo.  I was about fifteen or twenty stories up.  Off in the distance—get this—drifting out of what looked like a haze, was Mount Fuji.  It stands in the air like a curious ghost.  You can’t really see the outline of it but you can see the outline of the snow.  Like a Japanese etching.

 hokusai 36.46.views

Hokusai 36 of 46 views of Fuji

I flipped on the color TV set and what hits me is a Japanese ballgame in full swing on this Saturday afternoon.  And I made some comments on my tape recorder—what a Japanese baseball game sounds like on TV.  [The band playing, sirens, the teams are lines up one on the third baseline, one on the first base line.  They line up and bow to each other.  The band leaves the field, the players are running back to their dugouts.  Now the teams are lined up and bowing to the people in the stands, and including the umpire.  Of course baseball is the Japanese national sport and they have it highly ritualized compared to the American game.  Great sections of the stands have the same team caps on and huge banners, all highly organized.

Another thing about Tokyo that I’ve noticed—it’s a little depressing to come from New York and realize that New York as a city is undeniably dirty compared to many places in the world such as Tokyo.  Some areas of Tokyo have pollution and dirt and so on, but in general—the subways, for example—there is no comparison between the subways in New York and in Tokyo.  I hate to say it but I think it has something to do with our national character.  I think Americans’ attitude is—to hell with everybody else—is beginning to show in the streets.  Papers, cans, dirt, cigar butts—all the rest of it.


I wish I could play more tapes now.  Those were some comments that I was making to myself in the hotel room, and you are hit by that right away.  For example it would be absolutely unthinkable for anybody in Japan—in fact, in most of the world—to do the things that we do to our subway cars.  All the millions of names and stuff written all over the side.  By the way, I have to think the greatest crowd-shovers in the world are the Japanese.  I want to tell you!  You get buffeted around in a Japanese crowd—they bang into you, knock you down, throw a shoulder into you, throw a cross-block at you, they give you a quick knee to the groin and move on without even breathing hard.  They’re the ultimate crowd people.

By the way, I’m just slowly getting adapted into being back in the States.  It’s like having one week at decompression after taking a week to travel around the globe.  It was an entire circumnavigation of the globe—in a 747.  I’m just getting over the fatigue.  Oh yeah!



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