Dylan Thomas in Iran
Professor John Goodby of Swansea University, one of the leading authorities on the works of Dylan Thomas, has kindly allowed us to share his account of new discoveries he’s made relating to the visit of Dylan Thomas to Iran in 1951. Dr Nariman Massoumi, researching the promotional films made by Western oil companies in Iran, alerted Professor Goodby to the existence of an account, by Ebrahim Golestan, of his meeting with Thomas.
About a year ago I was contacted by Nariman Massoumi, Lecturer in Film and Television at Bristol University. He wanted to know about Dylan Thomas’s visit to Iran in early 1951. I knew that Thomas had been hired to write a filmscript for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later B.P.), to be made by Green Park Films. He was meant to produce a script describing the benefits British big business was bringing to a poor, ‘backward’ country (the fee was £250 + expenses). Several of these films were made over the years, as PR for British and US oil companies, and they were Naz’s research subject.
We both knew that in order to see how the company worked, and to get ideas, Thomas had visited Iran, flying out to Tehran with his producer, Ralph (‘Bunny’) Keane, on 8 January 1951, and returning on 14 February – 5 weeks. It was a time of marital crisis for Thomas– on his first trip to the US, in Spring 1950, he had started a relationship with Pearl Kazin, an executive at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. That autumn, she visited Europe, arriving in Britain in September. Thomas met her in London before she went on to France, and they spent a few days in London together as a couple.
But unknown to them, they were observed by Margaret Taylor, Thomas’s patroness, who was infatuated with him. In mid-September, she took advantage of the fact that Thomas had fallen ill in London after Pearl’s departure to intercept his post, which he would collect from the Savage Club, and took Pearl’s letters to Caitlin in Laugharne, regaling her with tales of her husband’s unfaithfulness. Caitlin’s anger can be imagined.
This is reflected in the letters Thomas wrote from Iran; there are 4 to Caitlin, all pleading for her forgiveness, and 1 to Pearl. But they also contain his impressions of Iran. He hates the ‘horrible oilmen’ and executives, senses the frustrations, sexual and social, of those sent out from Britain to work from the company. He is guided through ‘endless museums, palaces, libraries, courts of law, and houses of parliament until his ‘boredom bleeds’. But he is fascinated by the bazaar; it’s like ‘all the bits of film one’s ever seen … smelling of incense and carpets and food and poverty’. The poverty of the country, and the sharp contrast with wealth, is something he remarks on. If he also bemoans the heat and the restricted access to (and extortionate price of) alcohol, the most notable thing about the letters is the social conscience they reveal.
So, he writes to Caitlin of the ‘dirty and wretched clothing’ of the mass of people, of women who cover their ‘rags’ of clothes with chadhurs, the ‘babies huddled in with the poverty’, and how ‘the only water for the poor in Tehran ‘runs down the public gutter … this running cesspool is the only drinking & washing water for the poor.’ There’s a tale of visiting the children’s wards in an English-staffed charity hospital: ‘I saw rows and rows of tiny little Persian children suffering from starvation: their eyes were enormous, seeing everything & nothing, their bellies bloated, their matchstick arms hung round with blue, wrinkled flesh’. He sees a child so weak with hunger that he fell into a fire and lost his arm and all his toes, and then adds: ‘After that, I had lunch with a man worth 30,000,000 pounds, from the rents of peasants all over Iran, & from a thousand crooked deals. A charming, cultivated man.’
It’s clear that Thomas sympathises with the mass of Iranians, dislikes both their native oppressors and the imperial and corporate interlopers. He takes issue with the casual racism of the other British he encounters, disparagingly referring to the ‘Scotch engineers running down the Persian wops’. He gives his lunch, small change, sweets to the children who beg at every station on a 24-hour train journey from Tehran to Ahwaz, on the Persian Gulf. From Ahwaz he went to the main refinery centre at ‘puking Abadan’, the ‘evergreen, gardened, cypressed, cinema’d, oil-tanked, boulevarded, incense-and-armpit cradle of Persian culture’, as he describes it, in mid-January. From here he was taken out on an expedition with company geologists into the oil-fields in the surrounding hills, camping out overnight; he refers in passing to the howling jackals, frogs, camel-bells, vermin, snow-leopards, ibex.
Thomas went on to visit Isfahan and possibly Shiraz, before returning to Britain via Tehran. But what we didn’t know until now was that when he was in Abadan, he met an Iranian and struck up a friendship with him. In the course of my discussion with Naz, he let slip that Dylan Thomas was discussed, at length, in a blog posted by the great Iranian film director, Ebrahim Golestan. This blog, written in Persian (Farsi), was posted about ten years ago by someone acting for Golestan in Tehran; it was a long (11,000 words) section from the first chapter of his unpublished autobiography. It hadn’t been picked up on because it was in Farsi.
Who was Golestan? Born in 1922, at the time of his encounter with Thomas he was just 29, a short story writer working to make money for his family as an office worker at the Anglo-Iranian refinery at Abadan. He had studied abroad, mainly in Paris, but had visited England and spoke English. Later in the 1950s, he became one of the country’s leading film-makers; his film Brick and Mirror (1964), for example, is a masterpiece of Iranian cinema, influence by the French nouvelle vague movement. Golestan was a radical; backed the nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadeq when he nationalised the Iranian oil industry in 1953 (Mossadeq was then overthrown by a coup enginered by MI5 and the CIA), and was fiercely critical of the Shah, who was foisted onto the Iranians after his downfall. In 1975 he was forced to flee the country, and moved to live in Sussex. Extraordinarily, Naz told me, he is still alive, now aged 94, living in an English village.
As soon as I heard this, I was determined to get the blogged section of Golestan’s autobiography translated. This was recently completed, and it makes absolutely fascinating reading. Golestan tells us that he met Thomas when the poet was brought to the reception area of the refinery at Abadan one day, and no-one knew what to do with him, not having much English. The Head of the Company there sent for Golestan, and he found Thomas in a reception room, surrounded by employees. He didn’t know who he was, only that he was the scriptwriter and a poet. As he tells it, he greets him and then, to break the ice, says ‘I was told that you write poetry?’ and then asks him his name. When Thomas tells him, Golestan asks ‘Are you a relation of Daylon Thomas?’
‘He said “Dylan”, correcting my pronunciation, and added, ‘”I am Dylan Thomas!”’
Golestan then recognises him from his memory of a picture of the younger Thomas he had seen in the journal Horizon. He is a fan: ‘I loved the sound and music of his words and their precision, especially when recited aloud. I enjoyed his easy flowing speech, his sensitivity, his searching vision and well-chosen meanings. I liked his quick arrow-like images … His sparkling words, like meteors or shooting stars at night, were quick and hurried while at the same time they were both sharp and soothing. I had read and admired his poetry with so much passion that I had learned some of his poems by heart.’
I was now among these casual friends when Mr Abu-Saeedi introduced me, in English, to the English man and him to me, in Persian and said “this is Mr Thomas who writes poetry in English and now he is here to write the script of an educational film.” It was obvious why he introduced him to me in Persian.
I said in English “pleased to meet you”, and shook his hand. I didn’t have anything else to say, so I sat quietly like the others – waiting to see what would happen. I thought, how wasteful it was to drag me here from my home to sit here, not knowing what to say or do! I thought this was not right – such an awkward silence, so I said “I was told that you write poetry?” He nodded his head and said “that’s right”, but said it in a way that implied “what else should I do?” I said, “is your name Thomas?” He simply nodded his head and said “that’s right.”
I said, “Are you a relation of Daylon Thomas?”
He said, “Dylan”, correcting my pronunciation, and added “I am Dylan Thomas!”
I was, at first, taken aback but soon realised that although his face was puffed up and had lost some of his youthfulness, it was the same face I had seen as a younger man, then minus the effects of beer drinking. I had first come across his poetry about three years previously in Horizon. I loved the sound and the music of his precise words, especially when recited aloud. I enjoyed his easy flowing speech, his sensitivity, his searching vision and well-chosen meanings. I liked his quick arrow-like images which were soothing and connected to the nerves. His sparkling words, like meteors or shooting stars at night, were quick and hurried, while at the same time they were both sharp and comforting. I had read and admired him and his poetry with so much passion that I had learned some of the poems by heart and now that, surprised and puzzled, I saw him sitting in front of me, I was taken aback and was looking at him, suddenly I started reciting a few lines of one of his poems in English:
The hand that signed the paper felled a city; Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath, Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country; These five kings did a king to death.
It was his turn now to be taken aback and stare at me with bright penetrating eyes, full of mute questions. You could interpret his looks however you wanted! I didn’t know what he wanted or what he thought of me reciting his own poetry? His looks made me regret my action, so I said “I am sorry”, but I didn’t know what I was sorry for? Had I shocked him, in this strange place? I knew he had written better poems, and I remembered some of them but (I didn’t know why) unconsciously, I chose to recite that one. Perhaps I thought this one was better fitted to my political leanings. His look was surprised and puzzled as well as showing signs of both gratification and irritation, which quickly and quietly gave way to acceptance of what had just happened – something which was harmless but perhaps opportune. Meanwhile I heard Hallat’s voice saying something which I didn’t catch or understand. At this my colleagues started laughing. “Why are you laughing?”, I asked. The answer I got again took the form of collective laughter. I said “ Please don’t laugh, it is not right, our Guest might think you are mocking him?”
The barman came to take our orders. He (Thomas) wanted beer so I ordered McEwans for him which is made from roasted barley in Scotland and is brown (coffee-coloured). He was in deep thought but no longer had that puzzled and depressed look which he had in the office. He asked “In which country is Shiraz?”
I said “this country.”
He said “This one – Persia?”
I said “In fact today’s Shiraz was the capital of the original Persia in Herodotus’ History and for the Greeks. Geographically is not far from here but its history goes back a very along time.”
The bar attendant brought the beer quickly. Only a few of his customers were left and his shift had finished and it was time for him to go home. Thomas lifted his glass, tasted the beer then drank a gulp.
He asked “When was the Norman invasion?”
It was obvious from the tone of his voice, he wasn’t testing me. He was asking. I thought a little – I couldn’t remember the exact date so I said “I think in 1066 or perhaps 1044, around that time anyway.”
He had stretched out his legs side by side and had laid his hands on his stomach, and this time he asked “When was Chaucer?”
I couldn’t remember that at all. I was ignorant of the dates of both his birth and death. I hadn’t even read anything by Chaucer, I only knew he existed and whatever I had seen by him did not correspond to present day English. Again I thought his question was not to examine me but he was simply asking. I said “Two or three hundred years after Hafiz.”
He asked “When did he die?”
I said “Hafiz?”
He said “Hafiz?”
I added “The best of all the poets. We call him the poet of the unseen world,”
He said “I haven’t heard of him.”
I thought to myself, hearing about a poet is not relevant to knowing one.
He asked “where did he come from?”
I said “Shiraz, the same Shiraz.”
“Did he drink the same wine?” There was a kind slyness in his voice.
I said “all the time, without a break.”
“That much!” he said, “Wasn’t he a Moslem?”
“He knew the Koran by heart. In fact his name means somebody who knows the Koran by heart. A big feat, ha!”
He said “and he also drank constantly?”
I said “Perhaps not constantly, but without a doubt he drank, and sometimes when he couldn’t find any wine– this I don’t believe, he drunk the dregs from the bottom of an earthen barrel.”
“An earthen barrel?”, he said.
“Earthen barrels or vats are used here to produce wine in.”
I understood why he was puzzled, so I said, “We don’t have wooden barrels here. We make wine in earthen ones.”
“It does not have the taste or the smell of the Oak but it is protected from the heat. It is not customary to make barrels from Oak. There are very few Oak trees here, if any at all , but we have an abundance of earthen clay. We are from the earth, isn’t that so?”
He said “Interesting!”
I said “Everything is made of clay, wherever you travel here you see the houses are made of clay and mud bricks. We have a narrow strip of jungle by the side of the Caspian Sea – the rest is deserts, mountains and stones. Building with mud is a lot easier than building with stones despite having a lot of stony mountains. From the time of Alexander onwards there are no houses, palaces or temples made of stones here. They are all made of clay – baked or not. We come from the earth and go back to the earth and there is nothing left of us when we go. That’s how it is, isn’t it?”
“Interesting!” His bright eyes showed that it wasn’t from politeness that he said this.
I said “the same Hafiz says “This natural layout and the field are my royal hall,” and “The sky is my hat.” I translated these quickly and haphazardly and not in very good English. I said “I am sorry – with my broken English and not put into a good form it doesn’t sound like poetry!”
He nodded his head and said “It doesn’t matter.” He was consoling me.
He said “In any case, words are our tools! Anyway, it was extraordinary.”
I wanted to say how nice it was that he had replaced ‘interesting’ with ‘extraordinary’ but instead I said “but ‘good’ is more relevant to the poet’s time, his feelings and imagination and pairing the words with their specific beats and sounds that sometimes it rises to an unparalleled and powerful level – becomes unique.”
He said “Abstraction?”
I answered “Up to a certain point.”
He asked “Music?”
I didn’t understand, so I asked ”What do you mean?”
He said “The human voice instead of a musical instrument.”
He said “I mean pronunciation of the words instead of melody (tune) and song.”
I said “Not to that extent, but sometimes close to it. To the extent that words and their pairing, notwithstanding their rapture (mood, ecstasy), still have meaning, although very often they struggle. With primitive feelings it is natural that they should struggle more in meaning.”
He said “My intention is a more serious form of abstraction – to take the word to a place, for example like Bach does in music.”
I said “I haven’t heard anything by Bach.”
He was taken aback and with surprise said “No?”
I said “No, except for a short piece.”
He said “He (Bach) wrote one thousand and thirty pieces of work.”
It was as if he was chiding me emphatically for not knowing Bach.
I said “That many? Why so much?”
He said “Some of them are 3-4 hours long.” The colour of reproach was in his voice. Again with surprise he said “No?”
I said “I said no, except for one. I have a record. It only takes 3-4 minutes. It is the sound track of the film Fantasia.” Then I added “There is a lot of music that many people haven’t heard at all, isn’t that so?”
He said “Yes.” It was as if because he’d forgiven me, that he was agreeing with me. Perhaps he understood I was referring to a lot of things that he himself hadn’t heard.
I said “Anyway music is essentially an abstraction.”
He nodded his head meaning ‘perhaps’ or ‘it is’, but it seemed that his mind was elsewhere.
I said “In singing, in between the verses and words we say del ay del (heart-o-heart), and jaanam, janaam (my love, my love) to give substance to the sound.” Then I translated these two phrases and asked him “Is this abstraction? Did you mean this?”
He nodded his head meaning ‘perhaps’ or it is ‘possible’ or perhaps ‘you exaggerate’ or ‘it is meaningless.’
I said “It’s closer to abstraction but not in the way you meant it. Perhaps it cannot be achieved with words at all.”
He said “They tried to do it, or like in paintings.”
I said “Poems close to abstraction are a kind of painting in Persian, even when the description is real. In our paintings from classical times, there has never been an attempt to paint the real. With the word ‘painting’ the whole panorama (perspective) has become an abstraction. But the arrangement of the words is essential in poetry. The arrangement of the original work has, in itself, become an abstraction which we call verse. They can even be called poetry.” I wasn’t asking that they can be called poetry.
He said “It depends, why not? They say it’s possible, not always, but it is possible – not completely – up to a certain extent.”
I said “In any case, abstraction existed in some of our paintings. There has never been an attempt to paint realistically. Religious prohibition also prevented it.”
He said “Religious prohibition against painting also exists in the Torah.”
I said “Some of our religious laws are very like those in the Torah.”
He said “They say it all comes from God.”
I said “They say it all comes from God.”
Again he stared at me sharply. We laughed.
I said “From where and with what reason, the Gods in different religions are not the same. One has seven or eight arms, one has a son, one is born and not born -alone”.
He said “Being alone is more correct. His hands are free no matter how many he has”.
It was later, much later that I understood what he meant. I said “But it is more difficult”. He looked at me and smiled, nodded his head and said “It is more beautiful. It needs more beauty, It creates.”
I said “Being alone or having many hands?”
He laughed and said “Not creating similar but creating correctly needs more beauty.”
I said “It needs explanation. In our paintings, the trees, flowers, grass, mountains, houses, birds, clouds, dragons and images of not only humans are all distinguished by their colours. Colours are not realistic either. Language is used in this way. Everything in our paintings is unlike the reality of objects. They are not similar either.”
He said “Hell!”
It was sudden. It made me laugh. I liked it. I didn’t say anything.
He said “It is a new creation. Why should it be similar? Anything which exists, exists anyway. Why imitate it? A new creation. A second creation – new. Made unique by sweeping away the unnecessary extras. Reaching the truth. With two, three dimensions creating more. It’s a personal vision of imagination and substance . A vision of understanding and pure feeling. Personal, intimate, unique”.
John Goodby (May 2017)
Thanks once again to John Goodby for allowing us to share his article. Professor Goodby tells me that he and Nariman Massoumi are hoping to visit Golestan in the near future, so we should look out for updates on their encounter, and also that Nariman is planning to make a film about this episode in Dylan’s life.