San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



May 1967

Ecological Revolution
The Decline of Ancient Greek Art
Ruins of Ancient Greece
Turkey’s Economic Lag
Third World Economies
Iran’s “Two Culture” Peril
Home Cooking Is Better
Afghan History






PAESTUM (Italy). — Eighteen years since I have been to Paestum. Now I come back in the decline of life. Time is telling on me faster than it does on these Greek temples weathered by the Mediterranean winds.

Life is always ruinous, thought and stone endure but the flesh leaves soon. Hopes and desires are fulfilled or disappointed and the heart adjusts its best. The failures and successes pass behind in time — into unimportance. But they leave the flesh a little more battered each year.

Out on the edge of Greater Greece, amongst Italian barbarians, they raised these pillars which say, “This is the order of the spheres, the curve of the unwinding fern, and the purple shell to the sea; these are the spaces of the notes of every kind of music. The world is made of number and ruled in order by love.”*

The salt air rubs the Doric fluting smooth. Moles mine the forum, under the hellebore and marguerites, remote descendants of our moles we watched shaking the wild cyclamen. The ancient dog we fed smoked cheese and pickled squid is long dead and even her pups must all be dead and their pups old dogs. Eighteen years is a long time for a dog. How short a time it is for a human being to have outlived his happiest day of all.

There is a town at Paestum now where once there was only a malarial village. The people are well off. The road from Naples is crowded with Sunday drivers. There is an expensive restaurant in the ruins. Italy is a changed place. But the honey-colored temples, the crumbled forum, the grass-grown theater — to my eyes they have stayed unchanged.

If I could see the Paestum we saw 18 years ago and this one like the pictures astronomers flash of the moving stars, the difference decay has made would be startling. But I can’t. Eye and brain wear faster than stone, the memory fades, and ruin is imperceptible — one day goes by like another. The Romans never noticed they were declining and falling — nor do we. We cannot see time break the rock and we kill the time that breaks the heart.

But it is not our own trouble that makes this place so tragic — these temples for 2000 years have measured the ebb and flow of the chaos of the world.

In recent months there have been a number of stories in the international press about terrorist activities attributed to the Italian Maoists. Recently a giant arms cache was found in an abandoned mineshaft in wild country between Genoa and Piacenza, quite enough guns, ammunition and TNT to equip a sizable demonstration in force. The stuff was old and may have survived from the days of the Resistance, but everything had been oiled and rewrapped recently. Rumor has always said that the Italian Communist Party has kept and cared for its wartime caches of arms and also of gold, waiting for the day they might be useful.

Maoist dissidents, formerly important leaders in the PCI, naturally know where most of this stuff is. However, most of the terrorist acts, like the supposed plot to blow up the U.S. Vicenza installations and the bombings during Soviet President Podgorny’s visit, have an infantile adventurist character more in keeping with the Red Guard ideology of the young Italian beatnik Maoists who are all for anything that will upset the apple cart, or any cart at all.

[May 2, 1967]

*Rexroth is quoting from his own long poem The Dragon and the Unicorn, which includes an account of his previous journey to Paestum. The “ancient dog” mentioned in the following paragraph is also described in the poem.



Ecological Revolution

ATHENS. — Recently Constantinos Doxiades was given the Aspen Award for an outstanding contribution to world civilization. This is, although brand new, the largest and most prestigious award, second only to the Nobel prizes. I suppose most people who read about it in the papers had never heard of him although his work in the past two decades has affected the lives of millions and his visions, his plans and his steady propaganda in books and speeches may affect the lives of everybody, and greatly for the better.

He is the world’s leading urbanist and one of the world’s finest and most independent architects. There are few men around I agree with more and I spent as much time in Athens with him and visiting his firm — Doxiades Associates — and his school as I could.

I haven’t much news to report on our personal conversation, because we agree completely on generalities and on most specifics and I have been writing these things in this column for years. As follows:

We are in a period of wholesale technological change more drastic than the Industrial Revolution or any other revolution since the New Stone Age.

We have the possibility to make our revolution the first great step in ten thousand years towards the liberation of man from “alienation,” from the break between man and man, man and men, man and work. As Marx said of his own hoped-for revolution — we can bring prehistory to an end and the true history of mankind can begin.

But — today we are building with the ideas and patterns and goals of the old industrial society, the “infrastructure” — the physical fabric, which will condition that development until the end of the century. So far we are building a greater potential for our own extinction than our liberation. If we do not reverse this process, humanity is doomed, and soon.

We need an ecological revolution, a total change in our notions of environmental engineering, with humane ends first. The purpose of the slide rule and blueprint should be to free mankind to live at its maximum potential — optimum man.

There is no question but what we can do this if we choose — the means are already at hand, and put into action will continuously generate new and ever more creative means and ever more clearly envisioned ends. Right now over most of the earth, whether in the Congo or in Manhattan or San Francisco, we are going backwards.

Three revolutions have changed the modern world — the American, the French and the Russian. The new revolution which faces us as a necessity for survival fulfills all three, but those who are lost in the ideologies and formulas of the past, especially the Marxist past, simply cannot conceive of the demands of the present.

Nobody has argued the case for the ecological revolution better than Doxiades. Get his books and read them.

I went over, with one of the staff, the first volume of the great study of the Detroit conurbation — stretching from Grand Rapids to Sandusky and Saginaw to the upper Maumee. If ever there was a place needed something done about it, it’s Detroit. The job is an absolute marvel of method by true descendants of Euclid and Archimedes. And it is all comprehensible to the decision makers. It is completely free of the argot of the urbanists — of planneritis.

I do wish San Francisco would stop two-bitting itself with piecemeal jobs — I’d like to see Doxiades do a total analysis and plan for the whole region from Clear Lake to Carmel and the Sierras to the ocean. Or somebody. We’ve only got a stack of blueprint counselors of Job at present.

[May 4, 1967]



The Decline of Ancient Greek Art

ATHENS. — We certainly spent a fruitful five days in Athens. I have a feeling I could spend a good many weeks there very fruitfully. We visited the architect and urbanist Doxiades, went to see Harold Pinter’s Homecoming at the city’s avant-garde theater, and toured the museums and the Byzantine churches and the Acropolis and the Theseum.

Contemporary Greek literature and art are very interesting and the writers and artists are typically Greek in their intense vitality — but alas, most of them were away and we had only a few days — so we concentrated on the past, except for Doxiades, which whom, as a radical urban reformer — a theorist of the ecological revolution and an excellent architect — I feel a special kinship.

We agree pretty thoroughly on the diagnosis, prognosis, and cure of the ills of modern society, and we agree on the extreme gravity of the case and the need for radical action before the patient succumbs. The difference is, he thinks the patient will get well. I think he will die because he won’t take his medicine. But, social physicians, we both keep trying.

The Pinter was very well done — about the level of a good Kermit Sheets show. I don’t really see why the critics have made such a savage fuss. It is not obscene at all in comparison with much standard show business commodities. But it is savage in a way the critics could never be.

There is something about Pinter, his view of life is so merciless — or is it really so extremely merciful? — that he can say “Pass the butter” and give the squares running and barking fits. It has a great subtle role in the all-suffering husband, Teddy, and the Greek actor Nektarios Bouteres made the most of it. The girl, Irene Pittake, was making her debut. I predict you’ll see her in the movies. She looks like a Greek young Eartha Kit.

You know, while I am writing this I am eating breakfast, with the fabled honey of Hymettus — and I can see Hymettus off the balcony!

I have always thought the critics of the first quarter of the century overstated their case when they said the archaic Greek sculpture from before the Persians Wars was better than that of the Age of Pericles and that thereafter Greek art rapidly declined. The National Museum is arranged chronologically and you can see it happen. There is no possibility of argument. When you get to the Late Hellenistic and Roman period rooms you are a little hysterical. The bad taste and turgid yet inert forms which you have watched corrode the actual substance, year by year before your eyes, makes you desperate and you hurry across the entrance hall and return to the sixth and fifth century rooms to recover.

Next to a larger than life-size fifth-century Kouros figure of an athlete is the calf of his leg which had broken off — on a little pedestal of its own. I came on it not aware of what it was, so the effect was that of an abstract, subtly modulated swelling column about 30 inches high. The resemblance to Brancusi was obvious — but this little fragment had a far more subtle and complex character, greater surface tension, more powerful swell or turgor. A hundred years later all this was going — and hard to see because of the overlay of non-formal considerations. In two hundred years it was vanished away and the Hellenistic sculptors seemed utterly unaware of what their predecessors had sought and found in stone.

Best of all in the National Museum is the bas relief of Demeter giving an ear of wheat to Triptolemos while Persephone stands watching. Only the merest chance saved this stone from destruction. It was turned over and used as part of a Roman pavement. It makes us realize how much we have lost.

Work like this was the source of the work, almost certainly Greek, of the aesthetic revival under Augustus and was a model for the Altar of Peace, the Ara Pacis Augustae. But there is a difference. The Roman work is deliberately, self-consciously refined. But this is a contradiction in terms. Refinement of the sensibility is an unconscious virtue — a grace that pervades all life unaware, like sanctity, and guides the artist’s eye and hand.

Something the guides never say about this piece is that it almost certainly represents the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries, when, after the underground ordeal and catechism, the initiate was shown or was handed an ear of wheat — in complete silence. There is no ear of wheat in the sculpture — it was probably of gold. So it is a portrayal of the moment when all the Rites of the Year and the Rites of Passage converge in what today would be the first communion of a young boy, and the symbol of the entering of the soul into spiritual maturity and fruitfulness.

[May 7, 1967]



Ruins of Ancient Greece

ATHENS. — Urbanist Constantinos Doxiades had to go off to London to speak to a medical convention about the rapidly growing threat to the survival of the race due to the destruction of the environment — ecological suicide, as I have called it. So he provided us with a pretty guide and a driver and off we went to Mykenai, Argos, Tyrins, Nafplion and Corinth.

The first step was the most surprising. Just out of Athens on the Eleusis Way we stopped at the Byzantine church of Daphnis. I had seen plenty of pictures of it but I was unprepared. It was built under the Comnenian Dynasty when there was a widespread revival in Byzantium and a new prosperity in old and decaying Athens.

This was the time of the princess-historian Anna Comnena, the best of the Byzantine historians — who modeled herself on Herodotus. Well, the artists of the Daphnis mosaics modeled themselves on Apelles — the style was more free, less stylized, more natural, if not naturalistic, than any Roman mosaics and yet, unlike the Late Renaissance mosaics on San Marco in Venice, these never violated the medium.

The treatment of the nude Christ in the Baptism and Crucifixion was as undistorted as Piero della Francesca and the folds of the draperies were fluent and organic. The contrast with the portraits of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna reveals the immense potential at the command of the Byzantine artists.

On to Mykenai and the beginning of civilization on the European continent. How small it was! All these places are wonderful arguments for birth control — there just weren’t too many people to make civilized life impossible.

Mykenai, in fact, must have been smaller than the average baronial castle in the Early Middle Ages and this I suppose is what led an older generation of historians to imagine a similar fierce, beleaguered life — the great Norman castles in Wales are several times their size.

There were flowers everywhere — anemones, stars of Bethlehem, and asphodel, blooming on the floor of the temple and throne room and between the blue stones of the bath where Agamemnon was murdered. It is a wonderful site, a mystic spot in the landscape in a gorge between two high hills looking out over the whole Argolid plain, the mountains of Arcady and the sea. Bands of sheep and goats were moving up the mountains, bells clonking and shepherds playing bagpipes, and peasant houses unchanged since Electra sought refuge in one.

The old Mediterranean way of life at its simplest goes back to the New Stone Age. On it as foundation have been reared countless civilizations. What will happen now that our civilization is changing it completely and irreversibly?

Tyrins is like an English Iron Age ring fort — but down on the sea plain instead of on a hill — even tinier than Mykenai, a fortified shelter for peasants and their herds when raiders appeared from the sea. Next door a model prison full of Communist intellectuals.

Nafplion — a huge Crusaders’ fort and under it a modern hotel, one of the Xenia chain, on a lovely beach — full board and room less than $10 a day — this is an ideal spot for an untroubled spring vacation — but we must go on. Back through Corinth — so often ruined by men and earthquakes, the sun setting over the Aegean, to Athens in the twilight. As we passed a cement plant belching filth into the sky our guide pointed and said, “Eleusis.” There was once the great temple of the mystery of the powers of the earth.

[May 9, 1967]



Turkey’s Economic Lag

ISTANBUL. — What has happened to Turkey in this period of unprecedented economic boom? It hasn’t kept up.

The great social energy of the Turkish revolution seems to have flowed from the very person of Ataturk and with his passing Turkish politics have gone through long periods of disorder with resulting lack of aggressive development. Compared to Spain or Italy, industrialization has lagged and exports have not risen proportionately. Turkey has no great extractive industry providing a major export like Iran’s oil, and old cottage industries like rug making have not been promoted abroad sufficiently, and the once popular Turkish tobacco has been replaced by American burley — and much of the tobacco region has long since passed to Greece and Bulgaria.

American aid has concentrated more on building a southern bastion to “contain Communism” than on increased economic well-being and agricultural and credit reform. Few world industries have factory branches in Turkey. Not least, the government has shifted the center of gravity to Ankara and left Istanbul to shift for itself.

What Turkey needs is massive capital investment, the development of mineral and fuel resources, more water power and irrigation, more and better roads, reorganization of village agriculture — especially in the hinterlands, which are still following the way of life first observed by Xenophon — and organized and subsidized promotion of the cottage industries, especially rug making (which should also partly be brought up to date in design).

The Turks make a shaggy rug much like the Finns, but there are no modernistic rug designers — yet it is a product that can be cheaply, quickly, yet well produced — and other handicrafts.

The reason for this is not aesthetic or sentimental — there must be some way of accumulating small cash surpluses in the villages — which should be matched with a system of state-insured credit unions.

Capital accumulation must begin at the bottom — all the outside cream poured on top of the social structure never will permeate the whole. Last — an aggressive tourism promotion would bring in lots of outside money — Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, full of bathing beaches, noble ruins, ski slopes, forests and lakes, ancient cities with handsome Muslim architecture, and a fine cuisine — and even good wine, not common in Islam.

All this exists on paper, and partly in fact. What weakens Turkey is shortsighted American policy, years of political mismanagement, an authoritarian but not authoritative state yet beset by some of the worst evils of democracy, and plain lack of money.

For example — Istanbul is one of those new great-circle crossroads like Copenhagen or Anchorage — yet the airport is about like a secondary one in the Middle West but with jet runways. It could be the Near East’s Copenhagen.

I don’t like to sound authoritarian — but Turkey needs another Ataturk and a massive injection of capital investment. They’d make the most of it — it’s a great country and great people.

[May 11, 1967]




ISTANBUL. — Sad to leave Greece after so short a time — especially at a time of life where you may not return. Not just Greece, but the whole Mediterranean lies behind us, where man so long ago developed the best kind of life for himself, that small sea that is the blue heart of my civilization.

Up out of Athens in the sunset, the temple of Sounion sliding backwards under the wing of the plane. Ahead for thousands of miles lie alien civilizations — good in their own way, but not in mine.

How incongruous to fly over this history-haunted land — an hour from Rome to Athens, another to Istanbul, all the pages of Thucydides, Livy and Gibbon ruffled like a deck of cards.

Down in the night into the Near East, a pack of shouting cab drivers like ragged vultures, and off to a hotel that is the perfect symbol of the world of rising expectations.

Ten years ago it was brand new. I am sure they still think of it as “our nice new hotel,” but built-in obsolescence has reduced it to a ruin more worn out than Santa Sophia, now a millennium and a half old. Still they’re friendly, hospitable and scrupulously honest and they’re right in the heart of old Constantinople, a very different place from the new Istanbul across the Golden Horn.

It’s not all that bad — in fact I recommend it if you want to see a life that can’t last much longer — it’s called the Teras, and it is on Yeniceriler Caddesi, across from the Bayezit Mosque. The Bazaar, Santa Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace are a short walk down the street, and back a few blocks is the University and across from that is a good restaurant with a large sign in German — but only Turkish food. There is another in the Bazaar and the hotel has a snack bar that serves alcohol and even clams, very un-Muslim, and there are two clean, very, very cheap restaurants next door.

The Muezzins wake us up in the dawn. What a fine idea is the minaret! It is wonderful, it fills everyone with wonder, to hear the name of God cried out every morning over the waking city.

And what a splendid complex of vistas and domes and parks and the sea around the Blue Mosque and Santa Sophia! But like the hotel, it’s all so worn and disheveled and rumpled — this is the Near East, the land of patched pants and rubber-tire soles, where castoff clothing comes to die.

It would be possible to live in a deluxe hotel across the Golden Horn and never know you’d left Los Angeles. But there’s nothing over there and there’s everything over here — this is the heart of ancient Byzantium and the stones of Justinian’s palaces still shelter gypsies — and the Trojan ships and the invading armies of Xerxes go by on the Hellespont.

It is all about us here, the past that made us what we are. Here is the place Suleiman’s armies breached the wall and the Byzantine emperor died in battle, and here are the ruins of fortifications from the crazy Crusader kingdoms — and still intact the mosques and palaces from the days the Caliph of Rum — Constantinople — ruled the lower Danube, the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, Arabia and all the southern shore of the Mediterranean and around into the Atlantic.

All the races of the earth seem poured into Istanbul — there are many bronze-skinned people with the epicanthic fold on the eyelid like Mongols, Armenians with beautiful great eyes and noses, Jews of all kinds from Fez or Frankfurt, Arabs and Berbers, Negroes and Germans, Slavs and Greeks and Venetians and Gypsies. “The king with half the East at heel has come from gates of morning. His armies drink the rivers dry, his arrows cloud the sky.” They are still here.

The least conspicuous element of the population, which is predominantly of the Levantine type we call “Syrian,” are the ethnic Turks. The higher army officers are more Turkish than any other element of the population, and seem to be almost a race-caste.

What changes “national character”? Today the Turks are known as the world’s best soldiers. In the last days of the Caliphate they were amongst the worst. In its best days they revolutionized warfare and almost conquered Europe and ruled the largest empire west of China. In Byzantine times the people from the Turkic highlands revived the empire again and again. Historians tend to think of war as the measure of man.

I think this city has gone on down the centuries inhabited by pretty much the same kind of people. The Byzantines fought little and badly and relied on mercenaries, yet in the last hours when all was lost they fought like tigers.

One of the elements of the Turkish character especially, but of polyglot Istanbul in general — contrary to every legend and stereotype — I find them amazingly honest, careful with change, and if you say, “I never bargain,” ready with a minimum just price. Just behave like a Quaker and you have no problems.

[May 14, 1967]




TEHRAN. — Up from Istanbul to another sunset — this seems to be a favorite hour of flight in the East. Thick pockets of haze stretch out of the city into the valleys of Thrace. We circle over the narrow blue waters and rise above Asia with the Black Sea off to the left.

A long streamer of dense smoke is rising from one factory on the European side and drifting northeast, beclouding the entire straits — at least a hundred square miles of pollution. Seeing this stuff from the air, you become obsessed — but it really is so incomparably worse than the last time I flew over Europe.

Ahead lie the snowy peaks that rise to the great Armenian massif where fundamentalist mountaineers scramble about seeking the ruins of Noah’s Ark. It’s going to take more than that small vessel and that low mountain to escape this lethal flood we are bringing on ourselves.

Even at night the land below us looks like the American Intermountain country — widely scattered little constellations of lights sparkling in the desert air and vast stretches of dark punctuated with a rare lonely dot of light. Soon Tehran wheels and dips under us, looking like Salt Lake City.

Iran Air Lines have a wonderful improvement especially for the Middle East, land of happy cab drivers. You buy a ticket and are assigned a cab which takes you straight to your hotel at less price than many American or European airport buses.

Iran Air has booked your hotel and you’re settled with no confusion whatever. I can’t imagine anything better calculated to take the misery out of tourism. Landing in a strange city, especially an Oriental one, is always an hour or more of crisis, confusion and mental torture.

So here we are, in another of those well-equipped hotels, with pleasant and eagerly helpful people, where the bedsprings sag, the plumbing explodes, the floors are stained. It is certainly Persian enough. No European came to it while we were there.

You can’t rely on touring the Orient on $5 a day and staying well, but you can on about $8 (full pension) and don’t believe people who say you can’t. And you can insist that a travel agent book you at that rate. The big ones, Cook’s and American Express, are equipped to do it.

Our hotel was about $7, with full pension, Persian food. Persian and other Middle Eastern food is monotonous. Those partridges grilled over vine stems, stuffed with pistachios and dressed with pomegranate juice may be eaten by the Shah, but most Persians eat grilled mutton filets, raw onion, stewed greens, flatbread and great heaps of rice with raw egg — every day. It’s delicious — expert, thoroughly practiced simplicity — but it is monotonous. For first-class Persian accommodations and food I recommend the Sepida across from the U.S. Embassy. Our much less expensive place was the Apadana.

[May 16, 1967]



Third World Economies

TEHRAN. — Iran this year is booming. The ministerial reports were all being made, just before Muslim New Year, while we were there and everything looked rosy. There was even an agricultural surplus in all basic crops. Iran this year has not only enough to eat for everybody, but a sizable exportable surplus. The problem is marketing and distribution.

Here is another weak spot in all Eastern economies — the bazaar, street peddler system of distribution. A “teaming oriental bazaar” may be colorful, romantic, fun, or disgusting to the tourist — but to talk Marxist lingo, it is the petty bourgeoisie at its most extreme. The upper mercantile classes may be the most progressive in history, the lowest are the most reactionary and in times of great social tension, the most dangerous.

Poor countries are authoritarian, and many are forging rapidly backwards. Several have rich mineral resources that bring in foreign exchange — Iran, Mexico, Venezuela have oil, Malaysia rubber and tin, Mexico, Greece, Spain and Jamaica, tourism. Some have workers in richer countries who send home their money.

Aid helps, if there is enough money and a minimum of honesty. Formosa and South Korea receive $12 per capita American aid, Kenya and Pakistan about $8. But aid only helps where the country is already headed along the road of healthy growth. And it only helps where the administration and planners are realistic and hard-boiled, both in putting first things first — aggregate plants before steel mills, mechanics before physicists — and in dealing with their creditors and Santa Clauses.

And they can’t be too chauvinistic. Where native technical administrative and educational cadres do not exist, they must be hired from the “imperialists” — and controlled. Where native capital investment does not exist, foreign investment must be invited — and controlled. It is seldom realized that certain countries, notably India and Iran, have hidden reserves in the frozen assets of their own rich, who are reluctant to unfreeze.

Anyway, all the underdeveloped world is not in chaos, but then one never knows — ten years ago Ghana and India seemed to be the most promising of all.

[May 18, 1967]



Iran’s “Two Culture” Peril

TEHRAN. — Here we are in Salt Lake City, but where did all those dust-rolled urchins selling lottery tickets come from, and all those women wrapped in guinea hen speckled dark calico? Be they Utes?

It’s true — the two cities look extraordinarily alike. The mountains rise above Tehran just like the Wasatch, the principal building material is yellow baked brick, water runs in the gutters of the broad streets. Persia looks like Nevada or Utah over most of its surface. There the resemblance ends.

Persian civilization is as old and sophisticated as the Chinese. The Greek and Hebrew sympathies of Western historians led them to greatly underestimate our debt to Persia. Judaism, Christianity, Greek civilization — all would have been vastly different or would never have come into being had Persian civilization not existed first.

But it isn’t just the ancient world. The French and British travelers in the 17th and 18th centuries considered the Persians at least as civilized as themselves and they were right. During the 19th century Persia fell back into sloth and demoralization, from which it was pulled by the Reza Shah, the stalwart, tough-minded soldier who was the father of the present Shah.

His birthday is celebrated as a day of national liberation, and rightly so — he was a close friend of Ataturk and hoped to accomplish the same program of drastic Westernization — abolition of the Arabic alphabet, of the cholab chaderi, the veil that completely covers the old-fashioned Persian women on the street, land reform, industrialization, secularization of the state, and a slow but steady introduction of what we now call welfare-state measures.

But he died before most of his plans could be realized. Had Mossadegh not got in a fight with the oil companies and their governments, he might have carried out all of Reza Shah’s program. As it is, time has done it in spite of opposition, with the growing responsibility and independence of the present Shah.

Iran today likes to think of itself as the Japan of the Middle East, and in many ways resembles pre-War I Russia or Japan with modern improvements. Rapid but concentrated industrialization, low wage scale, a top-heavy elite of highly civilized professional people, an authoritarian state but a parliamentary government, an obscurantist church with a few learned and liberal clergy, tension between cultural Westernizers and traditionalists — and, most important, a surviving pre-industrial civilization which runs parallel to the modern one.

Iran has a learned and refined elite, cultivated as both Westerners and Orientals — as ready to discuss the poetry of Sa’adi or Rumi and the miniatures of Nizami’s Book, as Paul Eluard or Juan Gris, or Jackson Pollock or Ferlinghetti. Most of them come from the gentry — some from the nobility — many have been trained in the sciences.

Iran, like Czarist Russia, is rich in civilized medical doctors who double as authors and diplomats. In the new industries and professions there is growing up an employee middle class, from electronic engineers to publicity men. Their wages are many times those of the old-time hand worker, however skilled. A carpenter, bricklayer or even a tile setter capable of the finest mosaics in the world or a painter of enamels is lucky to get more than $2 a day.

The ordinary peasant obviously gets even less in cash — but usually he is close to self-sustaining, however much he may work in a monoculture — sugar beets or fruit or tobacco. He has his own plot for his family’s sustenance, and the village craftsmen produce his pots and pans and fix his plow. His clothes were once produced at home — now, alas, they are the castoffs of the West.

This situation means a “two culture” tension far more real and serious than the English one between writers and physicists described by Charles Snow. Unless it is overcome, it will eventually tear the society apart. It’s not just Iran — this is the problem throughout the Near and Middle East, from the Italian Mezzogiorno and Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The degree to which a regime is working to overcome this cultural schism is the true measure of its abiding success — not steel plants or even land distribution, both of which may do more harm than good at the wrong time.

[May 21, 1967] 



Home Cooking Is Better

TEHRAN. — I can’t wait to get back to San Francisco and get some good foreign food.

I’ll go to Nam Yuen for Chinese, Cho Cho for Japanese, the Taj Mahal and Indian House for Indian and Pakistani, Orsi’s and La Strada for Italian, Omar Khayyam’s and the Cairo for Near Eastern, any number of places for Spanish and Catalan, the Orangerie for French. How about a good German and a good Greek restaurant?

Unless you’re rich you can’t eat as well in any country from Sweden to Hong Kong as you can eat the same kind of food at home. That’s sad but true.

Nor can you get as good wine for the money as the best California wines. In fact cheap French wine is horrible, and by cheap I mean a dollar to two dollars a bottle.

I just ate a Persian meal at one of Tehran’s best hotel restaurants — like the ladies’ club of the Baptist church of Havre, Montana, had decided to give a Persian supper in the church basement to make some money for their missionary in Tehran and had had a lot left over and two days later gave it to the poor.

That’s unfair — Havre, Montana, or no, they’d have done a lot better and no food could wilt on no steam table that much in two days.

Gee, and at home I can go down to the grocery on the corner whose owners carry a line of stuff for their Near and Middle East landsmen and buy the stuff and make such good meals. I long for my copper pots and my rack of 40 spices and my window box of herbs.

Say, did you ever eat one of my dolmas? More meat than rice, and pine nuts and raisins and twice-fermented grape leaves, and my own bouquet of allspice and cardamom and anise and fresh chervil leaves — hardly spicy at all — cooked in white wine. You never did? Well, you won’t taste any dolmas like them dolmas from Naples to New Delhi, except in the homes of the rich.

My own pigs feet with walnuts and red bean ferment — nam yee — dried half-dollar fish cooked with bananas, Lohan Gai — immortal’s food, people cry and say, “I haven’t eaten like this since my mother died and I left Chungking!”

Or would you rather have Spaghetti la Vongole? Or Frivolités de la Villette? Or Ratatouille? Me, I want to go home! I hate these unexotic exotic restaurants in these unexotic countries.

{May 23, 1967]




TEHRAN. — Up at dawn and off in an Iran Air plane to Isfahan, over 400 kilometers of desert, real deserty desert with sometimes not a spot of cultivation visible from horizon to horizon at 20,000 feet.

The mud-walled fields and the adobe houses when they do appear beneath the plane look older than Babylon — and so they are. Somewhere in the Persian highlands mankind as the species we know may have originated, and here hundreds of thousands of years later our own race almost certainly did.

Here the ruins of the first villages have been found — although they differ very little from those of today or 2000 years ago. The little rows of anthills below the plane are vents for underground irrigation channels and even they go back before history.

It is the village life of the Near and Middle East that remains unchanged and polarizes the economies of these countries in powerful tension between the new technological culture — only a generation old — and the immemorially ancient ways which have been proven to work by countless generations.

The mud villages are exactly the same color as the desert — as though the desert had uttered them, not works of man but natural phenomena — the great tombs of the saints of Shia Islam look like the rocks of Monument Valley.

Environment shapes man — how little the houses of Isfahan differ from those of the pueblos of prehistoric New Mexico! But above them rise the blue bubbles of some of the loveliest mosques in Islam, and the still more splendid untiled ancient Friday Mosque.

In recent years Isfahan has been extensively restored and is now one of the main tourist cities of Persia. It is remarkably beautiful, not as a collection of monuments but as a living city.

From the days of Darius and Xerxes the Persians have always had a great talent for city planning and the Safavid emperors who built up Isfahan 300 years ago were singularly gifted with the art of making the desert bloom into a gracious human community. The Maidan Shah of Isfahan is one of the most beautiful of all city squares and it makes you weep to compare it with the hideous main streets of cities in the great American desert.

Think, as you look at Isfahan, what could be done with Tucson or Bakersfield! The new Shah Abbas Hotel, built from an ancient caravansary, is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world.

We had a guide from the Ministry of Tourism and were shown all the sights — rug weavers, cloth printers, enamellers, miniaturists, mosques, palaces and pleasure gardens.

What most impressed me, besides the great architectural beauty, was the gap opening between the old culture and the new. Everywhere were mechanics, carpenters, tile setters, iron workers, bricklayers doing things with a skill no longer to be found in America, in rags and broken shoes.

Are they really that poor, or is this the traditional Middle East working dress? Both, I think.

Iran is rich and progressive, striving hard to become the Japan of the Middle East, but wages are still very low in all the older occupations, the peasantry lives on a subsistence level, but — don’t forget — all this was true of France and Italy a generation ago.

[May 25, 1967]




KABUL (Afghanistan). — Along the Hindu Kush and between white mountains to the city founded by the Greeks — Alexandria-in-the-Paropasamidae — Kabul.

It’s cold in the early morning — 38 degrees F. Yesterday it snowed and the foothills of the Hindu Kush look like huge ice mountains. The setting is much like the country immediately east of Yosemite — Bishop, Lee Vining, Bridgeport. The difference is the almost total lack of any wild vegetation in the deserts, and only grass in the moister regions, and no trees on the mountains.

The land has been used and abused by man for so many thousands of years it is hard to tell what the climax vegetation was. Kabul was the favorite city of the great Mogul conqueror of India, Babur, and in his diary he speaks of forested mountains — there is no trace of such now.

California single-leaf piñon and Jeffrey pine would grow here, the rainfall is about eight inches — but the prospect of reforesting Afghanistan staggers the imagination. However, the army is beginning to plant trees at selected spots.

Until recently Afghanistan was almost as closed a country as Tibet. The Russian and British Empires agreed to create a buffer state between themselves and to keep it as a sort of social and political vacuum. Nothing was permitted to happen. Now both the Americans and the Russians pour in aid, Kabul is full of new buildings, streets are paved, there is the beginning of a highway network and last year 20,000 tourists visited Kabul, including the usual portion of hitchhiking beatniks.

Kabul is a primitive city that has recently been visited by several fairy godmothers. There are whole quarters of new houses with cesspools or septic tanks, but still with wells right alongside. In the older houses the privies are on the compound wall and drain into the street, where nightsoil gatherers carry the effluent away — fairly often.

There is no sure potable water supply, even the deep wells at the embassies are not always safe. At 6000 feet water must be boiled 20 minutes. All vegetables are grown in human manure and must be cooked. Lettuce, radishes, et cetera, are impossible to purify. Amoebic dysentery and liver flukes are more common than in most of India. In the back country whole tribes still live by banditry and smuggling, and camping out away from populated centers is unsafe.

These are two big drawbacks to full development of tourism. Still, the tourists crowd in. The potential is tremendous because Afghanistan has everything — from Greek ruins and colossal Buddhas to hunting with cheetahs or hawks to landscapes that vary from Mount McKinley to Death Valley but mostly resemble a more barren Nevada.

Sanitation and safety should be important objectives of the next two five-year plans. You certainly can’t operate a modern civilization if you can’t get a drink of water and don’t dare stray from sight. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no plan to provide sewage systems and pure water for the principal towns, not even for Kabul, in the next five years.

However, amongst the biggest of the new educational complexes ringing the capital are the military and police academies — still building. Afghanistan is going to be a “police state” for another decade — not to suppress Left politicians but to ensure civilized order.

All tourist bookings and reservations go through Ariana Afghan Airways and the Ministry of Tourism’s hotels and services — wherever they originate — for example, with American Express or Pan American.

Traveling eastward you may discover when you arrive that plans made and confirmed for weeks are impossible. Reservations in hotels and twice-weekly flights to New Delhi are canceled in favor of persons with political pull and the Afghans lie shamelessly. Things are somewhat better westbound because you can deal directly with Iran Air, the most efficient young airline in the Mideast.

Sanitation, safety and honesty — or soon the tourist boom will collapse — just as the incredible corruption in Egypt is destroying their age-old tourist business.

The ordinary Afghans, however, are amongst the world’s most likeable people, the landscape is superb, the country is full of the remains of a dozen civilizations.

It is as though Western Civilization was first coming to Mexico now, and there had never been a Cortez.

[May 28, 1967]



Afghan History

KABUL (Afghanistan). — My, my, what a fine place Kabul is. It is as though the Indian Wars of a century ago in the Intermountain West had never happened and an independent Navajo-Pueblo-Ute federation was just opening up to late-20th-century civilization.

The physical resemblance to Wyoming or Nevada is pronounced and many of the racial types, though not the ethnic Afghans, resemble American Indians.

But there is a great difference. Before the 19th century decline of Islam, Afghanistan’s cities were highly civilized places. Wild Afghanistan of popular imagination was confined to the tribes in the hills. There were lots of tribes and lots of hills — but Herat, Ghazni, Balkh and Kabul were beautiful places, with splendid mosques and palaces, public gardens and universities.

Many of the most famous poets and scientists of Islam came from Afghanistan — notably one of the very greatest of all religious poets, Jalul-u-din Rumi — and the philosopher and scientist Avicenna.

Under the dishevelment of an old world being dragged into the computer age, the old culture lives on. We were guests of a member of the consular staff and our landlord was a collector of fine books.

He had beautifully illustrated editions of all the great poets — Hafiz, Rumi, Sa’adi, Attar — in the very finest examples of each school of calligraphy, including the finest Samarkand writing which so resembles Chinese “grass characters” laid on their side — prayer books, Sufi books of meditation, an encyclopedia which had belonged to the Moghul emperor of India, Akbar, and of all things, a life of Peter the Great and Catherine of Russia written in Kabul in a very strong hand and with illuminated borders.

Our friend’s name, Mr. Parvanta, goes back to the Zend Avesta. Some generous U.S. millionaire or foundation should buy these books and give them to the Afghan National Library. They are certainly a national treasure.

The American chargé d’affaires collects coins of the region and showed me a complete run of all the Greek rulers of the Bactrian kingdom, now Afghanistan — not all the coins, some of which are amongst the most expensive in the world — and following them, the Scythians and Kushans and Moghuls and all the other rulers of Afghanistan, as well as the coins of the Greek and Moghul kings of north India.

Most remarkable was the collection of an ancient coin collector, dug up at Balkh, an amphora filled with coins from the first Greek true coin to the first drachma of the first Bactrian king, Diodotus.

A land that has heard the plays of Euripides and the poems of Rumi is far from uncivilized.

[May 30, 1967]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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