The Mountains of Persia


There is a bar in Belgrade called the World Traveller’s Club. It is in the basement of an apartment block in the city centre and to gain entrance you are required to ring the door bell at street level and state your business over the intercom. These days the club, which is alternatively known as the Federal Association of Globetrotters, is just one of many quirky bars in the city – homespun decor, art school daubings on the walls, miscellaneous furniture that includes Singer trestle sewing machines for tables, posters of iconic foreign destinations like Paris and Rome. The bar, as it proudly declares on its menu, was established in 1999. The date is significant.

In 1999 Belgrade was the capital of a land still known as Yugoslavia, a much depleted country that by that stage of the breakup consisted of just Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Internationally, the country was considered as a pariah state thanks to the continuing ultra-nationalist regime of Slobodan Milošević. 1999 was also the year that NATO bombs fell on Belgrade and other Serbian cities. It was neither a good place to be nor somewhere that was easy to escape from – a Yugoslav passport, once a document that allowed easy access to both West and Eastern bloc, no longer held any currency. Such a document would get you nowhere.

It goes without saying that not everybody in Serbia was happy with Milošević’s stubborn and didactic rule. Most young people in Belgrade just wanted to do what young people did everywhere – live, love, make mistakes, have fun, travel. Many of these were still possible to some extent but travel was clearly out of the question. As a reaction to this difficult state of affairs a few people came together to create the World Traveller’s Club, a safe welcoming environment where people could meet to travel in their imagination if not in real space. Initially membership was by invitation only. These days anyone can visit although the bar’s original purpose no longer holds much significance other than a reminder of difficult times.

Turn the clock back thirty years, back to a time when foreign journeys required a wider leap of the imagination. In the pre-Internet age any inspiration for travel for its own sake was dependent on books, photographs and the anecdotes of others. In the 1970 film Performance, the Turner character, a reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger as a caricatured version of himself, reads aloud from a Persian text, The Old Man of the Mountains. A postcard is displayed entitled The Mountains of Persia. Both text and image represent a sort of paradise – that which is unattainable, a dream destination for the two men thrown together in self-isolation in Turner’s Notting Hill Gate basement. Turner is living as a recluse, hiding from fame and perhaps the fear that his powers are diminishing; Chas, the James Fox character, is keeping a low profile to avoid the attention of fellow gangsters. The idealised mountains of Persia represent a sanctuary where both men might manage to escape their past lives.

The curtailment of free movement as in late 1990s Yugoslavia is hard to imagine these days. Many of us in the developed world take travel for granted almost as a birthright. This is especially true in an age in which jet travel is both cheap and easily available, and a journey, a holiday or even an off-the-peg adventure, can be booked with the click of a return key. Now, suddenly, in the light of a rapidly worsening pandemic, we need to think anew. We must accept that for a while at least, probably some considerable time, we are not going anywhere. Perhaps now is the time to form our own fraternities and sororities of imagined exploration? Any globetrotting must be virtual and digital. For the foreseeable future wanderlust is going to be just that, a lust for something unattainable. In this respect I am lucky I suppose. For a number of reasons, in recent years I have come round to thinking that it is just as fruitful to explore my own backyard as it is any exotic far-flung destination. I have grown weary of airports and the mechanical human processing that takes place, the tiresome, albeit necessary, security measures. As B. B. King sang of another sort of love affair, The Thrill Is Gone. The notion of ‘slow travel’ and all that it represents has for me become something that has gone beyond simply an attractive-sounding travel franchise. These days I really do prefer to slow down, to cover a smaller area, to discover the beauty of the local, to chart the quotidian. Less is undoubtedly more but that is easy to say for someone like me who already has the T-shirts, the passport stamps, the photographs, the anecdotes, the well-thumbed guidebooks on the shelves.

In the plague-year situation that the world now finds itself in to complain about restricted movement seems, at the very least, churlish. As we enter what seems like late capitalism’s final closing down sale (‘Everything Must Go!’) we have become, as the columnist Marina Warner has recently written, ‘a nation of shopfighters’. While shoppers squabble over toilet paper in supermarket aisles and some wealthier hoarders, like newly arrived Beaker folk mocking the simple ways of those who still rely on cupped hands, purchase additional freezers for the storage of their panic-shopped supplies, we should maybe reflect on what we (or, rather, some of us) have become. It is an opportunity perhaps to show a little more respect to the land that we walk upon, for the earth that feeds us; a little more kindness to those we share it with. For the time being we can just look out of the window and dream. At the other end of all this the mountains of Persia will still be there.


Photographs: Karakhanad, Yazd region, Iran 2008  ©Laurence Mitchell

14 Replies to “The Mountains of Persia”

  1. Excellent thoughts – always tried to balance ‘slow travel’ in my backyard with more far-flung adventures. At the moment just cycling around a deserted city in lockdown is bizarre enough!

    1. Thanks Alex. I am increasingly trying to balance the slow local with the far-flung. Not much choice at the moment, of course! It is hard to find positives in all this but I imagine that cycling around deserted Glasgow streets is be quite a thrilling experience.

  2. Dear Laurence,
    we think travelling is out. A lot of our friends think so as well. Travelling has not only lost its attraction (flying with Rhyan-Air is a pain) but it’s not ecologically sound either. The bigger problem than this virus will be climate change and everyone who is travelling to faraway countries is part of this problem. Yesterday night we saw a film with the famous photographer Joel Meyerowitz. He showed beautiful pictures of Svalbard. He said that he feels sorry that he flew to Svalbard, today he wouldn’t do this any more as one can’t justify it. We think so too and actually, we don’t miss travelling. Why wander far, can’t you find the happiness on your doorstep? I was travelling a lot. It started when I was a child. Maybe it’s elitist but before mass tourism travelling was special, it was fun. Nowadays travelling itself is horrible and the destination usually has lost all its magic. Maybe it needed Corona to teach people to enjoy the comforts of their home.
    Stay healthy, happy and at home away from people.
    Let’s meet when the lockdown is finished.
    Love to you and Jackie
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment, Klausbernd. It’s good to hear from you.
      I agree with much of what you say. Like you, I used to travel overseas a lot, not as a child but later as a young and not-so-young man. In my defence, most of my early travel was done the hard way and with very little money – India overland, North Africa hitchhiking etc. Even now I get a lot more out of travelling somewhere if it involves considerable effort on my part – long-distance walking, cycling, using dodgy local transport and so on.
      Long-haul travel has certainly lost its mystique and, as you correctly mention, flying causes untold environmental damage. I have grown to hate airports whereas I used to find them exciting places full of promise and adventure. I have done far less air travel in recent years but I still feel guilty for my own contribution to the ecological mess we are in. Climate change is, of course, a much bigger problem than coronavirus as you say. So, yes, let’s hope that once the current crisis is over people to travel more thoughtfully – I am a great believer in what is sometimes termed ‘slow travel’ ie: getting to know a small area or region well, discovering what makes it unique, getting a taste for the patina of a particular place. And as you suggest, let’s get together when this is over – a walk, a drink, a sharing of sea air together.
      All the best to you and yours

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