Just before Christmas 1978 the 30,000-tonne bulk carrier Rupert arrived in Bandar Shahpour. She had come from Japan with a cargo of steel plates, destined one day to become gas pipelines. Most of the crew were due for relief so the company chartered a B Cal 727 to spirit us 25 shivering souls from a foggy Gatwick to a humid Abadan. That was the last plane in or out of Abadan for many months, though no one suspected this at the time.
Hot, overfull minibuses rattled us across endless miles of muddy salt flats, decanting us after several hours at the end of a vintage wooden quay. We struggled, luggage laden, aboard the ship and decimated the stock of cold beer whilst the leaving crowd melted smugly away.
Things were still almost normal in the port then , normal that is for an Iranian port. We were discharging in desultory fashion onto flat rail cars, several shouting labourers tending each piece of steel out. The Shah was still on his peacock throne and we were expecting to sail in about three weeks time. I was the Second Mate, a nice quiet job on any ship, and I soon settled in to the routine of cargo watches.
Christmas was quickly upon us: forced joviality; family thought-deadening drink and paper hats. Christmas not being Christmas to an Iranian, they decided that we should shift ship that morning to another berth. In the event, no one turned up, so the Captain knocked us all off and we got stuck into the lunchtime festivities. Halfway through lunch a diminutive Iranian pilot opened the saloon door and announced that we must move, and now. The Captain sent him to the devil. He didn’t go there but instead came back with a couple of armed soldiers and the harbour master. We ate on whilst the Captain quietly placed his knife and fork beside his plate and ushered the visitors into the alleyway. All we heard was the rusty knife edge of the Captain’s broad Glaswegian and the footsteps of retreating Iranians. We didn’t shift that day.
At the new year things started hotting up politically. Ayatollah Khomeni sent everyone a hair from his beard and appeared to the faithful in the moon. His picture sprouted everywhere, on truck windscreens, proudly worn badges and telegraph poles. Every night at five to eight there was a power cut ashore as the Shah tried to prevent people from listening to the BBC news in Farsi. The stevedore crouched tensely over the radio in my cabin, turning ungrateful on me when the news displeased him. ‘Why did the English lie?’ ‘The Shah must go and liberty return in the form of a benevolent Khomeni.’
During the discharge all the dock labour lived aboard, huddled crowds of dew-soaked poverty sleeping on the open steel decks. They washed their feet each day at the tap we provided but we saw very few performing the Muslim prayers. Just when we had become accustomed to this ever-present mass of humanity they all disappeared. Borne on invisible wings the strike message came aboard and in a gathering stream the men picked up their blankets and tea cups and slouched off along the quay.
There we sat , port side to the pre-war wooden piling, a dead enterprise, made more dreary by the sand-laden, overcast sky. On the other side of the pier was a Chinese bulk carrier which had been discharging sugar. Astern was a berth used by the sheep ships. Weekly these arrived, strike or no strike. Mostly converted passenger liners, entrepreneur-owned and run on a shoe string, the sheep ships came from Australia with a seven-mile downwind smell to disgorge their cargoes of up to 60,000 live sheep. The leaping red-eyed woolbacks were herded into fleets of waiting lorries and driven off to feed the great unwashed, leaving a quay where two men spent the rest of the week digging the railway lines out of the muck.
On the quay itself stood a few railcars loaded with our steel and a few more with Chinese sugar. We soon changed all that. In order to make more room for the sheep ships to tie up we sent the railcars spinning along the tracks, helped on their way by shouting sailors and a pull from the stern capstan. As the tugs, pilots and linesmen were on strike, we took over. We moored the sheep ships, using our lifeboat to run their lines ashore so that they could heave themselves into position. It was good fun, broke up the monotonous sullen days, and they paid us in cases of beer and walking mutton. If you’ve never carried a live sheep in a lifeboat then I can tell you that it’s quite an experience.
They weren’t too good to eat, old stringy ewes, but they were a lot better than nothing at all. Mooring ships nearly got us into trouble more than once. The Chinese bulker decided to sneak out without clearance and I agreed to let his ropes go, getting chased by soldiers and having to hide in our funnel. Then an American ship arrived with navy munitions, no flag and name painted out. A nasty scene developed as we were taking his lines, rough sweating crowds thickening around us, jostling, demanding. We were glad to see the soldiers that day, with fixed bayonets. They unzipped the mob to let us out.
January passed, unmourned, into a wet February, silence still upon the waiting ships. Silence by day, that is. At night there were parties and much noise. The captain had his guitar, and we soon learned all his songs. The German officers on the sheep ships were the worst – or best – for parties. On one of their ships we demolished a whole soup tureen full of champagne and strawberries: ‘Would you like many fruits?’, they greeted us, waving tankards in true German fashion. It was that same crowd that smuggled a full-grown ram on board our ship one hazy midnight and released it into the smoke room. We tied it to an engineer’s door handle out in the alleyway and in the morning it butted the second steward.
You don’t need the United Nations in a situation like that. International brotherhood blossomed between the ships stuck there. We changed films with a German ship, tall stories with a Dane, and ate goat’s cheese on a Greek. The ships’ community turned in on itself. It was dangerous to go out of the docks and there was nothing to go out for. Bandar Shahpour is only a one-street straggle of mud-brick hovels, stinking salt marsh isolating it from the nearest towns. Those two months passed with the heavy tread of unused time, but we were not bored. There is always work on a ship and we had our mooring venture to keep up. We stole water from the quay at night. Faces darkened, hose painted black, we topped up the tanks. That excitement aside there was generally little tension and for a long time we saw few people from ashore.
Suddenly, the Shah was gone and the Ayatollah made his triumphant return . The Iranians were ecstatic, puffed out with pride in their strength. People’s committees mushroomed to take over from the old local governments. We saw more people now. Scornful of westerners, hating the Americans and the English, they asserted themselves over us whenever they had a chance.
I acquired a badge with a picture of Khomeni and I wore it as a charm, passing myself of as French. It didn’t always work. A white face was enough to get you into trouble. ‘For you all Iranians are policemen.” Spit-speckled lips curled back in hate as they demanded to know where you were going. We were very careful.
There were still a few Europeans in Bandar Shahpour, human relics of the Shah’s grandiose projects. We befriended one couple and they visited us whenever it was safe. We hid their dearest possessions aboard our ship and later they left as illegal emigrants, smuggled out on a Danish sheep ship.
Once Khomeni was firmly in the saddle the celebrations were cut short and the people put sharply back to work. Gangs of labour appeared from the desert and discharge took off at a great rate, enthusiastically monitored by a People’s Komiteh made up of rifle-carrying ex-road sweepers. Th’ere was no slacking and we saw that we would soon be on our way. Food supplies were more difficult now. With the quay patrolled, our bartering activities were very restricted.
The port was renamed in a blaze of ceremony, Bandar Shahpour becoming Bandar Khomeni. Then, three weeks after Khomenis return we were empty and ready to sail. The Komiteh insisted on searching us before we could sail. Eight of them boarded, armed to the teeth. and demanded crew lists and passports. The Captain blandly handed them to me saying, ‘Take them round, John’. This was fine, since we had a couple of European refugees on board, one of them a pregnant woman. I went from cabin to cabin proffering passports to compare with people, getting increasingly worried that one would run out before the other. Then I handed the leader one of the passes upside down and, as he didn’t turn it over to read it, I knew we were safe. I just gave him the same pass twice and the whole thing matched up. One man insisted on searching the engine room but, after running up and down a couple of ladders trying to follow the second engineer, he drew his gun and demanded to be led out on deck, there and then.
Amid false smiles and shaking hands the Komiteh departed and an apology for a pilot boarded. We sailed, casting off with the ropes the veil of unreality through which we had seen the events of the last three months. As an experience I won’t say I would have missed it, for it had its lighter moments. After all we sailed unscathed away from it. The dream went sour only for those we left behind.