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Everybody Loves the Assassins

AS WE MADE OUR WAY over Salambar Pass and began the long drop down along the Seh Hezar River, I asked Abbas how he'd started climbing. In school, he said, a teacher noticed he had talent as an artist and gave him a set of watercolor paints. He used to go into the mountains to work and eventually the paints fell aside. He started climbing, and he got good at it.

His skills were valuable in the 1980s. Abbas taught soldiers survival during the Iran-Iraq war. He clearly didn't like to talk about the combat, but I asked. Sometimes, he said, it was too easy. The enemy would be camped under a cliff, thinking they were sheltered, but the Iranians could simply rappel down the cliff faces and slaughter the Iraqis in their sleep. Somehow, Abbas's idealism began to fade.

"What changed you?" I asked.

"Ah, es-slowly is coming the hard questions."

There were many things that contributed to the transformation. Abbas said he'd go through a dead Iraqi's pockets and find pictures of the soldier's family, his wife, his children. "I think: He is a man, like me," he said. "I don't want to kill." He paused and added, "My government going one way. I going different."

Then there were the people he'd guided, or met climbing on his own journeys. Abbas has a globe in his home, and he looks at it often. He points out to himself the countries where his friends live. Now, he said, in his fractured and poetic English, "I am more interested in relations between people."

"Did you know," I said, "that today is the independence day of my country?"

Abbas stopped, shook my hand, then placed his right hand over his heart in that gesture I always found so curiously affecting. It was the only time on the whole trip I saw him do it.

We came up over the pass and looked into a huge green amphitheater, entirely treeless, entirely green. It seemed to curve around us for 10 or 20 miles in either direction, and Abbas said, "Next year is coming road." The road, being built now, would bring electricity to the small villages on this ancient trail from the valley of the Shahrud, over Salambar Pass, and down to the Caspian Sea.

"Is sad," Abbas said. "But they need." Last year, he told me, a lady took ill and died on the donkey ride down to the road. "So they need."

I suppose. Still, it was impossible to look at the vast curve of earth funneling down into a river gorge and not grieve for the land. "I sad," Abbas said, "because maybe somebodies, he have a picnic."

And I saw the world clothed in rubbish from horizon to horizon, as Abbas did at that moment. "Always," Abbas said again, "I worry about the garbage."

Just below the pass, in the town of Salange Anbar, we met Parviz, the weight lifter who'd decorated his wall in photos. The trail broadened after Salange Anbar, and we followed it down the Seh Hezar to a paved road where we took a bus to the Caspian Sea resort town of Ramsar. The world's largest lake looked gray and dismal in a stiff wind. Women were required to dress modestly, in chadors or manteaus, which took some of the joy out of the beach experience.

Two days later, back in Tehran, we attended a party at an apartment owned by a man named Ali, a friend of Abbas. We ate various fruits and discussed the state of adventure, such as it was, in Iran. The whole concept of the recreational use of the backcountry was so new in Iran that the men present liked to joke that they had fathered the entire idea. Abbas was "the father of Iranian climbing." Shahram was the "father of Iranian telemarking." A man named Kazem Bayram, whom I knew to be one of the best breath-hold divers in the world, was the "father of Iranian diving." Ali's wife, who was scarfless and dressed in a sleeveless blouse—women are required to cover up only in public—said that she was the "father of sitting around worrying about these idiots when they're gone."

The day I got home, President Bush gave a speech praising reform in Iran, a move that predictably provoked new "Death to America" demonstrations in the streets of Tehran. Change comes es-slowly, world peace is a good thing, and I'd just as soon all terrorists joined the Assassins, of whom, Juvayni gleefully wrote, "no trace was left." I was doing my part, as I saw it, buying every muscle magazine on the stands and mailing them off, as promised, to a bodybuilder in the mountain village of Salange Anbar. I think Freya Stark would have approved, and it was, after all, the least I could do for my new pals, the fathers of Iranian adventure.
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