An Invitation

Excerpt from Revolutionary Ride by Lois Pryce
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The following is the opening excerpt from Lois Pryce's new book, Revolutionary Ride, detailing her experiences travelling solo 3,000 miles across Iran on a motorbike.

In the first week of December 2011, in London, I was approached by a stranger with a proposition that would eventually lead me on a journey of thousands of miles to a land of secrets, fear and an irrepressible lust for life.

The incident occurred in the exclusive district of Kensington, not an area I frequent very often, but I had a lunch date nearby and with a few other errands to do, I rode my motorcycle into town and parked in a bike bay in the consular district, close to the Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park. Above me, the spectrum of embassy flags brightened the wintry sky while around me a glossy stream of diplomatic cars slid in and out of coveted parking spaces. But on that day there was one embassy that definitely wasn’t open for business, although its green, white and red flag still hung limply above its locked doors. Black-clad figures in bulletproof vests stood guard, silhouetted against the white stucco building, but there was nothing to see here. Everyone at the Embassy for the Islamic Republic of Iran had gone home – not to their diplomatic London residences but all the way home: 4,000 miles away, to Tehran.

A few days earlier, on the 29 November, the British Embassy in Tehran had been stormed and set on fire in a protest over sanctions imposed by the British Government. Hundreds of protestors had scaled the walls, ransacked the buildings and thrown firebombs into the embassy compound. The British staff were commanded to leave Iran and two days later William Hague, then Foreign Secretary, took his revenge, ordering the closure of the Iranian Embassy in London and expelling its staff from Britain, giving them forty-eight hours to leave the country. All diplomatic and financial relations between the two countries were severed with immediate effect. The British papers featured images of angry, bearded men in Tehran burning the Union Jack; solemn newscasters delivered fear-laden prophecies and the Foreign Office declared Iran unsafe for travel. The ever torrid Anglo-Iranian relationship had hit an all-time low, with accusations that the Tehran protest had occurred with the tacit support of the Iranian authorities.

I had followed the story with the curiosity of a traveller who keeps an interested eye on world affairs. Iran featured somewhere on my to-do list and I was acquainted with a few British Iranians in London, but that was about the extent of my involvement. Or at least it was until I returned to my bike after lunch and found a handwritten note tucked behind the speedo. It was in English, in an untidy script, from someone called Habib.

I didn’t know anyone called Habib and judging by his opening line, he didn’t know me either. But he had an invitation for me, or was it a challenge?
Dear Sir.
I have seen your motorbike and I think that you have travelled to many countries. But I wonder, have you been to my country? That is Iran. It is very beautiful and the Persian people are the most welcoming in the world. Please do not think of what has happened here and in Tehran. These are our governments, not the Iranian people. WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS! I wish that you will visit Iran so you will see for yourself about my country. WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS!!! Please come to my city, Shiraz. It is very famous as the friendliest city in Iran, it is the city of poetry and gardens and wine!!!
Your Persian friend,

It wasn’t so unusual to find a note on the bike. Riding in London, you get to recognise certain motorcycles and in the small community of overland riders it is not uncommon to know someone’s bike by sight, whether or not you are acquainted with the owner, and to make comradely contact. Mine had all the identifying marks of a well-travelled machine – large capacity ‘desert’ tank, sheepskin seat, scruffy panniers, a few foreign stickers and a general tatty, battered appearance, not to mention an oil leak that was currently soiling the streets of SW7. For a fellow motorcycle traveller to say hello in this way wouldn’t be considered strange. But the mysterious Habib made no reference to his own motorcycle travels or ownership. I wondered if he was a member of the embassy staff, but as far as I knew they had all been bundled on to a hastily chartered Iran Air flight out of Heathrow a few days ago. Maybe he was just a regular Iranian living in London, distressed at the recent bust-up between his homeland and his adopted country. Although there was no official ‘Persian quarter’ in London, there were plenty of Iranians in this part of town, where those with the necessary funds had settled after fleeing the Islamic Revolution of 1979. They tended to be of the well-heeled brigade, more likely to inhabit the high-end boutiques and restaurants of Knightsbridge and Kensington than to be found sticking notes on random ratty motorcycles.

The discovery of this message added a certain air of mystery to an otherwise routine day. I enjoyed the oddness of it and told a few friends about it over the next few days; just another funny tale of biking in London. And maybe that would have been the end of the story if the newspapers and radio hadn’t still been full of angry rhetoric about Habib’s homeland. His note didn’t just disappear into my ‘peculiar incidents’ file; his words kept coming back to me whenever I heard a politician denouncing Iran on the news or referencing George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech. What kind of man would be so distressed at how his home country is perceived to make a written plea to a complete stranger to seek out the truth? Did he do this all the time? Was he an overzealous employee of the Iranian tourist board? Was there even such a thing as the Iranian tourist board? So many questions. All unanswered, and, it seemed, unanswerable.

To find out more about Lois' experiences in Iran, check out Revolutionary Ride, available now from Octane Press!