A 3,000-mile trip through the world's friendliest country
Travel: Revolutionary Ride, Lois Pryce, Nicholas Brearley, 304 pages, hdbk, €20.99
In late 2011, hundreds of Iranians, protesting against sanctions, stormed the British embassy in Tehran and set it on fire. In retaliation, the Iranian embassy staff were expelled from London. A few days later, the writer Lois Pryce parked her motorbike outside the empty Iranian embassy in Knightsbridge.
When she came back, she found that a stranger had left a note behind her speedo: "Please do not think of what has happened here and in Tehran. These are our governments, not the Iranian people. […] 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, Habib."
The mystery Habib had picked a sympathetic motorcycle - Pryce had already biked the length of the Americas alone, and from London to Cape Town. How could she say no? Fortified by Freya Stark's tales of travelling in Iran in the 1930s, she drove out to Turkey, slipped her bike over the Iranian border on a train, then rode a meandering 3,000 miles, from Tabriz to Shiraz.
People had told her that she was mad, quite mad - as a woman, as a Westerner, simply as a road user - to go around the Islamic Republic on a bike. But apart from the traffic (Iran has the world's most dangerous roads, with almost 63 deaths per day in 2012), she found in her two months there that they were wrong and Habib had been right. Passers-by took her home, removed her mandatory headscarf and fed her tea, rice and sweets. "No awkwardness. It was simply an obvious fact that, as a guest in their country, I would be joining them for dinner."
Despite two centuries of chequered Anglo-Iranian diplomacy, only one person, an opium addict in Isfahan, blamed Briton Pryce personally for the sanctions, and for the rapacity of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the 1950s ("Your NHS? We paid for it"). In general, people were weary of theocracy, and chose to forget the iniquities of Reza Shah: "You should have come before."
The morality laws meant that Pryce had to dress "like a game of picture consequences", in biking boots, jeans, a denim dress and a white, chiffon headscarf - "Steve McQueen meets Benazir Bhutto in Laurel Canyon circa 1972". As well as autonomy, the bike gave Pryce a disruptive machismo, which she liked. Men gaped. Old women shouted "Very good! Very good! Vroom, vroom!"
Ayatollahs Khamenei and the late Khomeini were omnipresent on murals and saggy vinyl posters, like "Thomson and Thompson from the Tintin cartoons", but beyond the veneer that the law could enforce, Pryce didn't encounter much conservatism. Indoors, she was offered homebrew or sticky wine; outdoors, the morality police sniffed people's breaths for liquor. "Well, yes, we are Muslims, but Iranians love to party!" one woman told Pryce. "I love vodka; Stoli is my favourite but it is hard to get here."
There is peril as well as slapstick. Twice, a vehicle nearly killed her in a cat-and-mouse chase, but it turned out the pursuers just desperately wanted to picnic with her. A petrol-pump attendant on crystal meth attacked her, but she kicked him in the stomach and drove off. The only sexual threat came from a hotel manager, who sat on her bed, blocking the exit, but she vaulted over "the gold nylon bedcover, faux fur zebra blanket and Barbie-pink sheet", ashamed to find "how quickly I had subscribed to the idea that to be seen without the hijab deserved this reaction".
Pryce set off not knowing what to expect, and Revolutionary Ride is likeable because she admits her ignorance and follows her nose. But she is much better on impression than exposition, where the register veers around ("honcho"; "plain ol' Iran"), the analysis can be vague ("by all accounts") and there's dead wood she should have pruned. Although Stark's words - her "pithy quotes and tales of derring-do" - pepper the book, their elegance is never matched. Still, Pryce writes as she acts, with an easy ebullience, and this makes interesting things happen to her. If Stark had been stuck in a lift with a stern general who had lost both his legs in the Iran-Iraq War, could she have coaxed him, as Pryce does, into belting out 1980s pop?