Via one of the best sites on the web, longform, I came across this old but very good piece by Nick Tosches on his search for opium, but not just opium, an opium den, but not these things either maybe, but a refuge from words, a refuge from the future, a place in the past, but a past of only memories. Of all things, it made me think of Once Upon A Time in America, which begins and ends in an opium den, where Noodles (Robert De Niro) moves through a vast pool of memories, an escape from a present which tightens tighter and tighter around him. Tosches starts off his journey in a world burdened with too many words, “cassis”, “melange”, “violets”, “vanilla”, he is reduced to one word, ya-p’iàn in Cantonese, a word that lies between a pian and a phian in Cambodian, and finally, none at all:
We lie back and smoke; and now, wordlessly, we understand each other perfectly in the eloquence of a silence that not only contains all that has ever been and all that ever will be said, but also drosses the vast babel of it, leaving only the ethereal purity of that wordless poetry that only the greatest of poets have glimpsed in epiphany.
As always with Tosches, his writing shames me that I eat too narrowly and taste too little. However, the best piece of description here is not gustatory, but the vividness of a thing before it’s eaten.
Later, amid the crowded stalls of the night market, we watch as an elderly Chinese man hands over a small fortune in cash to another elderly man, a snake seller much esteemed for the rarity and richness of poison of his stock. The snake man pockets the money, narrows his eyes, and with a studied suddenness withdraws a long, writhing serpent from a cage of bamboo. Holding it high, his grasp directly below its inflated venom glands, its mouth open, its fangs extended, he slashes it with a razor-sharp knife from gullet to midsection, the movement of the blade in his hand following with precise rapidity the velocity of the creature’s powerful whiplashings, which send its gushing blood splattering wildly. Laying down the blade, the snake man reaches his blood-drenched hand with medical exactitude into the open serpent, withdraws its still-living bladder, drops it into the eager hands of his customer, who, with gore dripping from between his fingers onto his shirt, raises the pulsing bloody organ to his open mouth, gulps it down, and wipes and licks away the blood that runs down his chin.
For Tosches, opium and opium dens are very difficult to find in the eastern Asia – China, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand – of today. He may have had better fortune in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
From The Ayatollah Begs To Differ, by Hooman Majd, a very good travelogue, history, and essential book for a closer sense of the country.
Shir’ e is made from the charred remnants of previously smoked opium and is the preferred method of drug taking among the hardest of hard-core opium addicts in Iran, who number in the hundreds of thousands. Boiling the burned opium in water, removing the scum, and then straining the gooey residue results in an opiate perhaps tens of times more potent than fresh, raw opium, itself by far the most popular drug in Iran. Always plentiful and almost a part of Iran’s heritage (and widely used in the courts of previous dynasties), opium under the fanatically pro-Western and anti-traditionalist Shah was mainly used by provincial Iranians, the lower classes, and a handful of the landed gentry who stubbornly clung to the past and the seductive habit inherited from their forefathers. The modernism the Shah promoted in the 1960s and ’70s (along with a huge increase in tourist and student travel to Europe and the United States) meant that among the young at least, Western, and therefore cool, drugs such as marijuana and cocaine replaced the backward, and now plebeian, domestic high. In my maternal grandfather’s house in the 1960s, as traditional a household as there could be in Tehran, I had witnessed my great-grandmother, well over ninety years old, eating, yes, eating, her daily dose of opium. Her dementia, quite advanced as far as I was concerned since she never seemed to recognize me, not even a few minutes after I told her whose child I was, was noticeably improved after she swallowed the little brown pellets, although I now think it may have been more because she was just too high to be a nuisance to anyone. My mother used to tell me she was taking her medicine, but I heard enough about her taryak, “opium” in Farsi, to know better.
People of my generation stayed away from opium or, if they indulged, preferred to keep it private lest they be viewed by their ganja-smoking friends as hopelessly square. The Islamic Revolution, which inverted class distinctions and frowned upon anything Western, changed things a bit when it inadvertently caused a resurgence in the use of opium as a recreational activity, perhaps because of the ban on alcohol and the ready availability of opium (although illegal) as a substitute, but also perhaps because the old-fashioned, and particularly Iranian, customs were now in vogue. Drug use in general, though, has escalated dramatically since the revolution first intentionally created a modern republic without bars, pubs, or real public entertainment, and unintentionally a birthrate that has produced far more employable youths than the economy can provide jobs for. And although opium tops the list in terms of favored drugs, heroin, crack, and even crystal meth, known as sbeesbeh, or “glass” are becoming commonplace among the working and middle classes.
Lying on the floor, one smokes shir’e upside down: unless you’re an expert, you need an assistant to guide the inverted pipe to the open flame. One puff and your head starts floating, pain now an adversary that appears vulnerable to conquest; two or three puffs and you experience a high that is serenely beautiful: problems fade completely away, anxiety and pain surrender, and nothing, you think, can take away the beauty. Not even a full-scale invasion by the U.S. military.
When it was my turn at the pipe, I lay down on the carpet and rested my head on a dirty pillow. The voiceless man painstakingly prepared the makeshift pipe by kneading and twisting a thick paste on its tip over and over, softening the shir’e by bringing it close to the flame and then quickly pulling it away several times. A gentle prod was my signal that the pipe was ready: I drew the smoke in short inhales until it completely filled my lungs, and then exhaled slowly. The cooler had been switched off to avoid any twentieth-century interference with the purity of the occasion, and although the heat in the room was now the equivalent of a turned-up sauna, I felt surprisingly comfortable. I begged off a third drag and instead moved away and sat up on the carpet, mumbling profuse thank-yous. I tried unsuccessfully to cross my legs, but they were happier stretched out, so I leaned on a big pillow and slowly drank a cup of tea with a few sugar cubes, sugar that I knew would be the only guarantee that I wouldn’t throw up, for opium, like heroin, dramatically lowers the blood sugar level-perhaps the one side effect that can diminish the seductiveness of the drug.
When I returned to the house after washing my hands under a faucet by the pond, I could infer from the conversations all around me
that another guest was due any minute. I sat down on the carpet again and lit a cigarette to keep myself awake. When the curtain was swept
aside just a short while later, a tall young mullah walked into the room. He quietly removed his turban and abba, or “cloak” and sat down to a steaming-hot glass of tea quickly delivered by the twelve-year-old boy. My astonishment at his presence, for all the Ayatollahs agree that opium and other drugs are haram, “forbidden” by Islam, grew to amazement as I watched him finish his tea and go over to the pipe and burner.
He calmly spent the next hour puffing away, drinking tea, fingering his beads, and occasionally answering questions of religious philosophy,
none of which I fully understood. And while he was busy pontificating, the other men, one by one, took the opportunity to perform their
afternoon prayers: facing Mecca, they bowed and kneeled in the cramped room, carefully avoiding my outstretched limbs, and mumbled verses from the Koran as PMC blared the latest Iranian pop hit, the cleric calmly smoked away, and I continued to struggle to stay fully awake.