Few people are natural storytellers.
The BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson is one of them.
He’s the kind of speaker whose words flow as easily as a mountain stream, diving and dancing to inevitable (yet sometimes unexpected), conclusions that leave audiences wanting more.
He blends a quick wit, a wonderful sense of humour and a lifetime of experience in telling tales that alternately make listeners laugh and cry at the foibles and poignancy of the human spirit.
This excerpt is from a keynote speech he recently gave at a fundraising event for Help for Heroes, a non-profit organization that supports British servicemen and women who have been wounded in conflict.
It’s the story of one Iranian gatekeeper who, shortly after the Iranian revolution of 1979, defied a crowd of more than 30,000 angry citizens who intended to destroy the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, the remains of which date from 515 BC; Persepolis is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Simpson tells it in classic tongue-in-cheek style which combines, I suspect, a good dash of fiction along with the facts…
Transcript of the story
Heroism, it seems to me, is how you behave at a particular moment or into a particular set of circumstances.
One of the most heroic people I think I’ve ever come across was an old boy, an old sort of gatekeeper in the ruins of Persepolis in the south of Iran, wonderful, absolutely fantastic place, at the time of the revolution in 1979.
I went down there after the revolution because I’d heard there was going to be a bit of trouble down there, as indeed there started to be, because there was a big Muslim kind of Shiite Muslim sort of frenzy at the time or a kind of great enthusiasm at the time, and people just wanted to kind of strike a blow for the faith, and one of the things they wanted to do was to knock down Persepolis, you know, it was the temples of God’s old days and they hated the Shah and so on. So, about 30,000 people set out from the town of Shiraz, not very far away, with earth-moving equipment, bulldozers and all the rest of it, and cranes.
They fetched up rather late on a rather hot day at the gates of Persepolis. There was just one old boy on duty there, about my age actually, and rather like people are when they say, you know, where’s your ticket? You know, you can’t get there without a ticket in the face of about 35,000 people. Who, not only that, wanted to pull the place down, (the place that) gave them a living; and I don’t suppose he’d ever done anything heroic in his life; and facing 35,000 people is, you know, it can be quite alarming.
And he said so what are you doing then? They said: “we’ve come down to knock down Persepolis because it’s irreligious, it’s a relic of old times, we are new Islamic republic now, everything’s going to change. So this is going.”
And he said: “Oh yeah, well, where’s your permit?”
They said, “well, we don’t have a permit because we’re revolutionaries, we don’t have a permit.
So they said “well, we’ll write one.”
So somebody wrote one out. One fellow said, I’m a judge, so I’ll write one.
(Then the old gatekeeper) said “alright, alright, okay, you have a permit; but it doesn’t say anywhere where…., (he must have just reached out and thought this up on the spur of the moment), it doesn’t say anywhere (that) you can knock down a picture of the Prophet’s sister-in-law.”
So there’s a deadly silence; this thing had been built, this whole place had been built 2000 years before the prophet even had a sister-in-law.
So they said well… they hadn’t thought of that one…“Well, show us.”
And he fortunately knew where there was a carving of a woman, and he said “well, there she is. She doesn’t have a veil, mind you; but that was a long time ago you know…so you’d better not knock down a picture of the prophet’s sister-in-law…
By this time, you know, they’d been out a long time, and it was very hot, but they saw the ruins; there were an awful lot of them and a lot of them were standing, and they thought, well, maybe we’ll come back tomorrow….
And I thought it was just an ordinary boring old boy who had one of those irritating jobs that you can’t get everywhere, you know? And well I just thought just for that little moment, just for fifteen minutes in the hot sun, one late afternoon faced with a crowd of 35,000 people, he did everybody a favor and he did the heroic thing.
I’m sure he never did anything heroic afterwards; and I suppose now, the poor old boy’s dead, but I think it’s not so much that we have heroes, as that we have people who when the chips are down at the key moment do things which are literally heroic, (they) do the right thing. That’s a great pleasure to see, and it’s a great pleasure to have the privilege of seeing and talking to people like that. And as I say, there are plenty here of those kind of people tonight.