ShapeShapeauthorShapecrossShapeShapeShapeGrouphamburgerhomeGroupmagnifyShapeShapeShapeShape

“The owner of the practice simply ripped it off the wall and handed it to me”

24 October 2019, at 4:30pm

Last summer, my holiday, if you can call it that, was spent in Chernobyl looking at wild rodents to see whether they had radiation-induced cataracts. They didn’t! A couple of years earlier, a paper in the journal Scientific Reports had documented lens opacification in these animals, but only after they had been frozen, stored at -20°C and then thawed – enough to give anything a cataract! The trouble is that a positive result is easy to publish, but no journal wants to publish a negative one contradicting such a finding. Such is life! So where to go this summer? The request to give a series of lectures and practical surgery classes in Iran was just such an opportunity!

I must admit that, just as with my Ukrainian visit, there were some qualms as the date drew nearer, especially as the news seemed to be ramping up the tension between the UK, USA and Iran. But my visit to the Iranian embassy was far smoother than that to the Russian or American embassies in previous years. Little was I to know until later, my colleagues in Iran had spent weeks smoothing out the issues so my entry to Iran could be relatively problem free. And that exemplified the wonderfully warm welcome I found on my entry to this amazing country.

Let me take you to the very end to give you another example. The problem Iran has is that, not by its own volition, it is cut off from the Western world. And for that reason, the veterinary group to whom I was speaking were not able to pay me in sterling. But as we toured the busy bazaars full of spices, fruits and nuts, I remarked how my middle son, Jack, loves pistachios. As I came to leave a few days later, I was presented with a kilo of the finest pistachios for him.

The food I was given throughout my stay was simply amazing but I especially loved the fresh dates – not the wizened dry ones we are used to here. And on my departure, I was given a kilo of them! A common snack that people take in their pockets to munch through the day in Iran are dried baby figs – a sheer delight. And yes, I found a large bag of these in my bulging luggage as I left. The tea that is drunk all day long is similarly wonderful, and I was presented with a special teapot and warmer as I left – with the first Shah’s portrait emblazoned on it. In fact, I had so much to take home that my bags burst and had to be wrapped in plastic to get home. Thankfully returning on a sleepy Sunday afternoon meant that nobody in Heathrow felt like stopping me to unwrap this ungainly load!

The wife of the head of the main veterinary clinic in which we held the surgical course painted the most amazing portraits of dogs dressed as people in Elizabethan, Jacobite or more modern clothes. One was of a spaniel Einstein in a bow tie! I said how much I liked it and the owner of the practice simply ripped it off the wall and handed it to me with a “Here – it’s yours.” Now I understand that they were delighted that I was prepared to visit them, especially when we were sending a warship to patrol the Straits of Hormuz!

But this welcome – and what I’ve described was just a tiny part of my stay – was simply wonderful. Trump was, and still is, threatening to increase sanctions – which of course would not hit the ayatollahs who are in control one little bit, but merely worsen the financial hardship of the men and women on the street. Their portraits glower down from the walls of every café and street corner apart from next to the mosques where they smile at those entering. But my veterinary colleagues always seemed to be smiling. Oh, that we would remember, that however much politicians may posture, the people of these countries, and I’m sure it’s not just Iran, are friendly and warm beyond belief.

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

More from this author