Merican Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison were thrilled with the prospect of reaching the Bakhtiari, but it was already mid-March, and they hadn’t much time because soon the tribe would be setting out on its journey.
A British political officer found the Americans a car to take them to Shushtar, where the Bakhtiari princes were camped. There, they met a young man dressed in a European riding outfit who spoke impeccable American English. He was Rahim Khan, a nephew of the chief and he would escort them to his uncle.
As they rode to the camp, Rahim Khan boasted of his family’s wealth. His uncle received about $65,000 a year from oil leases to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, he told them. He went on to explain that the proud tribe acted independently from the Persian central government and paid no taxes, even though the shah was insisting on their allegiance. Their cousins, the Lurs, were rebelling against the central government, and the Bakhtiari were considering joining them.
After a day’s ride, they arrived at the camp on the banks of the Karun River, where they saw scores of black, brown, and yellow goatskin tents. There they conferred with the Bakhtiari chief who agreed to let them film the clans that took the arduous journey.
Two days later Marguerite, Cooper, and Schoedsack returned to Shushtar. This time they traveled on a river barge with the chief who was on his way to meet other Bakhtiari leaders to discuss relations with Reza Khan, the de facto ruler of Persia. Marguerite vividly described the scene as some twenty travelers piled onto the vessel made of inflated goatskins. The foreigners lounged with the Bakhtiari leaders on rugs and cushions beneath a tasseled canopy of crimson satin while servants brought them tea in small glasses.
Then an attendant presented a brazier full of glowing coals along with a number of pipes. The chief invited them to join him and he opened a bag and took out a pellet of opium, which he placed in a pipe. With silver tongs, he lifted a glowing coal from the brazier and held it over the opium, which began to sizzle and melt. He then handed the pipe to Marguerite. She later recalled:
I drew in a long breath of the sweet pungent smoke, exhaling slowly. . . . The sun was hot, but there was a delicious breeze. We were passing through a rocky defile with huge crags worn into fantastic shapes and shading from crimson to orange. White-winged gulls skimmed the water and the boatmen sang a rhythmic chant, clear sweet, as their paddles guided our craft. The opium soothed my nerves and relaxed my muscles. I felt a delightful sense of peace and contentment, but my mind was wide awake and I was acutely conscious of my own well-being and the beauty of my surroundings. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that I should be riding on a barge of goatskins down a mountain river. Somewhere, sometime, I knew that I had done it before, and the opium was not entirely responsible for the feeling.