The Very Beginning

by: Ali Rezai, MD

Happy Childhood Years
I was born in 1942 in Tabriz, Iran. I am the first to admit, that it was quite an inappropriate year to be born. World War II had been raging for more than three years and nearly all Europe and Asia were engulfed in its flames. Middle East had been relatively spared, but across the world nearly 60 million people had lost their lives who were mostly civilians dying of disease, famine, or the direct cause of warfare. Millions of babies who were destined to come during that era were postponed by their parents awaiting the end of the global animosities. They came in a big wave after 1946 dubbed as the postwar baby boom. I, however, was a lone ranger and never followed any crowds. So I stepped into this world all by myself and triumphantly on Monday June 29th, 1942, and landed in one of the oldest and most historic districts of Tabriz, called Charandab.

The model of my grandfather's house in Tabriz

My paternal grandfather, Mohammad-Ebrahim, had lived in that neighborhood for many years and was a prosperous textile merchant in the Grand Bazaar. His house in Charandab was the largest and the most affluent in that neighborhood. It was flanked by two other houses on either side. The one on the west housed my oldest uncle and his family and the one on the east, which was smaller and had been recently built up according to the designs of my own father, was for him and his family after getting married. These three houses were interconnected through their courtyards and collectively constituted the Reza-Zadeh Manor in that neighborhood.

WW2 had started in 1939 when Hitler the fascist ruler of Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia and eventually conquered the entire Western Europe with the exception of England. Then in short order he also occupied Eastern Europe and a good portion of the Soviet Union. News of his triumphs were followed keenly by my grandfather. He had a grand-radio in his room and every night would tune in to the Persian broadcasts of the Deutsche Welle from Germany and BBC from London. Yet he never thought that the global war might one day reach to his nick of the woods too. That is typical of Middle Eastern mentality. They are generally aloof to worldly affairs and their own vulnerability. They have been around for millennia and they have seen a lot of events come and go. They keep their composure under most calamity and maintain two basic philosophies: 1- whatever will be, will be, and 2- this shall pass too. In due time, however, the war did come to Tabriz, and created such a social upheaval in its wake that many families including my own decided to exodus from Tabriz.

The holy matrimony

Right after Hitler's attack on Czechoslovakia,  my grandfather's family decided it was high time then to look for a bride for their son Ahmed who was 26 years old. They searched around and visited the households of  several Tabrizi luminaries who happened to have daughters of marrying age and eventually picked my mother. She was a 16 year old pretty girl with the poetic name, Robab, which meant an ancient Persian guitar. Her family had been well to do merchants and landowners who were rooted back in Tabriz for at least 250 years. Their ancestors had apparently been exiled from a northeastern part of the old Persian Empire to Tabriz after taking part on the wrong side of a battle with Nader-Shah Afshar, the powerful king of Persia in those days. In more modern times they had acquired the title of Malek-Oltojjar from one of the contemporary kings of Iran, which meant the 'King of Merchants'  and signified their high financial stature in Tabriz bazaar.

For the benefit of my own children and others, I would like to delve a little deeper into the ritual of finding brides in ancient Iran. The women in the boy's family typically consisting of his mother, sisters and aunts would make an appointment with the women of the girl's family and visit with them on the appointed day. The girl would of course be totally groomed for that occasion and at some critical juncture she would get up and serve a tray of hot tea to the family of her potential suitor. The guests who had been keeping mental scores of her appearance, beauty, complexion, etc all along, now also judged how tall she was, how gracefully she walked, and how elegantly she held up her body in general. They would of course keenly take note of any negative points about her as well.

If the initial encounter was positive, it might be followed by one or more of the following encounters in order to refine the selection. A repeat visit with the boy in attendance and even a few minutes of solitary tête-à-tête between the two of them could be arranged. Women of the boy's family might also arrange to visit the public bath where the girl was attending on a particular day in odder to see and judge her naked body!

In the case of my mother, none of these episodes were carried out. The proposal was formally made to the Malik family. They thought it prudent, however, to have the girl see her suitor at least once before agreeing to the marriage. Accordingly, my maternal grandmother and my mother cloaked in their traditional black garb and pretending to be ordinary customers paid a visit to the largest textile store in Ferdowsi Street near Bazaar where my father was the general manager. The store clerks who had recognized the strange customers, showed them several pieces of woolen merchandise with utmost respect while the young girl was eying their store manager and after they had left informed their boss who they had really been and the fact that they had come to eye him in particular rather any merchandise.

My father at age 30 My mother at age 48 My paternal grandfather

Everything checked out and eventually my parents were married in the summer of 1940 and settled in the newly constructed small house on the east side of the triple houses. Their honeymoon lasted a full year before the WW2 knocked on their door. The Allied Forces had decided to establish a new supply route to Soviet Union through Iran for the duration of the war. English forces invaded the country from the south and Russians from the north on August 25, 1941 and within hours the Iranian Army surrendered. American GIs moved in a couple of months later and stationed themselves in Amir-Abad, Tehran.

Allied invasion of Iran
My father's mother would narrate the story of those days in later years to me and other kids. According to her on the day of the invasion first came some Soviet planes that dropped a few noisy but relatively harmless bombs in and around Tabriz, on military installations. Thereafter it was rather quiet everywhere until  my middle uncle who was serving the compulsory service in the army came running home. He took off his army uniform and sat down on the window ledge overlooking the courtyard and said 'they told us to go home, the war is over.' Similar scenarios played out in nearly all Iranian cities, including the capital city, Tehran. Thus, the takeover of the country was relatively bloodless and life in the streets quickly returned to near normal. My father started having new customers visiting his store, namely Russian officers. They were delightfully surprised to see how readily available merchandise in Iranian stores was, as opposed to the coupon system and the scarcity of consumer goods in the Soviet Union.

The only major hardships that Iran suffered thereafter were twofold. First, the economy. A sever inflation ensued and did not abate till a year or so after the occupying forces had left. They needed local currency to sustain their massive presence in the country and the local economy could not accommodate those massive cash outlays. It is safe to say that average price index went up by a factor of one thousand percent during the Allied occupation of Iran.  Second, the Iranian transportation infrastructure like roads, the rail system, and the ports suffered a lot.

My father recalls confiding in his brother-in-law one evening while promenading in the city park and seeing  too many Russians around, that perhaps this was not the right time to get married.  But that was only a fleeting moment and a fleeting comment quite unbecoming to my father's peaceful nature. He was borne to be eternally optimistic towards everything and especially towards humanity in general.  He deeply believed that mankind will  triumph over all calamities through sheer power of his own mind, which was the position of the great western thinkers. He was truly a renaissance man in his own limited sphere. I am proud to admit that I have inherited most of the innate optimism and positive outlook on life that he had. After leaving home at age twenty-one till the very last day of my father's life I corresponded with him on a regular basis. He lived to the age of nearly 80 and continually shined light on my soul.  On May 1st, 1993, I had to rush back home to the old country, Iran, to bid him farewell forever. Thereafter for many years to come, I missed him dearly in my lonesome journey through my own life. I knew he was dead, but yet time and again I would talk to him in my mind. I simply adored him.

East of Eden

Allied invasion of Iran ruined the country's transportation infrastructure and brought about crippling inflationary cycles on its economy, but Iran and Iranians coped with the calamity and survived the ordeal relatively intact. Old cultures like that of Iran don't break under force. They simply bend, endure, and wear out the assailant in due time by drowning it in the sea of their own indifference. Thus my parents who were newly married, did what all newly marrieds do and I was born in the Summer of 1942.

By age old tradition, my father asked my grandfather to christen the new baby and he named me, Karim. But my own father preferred Ali. Thus my official name on my birth certificate became Karim right from day one, but for the inner circle of people around me, I am Ali. My official imprint on the world, including my educational and professional certificates, and my long series of research papers bear the name Karim, yet in family ife I am Ali. I have grown accustomed to this duality and in fact I like it. Karim is the facade I present to the world, and Ali is the cozy name I share with my loved ones.

Malek house on Mojtahed Street

Our neighborhood, Chrandab, was one of the historic sites of Tabriz harboring the grave sites of several renowned poets, philosophers, and dignitaries who rested there peacefully and proudly. But its overall appearance was very drab and ugly like the rest of Tabriz:  long and narrow alleys covered with cobble stone and surrounded by tall, very tall, mud walls. Quite an eye sore to behold. Yet if you were admitted into one of the houses, you would see beauty at its zenith: beautiful houses, beautiful courtyards, beautiful women, and yes, beautiful and delicious food too.

Obviously I had no notion of the historical grandeur of our neighborhood. I merely enjoyed the love and the attention of the people in the three houses. Occasionally I would also visit my maternal Grandparents' house as well.  These trips were mostly on a phaeton but occasionally my younger uncle would give me a ride on his bicycle to my grandparents house. Apparently he had built a special seat on his bike just for me equipped with a safety harness. Thus, as I was happily perched on the seat of my uncle's bike and also basking in the love and attention of the people around me, I would  pass by the graves of those luminaries proudly resting in my neighborhood and go on to the houses that were heaven to me. Amongst them, the one house that was slightly smaller and located on the east side of the others, truly represented the East of Eden for me.

Human Tragedies

In the second year of my life I lost my maternal grandfather. He was a healthy and vivacious middle-aged man who enjoyed life very much. He contracted typhoid fever and after grappling with it for forty feverish days he passed away.  This was the classic presentation of the typhoid fever which from time immemorial had been described to us by the ancient Greeks such as Galen and later on by such renowned Persian physicians like Avicenna and Razes. They had told us that the patient would have a  feverish crisis at the end following which, he might die or recover completely.

Science had stagnated in the East more or less at this level. Our physicians just counted the 40 days to see which way the nature would run its course. But in the west they had gone many steps further. They had discovered that the disease is caused by a bacterium that propagates in the sewage systems and drinking water supplies. Thus their engineers had come up with elaborate and effective ways of handling sewage systems for human dwellings in cities. In the East, however, we did not bother with those trivialities, such  as the pursuit of knowledge.  Everything was in the hands and wisdom of God and he certainly would let us know as much as we needed to know in this world. In the case of my grandfather, however, since he was a wealthy merchant and two of his sons were university students in Tehran, arrangements were made to have the newly discovered penicillin brought over to Tabriz for his treatments. In those days penicillin was in a liquid form and was carried on ice.  An Allied plane returning from Tehran brought the magic potion to Tabriz, but it was too late and my grandfather had already passed away. The medicine instead was given to a febrile cousin of my mother quite successfully. And so much the better. As we know now,  penicillin is ineffective on typhoid fever, and a special antibiotic was needed that had not been discovered yet.

A year earlier my own mother had also developed diphtheria but fortunately even in Iran of those days Pasteur Institute was active and physicians were familiar with diphtheria antiserum. This was an exception though.  Most communicable diseases were rampant in Iran and took a heavy toll especially on children and the teenagers. Infant mortality rate was above 50%. My father recalls seeing at least one or two small caskets being carried to the cemetery everyday. These belonged to children who had died the previous night due to acute febrile illnesses. The saddest story my father ever narrated about those days though related to two of his own brothers who died at the prime ages of 17 and 20, respectively, from tuberculosis. My father himself was a fourteen year old teenager at that time and yet every night he had to sit by the bedside of his dying brothers at the single hospital in Tabriz in those days. They died very slowly and very gradually right in front of the eyes of my innocent father. That is how tuberculosis kills his victims: they wither away slowly. Tuberculosis was rampant worldwide and there was yet no effective cure for it in modern medicine.

The scene I just painted was very tragic indeed. Two youngsters longing for a brighter future, instead had to wither away and die a slow death in front of the watchful eyes of their younger brother! More tragic yet was the location they were dying in. The City of Tabriz, and for that matter most any other Iranian city at that time,  lacked a hospital where an ailing citizen could go and obtain respite! the place my father watched his brothers die away was in fact the The American Presbyterian Missionary in Tabriz. That center initially had opened in 1875 to propagate Christianity but gradually had transformed also into a medical facility. During the Iranian Constitutional revolution of 1905 they even gave an American martyr in the cause of advancing democracy in Iran. His name was Howard Baskerville.

Just review the fundamental dimensions of this soul shattering story. Presbyterian Church in Texas, USA is wealthy and decides to send missionaries abroad to propagate Christianity. A few young men in USA decide they need to donate their youth and their lives to the cause of Christianity and apply for the job. They end up in places like Tehran, Tabriz, Kermanshah, and so on, and face a heroic challenge. They try very hard, even beyond the means of an ordinary man, and eventually set up centers where some Christian teaching is delivered to the local people. These are primarily sick people who come to receive medical care, or to rest their ailing bodies on the precious hospital beds available there and nowhere else. Not many people ever converted to Christianity in these centers, but a small cadre of dying people, who deserved better in life, were able to find in the final months of their life a shelter for their dying bodies and a refuge for their souls. Everybody shunned them because of tuberculosis or other diseases, and the only voice they heard was that of the missionary reading Bible for them at their bedside in the quiet hours of their lonely nights.

A sad story, as narrated to me by my father, but let's not dwell on it much.  Let's move on to a cheerful story.

Rose Petals

A breed of rose flower is ethnic to Tabriz, which is delightfully pretty with large pinkish petals, and a strong fragrance unique to that breed. What is more unique though is that it is edible with no adverse effects. It has an equally delightful name, 'Gizil Gool,'  meaning 'Golden Flower.'  Tabrizis harvest this flower on a large scale and collect it in cool shaded areas to dry it completely. Thereafter it is used either as spice in various Tabrizi cuisine that is famous worldwide, or else made into marmalades and other deserts straight as is. My family used to dry their rose petals in the cellar of the middle house. Tabriz cellars are heavenly sanctuaries indeed. They typically are all brick covered and have Roman arched ceilings. The air circulating in these cellars ordinarily has a soothing effect on human psyche, but during the rose petal season the entire floor of these cellars would be covered with Gizil Gool, and the air above them would be intoxicating, to say the least.

The cellars were not idle for the rest of the year either. They were used extensively to dry out fruits and green vegetables in preparation for the winter. Tabriz like many other urban centers of Iran is located in a mountainous region so that during the relatively long dry season of the year it relies on the meltdown of snow and ice  from adjacent mountains for its water supply.  During the harsh winter months, however, these cities were effectively cut off from the rest of the world because of the primitive condition of the roads in those days. Everybody thus had to stock up on food for their winter consumption. All kinds of green vegetables were dried and stored in those cellars, along with plenty of fruits that were either dried, or made straight into a variety of jams, preserves, and marmalades. Nuts also were highly cherished and constituted a valuable food staple for the winter months. In the next sections I would like to highlight two activities that were especially delightful to us kids.

Home Bakery

Many households throughout the year consumed homemade bread. In fact there were none or just a few bakery shops in the whole Tabriz. Bread was made in each home only two or three times a year. Several days prior to the baking date a professional would come and mix water with flour and yeast to get the dough going in advance of the baking day. On the appointed day the whole team would arrive that typically consisted of 3-5 women, each specializing in a particular task. They would spread out in the kitchen area that was located at the west end of the cellars underneath the main house. There was a hearth in the floor of that kitchen, which ordinarily was covered throughout the year. Soon the beautiful and wholesome aroma of baking bread would waft out of those cellars, and before the day was over many stacks of lavash bread were piled up in one corner of the cellars too. Lavash is a paper thin wheat bread that can be stored in dry form almost indefinitely. Just before use, it has to be lightly sprinkled with water and wrapped in towels. Within five minutes it is ready to eat and is very delicious. As for the attraction of bakery day for us kids in the house, apart from the distraction and activity to watch, it was the special cookies that the bakers produced at the end of the day as a special treat for the household. These were made from the same dough, but some oil and sugar were also added. We would get one or two each and cherished them very much.

Royal Grapes

Most courtyards in Tabriz had grape vines and produced a sizeable harvest each Autumn. One variety was called 'Shahani,' meaning the Royal Varity, that was dark colored and very sweet with some tangy aftertaste. It could be consumed as it is, of course, but the best use of it was what the Tabrizis had come up with.

 They would stuff it in big porcelain jars, fill them with water and  then seal their tops airtight. Thereafter the jar was left in a shady southern corner of the courtyard and in due time would be covered with snow. In the midst of Winter and after a hefty dinner somebody would be sent out to go and dole out some of those grapes and juices from the jar in the corner of the courtyard. The concoction by then had transformed into a beautiful dark reddish crimson colored juice in which floated plenty of dark red grapes. The taste was heavenly indeed. It was sweet and tart and had a full body and a delightful aroma. We all drank it. Even children too. The idea was that, it had gone through the fermentation process and reached to the 100% vinegar state. But I can assure you now, or even back then when I was only a two-year old kid, that there was still a good bit of alcohol in that potion. Any way, people drank it and they were happy.

Communist Government in Tabriz

Spring arrived on the 21st of March 1945.  It heralded the Persian New Year Nowruz, as it has heralded so for thousands of years. But also in that particular year, it heralded the imminent collapse of the Germany.  After United States entered the war in December of 1941, it quickly made inroads into German occupied territories and finally into the Germany proper. The mighty US army backed by the huge industrial machinery of the Unites States quickly turned the tide of war in favor of Allies.  Eventually Germany surrendered on May seventh, 1945. Allied Forces conquered the entire Germany and Berlin. Celebrations erupted worldwide everywhere except in those countries that were in the interest domain of the Soviet Union, like the entire Eastern Europe. Puppet communist regimes were set up in those countries and they never saw the light of  freedom until the collapse of the Soviet Union, some 45 years later. More than one generation of humanity suffered in those countries under the oppressive communist regimes and many innocent lives were terminated or simply withered away in their remote detention centers.  A similar scenario was awaiting my town Tabriz and its province called Azerbaijan in Northwestern Iran which were under Soviet occupation.

While British and American forces left Iran after the war, Soviet forces in the northern part of the country dragged their feet.  Eventually a puppet government propped up by the Soviet regime announced its existence in Tabriz in November of 1945. Its president, Jafar Pishehvari, was an old-timer communist who received direct orders from Soviet KGB.  In the beginning the government claimed only local autonomy for the Iranian Azerbaijan, but its actions soon went beyond that. It dismantled the Iranian army in Tabriz and levied heavy taxes on the rich, and pushed for many more reforms. Some of these reforms were legitimate demands of the local population, like adopting Turkish as their official language, or at least including it in the school curriculum. Voting rights for women, etc.  But the majority of Iranian Azerbaijanis disliked the new regime for two main reasons: 1) Its emphasis on heavy socialism, which was hard to swallow for most traditionally minded Iranians, and 2) Its heavy  dependence on the Soviet forces to rule over and subdue the local people. The rich classes like merchants and landowners were in constant fear of being arrested and their wealth confiscated.

Both sides of my family felt the threat. My mother's parents came from a long line of landowners who had been politically active in the past on some occasions. Most notably was the assassination of my great grandfather during the so called Constitutional War in Tabriz. He was passing through one of the older Tabriz bridges at night accompanied by his entourage when two assassins shot him from behind and quickly disappeared into the darkness. He died two days later in his own home. The Malek Family, however, fared relatively unharmed during the communist takeover of Tabriz in 1945. Mind you, they did not dare to go to the villages that they owned around the province in order to collect their due share of the wheat harvest. Yet the local peasants of those villages diligently set aside the landowner's portion and delivered it to him the next year.

My father's side also felt uneasy about the communist government coming to power and everybody predicted that Iranian Azerbaijan would also join the Azerbaijan Province of the Soviet Union in the north, and disappear behind the iron curtain altogether. Decision was made to send part of the family as an expeditionary party to Tehran in order to establish a beachhead for the rest of the family to follow if need be. I was in the expeditionary party along with my parents, and my younger aunt who was not yet married . We set off in late winter of 1946.

Exodus to Tehran

Our journey started in total fear and anxiety but eventually we reached Tehran without any untoward experience. I am writing this section of the memoirs directly from my own recollections. I was only three and a half years old at the time, but due to the intense fear I sensed in everybody around me, I had also become super conscious of the events happening. The main cause of fear was the government propaganda, indicating that the citizenry should be ready and vigilant everywhere and at all the times to spot and point to authorities, those rich pigs who were fleeing away and taking their money in a concealed manner. Needless to say we were all dressed like poor peasants on pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Iran in Meshed and Qum.  We were riding on a bus to Mianeh about 250 km away, and thereafter would travel the rest of the way by train. No one in our group had ever seen a train before.

The bus had to stop at the entrance of almost every town and village along the way and let the local militia who had set up the checkpoint to inspect the bus's passengers and cargo. The militiamen were mostly vagabonds and local hoodlums carrying outdated rifles on their shoulders. They would board the bus and suspiciously peruse the faces of the passengers and point to one or two of them to disembark. Then they would check his ID and search him and his luggage thoroughly. They never found anything. Thirty four years later a similarly tragic social upheaval was played out in the whole country again. Checkpoints were set up at city and village entrances and citizens were subjected to search  and seizure. This time though they even interrogated the passengers' personal beliefs too, which was truly disgusting. That was the year I emigrated for the second time in my life. This time to America.

The buses of that era were the combined productions of local artisans and the Detroit automakers! The chassis including the engine and the front hood were imported from American manufacturers like Dodge, International Harvester, or GMC while the rest of the bus including the main body, seats, and so on were fabricated locally.

We reached Mianeh uneventfully sometime before evening and settled down for the night in an old inn overlooking the railroad yards. The weather was cold and I clearly remember all the window panes were steamed over and frozen, so we couldn't see the outside clearly. Next morning, however, my aunt diligently cleared off a section of the window glass, and then lifted me up to peer through that clearing and see a humongous black beast that none of us had ever seen before in our lives. It was of course just a steam locomotive that was approaching the station huffing and puffing and with its full panoply of bells and whistles making sounds.

We were all gazing at this huge machine with admiration and gratitude, as we knew it is this strange vehicle that will take us to freedom in Tehran.

We boarded the train and comfortably settled down in a roomy passenger compartment. Forty five minutes later the train reached  a local station which was the last point under the domain of the communists. It stopped and let the communist conductors off to be replaced by young and clean shaven officers of the Central Iranian Railroad System and a few military officers who accompanied them. The new crew had  shiny uniforms and equally shiny faces. Maybe it was just the contrast to the communist hoodlums before them who looked so grim. The new crew greeted  the passengers, checked their tickets and wished them a bon voyage. For many years to come my father would narrate to everybody how proud and exuberant he had felt on that day after seeing the officers of the Central Government of Iran in their shiny uniforms. He very much wanted to get up and kiss their faces, but of course he refrained. What really overwhelmed everybody was the sense of being an Iranian again, rather than a communist citizen of a renegade province of Iran. Five hours later the train pulled into the central railway station of Tehran amongst the loud cheering of its passengers.

All is well that ends well

It was just before Nowruz and beginning of the Spring. The new Persian year ushered in many changes and amongst them a political deal that was concocted between the prime minister of Iran, Ahmad Ghavam, and the Soviet Union. He shrewdly signed a treaty with them and somehow convinced them that if they let go of Tabriz, Iranian government would in return yield to their demands for oil exploration rights in the Caspian Sea. They fell for it and withdrew their forces from Iran in Autumn of 1946. It has also been widely circulated that then US President Truman had also ushered an ultimatum to the Russians to vacate Iran.

Once the Soviet forces were gone, the Iranian army started to advance towards Tabriz. However, the people of Tabriz did not wait for them to arrive and in a swift uprising took over the city and flushed out the communists. They simply had no roots in the territory. They were merely puppets of the Soviet regime. Although, to their credit, it should be said that they meant well for their homeland, but  nevertheless they were grossly misguided and had become Soviet puppets. The treaty that Ghavam drafted with the Russians had to be ratified by the Iranian Parliament before it became official, but it was summarily rejected by the parliament.

A senior aide to Pishehvari named, Jahanshalu,  has reported on their last encounter with the Soviet Consulate General in Tabriz. According to him, Pishehvari complained to the consulate that "You brought us on, but now that your priorities have changed, you are abandoning us abruptly. Many of my friends who relied on your support will now be beheaded. How does your conscience handle that?" The Consulate General who was quite dismayed at this audacity, got up and went to the door and opened it and stood there. Then he said in Turkish:

'Sani gatyran, sana diyir: ghet    -      The one who brought you on, now orders you to go

All officials of the communist regime in Tabriz fled to Soviet Union and were invariably maltreated there. Those were the heydays of Stalin and every foreigner was suspected of being a spy. The Iranian Army triumphantly entered into Tabriz on December 12th, 1946 amongst the massive celebration of all Tabrizis.

I used to visit Tabriz during my Summer breaks while in high school, and I have the sweetest memories from those visits. Especially the time I spent with my mother's junior brothers in the Malek house, as well as my dearest cousins in the triple  houses in Chrandab. I always love Tabriz, and its people very dearly.