Tehran My Beloved City
by: Ali Rezai, MD
A New Language
In 1946 my family and I fled the communist regime that had seized power in Tabriz and moved to Tehran permanently. That was the beginning of a heavenly event in my life. I was exposed to a new language, Persian, and I fell in love with it. Persian, also called Farsi, is an ancient language in the family of Indo-European languages that over the years has evolved into a richly poetic and elegant medium of communication. It has a vast repertoire of poetry unparalleled in any other language spoken by humanity. For me it is a constant source of pleasure to speak or to write, or even to think in this medium. I grant you, Persian is heavily underdeveloped in technical arenas of life, but that is not the subject of my adoration, I only adore its vast poetic grandeur.
Later in my life I also became heavily exposed to English and I deeply admire it for its vast expanse of vocabulary and its endless oceans of human intellectual output that exists in this language. I use it all the time for my professional and scientific writings, and also in my daily life nowadays. However, when it comes to talk the language of my heart and my soul, it is Persian and Persian alone.
My first encounter with the new language was through the neighborhood kids, but soon I discovered what they spoke was a distorted colloquial form of Persian and not the elegant language rendered on state radio or spoken by educated people. My nature compels me to seek the highest point of everything for myself. So I decided not to talk like the city dwellers around me and adopted a formal manner of Persian speaking for myself.
My family rented a house on Jaleh Avenue where the new Iranian Parliament is now. It was a simple two story brick building with nothing remarkable about its architecture. It was flanked by an identical building on its east side that was the residence of our landlord. There was an interconnecting door between the courtyards of the two houses, and another one connecting two adjoining rooms in the second floor. The latter door was always locked, except on one occasion. One night our landlord's daughter was getting married and they asked us to use that room as the bridal bedroom just for that night. Our landlord was a clergyman and their ceremony thus was quite stoic without any music or dancing. Right after the dinner at 9 o'clock they sent the bride and the groom to their room through that interconnecting door and everybody else went home. Around midnight I, who was a five year old naughty boy then, opened the door from our side and entered the bridal bedroom. I saw the bride and the groom still in their complete attire and sitting on chairs five feet apart, staring at the carpet. I think they had been frozen in that position for the past three hours. I quickly said hello and left the room. They both laughed and I believe thereafter the ice broke between them.
To our immediate South was a four-story building with some unusual features about it. Each story was rented to a different family, and more strangely yet, some of the women living there worked as full time government employees! This was highly unusual for those days. We were familiar with women teachers, but not office clerks. We lived with it anyway. The family on the third floor had a teenage daughter about 14 years old, named Mehri. She was alone most of the time and had developed a close relationship with my mother. Frequently she would take me to her home for company or, if I were to be alone at my home, she would come over for baby sitting. During the next two or three years Mehri taught me an introductory course on human sexual encounters. Mind you though, that due to my young age there were no didactic teachings and everything was just acted out as cozy plays between two loving humans. Starting the next year I was enrolled in a kindergarten. The picture here shows me in the uniform of that kindergarten. There were some teachings there too, like how lovely our cats or dogs looked, but they were extremely none-challenging to me.
Most children learn about the world around them through their fathers and their mothers. In my case both of my parents were equally ignorant about the new city and the new language and the new life that prevailed there. I had to resort to radio as my source of inspiration. We had a German made radio with the brand name Saba that sat in a dignified manner atop a table in the corner of our living room. It was a vacuum tube radio, so it would take some time to warm up when just turned on. When fully on, its screen would light up and its nice round green eye would glow and blink as we tried to tune in various stations. This radio played a pivotal role in helping me learn the new language at its best. But then my dear mother also taught me how to read, about two years before going to elementary school. I then started to read voraciously the daily newspapers and magazines. That required a budget that I didn't have. But soon we discovered a cheep alternative. On the way to my aunt's house and between two bus connections in downtown Tehran, my mother and I discovered a local bazaar where old magazines and newspapers were sold for 1 Rial each. My dearest mother would buy ten or twelve of these and that would keep me going for a whole week.
Tehran After the War
Just to give you some idea about the value of one Rial, you could buy with it in the midst of winter one half of an average whole beet that had been delicately cooked and steamed and presented to you on the street, piping hot. They would slice it for you and serve it in a multi-use china plate, if you were to eat it on the spot without much ado about cleanliness. Alternatively, they would wrap it in a single-use disposable sheet of an old newspaper to take it home with you! Of course at all times you could exchange your one Rial for half a sangak as well, the standard bread of the country and down it with some cheese or grapes as your lunch if you were a poor construction worker.
It is true that one Rial could buy you a full meal in the old days. But that was eight or ten years ago before the Allied invasion of Iran. Allied armies occupied Iran in September of 1941 and till the end of the war in Europe were sending food and ammunition to Russia via Iran to help Soviet Union withstand the onslaught of Hitler from the European side. The armies of Russia and Britain as well as the Americans who joined them later, needed Rials for their daily expenses. They demanded the Central Bank of Iran to print Rials for their use in exchange for gold or foreign currency. The outcome for Iran was a rampant inflation. So that the so with the price of a chelokabab before the Allied invasion you could now only buy some peanuts.
Allied Forces in Tehran were mostly Americans who had camped some distance away from the city in what was called Amir-Abad. That neighborhood is now part of the city center of greater Tehran. They had visitors from the city proper: prostitutes and street vendors. The latter would buy their excess rations, or clothing and so on to be sold in the streets of Tehran. Even years after they had gone home, American packages of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) were being sold in Tehran. I remember walking about on Saadi Street with my father one evening when I heard a young man shouting 'Shemran' ...'Shemran' and there was a huge pile of colorful boxes behind him. I immediately implored my father to buy one of those Shemrans for me. He laughingly explained to me that the boy is calling for passengers going to Shemiran, a northern suburb of Tehran, and those boxes are merely MREs leftover from American soldiers.
Allied occupation of Iran heavily damaged its transportation infrastructures like the roads, sea ports, and the newly built railroad system, but the greatest damage it inflicted on Iran was the expulsion of its benevolent king, Reza Shah the Great, who had single handedly enacted near miraculous reforms in that medieval country. For more than 400 years Iran had been asleep in the deep stupor of Middle Ages while Europe had sprinted forward with its Industrial Revolution. During his 16 short years of monarchy Reza Shah managed to wake this sleeping beauty up. The list of his achievements are endless and unbelievable: national ID system, Central Bank of Iran, Tehran University, modern Army, Navy, and Airforce and most importantly, establishment of peace and security throughout the country under a centralized strong government, just to name a few.
Four hundred and some years ago Iran under Safavid dynasty was on a par with the rest of the world including Europe in terms of resting in the stupor of middle ages. The great thinkers of Europe as well as our own constantly gazed at the skies and tried to uncover the mysteries of the heavens. They never bothered to look down and consider earthly matters as well. That was simply below their dignity. They counted the stars and critically examined their configurations and debated whether the universe was eternal, perpetual, or merely created, or maybe an illusion alltogether. When tired of all of that, they would delve into a more perpetual question, namely whether humans act out of their own free will or as decreed by the Almighty God. By the way, philosophers back in our own beloved country still are engaged in the same nonsensical matters. Nobody looked at the real world under their own feet and realized that there was dirt, filth, disease, and death everywhere. Epidemics of cholera, typhus, and measles swarmed the Earth every few years and picked their casualties from the most vulnerable and the down trodden segments of the society, meaning the slaves, serfs, and the working classes in cities. In essence, those ninety percent of the world that merely existed to serve the other ten percent making up the rich classes. This was the darkest period into which humanity had ever succumbed. As yet no torch had been alighted to illuminate the path to enlightenment that all humans are created equal and are entitled to live freely and happily.
That flame was later lit in Italy and quickly spread to Europe and the new country of USA, but never to Asia or Middle East. The social reform that it brought about was named Renaissance and transformed the human destiny in the western world by major dimensions. The first and foremost result of this free thinking became apparent in science and education. True scientists emerged who threw away the age old ruminations of their predecessors about eternal power and so on, and instead, began exploring the world around them using their own power of observation and experimentation. Man soon reached to supreme heights with this approach. One shining example is the publication of Philosophić Naturalis Principia Mathematica or just ' Principia' by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687. In this book he introduces a set of simple laws that exactly define the entire universe, from ants to celestial bodies. No other book in the history of mankind has ever been published par with it.
Contemporaneously published in Iran was the grand book of Heliatol-Mottagheen produced by our all time supreme thinker, Majlessy. It discusses such important topics as 'what if you doubt you are on the third or the fourth segment of your daily prayer?' or ' how far you can proceed in sexual interplays with your wife without breaking your fast in the holy month of Ramadan?' These are of course important issues that plagued the true believers before a clear directive was issued for them in this book. Humanity had truly succumbed to such low grounds and remains so in many parts of the world as yet.
The age of enlightenment also brought about the Industrial Revolution in the western countries, but that was a double edged sword. On the one hand it led to the creation of many factories that produced consumer goods on a large scale utilizing steam power and raised the standards of living in those societies. Along with that change there emerged a new class of industrial barons who replaced the old aristocracy, and also emerged a large class of workers who were free people and much better off in their living conditions than the peasants were under the feudal states. The other face of the industrial revolution, though, was the inevitable acceleration of the war technology. Countries that gained such power were soon colonizing vast expanses of Africa, America, and Asia for their own benefit. It is in this period that Iran suffered major territorial losses. After losing parts of the Caucasus to Russia and Herat to English in India, Iranian map resembled the familiar kitty cat that we are now familiar with.
Iranian ruler at this time was Fath-Ali Shah. Both he and the country lived in the middle ages as yet. He was preoccupied with his harem of concubines numbering in hundreds and had developed an ingenious device to flirt with all of them in a single setting. It consisted of a long slanted slide upon which the concubines would slide down in quick succession. They all had their bare bottoms exposed which slid over the king's front end, as he lied flat on his back at the end of that infamous slide system.
The country's military was under the command of his son who was a brave fellow dedicated to save the country, but of no use. Iranian armamentarium mainly consisted of swords, some old canons, and maybe a smattering of rudimentary rifles. The opposing armies on the other hand had very powerful canons and vast numbers of advanced guns. They did not need to engage the enemy with swords, they just shot them from a safe distance. One particular day the news received from the Caucasian front was so bad that the king himself got up from his throne and shouted, 'I will have to draw my own sword and go and fight those infidels myself.' The courtiers, however, at once fell on his feet and begged him to have mercy and not draw his sword, otherwise there will be bloodshed of millions of people at the hands of his majesty.... It wasn't worth it. The majesty demurred for a short moment and returned the sword to its scabbard. In all likelihood he then went to his harem and resorted to only a minor bloodshed, deflowering a virgin girl.
Life in the Streets
That was the state in which Iran was when Reza Shah came to throne in 1925. That great man in a matter of sixteen short years introduced fundamental reforms to the Iranian society and its system of government. However, the picture of ordinary life in the streets and alleys of the ancient land had probably not changed appreciably since the days of Marco Polo, or Omar Khayam. People still bought live chicken at the poultry shop, had it slaughtered right there, and brought it home. Thereafter for two hours or more plucked its feathers and cleaned its guts, and finally cooked the bird for dinner on that day. It was a whole day endeavor and the food had to be consumed on the very same day. There was no refrigerator to keep food fresh. Same was true for meat. Most Tehrani cuisines thus revolved around bread, rice, beans, and a grand slew of vegetables made into delicious sauces or soups, etc.
Consumer goods of all kinds were loaded on donkey backs and sold in the alleys and streets, be it watermelons, cantaloupes, onions, salt, or even water dripping ice. there was a constant parade of these vendors each advertising his specific merchandise throughout the day. Another group of peddlers offered services rather than merchandise. Notable among them were those who mended broken china, and those who shoveled snow in the winter, or other jobs in summer such as emptying the water in your pool, or landscaping your gardens. If any household had leftover food from their last meal, they would offer it to these migrant workers as well. Thus some workers had jokingly included that service in their advertisements too. For example, they might be shouting, 'gardening, emptying pool, yard sweeping, and will eat lunch too.' These sights and sounds made up the cacophony of the streets in Tehran.
The City of Tehran lacked a sanitary water distribution system. Every week or ten days water for public use would flow in the little streams alongside the streets. People would take turn to fill their home reservoirs from that water. In our house I was the man in charge of that task and I had learned quite well how to deal with the army of frogs who lived in the water conduit leading to our house. I would let them out before filling our reservoir. Needless to say those frogs were the source of our amusing plays too. We did not drink that water. On a daily basis we would receive a pail of potable water to our door which cost 1 Rial. It was brought in on a horse drawn cistern from the outlet of a manmade spring in downtown, called 'Abe Shah' meaning 'The Shah's Water.'
That was the state of affairs in Tehran while I was growing up till I eventually enrolled at Ebne-Yamin elementary school right across the street from our house. School was no challenge to me as I was far ahead of my classmates in reading and writing.
In 1948 My brother, Mohammad-Reza, was born whom I have loved and cherished to this day. He is a physician in Chicago now. He has several grandchildren of his own currently, but back then was a very cute baby himself and a playdoll for my family as well as our next door neighbors. My other sibling, a sister called Azam was born in 1952 in the new house that we eventually purchased in the same Jaleh Ave.
Our Beautiful House
In the year 1951 and just before nowruz my father bought a new house on Jaleh Ave which remained the nucleus of our family for the next forty five years. I loved that house and even to this day I cherish its sweet memories from the bottom of my heart. I and my brother as well as a sister who later was born in the very same house had a lovely childhood there. We went though our growing happy years, celebrated our marriages there, and finally bid that house farewell to go to different paths of life pursuing our varied careers.
My father bought this property for 56,000 Toomans (equivalent to about $20,000 at that time). We also paid an additional 10,000 Toomans for a passageway and a piece of land on the north side of the house that was later built and annexed to the main building. As such our square footage which was about 500 meters increased to around 600 meters. Two years later my father also annexed 200 meters from our neighbor's yard on the East to ours for a price of 20,000 Toomans. We subsequently amended and extended the facade of our building adding multiple new windows toward that side too.
This was a new house built by a young architect according to the modern standards. Its location was in an alley between Abe-Sardar and Jaleh Square. We only had 3 or 4 regular neighbors and the rest were some old aristocratic houses with large tracts of parks and orchards around each of them. The weather in that part of the city thus was delicate and pleasant. Jaleh Square was effectively the end of the city beyond which was open space with the exception of the Tehran Electric Power Plant. This was yet another one of the Innovations Reza Shah had brought to the city. Our house had three stories and a couple of ancillary rooms on the roof. It had hot and cold plumbing to bathrooms and toilets that were provided at all three levels. These facilities are considered routine nowadays, but back then toilets were confined to the end of the courtyard in order to avoid their fowl smell, and 98% of the buildings lacked running water.
Our street was directly on the path to the Iranian Parliament, Majles, and as such, we witnessed more than our fair share of the political turmoil and posturing that went on in the country. Iran had just emerged from a long period of dictatorship and had gained total freedom of expression without ever being ready for it. The country had never had any experience with democracy in the past. A cadre of old timer politicians plus petty politicians, as well as outright social hoodlums poured into the social arena and started blabbering each other and the deposed king. Same was true for the members of the Parliament too. They could have engaged in some meaningful remedial legislature after the fall of Reza Shah, but they didn't. The late king had not been all benevolent to everybody. He had a passion for confiscating villages in northern and western provinces of Iran that he liked for himself and paid only a meager token of compensation to their owners. He had amassed hundreds of villages as such. The parliament could have passed a law to restore those villages to their previous owners, or better yet, to the peasants living in those villages. But, they did none of that. The villages were transferred en block to the new king.
Several factions emerged from this faceless chaos. One which was called the National Front reached its peak fame in the early nineteen-fifties during the nationalization of Iranian Oil industry. Afterwards they went underground only to emerge 25 years later after the so-called Islamic Revolution. This time they acted only as facilitators, transitioning the power from a civilians system of government to dark theocracy. What a shameful distinction for them throughout their history.
The other group of political activists were the communists. They declared existence in the guise of several political parties in Iran, the most famous of which was called the Tudeh Party. Yet their membership was confined to a sliver of Iranian society, mostly consisting of young students and technocrats who were idealistic and were inspired by the worldwide cause of communism. The leftist ideology never gained much traction among the masses of Iranians. In my view, Iranians believe first and foremost in their own selves and their own immediate interests. Then they would also uphold the interests of their immediate neighbors and those whom they know as their clan. Finally they would also respect the livelihood of all people living on the face of the Earth. This is the mentality of a tribal person. That is different than recognizing society as a distinct entity with distinct rights. Those concepts are alien to them and only very gradually they are learning them in the modern times. On the other hand, because of their natural respect for their neighbors and living things on earth, they would not commit such atrocities as slaying people in dark back alleys for a small sum of money or some crack cocaine, which is the modus operandi in the western major cities. Nor wood they swarm and loot a neighborhood if the electricity happens to go off in that area. Quite unlike what we are accustomed to see in New York or Maryland or here and there in USA periodically.
The other pillars of Iranian Society were the prime ministers who came one after the other, or rotated into their positions, in quick succession. History is full of their names, especially for the twelve years following the fall of Reza Shah. But I would like to mention two distinct personalities who in my judgment played profound roles in the contemporary history of Iran.
Mohammad Ali Foroughi was the last prime minister appointed by Reza Shah, as he was leaving the country at the behest of the occupying Allied forces. Foroughi was a learned man and a first class patriot. While the Allied forces were somewhat cavalier about the future system of Iran, he single handedly negotiated with them and convinced them to agree and issue a decree specifying among other things: 1) Iran was a sovereign country, 2) Allied forces would leave Iran as soon as the war was over, 3) They recognized Iran's monarchy, and finally 4) They also recognized Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi as the new king of Iran. Immediately after this declaration by the invading countries respecting Iran's sovereignty, Foroughi brought the young crown prince to the Parliament and had him take the oath of office. It has been largely acknowledged that most Iranians who were panicked by the fall of their monarchy and the occupation of the country by foreign forces rested assured after these pivotal events orchestrated by the late Foroughi. He died within months after fulfilling this last mission for his beloved land.
The young Shah was only a weak and fledgling force and no one took him seriously. For example during a meeting of the heads of the Allied countries in Tehran in 1943, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill bothered to pay a visit to the young king or acknowledge his existence. The young Shah eventually learned his lessons and seized the control of the government in 1953. He quickly strengthened his grip on the government thereafter and became a benevolent dictator in his own time. American CIA was deeply involved in the beginning to help him strengthen his control, but quickly gave way to a powerful security apparatus set up locally called SAVAK, which was as much dreaded in its heyday as the KGB in Russia. American military also got involved with Shah's army and stayed with him till the end. Except that such a feeble minded and naive president as Carter undermined the Shah's rule at the very end. In my judgment, however, he mainly fell to his own inner disease. A form of blood cancer that essentially withered him and his will power away from within. He was deposed in 1979 and died in 1980.
I grew up under his rule, and I liked him. He was a handsome man and a learned man. He loved his country and wanted very much to advance it towards a brighter future. But much like any other dictator he too lost contact with his people and thereafter his policies were not footed in reality.
One of the most illustrious prime ministers in recent Iranian historywas Mohammad Mossadegh. He was originally a member of the Parliament and championed the move to nationalize Iranian oil industry and thereby expel the British from the country. They had held an exclusive treaty with the Government of Iran for exploration and extraction of oil from southern parts of the country since 1908. The parliament passed a law and subsequently Mossadegh himself was appointed as prime minister to carry out the law. He gained tremendous popularity inside the country. My own grandfather who rarely paid attention to politics, spent 10,000 Rials to purchase National Government Bonds that Mossadegh had issued to help the government during those days of austerity. In response to the nationalization, the British blockaded the Iranians ports, thus no oil could be exported and the oil revenues that were vital to Iranian economy completely dried out. Country's economy collapsed and people went through some dire times between 1951 and 1953.
In the mean time a clandestine plot to overthrow Mossadegh was concocted by the British MI6 and then transferred over to American CIA who financed it and staged it in the theatre under the directions of Kermit Roosevelt. It had two basic prongs: 1) Distribute substantial money into the hands of key generals in the Iranian Army to buy their allegiance and acquiescence, and 2) Distribute a smaller quantity to street mobs under the direction of a thug bearing the street name Sha'ban Bimokh. The second word in his name meant 'brainless.' The plan was worked out in cohort with the young Shah, an old retired General Zahedi, and his son Ardeshir Zahedi. What they did not know at the time, however, was that their plot had already been discovered by Mossadegh through some leftist informants in the army. On the midnight of August 15, 1953 the Shah issued a decree dismissing Mossadegh from the post of prime minister and appointed General Zahedi in his place. It was delivered by an army officer. Mossadegh defied the royal decree, imprisoned the messenger, and promptly ordered his chief of army to send out troops on tanks to major streets of Tehran to keep vigil. Shah immediately left the country aboard a single engine plane flown by his regular pilot and also accompanied by his beautiful wife, Soraya.
Next morning the Radio Tehran was blaring loud that a coup de estate had been foiled during the previous night and the Shah had fled the country. Thousands of people swarmed into the streets and pulled the Pahlavi statutes down, calling the era of monarchy over in Iran. These were mostly members of the Tudeh Party accompanied by some other leftist groups as well. Needless to say Roosevelt and Zahedi went underground. Two more days of chaos ensued and everyday the leftist groups were heard louder demanding a change to Socialism for the country. Mossadegh was not heard and as usual confined himself to his bed, as he always presented the picture of an ailing man.
People everywhere were getting worried. Including my own family and many religious leaders who thought the country was headed over to a communist takeover and Mossadegh was too weak to do anything. This assumption was not baseless. Mossadegh was a nationalist man who loved and tried to serve his country in the best way he knew, but grossly overestimated his own abilities and his power of control over the people.
On August 19th, 1953 some counter mobs appeared in the streets vouching for the return of the Shah. Apparently Sha'ban Bimokh who had not heard anything from Zahedi and was worried about the state of affairs in the country, proceeded with his part of the plan of coup de estate and sent the mobs under his control to the streets. He, the brainless, on that day single handedly saved the monarchy in Iran for another 25 years. I clearly remember that day. The pro-shah movement propagated through the streets in no time at all. All vehicles in the streets put up a picture of the Shah on their windshields. Many had to resort to a tiny picture that almost everybody had in their pocket calendars. By 2pm, General Zahedi was addressing the nation on Radio Tehran as the new prime minister. Mossadegh had fled away, but surrendered himself the next morning. Shah returned from Rome a few days later and was enthusiastically received by the bulk of his citizens.
Iranians are divided on this subject. Many side with the Shah who always referred to it as the Day of National Resurrection. A smaller, but sizeable group of politically minded people though call it the Day of the Ignoble Coup de Estate. You be the judge yourself.
Coming of Age
I was growing up through all of these events enjoying myself, believe it or not, and eventually graduated from the elementary school in 1955. In those years that was a major achievement. I therefore produced a new portrait of mine to be affixed to my school diploma. What we learned in school through those six years was quite varied, but my favorite subject was mathematics. I specifically liked the guy in that subject matter who was a street vendor of oranges. Typically, he would buy a whole crate of oranges at wholesale prices, and then sort them out into large and small varieties, and even throw out some 10% or so that were rotten. Finally, we were told to find the orange vendor's profits, or find the orange vendor's total sales, etc. Over the years, however, we the alumni of those delightful years have simplified the echo of those phrases in our own minds into a whimsical eternal directive: 'find the orange vendor.'
We are looking for that fellow... we miss him. I guess in reality we just miss those delightful innocent years that we were merely children. But I assure you if I ever turn a street corner one day and see that orange vendor again selling oranges, I would walk up to him straight, hug him, kiss him on both cheeks and buy all his oranges. To me and my generation he is the symbol of a bygone era. The era of exuberance and innocence .....or simply put, the good old days