Persian Gardens
byGaither Stewart

 

 
6274      The mystic from Isfahan taught his adepts that life is like a circle. It keeps coming back over and over again. On and on it expands outwards toward the distance in concentric rings, like the circles caused by a rock thrown by a small boy on still waters. It seems to fade away. Then, another boy and another rock, the mystic said, and the process begins again.
     While the Rome writer, Domenico Renzulli, watched the ripples of the war in Afghanistan on TV and heard the news of the first inklings of the return of democracy to Iran, he recalled the words of the Persian mystic. The rock musician of today, he knew, was perhaps formerly a Mexican freedom fighter. Today’s liberal politician might have been a revolutionary killer in another life.
     Yet Domenico felt that he was still the same “he” of over 20 years ago when he experienced the revolution in Teheran. History had marched ahead, but he had remained the same. His life then was another life – but, it has a way of coming back, he told himself, repeating the mystic’s words.
     These days people were speaking of globalization. Everyone said the world was getting smaller and smaller. Domenico instead had come to feel that life was in constant ferment and expansion. There was the ebb of life then, the tide of life today. Isfahan! he said, and imagined the steady gushing of its old fountains. He stared at images of destroyed Kabul and saw again Iran like yesterday – the time when they wanted to turn back the clock. In his memory the characters lived, now in another circle. Five persons, a revolution, and the image of sparkling water rising against the background of purple mountains and falling softly back onto the gardens of Persia.  
     “That day,” Domenico read in his now dusty Persian diary, “Hassan walked along Avenue Shah Reza. Weak lights flickered in the October haze. It was quiet in the early morning. In another hour traffic chaos would reign here. From the airport in the west where its name “Eisenhower” resisted, the axis sliced like an arrow through the endless city until it became in the northeast “Damavand”, the name of the 6000-meter mountain hovering over the dry plateau of north Iran.”
     Domenico had imagined then that gentle Hassan would have slowed his gait that morning to savor the stillness. It felt good to be out of the crowded apartment where his children were still sleeping. Now that they had carried the mattresses and beds down from the roof after the summer season, the proximity of his big family was oppressive.
     Hassan preferred to be at work, in the dignified drudgery of the hotel that was one of Teheran’s oldest. Though he might complain of the long hours, after serving in the restaurant, the room service calls and cleaning the kitchen, he could look forward to sipping tea with the others in the back of the breakfast room. And the foreign guests were pleasant, always trying to make a civilized impression. Though the salary was low, the tips were good, and he took home enough food to feed to his family. Why, he was nearly middle class.
     The things this avenue had witnessed recently, Hassan thought! Two, three million inebriated marchers, their lances lifted toward the heavens, screaming for the heads of the Pahlavis and waving their banners for the Ayatollah and the Islamic Republic. One time Hassan too was caught up in the frenzy. As if in an elusive flashback from a phantasmagoric dream, the memory of his own hysteria surprised him. Those poor army boys up on the trucks, terrified of the maddened city people, were afraid to come down on the streets. They were afraid to fire on the people as the Shah’s special troops did the black day at Sepah Square.
     Since the mass death on the Teheran pavement the atmosphere had as if mutated. The circles tightened. The “people” was exhilarated. Domenico wrote: “They learned the lesson that the poor learn easily - how easy it is to die. And to kill.”
     Hassan felt vertigo when he saw his neighbors act as if they already controlled the country - it was too much for his submissive nature.
     Like everyday he turned south into Hafez. He looked down the street to the walls of the Russian Embassy. The tall crane had been there for a year. People said radio transmitters were located in its control towers. Above him, the new Belgian viaduct rose over the intersection with Avenue Shah, the few early cars accelerating as they raced north or south. Now, everyone said they should have erected the viaduct east and west instead to relieve the traffic converging on the bazaar and money exchange areas at Avenue Istanbul.
     The usual bribes, he thought. Ah well, who knows which way is better? Maybe if we didn’t have any oil at all there would be no problem and we wouldn’t need any of the horrible bridges. Of course, there wouldn’t be any foreigners here either and I wouldn’t have a job.
     They were still working on the new streets. Workers were sleeping in the tents under the viaduct. Gray-black feet stuck out of the openings, the canvas flapping in the morning breeze. The great summer heat was over and they no longer worked at night under the floodlights with the pounding jackhammers that made the earth quiver and quake.
     The area under the elevated expressway had changed. The small shops were submerged under steel and concrete and the rumbling from the overhead traffic was torture for the inhabitants of this new netherworld. He stepped over the open sewage ditch that carried black liquids and garbage down the hill from the rich upper city to the poor quarters below. He clambered over the unfinished traffic dividers and walked through the entrance gate to the hotel.
     “Salaam, Hassan,” said the old Armenian in the gatehouse, his right hand open over his heart. “The night was quiet but they told me the students at the school across from the Russians are already gathering. The soldiers are sitting up in the trucks. Hopefully there will be no shooting today.”    
     Yesterday there was violence at the university. Last night a hotel driver said that more than 20 students were dead. This morning when Hassan passed the campus along Shah Reza he could smell stale gas and feel the terror in the air. Tensions were palpitating under the plaster of the avenue. Mystery and suspicion smoldered under the tall trees up Khiabon Pahlavi to the north. No one knew for certain what was happening but the whole city stunk of greater battles to come.
     Hassan stopped inside the gate at the inception of the circular driveway. It was like arriving home. He breathed in the tranquility of the morning shimmering in the illumination of the Persian gardens. The trees, the flowers and the well-kept lawns exuded a perfumed freshness, still moist from the evening watering and the nocturnal mist. The geyser pushed water straight up, higher than the line of the rear wall of the south Teheran oasis. The silver hung for a moment against the pink eastern sky and reflected an incandescent red tinsel before it collapsed and dropped limply back to the luxuriant grass.
     Hassan smiled. He was aware of his good fortune. His only problem in these precarious times was that rat, Mehti, who was beginning to make all their lives difficult.
     The tall blond foreigners were piling into a huge Land Rover parked near the entrance to the south wing of the old hotel. “Salaam, Hassan,” an Englishman called out. “What kind of hours are you keeping?”
     They were nice young men, always polite, and they tipped him well when he brought beer up to their rooms or made them sandwiches when the hotel restaurant was closed. They worked hard. But how much money they all had! How long will it be before our engineers can earn like they? he asked himself. But no, that’s for foreigners. We Iranians will never have that….
     “Now there go the Germans,” he murmured. Fifty kilometers up in the mountains everyday! Maybe the boys driving the taxis are right. Do we really need all these foreigners? But Mostafa should be careful. The way he talks to everyone. How he will hang the Shah and cut off the heads of the SAVAK beasts. He won’t be around long. Either Mehti will have him arrested, or he’ll disappear and we’ll hear about him leading terrorist raids, killing … or being killed. All those wild kids! No one has respect for anything anymore. Not for king, government, Islam, Allah … for nothing.
 
     From his third floor window Domenico had watched Mehti park his five-year old Paykan near the back gate. As each time he slammed the door three times in rapid succession before it closed well. A few more months like this one, Mehti was thinking, and I can get the used Chevrolet they promised me.
     “Fucking warm,” he said to himself, more to practice his American English than comment on the weather, which was perfect.
     In that moment the muezzin from the small mosque behind the wall began calling for the noon prayers. “You hardly finish your morning prayers before he’s up there again exhorting the faithful to pray,” Mehti murmured. “And those black chadors, absurd shadows of a past world, right now flitting around the bazaar like so many ants. Faithful! Who knows how faithful we Iranians are?”
     Another fucking day at this place, Mehti thought. If I could just move up to the Intercontinental! Or the Hilton. Less trouble here though and I can’t complain of the money. But even if I could afford a better car today, it would be dangerous to be seen driving it what with all these revolutionaries around.
     “Communists or Mullahs, it’s all the same stupid shit.” he said to himself. “We’re doing so well now with our Shah and all the foreigners. Why can’t they leave things as they are?”
     “Good morning, Mehti,” an Italian engineer called out. “Are you opening the bar now? See you in a few minutes. OK? Eh, Mehti, thanks again for last night. My boss was impressed that I got him such a nice room.”
     Mehti nodded. The fifty- dollar tip was still in the service chief’s pocket. His reserve of rooms saved for late unannounced arrivals was a good source of income. Divided with the assistant manager and night desk clerk it still amounted to several times his official salary. The Italians were his favorite for they never arrived with reservations.
     “Yes, yes, I will order your drink for you. And we have some pistah today, just for you. Va bene?” A little thing like a bowl of the pistachio nuts in short supply changed a relationship with a client. Allah knows how much he had earned since he had laid in a supply of these Persian nuts just for the Italians.
     His hand was still over his heart when he turned toward the main entrance, only to stop short at the long figure of Mostafa sprawled out insolently over the steps. Mehti’s obsequious smile vanished. He thrust a hand in his jacket pocket.
     “Ah Mehti!… Salaam aleikum! Khále shomá chetoré? And how is the big boss today? Good you could make it down to the office. What hours you keep! Have you already submitted some juicy denunciations this morning about everything we bad rebels said yesterday?” Mostafa’s sardonic smile was more menacing than ever. The long slim driver lifted himself slightly on one arm, pulled at his scraggly beard, and picked his nose obscenely.
     “Mehti, Mehti, do you know what you’re doing? Save yourself Mehti! You know where you’re going to end up? Shot to death in some courtyard with your hands tied behind your back – if you’re lucky. But then you might find your way to some nighttime interrogation unit, to answer for your crimes. That would be unpleasant….”
     Mehti stared, mesmerized by the demon’s threats. That bastard. That smile. I’ll get him yet. Mehti’s frown concealed both his hate and his growing fear of them. Who were they anyway? That’s what was so terrifying, no one knew. Just the riff-raff of the country, marching up and down the avenues. We’ll have to teach them another lesson soon. Send another few thousand to the cemetery! That’s the only message they understand. But he began to sweat. The fear prickled under his armpits. Why, I could have him arrested tonight.… Him and his whole band of bearded revolutionaries. They’d break in one night, up there on the hill at Evin Prison. They all do.
     “Mehti, don’t get any wild ideas. We’re waiting for you. If one person in this hotel is touched, by the police or anyone else, you’re personally responsible.” There was not an inflection in his steely voice. “We’ll bury you alive, Mehti.”
     Fear crept up Mehti’s legs. They had never gone so far. Something had changed.  What did they really know about him? True, he had been boastful of his power. Everything began to change after we shot thousands of them last month, but only a few days ago they were still afraid of me. This can’t go on. When is our government, the Shah, going to make its move? What are our American protectors doing? You’d think they wanted the Communists to take over the country again. We should never have lifted the 9 o’clock curfew. We should keep the troops out at night. Shoot more of the revolutionaries and they’d stay at home. After “black Friday” we had them on the run. But we were soft. All that human rights shit! 
     He walked through the lounges and the shop-lined corridors. He acknowledged the greetings from the cleaning personnel with nods. Tall, dark and gaunt, his black mood drew his Turkoman features into an eastern mask. What do these stupid people understand? No wonder they are so backward, have been backward for centuries. The leadership must be firm. We can’t permit them such childish excesses. We have the power. We must use it.
     The doors of the breakfast room were wide open. Outside on the terrace café in front of the fuming fountains, two American businessmen were drinking beer under the hot sun. And they think we’re underdeveloped! Mehti thought. May their heads burst! Inshallah! Ah now, there’s that little coward Hassan.
     “You’re still drinking tea, eh!” he spat out. “Are you moonstruck, or are you plotting again with your revolutionary friends out there? Stay away from them, Hassan. I’m warning you. You’re in trouble. You march and scream in their demonstrations – I know that – and I heard what you said yesterday about the royal family, and the police too. You don’t know what you’re bringing down on your head. The government will soon stamp out the revolutionaries. Everyone who has been friends with them will pay for it.”
 
     Mostafa threw himself over the hood of the battered Opel, property of the Hertz Car Rental Service in the hotel. He laughed, and slammed the metal surface with his fist. The evening was developing nicely. It was pleasantly cool. It had been a good day and he was pleased with himself.
     “But tell me, Mafioso,” he teased Domenico who hung around with him and the other drivers on some of the long evenings, “do you love my King? Our King of Kings, our Shahinshah?”
     Domenico had tried to be diplomatic. He knew what his bosses expected of him, but he realized what was happening around him, in the hotel, in Teheran, in Iran. He smelled it. Sometimes he tried to tell the others. But none of the company directors or the investors felt it; they were intoxicated by the brilliance of past glories and the apparent permanence of the Pahlavi dynasty. They didn’t want to know the reality. Their investments in the Shah’s Iran were too great. There was no turning back.
     The company was over-extended - they had to make it. And this lousy regime had to make it too. This will blow over, the foreign investors from Europe assured each other. The Americans wouldn’t permit great changes along the Russian border. There was comfort in that thought.
     “A regiment of American Marines will set everything straight,” the director of Domenico’s company said.
     Domenico knew that under the surface major events were taking place. He felt the national malaise. Foreigners seemed oblivious to the seething ferment. The Americans didn’t want to know either; just in those days another major American company had opened its activities in Teheran. Domenico had told his bosses it was all wishful thinking.
     “You know how I feel, Mostafa,” he said. “We got rid of our kings long ago. But yours have been around for 2500 years. Maybe you need them.” Porco Giuda, he thought, you don’t know who’s who around here. Monarchists and Communists and Mullahs, Islamic Fundamentalists and Islamic Marxists. I’ve got to live here now, Domenico thought then, with whatever government. I have an apartment. My furniture is arriving. I can’t afford to be kicked out by any of them! But I know they’re going to crucify the Shah. And he deserves it. He was finished the day his troops fired on the mobs on the square. And no Marines can save him.  Who’s for him anyway, among the people of this sick country? The people smell his fear. It’s infectious.
     “We need kings like we need slavery. Domenico, Mafioso, you must have heard what happened today. We the people routed a detachment of his soldiers down on Maiden Sepah. There were a half million people on the square. When thousands of our women in chadors ran toward the troops, those poor boys threw down their guns and joined us. We’re collecting the soldiers of this country – and the guns too. The Shah’s army can’t stop us, Domenico. The Americans can’t stop us. Who will?”
     “No, no, Mostafa. You know I don’t love your Shah. A good man? A bad man? I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t know everything. But his police are very mean.”
     “Monsters, beasts,” Mostafa shouted, springing off the car. The word police, secret police, SAVAK, sent him into a frenzy. “The SAVAK… look, look at these,” he said grabbing Domenico by his shirt. He ripped some papers from his back pocket. “Look at these photos. Those are the remains of something that was once a human being before the Shah’s police got its hands on him. While he sits up there in his Niavaran palace and receives his nice foreign guests and his octopus family signs contracts with your friends! We found this mess on a field behind the airport.”
     The horror of the tortured flesh photographed under bizarre night torches was transformed into an energy of hate that made the driver’s left arm pump up and down.
     Always before Mostafa’s eyes was the maddening image of his brother, the nightmare of the agonizing body wracked by electric charges, one eyeball hanging out of its socket, and the blood from his unrecognizable face and his sliced legs and feet. “Take him away,” they had said to Mostafa, “we’ve finished with him.”
      Night after night Mostafa’s teachers hammered into him that this was the natural outcome of blood-sucking capitalist society. Change the structure of this corrupt society. Rip the power from the hands of the Shah and his family and the American capitalists-imperialists. Kill the dictator!
     “OK, OK,” some meek people like Hassan asked. “But Islam? What about Islam?” “Well, yes,” Mostafa replied, “but we Iranians are different. Islam is a total way of life. It contains all that Marxism offers. We can be good Moslems and good Marxists at the same time.”
 
     Eugene the Egyptian leaned forward on the piano stool. Holding his clarinet between his legs he tested the ancient instrument. His blue Sicilian eyes bulged from his round Levantine face before he found the key. Satisfied, he turned back toward the tables and with a brief glance at Domenico began playing. His version of Les Feuilles Mortes was punctuated by dramatic pauses after each phrase. The regulars in the room held their breath. He didn’t like to play his beloved clarinet in front of so many people – it had become so personal, so private – but his Italian friend had insisted.
     Silence fell in the intimate room. A bar, sad and lonesome, like all the hotel bars in all the African capitals of all the former colonies they had sent Domenico to. A bar for lonesome lonely men. One businessman sitting alone held his glass in mid-air as if considering the evanescence of love and a woman lost somewhere in the past. American technicians in dirty work clothes turned toward Eugene. A Frenchman in a far corner stared vacantly and with a forefinger traced circular images in the moisture of the plastic tabletop. A waiter with a tray loaded with drinks paused in the doorway. The bartender stood motionless.
     Before the song ended Eugene just stopped playing. There was a moment of silence. Each person seemed touched. Each was moved by the collective emotion. Everyone was uncertain as to whether to applaud.
     “Bravo, Eugene, grazie,” Domenico said sottovoce from the bench next to the piano.
     In the strange times of changing curfews and sudden arrests and expulsions, the intimate hotel bar was the evening headquarters for residents. Guests came and went, unaware of the microscopic world where Eugene reigned each evening. He was the Master of Ceremonies in Farsi, Arabic, English, French and Italian, pianist and singer, sounding board for personal problems, and diagnostician for oriental discomforts, which he treated with massive intakes of fresh apples.
     The former golden boy of the big band days at the beginning of Iranian television, Eugene had maintained dignity in his decline from national popularity. Memories, Eugene often said, play tricks. Memories of those fat days during the flush of his triumphant arrival from Alexandria laid the basis for his political conservatism.
     “You can’t understand how it was then, Domenico. The country has gone to ruin now. It’s the fear. The sadness. There’s no stopping the revolutionary movement. What are they going to do with this great country, those guys out there in the courtyard like your friend Mostafa? Stop time? This was a fantastic place when I first came out here. I said then I would never leave. But I would today … if I knew where to go.”
     Eugene told him of a thin old Englishman who had sat out in the lobby all the spring before, a vacant look in his eyes and whistling for hours on end, I Give You Bluebirds In The Spring. He was broke and didn’t know where to go. Finally he skipped, carrying his two bags through the cellars and out into the back streets. After 22 years, he sneaked away with a one-way ticket to Manchester.
     “He left only because he had no money to eat with.”
     “Foreigners and Iranians alike are leaving,” Domenico said. “Rich Iranians in Los Angeles are buying residence documents just like they buy new houses and new businesses.  I met an architect uptown in Darrous, rich, some relation of the Pahlavis, who just opened his American branch in Washington, D.C. Anyway, Eugene, there’s always music. You’ll always be in demand.”
     “I can’t count on it. Not my kind of music. These Moslem fanatics are unpredictable.”
     “Anyway, it’s a special country. It gets in your blood. Not all the foreigners here are rich. They’re not all here for the money. Like that Englishman. It’s something else. You know what it is. Maybe it’s the dry heat in the summer, or the cold winters, or those enormous purple mountains. I’ve met people who’ve been here forever, like you, and they don’t want to leave. Iranians are like Italians. They like to travel, even emigrate, but they’re always drawn back home. They never leave completely.”
    “But if the Mostafas have their way, the ones escaping now with their money are not going to be welcomed back.”
     “Speaking of Mostafa, he’s driving me up to the Hilton in a few minutes. My boss insisted I drop in for a drink at 10:30! Revolutions or not, he always has his evening drink at that hour. He rejects the curfew. I’ll try to get back for your last song. What’ll it be?”
    Eugene thought for a moment, then grinned. I think I’ll do I Give You Bluebirds.” He pulled the microphone close and launched abruptly into Hello Dolly to raise the spirits of the crowd of men-children. Eugene said that everyone out here on the edge of civilization was lost and lonely, bound to the little collective by a common spirit. They felt inadequate before the violence of the history around them. With his songs and his wit, he could make them gay or sad, reflective, sentimental, carefree, intoxicated, and sometimes also angry.
 
     Dinner was over. Hassan was sitting with the others at a table in the corner of the kitchen. This was his favorite time. He was in no hurry to go home. There was still time, before the curfew. Or before he didn’t know what. He was repeating a story that Mostafa had told him that afternoon about a court scandal concerning the Shah’s sister and a young tank driver who was now mysteriously missing. “…then Mostafa started yelling he would hang all the Pahlavis upside down if he ever…”
     He stopped at a noise and looked toward the door.
     Mehti was standing in the doorway. 
     “So you’re still at it,” Mehti said. They’re all against me, the service chief thought. That anarchist Mostafa wants to incite the staff against me and ruin my life. This morning was the limit. Then all day those threatening notes in black envelopes. And Mostafa’s cynical laughing. Laughing and mocking me in front of the others. Well, this silly little waiter should know better. A phone call from me and he will get his lesson.
     He wheeled out of the kitchen without a word to the frightened Hassan who stared at the others.
     “Did he hear me?” Hassan whispered. “I wonder if he really is a police spy like they say.”
     “Mostafa swears he will get him soon,” a waiter said.
 
     Eugene sat with his back to the crowded room. English, French, Germans, Americans and Italians, businessmen, engineers and technicians, all mixed in artificial confusion, the favorite self-protection in the face of danger. It was late for Teheran. Many were smashed, the raconteurs and the listeners and the laughers alike. Iranian stories circulated - stories about experiences with the crazy Persians, work down at Bandar Abbas, the gas line to Russia, a fabulous new contract just signed by a Greek company with good contacts at Court.
     Some looked curiously at Eugene while he blew unrecognizable Alexandrian or Sicilian folk phrases into his horn. Why didn’t he go home? they wondered. The curfew had fallen over the city.
     Domenico had returned ten minutes earlier. He was surprised to find Eugene still there. He sat down on the nearby bench.
     Eugene was no longer aware of the room and its people. He had just heard about Hassan’s arrest. His world, his past and his present were settling in dust around him. It seemed it was only yesterday that he stood with his glittering clarinet in front of his orchestra, confident and secure in his silver tuxedo, the oriental corners of his eyes highlighted by make-up. The fleeting daydream images of himself as the Middle Eastern Benny Goodman were always calling to him. He had seen many things in Europe and Asia. He belonged to neither. Neither the Christianity of his Sicilian father nor the Islam of his Alexandrian mother was his. Neither Arab, nor European, nor Iranian. What, he wondered, was the difference?
     He blew his horn and his soul wandered. A soul of mysticism and hedonistic rituals, follower of the spice caravans of dreams and destiny. 
     Four brutes, the waiters said, had walked into the kitchen, and without a word first smashed Hassan’s hands to pulp, then his head, and carried him away to nothingness. Hassan’s time was up. While Eugene played the piano and sang love songs and Mehti changed his tuxedo and drove his Paykan up to his house in Abbasabad, the brutes destroyed a man.
     Eugene’s desperation escaped through the clarinet. The curfew had fallen. At the same moment he and Domenico saw Mostafa standing three paces away in the bar entrance. His fists clenched, his scarf tight around his neck, the driver grimaced in pre-eruption rage. He moved to the piano and stood over them.
     “Now who can speak of his own cheap activities supporting this façade of a government?” he said in a whisper. “Business?” he said to Domenico. “Art?” he said to Eugene. “Who dares speak of civil rights? Forget your past glory, Eugene. It’s unimportant. Forget all that shit that surrounded this whole rotten structure. Forget that genteel society. Forget your genteel entertainment for all these nice people in their Parisian fashions. Domenico, do you love my King now? My Shahinshah who just took away that lamb Hassan. In a few hours he will resemble the remains of my brother.
     “We too just want to live our lives. We know what to do now.  We’ll find Mehti at home. Safe and secure, he thinks. After ‘their curfew’ this city belongs to us. Like the countryside and the mountains belong to the people. Even the SAVAK is afraid after midnight. Tomorrow morning Mehti still won’t be dead. Maybe for days he won’t be dead. I know that torturing Mehti is not making a revolution. But we are men too. Today we are men. I’ll do this for my brother, for Hassan, for those in the photograph. No, Domenico, you don’t have to hate my King. You can simply go back to Europe. This is our war.”
     While he watched on TV the bombs fall on Kabul and the executions in the stadium, the image of one half of mankind torturing the other half passed before Domenico’s eyes, while, it seemed, the torturers tortured themselves for their own inhumanity. The Italian knew then that Mostafa had been right. He and his friends had to take care of it themselves. Allah help them.

 

©2002 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review.
See E-book Library. Email: gaitherstewart@libero.it


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