The seven sisters
Tales from the zirzameen #5
By Brian Appleton
December 14, 2002
Usually when we hear about the seven sisters and Iran, we're talking about
But this time we're talking seven sisters as in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
Iranians are capable of great acts of generosity regardless of what the motivations
may or may not be. Sometimes in pre- revolutionary Iran, I was reminded of the "Potlatch
Ceremonies", I had read about once practice by the Native Americans of the North
West coast of North America, or perhaps akin to what may have been common practice
among the Patrician class in the days of the ancient Roman Empire. You see conspicuous
spending on oneself as is so common in the West was not regarded as particularly
interesting in Iran. What bestowed great social status was conspicuous spending on
I will start illustrating my point with a small example and then work my way up.
One Persian New Years, which as you know, is the Persian "season to be Jolly"
and gift giving, we were invited to Chez Michelle at the Tehran Hilton by Uncle Mamdahli.
Uncle Mamdahli had made a fortune in the electronics retail business I believe, but
how people made their fortunes was often a mystery. He was the sort of pre-revolutionary
unchastened guy who would sooner throw away a spotted tie and buy a new one than
take it to the cleaners.
Our dinner started with champagne and Beluga caviar by the silver bucket full to
be followed by Steak-e-Paillard but I for one never got that far. I had never in
my life nor ever will again God willing, become so full of caviar that I couldn't
fit anything else. Besides I had consumed so much champagne that my head was spinning
and it was all I could do to stand up and find the agility to place one foot in front
of the other. It was a good thing that I liked caviar. Being half Norwegian, I generally
like anything that smells and tastes fishy and salty anyway including all kinds of
fish roe although some are better than others and this was definitely the best.
Once we struggled back to our car and headed it down the long hill for home on Pahlavi
Blvd, it was very late at night and the streets were deserted. For a seemingly interminable
while as my head swam and we had all the windows cranked down for air, we saw not
a creature, not a movement and heard not a sound other than our motor. Suddenly we
came up upon the largest man I have ever seen trudging down the middle of the street
in giant strides. He looked big enough to wrestle down a large bull. We were amazed
and stared at him in awe as we passed him and his figure began to recede into the
I had a friend named Pouran, who was a single mom with
a little toddler daughter. She and I were just good friends and over time became
like brother and sister. Surprising as this may be, to many readers, I often slept
over night with her and her daughter and not once did it ever occur to us that we
were anything but two genderless friends. I never touched her in anyway other than
brotherly and she even arranged for me to meet another very beautiful lady friend
of hers named Lily, whom she wanted me to date, who was another single mom with a
young daughter. Ironically Lily and I also became great platonic friends and mind
you I was dating and having sexual relationships with other women during all this
time and both Lily and Pouri knew it. I had no secrets from them.
Both Pouri and Lili came from extremely wealthy families. Even so Pouri was later
to risk her own life in a heroic and successful foray she made with two hired gunmen
to free me from a hostage situation which I found myself in the middle of the revolution
which I shall describe in a later tale. I mention this here because regular civilians
with no military training committed all kinds of acts of heroism during the Iranian
Revolution whose deeds will largely go unnoticed by the rest of humanity other than
by a few friends and relatives but I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Pouri
and will never forget her heroism even if I'm the only won who knew for these past
Sometimes Pouran would call me on the telephone at 11 o'clock at night and ask me
to hop a cab at her expense to come and watch television with her and her daughter
because she was lonely. I lived very far south in Tehran and she lived very far north
but it made no difference, she would wait for me even if it took 45 minutes more
to get there.
When I recommended that she take her daughter to Madrid to see Doctor Castro Viejo,
the man who invented the corneal transplant, for a cataract surgery, she left me
the key to her luxury apartment and car on Jordan Avenue. For a three week period,
I had the use of her apartment which was high on a hill and on the 10th floor with
a view sometimes endless and occasionally above a fog bed making it seem as if we
were in an aircraft. It was right across the street from my office to which I walked.
I have never had an experience like this in any capital or large urban center of
any other country. In fact the only time I was ever alone was when I chose to be.
This is certainly a vast difference from my experience living in NYC where after
6 years I knew fewer people than when I arrived and although it had all the bazari
and traffic congestion aspects of Tehran, it had none of the charms or generosity
except during times of crisis when New Yorkers suddenly were put back in touch with
their own humanity.
One Christmas, my American employer gave each of us a frozen turkey, tins of cranberry
sauce and a box of fruitcake. My Moslem friends were always careful to be sure that
I was never left alone on Christian holidays or on my birthday and I recall that
on this particular Christmas, Lily invited me to bring over the Turkey and trimming
to her place where she had her cook prepare a sumptuous feast and even added a few
British-isms like Yorkshire pudding. She didn't have to go to this trouble for me
at all but she wanted to.
The late Fari Eghbal (Esfandiary) once told me that her father would get lonely at
lunch even though he was surrounded by friends and family and invite over 50 friends
and guests everyday. The workmen in the street would smell the food cooking from
the kitchen windows and the servants would run food out to them at lunchtime until
finally such a long line gathered everyday that they couldn't feed them all and had
to close the shutters on the windows to keep the smell of the food from escaping.
She told me her father would also buy black slaves and set them free but because
they would be captured and taken back into slavery outside his estate, he would invite
them to become permanent house guests for the rest of their natural lives. Fari Khanoum
didn't tell me exactly how many there were but I had the impression that there were
several dozen. She came to the sad realization during the course of our conversation
that the new moneyed did not have this sense of noblesse oblige and the more "modern"
each generation became, the stingier and less likely they were to exhibit such great
acts of kindness and generosity.
It was not merely the rich who behaved this way
in Iran. I can remember early on when, one of my English students, who was an enlisted
man in the Iranian Air Force invited me to his parent's house on the weekend to have
lunch. It was in the poor part of town and they had killed their last chicken in
order to entertain me. When I came in the door, being careful to remove my shoes
at the threshold, they immediately confronted me with a pair of flannel pajamas which
they insisted I change into to be more comfortable. I was touched and of course the
other custom was to insist that your guests have second and third helpings even when
they insist they are no longer hungry.
I am reminded of one time in Izmir, Turkey when my taxi driver took both hands off
his steering wheel to turn around and suddenly dump cologne on our heads and rub
it in as an act of friendship while we went careening down the busy narrow streets.
Talk about culture shock.
At any rate, one day in the fall of 1977, we were invited to a party at a garden
outside of Tehran in the town of Karaj. It was a garden which belonged to the General
who was chief of all the police. As we approached the garden there was a long private
roadway with cypress trees on either side leading up to the house. The trees had
little twinkling lights all over them like one would expect to see at Christmas in
the West. As we taxied down the lane, my friends explained to me that this party
was being given by the General for a Jewish friend of his on the occasion of that
gentleman's daughter's wedding. In fact this was really a wedding reception. I had
never heard of a friend paying for and hosting a wedding reception for someone else's
I had met several of the general's daughters before at the Bashgah e Shahanshahi
and found them to be stunningly attractive and natural blondes but I was not aware
or prepared for the fact that he had seven grown daughters with the youngest about
17 years of age. They were all in a row in a receiving line as we came into the garden
gate on foot after a valet had taken our car. They were so gorgeous his daughters
that as I kissed each one on the cheek, I could feel myself blushing and at a loss
for wordsÖand you know me, never known to be at a loss for wordsÖ.
In the center of the garden, there was a large swimming pool featured
which was surrounded by melon sized spheres made of a mosaic of colored glass cubes
lit from within to make beautiful multi colored lanterns. I was to learn later that
one of the family traditions at these garden parties was for someone during the course
of the night to get tossed into the pool with their clothes on and tonight was no
different except that one of these electrified stain glass balls got knocked in along
with the guest during their struggle to resist. For the life of me why a guy would
resist when three or four beautiful girls were tugging on him is beyond me but anyway,
no one got hurt or electrocuted.
Two of the seven daughters escorted me around the garden since we were some of the
first guests to arrive. There were five large party tents set up at various points
where the fruit trees and flower beds gave way to grass lawns. Inside these tents
the ground was covered over by Persian carpets which looked Esfahani being mostly
light blue with stylized floral patterns. There were bolsters and legless divans
covered with pillows and low end tables covered with bowls piled high with fruit.
As the evening proceeded there were singers and musicians in some of the tents playing
tambour and lutes. It was a scene from "A Thousand and One Nights." I kept
looking round for Scheherazade but she wasn't there that night and anyway she would
have had to compete with seven beautiful sisters. I felt like I had almost died and
gone to a Moslem version of paradise the night was so perfect. The guests kept arriving
and the party went on into the wee hours of the night. We watched the moon rise and
play in and out of a few fleeting clouds and Kai Kaous and I thought it looked like
the eye of an angry dragon but then again we were stoned at the time. We watched
the moon until it began to set.
settled into one of the tents with the live music and we were sitting cross legged
on the carpets watching the musicians when suddenly a very attractive middle aged
brunette probably in her early 40's, sitting quite close to me could resist the sway
of the melody no more. Quickly rising, she started belly dancing just a few feet
in front of me. I was completely mesmerized by the impossible angle of her hips in
relation to her spine at times during the dance which looked like 90 degrees. She
was almost at right angles to herself. I think my mouth was open and I was staring
which drew her attention because the next think I knew she came right over to me
and raised her leg, bent at the knee rapidly right up one side of me then over my
head and right down the other side as she spun around and danced on for awhile only
to come back and do it about five more times. By this time I must have been drooling
like an idiot and near fainting from my repression. I damped my sweaty forehead with
a white linen handkerchief and tried to act nonchalant. It was a good thing I didn't
get up and dance with her because Kai Kaous told me later that her husband had been
staring at me angrily during this whole proceeding.
As the party wore on and the dusk began to meet the dawn, the General kept coming
around from tent to tent purporting to greet us, his guests to see if we were wanting
of anything, but he was actually trying to get a head count on all his daughters
and their whereabouts on this magic night of nights and apparently the things we
hear about the bridesmaids and the maid of honor at our wedding receptions in the
USA are also things that fathers worry about in Iran. I kept thinking how he couldn't
resist throwing this blow out party for his friends' daughter and by so doing; he
had brought this added worry upon himself. Can you imagine all you fathers out there
of what it would be like to keep tabs on seven beautiful daughters?
Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell
me to fix it.