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The seven sisters

Tales from the zirzameen #5

By Brian Appleton
December 14, 2002
The Iranian

Usually when we hear about the seven sisters and Iran, we're talking about Petroleum.

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 others.

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 distance.

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 21 years.

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 daughter before.

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.

I 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.

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By Brian Appleton






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