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All the king's men

Short story

By Farrokh A. Ashtiani
October 29, 2002
The Iranian

It is August 20, 1981. This is one of those sizzling hot summer afternoons in southern Tehran. The kind of day when one wants to be in the basement of the house, fan himself and drink chilled "sekanjebeen" sherbet from that old turquoise-blue ceramic bowl and lean on a pillow and listen to a solo tar.

Not too far from Tehran's central railroad station two homeless friends, Rostam and Zoobin have been walking for hours strolling through old neighborhoods. Passing by small shops, glancing inside and moving on. At this time of the afternoon most shopkeepers are taking a nap. Businesses are at a standstill. The sun is so merciless that they feel the asphalt getting softer under their feet.

They met each other about two weeks ago in a hit and run car accident that killed Zoobin's friend. Rostam witnessed the accident across the street and spent the entire two weeks with Zoobin, who is still deeply depressed and saddened.

Before the victim's body was removed from the street, cars kept passing by and in a symbolic gesture the drivers tossed some pocket change out of their car windows into the street to protect themselves against evil eyes.

The sad thing was that Zoobin's friend was blind in his left eye and did not see the car coming when he attempted to cross the busy street. The car hit him before he could react; his innocent blood painted the street.

Together they have been strolling along. Every day around this time they smell food from small windows leading to the kitchens of houses one after another. A lady from a house down the koucheh came out and offered them some food to eat, as she has on several occasions.

They finished the food, drank the water and left. By now Zoobin was ready to find a shady corner and take a nap. He was suffering from a lung disease. Last winter he used to hang around the bus terminal to keep warm by standing behind the exhaust pipe of double-deck buses. Now he had to stop from time to time and catch his breath.

They reached a small park. They went under a sycamore tree and sat down. It was so much better in the shade. They could almost feel a little breeze. Several crows were on top of the trees complaining about something. It was a small park, but with a good collection of trees. There were several birches, pines, poplars, elms and even some fruit trees.

Zoobin's eyes were almost open but one could not tell if he was awake or not. Soon he fell asleep. Rostam was lying down on the grass and looking at a long line of ants climbing the smooth surface of the sycamore tree. In parallel, a single-file army of ants was coming down the tree! He was wondering why such traffic? Where were all these ants going and why in opposite directions? Before he could find any answer he fell asleep. But he could still hear the crows and sparrows. Every few minutes he would have to swat at the flies sitting on his nose. For a short moment life was peaceful.

Half an hour passed and the short snooze really felt good. They could hear the fountain in the center of the park and birds singing. They provided much needed peace and comfort. An old man was at the fountain with his sleeves rolled up, washing his hands and preparing for the afternoon prayer.

Rostam turned around and while yawning asked Zoobin: "Tell me something. Have you always been this poor? Or have you seen better days? I didn't ask you this before, but now I'm curious."

"Well, I've had my share of a better life. When my parents died all I remember is that I was given to an American family who lived in upper part of the city -- in Darband. They took me in as an orphan -- and also as someone who would play with their children. Life was good. They would take me to places, and everyone treated me with kindness."

"Raised in an American home? Why did you leave? What happened?" asked Rostam with his eyes wide open.

"I didn't leave. The Revolution was about to happen and the American family had to leave Iran. This was the saddest day of my life. I never forget how for days they were contemplating what to do with me. Legally they could not take me along out of the country. Plus, there was so much confusion those days that they had no choice but to leave me behind. Finally, one of their closest friends volunteered to give me shelter in exchange for me watching their house -- what a God-given relief."

Zoobin continued: "My new family was headed by one of the top military officers, General Shahparast and his wife. Their children were students in England. His last name meant king-worshiper. Only the husband and wife and their maid and a security guard lived in their beautiful northern Tehran house in Manzarieh. It had many rooms, a large front and a backyard and huge swimming pool. They also had two cats that befriended me very fast. I was in high heaven. While I was settling down, my American family left Iran," said Zoobin with a deep sadness in his eyes.

"This sounds so interesting. I didn't even dream you were from the upper class! Was the General active during the revolution?" Asked Rostam eagerly.

"Well, the General was one of the highest rank and file army officers in the country. About two weeks before the Shah left the country I remember there were lots of traffic in General Shahparast's house. Many army officers would come and go and a few foreigners as well. When I was in my room, I could clearly hear them talking about whether they should secretly organize and unify certain parts of the loyal military to defend the country against the uprisings, riots and unrest. Lots of back and forth discussions, arguments, phone calls, whispers and you name it. It appeared that the General had made up his mind. Despite other officers' call for action General kept telling them 'it's beyond our control. There is not much we can do, the decisions are already made for this country.' I wasn't sure if I understood everything. But my senses were telling me that some visiting officers wanted to stage a military coup to not only save the country but to protect the Shah. Yet Shah had already received the ultimatum from the British and the Americans that his time was up. Some of the officers were hoping there would be a way to save the country. Nonetheless, the more those officers tried to exert pressure the more General Shahparast seemed leaning towards yielding to the will of the superpowers. Among the few foreigners who came to visit him there were two British diplomats who advised him not to jeopardize his own and his family's lives. They made it clear to him that all decisions for Iran has already been made in the Guadeloupe meeting between President Carter, Margaret Thatcher and rest of the allied western countries to turn the clock back in Iran. It was a "package deal," and the Iranian people had no voice or say in its content. The agents could have not been more specific in their statements to the General. I was hiding under the dinning table hearing all of this."

Zoobin paused for a second, and cleaned tears from his eyes and while staring at the line of the ants climbing the sycamore tree he continued: "Few days later a General Hoiser, a US military officer came to Iran to visit with the Shah. He accompanied Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Iran. The Shah received them at the Sahebgharanieh Palace. There, on that day, they told the ailing King of the Kings, Shahanshah, the so-called 'Beloved Arya'mehr', that his time was up. He was advised that as of that day the entire world favors another man in another uniform along with his clan. The Shah should not resist or create a bloodbath. The king was implicitly dethroned on that day just like many other kings in the recent Iranian history. That was the day the Anglo-American staged another coup against Iran, but this time it was in the name of god and his favorite servants the British Petroleum, Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Conoco and Texaco. A political rape, a silent requiem for an empire that once she was." Zoobin became silent and appeared to be in deep thought.

"Man, I had no idea! You were in the heart of the action. Are you sure you aren't pulling my leg? Is this what they teach in history classes today?" Exclaimed Rostam like a curious child listening to a bedtime fairytales from lands far away.

While pulling grass off the city park lawn Zoobin responded, "Perhaps thirty years from now they'll hear and read the truth at schools, when it has no practical value. Written history is no more than insult to those who have witnessed it, twisted truth in accordance with time."

Rostam enthusiastically said: "Oh, please continue, what happened next in that house?"

"Well, the last meeting that I recall between General Shahparast and some of his friends wound up to be nothing more than a somber, sad and yet pivotal turn of the events for the worse in Iran. General Shahparast clearly advised his colleague to seek the best for themselves. Save their families and detach them from the Shah's circle. Every man for himself. "The Shah is finished!" he advised them. This was despite insistence by many younger officers to fight off the enemy within, and try to save Iran from the fall into darkness of cultural regression."

"How sad. So the General literally sold his country and his boss trying to save his own ass?" Asked Rostam.

"Well, yes, but he wasn't alone. He was just going with the flow," growled Zoobin.

"You know, Zoobin, I once met an old man who told me that it's all because of oil. He said, 'There are two solutions for Iran's decades-old problems, one is to get rid of its oil, and the other is to hope the British Isles sink in the ocean!' I am not sure what he meant exactly, but it sounds reasonable."

Zoobin nodded "Yup, that's the best scenario but you need to realize that there are many Iranians who offer another angle and believe there is no conspiracy and every misery that happens to any nation is a self-inflected and that destiny is propelled by actions of none other than our own."

"So then what happened?" asked Rostam.

"Well, for the next few weeks, the General just stayed home isolated and went to his private room on the roof of the house and smoked opium. His wife hated him for smoking opium and this battle had gone on since they were married. Those last few days General Shahparast was kind to me. One evening in the garden, he called me and told me to sit next to him. He told me in private, that it was a direct order from the British Embassy given to him through one of his Freemason friends, who was a clergyman and became a powerful man after the revolution. The message was to the extent that he better stop 'taking bites bigger than his mouth'. And not to interfere with the decisions that have already been made."

"God, he must have felt very lonely, to open his guts to you and tell you such things," said Rostam.

"Yes, even more than I realized. He knew he was betraying his country, his boss and his friends and family. He sold his country."

"How sad. What is a man in military uniform? He is paid and fed for years so that one day he may be called to defend his country. Otherwise, what's the distinction between a scarecrow and a military officer?" Rostam snared philosophically.

"Well, only three weeks after the Shah left the country voluntarily, a close friend came to the General and told him in private that he better get out of the country, or hide. This made the General completely paranoid. In the final night, just shortly after midnight I heard some noises near the front door. I jumped off the bed and rushed to the door and saw several armed men coming into the house. I started yelling and attacked one of the men. He hit me in the back with his rifle. I could barely breathe, and despite the excruciating pain I managed to grab him on his neck and slashed his throat with my bare hands."

"Weren't you scared?" asked Rostam with disbelief.

"Damn right I was scared. But I was defending my boss. I was fighting for my home. There was no alternative. That was my job."

"But how come the General himself did not protect his own boss?" asked Rostam. "In a way you were better than he was! You did more for Iran."

"I just did my job. But before I could kill the man, another one shot me in the leg with his pistol. Look right here." Zoobin showed the scar. "I fell down in a pool of blood. Then the men rushed into the house and started searching for the General. His wife came out crying and begging the men to believe her that her husband was not home and that he left the country days ago. But the men knew better. They had inside information that he was still in Iran and inside his residence. After an hour of searching everywhere, they finally found him hidden inside the doghouse, in the backyard. He was wearing his pajama, carrying a pack of cigarette and a matchbook in his pocket and 675,000 British pounds wrapped around him like a bulletproof vest and disguised under his clothes. Being winter and so cold, he wrapped himself in a blanket hiding inside the doghouse!" said Zoobin with a nervous twitch in his eyes.

"What a damn shame! How far down can a General go to end up hiding inside a doghouse?"

"Well, sadly that was his choice. They arrested him and took him away."

"Did you hear from him again?"

"The next day we heard he was among many other military officers found guilty during a summary trial by the Revolutionary Court of the Interim Government and put in front of a fire squad."

"What was he charged for?"

"'Enemy of Islam,' 'Promoting Corruption on Earth' and many other charges that I don't recall. None of charges was for 'protecting Iran and the Shah!' We knew he certainly wasn't guilty of those charges," growled Zoobin.

"What a sad way to die. He almost became a martyr in the circle of others like himself who betrayed Iran. Was this his punishment or reward, I wonder?" said Rostam.

"Good point. But I think the General and many of his associates should have fought for their country. Their names would have gone into history in a different way," said Zoobin

"I agree with you. Well, this may be a lesson. But tell me, Zoobin, how did you wind up to be homeless?"

"Well, few days after they took the General and executed him, five different families occupied the house. They expelled General's wife and did not let her take anything from the house. She ended up in a mental institution a month later and committed suicide. Few days later I went by the house quietly to take a look. I peeked into the house and saw five goats and several sheep grazing in the yard eating the once well-kept lawn and the flowerbeds. Gone were the irises and gladiolas. This by itself could have led the General's wife to commit suicide. The General's house was now partially a stable, thanks to the Revolution. This was an equal opportunity for everyone in form of a divine communism yet maintaining all the elements of free enterprise system, which meant you could hoard cartons of cigarettes and wait a week and sell them ten times the price!" growled Zoobin sarcastically.

"So, that's what happened?" asked Rostam with his eyes fixed at a point far away.

"Yes. The more I tried to find a home in the neighborhood, the less I became successful. I started drifting from one street to another. Sleeping in those cold dark winter nights of the revolution under bridges, inside city buses, behind bakeries anywhere I could spend the nights. Most of my days were spent in search of food." Said Zoobin with deep sadness in his eyes.

"But what about you Rostam? How did you end up here?" asked Zoobin.

"Oh, I was born a poor. My mother was a homeless in this part of Tehran. She slept in the streets, basically with the same quality of life as mine today. She met my father the same way. I never met my father. But my mother raised me and showed me how to look after myself. She died six month after the revolution." Finally on a dark rainy night soldiers came and took her away. I never saw her again." Rostam wiped tears from his eyes.

"How sad Rostam, we better be very careful. Soldiers will come for us sooner or later. We can't continue being homeless very long." Said Zoobin.

"It will come when it will come, what have we got to lose, Zoobin?"


The two friends got up, shook the leaves off their bodies and started the rest of their journey to nowhere in particular. Their main concern was to keep moving, not to sleep in one place more than a night, and avoid humans as much as possible. This country had the most beautiful cats and the most oppressed dogs. This was the story of two dogs, desperately fighting for their lives. Two dogs that have seen better days. But now they were nothing more than two untouchables, "Sageh Najes."

Only a week later, animal control agents caught up with them in an alley. The phone call came from one of the houses. In the pitch-dark night the agents came armed with rifles. They approached Zoobin and Rostam, two poor homeless dogs. While they were asleep in an abandoned shag behind a garage holding their heads between their paws and probably dreaming of the good days gone by. This was the last night for two dogs that knew too much!

Two muffled shots were fired at them. The bullets were poison spears used to kill animals. The city guaranteed a better living environment for the people in the community and the district. They have planted flowers and trees here and there. They also wanted to make sure they eradicate the city of stray dogs, the menace to the society. When they picked up Zoobin's body to dump it in the garbage truck, they noticed he had a dog collar with a silver plaque attached. On that plaque it was carved: "This is Zoobin, if found please phone 65-0-63 General Shahparast's residence. There will be a big reward."

The lady in the koucheh was waiting for the dogs at noon for several days to feed them. Eventually she gave up.

Rostam never got the opportunity to find out why do so many ants climb the trees while many others rush down? What was all that traffic for? Can an ant be as patriotic as a dog? What does a man in uniform stand for?

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By: Farrokh A. Ashtiani


Persian Paradise




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