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Warmth and grace
Monir Farmanfarmaian's memoir

June 12, 2007

Excerpt from A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Zara Houshmand. "An enchanting love story, a compelling portrait of the creative spirit, and a celebration of the warmth and grace of Iranian culture, A Mirror Garden is also a genuine fairy tale whose exuberant heroine has never needed rescuingófor by embracing experience, she has always charmed her own life." There will be a party/ reading/ booksigning for the launch of the book at The Corner Book Store, 1313 Madison Avenue (at 93rd Street) in New York on Thursday, June 14 at 6pm. In addition there is a reading at BookPeople, at 6th and Lamar in Austin, Texas, on Saturday June 30, at 3pm.

Chapter Twenty
The car was inching around Tajrish Square through a traffic jam of proportions that would prove prophetic. In 1958, the behemoth that Tehran would become had not yet swallowed this suburb in the foothills of the Alborz mountains. The weekend picnics spread on carpets beside the roads leading out of the square, complete with samovars and kebabs over smoking charcoal, had not yet become stubborn islands in a rising sea of exhaust fumes, and the melted snow still ran fast under Tajrish bridge, with only a few melon rinds bobbing in the froth. But that day, the traffic in the square was as slow as glue, and I had time to take in every detail, from the white-capped mountains looming above, to the brightly colored hills of fruit in the greengrocers' that fronted the small bazaar. On the upper balcony of a building that jutted into one corner of the square, something caught my eye: a warrior astride a white horse looked down from a large painting to the bustle below. I asked the driver, Mostafa, to pull over.

"Impossible, Khanom, we can't stop here," said Mostafa. A chorus of horns blasted confirmation.

"Then go around the square and stop at that building," I pointed. Our detour allowed time for his suspicions to gel, and he asked what I wanted there. "I want to go upstairs."

"Impossible, Khanom. You can't go up there. That's a coffeehouse." I might as well have asked to drop in at a brothel. Mostafa took it for granted that his job description included taking personal responsibility for the family honor. He was only the first of several drivers who, being the man in the car, were tested by my disregard for boundaries when curiosity stirred. But where the others would squirm, torn between manly concern for my virtue and respect for my authority as employer, Mostafa bossed me around like a junior wife. It didn't take me long, though, to figure out that the same cockiness made him a ready accomplice once he realized there was no stopping me.

"So what if it is a coffeehouse?" I said.

As I climbed the stairs, the smell of tobacco smoke, lamb fat, and stale sweat met me halfway. A young man carrying a greasy tray of empty abgusht pots shoved past me on his way down, mumbling a curse. I approached the manager at his post near the top of the stairs, greeted him politely, and asked if I could look at the painting on the balcony. He seemed surprised. He grunted something to the boy behind him who was filling a row of hubble-bubble pipes with charcoal, heaved himself out from behind his desk, and led me across the room. As I walked through the maze of tables, the din of voices subsided suddenly. Tea glasses hung in midair as all eyes followed me.

On the balcony I examined the painting. It was primitive but powerful. The broad-shouldered hero with flaring mustache and forked beard was no doubt Rostam, the epic warrior whose strength upheld the throne of king after king, and whose tragedy was to kill his son unwittingly in single combat. He sat in perfect proportion on a white steed defined by curves that coiled with energy. In the background, devoid of any perspective except that of imagined history, were a few loyal riders and foot soldiers. Their wide eyesóand Rostam's own sad, distant stareóseemed to gather up all the glowering of those male eyes that had followed me across the room and discharge their energy on the plains of legend.

"Will you sell this?" I asked the manager.

"No, Khanom, this is a painting for the people." I had recognized as much, but he explained it from his point of view: "The people see it and they come to the coffeehouse."

"I'm a person too, just like those people." I meant it sincerely. Hadn't the painting drawn me here? "If you're willing to sell it, I'll buy it and you can use the money to get another one."

He wouldn't sell, and the painting hung above the square for many more years. But he did give me directions to another coffeehouse where more such paintings could be found. One coffeehouse led to another, and over endless glasses of teaótea was the only drink ever served; the name "coffee house" must have stuck from an earlier timeóI began to learn about these "paintings for the people."

The oldest were said to date from the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the layers of grime that gathered on them in the smoke-filled rooms made even the new ones quickly look old. The paintings illustrated scenes from Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh, ancient stories that stirred the pride of every Iranian. Professional storytellers had made the paintings come alive, reciting the epic in a sonorous chant to an audience gathered for an evening at the coffeehouse. Religious stories were also paintedóthe martyrdom of Hossein and his family at Kerbala, or the torments awaiting sinners at the final judgment. These too were recounted with much emotion poured out by both storyteller and listeners. Timeless events were cast as fresh news: you could often recognize the features of Reza Shah in the grimace of hell's gatekeeper, stirring a boiling pot of sinnersóor else those same familiar features appeared on a sinner's face in the pot, depending on the artist's political persuasion.

Sometimes the storytellers performed outside the coffeehouses, moving to a public square or the entrance to the bazaar for a broader audience that included women and children. For these street performances the paintings were rendered on loose canvas, called a pardeh, or screen, and hung from two sticks held up by assistants. A curtain would veil the image until the storyteller dramatically flipped it over the back to announce the beginning of his tale.

With the advent of radio, professional storytellers fell out of favor, and coffeehouse paintings were seen as old-fashioned. Eventually television would deal the final blow, and the old canvases were junked or picked up for a pittance by antique dealers. In their stead, a framed photograph might take pride of place in the coffeehouse, perhaps of the Shah or often of Takhti, the wrestling champion who had caught the country's imagination, the new Rostam.

But at the time I first became aware of the paintings in 1958, the earliest television broadcasts had just begun from a single private station, and artists were still painting the stories in the old way. The paintings were commissioned by the coffeehouse owners, who would also choose the subjects. The artist, and perhaps an assistant, would sleep in a corner of the coffeehouse for the duration of the job. In addition to offering a roof, the coffeehouse owner paid for the paint and canvas, provided food, and ensured a supply of cigarettes and opium. The artist would not negotiate a fee, but could generally expect a donation.

As I scoured the city in search of these paintings, I soon realized that no one would sell to a woman in the unwaveringly male environment of the coffeehouses. So I would make an initial visit to scout the scene, under cover in a chador and escorted by Mostafa, who took some pride in his new role as art critic; then I would send Mostafa back alone to negotiate.

Once we got word that there were six or seven especially beautiful paintings in a coffeehouse near the Sepahsalar mosque. Soon we were sipping tea, whispering across the table with a wink here, a nod there. I fumbled awkwardly with the tea glass as I tried to keep the chador in place with one hand.

"Mostafa, what about the one behind me, how does it look?"

"It's interesting, Khanom, but you have to judge it yourself."

I stole a glance over my shoulder. Rostam had a stranglehold on the throat of a div. The monster's plaster-white skin was pocked with pustules, his eyes popping from their sockets, his tongue protruding fearsomely. I turned back to face a man looming over our table, leering at me. His clothes were smeared with white plaster. He slammed his huge mason's hand down on the table and said to Mostafa, "Get up, man, it's my turn with her." Mostafa rose without an instant's hesitation, as if his moment had finally arrived.

"Who are you talking to?" As he squared his shoulders I fled, pulling the chador tight across my face and mumbling through it that I would head for my mother's house. I ran across the street and hailed a taxi.

Half an hour later, Mostafa showed up at my mother's door with a proud grin under the blood that was streaming from his nose: "Khanom, you got me into a good fight!" I fussed over his wounds as my mother groaned over my ill-conceived disguise. I had forgotten to remove my makeup. A chador worn with lipstick and eye shadow was anything but a signal of modesty; it was the normal advertisement for a prostitute.

Eventually the collection grew to nearly sixty paintings, though both my own family and Abol's criticized me mercilessly for wasting money on this "garbage that smells of opium." Two artists figured especially prominently in the collection, Hossein Ghollar Aghassi and Mohammad Modaber. Both had earned a considerable reputation as coffeehouse painters in Tehran, but to my eyes Modaber was the better. (It was he who had done the paintings at the coffeehouse near Sepahsalar Mosque.) When I heard about an exceptionally large pardeh that he had painted, I immediately sent Mostafa to the owner to make an offer, sight unseen. He refused to sell it. I went myself and begged him. In all my searching, I had never seen such a masterly work. It was more than five meters wide, divided into small panels that portrayed, in sequence, the complete story of the martyrdom at Kerbala. The story unfolded in passionate detail with a surrealistic vision of the universe emanating from this core of the Shi'ite faith.

The owner was a deeply religious man and feared to see the painting fall into the hands of an unbeliever. I myself feared that if it ever got into the hands of a dealer, believer or not, it would soon be sold out of the country. For a year I tried sincerely, over and over, to win his trust with every angle I could think of. It was no use. Finally, I realized that I would have to lie, even if I boiled in hell in the same pot as Reza Shah. My sister Sediqeh, who was bound to a wheelchair by then, agreed to back up my story. I told him that I had vowed to donate the painting to a shrine in hopes that my prayers for Sediqeh's recovery would be answered. At this he finally agreed to sell. The painting was mine, the particular shrine became vague, and poor Sediqeh stayed in her wheelchair. What will happen in hell remains to be seen. Comment


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