The neighborhood paassebaan
He's friendly. Until ...
By Siamack Salari
October 13, 1999
I hope I never forget that summer day in 1975. The Shah was planning
to visit Mashhad and the Hyatt Hotel had been booked out from weeks before
by the palace entourage. Shah fever was everywhere. An exciting buzz had
descended over my little corner of the city.
I was ten years old at the time and on holiday from the UK, staying
with my grandmother (who lived directly opposite my other grandmother on
my father's side) at the farthest corner of Bagh-e Naderi (I believe it
was Nader Shah's Mausoleum which also served as a small museum and park).
Mammad Agha, the local convenience store owner, had stuck posters of
the Shah all over his small shop. Every time I asked him why he had so
many pictures up I would receive a short lecture on all the wonderful things
the Shah had done for Iran during his reign. He would also tell me how
the gardeners/caretakers of Bagh-e Naderi were particularly anxious because
our monarch had criticized the state of the shrubbery and flowers around
the mausoleum on a previous visit. They were determined to impress and
delight him with their blooms.
A local molla and Mammad Agha would sit on uncomfortable wooden chairs
in the shadow of my grandmothers house, on the pavement, sipping tea and
discuss this immensely important visit. The paassebaan, our local police
officer - a short, pudgy and very friendly man - would occasionally join
them and explain the route which he believed the Shah's limousine was going
Soghra, my grandmother's servant, often took us on visits to the haram
(Imam Reza shrine). Around the harram stall holders would try to sell you
everything from Korans to flick knives incorporating knuckle dusters. We
stopped every time so she could catch up on gossip with a friend. The subject
would always be the Shah. During one conversation, they discussed the pressure
our local paassebaan was under and how hard he had been working -- in fact,
how hard all the municipal workers had been working. I too had noticed
this policeman getting more and more agitated. He had not smiled too often
and appeared distracted.
Mammad Agha told me that God himself had saved the Shah from previous
assassination attempts but that didn't mean that the police worked any
less harder to ensure his security. I decided that he had been charged
with making sure that absolutely nothing went wrong on the day on his patch,
outside my grandmother's house. If anything did go wrong, I thought, he
would be made to pay in some horrible way. To me, our paassebaan was the
most important single figure responsible for the Shah's safety during his
visit to Posht-e Bagh-e Naderi.
The all important day arrived. The paassebaan knocked on our door and
asked my grandmother not to leave her house after two in the afternoon.
The Shah and his cavalcade were going to be coming past at three. He was
friendly and polite but to the point; there was none of his usual small
talk. My sister and I decided to go across the road to my other grandmother's
house and watch the Shah's car from her first floor balcony. She went at
noon and I followed after I had finished my lunch half an hour later.
As I stepped outside the house ready to cross the road to the other
house the psassebaan grabbed my arm. It was as if he didn't recognize me
and his small fat face was covered in sweat. He knew that I was following
my sister to my grandmothers house: "Yek zang bezan va beshmor taa
seh, agar kassi nayaamad bodo bargard injaa..." (Ring the buzzer once,
if no one answers, run right back here ..." He sounded very, very
agitated and for once was not smiling at all. I cheekily kept my finger
on the buzzer until Soghra opened the door.
From the balcony view I could see two or three people standing and talking
-- one holding his bicycle -- while the paassebaan paced nervously back
and fourth, making sure nobody walked through his make shift roadblock
onto the road surrounding Bagh-e Naderi. The road block was unexpected.
I asked my grandmother why the roads had been blocked and was told that
the Shah didn't want crowds getting too close to him.
I could hear one old lady pleading with the paassebaan to let her through
because she had a letter she wanted to give to the Shah. He shouted at
her, telling her to shut up - "Khafeh sho!". We were taken aback
by his sudden snap of anger. We later discovered the letter contained a
plea for money and a small house for an old widow. It had been penned by
Shortly after, a lady wearing a chador walked up to the roadblock, the
door to her house, she explained politely, was only ten meters away and
she wanted to get home. The paassebaan would have none of it. We watched
as she put her shopping down and started shouting at him that it wasn't
even 1:00 p.m. and that the cavalcade was not even expected for another
two hours. He looked the other way and ignored her. She continued to shout
and raised her voice even further, walking around to face him.
I remember turning towards my grandmother to see how she was reacting
the scene unfolding below us. I turned my head down in time to see the
once smiley and chatty paassebaan land a tremendous punch on the middle-aged
lady's jaw. She hit the ground like a sack of potatoes and fell onto her
bag of shopping which went all over the street. Everyone froze. No one
tried to help her up. Everyone was rooted to the spot as we tried to make
sense of what we had just seen. As she had hit the ground her chador had
blown off revealing her face. My grandmother immediately recognized her
as a well-liked neighbor. She picked herself up and still trembling, lightly
pressed the top of her head to see if she was bleeding. The paassebaan
continued as if nothing had happened.
This incident shocked my sister and I to the core. Neither of us had
seen two adults come to blows let alone a man strike a woman. Also, we
never got to see the Shah's car. In fact we didn't see any car go past
until after 5:00 p.m. when the road blocks were lifted and people took
to their cars again.
The mood in Posht-e Bagheh Naderi was subdued for days to come. Mammad
Agha told me later that he had been disgusted at the paassebaan's behavior.
He knew the punched lady and told me that she was sporting a large bruise
on the right side of her face. No one complained to the Kalaantari; everyone
pretended it had never happened and I was forbidden to talk about it at
dinner parties and in restaurants. The paassebaan continued to patrol the
streets around my grandmother's houses but I never saw him talk to Mammad
Agha or sip tea with the molla again.
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