A “White Christmas” life
December 15, 2005
The more I age the more impressed I become with those who show simple humanity, not status, not piety, not saintliness, just pure and simple humanity.
Zia, my grandfather, was such a person; he was simply a quiet, kind man who enjoyed the company of others. His life reflected his outgoing and receptive attitude. He was the son of Ostad Akaschi Mokhtari, an early photographer in Tehran. In his childhood, during the early 1920’s, he would frequently stop by the Music Academy and look through the windows and listen to the wonderful sounds emanating from within. He was eventually asked to come in and became a student of the Academy. His instrument of choice, however, was unusual for Iran, he chose the piano. He was a contemporary and a friend of the pianist, Maroofi. After his graduation he was a practicing musician and eventually became the conductor of Tehran Radio’s Youth Orchestra. He composed several songs and authored the music text books for the schools.
Visiting Zia was always a pleasant escape from the turmoil in my own household and the meaningless constraints and expectations. The drive to the old Entezam-al-Saltaneh district of Tehran was a journey from one world to another. As we turned into his tree lined street it was as though we were entering a tunnel. The Elm trees would reach across and touch in an overhead canopy of green with the golden sunshine filtering through to the asphalt below. I would get out of the car and use the heavy claw knocker on the garden door to announce our arrival. Zia always greeted us with a “bah, bah, khosh amadid!” (Well, well, welcome!) And give us his signature gentle guttural laugh.
After the large wooden doors were closed we would find ourselves in a small garden full of roses and pansies around an ornamental pool and fountain with lots of goldfish. We would then be invited into the three story house and upon entering the corridor would hear a symphony of canary song. Zia loved canaries and on each landing had a bamboo cage with a little nest attached that he would lovingly fill with cotton wool for the nesting pair of the golden birds. He could not pass a cage without conversing with the canaries and ultimately soliciting a song or two.
Downstairs facing the garden was the reception room. In the fifties Zia was also the general manager of Auto Iran and had an ashtray in the shape of a tire in every room. Once the tea had been served and the conversations had been exhausted and everyone had left, he would say “let’s go to the other room.” There were two other rooms that he favored, this one on the first floor held a piano and a large painting of lions on the Serengeti Plain above it and the room above it, overlooking the street held an assortment of divans, chairs and a large Phillips radio. Where ever he sat to read or to play backgammon with his close friends, there had to be music.
Zia loved and encouraged me to explore the possibilities of the piano and the radio. He would allow me to range back and forth across the keys or the dial. He would exclaim “that’s a doh” or “la” or “that’s Berlin Radio” or “that is Tchaikovsky” or “Scheherazade”or “Golpayegani.” Where as my own music lessons on the dulcimer were regimented and stressful, Zia encouraged exploration and cultivated a love and joy of music as an entertainment art. During winter visits we would sit around a Korsee (quilt covered low table with hot coals underneath) and eat pomegranate sprinkled with marjoram, drink hot sweet tea and listen to the radio announce “Inja Tehran, Radio Iran” (Here is Tehran, Radio Iran). During the summer visits we would listen to music in the room upstairs and look down on the quiet shady street.
At about noon I would hear a cry in the distance, “Alaska, Alaska” I would look down the street and see the old man with the enormous Thermos on his back past the trees, heading in our directions. “Alaska, Alaska” he would yell and the kids would appear from various doorways. Zia would see me glancing in his direction and with a belly laugh would say “Dear boy, here” and hand me a silver coin. I would go running down the stairs and out the garden door and wait for the old man under the elm tree beneath the window. He would stop, yell out “Alaska, Alaska” and swing the Thermos over to his front, slowly turn the giant cork stopper, reach in and hand me a vanilla popsicle in exchange for the coin. Zia would be watching with amusement from the window above and would laugh and say “Hala, bia too” (now come on in).
My last visit to my grandfather was in the summer of 1959. I was eleven and anticipating a move to England and my parents separation. Zia wanted me to accompany him to Auto Iran. He backed the Peugeot out of the garage, rolled down the corrugated garage door, got back into the car and we began heading toward the heart of the city. He turned on the radio and began humming with the music. We drove on past the old government buildings and the old military parade grounds and finally parked in front of the showroom.
I looked forward to visiting his show room. Here I knew I could see the latest American cars and receive the glossy brochures. Zia would let me sit at his desk and cut out the colorful photos of cars and arrange them in various formations all over the large desk. On this slow business day, after several cups of tea and cookies, he suddenly turned to me and said “let’s go somewhere special”. We walked out of the show room and down the block to the very large and ornate movie theater. “White Christmas” was Zia’s type of story. A simple love story with lots of music, I spent more time watching the thrill on his face than the movie. As we drove back to his house he had some new tunes to hum, tunes that I hear now at every Christmas season and with them I remember my last day with my grandfather.
Zia passed away in 1978 at the age of 73. There were some pious, self righteous individuals who spoke of his partying and drinking as a young musician. What I knew of Zia was the love and the warmth and the joy that I felt in his presence. He was not religiously devout but he showed a great deal of humanity to his friends and family. How I deal with my sons and grandson is mainly what I remember about how I was treated by my grandfather in the few years that I knew him. My warm memories of Iran end with my last visit with Zia and ironically are renewed each year with “White Christmas”.