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Tales from the zirzameen
Story # 3: The man who would be King

By Brian H. Appleton
September 5, 2002
The Iranian

How many mansions hath the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes I marveled at how many secret alleys and bi-ways and worlds within worlds, like a labyrinth Tehran was... In 1974, I could and did spend days wandering around the bazaar, or around Vanak... hidden gardens, hidden orchards, hidden museums, hidden mosques... hidden palaces, hidden clubs like the French Club right off of Meydune Ferdowsi.

Kuches with strange names like Kuche Bou Ali in Dezashib.... or beautiful names like Behesht and Bahar or Golemohammadi... And always the water running in the jubes on each side of the street from the top of the city to the bottom to finally disappear out into the desert's quenchless sand, flushing the city clean all day and night long, with a gentle sound of trickling water always in the background when you stopped what you were doing or saying for a moment to listen for it...

There was even a café on Takht-e-Jamshid called the Havarti Café, I believe, which had a fern grotto and waterfall inside it. You could step in out of the heat, the hustle and the bustle of traffic and noise and there inside was this quiet secret little world. There were other magical restaurants like this as well such as Xanadu and Serena, the latter had a big buffet and then you carried your plate out into a fairyland of a garden with landscape lighting softly up lighting the bushes and trees and fountains quietly making it dreamlike in the moonlight....

In spring I can remember seeing crocuses and wild irises pushing up through the snow....or the rare treat of an early morning visit from dark brown wooly two humped Bactrian camels sporting their winter coats, loaded with produce down from the mountains with their merchants as opposed to the usual one humped dromedaries one would see roving in wild herds in the desert.

In autumn I was blessed in the afternoons by a visit from a flock of itinerant jade green Indian Ring Neck parrots making their rounds about the neighborhood. Arriving on the pine tree level with my patio at about the same time every day, they would raucously ransack the pine cones pulling out the pine nuts with their long beaks and crack them open for the meat inside.

Often I would spend all day just wandering about on foot exploring, coming across strange things like the Vatican Consulate or the carpet museum... the Archeological Museum, with it's Lurestan Bronze figurines, the Crown Jewels and the Peacock Thrown with capes made completely of seed pearls or the Kooh-e-Nur and Darya-Nur diamonds, truly amazing diamonds with fitting names. I must have spent an hour looking into "The Sea of Light".

Another time I found the Zur Khaneh in south Tehran and I had a go at the medicine clubs myself. On my first visit at age 16, in 1966, my friend Touss had introduced me to Ilti, who was the light weight boxing champion of Iran. Ilti had learned to box because he had grown tired of Touss picking on him when they were kids together. I worked out that summer with Ilti at his gym and he started teaching me how to box. After the lesson, we used to walk down the street and flirt with girls right in front of their boyfriends without consequence because they all knew who Ilti was.

Now that I was living in Tehran in 1974, I started studying Kung Fu and Tai Kwan Do with an Iranian Air Force lieutenant whose avocation was martial arts. His little house in an obscure part of town was mysterious. From the moment you stepped inside, you were in China. A little bird cage with rice finches softly tweeting caught your attention first and Chinese music quietly played in the background somewhere and there was Ali doing Tai Chi out in his little courtyard. It was so unexpected. As my eyes adjusted to this shadow world I could see Chinese wall hangings with their characteristic tall hills and peaks and mist dwarfing the tiny huts and tiny mule team in the foreground trying to put man in his proper place in the scheme of nature and the universe.

Somehow I found in Tajreesh, a mosque of Sufis who welcomed me and my girlfriend with open arms. As we entered into the mosque an old man sitting in the entryway pressed money into our hands. This was the first and only time I have ever been given money for going into a house of worship rather than having to part with it. The women unveiled would sit on the floor on one side of the prayer hall and the men would sit on the floor on the other but we were within sight of each other and I never felt such a sense of brother and sisterhood as I did there.

One day I discovered the Golestan Palace, another day the Negarestan Museum filled with miniature portraits of Qajar princes and princesses who looked exactly like their present day descendants: the family I was getting to know who, were the pretenders to the former thrown.

The first time I had been to Tehran when I was 16, I had paid a visit to my friend's cousin's palace in an old part of town near the bazaar. The little back alleys were too small to drive a car through and the narrow little door way belied the splendor which lay hidden within. Once inside there was a beautiful garden with real Greek and Roman statues surrounding a long rectangular fountain with a little moss covered island in the middle, from which issued a jet of water.

In the reflecting pool a small wood duck completely golden in color swam about. We were greeted by three white Pyrenees dogs on the way into the house and once inside I was shown what looked like colorful Persian carpets framed behind glass on the walls of the salon. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be carpet like patterns made up completely of matching butterflies which Dadush's father and four uncles had collected from all around the world. I had never beheld anything like this before or again... and last but not least that day I was introduced to a cool summer drink made of blenderized Persian melon and crushed ice.

This was my first encounter with the former royal dynasty. There were tall Lombardy poplars bordering the gardens shimmering silver to green in the breeze and one could hear the cooing of doves. The servants told me a fable that these were thought to be some sort of sacred mourning doves which had no feet and spent their entire lives in flight....

As time went by living in Tehran, I used to go to another of their family palaces of their aunt, also in the old part south of the bazaar. Again, the winding alleys and an obscure little door opened onto a beautiful garden. One side of the living room was a half circle colonnade two stories tall and open to the garden. If there was a way to close it off from the outdoors in winter, I couldn't see it. A long narrow reflecting pool ran like a stream through the living room out into the garden and it had little jets of water staggered along its length making tiny arches into it similar to the Genat Al Halifeh in Granada or the Taj Mahal. I had never seen a private residence like this before.

The son was quite an accomplished martial artist. I believe he was a fifth degree black belt. One day at a cocktail party in this room filled with porcelain and china and cut crystal wine glasses and decanters and crystal chandeliers, he put on a display with Nu Cha Ku sticks, one set in each hand, whirring them about for all the world like in a Bruce Lee movie without so much as hitting anything in the room. I held my breath in disbelief...

We used to play Rummy and Backgammon there and sometimes our Rummy games would last all night and so we would have dinner and stay for breakfast too especially after the curfew had started. I would usually end up sitting out the rest of the game in no time flat since even the opening bets were more than I could afford plus they played Tavli faster than I could count... I had to content myself just watching and eating fruits and cucumbers and pesteh...

As we became better and better friends, I would sometimes be invited over by myself. I can recall one night sitting out in the garden on the patio under the moonlight being served tea by three Qajar princesses, the mother and her two daughters. It was quite amazing really. The old servants and retainers had been with the family so long that they were too doddering almost to walk let alone serve tea and so there we were in the dusk, what a picture, three princesses serving little old me and also serving their own aged servants tea...

I also met Uncle Hassan before he died. He was a fine artist and his house was filled with his paintings, mostly of landscapes and still lifes and he was teaching art at Tehran University at that time.

As the years went by my adopted Persian family decided that I should marry into their cousin's family and they went about getting me engaged to the younger sister when it was the older sister whom I secretly admired. The man who would be King was extremely happy in his marriage which it turned out my adopted family had helped to arrange decades before so out of appreciation he offered the use of one of his palaces in Vanak for our formal debut.

I remember that night, my family made me shave off my moustache and I had already converted to Islam. They got me all dressed up and then off we went in a limo to Vanak. This palace was more modern than those of his siblings and it was all white travertine marble with square columns and blue domes and an Olympic size swimming pool and cypress trees. We met him and his family and I shook everyone's hands and kissed cheeks and gave my rehearsed honorifics. Then just like in the movies, his niece and I were allowed to walk together through the garden with the entire family following at a discreet distance.

During the months that followed, the two sisters threw a nice party for us at the Chiminey Discotec and my betrothed took me by herself to see Sylvie Vartan in live concert with her dance troop at the Hilton.

This family was so gentile, so kind, so wealthy, so famous and so well loved and they wanted me. I just couldn't believe it was really happening. This family had a mystique about them which even protected them during the revolution. They were completely left alone by the revolutionaries and none of their assets were attached.

To make a long story short I never went through with the arranged marriage because I wasn't romantically in love with my betrothed. As an American unaccustomed to arranged marriages I just couldn't get myself to go through with it. I didn't think it was the right thing to do and so the die was cast and I, with my high ideals condemned myself to a much more mundane life as a wage slave for eternity until death do us part.

I mean, everyday we make decisions which affect the rest of our lives but most of the time we do so unknowingly. This one I made while completely conscious with my eyes wide open...

To make an end of this tale I will tell you of the last time I saw the man who would be King. It was the opening day of the new cable car system built by Batman Batmanian at the north end of town which in two stages allowed one to park one's car in the lot at the base of the mountains and take a ride all the way up to the ski slopes.

It was spring and the air was very festive. Many people had been invited out to the open and had packed picnic lunches. We got off at the end of the first cable car ride which ended in a gorgeous meadowland filled with little low growing white daisies and chamomile. As we walked about we suddenly ran into the Pretender there with his liveried valet both dressed in white lab coats.

The valet had a long butterfly net and was skipping about after Lepidoptera. They were genuinely glad to see me and His Would Be Majesty spent some time explaining to me about the different species and which ones they were trying to catch. They handed me a butterfly net and told me to have a go at it.

After quite some time I became totally frustrated because the butterflies were so fast up there that I couldn't catch any. Finally a great black-and-white speckled long-horned beetle flew slowly by and not wanting to return completely empty handed I easily bagged it.

His Would Be Majesty explained to me that different species of butterflies lived at different altitudes and flew at different speeds and that it was no small wonder that I was having trouble here because the species we were after was one of the fastest flyers there was. He laughed when he saw the long-horned beetle and actually knew the scientific name for it. He took the beetle from me and said he would add it to his collection as something to remember me by and I was shyly flattered. That was the last time I ever saw this magnificent man...


P.S. How many of you remember the old Lady dressed in red from head to toe who used to go sit in a doorway on the northeast side of Meydune Ferdowsi every day? I was told according to urban legend that she had been doing this for the past 19 years because her lover had been drafted into the army or had had to go away for some such reason and was not sure when he would be free to return so she had promised to wait for him there every day at Medune Ferdowsi, dressed in red so he could spot her right away.

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By Brian H. Appleton

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