It was our learned essay-writing (“En’sha”) teacher in high school who introduced me to Anton Chekhov’s last play. The Cherry Orchard: A Comedy in Four Acts chronicles six months in the life of an impoverished and aging aristocrat, Madame Ranevskaya, at the turn of the 20th century in Russia, when her patrimonial estate, including a majestic orchard, is being auctioned to pay for her debts. The highest bidder is the son of a peasant. The orchard - whose cherries were at one time made into jam using a now-forgotten recipe - symbolizes the memory or illusion of the past, both personal and historical. The play ends when the profligate Mme. Ranevskaya leaves for Paris to tend her sick philandering lover, while the new owner is busy cutting down the orchard to build summer cottages for the nouveau riche.
It was 1962; the year the Land Reform was initiated in Iran, to be followed by a referendum to legitimize the White Revolution. At the time I could hardly make a connection between my reading assignment and the economic and political changes happening in our society. In search for an Iranian counterpart of Mme. Ranevskaya, I could only point to a few Qajari shazdehs – both female and male - in our extended family and among my grandmother’s circle of friends. One I can still vividly remember had a large stately house surrounded by a garden of roses and acacia flowers, which we visited occasionally. Interior of the house was decorated with the portraits of Qajar kings, exquisite silk carpets, and antique furniture. Furniture coverings, parts of window curtains and tablecloths were termeh. On the tables, and in large mahogany commodes, there were gold-rimmed white china sets of hundreds of pieces with turquoise and jade colored flowers and leaves ornamenting the image of Nasser-al-din shah.
What attracted my boyish attention the most, whenever we were Shazdeh’s guests, was a His Master’s Voice gramophone, with its large trumpet acting as the speaker, sitting on a table in the corner of his study. Once there, I heard a record being played on that gramophone. Everyone appeared taken over by the ethereal voice of Qamar singing, “morgh-e sahar” (The Dawn Bird). We had a radio at home, and TV sets were also available those days. But then - a few years after her death - playing Qamar’s songs was not considered fashionable anymore. We stopped visiting Shazdeh’s when my grandmother passed away. They weren’t throwing any party anymore. They had turned to mysticism by then, and were spending most of their time in a khanehgah Shazdeh had inherited. The last time I met Shazdeh, he was a broken senescent man languishing in the middle of a dreary dilapidated room. The smell of decay was overwhelming. There was no sign of the His Master’s Voice, only a Japanese audio player crying, “Ali gooyam, Ali jooyam”. His wife had died. Those days, Iranian aristocrats were an endangered species. I was 18.
The Cherry Orchard was debuted on January 17th,1904 at the Moscow Art Theater - 43 years after Alexander II decreed the emancipation of Russian serfs, and 13 years prior to the October Revolution. "The Peasant Reform of 1861" in Russia preceded by four years the passage of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by the Congress abolishing slavery in this country. It shared many of the latter’s features. However, the historical consequences of these two acts were quite different. In Russia, emancipation of serfs was immediate and comprehensive; it uprooted the aristocracy whose existence depended on the free labor provided by serfs; and eventually led to the fall of monarchy in that country. In the U.S., while slavery was formally banned, the relatively smaller size of the slave population, combined with persistent racism and racial discrimination and segregation, postponed the full implementation of ‘equal right for all’ for 100 years - until the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. During this period, the country became industrialized and its reliance on the agrarian economy – the segment most dependent on slaves – was significantly diminished.
Iran’s Land Reform of 1962 was a century-long-belated replay of the Russian reforms that could only produce a similar outcome for the monarchy. One wonders whether land reform planners in Iran were aware of the Russian experience. And if they did, did they believe they could steer the process in adifferent direction? However, such questions appear pointless at this time. It is instead fashionable among the Western ‘experts’ and some monarchists to scapegoat supporters of Dr. Mosaddegh for the revolution in Iran, notwithstanding the fact that by 1979 most Mosaddeghists were already dead, exiled, retired, or engaged in collaboration with the monarchial regime; they hardly had any social base, and only an infinitesimal influence on the events leading to the revolution. The fact that some remnants of this group joined the revolutionaries was mostly an afterthought, as manifested by their rather abrupt dismissal by the hard-line clerics, afterward.
When The Cherry Orchard was premiered in Moscow, its director had presented the play as a tragedy, while Chekhov intended it to be a comedy - or a Chekhovian comedy, to be more accurate.To Chekhov the emancipation of serfs and its consequential demise of aristocracy were historical necessities, not catastrophes. Dr. Chekhov’s diagnosis and prescription were evident in the following lines, expressed by Trofimov - ‘the eternal student’ - to Mme. Ranevskaya’s daughter,
“All Russia is our orchard. The earth is so wide, so beautiful, so full of wonderful places. Just think, Anya. Your grandfather, your great-grandfather and all your ancestors owned serfs, they owned human souls. Don't you see that from every cherry-tree in the orchard, from every leaf and every trunk, men and women are gazing at you? If we're to start living in the present isn't it abundantly clear that we've first got to redeem our past and make a clean break with it? And we can only redeem it by suffering and getting down to real work for a change.”
Do we need a second opinion? Well, maybe for those still looking for that forgotten recipe.
* * *
If anything, the post-election protests of 2009 re-introduced “the element of hope and the possibility of social improvement” – a Chekhovian concept - that had been missing in our earlier discourse. More than ever, our historical experiment with the religious form of patriarchy appears just that – an experiment.
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