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 to take.
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 her son.
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.