Early in September of 1951 a round, heavyset middle-aged man walks into an old, archaic city – so old in fact, that he can feel the dust beneath his feet.
For 3 straight days people have been waiting for him around the train station that arrives from Shushtar with their “gifts”. They are ragged and hunger stricken but they have brought anything they could spare: skinny cows, sheep, sacks of rice. For three days they have been standing there, waiting and hearing speeches by those around them. One man goes up a stool every hour and announces “belakhareh Aghaayeh Baghai beh een makaan khaahad aamad va baraayeh shomaa sokhanraani khaahad kard.” (Mr. Baghai will eventually come and deliver his speech to you.) And so they wait.
Alongside them, a young, ambitious, brilliant doctor is there to greet him. One of the first doctors in his city to graduate from the University of Tehran and the son of a much-respected local clergyman, he is nothing short of a god in their eyes. His popularity soared a year back when Dr. Shams, a well-known physician and professor at the University of Tehran traveled to Dezful to try and find a cure for an outbreak of trachoma — a major cause of blindness in Asia.
In the town mosque, as Shams is giving a speech, the young doctor, Gooshehgir, stands up and in the captivating, stunning voice that was his mark to fame, reveals the true reasons for the spreading disease: no sewage system, no electricity, no running water, no hospitals. His town has been neglected and misused by the rich minority “khans” and this problem – like so many others – is their fault.
Finally, Mozafar Baghai arrives to the sound of people screaming and yelling and shouting with joy. He comes from a nearby town with people whom at first glance, seem much similar to this one. They have similar accents and food. But unlike the previous town, the outcome here will be nothing short of a triumph.
In Shushtar he resides for 24 hours. Declares a meeting in the town mosque and gives the settlers astonishing and yet disastrous news: they are living amongst British spies he reveals; spies who are gradually eating away at their small community.
But before he can go on, an elderly man from the Namaki family gets up and begins to speaks: “Aghay-e Baghai,” he says, “Jaasoos too een shahr amal nemiyaad.(Spies don't grow in our town). This is an ancient town. We have been living amongst each other for a thousand years. We know everybody and everything. The result of this is that as soon as you leave, we'll all be suspicious of one another and the harmony that has existed here for so long will be no more. But, if you are certain, give us their names and we will deal with them immediately. Give us the names of these spies right now, right here, and we will give them what they deserve.”
Literally thrown out of Shushtar, he heads on, still hoping. The people there had no liking for him anyway. They've been watching him like a hawk during his whole stay and they have noticed, to their disgust, that he does not pray.
Why this man who was so swiftly kicked out of Shushtar goes out to be so immensely popular in Dezful is not very clear. Perhaps because almost all the farmlands of Shushtar had been destroyed by great floods centuries before. There is not much valuable land to work on. People live their lives by trade. They are mostly tradesman, craftsmen and merchants. But Dezful is rich in agricultural land. It is a typical fiefdom. A feudal town with poverty-stricken land workers and conventionally rich landowners.
Then there is the introduction people have been given by their hero, Dr. Gooshehgir. He has preached uprising against the khans, he has given them much to respect and admire in Baghai, he has advertised and advocated Baghai's party: Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Mellat-e Iran (Iran Toilers Party). Before long, almost everyone in the city will be a member. The party with Khalil Maleki, though not totally communist, had Marxist tendencies. After Maleki leaves, there is no clear ideology associated with it. Baghai was too lazy, and too occupied to come up with one.
And then there are the speakers and microphones. The townspeople, having never seen them before, see it nothing short of a miracle.
In the town mosque they meet and Baghai, regurgitates himself, only this time, the people hang on to his every word. They cheer and shout. Their savior it seems, has finally arrived.
He preaches violence, revolt, and uprising against the khans. They are “British spies and thieves”. He goes about town in his white tuxedo; women cheering, men clapping. They admire him even more when they see his mannerisms: when wanting to bathe, he does not use private baths – hamoom-e nomreh – like the evil khans do, but sits right there in the middle of the public bath and lets people come by to scrub him.
People are euphoric. “Eesoon si shah rah beroo-ey, pas soba si Baghai raees jomhoor-e Iran-e!” (Today you march for the Shah, the day after tomorrow you will march for Baghai, the president of Iran!) one man tells everybody in their local accent. The Party is with Mossadegh, and so are they. The khans are with the Shah. After Baghai changes sides as a result of Mossadegh's direct confrontation with the palace, so do they.
They occupy a building and name it the party's headquarters. They publish a newspaper called Farid-e Dezful. Their motto is “Maa baraay-e raasti va aazaadegi ghiyaam kardeh-eem.” (We have risen to seek the Truth and be Free). The problem is that most of the party members are illiterate and so the newspapers are left unread.
An all out war is declared. People are battered, sometimes killed daily. The khans lose their workers, their lands are looted and destroyed, their cars stolen, their horses disappear. But they are small in number and incapable of revenge. They do what they can.
Moghaddam, a local teacher, son of Gholamali Hett, – Hett meaning liar – is paid by the great Khan to write an insulting letter against the Party. Once the letter is out, Mousa Alamshah, one of the Party's main organizers, tells the townsmen during one of their local meetings: “Mardom-e Dezfil! Biney kouak-e Gholoomali Hett beh aghaatoon Ghooshehgir che ghoftaa…” (People of Dezful! Come around and see what the son of Gholamali Hett has said of your savior Gooshehgir…”)
Right then a blind boy who roams the town, starts circling around the pool in the mosque singing “Hetta Hetta Hettata” … before long, children come to join him. And the name sticks. All khans and their followers will be called Hett. The khans, not wanting to stay behind, start calling the Party members “Bagh”, short for Baghai, and meaning frog, in their native tongue.
The city is divided; Sahra-Bedar belongs to the biggest khan and is host to most of the landowners. The rest of the city is Bagh-occupied.
Everyone in labeled – even those who get into small confrontations with landowners. Once a man is chased into the river, dragged out and beaten to near death, for selling a sack of rice to one of the khans. A 16-year-old boy – the son of a poor landowner – is stabbed to death at night The Bagh outnumber the Hett beyond belief. And so the richer landowners move to Tehran where they will stay for the next 2 years.
Ghooshehgir's popularity though, is still rising. To a point where his relatives are heard saying of his future plans: “Emsaal vakil, saal-e ba'd vazir, ba'desh nokhost vazir o ba'desh ham enghelaab o raees-e jomhoor-e Iran”. (This year member of parliament, next year a minister, then prime minister and then the revolution that makes him president).
He is not just popular in Dezful, but the smaller towns around it. The Arab tribesmen adore him. The people worship his every step. He is asked over and over to intervene to stop the violence. But he knows it is beyond anyone's control. “Ar helomshoon, si khodom ham hette khoonen”. (If I let them, they'll start calling me a Hett too). Gooshehgir himself, is more Hett by blood than any. His wife is the niece of the great khan; his family has owned land for centuries.
The Party has local meetings usually near the riverside. The people call these meetings “meten”. Many townspeople still remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of their neighbor's voices screaming: “Mellat versey roo'eym hezb. Metena.”
For the first time in their lives they see live plays. Goltala Dara-zan, a round chubby woman who makes a living by playing her dar, provides the music. Zaar Leyva (Crazy Zaar) wearing a large rice sack plays Farhoudi, Dezful's MP – a respectable, well educated university professor supported by the khans. Another man plays the great khan himself.
Some people don't understand what the whole thing is all about. They don't know much of Mossadegh or the Shah either. One man, in a local paper asks: “Why don't Gooshehgir, Kamali (another avid supporters of the Hetts) and Mossadegh sit around a long sofreh, eat some ghormeh sabzi and zereshek polo and just solve their differences?”
On the 21st of Farvardin there is a bloody, 12-hour gun battle as both sides take up arms. The lines are clearly drawn. The Hett fight from their own lands, where a woman is seen on the rooftop shooting at those below – in a place where females were hardly ever seen. That is a memory that whoever was there still carries to this day.
None of the Hett participate in the street fighting, except for one man, a rebellious, stunningly good-looking, educated clergyman avidly fighting for the Hett. Dressed as the Shia saint Imam Ali, he rides a horse into the city holding a sword, seeking justice. He splits a man in half.
Despite the killings and chaos, it is the beginning of the end to everything.
The khans, under immense pressure, write a letter in their own blood addressed to Mossadegh begging for his help and near the end of Mordad, send two people to Tehran to deliver the letter. On their way, they hear that Mossadegh's government has fallen. They tear Mossadegh's name from the letter, and -again, in blood – write to the Shah.
But soon the conflict dies down and a few months later, with the fall of the Mossadegh's government, the imprisonment of many of the local townspeople – Hett and Bagh – and the return of the khans, all goes back to the way it was before Baghai's visit.
Gooshehgir never gets elected to parliament. The first time he runs, the government calls off the elections in many parts of the country including Dezful, because of riots. The second time he ran and lost to Princess Ashraf's brother-in-law. Soon after he is sent to prison and later suffers from an extreme case of Parkinson's disease that ends his ambitious political career.
Those who remember meeting him speak of his electrifying presence, charismatic speeches, and ability to lead. And yet he fails miserably. Perhaps not because he was not talented or dauntless enough, but because of his own wrongful interpretation – and evaluation – of the forces and parties involved: no matter how ambitious the man, or how ingenious, in such a platform, in this society, a president could not rise.
Instead of Gooshehgir, Enayatollah Khan's son makes his way to parliament. Enayatollah Khan is one of Dezful's wealthiest, most hated khans and is said to have resembled Churchill. On his way by train to Tehran to undergo surgery, Enayatollah Khan takes a look at Zahmatkeshan Party members who are throwing angry words and objects his way.
“Zahmatkashoon!” he cries. “Taa tah tiyaatoon koor. Koo'akom kho vakil biyes. Mo ghondy bisom ke nabisom vali koo'akom keh vakil biyes. Eesoon ham beroo'om tehroon. Ar mordom porsomaa mey masjed-e masjd-e vanen.(And then holding out his middle finger) eeyaan beh folaan jaay-e Gooshaghir, ghafela heshtesh jaa!” (Party members! To hell with all of you. My son is now in parliament. I was never elected to office, but my son is now a member of parliament. And now I am going to Tehran. If I die, my funeral will be held in the most prestigious mosque in the city. But f*&# Gooshehgir! In the end, he was the one left behind.”
And right then the train starts moving, growing dimmer and dimmer in the afternoon sun while the people stand there startled and not knowing what to say. Perhaps because harf-e hesaab harif nadaareh (common sense has no rival). And this was as common as it gets.
Though seemingly insignificant at the time and soon forgotten, the events of those two years – later followed by “eslaahaat-e arzi” land reform – went to reshape and redefine the lives of all Dezfulis – Hett or Bagh.
When age-old borders are broken and unyielding boundaries are erased, the deprived get a taste – or at least a tour – of what they are missing. There comes to life impetus and wonder and danger that perhaps, now, after half a century of turmoil and discovery, we can find and decipher over and over again.