As a kid growing up in Iran, I spent most summers in two distinct ways: going to the movies to watch the latest Hollywood or Italian cinema creations and playing with my friends in summer “tajdidi” school. But there was one special summer, when I was sent to stay with my grandparents in Kermanshah, 590 km southwest of Tehran.
I loved being near my grandparents for they were both very kind and loved me unconditionally. And unlike my mom, they refused to criticize me for being a tajdidi — one exam away from failing my grade and staying a year behind.
My mom used to say, “I have a son who is a distinguished naval officer, another son who is an architect, and a daughter who is a doctor. But this country also needs amalehs to do the dirty work; you fit that position well!”
My mom always managed to give a well-placed jab or two using her sense of humor at anyone she had an issue with. For example, when my older brother and his wife, Arefe got a divorce, my mom began referring to her as Akele. And when my other sister in law who used to own a frozen yogurt shop got into an argument with my mom, she immediately earned the title of “Zanike Maast Foroush” — Yogurt-Selling Tramp.
My poor brother-in-law who wore size-13 shoes did not escape my mom's labeling either and became mardike paa ghondeh (Big Foot) and eventually earned the title “ET” when for some obscure reason, he applied some henna on his feet.
Living with my grandfather was a different story altogether. He was a very optimistic, happy and nonjudgmental man. Positive energy and good will seemed to always radiate from him, and one could not help feel happy and positive while being near him.
At the same time, he was a great teacher of life lessons and his unimposing nature made his lessons even more effective. Among his lessons, respect, humility and an appreciation for Persian culture was something that my grandfather had taught to many.
During his younger days, he used to be a Pahlevan, a title reserved for an athlete with great physical, moral and ethical characteristics. But that summer, he was well over 90-years old and his back had been permanently stooped over at a 45-degree angle. Yet, he always managed to go for long walks, visit friends and socialize on a regular basis.
One place that he loved to go for socializing was a Qahveh-khaaneh coffeehouse in his old neighborhood. It was a place that I had heard about and longed for visiting, but was never allowed to go to. After all, it was considered to be a Men's Club and kids my age had no place there.
So, I was ecstatic when one day he finally asked me to accompany him to the coffeehouse. I eagerly then put on my shoes and waited impatiently for him by the door, while he slowly put his suit on, picked up his cane, got his silver box of tobacco and rolling paper, and then began looking all over for his prayer bids (tasbih).
All taken care of, we were then off walking for an hour and a half to get to his favorite coffeehouse. To date I am still amazed at his stamina, being able to walk such a long distance back and forth without showing any discomfort and choosing not to take the bus or get a cab.
Once we arrived, couple of dozens of customers got up and greeted my grandfather one at a time, and paying their respects. It was so cool to see my grandpa get so much attention and respect. I remember that I was the only kid there, and that may have been why I was the only one who was served a sugar cookie with my tea, while everyone else got a water-pipe.
The place was a very beautiful and unique site. It was covered wall to wall with Persian rugs and paintings of epic religious and mythical heroes. Then there was the storyteller, or Naghal. He was a man with a thick handle-bar moustache wearing a felt hat on his head, a traditional wrap around robe and a sache sinched around his waist with a jeweled dagger tucked underneath. Back then and even to some extent now, the thicker a man's moustache was, the more gallant and manly he was perceived, and to me this Naghal seemed like a giant of a man.
The story that this Naghal was reciting on that day, was one that I already had heard, but the Naghal's exaggerated moves and tones along with the coffeehouse's folklore atmosphere had easily intrigued my imagination and it was as if it was my first time hearing this story.
That night, I experienced my first dinner theatre, but it only cost a fraction of a price of what I pay nowadays. It was theatre; story telling and dinner all at the same time and my grandpa also got to see friends and smoke his water pipe while sitting on a Persian rug and leaning on a pillow.
For centuries these coffeehouses, have served as a social gathering place in the Persian culture where men assemble to drink tea, talk about politics, listen to stories or music, and play backgammon. But, on that day, it gave me my fondest memory of my grandfather as well as an appreciation for our folklore heritage.
Next time I go to Iran for a visit, I am going to the old bazaar where I know I may still find a traditional coffeehouse featuring a Naghal, except this time, my grandfather won't be with me.
About Shahrokh Nikfar's The Persian Hour is aired on KYRS FM 95.3 in Spokane, Washington. The show is broadcasted live each Saturday from 12:00 to 1:00 pm and you can catch it on the net at kyrs.org. The program's goals are: to promote education and understanding of Iranian culture and to provide diverse cultural entertainment. This program will usually consist of Iranian music and poetry, commentaries and story telling, interviews with people who have lived in or visited Iran, and on occasion sharing of some favorite recipes or introduction of a new book or a movie.