Play it again
I used to have a piano, before they took it away
March 6, 2002
As I sat on the plush red sofa beside the window I had the impression that all
of London had filled the vast rooms of the grand Persian lady's apartment.
Over the years I had seen many of them inhabiting a world that could never replace
what they had once known. You saw them at weddings, funerals, parties or concerts.
You saw them crossing the street or muttering to themselves.
Each face told a silent story of exiles trapped and driven by grief, nostalgia, regret,
desire. Behind the smiles and polite gestures hid repressed emotions arising from
a sense of irredeemable loss.
The grand lady was a central piece in this lost world. She sat on her chair watching
everyone. In her eyes was kindness and her brief words revealed the generosity of
spirit that had made her the focus of such respect, love and adoration amongst three
"My place is open to all," she told a friend. "You will find people
of all walks of life here. Whether monarchist or republican, businessman or fruit
seller, they are all welcome here. My only demand is that they observe one thing:
The place in Kensington was a vast apartment filled
with French and rare Persian antiques. The living room was perhaps the most impressive
and it was difficult to ignore the objects that occupied every corner. From where
I sat one could see the fireplace and the large, oval mirror with the painted golden
frame where many of the guests saw their reflections. What did they see? I wondered.
Their past, present or future?
On a console was a dozen photos in silver frames most of them of the Persian lady
in her prime. Once she had been among Tehran's most beautiful women and even after
the revolution her grace and dignified face had caught the imagination of many artists.
Among the multitude of oil paintings, mostly of moon faced Qajar beauties with ruby
lips and thick, black eyebrows, was one of the same lady dressed in a period costume.
Above our heads was a magnificent chandelier composed of tiny lustre crystal pieces,
a gold chain with a cupid figurine attached to it. In the distance was a hundred-year-old
rug hanging from a wall beside the door. It was a gem: two Persian princes on horseback.
As the butlers moved around the room bearing trays of vine leaves, stuffed dates,
and tea, I could not help observing the guests as they sat on their chairs resembling
a constellation of planets orbiting the sun. Those who did not have seats were content
to wander from room to room catching up on the latest gossip or news from the homeland.
When the Persian lady raised her eyebrows it seemed to indicate her satisfaction
that her frequent visitors to her home had once again found an oasis of comfort and
elegance in the midst of the city's drabness. Here was a slice from a world that
will never come back.
A man sitting next to me on the sofa looked up to an elderly woman standing beside
him. "What this place needs is a piano," he said.
"A piano?" the woman replied clutching her handbag. The woman seemed more
interested in eyeing the new faces who entered the room. She shook her head, half-listening
to the conversation. Her cheeks looked flushed and puffy as she sat down in her old
"Yes," the man said, his face consumed by the idea. "Just imagine
that," he continued finishing his whisky. "I could come and play the piano
just like the old days in Tehran."
I knew this man. We had met before, two years ago at a small dinner party. He was
a fine-featured man with slick black hair combed neatly in place. His suit was tailored
and hung neatly on his trim body. At fifty-two he seemed resigned to his empty life
in London despite his aristocratic family name and unfulfilled marriage to a former
"Do you have a piano?" I asked him.
"I used to have one," he replied calmly. "That is before they took
it away during the revolution. Ah it was a beautiful object. I have so many good
memories of my lost piano."
"What make was it?" I asked. "It was a Shimmel," he said smiling.
"It was made in Germany." A fine piano, I told myself. It defies description,
even in the most eloquent of words.
Some years before the revolution, my friend explained, he saw a beautiful ebony piano.
He bought it and placed it in his living room. There was a man who used to come every
month and tune it. "I loved the way he would test the keys," he recalled.
"Nobody could do it better than him. He had such a way of taking care of it."
It was the beginning of a special relationship that grew until the revolution stopped
him playing. He did not need to explain.
While I am unable to play any instrument I knew that the only way to gain an accurate
impression of the outstanding qualities of a Shimmel piano was to actually sit down
and play it.
My friend's loss was more personal.
He explained how he had spent time with his piano entertaining friends or brooding
over the notes until his fingers were clutched, ready to strike the keyboards, unleashing
his energy in an exciting and vibrant manner that often left him exhausted and empty.
"My wife never understood my love for the piano," he said. "I never
had any real lessons. I taught myself. Maybe if she had encouraged me more I would
have become a great pianist. Even my father, who was a military man, never approved
of my musical interests. When I was a child I used to visit an old man in Tehran
who was a master pianist. He used to produce wonderful sounds on his piano and I
always envied his genius. I was happiest when I played and all my worries were forgotten
when I sat behind my piano."
My friend recalled how life had seemed so wonderful to him in those happy pre-revolutionary
days. He had lived in what I suppose you might call luxury, in a grand mansion in
north Tehran. Listening to him I wondered sometimes whether the splendour of Iran
had blinded him to the real facts of life. Had the piano lulled him into a sense
of false security?
Even now my aristocratic friend could not believe what
had happened. The revolution had crept over his shoulder like exotic creepers over
"We had a neighbour who disliked us," he said. "Every night he
would play Khomeini's speeches from his roof. My wife was so scared that she prohibited
me from playing the piano. Then one day some men wielding hammers and knives burst
into our house. They were screaming and shouting at us. We were royalist scum, taqootis.
I thought for a moment that we were all going to be massacred. Then suddenly, one
of the hooligans saw my piano. He went over to it and stared at it with mad eyes."
For a moment my friend fell silent, his eyes filled with tears.
"The piano saved our life" he said. "We belonged to an old family.
One of my cousins was a famous general in the Shah's air force. Khalkhali executed
him for having blue eyes, among other charges. These wolves who had invaded our lives
wanted to exterminate us but were distracted by the young revolutionary who was about
to destroy my beautiful piano. He wanted to smash it to pieces. To him it stood for
everything he hated. It was Western and decadent. Fortunately, one of his mates prevailed
and stopped him. He told him that it would be better if they confiscated it in the
name of the revolution. I knew they wanted to sell it. That's how I lost my piano."
On my right sat an 81-year-old woman. She had been listening to our conversation.
To my utter surprise she turned out to be one of Iran's famous female poets now living
in exile. She missed the blue sky of her native Isfahan but retained a sharp mind.
"The revolution was a good thing," said the wrinkled, green-eyed woman.
"It had to happen so that Iranians would appreciate what they lost. We never
knew our people, really. If we did the mullahs would never have taken over. It is
high time art replaced politics."
She quoted a moving poem she had once written against royal despotism comparing the
struggle of freedom-loving intellectuals and writers with the magnificent Alborz
Ironically, our great poetess had spent several years in Russia and Europe waiting
for a revolution she hoped would bring democracy to Iran. When the monarchy fell
she had returned to Iran with many of her liberal and leftist hopes under the impression
that a new dawn of liberty and freedom had been ushered.
Alas, she was quickly disillusioned. Now the same poem seemed to us even more
meaningful than ever before given the long suffering the revolution had caused.
Like my pianist friend she too had suffered for her
art. "Under the mullahs they tore my poems and destroyed my cassette recordings,"
she said sadly. "But one day the dark clouds will pass. We will rediscover our
rose gardens and pay tribute to Sa'di and Hafez."
I asked her if she had ever read Dr Zhivago. "I have read the book and
seen the film," she said. "More importantly I met Boris Pasternak when
I was in Moscow with my husband."
It seemed as if I could hear Lara's Theme being played on the piano. When the poetess
had left our side my friend looked lost in thought. He had never been able to make
sense of his life. Partly he blamed his wrong choices in life and partly the whirlwind
that had blown away his beloved country, family name, inheritance -- and irreplaceable
"I've been very depressed lately," he confessed. "I have been in turmoil
inside but recently I have been spending time listening to Chopin, Liszt, Shumman
and Beethoven. It gives me peace. I also have a great music collection from our old
A woman with dyed blonde hair settled herself beside me her perfume mixing with the
burning cigarette between her fingers. Plump and heavily made up she had the look
of a character from a Fellini film. Her eyes were dreamy and her face swollen from
years of neglect. Casting an eye on her, my friend leaned slightly and asked her
if she liked music. "I love music," she said flatly.
My friend changed places with me so that he could hear her better. "What kind
of music?" he asked her sympathetically. "Mostly classical," she replied,
puffing away a cloud of smoke. "I like Western and Persian pieces equally."
My friend moved closer to her. She offered him a cigarette which he declined. "Do
you like piano music?" he asked curiously. When she spoke her voice was devoid
of the slightest emotion, as if all the tears and sorrow had left her years ago.
"When I heard that my husband had been executed in Iran," she said, "I
remember shutting myself in my room and listening to piano music. It was the only
thing I could bear listening to on that awful day. I was in London when they told
me the news."
I knew that she had once been married to someone important. I never found out if
her husband had been a general, a former cabinet minister, or an industrialist. It
did not matter really. She was among the countless widows of the revolution, a forgotten
There was a long pause before the widow spoke again. "Art, music, nature. I
love these things," she said lighting another cigarette. "Just this morning
I noticed a tree with pink blossoms. It made me feel so nice. I love two seasons.
Autumn and spring. It's going to be Noruz soon. Springtime! Thank God we still have
this marvellous celebration."
My friend and I nodded in agreement. We were smiling again. Our hearts were light
as bird feathers. In a few weeks the vernal equinox would usher the promise of spring,
a lovely opportunity for celebration and rebirth.
By the end of the evening, long after we had tasted the wonderful Persian dishes
that had been laid on a long table, the bitterness of politics had vanished. They
abandoned themselves wholeheartedly to feelings of joy. The joy of living. To be
Most of the people in this wonderful Persian apartment in Kensington had survived
the revolution. Each had their own baggage. Each had chosen to keep their past hidden,
a few were writing their memoirs. But they were glad to be alive. As the poetess
remarked to me before leaving, "We have to be grateful for what we had."
I looked at my immaculately dressed friend. He was standing
in the middle of the room on a splendid Persian carpet with floral patterns. There
was a glow on his handsome face despite his serene eyes. The dark, gloomy melancholy
that had enveloped him earlier, was gone. Instead it had been replaced by the inner
happiness he felt at the thought of buying a new piano and installing it in this
very living room. In this way his life would find meaning again.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. -- Shakespeare