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Play it again
I used to have a piano, before they took it away

March 6, 2002
The Iranian

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 generations.

"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: no politics."

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 seat.

"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 princess.

"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 a wall.

"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 mountain.

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 piano.

"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 radio programmes."

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 victim.

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 alive.

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
Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer
Cyrus Kadivar

By Cyrus Kadivar

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