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Visiting Niavaran Palace

By Ardavan Bahrami
March 29, 2004 unedited

On a recent trip to Tehran I decided to visit for the first time the Niavaran Palace, the former winter residence of our Imperial Pahlavi family. It is a cubic structure with a modern architecture found in many buildings that were designed in the sixties or seventies all around Iran and the world.

The day I planned to go with a younger member of my family was one of those beautiful days when you can smell the spring. It had rained earlier and the sky over Tehran seemed strangely free of pollution and the shining sun was lukewarm. It was simply pleasant.

I had such a cocktail of feelings as I entered the palace grounds. I had previously only seen few pictures of it but now as I walked into its main central hall with its roof rising above us I was shocked and disappointed as we walked through its rooms.

The Islamic Republic with its continuous propagandas, particularly in the early years of the revolution had portrayed a lavish lifestyle in an opulent surrounding for the Pahlavis. Having visited many European palaces and estate houses, I knew that none of our so called opulent palaces can compete with even Dolmabahche or Topkapi in Istanbul, let alone with the likes of Shoenbrune, Windsor Castle, or those of the Scandinavian and other European monarchs. Iranian palaces seemed more modest than many houses belonging to the rich and famous elite of the Western world. Later on during my stay in Tehran I met people who invited me to their home where I thought it was worth more visiting than the Niavaran Palace.

I was shocked by Niavaran's simplicity and modesty and disappointed because I found it embarrassing for having received such foreign dignitaries as American and European presidents and royalty in such a humble house.

We all know that after 11th February 1979 the palaces were attacked and many valuable objects were then and later on stolen. However, the current management had tried to arrange what was left in a presentable way. But it was difficult to miss the havoc created by a mixture of various objects and furniture brought from different palaces to fill the place. A modern painting stood by a Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty next to an electric organ and it went on and on. "Not the original lay out" I thought to myself.

As it was Noruz, there were many people from provinces who had come to visit relatives or to spend their holidays in Tehran. You could hear accents literary from all over the country. I wanted to know what went through their mind walking through these rooms. Most of them seemed old enough to remember the days when people were not hung from cranes, lashed, amputated, stoned or arrested. The era when our nation had full social freedom, more than many countries that even today can dream of.

I told my cousin that I would like to follow the people and listen to their conversations! In the Shah's dressing room, where his uniforms are hung from cupboards with glass windows a group of chadori women were looking at HIM's uniforms, hats and shoes. One woman murmured to another one - with a strong accent that I could not recognize to which part of the country she belonged to; "Look, I had seen him in these clothes. Khoda biyamorzatesh, che balayi saresh avordand, hanuz daarim taqas pas midim." ("May his soul rest in peace. For what they did to him, we are still paying for our crimes.") Her friend who noticed me near them pointed to her to keep quiet. As I heard her, I walked closer and said to her that she doesn't need to worry and that I understand their sentiments fully.

This put them at ease and the same lady just shook her head and brought her face close and whispered, "But I am sure they will come back". Suddenly she pulled herself back with laughter and said to her friends, "we better go, we have already said too much." And they rushed out of the room.

The new management has recruited young girls as tour guides, giving explanation and assisting the visitors. They are all from a generation who were not even born when the Shah reigned from these palaces. Dressed in a shabby military green manteau and a scarf, two size bigger than them; I said to one who seemed extremely bored, "Is this what all that hoo haa was about?! One can hardly call these structures palaces!" She replied, "Sir it's the most horrible place! It is dark even when its sunshine outside. It is embarrassing to show these houses to the public where there are more richer ones just a few blocks away."

I walked out of the palace with a grin, thinking to myself that visitors come here and feel nostalgic, employees are fed up with the system and the young want nothing but a complete discarding of the current Islamic establishment.

Before walking down the gentle slope that leads one to Sahebqraniyeh palace I wanted to walk a little in the grounds of this once a happy home of a happy family. We walked and talked together and my young cousins knowledge of the past was inspirational. I met numerous of his friends during my stay in Tehran. They were all from the new generation - the children of the revolution, so to speak. None were religious or prayed. They were extremely well informed, educated and well aware of what is going on around the world. The Internet has truly brought these youngsters in touch with the outside free world.

Farzad suddenly brought my attention to a tree. "Look! They were like us, we used to peel our names on trees too when we were much younger." When I understood what he was trying to show me, it saddened me immensely. There were our princes and princesses names carved out on a tree. With a difference that the tree - like them, was now twenty-five years older, its bark grown and so were the names, reminding the passer by of whom once lived there.

My attention was attracted to a sudden noise made by birds on the trees. To my amazement I realised they were all green parrots. I thought I was wrong but Farzad who found my amazement funny told me that most of our parks have parrots.

"Then they must be Armaghan's children," I said.

Farzad who had no idea who I was talking about looked puzzled. So I told him the story of The Merchant & His Parrot called Armaghan; that we used to read in the old days in our Persian textbook in schools.

A merchant kept a parrot in a cage in his house. Before leaving for India he asks his parrot if he wants anything from his homeland. Armaghan replies; "Nothing, but when you see my free friends in India, tell them about me and that I live here at your house in a cage. Tell them how I am and how I live."

The bazargan - the merchant, leaves for India. Once there in a jungle he sees parrots sitting on trees and suddenly remembers his owns request. He turns to one of them and tells the parrot about his. He asks the parrot if he has a message for Armaghan. Suddenly the parrot falls down from the tree and dies.

Sadden by this, he wonders as what caused such misfortune. On his return when Armaghan asks him whether he passed his message to the parrots of India he tells him of the unfortunate incident. Suddenly Armaghan falls and dies. He cries for his loss.  He opens the cage, takes the parrot out, takes it to the garden and puts it under a tree.

All of a sudden Armaghan opens its wings and takes off to the top of a tree! The shocked bazargan looks at the parrot with disbelief. "But I thought you died!" say the merchant.

"When you told me what happened to the parrot in India I understood their message," said Armaghan. "They tried to tell me in order to be set free I should pretend I am dead. To trick you, as you would never understand logic to set me free."

I could see Farzad was fascinated with the story. He turned to me and said, "That is a great message. So true!" I, who could not fully understand what he was referring to asked him what he meant.

"In order for us to be free, we have to fight to the bitter end. These people too do not understand logic. We need to find a way out of this cage that the Islamic Republic has built around us." He smiled confidently and said "and we will find it."

We headed back towards the palace. Contrary to Niavaran's simplicity, Sahebqraniyeh which was build during the reign of Nassereddin Shah who ordered its construction to Haj Ali Khan Habib-od-Dowleh, is a lavishly decorated palace reflecting the Qajar's love of comfort and their attention to pleasures of life.

According to the Islamic regime possessions of all palaces were registered and documented in 1995. What has been stolen from these treasure houses from 1979 up to their registration sixteen years later, obviously has not been recorded for understandable reasons!

The palace is composed of two floors. On the Ground floor Hose-Khaneh is one of its most attractive rooms. It was redesigned and renovated by the Empress during the 70's. It has beautiful stucco carvings and unique sash windows. With a famous painting by Kamal-ol-Molk representing the same room.

On the first floor is the hall of Jahannama leading to the Shah's office, with his desk located in the shah-neshin of this hall. The walls are decorated with firearms and several magnificent carpets cover the floor. Other parts of this Qajar palace has a midday bedroom and a cabinet consultation room. Several photographs of foreign heads of states as well as medals and works of arts presented to the court adorn this room.

Coming down a staircase to leave the palace by the side entrance, one faces a large mirror. The mirror is made of hundreds of small but long rectangular shaped mirror pieces sitting neatly next to each other. Though one cannot see an image in it anymore, but its purpose must have dated before the coming of electricity to Iran, when lights from candles would have reflected back and lit the palace staircase. However, today it could not perform even that! The mirror had turned almost completely black

I knew had they looked after it such thing should have not happened, so I approached yet another girl from Miras Farhangi (Cultural Heritage Organization) and complained. She said; "As a matter of fact few days ago I saw a visitor inspecting it very carefully, it was an old gentleman. Out of curiosity I approached him, but before I get the chance to ask anything he turned to me and said, "Look what have they done to my mirror?!"

She said that she was not sure what he meant by "my mirror". But the old man continues, "So as long as I looked after it, it was always nice and clean. I built this mirror miss, you know! I built it with my own hands at the time of Reza Shah. Look what they have done to it, it looks like the rest of the country." "He was very angry, the poor man" she said to me.

I thanked her and left the palace with Farzad. As we were walking out of its grounds I was still picturing the old man. He was so right. My country did resemble that mirror.
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