Paradise Maker

Maryam Afshar created a paradise for abused creatures


Paradise Maker
by Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi

The ancient Persians believed that one could catch a glimpse of paradise in the eyes of a dog. Their contemporary descendents by and large no longer hold this view, far from it. Man’s best friend does not have it easy in Iran: dogs are feared, beaten, merely chased away when they are lucky, and occasionally poisoned. To be called “the son of a dog” is an insult, and when someone is really scared of someone else, this can colloquially be expressed with the words “he fears him like a dog” – testimony to the fact that experience has taught Iranian dogs to be suspicious and afraid of their biped compatriots. Right now the Iranian parliament is considering legislation that would place restrictions on people’s ability to keep a canine companion.

One person who did not share this cynophobia was Maryam Afshar, who died exactly a year ago and whom I had the privilege of calling a friend. I last saw her a few years ago on one of my periodic visits to Puerto Rico, when she insisted that I stay with her and her family while on the island. She was waiting for me at the airport when I arrived in San Juan, and as we drove away she gently prepared me for the somewhat unusual living arrangements at her home, which she shared with her husband, son, about ten dogs, and half a dozen cats. It so happens that canis familiaris is my favorite species on this planet, and so I looked forward to my stay with eager anticipation.

In San Juan most people live in apartments, and so Maryam and her family had moved into a villa on the outskirts of the city to accommodate their quadruped housemates. Polyphonous barking greeted us as we alighted from the car at the end of a long cul de sac. I followed Maryam through the garden gate, and was immediately surrounded by the dogs, who barked at me while Maryam explained that I was a friend and would they please stop it. I stood still and talked to them soothingly in a low voice, whereupon they quieted down one by one; soon the more adventurous ones began sniffing at me. Before long I was sitting in an armchair, stroking two dogs with my right hand while my left hand was being playfully nibbled at by another. Two or three more were trying to get to my cheeks to lick them, but that is where I draw the line and so I struggled to keep their love at bay with my elbows and shoulders. The rest had lost interest and returned to whatever it was they had been doing before we arrived. None of them smelled bad, none had bad breath – in spite of the hot and damp weather.

Maryam was delighted to see me at ease with her menagerie, and introduced them one by one. Most were satos, the feral mutts of Puerto Rico that have a reputation for playfulness and intelligence. Many people regard them as a pest, and they are therefore often abused. A few dogs, however, had been adopted from animal shelters, Maryam having taken in those that were injured, invalid, or too old to attract the attention of other animal lovers. Each dog came with a story, usually a sad one. A number had been spotted by Maryam and her husband limping on a street, whereupon they had been taken to the veterinarian immediately. One had been overrun by a car, another one had been beaten almost to death, a third had been owned by a sadist who had put out his cigarettes on its back. Maryam had made sure that all receive medical attention, some of them orthopedic care. This one could not be stroked on her lower back, where the surgeon had operated on her vertebrae. That other one was so traumatized, that he did not allow anybody to touch him – in fact, every time I tried to overcome his suspiciousness, I would see so much pain and fear in his eyes that I soon gave up my attempts to befriend him. And then there was the unsociable pack, four dogs led by a big brawler which kept to themselves all the time and made it quite clear that they wished to be left alone. All were checked regularly by veterinarians and dewormed every six months; their good health was certified as far as I was concerned by the total absence of any halitosis.

The cats were more discreet, as cats are wont to be. They were joyfully chasing each other up and down the trees in the garden, trying to avoid the dogs. One had a front leg missing – for it, a board had been placed between the roof of the house and a nearby tree, so that it could walk from one to the other where the others simply jumped. Maryam called it the “cats’ highway.”

I don’t know whether Maryam, like her distant forebears, saw a piece of paradise in the eyes of her beloved dogs – but she created paradise for these abused creatures here on earth. Having shared it with her and her family for a week is one of my fondest memories in life.

Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi lives in Cambridge, Massachussets


Recently by Houchang Esfandiar ChehabiCommentsDate
Notes on Pinglish
Jan 23, 2012
more from Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi

Bless Maryam and the beautiful memories she created

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on


inspirational and uplifting.

My next female dog needs to be called disi

since pardisi is pahlavi for paradise

where the word originated from


I dare say...

by پندارنیک on

An emotional must-read...


Beautiful story, what a charming and caring friend

by Bavafa on

Very touched by Maryam kindness and her free spirit. Also, reminded me of the poor animals (cats & dogs) in Iran who just as the people of Iran can not live free of fear of the Islamist culture and practices.

May she rest in peace.

'Vahdat' is the main key to victory 



Beautiful blog

by Shepesh on

What a wonderful kind person. More people should be like this.


Jahanshah Javid

Lovely Maryam

by Jahanshah Javid on

Thank you for your loving recollection. It fits my impression of Maryam. I never met or spoke with her. Her free spirit and deeply caring character came through her emails. And what a smart and "donya dideh" person she was... She is very much missed. Her spirit lives in everyone she touched, including all the strange creatures.