Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Once There Was a Shah

I was seven when my father entered my life permanently. Before that he was an elusive figure who would appear for a day or few hours and then he was not there, with disappearances and durations that I could not keep count of and measure.

My mother, younger brother and I were living in Tehran, the center of national activity and culture, bustling streets, movie houses, theaters, and other places that captured a very young mind’s yearning for things to have and learn. My mother went to her work without a veil cover and most women around us were the same. We were attending a very unique private school for children of the Iranian elite with a very varied and stimulating curriculum, and an exciting playground. We studied Farsi in the morning and English in the afternoon with friendly female teachers. We had theatre performances and all kinds of play things that would have not been part of our daily lives if we had to go to another school. We were not of a privileged class nor could we have afforded it. Probably my mother being the school vice principle granted us that privilege.

His entrance turned our lives upside down, my father moved us to a small town, Shahrud, northeast of Iran. Of modern things Shahrud had only a movie house, four streets and a circle in the middle where these four met. Other than the occasional bus or truck passing through, there were no other cars. The town seemed to have few female occupants and on the rare occasions that they appeared, they were all clad in veil. The school we attended was a government run school, devoid of everything except worn out benches that we settled on them in rows, without smiles and were lectured by very stern men who punished with tree branches. Everything in the city or lack of it was an occasion to complain and question my father’s wisdom of bringing us into “this hole”. Nothing could be done but to cope, we stayed in Shahrud for seven years.

As one of my pastimes I developed a taste for listening on adult conversations. The most exciting ones were when friends of my parents came to town and stayed with us. Deep in their reminiscence I would become transparent and listened quietly. While sitting I could step into their world where my father was transformed into an adventurous, heroic figure. The Shah, whom we sang his praise in school on occasions of his birthday or his comeback through the 1953 coup, became a blood thirsty villain whose secret police (named later SAVAK) killed my father’s political colleagues and tortured my father. His disappearances were his times of hiding or being on the run from the SAVAK. I became fearful and angry hearing he was strapped to a bench faced down and whipped while his jailers pulled on his arms to stretch his back. That inflicted the most pain. On other days he would be left in his cell, for hours, hands tied behind his back, one coming over the shoulder and the other over the hip, with special handcuffs. These cuffs were designed to get tighter around the wrist when they were pulled apart, gradually cutting through skin and meat reaching the wrist bone. These descriptions were so horrific that being kicked and slapped around, at other times, sounded that he was having a reprieve. I developed a deep hatred of the Shah, taking my revenge, trying not to sing his praises in the school or skip those sessions altogether.

It was easy to capture these stories and let them burn their marks on my mind, others were more complicated and took longer to grasp. My father was a member of the Tudeh Party (Mass Party), espousing the same ideas as the Soviet Communist Party. I was used to hearing every day the anti communist propaganda on Radio Tehran, the only station with a clear broadcast. Routinely we listened to it each morning as we prepared for our school. These political tirades were followed by a children’s program. It condemned the communist traitors to the throne and one morning I heard my father’s name among the cursed. At times, in the evenings, my father tuned in to the Radio Moscow Farsi broadcast, constantly adjusting the dial hoping to find a spot with a discernible voice amid the statics that the government was putting on the airways. He would turn the volume down and put one ear next to the speaker. He did not want the neighborhood to find out about his discretions. He had to report periodically to the district military governor and his indiscretions could have consequences. Shahrud was his exile, the extension of his jail. I was my father’s prison mate and as this sank in, my complaints melted away turning to a love for him.

I used to stick my head next to his, listening to Radio Moscow, despite my mother’s protest, “do you want to get them into trouble like yourself”, chastising my father. Understanding little from the radio, by asking questions, my father little by little explained what the truth is. The communist government in Moscow is for the workers and there is no poverty in Russia (synonymous with the Soviet Union in conversations), and that is why Shah’s government is propagandizing against it on Radio Tehran. That made sense to me; Shahrud’s poverty was all around me. Russia turned into a dream country and later it turned to a dream that we were denied.

After the 1953 coup, Tudeh Party was declared illegal by the Shah’s government with a widespread crackdown on its members. As a safeguard, the party began sending its key members to the Soviet Union. In that process the party apparatus gave my father a counterfeit passport to follow on that route. A long border between Iran and the Soviet Union made such a move relatively easy, as many party members moved up there. But before his move was completed, the party apparatus took his passport away explaining, his was needed for a more important functionary. He went to jail instead.

During one of those dream sessions of listening to Radio Moscow my father told me about this story, asking me not to repeat it anywhere. I never did. His telling had a tone of regret for a missed opportunity. He intended to escape the persecution, move to Russia and later send for us to join him as some others did. His story had some hints of criticism against the party while for me it was an instantaneous rejection of the party and a hatred for a dream denied. I had seen a model wood working book printed in the Soviet Union which I dreamed to have one. I imagined living among other happy Russian workers; having freely access to those books, busy making my models!

Years passed; my father’s work as a pathologist and my mother as a teacher improved our lives. We listened less and less to Radio Moscow and began creating our own dreams. Through more contacts with the westerners in Iran, my father’s outlook shifted. He started painting a different picture, “Russia and America both are equally valid and good for their citizens, and for us in Iran we are condemned. Forget about politics, study hard and study sciences, both countries need good and capable scientists and you will find your place.” We never heard of the party members who had gone to our original dreamland and the shift in our dreams left them there.

More years passed; the Soviet Union started showing signs of cracks, iron curtain came down and the Tudeh Party émigrés to the Soviet Union started moving out with their nightmares. Memoirs got printed telling of their experiences of the Russian Gulags. Many as soon as they stepped into the dreamland were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and starved on the suspicion of being the agents of the west. After many months and years bearing the Russian Gulag, they were handed over to the Tudeh Party machinery in the Soviet Union, which operated its own little Gulag.

We read these memoirs. One sunny summer Seattle day sitting in our joined yards watching beautiful flowers and the birds flying around, my father said, “I was lucky my passport was taken away and I went to jail instead”. I said “We were lucky”!

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Written on January 28, 2010 when I took a writing course with Steve Lorton at North Seattle Community College. It became an eulogy to my father, Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Zahraie. Lorton gave me the title as a writing assignment.

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