I was born in Kerman, a sleepy desert city in the south of Iran known for its carpets and pistachios. In those days, these native commodities also determined the position and attitude of those whose lives depended on the production and marketing of each. My nanny Fatima, who instilled in me my first notions of how the world is ordered, told me at a very early age that those who dealt with carpets dealt with money. They were merchants. They were called aqa or mister. A whole other category of people, among whom my family had a rather prominent position, dealt with land and its produce. They were called khan.The third category of people were workers, who were called adama or human beings. My nanny was a member of this last category. I later learned to appreciate the subtle value system implied by this categorization.
The house in which I was born was part of a complex where my grandparents, my uncle Moussa and his family, and my parents all lived. The buildings looked out on a pistachio orchard. Once a year, at the end of summer, the tree burst out into the grape-like pink clusters that contained the pistachio nuts. The rest of the year the leathery grayish-green leaves looked parched, dusty, and dry. The small pomegranate tree near the pool, however, had a profusion of shiny green leaves. Its flame-red flowers seemed to draw nourishment and moisture from some inner source.
Our rooms were part of the building that was called the andaroonor or the inner house, where the private living quarter were located. To the left of this building was a larger compound with wide steps leading to a pillared terrace. This was the birooni,or the outer house, in which our grandfather entertained visitors, conducted business, and once a week mediated arguments and conflicts, or, in times of ap epidemic, ministered to the sick.
He was a slight man with thin white hair. I remember him wearing a long gray coat over striped charcoal pants, a costume resembling the formal morning coats of the British. Every afternoon he walked about the terrace, his arms clasped behind his back, fingers moving swiftly around his string of prayer beads, with his head bent over, lost in thought. We were not to interrupt him during his walks, nor were we to approach him when he sat on a stool waiting on a line of men, and women who came from the villages to ask for his help with problems. Sometimes the problem was medical. During an epidemic of trachoma, many families came from the villages to kneel before him while he lifted their heads and turned their eyelids outward, touching the inside of the lid with a medicated sugar cube intended to cure their trachoma. But silence was never so strictly observed as when Sarkar Aqa, the Honored One, the elder of the family and the religious leader of the Sheikhi clan; returned a visit. “Sarkar Aqa” walked in with slow, measured steps, his long black cloak, and white turban giving him an air of great authority. He was always accompanied by one or two other members of the family who walked behind him at a respectful distance.
Grandfather was connected in my mind with situations of import and gravity. Once I saw him preside over the trial of a servant boy accused of stealing. A pot of boiling oil was placed in the middle of the terrace, and the entire household stood silently in a circle around the pot. The boy was brought forward, and Grandfather explained the rules to him in a calm, kind voice, as if he were the referee in some new sporting competition. If he had not stolen the object, he explained, Allah, who sees all and knows all, would protect him from harm, and his hand would not be hurt by the boiling oil. If he was guilty, then his hand would surely burn. Just as the boy was moved closer to the pot, he burst forth with his confession and asked for forgiveness. He was sentenced to ten lashes, and we all were told to forget the incident, for the boy had pllid his dues, repented, and would now have a clean slate.
Another time I saw Grandfather punish a scorpion that had struck the gardener’s son, nearly killing the boy. The scorpion was surrounded by a circle of red hot coals and it moved round and round inside the circle trying to escape, drawing back as it felt the heat from the burning coal on all sides. The scorpion’s movements became quicker and more chaotic. I had never seen an angrier scorpion in my whole life. Then it did something amazing: it turned its poisonous sting upon itself, struck its own midsection, and died.
Powerful as my grandfather was, he was overshadowed by the status and authority of my grandmother, who was a Qajar princess. Grandmother never moved from her room, except at lunchtime, when she presided over the noon meal. She always sat in her usual place, leaning on cushions made of finely embroidered wool and receiving visitors the better part of the afternoon and evening. There was always a samovar steaming in the corner and a tray holding delicate tea glasses and many plates of carefully arranged sweets. Waterpipes, nargileh, were brought in at regular intervals for each new visitor. From this spot, Grandmother controlled the household, determined the power and prestige of various members of the extended family by giving or withholding special tokens of support and interest, and regulated the affairs of the staff.
At two in the afternoon the family gathered around a sofreh, a rectangular white tablecloth spread neady across the long room. Dozens of cousins, children, grandchildren, and visiting relatives sat on the carpet around the edge of the cloth. Karbalai Songor, the wiry, dark-skinned cook, a stern and proud figure, was an important personage at these gatherings. Her title, Karbalai,which came from the privilege of having visited the tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala, gave her an added air of authority. She insisted on carl rying the first of a number of large round copper trays which were full of bowls of rice, khoresht, and yogurt across the cobblestoned courtyard, around the circular pool in front, up the stairs, and into the dining room. The serving dishes were placed on the sofreh near Grandmother, who would place special morsels of meat on the plates of her favorite guests. Grandfather, with much less deliberation, randomly took pieces of meat from plates nearby and fed them to his two cats.
At lunch we always had abgoosht, a thick soup or stew made with lamb, tomatoes, potatoes, and garbanzo beans, and spiced with herbs and lemon essence. It was a reliable dish, since with the arrival of unexpected guests of unpredictable numbers, at the last minute the cook could add extra hot water to the soup without much damage to its taste or quality.
The children were expected to be silent at lunch. Adults spoke as often as their age and status permitted or when asked a question by the elders. An occasional inquiry about the menu was answered by Karbalai Songor, who stood in the corner behind Grandfather during this meal. The children usually giggled quietly and carried on with their own private games unnoticed by the grown-ups.
Villagers came regularly. Usually, the front gates would swing open, and donkeys would saunter in carrying on their backs loads of fruits and vegetables from the farms–melons, cucumbers, and potatoes. They were followed by a villager wearing a long coat, a wide black sash, and a small felt cap perched on his head. Grandfather carefully listened to their reports and managed to figure out their various dialects.
The reports from the villages were seldom cheerful. The weather never seemed to behave as expected; it hailed when the orange blossoms were most vulnerable, a heat wave struck just when the fruit had ripened, and frost came when it could do the most harm. But the household managed these mishaps and went on with its usual routines, absorbing whatever news filtered in from the outside. Back then the world was solid. Everyone had his or her place in the hierarchy, and law and order presided over a peaceful household. There were very few surprises. Everyone knew what to expect and was trained to do what was right for him or her and to take the consequences for any transgression. The laws of nature, of God, and of the household were not questioned. No one went hungry or was without shelter or clothing. None of us questioned the rightness of the order of things. It was hard to predict how rapidly all that would change.
Late one afternoon, I was playing by the flower bed, where I was making a miniature garden with waterways and canals. I tried to plant the lentil I had gotten from the kitchen, but my heart wasn’t in the project. I knew the gardener would eventually flood my garden when his own plants required watering.
A stillness had descended on the place. I knew that Grandfather was sick. Earlier, the doctor had come, and I had watched him walk up the steps to Grandfather’s room, his black-suited figure moving hurriedly across the courtyard with Jalal, the head house servant, almost running after him, carrying his black leather bag. On other days, he would stop and ask, “How are you, little khanom?” He would leave an hour later, giving me a pat and a smile, and move on, leaving behind a whiff of alcohol. I felt lucky that I had not been the one given a shot. It was commonly understood that any doctor worthy of his name would give at least one injection a day to any patient considered to be ill. If he was a serious doctor, he would also give a combination of pills, powders, and ointments. One cure would never do; the more important the patient, the more varied and complicated the remedies.
But that particular afternoon, the doctor walked into the room and didn’t come out for a long time. Then, suddenly, my mother rushed out, her long skirt sweeping around her legs. She came down the main staircase and bent over me. She took my hand and told me in a hushed voice that my grandfather wanted to see me. I bent down to pick up my shovel. She pulled my arm and rushed me toward the staircase. The room was dark and the doctor sat by Grandfather’s bed. Uncle Moussa and my father stood by the window on the far side and two other men sat nearby and whispered.
Grandfather’s bed was in the middle of the room. His head, buried among the small white pillows, seemed so small. He slowly turned his face toward me as Mother gently pushed me to his side. He looked at me with gray, watery eyes and patted my head and said something I couldn’t understand. I looked at my mother and saw her smile. I stood shifting from leg to leg. My grandfather turned his face and stared at the ceiling. My mother gently took my hand and we walked out. She told me to be very quiet and then turned and went back inside.
That night Grandfather died and the whole household was flung into a new era.
From the forthcoming Scenes from a Life
In Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change • Elizabeth Fernea (ed.) • University of Texas Press • 2002