As soon as I came out of my office I saw him at the end of the hall. He was standing at the elevator, waiting, waiting for me, I knew. I stepped quickly back into my office and closed the door before he had a chance to turn and wave. I waited ten minutes and tried again. Coast clear. I took the elevator down to the lobby and there he was, waiting just inside the front door. Please, God, not again.
“Sabah al-khayr. Good morning, professor.”
“Good morning, Irfan.”
He swung open the door and stepped aside.
I passed through, aggrieved.
“Thank you, Irfan.”
Why couldn’t I just be graceful in defeat, I thought. Why not just smile as he breaks my sword across his knee?
The struggle between us was long and hard fought. Irfan was an Iraqi graduate student, a highly intelligent and profoundly traditional Muslim who had studied at Cairo’s famous al-Azhar madrasa and learned his manners at the knee of generations of Arab forebears. And he was as relentless as he was polite.
Traditional Muslim training of the type that Irfan had received at the Azhar did not include the same skill set as that required of Western graduate students in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. He knew the Quran by heart, for example; they did not. He cited it from memory while they identified it by chapter and verse numbers, markers that were unnecessary and unknown to him. And so on down the line. His Arabic was fluent; theirs was labored. But they also knew some Persian or Turkish, which he didn’t, and had French and German as well, essential research languages in Western scholarship.
Irfan was worth a shot in the admissions committee’s eyes, however: a traditionally trained Muslim with a Western-style research Ph.D. was a highly desirable product, it was thought. We would take that rude rote learning, that undeniable, if uncritical, mastery of the Arabic sources, and turn them into a glowing paradigm on a new world a-dawning in Islamic scholarship, and, chuckle, we would create an Edward Said nightmare, a kind of anti-Orientalist Frankenstein. Irfan Ghazzali —How happily omened the name!— was given a full scholarship and was appointed, or rather, I appointed him, my research assistant. We would waltz together, I leading with elegant academic sophistication, he dancing more gingerly backwards on his traditional high heels.
It did not go well. All academics are obsessive to a degree, but Irfan was overmastered by his ration of obsession. His progress through a line of text was barely visible to the naked eye. Each word crept up on the back of the next like a serial pile-up on the Jersey Turnpike. He did not unpack a passage with the tools of philology—text emendation, tampering with the received Word, was a kind of blasphemy to him—or of intersexuality; rather, he slathered the text with the musings of every Muslim savant, genius or hack, in the ten centuries between the author and himself. Irfan was neither angry nor argumentative; he was simply not buying into our critical Enlightenment premises. Frankenstein indeed.
OK, an academic misstep that would eventually resolve itself one way or the other. In the meantime, Irfan seemed to be enjoying himself. He loved American coffee and shyly loved American girls, mostly from afar. And he loved being my research assistant, which he construed to be after the manner of what the Arabs called a suffragi, a kind of factotum who performed every conceivable task, except, of course, research, which was as alien to him as a novena to the Sacred Heart. Irfan appeared every morning on the lintel of my office door to inquire cheerfully if there were any messages to be delivered or dry cleaning to be taken care of. To our mutual regret, there never was.
I could navigate around this little daily charade, our morning Kabuki performance. I once even entertained the notion of sending, via my personal messenger, a handwritten for-your-eyes-only note to the dean –tenure doth make adventurers of us all—but quickly concluded that the dean didn’t deserve such entertainment. What I could not deal with was what I had come to think of as the Jihad al-bab, the “Striving of the Door” or the Great Tafaddal War, the struggle that sent me backtracking fearfully into my office or skulking out the emergency exit of the Middle East Center.
The Arabic “tafaddal” means at its simplest “Please” and, like that English word, expands into “Be my guest” or “After you.” These are universal forms of politesse, the first often signaled by an outward sweep of the hand, the latter by an arm raised shoulder high behind the recipient’s back. It is simply a way of signaling to another that he or she should precede you through a doorway, down a path or, I assume, into the Abyss. Ladies 8 to 80 in elevators acknowledge the signal with a delicate nod of the head; heads of state use the more manly raised arm to concede precedence into the State Dining Room or to the banked microphones of a shared news conference.
“Tafaddal” may be murmured on these stately occasions if they occur in a Middle Eastern setting, but it is also the grease that customarily lubricates the wheels of hospitality there. When I entered unannounced a village residential courtyard anywhere from Morocco to Iraq, dressed in what was to the inhabitants outlandish garb —they might never have encountered a foreigner in the flesh before—the owner would be at his doorstep in an instant. Ahlan wasahlan, “Welcome!” “Tafaddal!” The sweeping arm is raised and I am seated opposite him on his carpet, his children on one side, his wife, slightly back, on the other. Cigarettes, peanuts, tea, and within five minutes we are chatting, this modest gentleman and his unannounced guest from Mars, as easily and comfortably as if he was the protocol chief of a Saudi prince or if we had both graduated from Our Lady of Solace parochial school. Hospitality, the nuclear core of tafaddal, is buried deep within his cultural genes.
These are pleasant and gracious encounters, but it is also important to recognize the appropriate moment to begin the prolonged and negotiated process of leaving. If there is a smell of cooking nearby; if the lady of the house quietly leaves the room; if a child is sent speedily out the front door: all these are signs that a meal is about to be prepared for the guest, and once it is set in train, there is little chance of escaping the banquet experience. No matter how poor the family, no matter the time of day or night, no matter that grandma is dying in the next room or the donkey is foaling in the stable, victuals will be rustled up and the guest will be well advised to start thinking of a plan to avoid staying the night.
To be fair, tafaddal may have saved my life. I was in Nablus on the West Bank in what was thought to be a lull between Intifadas, the periodic Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation. On TV these clashes between Arabs and Israelis seemed to consist almost entirely of tires burning in the streets and young men throwing rocks at heavily armed Israeli tanks. Not so on the ground. It was mid-morning and I was walking on a bustling commercial street when I heard gunfire. I had never heard real gunshots before but I knew of a certainty that someone was firing a gun somewhere very near. Pedestrians bolted in all directions, kafiyyas flying; shops slammed shut. I ran blindly, head ducked, up a narrow alley. Breathing heavily, heart pumping, I leaned back against a shaded doorway at the far end of the alley. Suddenly it opened behind me. I turned. There was a woman standing there, puzzled, smiling.
“Tafaddal,” she said, with a delicate sweeping gesture.
I entered the cool, dark room, still shaken by the gunfire.
“Tafaddal,” she repeated, pointing to a low divan.
I sat down and, yes, there emerged cigarettes and peanuts and, soon after, tea.
“Ahlan wasahlan,” she smiled. “Welcome.”
The stranger had simply dropped in for tea.
“Lovely day for an Intifada,” was what I was thinking. But I didn’t say it. I thought it might be impolite to mention the unpleasantness outside.
The graciousness of tafaddal, the social lubricant, the sweet, rich balm poured out upon the guest’s head, had finally oozed out of my contacts with Irfan Ghazzali. The politeness that had charmed in the basalt villages of south Syria had quickly turned to an irritant on Sullivan Street in New York City. Here I was, a fully evolved adult male, annoyed by the slowly dawning awareness that I was being invited, then constrained, and finally coerced into entering and exiting every portal in Greenwich Village in advance of this smiling young man who stood aside and said “tafaddal.”
At first I did as he bade. How not? Noblesse oblige and all that. But in a while, just to vary the routine and show him that we were all virtual equals, the lofty tenured full professor with the Ph.D. and the lowly graduate student, I gave him the arm behind the shoulder signal and smiled him a “This-time-you-go-first” smile. He ignored both the signal and the smile. “Tafaddal,” he insisted, a tad, an unmistakable tad, more insistently. I tried again at our next encounter. No deal. The “tafaddal” had acquired a steely ring. I paused. He waited. “Tafaddal.”
I know a gauntlet when it’s thrown down before me. I tried to match him, steel to steely tafaddal. We stood motionless for interminable minutes before doorways as others passed around us with odd looks. Tafaddal. It was just a matter of time before we would be locking arms behind each other’s back, caught up in a fierce brazo a brazo, each urging the other, in the name of politeness, to pass first through the sacred portal. He had on his side a tradition of unrelenting jihad and the inbred patience of the Other; all I had was my puffy Freudian ego. It was no contest. I crept in the side door before dawn; I skulked out through the basement after dark.
I have been a trifle unkind to Arab etiquette, I know. They have a code of social behavior, what is called adab, that has been composed of old Bedouin steppe behavior, where guest hospitality might often mean survival in that bleak environment, the tradition of the behavior of Muhammad, the Muslim beau idéal in all matters of adab, with a dollop of human kindness and a splash of plain old one-upmanship or maybe keeping up with the Bustanis. And I have been its beneficiary often enough to regard my extended arm-wrestle with Irfan Ghazzali as simply an annoying aberration.
Irfan is long gone now, without his Western Ph.D., alas, and I have made my peace with the practitioners of tafaddal, not because I matured or became more reflective. More simply, and less flattering to me, I became infected with a more virulent form of the disease, ta’aruf.
That is what the Persians call their overhauled version of politeness, ta’aruf. It is a word borrowed from the Arabic, presumably because it was the Arabs who taught the rude Iranians manners. In its original setting it meant merely a mutual recognition, but once it was abducted into Persian, it was charged with describing a broad range of polite social interaction from delicately calling a spade a spoon, which in the Iranian version makes the Western euphemisms seem like crude truespeak, to coercing an overnight guest to sleep in the host’s bed and, should the rank of the guest so dictate, with the host’s wife. Whispered, murmured, lisped, shouted or sung, ta’aruf is a verbal kowtow that would put a coolie to shame.
There was no foreplay here, no casual dithering in the mild hinterlands of ta’aruf.
“The phone leaped from my hand in pleasure at the sound of your voice.”
Skander was Skander Faroosh, the goateed ball of smiling Iranian insincerity who a few months earlier had drifted into my placid waters like a piece of Persian Gulf flotsam.
“What can I do for you, Skander?”
“I know if I called I would receive some precious piece of wisdom from my famous colleague.”
Like hell he did. When Faroosh called, it was with something quite specific in mind, and that was never wisdom. The something usually boiled down to some piece of his two master projects: to insert himself into a faculty somewhere, preferably Harvard but Fairleigh-Dickenson would do; or to run a conference. Faroosh fancied himself the maestro assoluto, the Lennie Bernstein of academic conferences.
I had two end-game options: “We’re not hiring, Skander,” or, “Where’s this one going to be?”
“How can I help you, Skander?”
“It is helpful just hearing your voice.” (Arghhh!) “A marvelous opportunity has arisen.” (That’s more like it!) “Sayyid Hossein Nasr is coming to the city in March and I thought it might be appropriate to arrange a conference in his honor….(thoughtful pause)…on Sufism and eros. Many of our colleagues have begged to attend. You will give a paper, of course, and it will be brilliant and I will arrange for publication.”
This was all Faroosh boilerplate. X and Y have already signed on, which of course they haven’t, so you, Z, don’t want to be left out. It generally works. No self-respecting academic Z wants to be left out of anything.
“I don’t know, Skander.” (I loved saying “Skander”) “I may be away in March.
Academics have very flexible schedules and they can arrange to be “away” whenever it suits the moment. But the schedule of a conference that existed only in Faroosh’s mind was more flexible still, and we both knew that his pipedream could be moved at will.
“No matter,” said he, “We’ll see to that later. And your university, so dignified, would be the perfect setting. I was thinking of the Goldman Auditorium in the Law School. With your benediction and your impeccable standing in the university…”
The extraordinary thing is that somehow, sometimes, it worked: there would be a conference. It might be at the end of October two years from now, it might be at Adelphi, it might be on the imaginaire of Mulla Sadra, and it might in the end have nothing to do with a doubtless much relieved Sayyid Hossein Nasr, but by spreading his extravagances and false promises across a broad academic landscape, Dr. Skander Faroosh would be at the podium and X, Y and Z would all give papers, and so would I.
Faroosh was an academic gypsy: a course here (Hofstra), a lecture there (Pace), Adult Ed. at CUNY, an occasional night course at Baruch, but never the Holy Grail, a full-time tenure-line appointment. And when you got Skander Faroosh, for however brief the stay, you also got SAPI, the Society for the Advancement of Philosophy in Islam, his spectacular creatio ex nihilo. But as the Scholastics wisely noted, ex nihilo nihil fit. Faroosh was its sole officer, and possibly its only member, and its academic footprint was piles of its official stationery, with a telephone number (Faroosh’s own) but no address and a list of Honorary Sponsors that would put a Forest Hills synagogue to shame. But, one was assured, it would be a feather, albeit a virtual feather, in the cap of the institution fortunate enough to host, however briefly, SAPI and Faroosh’s stay in its precincts.
Faroosh passed through my own precincts once or twice. Yes, I confess it: the closet at the end of the hall was once the world headquarters of SAPI, and its stationery still occasionally turns up at the bottom of piles of reusable paper. I hired him the first time because I could not resist scheduling a course on “Eros and Agape in Ibn Arabi and Yassir Arafat.” Faroosh invented courses with the same ease, and with the same results, as he created SAPI. Three students signed up—one an Israeli who knew who Arafat was; one who knew what eros was and thought, Hey, why not? And one young damsel whom Faroosh assured he gave nothing but A grades in his courses, which was, for once, true. But since registration was below the mandatory five, the course was cancelled.
Skander Faroosh’s every word, including, pace Mary McCarthy, the “ands” and the “thes,” embodied the hyperbolic extravagance of ta’aruf, its “step on my eyes” quality. But on one occasion I caught in his draft a whiff of something else, its relentless insistence.
The scene: the Faroosh apartment on Lexington Avenue, maintained, one imagined, with the help of Faroosh senior, who sold Audis in New Jersey, and adorned with the presence of Rosamunde Faroosh, Skander’s knockout blond German wife –How did that happen? —who taught Thomas Mann at SUNY New Paltz and who favored leather suits and men’s tuxedos. Was I missing something here?
I was invited to spend an evening there at what was described as a soiree, which meant drinks. I attended in the company of a young woman dark enough and exotic enough to stand up to the redoubtable Rosamunde, so long as she didn’t play her tuxedo card. When we were ensofaed and drinks were offered, my companion allowed she was not feeling her best and would much appreciate a glass of water.
“Cognac is excellent for what ails you,” Faroosh offered.
“No, not up to that. Just a glass of water.”
“I have an Iranian liquor my mother says is divine nectar.”
The lines were hardening.
“Champagne! You deserve champagne, even though champagne doesn’t deserve you.”
“Orange juice. Allow me to squeeze to death some oranges that already have your melodious name planted within.”
Her melodious name was Margaret.
This went tediously and then painfully on as Faroosh ran through every beverage known to man or imagined by an Adjunct Professor of Persian and to the increasing discomfort of my companion.
“Just a glass of water,” she finally hissed, with “you creepy asshole” as an unvoiced but unmistakable colophon.
Faroosh, repulsed but unbowed, retreated to the kitchen and eventually returned with, yes, water, except that it was in a brandy snifter and floating on its surface was a sargasso of rose petals.
“The roses called your name from the garden. Who could deny them?”
Hold on now. Before you conclude that all Iranians are mindless social buffoons, consider this. I had a delicious Persian graduate student, one Hamida Bakhtiari, lovely of face and carriage, gracious in manner and generous in spirit. And her generosity was of the practical kind. Twice a year she flew to Tehran to visit her parents, and on her return she invariably brought to her professor fresh from the Caspian a stash of Beluga caviar in a chilled container the size of a hatbox. Lovely girl. And a straight A student.
To everyone’s delight Hamida Bakhtiari married Daniel Shore, a fellow graduate student in Islamic studies who possessed a Donny Osmond smile and a manner as ingratiating as her own. Hamida’s father was the Deputy Minister of the Interior in the Shah’s government, and so when the newly married Shores received their MAs, the couple moved to Tehran where Hamida had a guaranteed job with the Melli Bank, which had paid her tuition, and David, well, David would not starve.
A year passed and then there arrived an invitation to visit the Shores on my next trip to the Middle East. I was in fact going to Afghanistan in that summer of ’70, so why not stop off in Tehran for a few days and see how Hamida and David were making out? I told them I would be arriving on June 15th, and sure enough, on that very day I was at Paris Orly and boarded Air France’s direct flight to Tehran.
The flight was full, I was told, but that was a grotesque understatement. I must have stumbled onto the Vol Grande Dame Iranienne. The aisles were choked with said ladies under full cosmetic and couturier sail who were attempting to stuff the entire contents of the Rue St, Honoré into the overhead bins: furs, wines, millinery and, in one brave instance, a crystal chandelier. A female intercom voice suggested that the aisles must be cleared everyone should be seated immédiatement. Apparently neither “aisle” not “cleared” is found in Persian lexicography, and “immediately” is an alien concept from the Pillars of Hercules to the Hindu Kush. The ladies did not sit, the chatter did not cease and the chandelier hung perilously out of its lodging. The intercom voice changed from female to male and its mode was severe. Nothing. Continued chatter, frantic stuffing. Finally the cockpit door flew open and the captain himself stood there, glistening with gold braid and red with anger.
“Mesdames,” he thundered. “The aircraft with not ascend from the ground until all the overheads are closed and you are cinctured into your seats.”
He might as well have been speaking in Bantu. The ladies had other things on their mind, like keeping their Parisian loot as close as possible to their persons.
“Eh, bien,” said the captain. “I am descending from the aircraft and I will summon airport security. We shall see who is charge of this airplane.”
And so le capitain descended and le Securité ascended, capes atwirl and kepis awry, and amidst a blizzard of Hermès orange and Chanel yellow, accompanied by the ladies’ squeals in French and Persian, the precious gear was wrenched from expensively gloved hands and stored below in the Louis Vuitton Happy Valley of a baggage hold. And one adamant beldame sat with a chandelier in her lap and her eyeliner in streaks down her face for six hours between Paris and Tehran.
On the drive into the city from the Tehran airport, David attempted to prepare me for what lay ahead.
“I agreed to come here only if we could have our own place,” he explained somewhat sadly. “But Dr. Bakhtiari” –Dentistry? Forestry?—“insisted that he had a very large house and that it would be expensive and foolish for us to live anywhere else.”
“I guess.” Oh, oh.
“So we live with them. But I held out for a separate entrance to maintain some privacy.”
“Large house” was a very generic description of the Bakhtiari residence. Mansion might be a little closer to the mark, or perhaps castle, here protected not by a moat but be a high wall, the which every provident Middle Eastern homeowner erects around his domicile to ward off the Envious Eye and the Tax Collector.
Within the gated enclosure, Maison Bakhtiari had, on its bold and shameless façade, two identical doorways sitting cheek to cheek. In one stood a smiling Hamida and in the other Farhat Bakhtiari in a glistening grey silk suit and, at his side, Mrs. B., a slender and elegantly turned out lady who had thoughtfully donated her world-class genes to her daughter.
David led the way up the steps to Hamida. Embraces all round—Who doesn’t love her old professor?– and many happy greetings.
“Welcome,” said the Deputy Minister of the Interior, who now stood behind his daughter. “Welcome to David’s Entry.”
He said it without the slightest trace of irony or sarcasm. He was genuinely proud of his having complied with his daughter’s request for a separate entry for the newlyweds. Never mind that it was a foot to the left of his own doorway and that both doors opened into the same narrow foyer, where we were now standing.
I stole a glance at David. He did not meet my look. He stood there, eyes cast down, and slowly raised his hand to display the really impressive set of keys to his own private entrance to Bayt Bakhtiari. Daddy had constructed for his son-in-law not so much a Potemkin Village as a faux door, a Bab Potemkin or, more cruelly, a trap door.
We had a splendid feast of a meal behind the Twin Doors that evening, with golden mounds of chelo, the national rice pilaf with a crust so savory it has been known to turn the minds of Iranian males away from women and, among the poets, even from delicious Hindi boys. The rice was basmati from the humid Caspian shores, but the wine was from Bordeaux and the sorbet possibly straight from Paradise.
It was at that table that I learned one of the first rules of ta’aruf: “No” means “Maybe. If you ask me often enough, I will say yes.” It was quite unlike the culture in which I grew up, where “No” meant “No forever” and “Yes” also meant “No.” At any rate, I don’t recall where in that evening’s Bordeaux sequence I started saying “No, thanks; I’ve had enough,” but volleys of ta’aruf thrown like repeated left-hooks to the head finally rendered me defenseless and I squeaked “Well, maybe one more glass.” Faroosh was merely insistent; Bakhtiari was relentless, pitiless.
Out from this blanket of tipsy bonhomie slithered a serpent in the form of a plan. It was broached as a suggestion, but in reality it was a highly detailed and immutable program for the visiting professor whose stay was so regrettably brief. It was prefaced by the most extended and sincere regrets that I would not be accompanied by Dr. Bakhtiari, whose responsibilities at the Ministry….; nor by Hamida or David, her work at the Melli Bank and his… I forget what egregious lie was inserted to manumit David Shore from this unwelcome task, but both he and Hamida knew enough not to throw themselves under the wheels of the hospitality juggernaut. What about the svelte and sloe-eyed Madame Bakhtiari, I thought. Surely she would be pleasant company for a couple of overnights. It was a thought that went unvoiced. What passed as a little good-natured risqué banter in lower Manhattan has been known to lead to fisticuffs and worse in the Outer Boroughs, much less in Imperial Iran.
What all these generous people were avoiding was a trip that had been carefully planned for me and that must have seemed in the prospect so grimly rewarding that even these Iranian hospitality artists wanted no part of it for themselves. Here it was: I would be driven by a uniformed Ministry chauffeur in the Ministry’s own Land Rover to Isfahan by way of Qum, then after an overnight in the Shah Abbas there, I would proceed to Shiraz for two nights and an excursion to Persepolis. I would return by plane from Shiraz to Tehran. The chauffeur would presumably drive to Bandar Abbas and, like Thelma and Louise, hurl himself and Rover into the Persia Gulf out of shame for what he had done.
What did I know? I had ridden across bad Middle Eastern terrain, the mauvais pistes of the French ordinance maps, for maybe ten unpleasant miles in Toyota pickup trucks. Couldn’t I at least have done the math? Isfahan was over 200 miles from Tehran, a good four and a half hour drive and Shiraz another 340 from Isfahan, five to six hours on the highway. The math was a laugh however. It did not take into account the 90 degree heat and the sun glinting off the front hood directly into my eyes for the entirety of the trip. Or the intangibles of ta’aruf.
That was the post-mortem. The actual trip didn’t seem too bad at the outset. It took us a while to fight free of Tehran’s traffic and urban sprawl, but the rest of the early morning trip to Qum was through an interesting inhabited landscape, my first view of the Iranian countryside.
Qum is the holiest city in Iran. It is a sea of shrines capped with waves of golden domes. It is a city of pilgrims and a city of clerics, fierce looking gentlemen in black robes and black turbans. They are the mullahs, the religious class of Shi’ite Iran.
Muslim clerics are not clergy on the Christian model, priests or ministers who preside over a sacramental system. Rather, they are like rabbis on the Jewish model, men trained formally in religious law, the shari’ah, in madrasas, the Muslim equivalent of the yeshiva. In most of the countries of Sunni Islam, from Morocco to Iraq, the Muslim clerics had been quite willingly coopted by the government. Not so in Shi’ite Iran, where the mullahs, and the top level of their hierarchy, the ayatollahs, had kept their distance from the rulers of the land and so preserved their moral authority and their power intact. And they watched with growing dismay as those rulers introduced Western customs and notions into Iran.
In 1970 their dismay was still cloaked in careful silence. And so, just as two years later in the company of Saddam Hussein’s secular ministers at the Shi’ite shrine cities Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, so here in holy Qum I strode about amidst the crowded shrines with a minister of the state and no fear of the black-cloaked figures who watched in stony silence from the shadows.
My reflective interest in Qum began to fade an hour into the resumed journey to Isfahan. The sun was pitiless and the driver declined to converse –he was too frightened, I later discovered—and he also declined to stop when I first suggested a leg stretch and maybe a cold drink. Later, when I proposed lunch at one of the tea shops that whizzed past, his only response was “Not good,” a phrase I later learned should be parsed as “Not suitable for the eminent foreign guest. Signed, F. M. Bakhtiari.” That latter host extraordinaire, after closely enquiring into menu, cleanliness, décor and general ambience, had personally selected the restaurant en route at which we should stop, no matter that it was three in the afternoon and the eminence in question was expiring from thirst and heat exhaustion. And to crown the hospitality, my appropriate lunch had been ordered in advance from Tehran: an American sandwich! Who knew that the Iranians had reverse engineered Velveeta!
After lunch there was a new revelation in the parking lot. The chauffeur thought it perhaps now warm enough –95° F. !—to consign his uniform jacket, with the guest’s permission of course, to the rear storage compartment. It was shed, neatly folded and the storage bin unlocked. And there, nestled carefully within was a cooler, itself filled with a dozen near frozen bottles of Coco-Cola.
“What,” I managed to force through clenched teeth, “is that for?”
“For you,” he smiled, “at our 5:30 PM rest stop.”
“Dr. Bakhtiari planned it that way I suppose?”
“Naturally. He has arranged everything for your pleasure and comfort, God willing.”
God, as usual, had nothing to do with it.
We resumed our journey through the treeless landscape of bleakly parched hills, and as the miles passed my anger at my entrapment yielded to something far more satisfying, a seething spite. At the 5:30 rest stop I declined to leave the Rover and I waved off the Coke with a gesture of disdain—“I am more badu than the badu”¬¬—that I had picked up from “Lawrence of Arabia.” And I remarked to the driver that Dr. B., who was a stickler for propriety, would surely not be pleased when I told him about the discarded uniform jacket. Sometimes the only one available for killing is in fact the messenger.
We sped on to Isfahan in a silence as dead as the countryside through which we passed in the numbing heat, I in my sweat-drenched polo shirt, the driver inwardly cursing the day that Allah had created infidels. Isfahan itself eventually came up like an electrical mirage in the gloaming. Our destination was —How could it be other?—the local office of the Ministry of the Interior. On the steps were two gents in Ministry grey suits, not the Bakhtiari incandescent silk variety of course. They had been scanning the roads for hours. One of them embraced me with quite obvious relief, while the other dashed inside, doubtless the relay the good news to Tehran.
“The American doctor is well? He had a comfortable trip?”
“I barely knew we were traveling. Iranian hospitality makes the most terrible circumstances seem like home.”
Ta’aruf isn’t difficult; you just have to be in the mood.
I was checked into the Shah Abbas Hotel, an embodiment in stone of Iranian ta’aruf. It was of course perfectly appropriate, though one might have wished for screens on the windows, a condition the local mosquitos found appropriate to their needs as well. So as not to prolong the Ministry working day I was hustled almost immediately into the hotel dining room by my two overseers who sat opposite me and smiled with satisfaction at their eminent and quite intact guest while he ate off the “English Menu.” Dr. Bakhtiari had unaccountably forgotten to order for me by phone and so I had the dizzy pleasure of choosing the chicken and frites entirely on my own. And three pitchers of very cold water.
The next day there was a brief tour of the spectacular Maidan or town mall of Isfahan, a planned seventeenth century urban environment. I was allowed to look at will, though never out of sight or hearing of my two grey-suited commissars who, at the price of their jobs and possibly of their lives, were responsible for my well-being and safety. But not for my education. The gentlemen from Interior had little to say about the Lutfallah or Shah Abbas mosques, and the Ali Kapu palace seemed to take them completely by surprise. How long has that been there? What they did know about was the Grand Bazaar that opened from the north side of the Maidan. At its entry they conferred with much twitching and anxious glancing at me and at the market. Clearly they had not been advised for or against its appropriateness for the precious, and radio-active, visitor.
When in doubt…
“No, there is not enough time for the bazaar, Excellency.”
That title must be kept in some kind of hidden holster to be taken out and fired at a guest only in extreme circumstances. Its intent was to inflate, then paralyze.
“Sure. I understand.”
Vileness too can oblige.
Back into the Land Rover and back onto the even longer road to Shiraz, the driver at the wheel in shades and his tightly buttoned uniform tunic, I at his side wondering mile after mile whether the Coke was sitting, ice cold and drizzling condensation like a shower of pheromones, somewhere behind me.
“I have to use the bathroom.”
Why not, I thought. I had not a single drop of moisture in my system, but let’s see how Mr. Chauffeur deals with unforeseen circumstances, since chances were Tehran had not provided him with a list of Excellency-suitable toilets.
He digested the news for a spell, eyes fixed on the road ahead. Even I could see that there was not likely to be an appropriate toilet within, say, 500 miles, even with the most generously broad understanding of “appropriate.” I made what I thought might reasonably be construed as bladder-swooshing noises and eventually my Dark Horseman pulled off the highway to a chaikhana.
“Tea house,” he grunted. “I go with you.”
We marched, close ranks, around the side of the building to an unmarked door. Little need for lettering. The cloud of flies and the smell that seeped under, around and through the door and filled the countryside –Was that a dead sheep lying in the field?– announced its function. The land of saffron and roses had other, more elemental odors as well.
“Do you think Dr. Bakhtiari would approve of this?”
Whether to brave the wrath of the Deputy Minister by bringing his guest to the world’s most inappropriate toilet or to savor the pleasure of forcing the brazen infidel to confront the Very Sinkhole of Shaitan? It was a nice dilemma, but malice triumphed over fear.
“Just piss,” he ordered.
OK, that round to the Forces of Darkness. We rolled on in the blinding heat, the Coke resting cool, comfortable and untouched in the rear.
“Are we going to have lunch?”
Later was, of course, much later, and in another roadside restaurant selected by the Minister as the only conceivable place between Isfahan and Shiraz where an American professor might sit to table. And again, it was bland, semi-Westernized eating. The place filled in this instance with a busload of Danish tourists headed back to Isfahan in what I was sure was air-conditioned and well lubricated comfort. They were as little pleased as I with the Iranian translation of hamburgers that were set before them, which, come to think of it, was pretty brazen of folk who subsisted on herring and cheese. Nothing to trouble the tummy here, just food to kill the soul, though the Xerxes Cola did have a kind of residual fizz to it.
Shiraz appeared magically in the twilight and, somewhat less magically, there were two more men in grey suits standing on the steps of the Ministry building.
“Welcome,” they crowed, a sagging relief written all over their faces. “We were expecting you.”
Of course they were. They were all afternoon on the phone to Tehran and Isfahan checking on the progress of the guest from the West heading toward them like some deadly Tomahawk missile. And the penalty for dropping this unexpected forward pass from the Minister? Not merely having to hand over the key to the executive hole in the floor but the loss of a job, loss of a pension and three years in a guard house on the Afghan border. Welcome indeed.
“We will come to take you to dinner at 7 PM,” they said in the lobby of my designated hotel.
Not if I can help it. At 6:30 I was in the service elevator and five minutes later I slipped out the side entrance of the Shiraz International and into the darkness and freedom. I wandered the streets for an hour, blissfully alone and more than willing to embrace any and every inappropriate venue or act that might present itself. What presented itself was the Sharzeh Restaurant in the Vakili Bazaar, where no one had even heard of the word “hamburger” and the barg kebab fell off their spits in meltingly tender surrender.
I was well into the Faloodeh sorbet, a heavenly trifle concocted out of –Holy Cow!—rice noodles, rhubarb ice milk and, since it was Iran and this is Shiraz, a generous slather of rose water, when I looked up and saw peering, horrified, in the front window, who but my two grey shadows, their faces now as ashen as their suits. My escape had set off terrified alarm bells in the hotel as my twin guardians saw their careers going up in smoke like a corpse on some stinking Ganges ghat. They had lost The Guest.
They now stood before me, pale, speechless, shaking with fear and anger.
“Salaam. Would you fellows like some sherbet?”
No, they didn’t, nor did I, as it turned out. My bill was paid before I could wipe my mouth and I was hustled out of the restaurant and back to the hotel, into my room and, in contravention of all fire regulations, even the somewhat slack Iranian ones, the door was locked from the outside and, for all I knew, bricked up until morning.
My tour of Shiraz was made exclusively from inside a Land Rover. For fear that he might attempt escape again on foot, the Eminent Guest was not permitted to exit the vehicle, which now had, squeezed in beside me on the front seat, a grey-suited middle linebacker who was described to me as my “guide” but whose real function was not to guide but to tackle in case I should be inclined to scramble out of the pocket and head for the sidelines.
The marvels of Shiraz were less a wonder than a blur –“Wait! Wasn’t that the Hafez Memorial we just passed?” “Hey! Saadi’s tomb! Stop!” There was no stopping, not even the slightest deceleration at mosque or garden, shrine or tomb, no matter how famous, not even at the landmark solar power plant.
Then it was all gone. We left Shiraz and headed for Persepolis, the immense field of ruins that was the site of the showcase capital of the first Iranian Empire, that of Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes, the misprised Shah –certainly not the last such—who attempted to beat the sea into submission. Built over several generations, the scale of both the site and of its palaces, audience halls and tombs was intended to impress the Shahs’ subjects and guests. Doubtless they did, and they still do today, the overweening monumentalism of the ruins, now enhanced by the silence that reigns like a reproof over the site.
Persepolis was intended as an advertisement of 6th century BC imperial power. The shahs ruled over a sprawling empire that stretched from Central Asia to the outskirts of Athens, where the Greeks finally checked the Persians’ imperial advancement. And it was another Greek, a Macedonian actually, Alexander the Great who, fueled by his own dream of empire, marched into Fars, the motherland of the dynasty and the site of Persepolis, and reduced it to the silent field of ruins that stands there today.
In 1970 another Shah was sitting upon the Peacock Throne, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, not one of the long disappeared Achaemenids who built Persepolis but the son of the founder of the dynasty, Reza Shah, formerly Reza Khan, the commander of a Cossack brigade who help unseat the last Qajar Shah in 1925 and who refashioned himself as a royal version of another soldier turned head of state, Turkey’s very republican Ataturk. In 1970 his son, bedecked with gold braid, medals and a throne-ready wife, was very remote from Cossacks and, he hoped, coups. He floated on a rich sea of oil, protected from dangerous underwater currents by an alliance with the United States, which kept him well supplied with military hardware and Western ideas, the latter of which turned out to be far more dangerous and destructive than the cherished Northrup F5s.
How could a man buoyed by such assurances, the oil jets below, the fighter jets above, not dream his own imperial dreams, not of conquests, to be sure –Uncle Sam had his limits, as did Iran—but of celebration, in this instance of the putative 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Iranian monarchy by Cyrus the Great? And where better to celebrate it than at Persepolis, an empty stage waiting to be crowded with players. The celebration was scheduled for October 1971, and there before me in the summer of ’70 were all the signs, new roads, armies of workers and acres of tenting, that the elaborate preparations were well in train.
The Shah’s plan was to construct at Persepolis a great tent city, individualized luxury tents, each with direct telecommunications with the guest’s homeland, to house the A-List invitees, a large Tent of Honor where the guests would be received with imperial pomp, and an immense tented Banquet Hall where all the transcendental dignitaries would be wined and dined at one very long meandering table. You might have to sit next to Mokhtar Ould Daddah, the king of Mauritania, or across from that cute couple, the Ceaușescus, who apparently owned Romania, but you could never complain that you didn’t have a good table.
I learned about the actual event the Fall following my visit from the pages of the New York Times where the spectacle in all its mind-boggling extravagance was presented to the reader as a kind of moral theater. It is generally thought that it was the Ayatollah Khomeini, the fierce miened Shi’ite mullah, who brought the Shah down in 1979. I don’t think so. I think it was Charlotte Curtis, whose daily reports in the Times of the goings-on at Persepolis were the lethal instruments that dragged Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from his jewel-encrusted throne and into exile and death. We were invited by ms. Curtis to inspect the almost surreal guest list, from the inevitable Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the only other emperor in attendance, and the equally inevitable Marshall Tito Broz of Yugoslavia, two heads of state who never missed a banquet, to Princess Grace Rainier of Monaco, Prince Phillip and Spiro Agnew –Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth were two notable absentees— the Vatican representative, Baron Maximilian Cardinal von Fürstenberg-Stammheim and Imelda Marcos.
The Iranian people were not on the list of course. They were invited to witness the spectacle on state TV, which they did and apparently drew their own conclusions rather than the ones the Shah may have intended regarding the banquet, which was staged and catered by Maxim of Paris and featured quails’ eggs stuffed with caviar and 50 peacocks roasted in their feathers. The wine was Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1945, the dinnerware was by Limoges, the linens by Porthault, service uniforms by Lanvin and transportation by –Who else?— Mercedes Benz. A good time, it was said, was had by all.
It was perhaps merely the Shah sitting down to a meal with a hundred or so of his closest friends and extending the hand of Iranian hospitality, a hospitality extravagant to the point of parody, in this instance almost to insanity. And, like almost all forms of ta’aruf, it was really all about the host and not about the guest. As I read about the scene that unfolded at Persepolis, I could think only of Skander Faroosh and his rose water in a snifter, the Shah writ small on Lexington Avenue, but unmistakably sired by the same ta’aruf sensibility: too much is never too much.
I made myself a promise: the very next time I encountered Skander Faroosh, I would do as he bade, I would step on his eyes.