The Zand Trail
by RICK ZAND
22 Dec 2009 01:04
Long before this journey, however, came the stories. Maybe I remember the stories because they were always available for the telling, my father providing his nightly performances while I was tucked away with cowboys and Indians, Arizona roadside trinkets adorning my shelves -- silver spurs, arrowheads forged from hard plastic, a painted tomahawk, a sombrero-topped marionette I'd picked up in Nogales, its dark face fixed with a sardonic grin. My bedroom became my father's stage ten minutes before lights out, with tales of his hometown, Bint Jebeil, in Southern Lebanon, of his father, Mohammed Ali Zand, a wanderer from Shiraz who kept a little tobacco tucked in his cheek while he gardened, who treated people from miles away for a chicken or basket of fruit -- given there was no other doctor for miles. The stories gave way to elaborations -- genies that inhabited wells, a Persian ancestor who was a king until he had his eyes burned out, his throat cut. It was here my father characterized the incision with his index finger slicing across his throat, an image for me to hold in my dreams as he backed out of my room, the door closing slowly until the wedge of light from the hallway sewed itself shut, and I was left in the dimness, staring up at the shadowy outline of the spur, the arrowhead, imagining some other world where eyes were plucked from skulls, where ancient kings fought and died, and where my grandfather, ancient beyond what I could fathom, born nearly 120 years before me, worked with herbs to heal the sick.
More than thirty years passed before I picked up the thread of the stories. Thirty years brought me from Arizona to Texas to Colorado and finally, Vermont. What precipitated my revitalized interest I can't precisely recall, except that it might have been a way of dealing with my father's Alzheimer's. As his memory faded, my family needed to solidify our roots. We needed to know that the fabric of our heritage wasn't simply disintegrating with him. We needed a sense of permanence. A record. So there became in my family, between my two sisters, my mother, my brother, and soon others as the project spread to cousins in Lebanon, Iran, Qatar, a growing interest in constructing a family tree. Unfortunately, it seemed to me the typical sort of activity that engages a family of middle-aged children, and exactly the kind I wanted little to do with. A rubric of birth dates and names held no appeal for me; it revealed nothing of either the personalities or the myths that each kept hidden. It boiled everything down to its most rudimentary and empirical shape. So I systematically ignored the updates, the inquiries and progress reports. I received packets in the mail with a flowchart of my Persian roots and facts that held no relevance, the names of the long-dead whom I'd never met, never had any chance at meeting as they were born nearly a century before me, their bones at rest in some far-away region of the world. I let the manila envelopes collect in my closet.
Finally, from one of those packets slipped out a two-page biography of my grandfather, Mohammed Ali Zand. A picture of him had always hung in our home, a colorized reproduction of a man with a thick white beard, a white turban wrapped around his head, one ear flipped to the outside, his square face strangely tranquil, his milky eyes half open. All I knew of him was that he came from Persia, treated the sick, and died white bearded when my father was ten. I knew he'd been married twice, had nine children with the first wife, then settled in southern Lebanon where he had three more with my grandmother, my father being the middle child from that marriage. I knew he was descended from a Persian king somewhere down the line. Some distant royalty. But that was a story, perhaps with no more truth to it than the genies in the wells that chased my father in his boyhood.
My grandfather's story was simple: he'd come from Shiraz. His father was a wealthy landowner (later, I would question this, as the Zands suffered a great deal of persecution under the Qajar Dynasty). Disaffected by Shi'ism, he found his way to the teachings of Bahai, and to its leader, Bahuallah. Due to rigorous persecution, the sect was forced to leave Persia.
What did Bahai'ism represent to 19th century Persia, and what about it could have drawn my grandfather in, so much so that he risked all -- his country, his wealth, his family -- to be a follower? He left Persia with almost nothing -- a large rug that he dragged with him across the near east until parts of it were threadbare. The rug now sits in my brother's farmhouse in Vermont, an odd Oriental relic among so much rustic Quaker. Any money he took allegedly went to Bahuallah, whom he followed to Turkey, then Syria. Everything else he lost. No one ever knew the name of my grandfather's father, not my father, not my aunt, nor even his only living son, 95-year-old Tawfiq who lived in Broumanna, Lebanon. Nor have any of my cousins (and there are scores tossed across nearly every continent) ever heard mention of their great grandfather. It makes sense that after converting to Bahai, my grandfather was disowned by his family. Even on the practical level, given the persecution of the Zands that existed already, even perceived allegiance to the Bahais would put the family at serious risk. I knew my grandfather never returned home. Probably, he couldn't if he wanted to. And he never told stories of his father the way my father had of him. Not even his name.
In tracing his path, and that of Karim Khan Zand, my older brother and I joined forces and traveled throughout Iran. We hoped by some miracle we would discover the link between us and Karim Khan, if only we could uncover the name of my great grandfather and link him to what we knew of the Zand descendants. Our hopes weren't high for such a discovery, but at least we would explore the geography I'd only imagined from my father's bedtime tales. And at the start of our journey, we didn't realize how close we would get to learning our place in our ancestry as we followed the pathway of Karim Khan.
End of Part 1
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