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The Zand Trail


22 Dec 2009 01:047 Comments
grampszand.jpg[ passport ] I wondered what of my trip to Iran I'd remember; of course, I'd recorded much in my journal. But only so much can be recounted or recorded, and memory is such a frail device, especially in my family. So what of those moments which evade reference? For instance, will I recall drinking four Zam Zams a day to make up for the fact that coffee wasn't available in Arak or Yazd? Will I recount the lines in every bank, bakery and bread wagon that you can't even call lines, for that implies some kind of order, when in fact it's a general principle in Iran that anyone has license to cut in front of you, for the concept of "cut in front of" doesn't exist? Would I remember that, in the country of the highest number of traffic fatalities in the world, I'd only seen two tickets handed out -- both for parking violations? And would I recall that I had to move out of the way or risk being run over by four motorcycles and a car -- while walking on the sidewalk? Would the image of passing schoolgirls robed in hejabs and giggling at the feeble "salam" presented by a disoriented American leave enough of an imprint to remind me that teenage girls are the same the world over? Would I recall, someday at our local Shaw's grocery store while picking out a nicely sanitized package of boneless chicken breasts, the topless crates of whole chickens I saw dragged down a dirty set of stairs in the hot sun, and the sour odor they emitted? I wondered what I'd take with me from the bus ride between Yazd and Shiraz. The bumpiness, the tendency for the huge bus to pull out and pass only after the driver has come within spitting distance of the other vehicle's bumper? Or that they played an Iranian-dubbed version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and the only words I made out unmistakably were "Dickie" and "Tom Arrrripley"? And how the soundtrack that blared throughout the bus jumped up or down with the picture, following the rhythm of every jolt? And that there was no way to get comfortable in the seats as my brother and I endlessly shifted positions, leg to leg, elbow to elbow? And when we arrived in Shiraz at 3 am, sitting in awe in the back of the taxi while we caught our first glimpse of Zand Boulevard, its colored lights endlessly strewn, realizing that this was the Emerald City of our dreams, what we had worked toward and imagined for over a year: The home of our ancestor Karim Khan, leader of the short-lived Zand Dynasty. Upon the first sighting of Karim's imposing citadel, tapping the driver on the shoulder, and saying, "Zand hastim" (we are Zands, or at least that's what we were shooting for) and his pronounced lack of interest (which didn't deter our enthusiasm in the slightest)?

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

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Your story is so touching, so American. I hope I don´t miss the next installment!

Madeline Samples / December 24, 2009 3:50 AM

Indeed, it seems that Orientalism is alive and well. They are barbaric people who have no idea of order. They are not aware of civilized world's "coffee", and they can't appreciate all the wonderful "modernity" that the Euro-centric colonialist have bestowed on them.

This underhanded descriptions are nothing but the tool of neoliberals and neoconservatives who wish to denigrate the "other" to justify their decimation and plundering of their wealth.

I assume only that Tehran Bureau is trying to be so neutral that it allows such abusive articles to be published. Thus, I can't fault Tehran Bureau.

Then you should expand your coverage to life in the US, where I have to drink coke because I can't find descent tea anywhere. The garbage this people call tea is sickening. Anything thrown in a glass of hot water is called tea. Persian dogs would run off of such offerings.

Please, understand the diabolical mind of the "modern" west, which after 200 years, still continues to use demonizing as a tool of war. What is the difference of this article and the axis of evil speech?

I understand that it is important for the west to co-opt all that the ME has given it, from mathematics, to astronomy, sanitation, the foundations of modern philosophy, and medicine, and before all of that agriculture and social order.

The first comment is so great by calling this articel "so American", I would say "so Western". I think it is important to provide some kind of editorial control or at least editorial voice when such drivel is allowed on such a respectable web site.

Nassim Sabba / December 25, 2009 4:28 PM

Lines at the banks because of numerous windows and lack of direction may be unclear; but elsewhere, particularly at bakeries(except those who want not more than two pieces of say lavash) lines are much observed. The exception at bakeries makes sense. Many people want dozens of such bread and the poor guy who needs only two probably to eat right away shouldn't wait all that time. People accept this as a charity.

Anonymous / December 25, 2009 9:06 PM

I think Nassim is way too defensive over this very personal story, from what is essentially an American with a partial Iranian heritage.

Myself, a half-Iranian, I experienced plenty of culture shock when I traveled from my home here in America, to live and study in Iran amongst persian relatives and a people I'd met for the first time.

From what I read into this author's account, he isn't attempting to belittle his heritage. Rather, he is speaking as an American encountering (I would say) amusing elements of culture shock.

The worst you might call him is "ugly American', but I certainly wouldn't.

Looking forward to the next installment!

Pirouz / December 26, 2009 11:52 AM

To seek news of heritage and distant relatives is well worth the effort of the travel. Thank you for beginning to share your story, and I look forward to reading more.

Peg / December 29, 2009 1:59 AM

Dear Sir,

I found your article enchanting and I was envious of your link to the earliest days of the Baha'i Faith. (I am a member). There were indeed a wonderous core of Iranian Baha'is who left everything behind to follow Baha'u'llah, on foot if necessary, living in caravanserai or even caves at times, while in disguise (it was extremely dangerous to identify openly as a Baha'i in those days, they worried not so much about themselves but about the well being of the exiled Baha'is who were imprisoned). I am sure you must be proud of your Iranian heritage. Millions of Baha'is around the world would envy you for having such an ancestor.

shams9 / January 30, 2010 1:18 AM

Thank you Rick, great article.. I guess this is the success story of the melting pot of America, being native Indian, Mexican, Latino, French, English, Irish, Scottish, Arab, Iranian, Armenian, East European and so on the list can go forever, some of these people will always relate to their past " Ancestors " because of the richness of it, as obviously Rick's ancestors who contributed a lot to the East and West and of course some just want to forget about their past as they don't have any significant family history to talk about, they like to burry their head in the sand like an ostrich, I don't blame them maybe their are ashamed of their past and that's why in most cases these people are negative and have bad attitudes towards people who are proud of their rich past history...

Last but not least looking forward to hear more......

Kamel Irani / February 1, 2010 9:30 PM