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Zand Trails, Pt. 2


12 Feb 2010 16:243 Comments



Part 1 | At 11 p.m., I navigated a lumbering cart stuffed with suitcases through Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran. I'd exchanged $200, and was handed stacks of Rial notes; with nowhere to fit the wads of money, they lay atop the cart, gripped in my hand, and blossoming from my shirt pocket. I peered to the other side of the glass partition where families clutched bouquets of flowers and awaited loved ones, their expressions anxious and expectant. It struck me how in the US, we barely manage to swing outside the baggage claim long enough to retrieve our family members. Here, arrival was a celebrated event.

I searched the faces for my cousin Siamak, whom I'd never met. He'd emailed me a photo showing a burly man with a long white mustache and thick gray hair combed back in a wave. He may have spotted me first, the disoriented westerner inadvertently shedding Rial notes throughout the terminal. He welcomed me with a generous smile. The slight figure next to him was his driver, Ahrari. Ahrari was a slender fiftyish man with a toothy grin who, as I was to soon learn, drove as if the only rule of the road was his sheer force of will. On the drive to my hotel that night, and for the following days that he chauffeured us, Ahrari willed himself between cars where he clearly couldn't fit; he willed himself past pedestrians within millimeters of running them down; he willed himself forward in the wrong lane, into oncoming traffic. And somehow, physical objects like people and cars seemed to bend psychokinetically for Ahrari.

Siamak, or Sia, was an Iranian journalist, and one-time deputy press secretary to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the Shah was deposed, Sia was convicted of crimes that included having interviewed and therefore conspired with Anwar Sadat (Sadat is so reviled that a street in Tehran is named for his assassin). Later he worked with CBS News, primarily 60 Minutes, whenever they covered a story in Iran. The most recent had been the earthquake that leveled Bam some months earlier. Later, at his home, he would show me a picture of himself with Mike Wallace.

Sia was the only relative I knew of in Iran. The diaspora of our strain of Zands, all sons and daughters of my grandfather's eleven children, and their sons and daughters as well, spanned the US, England, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar -- even Israel. So far my brother and I were the first of our clan to visit Iran for the purpose of discovering our ancestry, and prying up the roots of the Zand Dynasty. As Sia would later mention, "You've come all the way from the United States to find your heritage. I've lived here my whole life and it never would have occurred to me." I realized how distinctly American this pursuit must have seemed, coming from a country made up almost entirely of immigrants. Further, many of us move from state to state, city to city, never establishing deep roots. The American identity is as post-colonial nomad.

After my brother Steve arrived, Sia showed us around Tehran. We parked in front of the former US embassy, now referred to as the US Den of Espionage. The outside wall was decorated with the famous images that include a skeletal Statue of Liberty, like the cover of a heavy metal album, and the revolver painted with the American flag that could have been drafted for a national gun show in the US. It was here Sia explained how he ended up working for the Shah. It seems that back in 1972, Siamak Zand was the bowling champion of Lebanon (he lived in Beirut at the time). When he moved back to Tehran a couple of years later, some Americans there had started a bowling league. None of the teams was Iranian, however; they were all made up of Americans working in Tehran. During this time, the Shah had taken a liking to bowling as an "athletic sport" after a trip to America. So he joined Sia's bowling team, and they won the league final. When it was all over, the Shah called Sia and a couple of other players from the team and requested they come once a week and bowl with him at the alley he'd built at one of his palace compounds. Through these visits Sia managed an invitation to work in the Shah's media department. If the Shah hadn't taken to bowling, Sia's story may have been much different.

For one, he may not have ended up in Evin Prison following the Revolution. He said his trial was brief. They wanted to know if the Shah's wife had any boyfriends. Sia grinned. "I said, this is an Islamic court, and you want to know how many boyfriends the queen had?"

As we remained parked in front of the former embassy, Sia recalled sitting in his small cell while prisoners in adjoining cells were escorted out and executed. Sia glanced out the window, his thick arm slung across the front seat. He fingered the edge of his mustache. "I reasoned that I'd had some good years, and sometimes you die young, and sometimes you die old. I would die at thirty-two," he recounted. So he waited, and every time the guards passed his door, he anticipated that it must be his turn. Miraculously, his turn never came, and he was released after a year. Maybe luck followed Sia, but I had a stronger feeling he'd grabbed hold of luck and didn't let go.

Sia next took us to the Niavaran Palace complex in north Tehran. The palace featured art depicting a long lineage of Persian kings. It also featured the marble throne of Agha Mohammad, first Qajar ruler following the Zand Dynasty. He was a eunuch who'd lived in Karim Khan Zand's court, grew up in decent circumstances with the Zand Regent's children, then greedily took control of the country after Karim Khan's death and buried the remains of the former ruler under the steps of the palace so that he could walk over the deceased Zand ruler coming and going. Agha Mohammad also had many Zands slaughtered, including the heir apparent to the Zand throne, the young and dashing Lotf Ali. Karim Khan's remains were later returned to their original burial place in Shiraz, now in the Fars Museum, after the fall of the Qajars.

Sia pensively recounted stories from his days working in the palace under the Shah. We were required to take a guided tour of the interior of the offices, which featured enormous swaths of Persian rugs, along with trinkets from world leaders, including a pair of matching green desk pieces shaped like the Washington Monument the Shah had received from his friend Richard Nixon. The museum rooms also featured Queen Farah's over-the-top gaudy taste in furniture, as well as a dentist's facility adjoining the Shah's office because, as Sia explained, he had a phobia about his teeth and always had his dentist on hand. Sia reminisced so much about his days in the palace, what room had belonged to whom, what meaning each painting held, each piece of furniture, what had been changed or moved from the original layout, etc., that the tour group literally stopped following the guide and instead trailed behind Sia. The guide had to fit her scripted spiel in around Sia's robust personal narrative.

As we walked past the palace itself, where Sia pointed out the window to the Queen's personal offices and he described her collections of art -- Warhol, Picasso and impressionist painters -- music played surreally from an unidentifiable location, as if providing a soundtrack to Sia's reminiscences. It had been the first he'd visited this palace since his days working for the Shah, and had it been so long ago -- thirty years already? The steep, jutting peak of the Alborz rose above a row of trees, into a pitch blue sky. Sia had denounced the Shah's administration just before the revolution, and was forced to flee the country. When he returned, after the Shah was deposed, he'd been arrested. Somehow he had survived and forged another life for himself within the Islamic Republic. Much like Ahrari's method of driving, I imagined -- through his sheer force of will.

To be continued.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Reminds me of our driver back in the day, Ahmed. My dad thought he was the best driver in Tehran. He was so friendly and respectful.

And who could forget the bowling alley back then? Good times. Good memories.

Ver much looking forward to part 3.

Pirouz / February 12, 2010 9:06 PM

I'm happy that I found someone from the family that I'm proud to be a member of. I would like to contact you to know more about your trip and any relatives that you are in touch with.

I'm from the Zand family who currently live in Jorda. My Grandfather's name is Kamal Kamal Mohd Ali Irani. My father's name is Fayez my uncles are Mohd Kamal Irani, Kamel Kamal Irani & Ghassan Kamal Irani (ZAND.

Kamal Fayez Kamal Kamel Irani / May 24, 2010 5:06 PM

I think I knew Siamak from his school years in Choueifat, Lebanon. Do you have an email address for him?

Ghassan M Saab / June 18, 2010 6:37 AM