Issue 4 - Spring 2007 - The Big Issue
IN THE LAND OF THE ARYANS
A novelist returns to Iran to meet Karl Friedrich and the Last Jewish Tailor of the Grand Bazaar of Tehran
BY SALAR ABDOH
You first came across the story years ago, after an encounter with the Jewish owner of a small appliance shop near the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. The fellow told you how every Saturday morning one of the hothead local mullahs and his muscles would crash the synagogue and make the congregation chant something.
“What is it they make you chant?”
“Death to Israel.”
“And you do?”
“We sort of mumble something about death, and they’re satisfied. Until the next Saturday.”
This is the story you’ve been sitting on, and already other characters have begun to populate it. Like that Jewish fabric merchant you ran into in the Gholhak district once. His two girls, he said, had left for America long ago. He sits in a dim little shop now, his fabrics collecting dust — selling nothing, waiting.
But when are you going to put these fellows’ stories together? Maybe never, you’re afraid. Years pass. You move to New York City and end up working for and with old men who have those tattoos you’d only heard about and seen in movies. But these men are real. They speak Polish to each other. They call you Sol instead of Salar. They tell you a few things about bygone days, but they don’t tell you much. Except one of them, Charlie, cries a lot. Charlie is a crier. Yet somehow he’s even got a picture of himself from the camps. They had him working as a mechanic there, he tells you. One time he shows you the photo.
And then you go back to Tehran.
The revolution that took everything from your family took place a quarter of a century ago. You were a kid then. Revolutions happen in different ways, but what they basically do is to take things from people, just plain snatch lives away and shit on them. You imagine this was pretty much how it must have been for Charlie and Mr. Horn and Trudy and all the other people who used to call you Sol in New York. But then revolutions also have a way of fizzling out, becoming bad impersonations of themselves. This is your hope. Your father owned a bowling alley once; at the time, it was the only bowling alley in the Middle East. You’ve come with the idea that even if you can’t get that bowling alley back, you can beg and bribe your way toward getting some of the other confiscated property. To do that, you need to work with relatives who have stayed in Tehran all these years. And, without a doubt, the one person you need to do a song and dance with is your great uncle, a man well past ninety who still keeps his secrets close to his chest and will not tell the family just what kind of real estate they owned before the revolution.
Now take all these characters that are in your head, add the reason why you’ve come back to Tehran, and dwell on them for a while. You think you’re getting close to your story. You really feel the closeness when you happen to be passing by the bowling alley your dad built to keep the Americans amused and spending. Taken over by one of the crooked revolutionary foundations, the place is a shadow of its former self. And yet, a tremendous two-story bowling pin now stands outside of the club. That damn pin is a reminder of just how good the revolution stuck it to you.
You have your story now. It’s all there, in front of your eyes: a story about a fellow who comes back to Tehran to see what he can wheedle out of the Islamic Revolution.
Your great uncle is no help at all. He couldn’t care less if the mullahs give anything back or not. He’s one of those guys who keeps safe deposit boxes in different European cities. What’s in those boxes? He never signs anything himself; he gets others — his wife mostly — to sign things for him. Why all the secrecy? You never really knew the man before, and it’s taken all these years and return trips to Tehran to find out that he was a PhD and a chemical engineer working for the Nazis during the war. Your antennae go up immediately. My great uncle, a Nazi and a chemist? This is not an entirely unlikely scenario. A little research into twentieth-century Iranian history tells you that, even before World War II, Nazi tendencies ran deep among a segment of the intellectual class. Hell, even the name Iran is dubious, said to have been recommended by Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the Nazi economic minister, who persuaded Reza Shah’s ambassador to Berlin that Iranians ought to be promoting their Aryan heritage. And so they did: in 1935 Reza Shah issued a directive that all Western countries should henceforth drop Persia and use the local name Iran — the Land of the Aryans. The switch was as absurd as the Egyptians insisting to the rest of the world that they be called Al-Misr; the Germans, Deutschland; the Indians, Bharat; the Greeks, Hellas, etcetera. Such quirk of fate, too: these educated men change the country’s name to “Land of the Aryans” not because they despise Jews so much, but because they thrive on their everlasting distaste for another Semitic lot: the Arabs. But in doing so they manage to make the country sound uncomfortably close to an Arab neighbor recently carved from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire: Iraq.
And, in the end, how does knowing what you now know about your uncle help you with anything? The Islamic Republic wouldn’t give you weak piss for tea, let alone your bowling alley. Your only recourse is the story you’re finally about to write. So you start with a narrator much like yourself who, once in Tehran, runs into all types, including a character named Isaac, who calls himself the “Last Jewish Tailor of the Grand Bazaar of Tehran.” Isaac, of course, is a blend of the Jewish appliance merchant you had met near the bazaar years ago and the lonely Jewish fabric merchant in the Gholhak district. In your story, this old tailor explains that the local revolutionary militia has recently devised a novel way of tormenting him: they’ve hired little kids to follow him around wherever he goes, constantly showering him with water. Needless to say, old Isaac has a permanent cold.
So. Now that Isaac has told your narrator about his anguish as the Last Jewish Tailor of the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, it is time to deal with your great uncle. In the story, you choose to name him Uncle Karl Friedrich. And you have your narrator confess to Isaac your uncle’s Nazi past; such a good Nazi this Iranian PhD had been that in fact he’d changed his name to Karl Friedrich! A chemist for his beloved Germans, he’d finally returned to Iran in the 1950s and assumed an important post in the Iranian tobacco ministry. Then you have your narrator ponder the following:
So what do you do with all this information? What was an Iranian chemist doing in Vienna and Romania circa 1943? And don’t forget that in your story, Isaac, the Last Jewish Tailor of the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, is still waiting for you to come back to him. In the meantime, you recall Charlie and Trudy in New York, and of course you recall old Mr. Horn, who gave you a job once and called you Sol. And you think about your great uncle in 1943, and you think about gas and gas experts and about the Land of the Aryans and the story you’ve been trying to tell, and …. And like a guilty little louse, you collect these thoughts all together and slink away somewhere in Tehran’s polluted lair to begin to write. &