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From America to Iran,
I took my first steps amid the ancient ruins and oil fields of Solomon's Mosque in Iran. It was the fall of 1964 when my family left the urban bustle of San Francisco and touched down in a tiny airport. The short runway was surrounded by barren hills dotted with towering flare stacks. I was barely six months old, and my mother, Laleh, remembers holding me close while my father and sister walked ahead of us to the terminal, a stone hut with two small windows and a corrugated metal roof. The offensive smell of sulfur from burning gas was everywhere. As the sun beat down mercilessly, my father, Nader, remembers an overpowering feeling gripping his gut: "What the hell am I doing here?"
My parents, raised in America, were proud of their Iranian heritage even though they barely spoke a word of Persian. So when the opportunity came for my father to work in Iran, they jumped at it. Being hippie intellectuals, their souls were ready for adventure. The design director of my father's architectural firm in America remarked to him upon his departure: "Nader, don't pull the cave in after you!"1
First impressions of Solomon's Mosque went downhill from there—the taxi drove my parents past poorly cast curbs painted alternately black then white along a narrow asphalt road winding among the hills. An occasional donkey crossed the scene and a lone, leathery-faced nomad from the ancient Bakhtiari tribe watched as we passed. He wore traditional dress: a domical black felt hat, black-striped vest, and hand-woven shoes called givehs.2 Welcome to the neighborhood! Arriving at our first home, we found a scantily furnished apartment with no curtains for privacy: My parents hung bedsheets as drapes until our furnishings came from America.
A Harvard-educated architect, my father had accepted a job with the National Iranian Oil Company to design housing for its workers in the oil fields of southwestern Iran. This barren land would be where our family made its first attempt at integrating modernity, in the form of architecture, into a place steeped in tradition. My father's mentor—the great American architect Louis I. Kahn—had observed that traditions are "great mounds of golden dust free of circumstance. If you grasp of this golden dust, you will gain the powers of anticipation of the future."3 Determined to learn the valuable truths held by the architectural traditions that surrounded him, my father wanted to incorporate the essence of lasting tradition into his own modern work, thereby rendering a new, similarly timeless tradition.
Solomon's Mosque, known as Masjid-i Sulayman in Persian, is some hundred miles from the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris, Euphrates, and Karun rivers join in the province of Khuzistan.4 It was in this place that the first modern oil wells were drilled in the Middle East. On May 26, 1908, British adventurer and financier William Knox D'Arcy struck oil. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, Winston Churchill managed to convince the British parliament to buy 51 percent of D'Arcy's company. The oil from Solomon's Mosque fueled the Royal Navy's creation of APOC—the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.5
Solomon's Mosque later became the center of British and American military operations during World War II. The Allies used Iran as a staging ground to ship supplies to the Soviet Union. American soldiers stationed there shortened the name of the town to MIS. During that time, my maternal grandfather, Abol Ghassem, lived there for several years. An American-trained physician, he was head of the department of surgery at the oil company.
The town was, not unexpectedly, even more desolate back in 1943. Every afternoon, on the hills behind Abol's home, the servants fetched the herd of cattle, milked the cows, and served the family pure cream with dates for a delightful afternoon snack. The afternoon entertainment consisted of my uncle Jamshid, then a young boy, wrestling a wide-eyed calf while his awestruck siblings stood by. Jamshid would charge, grab the calf, and bring it to the ground, to the laughter and cheering of family and servants who had gathered to watch. When the children were fast asleep under the night sky, protected from merciless insects in great big mosquito nets, the night watchman warded off the bandits who were known to roam about. In the nearby country club, British oil workers and engineers dined and drank.6
By the time we arrived in Solomon's Mosque some twenty years later, none of my mother's family still lived there. My parents thought that they would be going to a traditional Iranian town, but what they found instead was a planned company town like one you would find in the West, conceived by non-Iranians who had neither lived in nor visited the region. Solomon's Mosque and nearby towns like Abadan became essentially "frontier migrant towns" arranged to meet the needs of the oil industry rather than the social and environmental needs of the people.7
Still, my parents were pleased to find neighbors who were British-trained Iranians also employed by the oil company. A well-dressed couple who had come by to welcome us had a brand new Chevrolet parked outside their home; my father could not help thinking to himself: "Have they made the same mistake?"
We soon moved into a residential area reserved for management. My parents had been led to believe that there would be a company store "just like an American supermarket." In reality, a hand-cut stone room with great big air-conditioning units shoved into all the windows passed as a meager general store. Inside were nearly bare shelves with just a few items for sale, such as canned foods from England. For anything fresh we had to go to the local bazaar, where camel caravans had come with goods from along the ancient silk route for centuries.
Our new home shared the supermarket's aesthetic. The stone walls had been cut from the surrounding hills. They were three feet thick, and small windows were set into them amid large rooms with fourteen-foot-high ceilings.
After some time our car and household belongings arrived by ship from America. Unfortunately, the huge crates had been stored in the open so that rain and then mildew had ruined just about everything my parents had shipped. We did receive our car—a beat-up secondhand VW Beetle. Bewildered, the man at customs asked: "When you were entitled to import free of charge any fancy car that you could resell for a fortune, why did you bring this?" But a big sigh of relief came when my parents discovered that their Eames chair—made by the architectural team of Charles and Ray Eames from bent rosewood and black leather upholstery—had arrived in perfect condition. It became our source of pride in our stone house under Solomon's Temple.
According to Shia tradition, King Solomon was a legendary architect and builder as well as a judge who was known for his wisdom and justice. "Solomon" means "peaceful" and there are ancient sites throughout Iran named after him. Said to have had a magic carpet and to have spoken the language of the birds, he gave generously and in exchange asked only that those to whom he gave be obligated to act with compassion. Local tribespeople described an eternal flame of the Zoroastrian faith that had burned at Solomon's Temple.8 It was perhaps an important sign that oil was first discovered in Iran in a place named after him.
The site was built around the time that all of the Fertile Crescent came under the rule of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC, at which time he issued the famous Seal of Cyrus. Inscribed on a clay cylinder, it is the first human rights decree, as Cyrus proclaims: "I am Cyrus, King of the World. When I entered Babylon I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land. I kept in view the needs of the people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being. I put an end to their misfortune. The Great God has delivered all the lands into my hand; the lands that I have made to dwell in a peaceful habitation."9
Solomon's Mosque was the precursor of the great complex built by Cyrus in Pasargadae, where he was buried, and which would ultimately culminate in the creation of the ritual city complex of Persepolis. Magnificent cyclopean stone blocks were built against a hilltop; they were cut out of solid rock and extended into a terrace, on which had most likely stood a square stone tower, inside which burned the Holy Fire, symbolizing truth and purity.
It is unclear when the temple was named Solomon's Mosque (Masjid-i-Sulayman or MIS). My parents believed that it probably came after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century AD, when a sacred place in the eyes of the new rulers had to be a place of prayer. By the time we lived there, it was only a historic monument and no one related to it in a sacred way except for my parents, who perceived it as an important milestone in the development of the ancient architecture of Iran. It was for this reason that a year after we arrived, my father found himself in a fight to save the temple from being destroyed to make way for a housing development. Quickly he helped organize public awareness and also sought the help of government authorities, taking his fight all the way to the governor general of that province. The governor general, who had been a protégé of my paternal grandfather (he had once served in the Finance Ministry), took the case to heart and stopped the housing development. My father's persistence awakened the authorities to the value of preserving the past. He then donated his design for a museum to display the archaeological finds at the temple site. His decision to fight to preserve this temple instilled in my older sister, Mani, and me the importance of tradition in the way we live our lives in the present day.10
My parents remember me as a restless child, lovable but also temperamental. "I remember your curly hair, your little nose, and penetrating Bakhtiari eyes," my father says, "but you would become moody and sullenly aloof, silent. We understood in time that it was something that you just went through, like an inner storm, and once it had passed, you were our jovial, lovable little girl again."
Mani and I spent many early mornings running in the fields among the red poppies, called laleh in Persian. Friends from the company gave us a collie, and we naturally named her Lassie. We fell in love with Lassie and were heartbroken after tragedy struck in the form of a snakebite. Soon enough we found out that there were not only snakes here but also scorpions. Heeding the elements, my parents turned one of the rooms in our house into a playground with swings hanging from the exposed pipes in the ceiling, a sandbox, and monkey bars. Our indoor playground became an absolute necessity when the temperature would reach 140 degrees—in the shade.
In the evenings there would be the occasional trip to the open air theater. One of the feature films at the time was the 1962 Hollywood hit Brothers Grimm. I was not even two years old, but my mother remembers me being captivated by the fairies and princesses as I watched the movie under the moonlit sky.11
In her attempt to learn more about her Persian culture, my mother would recount bedtime stories to me and my sister from the Shahnameh, the Arthurian–like chronicle of the mythical and historical early kings of Iran. The 60,000-rhymed-couplet poem took thirty-five years for the poet Abol Ghassem Ferdowsi to compose. My mother would take special care to find stories about women in this famous Epic of Kings.12
One of her favorites was the story of the female heroine who acted independently, ignoring the "what will people say?" admonition. This "lioness" broke free of the biological role that had been cast upon her as a woman and became a warrior. She had been inspired by fate to be fearless and bring wholeness to herself. In another story a woman crowned "king" was not afraid to mete out justice; "She ruled the land with gentleness so great that even the wind of heaven did not leap from the dust."13
It must have taken a leap of great faith for my parents to leave San Francisco for Solomon's Mosque. They had lived in an artists' community on Wisconsin Street in Potrero Hill near my American grandmother, Helen, whom we called Mama Helen. My father had been hired at the prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he collaborated on the John Hancock Building, and designed his first building on the UC Berkeley campus. My mother would walk to the local market and had a close circle of friends with whom she traded babysitting duties. My parents participated in many of the San Francisco peace marches against the Vietnam War. My mother loved playing the guitar, favoring songs by Joan Baez and James Taylor. One of her older sisters, Paree, who had changed her name to Love, had moved to the Bay Area and opened up a hamburger shop that served hundreds of Love-burgers and Love-dogs a day. It was the early 1960s, a time of soul-searching for American people.
My sister, Mani Helene, was born in 1962 in this cultural wave. She was named after my paternal grandmother's nickname (Mani) and my grandmother Helen. A year and a half later, anticipating my birth, on April 1, 1964, my mother walked into the delivery room at San Francisco's French Hospital, and after a relatively painless delivery gave birth to me and walked out of the delivery room that same day. My father called his maternal aunt, Afsar, the only immediate family he had in America, to tell her the good news. Being an Iranian, she was hoping for news of a son. When he told her that my mother had just delivered a second daughter, she said: "Nader, is this an April Fool's joke?"
They named me Iran, after the ancestral homeland they longed for. For a middle name, they chose Davar, after my paternal great-grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar, an important historical figure in Iranian politics. After I was born, my family's life would take a course different from the one they'd expected.
The word Iran means "Land of the Aryans" and comes from the invasion of Indo-European tribes from Central Asia into the region sometime after the Ice Age. They moved onto the Iranian plateau in large numbers around 1000 BC. They spoke a language called Aryan, a word meaning "aristocrat." The birth and infancy of the region are described in the mythical part of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, based on the oral history passed from generation to generation among the dehqan, or landed gentry.14
Ferdowsi asked: "Who was the first who invented kingship and placed a crown on his head?" The dehqan answered: "That time goes back in the memory of human beings. A son was taught it from his father who related every detail as he had received it from his father."15
In the summer of 1964, my mother's sister Shireen and her husband wrote to my parents from Abadan, in southern Iran. Both my aunt and uncle worked for the oil company and suggested that my father consider a job designing housing for its workers.
Having been part of the folk, peace, and civil rights movements in America, my parents now longed to renew their Eastern roots, to awaken to its possibilities. In San Francisco my father worked in a large, hierarchically structured firm where he was considered a young designer, one of many, who brought in a modest income. However, in Iran, the cost of living was lower, the respect he could earn was exponentially greater, and he had the opportunity to become a great architect.
For my parents the possibility of going to Iran meant that they could finally learn what it was to be an Iranian instead of just having the nationality. Having been raised in America from a young age, they did not really know what it meant to live as an Iranian or a Muslim. They were drawn to the land of their ancestors because they wanted to experience their heritage.
Being Iranian meant knowing the poetry of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh as well as the moral voice of the poet Saadi, and, of course, the mystical poetry of Hafez.16 It meant practicing hospitality, friendliness, and joy while knowing a bit of the history of each Iranian city and the country's rich culture of both the arts and the sciences. It meant experiencing the architecture, touching the handicrafts, relishing family and religious ties, and finding out what it meant to be a "pure Iranian." Having been influenced by their American upbringing, they realized they could never be "pure Iranians," but the rest was in their reach, waiting in the stillness of time.
By the 1960s the Iranian oil company was actively recruiting American-trained Iranian professionals to replace British Petroleum staff after the oil industry had been nationalized, making the housing of employees the responsibility of the Iranians. My father's cousin was a board member at the oil company and was instrumental in recruiting my father.
A year after we arrived in MIS, my mother wrote to one of her sisters that it seemed as if her life in San Francisco had never existed. She wondered why she and my father had not come to Iran sooner. The words of her brother Cyrus must have had an impact on her: "Too many Iranians have lost faith in their own culture, have forgotten their great history, have abandoned their arts . . . for what? For this materialistic civilization of the Western world!"17
It did not take long for my father to realize that he too was glad they had come to Iran. While working as head of the oil company's architecture department, he began to get involved in archaeological digs in the area. A French archaeologist, Roman Ghirshman, who was working on the Achaemenid and Sassanian sites, asked my father to spend weekends with him documenting his findings in the south of Iran.
There, my father first noticed the care with which an archaeologist took a half-inch-wide sable paintbrush to the centuries of dust that covered the stone threshold of a temple, the seventh-century Bardi-i Neshandeh, under which lay gold coins that could date the site. It was here that it was made apparent to him the real value that history places on his chosen profession; he realized that architecture had very deep meanings, particularly in an ancient land such as Iran.
Whenever possible we traveled as a family throughout the south of Iran. We went on special tours to the town of Shush, where Shia tradition says Daniel of the Bible is buried, and Shushtar, where an underground city of flour mills from Sassanian times leads to cavernous openings into the river. We also saw the ancient Elamite site of Choga Zanbil and the Dez Dam.18
Copyright © 2007 by Davar Ardalan. All rights reserved.