Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran

By Fatemeh Keshavarz | Go to book overview
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3 My Uncle the Painter

Once when my uncle was in charge of the army personnel office in Shiraz of the 1960s, an officer walked into his room and approached the desk with a note from an influential superior. He saluted my uncle and said, “I am Colonel X, and this is a note from General Y” The note said the man's business was important and needed urgent—and favorable— attention. This was a common practice known as towsiyeh. Often it did not involve a physical bribe. Important people wrote such notes in exchange for favors. Decent people, my uncle included, disliked the practice. He took a look at Colonel X, pointed to the rows of wooden chairs and the people sitting on them waiting to talk to him, and said, “Please take a seat.” When Colonel X had done General Y a favor, he had thought he would never wait in lines again, not in the army offices. Surely the head of the personnel office had not paid attention to the note. He saluted my uncle again and repeated, “I am Colonel X, and this is a note from General Y” My uncle looked at him with quiet, unimpressed eyes and said, without a trace of anger or ridicule, “Please take two seats!”

There are so many other stories I could have told you. But this is how I want you to meet my maternal uncle the painter, in his elegant military uniform, completely unimpressed with corrupt power. In fact, many people —including him—wondered how he ended up in the military in the first place. It was one of the ebbs and flows of life, I guess, one that he had been too young to resist. In the Iran of Reza Shah, it had become fashionable for young men to enter the recently established military academy. My great uncle had already graduated from it, and my grandfather on my mother's side had thought it to be the wave of the future, and thus a good route for his son to take. My uncle had complied out of respect for his father, even though he knew early on that his temperament was not that of a military officer.

His temperament was, and still is, that of an artist. He is gentle, extremely polite, humorous, subtle, and yet impatient with mediocrity and

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