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Seda: Voices of Iran

Davar Ardalan's My Name is Iran

Davar Ardalan is a senior producer with National Public Radio (NPR) News. In February 2004, in a three-part Morning Edition series, she traced Iran’s struggle for a lawful society along with her own personal journey between Iran and America. She lives in Severna Park, Maryland.

Excerpt from Chapter One of From America to Iran

Ardalan, Davar.  My Name is Iran (Holt, 2008).

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!”

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. 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.” 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. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.”

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.


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