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Where I Live by Gina Nahai

The pull of a palace of childhood

She left behind the Tehran home 30 years ago, but not its mysteries.

January 13, 2005|Gina Nahai

Where I live now the walls are painted green and yellow and ocean blue. The ceilings are high, the rooms forever inundated with light. There are rosebushes in the yard, and bougainvillea and a lemon tree I once planted by mistake, not knowing what it was or whether it would grow, and which surprises me still every time it blooms. Up Benedict Canyon and right below Mulholland Drive, in the once-remote border between the Valley and the Westside where aging movie stars had come to hide before the developers arrived. There's a market nearby where, in the time it takes to scan a gallon of milk, the clerk will tell you all about his latest fight with his wayward boyfriend, a coffee place where a young Russian woman -- bleached hair and too much makeup and clothes you suspect she can hardly afford -- arrives every afternoon with her elderly mother, and a deli with an outdoor patio where Joni Mitchell sits on hot summer evenings, smoking cigarettes and speaking softly to companions who seem to hang on her every word.

I've lived in this house for 14 years, and before it in others. I've lived in apartments and hotel rooms and even, for three years when I was in boarding school, in an ancient castle with famous ghosts and portraits of dead aristocrats.

But all that time I've also lived in that other house -- the one I left 30 years ago but that writes itself into all my stories still; where I spent my childhood, where memory began, and where I find myself, alone with a thousand voices every time I close a door, sit before a page, try to tell a tale.

That other house is where my grandparents had lived when they were still young and wanted to be uptown -- on Tehran's Shah Reza Street that was, at the time, a prestigious address. My grandfather had made a small fortune selling French cigarettes in Iran. He owned one of the first automobiles in the entire country, had a chauffeur with a serious opium habit, and a butler who had been "given" to him as a child by peasant parents who knew they would not be able to feed him. My grandfather spent three years building a place that would reflect his good taste and social standing.

There was a three-tiered yard that spanned an entire city block, sparkling pools with fountains in the shape of dolphins and fish, giant statues of Persian emperors with silver skin and golden scepters standing guard in every corner. There were tall sycamore trees and stone walkways, a wide terrace, a set of French doors that opened into a large salon with red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers. In the servants' yard, a pair of heavy-set women squatted with their chadors wrapped around their waist and their arms buried to the elbow in pewter tubs. They washed the sheets with lavender bleach, hung them out to dry in the sun like the sails of a pirate ship. There was a room that was always locked and to which only one person -- my grandmother -- had a key, a ballroom that occupied an entire floor and where, for one brief moment when the stars were still bright, my grandparents had entertained the city's elite.

But the moment had passed too soon and the lights had quickly gone out in the grand ballroom, and Shah Reza Street was abandoned by its upper-class residents in favor of the hills of Shemiran. Embittered and feeling betrayed by his friends' exodus, my grandfather refused to follow suit and settled instead into the chaos of people and cars, of mules and bicycles and traveling salesmen who mingled in the gloomy light of Tehran at dusk. He gave up his office and moved into the first-floor salon where he read the paper, took his meals and received visitors. He left the house only a few times a year -- to attend a wedding or a funeral, or to avoid meeting with the tax man who dropped in to collect his bribe.

My parents were married at the Officers' Club downtown, then came to live with my grandparents on Shah Reza Street. By then, the plaster on the walls had turned yellow and the black stone floor was cracked and uneven. The rooms were too large to heat properly in winter, the hallways too drafty, the roof teeming with pigeons that flew in through an open window and became trapped in the curtains on the dining room wall, in the kitchen alcove, behind the glass doors of the mirrored closet in my parents' bedroom.

My mother learned to cook from the servants, sent the butler to buy bread and milk and groceries every day. She took sewing classes and learned to cut patterns, bought English wool and French silk and made clothes that my sisters and I would wear to our school plays and end-of-term dances. She read pirated American novels and went to the movies and collected postcards with black and white pictures of Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford. She kept talking about moving into a smaller, more modern place, a house she could furnish and maintain in her own taste. She talked about sending her children to study in Europe, leaving Iran with my father and setting up house in America.

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