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Jasmine and roses, mint and the moonlight

Senses and memories come alive in a Persian garden. But is it possible to recapture that experience in Los Angeles?

April 20, 2006|Gina Nahai and Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

AT night, the scent of poet's jasmine woke me up.

We slept outdoors, on wooden beds arranged next to the 12-foot-deep fish pool with statues of silver-skinned dolphins that spat water into the air when the fountain was turned on. Tehran's summers were dry and brutal. At midday, the heat nearly melted the asphalt on the sidewalk and turned the city into a ghost land. By 5 o'clock, the red bricks on the floor of our yard were still too hot to step on barefoot. At dusk, when the gardener hosed the ground, a thick cloud of steam rose off the bricks and made him invisible from the waist down.

But at night, a cool breeze blew from the mountains to the north, luring us -- my parents and grandparents, my two sisters and I -- out of the house and into the garden. Around us, centuries-old maple trees rose into the star-filled sky until their tops disappeared from view. Ancient walnut and persimmon and mulberry trees -- their bark rough and scaly, their branches gnarled, the ground beneath them splattered with fruit so ripe it fell off the tree and burst open of its own volition -- cast eerie shadows in the dark. Flower beds -- pansies and petunias, geraniums, pink Muhammadi roses so large, we had to use both hands to cup the flower -- framed the lawn. Slender, mint-green vines of poet's jasmine covered every trellis. The vines had tiny white flowers -- four or five petals, each as delicate as a butterfly's wings, with a fragrance at once subtle and pervasive, light and long lasting, and strongest at midnight.

I remember it even now -- the smell of poet's jasmine in our yard and on my hands and clothes, the way the silver shell of the dolphins looked blue in the moonlight, the smell of fresh mint at dawn, the clicking of the scissors as gardener Hassan pruned the roses in the early morning.

Hassan came to work in a dark suit and a white dress shirt every day, and he acted as if this were normal, as if he didn't know that he was the only gardener anywhere in Tehran who dressed up like an English butler. He had done this since he was 12 years old -- since his peasant father, who could not feed him, had "given" him to my grandfather for life. My grandfather had bought Hassan his first suit. In time, he would buy him his own house and even find him a wife -- a mysterious woman who left home the morning after their wedding and never came back. Hassan was left alone with his suits, the life-sized statues of fallen kings and brave princes he had persuaded my grandfather to erect in the yard, and the Persian Garden he had raised and grown up in.

A typical Persian garden, ours was vast and many tiered, each tier built around a pool or fountain and boasting ancient, stalwart trees. In a country that is two-thirds desert, water represented both material wealth and spiritual awareness: you could look onto the calm surface of a pool, Persians believed, and see more than your outer image. Trees, too, were a symbol of veneration in Persia; tree-planting was considered a sacred profession. Persia's gardens gave the world the rose; an underground system of irrigation, called Qanat, that transported water for hundreds of miles through the desert; the fourfold pattern of quadrants that would inspire garden design from India to France, from Spain to Arabia. They were the stuff of many a poet's creation, a cultural icon that survived every devastating invasion and long-term foreign occupation.

For my sisters and me, the garden was where we played cowboys and Indians every summer with our one male cousin: he carried both the guns, and the arrows and knives, because he was a boy, he said, and knew weapons. It was where we built snowmen in the winter by covering Hassan's beloved statues with snow and letting it freeze overnight, where we picked armloads of red and orange and yellow maple leaves from the ground in the fall, threw them into the air like a rain of colors, and stood as they descended back on us till our hair and skin was covered with their dust.

I remember this -- the ground covered by a carpet of leaves 3 inches thick; my mother crossing the yard in white patent-leather boots, a black coat, Jackie O pearls, giving Hassan instructions that he says he will follow only if he decides they make sense. Do me a favor, miss, and let me decide how to handle the peonies.

Once, when all the peonies he had planted died in unseasonably warm weather, my sisters and I surrounded Hassan and asked him about his runaway wife. It had been many years, he said. He didn't remember her name, only that she had a loud laugh, and drank like a man. When last he saw her, she had worn a red dress too low in the neckline and too short in the hem. And she had no shoes on. She had told Hassan she was going to the corner store to buy a bottle of "rosewater," but people had seen her at the bus depot downtown, headed for God knows where, still with no shoes and no rosewater.

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