Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
Mel K. Melcomian
Armenian Memories—Living and Surviving in 1940s Tehran
Mel K. Melcomian is a descendant of an Armenian minority born in Esfahan, Iran. He came to Logan, Utah, in 1954 to attend Utah State University, where he represented the International Students in the student senate and from where he graduated with a BS in Industrial Technology. After nine years of working as a Manufacturing Engineer, he became a restaurant owner/operator for 29 successful years. He is married to Elaine Willie, a descendant of Utah pioneers, and retired in 1978.
"Armenian Memories" is excerpted from a memoir in progress that chronicles Mel’s early childhood in Esfahan, his move to Tehran, and eventually his emigration to the United States.
It was during the fall of 1941 when we arrived in Tehran. We owned a house that was occupied by renters, but it turned out to be a difficult task to get them to vacate our house. For two months, we lived in a hotel, owned by a distant relative of my mother, while my father and his attorney were battling in court. Finally we moved into our house. It was during World War II. Allied forces had occupied the country, and being concerned by Reza Shah’s friendly relations with Germany, they had forced him to abdicate. Prior to that time, many shopkeepers proudly displayed head-to-toe posters of Adolf Hitler in honor of Persia’s powerful fascist ally. Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza had assumed the throne. Food was scarce; bread and sugar were rationed. Thank goodness, we had brought an armoire full of lavash bread from Esfahan.
Minority schools were reopened. I registered in a school operated by the Zoroastrians, called "Jamshid e Jam." It was a well-disciplined school with a much better environment, and less harsh punishment, than the one I had attended in Esfahan. One of the teachers, Mr. Hakimelahi, was a colorful old man. He showed very little tolerance for student mischief. When someone complained about another student, he took a folded handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped the excess saliva, and angrily started a lengthy verbal discipline. His most-often used phrase was, "Damn the shovel that irrigated your mother’s garden."
People from Esfahan had their own dialect. When speaking Farsi in any location other than Esfahan, we were recognized and made fun of. The Armenians from Julfa had their own dialect and were faced with the same situation outside of Julfa. For the second time, I completed the sixth grade, but this time I was able to pass the test and receive the government-issued certificate that qualified me to attend high school.
Alborz was the high school I attended. It was named after the range of mountains located north of Tehran and was the former American College. The two-story large main building housed the administration office and at least twenty classrooms. Several other buildings, such as a men’s dormitory, the administrator’s residence, a soccer field, and large landscaped areas surrounded it. There was also a subterranean water canal that supplied the culinary water. The person in charge of supplying our drinking water had to go down forty steps into a dark stairway to reach it. He filled a container made out of sheep’s skin and carried it up the stairs to pour in a large concrete tank with several taps. To drink, we had to share a small cup chained to every tap.
I noticed many new, interesting things in Tehran. The houses had underground reservoirs that were filled from a water source running in open street ditches. This water was pumped up to a container located in the attic. It was used only to bathe and clean. We had to pay for our drinking water by the bucket. A large container filled with water from a subterranean canal and attached to a one-horse carriage delivered it.
Every house in Tehran also had its own sewage well. Somehow the content would dissipate in the sandy earth. Only once in a while would one require cleaning. A few years after living there, my father decided to build an apartment house. I noticed that two sewage wells were being dug. The contractor explained to me that it was unacceptable to mix drainage from the toilette and the kitchen, because the discarded water from the kitchen might include food particles, which he called the "Grace of God."
The traffic, a mixture of automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, and bicycles, was chaotic. Policemen in intersections were directing traffic by manually switching the two lights, red and green. The American and Soviet military were busily installing communication systems in our neighborhood. The Americans were using the latest tools and equipment, while the Soviets adhered to their old methods of construction. One day on my way to school, I walked by two Soviet soldiers who had been digging a hole, with pick and shovel, to install a wooden pole. They asked me, in Azari Turkish, if I carried matches. They had rolled cigarettes but were unable to light them.
During the late afternoon and in the evenings, the sidewalks were packed with pedestrians who spent many hours window-shopping, visiting friends, and occasionally having a snack. The shops were open late. At any given time, curious people were milling in the streets and would quickly gather to witness an argument or a confrontation. One afternoon, while riding my bicycle, I noticed a large crowd that was forming. Traffic came to a halt, and I was forced to get off of my bicycle and walk toward the British embassy, where several hundred people had gathered. I managed to come within twenty-five feet of the entrance gate, where I leaned the bicycle against the wall and climbed on it to have a closer view. A few Sikh, British soldiers, were guarding the gate. On the street in front of the embassy, several U.S. soldiers were carrying machine guns and facing the crowd.
A few minutes later a large black automobile came through the gate. It paused for a few seconds, and that was when I got a good view of President Roosevelt sitting alone in the back of the car, wearing glasses. He had a folded blanket on his knees. The President, along with his entourage, was on his way to the American embassy, about two miles away. This was one of the most exciting moments of my life. The news went out that three world leaders, Prime Minster Churchill of England, President Roosevelt of the United States, and Josef Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, were having meetings in Tehran.
Suddenly I realized the why I had to change my route to school a week earlier. Ghazaly Street separated the British and Soviet embassies. High and temporary walls blocked the beginning and the end of this street. All the meetings took place in those embassies.
A day later we heard that Stalin was leaving. I was part of a large crowd waiting to see him. The first automobile arrived filled with officers, with dark complexions, and, like Georgians, sat face to face; they all looked alike. One by one, five more automobiles arrived packed with more officers who looked just like the ones in the first car. They were on their way to the airport. Stalin must have been in one of those cars. No one knew in which one. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.
My sense of social isolation in high school didn’t get much better. I was happy to have found the ethnic diversity among students and was looking forward to making new friends, but the Esfahani accent was making it difficult to build relationships. I decided to keep my speaking to a minimum and listening to the others intensely. After a few months of doing this, I began to speak Farsi more like the Tehranis.
Unfortunately, I was less successful in changing my Armenian Esfahani accent. It was partly because the Tehrani Armenians were less forgiving and enjoyed making fun of me more than others did, and partly because I had spoken Armenian for a much longer time than Farsi. I was able to make friends with several Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Bahai’s, and one or two Armenians (Christians).
I made friends easily and enjoyed my friendships with all of them. My Muslim friends came from very open- minded families. Many of their parents had been to Europe on business or sightseeing. The more educated, the less prejudiced they were and valued my friendship with their children. Most children learn by reading. Unfortunately, in my case, I had not developed the habit of reading during my childhood and basically learned to read Farsi not until about age thirteen. Since I had an immense desire to learn about different people and their heritage, I associated easily with them and learned from them.
Together with my Muslim friends, I often visited their holy shrines and observed their customs and habits. The one place I remember visiting repeatedly was a shrine called Shah Abdul Azim, located approximately ten miles south of Tehran. Most of the visitors were faithful pilgrims, but some younger men, like my friends, enjoyed being there just to be away from the capital city. People shared a feeling of spirituality and an atmosphere of trust. To enter the shrine, men and women removed their shoes and used separate entrances. When inside, everyone mixed, and the packed crowd walked three times around the grave, which was surrounded by a fence and beautifully decorated in gold and silver.
I was taking a dangerous chance to satisfy my curiosity. If I were recognized as a non-Muslim and a contaminator, it would have taken only one or two extremists to put my life in danger, but nothing happened. After leaving the shrine safely with my friends, we decided to visit a restaurant specializing in "Chelow kebab" (a popular Iranian dish made with rice and meat). There was no menu; the service included unlimited amounts of rice and as many squares of kebab we would care to eat. The raw egg yolk, served in a half shell and mixed in the hot rice, was optional. The cashier by the exit would charge the customers according to the number of squares of kebab they claimed to have eaten.
The town was also well known for having the best yogurt in the area. Every so often I rode my bicycle there, carrying a couple of containers to purchase enough yogurt for my family and neighbors. The only item sold in this shop was yogurt. It was prepared in large glazed ceramic containers during the night and ready for consumption in the morning. I became a steady customer of the shopkeeper, who had no idea I was a non-Muslim. He extended special treats and let me taste the yogurt from several containers with the same spoon! I should add that a large majority of Iran-born Armenians had a heavy accent when speaking Farsi, which was largely the result of their limited association with Muslims. Fortunately by the time I made my yogurt runs, I was able to speak the language the same way as all of my friends.
Across the street from my high school was a store selling books and supplies. The owner, Hooshang, was my age. He had lost his father, and it had become necessary for him to drop out of school and—with the help of his brother and that of other relatives—to open the store to support his mother and sisters. Every fall when school started, a large number of students would come to his shop. Most of them were nice kids, but there were always a few who would try to steal. Hooshang asked me to help him during rush hour by keeping an eye on these would-be pilferers.
Some days, when business was slow, he would ride his motorcycle to the bazaar for more supplies. His motorcycle needed a tune-up, and whenever he had to stop, it was very hard for him to restart the heated engine. When he was returning with the supplies, and approaching the policeman in the center of the intersection, he would yell at him not to change the green light to red so that he could pass through.
Hooshang eventually came to America, where he married and had two daughters. He was successful in business and very appreciative of the opportunities this country gave him. The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2007, in Portland, Oregon, when I spent two nights with him. A few weeks after our visit, one of his daughters informed me of his death.
Over time, I had learned my way around in the city and was able to get things done in the government offices. One of my father’s friends owned a rental house. The renters had been delinquent in paying the power bill. All utilities in the country were government-controlled. With construction booming and a shortage of power in the city, electricity had become an important commodity. No one was anxious to help the owner of the house to restore the power, and he was desperately looking, unsuccessfully, for anyone to help him.
My father brought the matter to my attention, and I volunteered to fix the problem for a certain price. My father’s friend was delighted. I knew which government office to visit and whom to bribe. I was able to satisfy the official by giving him half of the original money and keeping the other half for my efforts. Within a few days the power was restored.
On other occasions I helped my friends register their newly purchased bicycles. The office responsible for licensing all slow-moving vehicles, and vehicles with no engines, was managed by a police captain to whom I was introduced by a mutual friend. The owners of these types of vehicles were required to bring their property along with their titles and, after passing through a certain amount of red tape, would receive their license plates. I was able to enter the office, and after the usual exchange of greetings, would present him with one or more titles, without bringing the actual bicycles along. To put others at ease who were waiting their turn, he would ask me if the bicycles that were supposed to be outside included proper attachments (such as a light, a generator, and a bell, etc.), and while answering these questions, I would drop a few bills in his half-open desk drawer. In cases when I presented more than one title for him to sign, I would make sure to close the drawer after my "deposit," so that—with the other money in the drawer already—he would not be able to tell if I had given him extra money or not. I never charged my friends more than what it cost me to get their licenses.
One summer my friend, Ahmad Farhoodi, and I decided to ride our bicycles to Northern Iran. Unlike today, the roads back then were seldom paved. Of the 1500 kilometers we traveled, only about 300 kilometers were paved. We were members of an athletic club called Niroo-Va-Rasti, which translates into "Power and Truth." The club sent telegrams to a few larger cities along our route to inform local clubs of our arrival. We had a pleasant trip through the Alborz Mountains and rode along the seashore of the Caspian Sea to Rasht, where we were met by a group of bike-riding athletes who had come a few miles out of town to welcome us.
We continued riding north to the next city, Astara, which was located very close to the Soviet Union. After having supper, we checked into a hotel. At midnight, a loud knocking woke us up; I answered the door, and two policemen walked in and started ransacking our belongings. They accused us of being spies. What made it worse was that we were not carrying our sejels, the identification card issued to every Iranian subject. We were arrested and moved to the police station, where we spent the rest of the night. The next morning, after some interrogation, they finally contacted our club in Tehran and were assured that we had no ulterior motive, that we were simply two bicyclists on the road. In order for us to be released, the police had to obtain the approval of the military governor of the area. The soldier escorting us was friendly, cheerful, and most cooperative.
We met the governor at his residence, standing outside, in the yard, and found him to be furious. He angrily slapped the soldier, used profanities, and told him to take us out. The soldier had apparently made the mistake of creating a situation in which two strangers (namely, us) could have had a chance to look at the governor’s wife or other members of his family.
We continued our ride along the Caspian Sea traveling north. The road took us ever closer to the Soviet border, where we could see their wooden watchtowers with guards watching us through binoculars. We came to a mountainous area where an Iranian Army base was located. The soldiers stationed there welcomed us, and the lieutenant in charge ordered his men to line up and cheer us.
After a friendly visit, and drinking some tea, we continued toward Ardabil. This memory made up for the one the night before. After spending the night in Ardabil, we visited the gravesites of the leaders of the Safavid dynasty the next morning and had a nice reception. Our next big city was Tabreez, where a large group of bike riders welcomed us; we were invited to an outing in "Shah Guli," with lots of good food and great hospitality.
At night we had another invitation to "Baghe Golestan," a well-lit park where everyone was enjoying beautiful flowers around a large pool of water with fountains, and lots of delicious ice cream. The radio station was broadcasting music, and to my surprise a short news section in Armenian announced our arrival from Tehran on bicycles. The next morning our newly-made friends saw us off, and we were on our way to Zanjon, Ghazvin, and finally, after thirteen days, back to Tehran.
One summer, Tehran newspapers were busily writing about an Armenian man named Avak claiming to be a prophet. My mother had a few sugar cubes, which were supposedly blessed by Avak and were supposed to cure any illness. I asked my mother if she would like to go to visit this man. We took the bus to a village north of Tehran, where Avak was living in a house with two buildings located opposite each other, with a tree-lined garden in between. After waiting for about one hour, Avak finally showed up, wearing long hair (which was very unusual those days) and a long white robe. He came out of one building, walked through the trees, and climbed a set of stairs of the next building to speak to the crowd of, mostly, women, who broke the tree branches that were touched by his robe. I suppose these branches also had the power to cure. Listening to his speech, it was obvious he had little, if any, education.
A few years later I was visiting one of my friends in a summer resort outside of Tehran. My friend’s father, General Zarrabi, the chief of Iran’s police, told me a story about Avak when he was still on active duty. He had heard about this prophet and decided to visit him. He went to the prophet’s residence and asked to see him, but was told that Avak has gone to the mountains to pray and wouldn’t be back for a long time. General Zarrabi then asked about a door that seemed to be locked. He was told that it was a door to a secret room and no one was allowed in there. Wearing a military uniform and a pair of boots, he kicked in the door and, lo and behold, there was Avak resting on a bed. He had apparently just eaten his lunch, because a half eaten turkey was still left on a nearby table.
Those who completed eleventh grade were considered to be graduated from high school and received a diploma. Military service was compulsory, but those with a diploma who qualified to enter the university were exempt for as long as they were able to continue their education. I was unable to be accepted into the College of Dentistry, but I rather easily passed the test for the College of Literature to study archeology and history. This was a shelter in which I could remain until other opportunities arrived. I had no objection to serving in the Army. Having the high school diploma qualified me to be trained for six months, and serve for eighteen, as an officer. My mother was terrified by the idea, remembering the trauma with her brother, who died one week into his army training from a blow administred by a sergeant. (My grandfather managed repeatedly to bribe army officials to defer the conscription of his son, who was never in good health, but eventually he was drafted anyway.) I was also politically involved and supported political outsider Mohammad Mossadegh. These concerns were her ammunition to convince my father to financially support me to come to America.
The British-backed constitutional revolution of 1906 and the discovery of oil in 1908 shaped the nature of politics in Iran. It established, for the first time, the "Majlis" Parliament. The Qajar Dynasty ruled the country. A young man named Mohammad Mossadegh was elected as a representative from Esfahan to the parliament at age 24, but he refused the appointment since the minimum age to run for political office was 30. He was a rising star on the political scene and a critic of British influence in Iran, including the corruption in the Qajar government. He received his Ph.D. from Neufchatel Law School in Switzerland and, in 1914, returned to Iran and began his career as a professor at the Political Science Institute of Tehran.
During the next ten years, while Mossadegh had been holding several ministerial and governorship positions in the Qajar government, a military insider named Reza Khan was being advanced in his career. When the British supported a coup in 1921, Seyed Zia became prime minister and Reza Khan the minister of war (Secretary of Defense). Mossadegh was one of the few Iranian politicians to question the legitimacy of the coup government. Even though this government lasted only one hundred days, the friction between Mossadegh and Reza Khan continued until 1925, when Reza Khan overthrew the last king of the Qajar dynasty and declared himself the King of Iran. He changed his name to Reza Shah Pahlavi, adopting his last name in the process, and became the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty.
There were rumors that Reza Shah’s dictatorial regime eliminated some of the opposition by having Dr. Ahmadi, the famous doctor, visit them in prison! I remember one early morning, after the fall of Reza Shah; I went to a downtown square called Toopkhanne, where thousands of people had gathered to witness the hanging of Dr. Ahmadi. The crowd cheered, and in a few short minutes, it was all over. It was a very sad day, and on the way home, I was wondering if he had not become a scapegoat, taking the blame for the prisoners’ death. The rumor was that he had been instrumental in the opposition’s demise.
Even though Mossadegh’s opposition to Reza Shah dated back many years, his punishment was much lighter. He was arrested and exiled for a short time, then returned to his country estate in Ahmad Abad, where he was kept under house arrest until 1941 when Reza Shah was exiled. Another story I read in the papers at the time was that a European friend of Mossadegh, going back to his student days in Switzerland, was also a friend of the Crown Prince, Mohammed Reza, whose pleas to his father spared Mossadegh’s life. Eventually, Mossadegh, along with some of his supporters, was elected to Parliament, and in 1951, at age 69, he became Prime Minister.
During this time a national election was taking place. To the best of my knowledge, this was the only free election since the creation of Parliament. I was directly involved as a watchdog in the election process. One of Mossadegh’s closest allies was Dr. Baghai, the leader of "Hezbe Zahmatkeshon," or "The Workers’ Party," and also a candidate for Parliament. The party’s official newspaper "Shahead" ("The Witness") was the most popular and well-trusted source of information for the country. The reporters affiliated with the paper were highly respected. Dr. Baghai organized a group of us young volunteers to be observers in the reading of the ballots. I was given a press credential, and—realizing that an Armenian sitting around the table with members of the election committee would create an unpleasant situation—did the usual, manipulating the letters of my name to reflect a Farsi one. "Khecho Melcomian" became "Khosrow Malekian."
I was assigned to one of the 100 precincts that covered Tehran. Ballots of the first fifty precincts were counted from early in the morning to noon, the second fifty after noon till dark. My duty started very early in the morning. I suddenly found myself among a group of prominent businessmen from the bazaar, as well as Muslim clerics, and a couple of other press people. During my days as an observer, I was well respected. We were served tea in small glass cups all day. The server carrying a large tray full of a dozen or more cups made sure that I was the first to be served. At times I was terrified of being recognized. My luck did help me this time too!
In those days only men were allowed to vote, and the ballots were hand written. We did not detect any fraud, much in contrast to earlier elections which were full of irregularities. In a small community not far from Tehran, from example, the same member to Parliament was elected many times with a huge number of voters! However, even if you count all living men in that community (most of whom were illiterate), and add women and children and their cows and goats, one could not come up with the number of votes the candidate received on the ballot. Despite all the publicity by Iran’s enemies claiming Mossadegh to be a Communist, there was not a single Communist elected anywhere in the country.
Eventually, the fight about Iran’s national resources intensified. The British, with the help of Mohammad Reza Shah, the second King of the Pahlavi dynasty, wanted to extend its oil contracts. By contrast, Mossadegh’s top priority—with the help of Jebhe Melli, the so-called "National Front"—was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, which he eventually achieved with Parliament approval. Subsequently, England brought suit against Iran, and Mossadegh traveled to New York to defend Iran’s rights in the United Nations Security Council. He also went to the Netherlands to defend Iran at The Hague, which adjudicated in favor of Iran and in opposition to British interests. However, because of an embargo enforced by the British Navy, the flow of oil out of Iran stopped and weakened the country’s economy. At the same time, England and the United States intensified their support for select members of Parliament and for those Army Generals whom Mossadegh had fired. I remember the day when Mossadegh, as Prime Minister, walked out of Parliament and—standing on a balcony of a building across the street—spoke to a crowd of several hundred to denounce Parliament. I took his picture (similar to the one on the left) from a short distance.
Towards the last few months of his government, Mossadegh became ever more determined to fight his enemies. He moved his office to his residence, ordered all foreign journalists out of the country, and continued his negotiations with the British and U.S. ambassadors while resting in bed. Claiming to be an old and tired man, he wanted to demean his diplomatic counterparts by lying down. Mossadegh was uncompromising and the negotiations were getting nowhere.
Rumors were spreading that Mossadegh’s life was in danger. Apparently, the CIA hired inside operators (to the tune of three million dollars) to do the dirty work. Curiosity took me and several other supporters toward his house. By the time we arrived, his house was engulfed in flames and surrounded by the military. The one ray of assurance was when we heard that Mossadegh had escaped unharmed. He was captured and, after a lengthy litigation, ordered to live under house arrest on his country estate. He died on March 4, 1967.