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Five o'clock tea

From my student's days in Beirut

August 7, 2002
The Iranian

In the 1930s, Beirut was an educational center that attracted many students from surrounding countries, including Iran. Indeed travels to Europe and the United States were long and expensive and the Lebanese capital, under French custody, possessed European high schools and colleges as well as an American and a French university.

Beirut presented all the educational advantages of Paris, London, New York or Los Angeles, without the "pernicious" temptations of these "dangerous" and "corrupt" Western megalopolises (Parents dixit). Muslims, Christians, Jews and practitioners of many other faiths lived in this cosmopolitan port-city in good harmony and peacefully practiced the tenets and laws of their respective religions. Atheists were tolerated too.

We were about fifty Iranian students scattered in secondary schools and higher educational institutions. My elder brother and myself lived with my recently widowed mothe and our compatriots would join us on Sundays to enjoy a Persian meal.

In those days, dictatorial regimes thrived in the region, and news would circulate faster through rumors and travelers' accounts, than the press and nascent national radio stations. Indeed, we, Iranians, learned indirectly through gossip and hearsay about Reza Shah's growing authoritarianism and his dislike of critics and dissidents.

Nevertheless, we remained proud of him because of his defense of Iran's original culture and independance. (Most of the countries of Middle East were then "colonies" of France or England) We also welcomed his modernist reforms.

In 1936 a number of additional Iranian students arrived in Beirut. Most were older than those already in foreign-run schools and universities and certainly more politicized. Some, like the Rahnemas, belonged to exiled religious families. Others, like the Khaneh-Kharabs came from well-to-do provincial families of estate owners. Some like the Bakhtiaris were sons of tribal chiefs.

In short, Iranian students represented all shades of social classes. There were aristocrats, commoners, bazaaris, sons of clerics and bureaucrats. There was even a distant member of Reza Shah's family, named Dadsetan. I remember when he joined us, the elders would beckon us to be cautious: "Don't talk when he's present!"

Most were Shiites. But we had also a few Iranian Jews, Zoroastrians and Bahais. Some expounded nationalist opinions, others anti-monarchist ones. But they all (except obviously Dadsetan) recounted dreadful stories about political repression and criticized the regime. We heard from them that the Shah had arrested several of his former companions and after months of imprisonment without any indictment or trial, had ordered them summarily killed by lethal injection.

One of the high ranking victims, Sardar Assad Bakhtiar, a well known tribal chief, was a friend of my late father. For some years I had had in my class two kids from his tribe: Abdul Ali and Jamshid Bakhtiar. They had left for summer vacation in July 1935 and did not return until 1941 -- after the abdication of Reza Shah under pressure from the Allies.

In 1936, among the batch of new students, was the youngest son of a bazaari merchant from Tehran by the name of Jamal Miri. A major in mathematics from Tehran university, he entered the French Civil Engineering Faculty. He was a member of the banned Iranian Communist Party. His father, who greased the palms of the much feared head of the police department, had been authorized to leave for Beirut. A highly vocal critic of Reza Shah's rule, he advocated a revolutionary government as the only way to change things in Iran.

At the time, I was just a teen whose political knowledge originated mainly from the newsreels. I used to see Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Ethiopia's Negus, Gandhi, Japan's Hiro-Hito and some other world leaders on the "silver screen". I personnally prefered to watch Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers (not to speak of Greta Garbo and the numerous Hollywood stars).

The year before, in 1935, I had followed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and heard about Stalin's five-year economic plan. I eagerly listened and tried to understand the exchanges among the students who gathered around our dining-room table on Sundays.

Miri used to criticize Reza Shah vehemently. He repeatedly insisted that the monarch was a puppet of the British and "received orders from London". According to him Iran was a de facto English colony. Other students, although critical of the Shah, rejected his contentions. Some even pretended that the Shah had established secret relations with Hitler.

Usually the discussions lingered on until early evening when most of the students would go to one of the seven movie theaters of the city.

Toward the end of the first semester, all Iranian students received an invitation from the new Iranian Consul-General, Mr. Mirfendereski, for tea at his residence in down town Beirut. The time was set at 5 PM, the next Sunday. We were all annoyed because that would deprive us from our Sunday evening movie. At lunch that day, a discussion took place about the diplomat's motives.

Kyomars Khaneh-Kharab said that according to a local employee of the consulate, orders had been given by Tehran's secret police chief to gather the students and advise them against anti-regime propaganda. Some of our guests expressed the opinion that the Consul wanted to make it easy for Tehran's newly arrived "spies" to get acqainted with the students.

Indeed the government had sent a "professor" of Persian language and literature who would teach in all institutions harboring Iranian students. Others shrugged their shoulders and remarked that all consulates organized such gatherings for their nationals.

Around 4, we departed for the Consul's residence. The weather was sunny and mild, so we decided to walk. On our way, we dined at an Arab restaurant on the waterfront. We arrived a few minutes in advance at the Consul General's residence. Already many students from the American University and some out-of-town institutions were in the reception hall.

The Consul invited us to the dining room around a table studded with fruits and pastries. The servants offered tea. Afterwards, the diplomat directed us to a room where a short movie about Reza Shah and the construction of the trans-Iranian railroad was shown. Then the Consul spoke about Iran's modernization and the duties of students to study hard and avoid wasting time listening to "enemies of the nation"; and so on. By 7, the meeting was over.

While waiting for all of our group on the sidewalk, Jamal Miri said: "You see how right I was when I told you that Reza Shah was under the thumb of the British? The Consul has shown us definite proof!"

These words nonplused us. Hamid Rahnema said, "I don't understand your point." Kyomars Khaneh-Kharab asked, "What proof?" Miri, grinning, replied, "Gosh! Are you blind? What is more British than five o'clock tea?"


Fereydoun Hoveyda is a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and former Iranian ambassador to the UN before the 1979 revolution. He is the author of The Broken Crescent.The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (Praeger 1999). To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site.

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