In Memory of my Father

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My father passed away a year ago today, on 30 March 2015. Forty days later, on 10 May 2015, we held a memorial at my house. As many relatives and friends could not be with us, we decided to broadcast the proceedings live. My decision to speak in Farsi and English and the time constraints meant that I did not manage to say all I wanted, so below I have written what I really meant to say!!
(Speech starts at around 2:30)

 

Transcript of my talk

Every one of you gathered here today is special, either to one of us individually, or to the whole family. The support of all of you has helped us enormously during the last few weeks. Some of you could not make it or are not in the UK. I hope you are watching live. I have made life hard for myself: although everyone listening speaks good English, I felt that some old memories would be better said in my mother tongue. In the interests of justice and equality, I shall say everything in English and in Farsi. Please do feel free to chat when your language is not being spoken. You need not sit in silence!

As an aside, speaking of justice and equality reminds me of my dad’s grandfather, a doctor, who had two wives. He was adamant that he would treat his wives without bias. To this end he had built two identical houses either side of his surgery, and would spend alternate nights at each house. Whichever wife was hosting him would cook fresh rice and accompaniments and the other wife would have the leftovers from the night before!! So much for justice and equality!

Any father is special, and my father is no more special to me than any other to his son. Perhaps as a family we naturally see only the positive attributes, but as far as I can tell he was liked by all who knew him. (Sometimes I think what a burden it must be to grieve for a someone you love but who you know was not a nice person. At least we do not have to carry that burden.)

About my father

My dad was a non-believer. He did not believe in god, nor in life after death. He despised large headstones, and particularly the idea of people reserving prime burial space or buying glamorous headstones for their own eventual burial. We have respected his views. There is no headstone, and no place to congregate. Instead we  planted a camellia tree in his memory, and this gathering is the only ceremony we are holding.

I will give a brief history of my dad’s life. He was born into a lower middle class family. He dreamt of becoming a doctor like his grandfather, but due to financial constraints this was a distant dream. At school his realistic aim was to start working for Bank Melli as a clerk and to work his way up. But a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a full scholarship from the army to attend medical school. He studied hard, obtained high marks and entered the one medical school in Tehran. His dream had begun.

Tudeh party

Within a year, he came under the influence of his commander, the legendary Khosro Roozbeh, who was active in the pro-communist Tudeh (or “people’s”) Party, a party that had a strong following among the intelligentsia. My dad was attracted by Tudeh’s ideas of equality in society. He soon became a member of the underground Officers’ Corps of the Tudeh Party. This was of course at a high risk to himself and to his career. It was during his Tudeh years that he became a “lover of the people”, and for the rest of his life he believed in striving for equality in society.

After graduating as a doctor, Dad was posted to the town of Bojnurd to become physician to the garrison. He was the only “Tudeh” officer in town. Two to three years later he got married to my mum, Giti, but the highly secret nature of the Officers’ Corps meant he could not even tell my mum about it! Two months into marriage the authorities decoded a document with the names of all Tudeh officers and they were arrested in a simultaneous nationwide operation. My mum was now pregnant – with me!

Dad’s arrest and sentencing

Dad had built a good reputation on Bojnurd. For instance, one part of his duties in the garrison was to give medical certificates for candidates called in for compulsory military service. When he came across families who would have faced hardship if a son were to be conscripted, he would tend to give an exemption certificate. This made him popular with the locals.

The day of the arrest, my mum came home to see a soldier at the door and officers inside the house. They told her, almost in shame and holding their heads down, that they had to arrest Dr Bazargan and take him to Mashhad (provincial capital). Mum, a girl from Tehran and no push-over, said if they arrested him they would have to arrest her too. She would not have it any other way, so both were arrested and transported in a military truck. The officers’ respect for my dad was such that they said they would arrange to transport him late at night in order to reduce embarrassment in front of the neighbours!

Even while dad was awaiting sentencing, 21 senior officers were sentenced to death and were executed. Mum’s fear was of course that dad would have the same fate. At this point dad sent a message to mum, saying that his fate was in the balance – he was sure to be in prison for years to come, and that she should feel free to ask for a divorce in order that her youthful years are not wasted. Mum dismissed the offer.

Through some contacts in the military Giti heard that dad was to be given a life sentence, which was considered great news!! She was determined to convey the news to dad. She went to the barracks where he was being held, knowing he was due to be transported. When the truck came out she found herself (by now 9 months pregnant) running behind it in the middle of the street, shouting “life, life!”, and giving the thumbs up!!! What a surreal scene that must have been. In the end dad got 15 years, but was released after 2 years under an amnesty to those who agreed to leave the Tudeh party.

Please allow me to quote a moving passage from dad’s memoirs:

After I had been released and went back to Mashhad, Dr Aryan gave me a letter that Giti had written. Apparently a friend in Mashhad, namely Dr Mirshahidi, had spread the word that Giti is about to ask for a divorce, as Dr Bazargan has been convicted to 15 years in jail. Giti had written to Mirshahidi (who was actually a friend of mine) telling him that firstly, if he is a friend of Bazargan, then he should not be spreading rumours; secondly, for his information, those two months that she had spent with her husband were sufficient for the rest of her life, and even if he were convicted to life imprisonment she would await him.

In prison

Dad always described prison as the best time of his life! The Tudeh officers were especially well educated and were highly respected, so even in prison they were not badly treated. They lived communally, and used all their time well. Here are some anecdotes about dad’s life in prison:

  • Officers who spoke English or French would hold language classes for others. Dad was studying English. He was so keen to do well that he even remembers the one time he stayed up all night to do his homework!
  • Families took turns to take home-cooked food for the prisoners. Mum noticed that when she collected the metal pans often they were heavily worn or even had holes in the base. When she enquired she learned that the pans were especially suitable for drumming to accompany singing songs, so got some heavy treatment!
  • Perhaps this is trivial but I remember a cute one-liner of my dad when I was a child in Bojnurd. A lady friend at a dinner party was saying how lucky my dad was, as he had freedom. (I can’t remember the context.) Dad said immediately: Madam, my freedom ended when I left prison!
  • I was born while dad was in Jail awaiting sentencing. True to his egalitarian ideals, he decided there should be a democratic vote by fellow officers to decide on my name! The three candidates were
    • Omid (hope)
    • Roozbeh (surname of dad’s commander, Khosro Roozbeh, who was executed)
    • Kaveh (after Kaveh Ahangar, a blacksmith in Iranian mythology who overthrew a tyrant) – we all know this was the winner!!
  • A fellow (more senior) Tudeh officer (Mr Baghee’i) was a leather craftsman, and would make leather baby shoes for me which were passed on by the prison authorities. Mr Baghee’i did not disavow Tudeh and spent some 17 years in jail. Many years later when we visited him at home with dad, he revealed that in the lining of the shoes he would smuggle secret messages for Tudeh activists on the outside!

Some memories of Bojnurd

I remember from my childhood that everyone in town had immense respect for dad. Here are some personal memories, or incidents I know to be true, of how people competed to show respect for dad. I have interspersed the stories with other memories.

Chickens at the clinic

Dad was always fair to patients and he would never turn a patient away for lack of money. If they did not have money then they did not pay. Or else they would often pay in kind. This was especially true for villagers who hardly dealt in money at all, so would bring dairy, eggs, etc. I even remember dad coming in to hand over some live chickens to mum!!

The cinema

Iran (and I guess other middle eastern or oriental countries) have a culture of “self-depracation”. This involves belittling oneself in a variety of ways before others, to show how much respect one has for them. Here is a story of extreme self-depracation…

Dad was one of 5–6 doctors in town. Each night one was on call, which meant that either they stayed at home, or if they were out they had to be easily accessible in case of an emergency. One night when dad was on call he decided to go to the (only) cinema with mum. The clinic attendant knew that he would be sitting in the usual place, armed with his emergency medical kit. If a patient visit was needed the attendant would hail a horse-cart and call dad, ready for the patient visit.

As an aside, there were no taxis in town. (I remember when 10 were introduced, putting the horsecarts out of business overnight as they charged the same price of 5 Rials.) In fact kids thought that a taxi was a posh car, so my dad’s car – a shining Peugeot 404 – was not a car at all but a taxi!! Amazingly, Bojnurd did have an airport (a runway with a mudhut) which the Shah’s brother or other high dignatories would use if they needed to visit. Interestingly, the runway happened to have some of the best grass in town, a luxury in those days. And I remember that on Fridays families would drive onto the runway and spread the rugs and samovars for picnics!

Back to the cinema… There happened to be a medical emergency and the the clinic attendant rushed in during the movie to fetch dad. Mum stayed to continue to watch the rest of course. As dad was walking out, coincidentally the film stopped and the lights went on. (Now this happened regularly as the films were old and were often spliced together with glue having been torn before. The projectionist would turn the lights on and rush to splice the film together, respool it, and get projector running again. If this took too long spectators would start whistling and taunting the projectionist.) In this case the whistles had no effect and people started getting agitated. The projectionist, who had spotted dad being ushered out, pushed his head through the glass window and declared he had stopped the film until Dr Bazargan returned from his emergency call. Of course no one dared complain. Touché!!

Farewell from Bojnurd

I remember the day we left Bojnurd for London. I was not old enough to be sentimental and was just looking forward to going abroad! People had said their goodbyes during the weeks prior to our departure and we finally set off in my dad’s Peugeot to Mashhad, on the way to Tehran. Past the outskirts, as we got to the famous picnic resort of “Baba Amaan” we saw a sea of people. The whole town had gathered as a surprise to pay their respects and say goodbyes. It took ages for my parents to say goodbye to all individually. I remember being confused as mum and dad got into the car and both started crying uncontrollably.

The auction

When Dad decided to move to London with the family in 1966, he had to get rid of a lot of furniture and belongings. There was a venue which auctioned second hand items for new officers arriving in Bojnurd. Dad put the entire family belongings to be auctioned there. I wish I had been there, but we heard from a participant that my dad’s name in town was so legendary, even to officers who had just arrived, that all punters were keen to own a piece of “Bazargan” at any price! I remember someone telling my dad the story and swearing that our hot water bottle, which had a hole in it, went for more than the face value of a new one, just because it belonged to Dr Bazargan! And apparently the auctioneer took his jacket off jokingly and said OK, Dr Bazargan’s jacket, how much?!!

The old woman

This is a story that my dad told me and I am glad he did. Some years after his return to Iran from UK, he happened to be passing Bojnurd, perhaps some 15–20 years after he had originally left. Bojnurd is famous for a particular candy, and he decided to buy some by walking anonymously into a candy store. This happened to be during the Iran–Iraq war and most food was rationed. The shopkeeper asked if he had coupons and dad said no. Dad tried to barter his way but to no avail. Suddenly a diminutive old lady in the traditional “chador” (veil) put some coupons in front of my dad and said “Please take these doctor, I don’t need them.” Before dad had a chance to talk to her she had disappeared out of the shop. This had frustrated dad as he had not had the chance to even thank the woman. Clearly at some point dad had taken care of her or her family and she had relished the one chance to pay back, albeit anonymously.

The role of luck

Dad believed that simply being lucky can change one’s life and we should be humble about what we have achieved. A example he talked about several times was the story of how he got high marks in the army scholarship exams…

The flour mill

Dad’s father would purchase wheat from a trusted supplier and would have to have it ground to make flour for bread. The best flour mills were in a village outside Mashhad (Sar-Aasia). One day dad was asked to take the wheat to Sar-Aasia to be ground. The afternoon journey would take several hours with a horse cart. The milling would take all night, and his father’s instructions were that he should not go to sleep and to keep an eye to ensure the flour is not diluted with other powder – a common trick. Dad was studying for the medical scholarship, so he took a Physics book with him. He happened to open the chapter on capacitors, and having all night, he learnt it inside out. As it happened, the Physics exam question was on capacitors. He would often say that had he opened another page, he might not have passed the exam, he would not have been able to marry Giti, and his life would have been completely different.

Mr Rahmati, the chicken seller

On the subject of luck, this one is my own personal memory that I would like to share if I may. I had a classmate, names Rahmati. (We called one another by our family names so I don’t even know his first name!) His father was a chicken seller. He would to bring the chickens to our home, slaughter them in the yard, and leave them for mum or the maid to prepare and cook. Mr Rahmati and his son were both always cheerful, always smiling. Rahmati junior was top of the class in every subject – certainly better than me. His handwriting was so neat I would still recognize it. His clothes were patched but always clean. But of course he didn’t have a rich daddy like I did, and so had no chance of going abroad. If he did, he would probably have done better than me. So whenever I am praised for something I have done, I bring myself down to earth by wondering if Rahmati would have done better if his dad had been a doctor!

The final word

Let us be clear. Dad has passed away. He did not believe in an after-life, and nor do I. So today is not for him – he is gone. It’s actually for us, to make us feel better. Now as a family, we have chosen not to have a headstone, not even a memorial plaque. So the best thing we can do is to use today to make ourselves better people. So look to the future, but use the past experience of others.

I originally thought I would make a list of what I could learn from the life of my father. Perhaps a list of 10 things I could itemize. But 10 is a big number and I won’t remember them. How about just 3 points? Well, let’s go further. Is there one, just one lesson that sums up my dad’s life? Something that is easy to remember, and that will make me a better person and make the world better too? Yes. I think I have found it. My father’s life can be summarized in five words:

“Don’t look down at others”

I will be carrying this phrase with me for the rest of my life. I feel better with it and I believe I can make others feel better too.

Thank you all for joining us.

A short autobiography by my father

You can download the early memoirs of my father in English , and Farsi. Farsi text by my father, translation by myself and my dear friend, Farhad.

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Obituary in the British Medical Journal

On 11 April 2016 the BMJ published an Obituary of my father:

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