For months I’d been searching amongst photographs, documents and letters for a sign of Howard Baskerville. I ended up anywhere I could think to look or was allowed to enter: The National Archives, the library of Parliament, Tehran University, the dilapidated archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The Constitution House. My life had become flying or taking the bus back and forth to Tehran, Shiraz and Tabriz.
Like soldier ants collecting wheat grains in summer and saving them in the nest for winter, I was going from one book to another. I was looking among the documents and letters and bending over the musty pages of newspaper and magazines from the Constitution Revolution era. The more I read, the deeper I sank into the holes of each basement. Anyone who knew Baskerville was now dead: The principals and teachers of the American Memorial School, the students, the comrades in his group, “Detachment of Salvation,” his close friends and even his killer.
I posted the picture of his tomb stone on my Facebook wall.
The first comment was from my housemate: “Another crucified Messiah.”
A Facebook friend I’d never met, called M. Senobari commented, ‘If you want to know exactly what happened to him, refer to the memoirs of Ashkestani.’ He’d mentioned a book I didn’t know about. No matter how much I looked for it, I could not find a trace of it. I didn’t even find it in the index of books published before the invention of ISBN.
For days, M. Senobari and I exchanged all kinds of messages. He used this expression of “all kinds” a lot. In our first in-person meeting at a cozy quiet café near the shrine of Hafiz, he brought me that rare book as a present. Memoirs of Ashkestani.
‘Only this copy has made it out of the printer,’ he said. ‘The rest were destroyed in the 80s for blasphemy.’
He sipped on his orange blossom brew and whispered, ‘It’s a precious memoir!’
We spent an hour talking about the sort of things two people meeting for the first time talk about (and if they are attracted to each other, they start daydreaming about one another while they stare at the walls and the images of artists and famous peoples hung on the walls.)
The moment I laid eyes on him, I thought he must be marriage material.
I returned home with the book that had quickly come into my possession as result of a Facebook friendship.I started with the chapter where Ashkestani becomes the head of Cossacks and goes on a mission to Tabriz, of all places, in order to put down the rebellion of the members of the Constitutionalists’ Secret Society.
I read all memoirs in my own way. I don’t remember ever putting the author in charge by reading these sorts of books from the first page. Sometimes I go from the end to the beginning. Other times I get stuck on a sentence for days and nights.
For example, this passage from the Editor’s Note shocked me:
‘The total number of documents on Iran at Great Britain’s National Archive cover six hundred years and add up to almost four million pages. Only 788,000 files—almost 150,000 pages—are about the events of 1905 and 1911. There are even details about the red beaked pigeons of Great Britain consulate in the Zargandeh neighborhood and the ant that entered the ear of the honorable minster on the first night of the merchants’ strike in front of the consulate. The original letters of Akhund Khorasani in support of the Constitutionalists and in defiance of the British and the Russian politics in Iran are there too. Only one person has ever read this letter: Thomas Harding, the British ambassador in Tehran at the time. At the end of his life, Ashkestani lived in London. He was a permanent guest of round tables and BBC Radio as a Constitutional Revolution specialist and Middle East analyst, but until his death and the publication of a part of his memoir, no one knew that he had killed Howard Baskerville.’
Even though the introduction was informative, the book itself was disappointing. The narrator jumped over important names and events as if he was riding a racehorse. For instance, in the case of a significant event such as suffering a whiplash, he’d only put together a few sentences:
‘Yours truly was a special guest in one of banquets at the Embassy of Great Britain. That night I greeted and shook hands with the ambassador ahead of His Majesty Reza Shah. This angered his highness. Because of it, at the end of the banquet, in the darkness of the garden, he slapped me so hard that the life flew out of me and my head jerked backwards. I consider that slap to be one the greatest honors of my turbulent life spent in the service of my country. Nonetheless, today when I stroll around the streets of London, I cannot see in front of my feet. To see the clock on the Big Ben, I must reposition myself accordingly. Alas, this is my fate! No physician, neither in Europe, nor in America has a cure.’
The next night, M. revealed a photograph of what he claimed to be a vintage document. Perhaps he was trying to impress me.
‘On the night of March 7, 1909, Howard Baskerville along with his friends, Hasan Sharifzadeh and Alavizadeh reached the Gates of Shiraz and from there went straight to Vakeel Bazar and took up residence at Kareem Khan Caravansary. In his journals, he wrote about the stone step by the wooden door, and the colorful mosaic tiles of the inn, as well as famine and eating cat meat in Jahan Nama Garden. They spent the night there and at dawn headed toward the shrine of Hafiz. Based on his journals, at the shrine, a fortune teller captivated him, and he spent his remaining nights in Shiraz with her. On the fourth night, she disappeared. Later, her body was found at the Russian Embassy with a toxic bullet in her heart.’
According to Facebook, the story of meeting M. Senobari started the moment I liked a post of a mutual friend:
‘For years, I’ve been dreaming about the name Howard Baskerville. Sometimes in that quiet cemetery in Tabriz, I hear him reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from his cold dark grave. Sometimes I am closely following Corporal Ashkestani, whose bald head is jerked back in the photo of Reza Shah’s coronation ceremony.’
M. was trying really hard to pretend his online persona and real identity had nothing to do with being a senior librarian at a public library and a descendant of Ashkestani, but in that very first meeting at the café, I realized that he was very proud of the history and military and government services of his forefathers. He’d even created a page dedicated to their pictures, biographies and related documents.
Some letters Baskerville had written to his mother were posted on his wall too:
February 25, 1909
At American Memorial School, my bible is my good news. However, the better news is the excitement of the revolution I witness in the city. This is the doomsday of a people who haven’t had bread and meat in so long they’ve forgotten what they taste like. The city is under siege. Food is scarce. Mothers’ breasts no longer have milk. Newborns are dying one after another. In the streets of Tabriz, I have seen children who are so hungry their pupils have disappeared. The eyes of these children are my revelation of John the Apostle.
I confess that it’s both my faith and my sin. What am I supposed to preach here? These inconsolable people that I see will not be comforted unless the Revolutionaries win.
April 16, 1909
I don’t want to be the chronicler of the dead. It’s not important where I was born and where I will die. All the Judases of Iscariot have gathered here. They take money and betray the hiding spots of Constitutionalists and the members of the Secret Society to Shoja ol-Dowleh. They all get paid by the Russians and the British who have been looting this country for centuries. They executed my friend, Hasan Sharifzadeh, in front of the French Consulate. The army of Ein ol-Dowleh has sieged the city. People have been starving for six months. They eat cats, dogs and roots of the trees. I am fighting on the side of the Constitutionalists. The American Embassy approached me and told me to leave the country. I told them this is not my country; it belongs to the people who are forced to eat cats and dogs. My dear mother, I don’t know when you will receive this letter. Perhaps I will be dead by then. In the words of Hafiz of Shiraz, “My eternity has already been registered in the records of the world.” Please know that if you were here and could see the conditions these people live in, you would draw your cross and just like Zeinab Pasha, join the revolution too.”
None of these romantic and somber letters provoked my curiosity or interest. Those were torturous days. Lazy, hot, slow depressing days. Pots and spoonswere piled up in the sink and were getting on my nerves. Life in a small room away from my parents and relatives, who would often drop by to visit was driving me crazy. Plus, my Kurd roommate was always watching TV. She was following the news of Kurds fighting against ISIS, and often would whisper “Kobanê îro xemgîne” to herself. She’d put up a picture of a guerrilla fighter, named Arin Mirkan on the wall in the hallway. Every time I entered the house, I would face the smile of a woman whom I couldn’t understand. She’d carried out a suicide attack against ISIS. It was the smile of a woman blown into pieces.
One night, my Kurd roommate said, ‘Of course, you wouldn’t understand her! The problem is that you weren’t sold in a market in Mosul and passed down to one monster after another. Your price is high because you are blonde and have blue eyes. Plus, you have many suitors. Who knows, maybe one of these Jihadists will take you to London. You could study Middle Eastern history at Oxford. Mosul and Raqqa are full of wealthy sheikhs who sell oil to Great Britain and the United States on one side and are ISIS allies on the other.’
She couldn’t see that the Jihadists were once normal people. She thought the same thing about the Constitutionalists. According to her, the Russians and the British had conspired to loot the oil, the Caspian Sea caviar and the antiquities from all four corners of the country, as well as the imagination of the people.
I was in no mood to discuss history with her. Plus, I had enough problems of my own. I was being haunted by demons in my head, each like the ISIS fighters pointing a single index finger to the sky. Every time I spoke with my father, I had to explain why I was thirty years old and not yet married. I never had a satisfactory explanation except that I hadn’t met the man of my dreams. The suitors he found me were losers.
Twice a week, I would go to the Central Library, where all the documents and correspondence related to the Constitutional Revolution were kept in basement storage. Getting access was only possible with an official letter and signature from the director, who was none other than M. Senobari working there under his real name. At the library, everything was formal, even our casual conversations.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Documents and letters of Howard Baskerville.’
‘Is he the one who’s known as the American hero of the Constitutional Revolution?’
‘Is he the one who fought against the Constitutionalists as a member of theSocial Democratic Party?’ thumbing with the red ruby rosary between his fingers, he went on, ‘and was a friend to the likes of Taghizadeh and Kasravi?’
‘Not you too!’ I said and for the first time, I winked at him.
Once the servant brought tea and left the room, he asked, ‘Are you studying sociology or history?’
I gave his question an ambiguous answer. My roommate was studying sociology, and I was studying history. ‘I am working on my Master’s thesis on Howard Baskerville and his involvement in the Constitutional Revolution. I need original documents and primary sources.’
He stood up from his chair. He looked taller than he did in the café where he was hunched over the table and stared into my eyes. I immediately knew he had a thing for blue eyes.
‘It won’t do! A beautiful woman such as yourself cannot go in that damp basement among the insects and cockroaches alone and mess around with moldy newspaper pages and books.’
I didn’t think he could be so blunt.
He stared right into my eyes and shoved his rosary into the drawer in his desk. He didn’t have a full beard. He had stubbles.
I was on my period. Next to the window, I shifted my weight from one leg to another.
A flight of red beaked pigeons flew over the sky of the shrine of Hafiz.
When I left the library, I walked two blocks to the shrine. A few foreign tourists were taking pictures. From here, they were probably headed towards Eram Garden and Persepolis. I kept thinking about the fortune teller who according to the guards of Malek Mansoor Mirza (known as Shoja ol-Saltaneh)was seenembracing Howard Baskerville in Roknabad.
What’s fascinating is that even my professor was surprised to find a graduate student in favor of the free market and with liberal tendencies write about Howard Baskerville rather than Vladimir Liakhov. He hadn’t figured it out! It was a scheme: I was planning to use it to go to America and study.
The first time I stepped foot in M’s building, I was startled. There were blood stains on the stairs. I ran up to the fourth floor in one breath. As soon as he opened the door to his apartment, I jumped inside, terrified.
‘The neighborhood kids shot a red beaked pigeon with a BB gun.” He said, “it came through the stairwell window and bled everywhere.’
His apartment was furnished. There was a twin bed and satin light green curtains in the bedroom. He had a framed photo of his grandfather in the living room.
He’d bought original Winston cigarettes, not the fake kind with images of shriveled, cancerous lungs on the packet.
For dinner, he had ordered pizza: Meat combo with mushrooms for him and vegetarian for me. The drinks were tropical fruit flavored alcohol-free beer.
He said he can get me a scholarship. ‘I have the contacts.’ We were deep in conversation when the doorbell rang. The person must have had their finger on the bell because the ringing wouldn’t stop.
I got nervous. My body grew cold, like a block of ice. I thought the house was surrounded by the police.
He went to the window to look down at the street. ‘It’s nothing,’ he said. ‘Relax, I’ll tell you later.’ He turned the lights off and turned on the pink bedroom light.
On the left-hand side of M.’s Facebook wall, my profile picture popped up next to eight other women’s.
I looked through the pages he had just handed me. I didn’t know how he’d come by them:
‘In late 1905, in the northern wing of the British consulate’s garden, near the wall, they dug some wells and abandoned them. After six months, next to the same wall, they built a passageone and a half feet wide and dug some ditches which connected to one of the wells. Six months after that, they built walls in between each ditch that transformed the passage to a series of rooms. After doors were made and prepared at the carpenters’ market in the south of Tehran, they were taken to the consulate and were installed in the walls of the rooms. Later, when people were protesting in the consulate, these rooms were used as toilets.’
Gradually, I began to wonder if I should change the topic of my thesis and pay someone else to write it for me. I had seen advertising for writing, typing and proofreading for any kind of paper at the Central Library. We Prepare It in the Shortest Time Possible.
M.’s thesis was also written the same way. I was able to get him to admit it.
I had been spending all this time researching but only found one image my professor had approved. Besides, how was I going to explain that I had found it in an English bag belonging to M.’s grandmother? The photograph showed Ashkestani’s bald head peeking out from behind a tree by Baskerville’s grave in the American Cemetery. There was also another photograph of Monsieur Ali’s house, the home of the Secret Society. They were probably taken by Antoin Sevruguin and must have barely escaped the fire. It’s said that Mohamad Ali Shah ordered his photography studio to be blown up. Two thousand negatives turned to smoke and ashes. I don’t remember which Facebook friend had posted his picture of a dog with the caption, “Dogs eating a dead horse. Parade Square, 1905 famine.”
The photographer focused his camera on the dead horse’s left eye that forever stared out beyond the frame.
The day after M. and I climbed the steps of the registry office, we headed to our honeymoon with tickets to a rental Boeing that belonged to an Emirates company, but while boarding, I realized it was a Russian Tupolev. M. was so scared of Tupolev planes that from the beginning of the flight till the end when it had to make an emergency landing on a central Tabriz street, he kept whispering the same thing over and over. ‘Do you know what I saw out the window that night? A man with his head jerked back. A monster was at the door.’
There was an earthquake in Tabriz and people poured out into the streets. They were terrified of the earthquake that scientists warned would occur every hundred and fifty years and would wipe out the city.
From the Old Market we reached Khataee cul-de-sac, where we lost ourselves looking through the windows and doors of the inner court of The Secret Society house, now forever closed to the Constitutional Revolution. Howard Baskerville had spent the last night of his life there, which was now a museum.
The guard was a docent in his own right. He showed us Akhund Khorasani’s handwriting.
It was in a glass display.
Then, he read us a report written by Alavizadeh, a friend and comrade of Baskerville:
‘We marched through an alley surrounded by orchards on both sides. At the end of it, a vast field surfaced. The Cossacks’s trench was on the other side, where soldiers were standing guard by a sniper. We could see them from afar. One of them was standing to the side and spinning a fire spinnerbut it was obvious that he couldn’t see us. As soon as we reached the field, Baskerville ran in front towards their trench and ordered us to run. A few of us ran after him. Others were divided into two groups: a group ran into the orchard on the right, while the other into the orchards on the left. They all took refuge behind the trees and walls. However, the moment Baskerville fired a shot and ran a short distance, a Cossack soldier opened fire on him. As he was going down, he ordered us to crouch down. The few who were running behind him reached a hill and retreated behind it. Baskerville shouted, ‘I’ve been shot.’ Then, he fell silent. The day was April 19th, 1909. Howard Baskerville was twenty-four years old.’
I said to M., ‘Pity I changed my thesis topic.’
‘It’s good you did!’ he said. ‘How were you going to put together all these scattered documents and letters, then get the professor and the Thesis Committee to approve it?’
Around sunset, we ended up at the desolate American Cemetery.
An old man who seemed to be the gatekeeper was sitting by the door.
‘Is Baskerville’s grave here?’ I asked.
‘It was,’ he answered, “Don’t look! You won’t find it.”
M. said, ‘I know that, but it’s my spousal duty to show this lady every corner of the country and any sites related to the Constitutional Revolution, even the cemeteryof the Social Democratic Party.’
‘Of course, this cemetery was part of my thesis, but not anymore.’ I added. The gatekeeper looked at us, bewildered. He said something in Azeri which I didn’t understand.
We found a hotel nearby.
We had dinner at a traditional restaurant: Special Tabriz meatballs with fresh herbs: basil, parsley and radishes. As I ate, I went over the names of professional ghostwriters in my head.
I asked M. if they would really get it done in a week.
‘Absolutely. That’s what they do for a living. I know one.’
We took the hotel’s glass elevator to the top floor. We could see people were out on the streets. According to The Institute of Geophysics at Tehran University, the aftershocks would continue for a few days, but there was no immediate danger threatening the citizens. I could hear the sound of chaos.
That night, on the queen size bed, in a room that had the lowest ceilings of any room I had ever been to in my life, red beaked pigeons flew into the foggy wet windows and banged their heads against the glass, right in front of our astonished eyes.
Howard Baskerville is a beloved character in Iran. His true story is among the few bright events in the history of Iran-US relations. While there is more than forty years of hostility between the two countries, Iranians take solace in the fact that once an American gave his life for democracy in Iran. However, Baskerville’s story did not have a happy ending, nor did the long struggle of Iranians for democracy and freedom from theocracy. In this story, Farhaad Gooran ties the fate of Baskerville with the fate of the post-revolution youth to show that no effort for gaining political or social reform in Iran ends well. A systemic depression and self-censorship that overwhelm the intellectuals and the young are all that remain of any effort to bring about freedom of speech and representation. I have chosen to translate this story because the current foreign polices of United States specially the sanctions against Iran have overshadowed the reality of the lives of Iranians and have silenced the truth of what life is like for them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the 1900s or 2020; there seems to be so little hope for Iran.
If translation is a window to unknown places, I believe this story is a unique glimpse to a slice of both Iranian history and present.
About the Author
Farhaad H. Gooran (born 1972) is an Iranian Kurdish writer and editor who lives in Tehran. He is the author of several acclaimed novels including The Colors and Legends of Reincarnation, The Decadence Reader and Shortness of Breath, which has won one of Iran’s most prestigious literary prizes, Mehregan in 2008. His most recent work, The Migrant Shamaar was chosen as a notable novel by Mehregan Prize in 2020. Gooran has not yet been able to get permission from the government of Islamic Republic of Iran to publish two of his novels.