In Remembrance of Hoveyda
Saideh Pakravan hard at work in her Prime Ministry's Office
Elpis of Alabama
by Sa´deh Pakravan
My first job out of college was as personal assistant to Amir Abbas Hoveyda. By then, he had been Prime Minister for several of the thirteen years he would remain at the head of the Iranian government.
Working closely with him as I did, I developed a great deal of admiration for the man and true awe for the prime minister. I also witnessed his growing disillusionment. A man of sharp intellect and great erudition who would have liked nothing so much as to settle down with a fine book or spend time with friends around a good bottle of wine, he had to deal instead with the reality of power and politics, with questions of conflicting nature, with the immense greed of Iran's elite and the ambition of its growing middle class. Though he didn't confide in me, I could sense his frustration with the way things were and his irritation at the unreasonable demands he had to put up with. He also kept punishingly long hours, starting in the morning around seven-thirty--an hour that I, as a young woman who liked to party, found ungodly and had difficulty adjusting to. I usually slunk in two, three hours later, with the complicity of guards and attendants who covered up for me by sneaking in my personal belongings so that I could walk up the stairs with a jaunty step and an innocent expression: "Me? Late? Never."
But I fooled no one. Mr. Hoveyda took me to task severely on more than one occasion for my tardiness. I still have some of his handwritten notes that I dreaded finding on my desk when I got to the office, reminding me sternly and always "for the last time," that office hours started at seven-thirty a.m. Exasperated, he often told me to my face that he could run the country but not his own office. He even delegated to others the task of talking some sense in to me. One such mission was accomplished by his deputy prime minister, Nikpay, who, with his Isfahani accent, told me that he himself was at work every day at five in the morning and that his lights were the last to burn at night. Impertinent as the young will be, I replied something along the lines of, "I guess you don't have anything better to do." Relations with him were strained after that. He later went on to other posts, including a stint as mayor of Tehran. The Islamic revolution had him executed on the same day as my father--April 11, 1979--after a mock trial where he was braver than most.
Mr. Hoveyda was stingy on praise but quick to reward. He had a good sense of humor though not much opportunity for displaying it, and he could sometimes be playful and even impulsive. As did rulers in old Persian legends, he carried gold coins in his pocket. I myself received one of those coins on one occasion. This is what happened: One of his friends from France had written to him. As I did with Mr. Hoveyda's French and English correspondance, I prepared the answer, had the typist, Khanum Sarkhosh, type it, and I took it to him to sign along with other letters. To this one, he added a few words by hand, signed it, then went over it once more and said, "You noticed that Edouard says that his address has changed. Don't forget to change it in the address book."
"I already have," I said.
He was in one of his grouchy moods. "I'm sure you haven't," he said. "Go fetch the book, and if the new address is there, I'll give you a gold coin."
I ran upstairs where my office was, came down with the address book, and triumphantly pointed to the revised address. True to his word, he dug in his pocket and gave me a gold "Pahlavi." I was thrilled.
He had another assistant beside myself, an admirable woman who had been with him since the days he had headed the National Oil Company. She had followed him during his spell as Minister of Finance and thence to the Prime Ministry when Mr. Hoveyda was named Prime Minister following Hassan Ali Mansur's assassination. Of sturdy Turkish stock, taking no nonsense and bearing no grudges, Khanum Maarefat was soon to become an influential figure for me and an example that I wanted to emulate for her fiercely independent spirit and her poise that was neither deference nor subservience.
Our schedule worked like this: We were both there in the morning--in my case, from whatever time I made it to the office--until after lunch when things slacked off, and then we took turns for the rest of the day, she one day, I the next. My turn sometimes fell on the dreaded Wednesday, Cabinet meeting day. It was a rare Cabinet meeting that didn't last for hours and hours on end. My office was on the second floor but I always knew when the meeting finally broke because of the ensuing brouhaha caused by the ministers in the downstairs foyer, finishing up their discussions while waiting for their chauffeurs-driven cars to arrive outside at the bottom of the grand flight of stairs.
In later years, I heard that the palace--which had once belonged to Princess Ashraf-- had been vacated in favor of a more modern annex built at the bottom of the park.
Those Wednesday evenings where I had to sit and wait sometimes till late at night were exhausting. When I had finished the tasks at hand, I sometimes did some writing of my own, I read, or even practiced my Persian script--modeling it after the nicest handwritings of the letters the P.M. received, usually that of Amirani, the editor of the periodical "Khandaniha." But generally, I felt too drained for any activity and, as long hour followed long hour, I fell in a kind of torpor where even the faintest thought process, such as it was, seemed to stop into the utter silence. The phones were dead in the mostly empty offices. Even the attendants who ran in and out all day with tea or Turkish coffee had long gone home, leaving a skeleton crew, including Mr. Hoveyda's personal valet, the urbane and equanimous Labbaf, with his crown of reddish hair around a bald pate--Thinking back about the people I worked with in those days who appeared to me quite elderly, I realize that from Mr. Hoveyda down to Labbaf, they couldn't have been much beyond their mid-forties or early fifties.
Visitors to the Prime Ministry were screened at the gate lodge where a couple of guards ensured security. They waved in government officials and whoever else had a good reason to be there. All the others had to wait while the guards checked with the person the visitor wanted to see.
One Cabinet meeting evening around 8 p.m., one of the guards called me to say, in a bemused tone, that there was someone at the gate who wanted to see the Prime Minister.
"Who is it?" I asked.
He hesitated. "It's. . . a tourist. An American tourist."
That was funny. "Well?" I said.
"She says she wants to see Agha." (We all called Mr. Hoveyda Agha, the equivalent of the Master). I told him to put the person on and listened to this woman tell me, with a twang in her voice, that she was in the neighborhood and thought she would try her luck.
"I so want to see the inside of this beautiful palace and see the Prime Minister!" she exclaimed.
"The Prime Minister is busy," I said, "but I will see you, if you want to come up." Truth be told, I was thinking more of myself than of her. I saw this as a welcome break in the tedium of those long hours.
Shortly afterward, she showed up, escorted to my office. A cheerful little brunette, middle-aged, with tight old-fashioned curls, wearing bright red pants and a colorful blouse, she introduced herself as Elpis something or other, from Alabama I believe (or was it Kentucky?)
Bursting with pleasure, she admired her surroundings. My office was rather grand, with two floor-to-ceiling french windows opening on a terrace and the gardens beyond. She sat down and told me that she was visiting Tehran with friends and had taken off on her own that day, with a map. Then she reached this intersection with these impressive buildings. The other palaces had been dark and quiet but this one was all lit up and the gates were open, so she thought she would come in. "They told me it was the Prime Minister's office and I thought, I'll ask to go in. What have I got to lose? The worst that can happen is they'll tell me no, right?"
She laughed all the time, finding this a lark. Though slightly irritated--after all, would she have walked into 10 Downing Street and asked to see the Prime Minister?--I soon realized how unpretentious and naive she was. She had no idea at all about what it was a government did, and certainly did not appear to think that her status of American citizen in a developing country entitled her to special favors.
I had wanted company and here was this funny little woman, having a ball, talking about the Thousand and One Nights, almost expecting to meet a Sultan or see Aladdin rubbing his lamp for some magic. She told me that her kids back in the States would be thrilled to hear that she had been inside this gorgeous palace. I asked about her name which I found intriguing. I was a great Elvis fan but had never heard of anyone called Elpis before and never have since.
In the middle of our conversation, there came the brouhaha from downstairs, indicating that the Cabinet meeting had broken up. Almost immediately, the buzzer rang from Mr. Hoveyda's office and he asked if there was anything he needed to see before he called it a day.
Khanum Maarefat had trained me well. You never kept the Prime Minister waiting. On my desk sat in readiness my notebook and the folder with letters for his signature. I jumped up, grabbed notebook and folder, and told Elpis to stay where she was, that I would be right back.
She stared at the phone with round eyes. "Was that him?" she asked in reverent tones.
"Yes," I said, and ran downstairs.
Mr. Hoveyda looked tired. As he often did, he held his pipe between his clenched teeth, with a sort of rictus, as he went through the folder I had set in front of him. I was still almost a child then and had to hold myself in check not to start giggling uncontrollably at the face he made, his lips stretched into a wide, forced smile. I realize now how stiff his face muscles must have felt after hours of meeting with the members of his government.
Once he was done, he shut the folder and returned it to me.
"Anything else?" he asked.
On an impulse, I said, "I have a funny little woman in my office."
"An American tourist from Alabama. She just walked in and asked to see you."
He raised his eyebrows. "Well, what did you tell her?"
"I told her you were busy."
"And she's still here?" he asked.
"Go fetch her," he said.
I bounded up the stairs and grabbed Elpis. "Quick, quick! He wants to see you!"
To Elpis, this was magic. Babbling, giddy with happiness, she followed me downstairs as fast as her short legs with carry her. We turned into the corridor that led to Mr. Hoveyda's office and stopped in front of the majestic doors on the left. The ever-present Labbaf opened them and we entered.
Mr. Hoveyda's office was huge and very tastefully decorated. His imposing desk sat at the far end of the room. At our end, near the door through which we had entered, was a more relaxed corner, with couches and cozy armchairs around a coffee table. Getting up from behind his desk, he walked toward us and shook hands with Elpis who stood speechless, in total awe and wonder. He made us sit down and started a light conversation. Relaxed and amused now, he was at his most charming. It was always surprising to see how this portly, balding man, with his drooping lower lids that gave him a mournful, blasÚ expression, could be so brilliant and seductive when he managed to shrug off the pressures and terrible responsibilities of his position.
The conversation, about Iran, about places to see and things to do, and his guest's life back home, didn't last more than ten minutes. Mr. Hoveyda then stood up, extended his hand to Elpis and wished her a pleasant journey home.
Outside, the little tourist from Alabama was too overwhelmed to say much beside mumble some thanks. Her dazed expression told me that this was one memory she would treasure forever, one of the grandest moments in her life.
It's late, for others the day is over but for Saideh the work continues