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Interview with Ali Bahmanyar

Bahmanyar, Ali
Bahmanyar, Laura
Date of Interview: 
Childhood adventures; Relationships with people and places; Stories and storytellers
Ali Bahmanyar talks about folk stories from Iran. He also talks about story-telling in his family
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Laura Bahmanyar interviewed a variety of people to collect various stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
LB (Laura Bahmanyar): Hello, Ali. I want to ask you a few questions about what you remember from your, from when you were younger. When you were younger, what stories or books do you remember reading? Were there any favorites that you read when you were young?
AB (Ali Bahmanyar): Yes, there were many favorite books, but, uh, going back during the childhood, some of the books I remember the most are from fifth grade history class. Uh, the books were illustrated exceptionally well, they were larger than any other book. It was a pain to carry them to school, I remember, but it was the favorite books I could have. Our history book was [pause] every page of it was full with beautiful paintings, and pictures showing history.
LB: History of what?
AB: History of old Persia, all the fighting between, ah, Cyrus the Great and Medes, and all what was happening in 2500 years ago, 3000 years ago. And all you see, these colorful horses and, uh, swords and for a kid that age, that was something that--. It was just--. Actually stays in your mind for the rest of your life. I'll never forget. I could just gaze into those pictures [pause] just flipping them [pause] just look at them [pause] and just [pause] you could feel [pause] you could even hear the horses, how they were just running in those fields [pause] the way they were illustrated. It was extremely nice.
LB: Did you read those in school? Did you get to take that home?
AB: No, we would take our books to school. I mean, bring our books home. And, uh, that was as far as the vivid memories, that was one of the books that I have probably the most vivid memory, visually. But, most of the books we read, it was filled up with poems and stories, all with lessons behind them. It started from very elementary grades, second and third grade, I remember third grade we had a story about a pheasant family, that they lived in a farm and, uh, this pheasant family had three, four little chicks, newly born and one day Mom and Pop they decided to go out and get some food and bring it for the chicks and while they were gone, the chicks were just hanging around the nest and obviously the nest for the pheasants, they were built inside of the, on the floor of the farm between the wheats, where the farmer had planted some. And when they were gone, the chicks hear the farmer talking to his son that, "Tomorrow I'm going to ask you uncle to come and help me out so we can cut the wheats and take them to the market." So the chicks, they get extremely excited and worried because they would lose their nest. When the parents come home, they see them all screaming and running to them and they say, "What happened? Why are you so excited and worried?" They said that's what we heard and the parents tell them, "Just relax and not to worry. Nothing's going to happen." And they all sleep and next day Mom and Pop again they go to bring more food and they leave the chicks and the chicks hear the farmer and son talking and the farmer telling to his son that, "Your uncle didn't show up, but tomorrow your cousin is supposed to come and help us out." So the same thing happened. The chicks get all excited and the parents come home. And this story goes on and on. Every day the farmer's expecting somebody to come and help who said they going to come and help. And the chicks were excited and the parents keep telling the chicks not to worry. Finally, one day when the parents come home and the chicks are all excited and they ask them, they said, "What happened?" And they said that they heard the farmer tell the son that tomorrow, "We're going to cut it ourselves. Nobody showed up so we're going to do it ourselves." And that's when the parents tell the chicks it's time for us to just wrap it up and get out of the farm, because they decided to do it themselves. And that story has always stayed with me and it--. All through my life. For myself and for friends and co-workers I've always been using this story [pause] that if you do truly want something to get done, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. If you want it done when you want it and want it done right. So, that's one of the stories I remember. There were many good stories. There were stories, just about every one we read had some kind of a lesson. There was a story about, uh, that I use for my children a lot [pause] about how important it is to have good friends. And that's the story of the friendship of a bear with, uh, with a lumberjack. And, uh, what happened is [pause] this lumberjack used to go to the forest every day and cut trees and bring them down and sell them. And one day as he was going up the mountain he finded a bear cub, just sitting, totally lost, no parents around, in the forest. And he picked up the bear cub and he had some milk so he shared the milk with the bear cub and from that point on, take care of that cub and, uh, bring him back and live with him and every day they would go to the mountain together, the would come back together. And this cub had grown to be a giant bear now. And one day, every day actually, after lunch that lumberjack would take a little nap underneath the shade of the trees and just rest and his, uh, cub had learned from the habits of the lumberjack that in his sleep, if flies and stuff coming up, he would just try to swat them with his hand and get rid of them. So he was nice enough to know that that's something he needed to do. So if the flies would come, he would just try to get rid of the fly from the face--
LB: Of the lumberjack?
AB: Of the lumberjack. So the lumberjack could rest in peace and, uh, one day there was this giant fly and he keeps on coming back and the bear cannot get rid of it so, bear being a bear and using a bear's mind, trying to do what [pause] all he could understand to do [pause] as a friend. He'd go and find a big giant boulder--
LB: Boulder?
AB: Rocks. Yeah, and while the fly was sitting down on the lumberjack's nose trying to get rid of the fly and he smashed the lumberjack's head and all he was doing was from the friendship. It wasn't no mean thing to do but the reason I've been using that, it is real important who you choose as a friend. You know, if you have a wise and smart friend, it would help you out. They maybe have a good heart, but if they're not smart and they're not wise, they can hurt you in the long run by the wrong decisions that they make and the effect that they're going to have in your life. So, that's another story I've been using.
LB: Were these stories you read yourself or stories that others read to you, generally, or--?
AB: The ones we talked about were all stories we read in elementary school in books and they were taught.
LB: What stories or books do you remember someone else reading to you? Did anyone read to you in your family and what do you remember about that? Were there any favorites?
AB: Yes, I had stories read to me by my father from Shahnameh, that was written--. It was a book written by Ferdowsi, probably for around the 7th, 8th century ago, it's a collection of all stories that basically goes around a Persian kingdom with some of the kings who lived during those years, but previous of the--. Where they lived was previous of the--. [Pause] The Arabs taking over Iran and bringing Islam. I mean, he's writing these stories from years before [pause] even though he wrote them in seven or eight centuries ago, but he's just back, like about 2,000-3,000 years ago.
LB: So they were like historical poems?
AB: Not historical, but they were all, none of them were actually true. They were--. He had made all the stories and those stories had become part of our culture because we read them, it's just one of the only books that is pure Farsi and it does not have any Arabic words mixed in it [pause] because the Arabic got basically with Farsi language after invasion of the Arabs of Iran. So, in that book, uh, excuse me for a second [cough], one of the famous, uh, people in the book is called Rostam, who was the champion of the champions [pause] somebody with extreme physical power, very smart and, uh, the story goes back from--. The start of it was, um, from the time that one of the kings fathered a child that is, who is albino and because--.
LB: Albino?
AB: And because he was ashamed at that time to have an albino son, they decide, with the people around him that the best thing is just take the son and put him in the mountain and leave his future in the hands of God and not even admit that the King had albino son. So, they put the son in a basket and take him to mountain, a tall mountain in Iran and they leave him there, praying to God that somehow that child be able to survive and that happens that there is a bird, which is not a true bird, it's a histor, it's a bird [pause] a mythological bird called Simorgh, and it's known for its beauty and strength. Happened to see this child, that child was called Zal, that was the name of him. And, uh, so she comes down and she takes Zal to the top of the mountain, where she had a nest. And take care of Zal with her other chicks [pause] brings food to Zal and take care of him until Zal grows up in the mountain [pause] grow up in the mountain, live [pause] to live on the mountain. Live to climb, live to be a very strong person physically and he was a smart son and he, since he was born in a, I mean lived in a nature, he had a special value for nature. So we learned through all the poems about how to respect the nature. And then the story goes on and on and then comes--. One day he comes back to the city and then he marries and then, his son is Rostam, that famous champion of Iran, who between him and his horse called Rasht, that all the fighting that they were involved and they were the good and always the fighting was against evil and how they were doing. So, these poems that they were read to me by my father and the books had beautiful pictures, showing all these Rostams, sometimes laying underneath the tree and Rasht standing, waiting for him and how fair was Rostam that if Rasht would get tired, Rostam would even take the saddle off the horse and carry it on his own back so his horse could rest. It is a beautiful story. It goes on and on about Rostam's son and all the stories that happened. But this was another story told, was read to me by my father.
LB: Uh huh. Sounds like your father read to you quite a bit. How about story telling? Did you have any storytellers in your family?
AB: I have two very nice storytellers. I had my grandmother and I had my great uncle. My grandmother, I recall, for some reason, all the stories I recall from her either they were late at night when I was sleepy at her house. I would go sometimes sleep over at her house and they had a, like a three story house, and they had a flat roof and all around their neighborhood was a giant park and I remember we would sleep on the roof. Since it was flat, we would put the beds on the roof and all we would lay down and look at beautiful skies and the stars and she had a bed next to me and she would tell me beautiful stories about another champion called Hassan Tambal, which is probably, we have similar stories, ah, that lazy person, that what you call him and this story is about some person who was lazy and how the parents tried to get him out of the house and go on out, but the scenery that I used to listen to this story. There was nights looking at the stars in the summertime [pause] or if it was wintertime we had, uh, they had low tables at that time, it was many years ago and in order to stay warm, rather than warming up the whole house, everybody would climb underneath this table--. Stick your feet underneath the table [pause] underneath the table was a hibachi with some charcoal wrapped in ashes that give a very slow heat and on top of it was a giant comforter so everybody would snuggle underneath there and then the grandma would tell the stories and you could hear the samovar and the tea was boiling and there were fruits always over there. So those sceneries stay with me forever.
LB: Good memories, huh?
AB: And then the--. Another excellent storyteller was, uh, my great uncle, who since my parents are from the Azerbaijan part of the Iran that they speak Turkish, he had that sweet Turkish accent and he would use his emotion and his hands and he would always exaggerate everything. I remember, he was even telling stories about like [pause] how when he was young he could pick up a refrigerator on [pause] with one arm. When we were kids, we would always love to hear stuff like that and about my, uh, grandfather, that, uh, how he was a wrestler and, uh, all the things he used to do and, uh, one time in one champion wrestling he was--. They used to wrestle and it wasn't by the weight division, it was whoever challenged somebody else and it was one guy who much larger than him and he had nailed him down and while nobody was over there he just grabbed onto his groin and squeezed so hard so that the guy had to get off and then he just pulled his leg and knocked him down and we used to laugh at these stories all the time. Those are all old stories I remember.
LB: Did you like to hear those stories over and over, huh?
AB: It was fun. For a kid, I don't know [pause] five to 10 years old, hearing these stories. They are fun.
LB: OK and here's a different question. What stories do you tell yourself now to keep yourself going when you're, when you're going through, like, hard times?
AB: There are a couple stories I remember. One of them, or I tell myself, one is the story of that peasant that I always keep and the other one the story of, the story is about a farm family--. It was a father and two sons and they lived in a farm and every one of them worked very hard and, uh, one day the farmer was very old so he passed away and before he passed away he told his sons, "That's all I have in my life, you two and the farm we have. Please watch after each other." And so, when the farmer passed away, it was, uh, wintertime and they had a storage where they deep the wheat, so the sons, they said, "Let's go ahead, we split what we have so you can have your life, I can have my life." So they decided that the part of the, what was already stored of the grain, was his and part was the other person's and, uh, since it was hard winter and there was not much grain, uh, these brothers, when they would go to sleep, each one of them would come and take some of his grain and put it on top of the other person's grain.
LB: Their brother's grain?
AB: On the brother's grain to make sure their brother had enough grain and, uh, this is not a common thing to see happens, but, uh, the story goes that that grain never ends just because when you give with your heart, you always get it back. I remember, I was maybe about seven, eight years old and we had a very bad earthquake in the northwest of, uh, I'm sorry, the northeast of Iran, near Khorasan and, uh, there was a promotion was going on with one of these soap companies that they used to put a little gold coin inside of the soap to encourage people to buy that brand of soap that had just come out and my sister, we were collecting stuff to send to the people for the earthquake and, uh, I was a little kid. One of my gifts for New Year [pause] I had one little gold coin so I gave that one.
LB: Did you put it in the soap?
AB: No, I gave that coin to my sister to take to the people that they were collecting [pause] uh, to send to the earthquake people. That was my donation, that's all I had as a little child. But, on the same day when I was washing my hands, one of the exact coins--
LB: In the soap?
AB: I got it from the soap.
LB: Oooohhhh!
AB: And I always remember, you give with one hand, you're always going to receive.
LB: That's what that story told you too.
AB: Exactly. These were some of the stories I remember.
LB: Well, thank you very much.
AB: You're very welcome.