We're sharing today a poignant love story, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter reflects the terrible toll taken on the people of Iran by religious hatred, war, and the international greed for oil.
About the Book
by Dora Levy Mossanen
Kindle Edition, 295 pages
Published November 8th 2022
A breathtaking journey across Iran where war and superstition, jealousy and betrayal, and passion and loyalty rage behind the impenetrable walls of mansions and the crumbling houses of the Jewish Quarter.
Against the tumultuous background of World War II, Dr. Yaran will find himself caught in the thrall of the anti-Semitic Governor General, the most powerful man in the country. Dr. Yaran falls in love with the Governor General’s defiant wife, Velvet, upending not only the life of the doctor’s beloved daughter, but the entire community. In his quest to save everything and everyone he loves, Dr. Yaran will navigate the intersections of magic, science, lust, and treachery. His sole ally is the Governor General’s servant, an exotic eunuch, who will do anything to aid his mistress in her dangerous quest to attain forbidden love.
Pride and fear travel fast in the Jewish Quarter, where everyone’s nose is in someone else’s business, and gossip gets trapped in the low-roofed shacks and blind alleys.
Dr. Soleiman Yaran is on his way to see Her Majesty, Queen Fawzia Pahlavi.
Men with skullcaps on their heads and prayers on their lips, ululating women with festive clothes and colorful scarves, bankers and merchants, butchers and fruit vendors, the shah’s Water Man and the Quarter Fool, the rabbis, and the Quarter Whore with her bleached hair and rhinestone-studded slippers are out to wish their beloved doctor a safe journey and a safe return.
Soleiman guides his restless stallion toward the Alley of Seven Synagogues, where his father stoops out of the door of his house. Soleiman leans from the saddle to give his father’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “I’ll be back before nightfall, Baba, better off, I hope, and able to afford a house you’d walk out of with your back straight and proud.”
“Bowing to goyim is the least of my worries, son.” Eleazar the Redhead’s unruffled voice defies the constellation of blazing freckles sprinkling his pallid face. Having been accosted in alleys and under bridges, spat on and beaten, his head shaved with rusty razors, he no longer frets over the outdated edict requiring low doors on Jewish houses so that the occupants genuflect like servants when they step out. He slips a small Tehillim prayer book into the pocket of Soleiman’s coat. “Bottle up your pride, son, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut at all times, or you’ll end up hanging from a tree in a deserted alley. Don’t forget that even if you become the Queen’s dentist, to them, you’re still a najes Jew.”
Aunt Shamsi stoops her way out of the house as she swings a mesh fire-turner with crackling seeds of rue to ward off the evil eye. A backhanded slap on Rostam’s flank. “What did you eat for breakfast, Soleiman? Donkey brains? Look at you! Trotting to the Queen, all high and mighty on that smug stallion of yours.”
“Good morning to you too!” Soleiman calls back to his aunt as he points his stallion toward Jacob Mordechai, who is rinsing the steps to his house, the paisley patterns on his silk, velvet-collard robe flickering in the wash of light tumbling out of the open door. He drops the hose and crosses the alley to greet his friend, grabs the reins, and lowers the stallion’s head. “It’s a big day, Rostam. You’re on your way to the palace.”
Soleiman prods Jacob with a playful tap of his riding crop. “And you, my friend, must have heard about the Queen’s toothache even before she felt it.”
Jacob steps back, clicks his crimson slippers, and raises his hand in a military salute. A member of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, his sharp ears and eyes are tuned to Tehran’s pulse, which currently pounds with indignation at the court’s choice to elevate Soleiman Yaran above all the Muslim dentists in the country. “Good luck, Soleiman. Use your new position wisely. Travel permits for Palestine aren’t being issued, and negotiations with the British are at a stalemate. But the agency keeps sending me more orphans. Plead their case with the new Queen before she’s hardened like the others. Go now, and don’t you dare come back feet first.”
Tehran has expanded beyond her old walls, all the way north toward the foot of the Alborz Mountain range. Neoclassical buildings, designed by European and Iranian architects, line avenues newly widened to accommodate the passage of cars. Gone are the charming gates that once led to streets and surrounding hamlets. Gone are the buildings of the Qajar dynasty, with their ornate mosaics and intricate woodwork. Gone are the inner courtyards with cooling turquoise-tiled fountains. In their place, block-like houses face the wider streets that buzz with pedestrians, donkey and horse-drawn droshkies, trucks and buses, and the two-car passenger train running along the center of town.
The din of hawkers can be heard everywhere—juicy pomegranate and quince for veal stew, crunchy cucumbers, ripe watermelons, grilled beets and corn on the cob, sun-dried fruit, and jars of shelled walnuts swimming in saltwater. A blind man, amulets displayed around his neck, wrists, and fingers, peddles his wares—turquoise pendants, evil eye bracelets, and prayer pouches—at the side of the street.
British soldiers patrol in khaki overalls and shirts, sleeves rolled up, the stomping of their dusty boots an insult to the ears. Hard-eyed Russian soldiers bark and spit and crush foreign cigarettes under their boots as if this is their home and all is well.
All is not well!
The Second World War is in full force, and Iran, despite her declaration of neutrality, has been invaded by the Allies. The Trans-Iranian Railway that winds its way through the Alborz Mountains has come under the control of the Allies, serving as a major corridor through which tons of war matériel are transported to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of American engineers are working day and night to render the treacherous highways and archaic ports operational, so as to transport added supplies and ammunition to the Red Army, which is overwhelmed by the massive German offensive.
Most of the country’s harvested grain is impounded by Russian and British soldiers. Bread, rice, and most other food is scarce, as is gasoline and clean air to breathe. Lootings have become rampant, and the populace lives in perpetual fear of famine, influenza, and typhoid.
Soleiman observes the squeezed faces of children that peer out of the opening of a tarp-covered Red Cross truck on its way to one of the hastily erected Polish refugee camps around Tehran. Thousands of refugees, who fled the German occupation of Poland, drowned in the Caspian Sea on their journey to the port of Pahlavi. Those who survived became sick with malaria and typhus and were so desperate for food that thousands more overate, when food became available, and died from dysentery. The luckier ones found temporary refuge in the homes of residents like Jacob, who is in talks with the British authorities to allow the “Tehran Children,” as they are called, entry to Palestine.
The beats of hope in Soleiman’s chest echo the footsteps of an assembly of Imperial Adjutants in red and blue uniforms, who escort him into the grounds of the Golestan Palace of Flowers. He, a Jewish man, is welcomed into the royal compound, where, for more than two-hundred-and-fifty years, edifices have been erected, added, and destroyed to accommodate the visions and ambitions of kings. He will prove worthy of the Queen’s trust. The Muslim society will see his people for who they are and accept them in their own land.
Crested helmets aglitter in the sun, the adjutants escort Soleiman into the magnificent complex of royal buildings—the Ivory Hall, Brilliant Building, Mirror Hall, Diamond Hall, and Marble Throne. A walled citadel during the reign of the Safavid King, Tahmasp I, and the official residence and governing hub of the last reigning Qajar Dynasty, this is where formal receptions, royal weddings, and coronations are held now.
Riders trot about the perimeter of the grounds, around the Wind Catcher Building, its golden cupola a dazzle in the sun, its summer hall cooled by breezes directed down by four towers.
Deep in conversation, men in western three-piece suits and somber-colored cravats stroll in and out of the columned Khalvat-e-Karimkhani, its domed terrace a place for peaceful reflection, far from the mayhem of war and chaos outside the walls.
Soleiman is accosted by an imposing man of the Ghashghaei Tribe, tall and wide-shouldered, a black handlebar mustache slashing across his face like double scimitars. A nasty rumble in the man’s hulk of a chest, he signals to the doctor to open his medical case. “Inspections!”
Grip tight around the handle of his case, Soleiman tugs at a chain looped through a buttonhole across his vest and flips open the top of his pocket watch. “I don’t have time for petty inspections, Agha. Her Imperial Majesty expects me in six minutes.”
A bald, full-bearded adjutant steps forward to inform the inspector that the doctor is authorized. The inspector growls something under his breath and marches away. The adjutant waves to a groom who, wide-eyed with wonder, offers a sugar cube to the magnificent thoroughbred he will be in charge of. A grunt at the groom’s feathered helmet, an indignant whinny, and the stallion allows the groom to steer him away.
With a confident gait that conceals the slight shortness of his left leg, a result of childhood polio, Soleiman follows the adjutants into the palace, resplendent with magnificent carpets and antique furniture, the walls decorated with miniature paintings by Persian masters, Sevres vases and bowls displayed on buffets and consoles.
A set of interior doors open, and Soleiman steps into the Hall of Mirrors, where the Peacock Throne was housed before it was moved to the Treasury of National Jewels. The dazzling lights of thousands of brilliant arrows shoot back and forth from intricate designs of cut-mirrored ceiling and walls. Everything is multiplied ten-fold, the grand chandeliers, the latticed windows, the gold-leafed furniture, and the twenty-year-old Queen Fawzia, who leans back in a cushioned chair, one leg crossed over the other, her white summer dress tumbling just below her knees to reveal shapely legs and varnished toes peeping out of satin shoes.
None of her photographs do justice to the stunning beauty he faces, the torrent of black curls framing her translucent complexion, the brightly painted lips, the turquoise eyes regarding him with detached curiosity and arrogance.
The grandeur triggers anxiety. But there is pride and awe, as well. Among the many dentists Her Majesty could have had her pick of, she chose him, a young, newly minted dentist from the Jewish Quarter.
Ill-prepared for the formalities and complexities of court, he wonders how to address the recently crowned Queen. How close should he step to bow his respects? Aware that Muslims consider Jews najes and impure, he clenches his hands at his sides and waits for a clue.
The Queen solves the problem by raising her hand to him. He kisses the air a few centimeters above the back of her hand, close enough to detect the scent of lavender on her royal skin.
The lace handkerchief she coils and uncoils around her fingers grants her a measure of innocence, which clashes with the fierce stare maintained steadily on him. “Good afternoon, Doctor Yaran.” Her voice originates deep in her throat, the words sounding more Arabic than French.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” he replies in French, having read that the Queen has given up the study of Farsi and prefers to communicate in French with her husband and the royal court.
Like ghosts bleeding into the heavy curtains, a wall of attendants surveys the Queen’s every move as she rises and makes her way across the room toward a German-made Ritter Dental chair, fully equipped with a control panel, cuspidor, drill, tray table, saliva ejector, and air and water syringes.
The Queen waves her handkerchief toward the chair—behind which two liveried men stand at attention. “Will this do?”
“Perfectly, Your Majesty.” Aware of the many eyes on him, he crosses the room and arranges his medical equipment carefully on the table. Is he expected to wear rubber gloves? He hopes not. They are thick and cumbersome and would make it difficult to feel and diagnose the condition of the gums and the underlying bones, but the Queen, too, might find the touch of a Jew repulsive. “May I have Your Majesty’s permission to check your teeth without gloves?”
She nods, shuts her eyes as if his asking permission is a waste of her time.
He is relieved. It is true, then, that the Queen, like most Sunni Egyptians, is more tolerant than Shiite Iranians. Still, he feels the need to bring to her attention that he is wiping his fingers with alcohol and disinfecting his medical instruments, his every move slow and deliberate as a magician’s.
A white longhaired spaniel skips in to settle at the Queen’s feet. She slides one bare foot out of her shoe and strokes the dog’s groomed hair with her manicured toes.
Egyptians, unlike Shiite Muslims, do not consider dogs dirty, Soleiman is aware; even so, he is surprised at the liberties this court allows the Queen—her bold, unflinching stare, red lips, bare toes, her skirt barely covering her knees.
He recalls the unprecedented fanfare surrounding the royal union of the then seventeen-year-old Princess Fawzia, the eldest daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt and Sudan to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the twenty-year-old crown prince of Iran. The wedding ceremony was held at the Abdeen Palace in Cairo and repeated in the Marble Palace in Tehran. Commemoration medallions of the royal marriage were minted, and Tagheh nostrat triumphal arches graced every street. Such a magnificently handsome couple, so deeply in love. May they be blessed with a son in nine months, Insha’Allah.
Fate had other plans for the young couple. Princess Fawzia gave birth to a daughter. And when the allies ordered her father-in-law, Reza Shah, the progressive and once powerful king of kings, who had forged close ties with Hitler, to abdicate, the heavy responsibility of ruling the country was forced upon her green husband, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The weeks before the abdication and exile of Reza Shah to Johannesburg are forever tattooed in Soleiman’s mind. All ears were tuned to the news; Jews stayed with friends who owned a radio. Hitler was at the border. If he succeeded in invading Iran, it would have been the end of them all. Reza Shah, despite the forceful demands of the Allies, refused to expel German residents from Iran. Nor was he inclined to allow the Allies the use of the 788-kilometer Trans-Iranian Railway to transport war matériel to the Soviet Union.
The enraged Allies handed Reza Shah a diplomatic ultimatum:
Would His Highness kindly abdicate in favor of his son, the heir to the throne? We have a high opinion of him and will ensure his position. But His Highness should not think there is any other solution.
Her Sultanic Highness Princess, Fawzia bint Fuad, was crowned the Queen of Iran.
An impatient tap of the Queen’s finger on the armchair. “You were educated in Paris, Doctor Yaran. You have a Diplôme du Baccalauréat Professionnel in dentistry. You introduced Novocaine to our country. Yes?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Soleiman replies as he places his disinfecting paraphernalia on the table. “I have a valuable supply I brought from Paris.”
“This is why I asked for you.”
“I am honored, Your Majesty. I will not disappoint.”
“You left Paris to return here.” A dismissive gesture of her royal hand as if Iran is not worth naming. “Why?”
“Out of duty, Your Majesty.”
She nods, gauges him with added interest. “Duty to whom?”
“To my father, Your Majesty, to my people who financed my trip to France, so they will have the benefit of my education.”
The Queen questions him through narrowed eyes. “You have a wife, Doctor Yaran. She is expecting, yes?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, Ruby, my wife. She is expecting our first child.” A flicker of a rare smile in Soleiman’s eyes. God willing, Ruby will give him a son for whom he will purchase a stallion like his own. A gift from the first patient he had injected with Novocaine.
Grateful beyond words at the novelty of having a molar extracted painlessly, the patient led Soleiman to his breeding farm and handed him the reins of a liquid-eyed purebred named Rostam. The Jewish Quarter was no place for a splendid stallion named after the mythological warrior of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Soleiman had reasoned, an imperial animal such as this would be a liability. Had Rostam not lowered his muzzle to sigh furtively in his ear, he would have refused the gift.
The Queen gestures to the dental explorer in Soleiman’s hand, prompting him to explain that the instrument is used to check for decay or any other abnormalities. What, he wonders, is the proper way to ask a queen to open her mouth wider? “Are you in pain, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, Doctor Yaran.” With her handkerchief, she wipes a speck of lipstick from her teeth as if she noticed it in a mirror. “I am in terrible pain.”
“I might be able to help Your Majesty.”
She spreads her hands in a gesture of surrender. His heart thumps with pride. He has been deemed worthy of the Queen’s trust. “May I ask Her Majesty to open her mouth wider?”
The Queen rests her head against a pillow an attendant brings in for that purpose. She shuts her eyes and slightly parts her lips, as if opening her mouth wider would expose some vulnerability.
He lifts her upper lip, noticing the slight tremble of his hand, but before he embarks on checking all her teeth, he sees the problem—a black, perceptible dot on her upper front tooth, which will require far more sensitive work than he had anticipated. This is not good. The Queen will not like her beauty marred. He taps on the toosxth. A royal flinch. A spark of disapproval scuttles across the blazing eyes. “I apologize, Your Majesty, pardon me. I found the problem. A decay on your upper front tooth.”
Again, that unsettling half smile. “My indulgence in baklava, I’m afraid. It must be easy to fix. Yes?”
“I am not sure, Your Majesty. I am concerned about the aesthetic result. Gold filling is best, but Your Majesty will not like the look of it. Amalgam is even less attractive. We don’t have any material that will look natural, I am afraid.”
“Nonsense!” The Queen stares him down as if he uttered blasphemy. “What is it you need, Doctor Yaran? Whatever it is, it will be arranged.”
“No doubt, Your Majesty. But it might prove difficult. Such material has not been invented.”
“Invent it, then. And make sure it is the color of my teeth. You are an inventor. I have heard nothing but praise about you. Do not disappoint me.” The Queen snaps her manicured fingers to demonstrate the speed with which she expects him to accomplish the task.
Excerpted from Love and War in The Jewish Quarter, Copyright © 2022 by Dora Levy Mossanen. Published by Post Hill Press . Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
About the Author
DORA LEVY MOSSANEN is the bestselling author of acclaimed works of historical fiction, including The Last Romanov and Scent of Butterflies, and a recipient of the San Diego Editors’ Choice Award. She is a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Huffington Post, and the Jewish Journal, and has been featured in various publications and media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to Radio Russia. Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran at age nine. Her grandfather, Dr. Habib Levy, a renowned Middle Eastern historian, introduced her to the harsh realities of life in Mahaleh, the Jewish Quarter, and the enormous challenges of being Jewish in a Muslim country. Her family was forced to leave at the onset of the Islamic Revolution and eventually settled in Los Angeles. Mossanen holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Master’s of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. To learn more, please visit: doralevymossanen.com
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