By Hrach Gregorian
Nothing is true, everything is permitted
Cup reading among a leisure class of Persian-Armenian women is near ritualistic. There are recurrent themes in each of the readings: the promise of an exotic voyage, a visit from long-lost friends, an unexpected windfall. So, what transpired on a hot summer afternoon while a lone air conditioner was taxing overloaded circuitry at the home of a practiced Watertown hostess was nothing short of electrifying. On the occasion, a smartly dressed member of the coffee klatch, Seda, let spill secrets to stun even the most jaded of the women who had gathered for an afternoon’s refection. Hers was a story of betrayal and treachery besting plot lines on daytime dramas. But hers was no fabrication. Only trust in her audience, rare candor borne of a need to unburden, could produce the emberous revelations that seared her lips. Such talk was safe in America but could reach back to inflict mortal injury on native soil.
A chestnut concocted during the reading of Seda’s cup by Helen Martirosyan, a practiced hand in the art of tasseography, triggered the cathartic reaction. During her disjointed rendering of Seda’s fortune, Helen said she could see someone dear to Seda calling to her from a deep crevasse, someone trapped midpoint between death and rebirth, begging for a final resting place. Upon hearing this, Seda recoiled, drew herself up and made a quick exit. Her dramatic reaction silenced the room. Everyone wore a look of apprehension. They had not paid attention to Helen’s words, having become accustomed to her singsong recitations of a basic storyline with minor alterations to align with what she knew about her subject. What had Helen said to cause this transformation in a gentle woman whose placid countenance bore no expression lines?
It took some time for the temperature in the room to cool again. In the meantime, Seda had repaired to a small porch fronting the house where she was able to gather her wits. When she returned she wore a look of deep sadness but also of grim determination. She confessed the fortune telling incident had conjured memories she had suppressed at great emotional cost about the circumstances surrounding the loss of her only brother, Raffi, a personage known directly or by reputation to all her friends and throughout the Persian-Armenian community. The matter had been shrouded in secrecy for years, and she felt it was time to reveal what had transpired, in part because she had an obligation to explain the cause of her behavior but also to unburden herself of demons that had haunted her for too long.
Seda came from a well-connected family in Tehran. Her brother Raffi had been a brilliant mathematician. Barely seventeen, he was sent to America on a royal scholarship, a distinct honor for a khaarej in Pahlavi Iran. He studied at MIT, and for two years excelled in the program in petroleum engineering. No sooner had he arrived in Cambridge than he was pulled into the hypersocial milieu of nearby Watertown’s Persian-Armenians. Encouraged by his father, he reluctantly accepted invitations from saccharine, overbearing hosts. He felt lonely, estranged, disassociated. He withdrew further into his small room overlooking the Charles River. In mid-July he was picked up by campus police responding to complaints about a longhaired, scraggly bearded man walking across campus unclothed. This would not have been cause for alarm, not in Cambridge, not at that time, but the individual taken into custody had been chanting incoherently while bloodying his back with a bicycle chain. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for observation. Two weeks later his father boarded a Pan Am flight in Tehran that would eventually deliver him to Boston. He took a taxi directly to the hospital.
The doctors confirmed what he had suspected but could not get straight during the course of several garbled overseas calls: his son had suffered an emotional breakdown. Unstructured interviews, behavioral observation, diagnostics…vanity, self-admiration, perfection, omnipotence…The words pounded the father’s head like hailstones. They recommended a course of intensive treatment and at least one-month in-patient care. The advice fell on deaf ears. He packed his sedated son in a cab and high tailed it to the airport, paying a king’s ransom for first class tickets to Paris.
A weeklong stay on the banks of the Seine smoothed the trip back to Tehran. Long days at the D’Orsay, light dinners accompanied by good wine in tiny sidewalk cafes, and the total indifference of Parisians suited their temper. The freedom afforded by the short interregnum was salutary. Raffi returned home far less damaged than expected by an apprehensive family. By the fall he was enrolled in courses at the University of Tehran. In two years’ time he had earned a degree in structural engineering with honors.
In those days there was money to be made if one possessed the skills and gumption to think big in a country hellbent on modernization, a country with the petrodollars to underwrite a massive transformation. Absolute power meant nothing could stand in the way of the monarch’s vision. Build a bridge, build a highway, build a business, build ties with the bees around the royal hive, build a fortune. Raffi’s mix of talent and frantic ambition produced landmark results, starting with small commissions and inching up to larger infrastructure projects, all delivered on time and under budget, a feat made easier by the overt venality of competitors. He also possessed the personality to succeed in a culture where charm is highly valued. It did not hurt to be near perfect in assuming the customs and habits of the host country. His Farsi was impeccable, his bearing regal. Hard to say how much of it came naturally and how much was practiced. His firm’s dramatic growth started attracting media attention as emblematic of a country racing toward modernity. Ministry heads came knocking with grandiose plans that had been hatched in the palace. They advised him on ways to structure the company such that it would be up to prevailing standards and which natives to hire as front men to avoid attacks from nationalists.
The major breakthrough came with the building of the Dez Dam when his firm was designated to be the only Iranian-based partner in a consortium led by the Italians. He was now being treated as if in the direct employ of the government. Contracts were steered his way for the usual consideration. The White Revolution was in full stride, and his business could barely keep pace. Nothing for sale was beyond his reach. His longings shifted.
Raffi housed his large, extended family in a stately mansion on Tehran’s tony Valiasr Avenue, automobiles of elegant design in the garages, a beachfront estate on the Caspian, and a chalet in the Swiss Alps, where he first started rubbing shoulders with the royals. Glamorous women were often on his arm, particularly in Europe. He was known to have a roving eye, the word playboy appeared on the covers of racy weeklies. It all happened so fast, his newfound fame and fortune, his elevated status at a tender age. Always a foreigner, he hit ceilings lower than he expected, but he was still a high flyer, glamorous and worldly. This was countenanced with grave resignation by his wife, Margo, a Russian-Armenian war baby who bore a remarkable resemblance to European starlets of the day. Margo’s statuesque body, although rounded by motherhood and leisure, still turned heads. She abandoned what romantic interest she had in him after the children were born surmising from all events the little ones were what would endure from her marriage. She spent her days in their seafront home, reading works by Armenian and European masters in the original. She read poetry in Farsi.
Margo and Raffi’s three children were shielded from the fast life and the gossip magazines by Swiss boarding schools practiced in providing protective cocoons for the scions of the well-to-do. Despite all, she remained grateful for his financial generosity, which helped her aging parents and a bevy of relatives who lined their pockets with no show jobs in his construction companies.
To all the world he seemed a man destined for greatness. A new man in a new world, the Shah, the Kennedys, the Beatles. Then, almost as quickly as his star had risen, he vanished.
Raffi’s absence was not immediately noticed because he was known to drop out of sight for extended periods visiting project sites or for so-called private business. But he had ways of signaling his coordinates to those who needed to know, more often his senior management circle. The first to note a potential ill wind was his sphinxlike personal secretary. He would never go more than a day without contacting her for short updates on company matters. This time it had been four days without even a faint signal. She was the first to contact the police, and then she called his home. His wife, too, was away but everyone knew she was not traveling with him. Margo bundled up the children and returned from their summer place when notified by the police they were treating this as a missing person case. Soon the matter was kicked up to the Interior Ministry. He was that important.
This meant the press got hold of the story, and not accidentally. They had been tipped off by associates in ministries deeply invested in his projects. Newspaper and magazine coverage could turn up information where police efforts had failed. A reward was offered, which merely served to distract investigators and draw down valuable resources spent on fruitless searches. Interpol was notified, as were authorities in the Gulf States where his business had been expanding. As days turned into weeks the missing person case turned into a criminal investigation. His family, his confidants, a wider orbit of business associates were queried. Initial suspicion fell on some of his professional rivals, those whom he had bested in fierce competition for large municipal contracts. There were plenty who resented his success. When the official inquiries went cold, the family brought in private investigators, armies of forensic specialists from Europe and the Near East, large men in shiny black suits with long gaps in their resumes. They too failed to make even a dent in the case.
Although suicide had been ruled out, intimations persisted of a troubled emotional history and not infrequent stays in Swiss psychiatric clinics and wellness retreats in the US. His friends and business associates dismissed the idea of self-harm, attributing his medical treatments to mental fatigue and physical exhaustion. And investigators were quick to point out that there were signs when a man was bent on self-destruction, patterns of behavior that would lead to discovery, clues to where and when a life had been taken, and by what means. Physical evidence of some kind eventually turned up, in the case of suicide, the body was usually the first thing found. It stood to reason. He, on the other hand, was a figure erased in an instant, like a fly on a frog’s tongue.
After a period, he was officially listed as deceased, a certificate was issued citing presumption of death, which legally closed the case. It permitted his business interests to be liquidated, with the majority of his assets distributed to his wife and children. The children were too young to be considered for a position in the company, which in any case would run counter to the fervent wishes of their mother. In accordance with his will, a tidy sum was left to his beloved sister, remaining funds earmarked for charities. The curious thing, as many observed, was how a figure so closely connected to an absolute monarch, to a peerless ruler with a vice grip on all layers of society, could vanish completely. How was it that a security apparatus with far reaching tentacles, fingers on the pulse of anyone even remotely close to the levers of power could lose track of such a connected figure? Why would the state commit the resources it had, continue the investigation for months, uncharacteristically allow foreign investigators unfettered access to sensitive areas of operation, if it had been involved in the disappearance? What motive would it have to extinguish such a bright flame, a public figure known and embraced by the royal family?
In time, Margo made Paris the family’s permanent home. She used Raffi’s powerful contacts to expedite the move there of her personal chauffeur, Ali, and a beloved housekeeper, Farah. The family properties in Iran were all sold. The children were now old enough and sufficiently prepared by their Swiss mentors to gain entry in one of Paris’s top lycées. Margo never remarried. She threw herself into the education of her charges, spending hours guiding them through the centers of art and culture in the city and sparing no expense to ensure they were tutored to keep pace with the rigorous curriculum and the demanding teachers in their new school. She travelled in a small circle of wealthy Persian and Persian-Armenian expats, many were widows of industrialists and military high-ups who had died under rather ordinary circumstances at a relatively young age, leaving small fortunes to kin who now lived the life of Europe’s privileged classes, taking up residence in elegant villas on the right bank, in tony arrondissements.
It was in this milieu that on a long visit with Margo and the children, Seda too decided to become a full-time denizen of Paris for at least a time. In the company of her nieces and nephew she felt an almost physical connection to her late brother, so to be closer to them all she rented a small apartment in the Latin Quarter, site of the children’s schools. There she spent many hours in bookshops and cafes, a lively intellectual scene far removed from Tehran, where a heavy atmosphere of uncertainty darkened her vision. The trees and streetlights of Paris’s boulevards reminded her of Christmas during happier times, and while never far from her mind, the absence of Raffi became more tolerable, distance tempering the ordeal of ambiguous loss. Here the notion that he could be alive did not preside so insistently in her thoughts.
Not long after her relocation, Seda was invited to a party at Margo’s posh apartment, a warren of rooms just off the Champs-Élysées. It was not something she felt ready for, but Margo insisted. They went shopping together to favorite boutiques in the Galerie Vivienne where Margo selected smart cocktail dresses for the two of them, not once checking a price tag before purchase. The experience was exhilarating and Seda began to work up enthusiasm for the party, but days before, anxiety set in. Seda would have likely bowed out but for a last-minute trumpet call from Margo who rightly suspected she might get cold feet. Late on the appointed evening, she made her way to Margo’s. She entered timidly, making herself small, grateful for the immense size of the place. The heart of the party was in a crowded music room where even starched shirts were grooving to the syncopated rhythm of a jazz trio. It was a strangely, humorously incongruous scene.
She lingered on the periphery of a boisterous group gathered around a makeshift bar. There she spied a woman of noticeably regal bearing dressed in the latest style of a leading Parisian fashion house. Her jewelry was of high value but elegantly understated. Her shoes were of fine Italian quality, a type hand crafted only in Bologna. But what impressed Seda most was her demeanor, which exhibited none of the usual airs of the moneyed. The woman seemed to know her, seemed to move in deliberate fashion to get close to her. When she was close enough to be heard despite her soft voice, the woman addressed Seda in elegant French, asking how she was enjoying the party and how she was adjusting to life in Paris. She said her own move from Tehran had been traumatic, that despite many long stays in the city settling there permanently was an entirely different matter. She urged Seda to take trips to the country where the pace of life was slower, more leisurely, not unlike village life in Iran. Finally, she introduced herself as Arianna. Seda assumed Arianna was a friend of Margo; how else would she know so much about her? Later, she would be startled to learn from Margo Arianna’s surname, which she immediately recognized as one of Iran’s most prominent. A family that had produced generations of political, military and industrial leaders dating back almost to the reign of the Safavids.
At the party Seda and Arianna struck up a conversation about life in Tehran and discussed individuals Seda knew at several removes, but with whom her new confrère seemed closely acquainted. Arianna was a veritable encyclopedia of Iran’s insular social register, knowledge she carried lightly and with an air of indifference. Still, they had much in common. They were Persianates. Like many of their generation they were highly educated, multilingual, and sophisticated. Cultivated for marriage to the highly placed, next to but always on the margins of power, the frustrated consorts of accomplished men. Had she married, Seda would have been entrusted with information of grave consequence because like Arianna she was trained to be discreet, but also because the cloistered lives of such women and their constricted social sphere would not allow sensitive information to seep out. These women lived in a fish bowl; they knew they were being watched. But they were not bereft of agency. They had the ear of powerful men who trusted their judgement. These men revealed highly sensitive information in exchange for the women’s candid opinions. There was something erotic about such leveling of power in the bedroom. No professional subordinate would ever dare to express doubt or disagreement with them, even if encouraged to, but the women did not suffer such inhibition, and their husbands were grateful even on occasions when they did not follow their bedmate’s advice. Lovemaking after such exchanges was invariably more intimate, more intense. The women also had elaborate codes for communication, which lessened their isolation and lent an air of excitement to ordinary conversation with peers. The movement of an eye, the pursing of lips, a subtle shift in expression, spoke volumes in the sisterhood of secrets.
Finding Seda, Arianna said, was an immense relief. She welcomed the opportunity to converse openly on topics utterly taboo back home. Seda was someone she knew she could trust. Seda was puzzled. How could this be? Was she being tested? Was there a hidden agenda, an ulterior motive? Was theirs a truly private conversation or were others privy to what was being passed between them? How could this mere acquaintance be so sure of her fidelity? Although flattered by the attention, she was wary of her intensions. Despite such misgivings, she could not help but feel drawn to the woman, as one would to a long-lost relative who suddenly appears to fill a gnawing gap in one’s memory.
Seda was too polite to make open inquiries. She had been schooled to hold her tongue, notwithstanding that candor better suited her disposition. She had learned if she bided her time, let the other proceed at her chosen pace, something would be revealed equal to the price of forbearance. She had no idea what that would be, but for certain it was no casual matter. It would take time to get to it, there would be a circling around and around the central point until the right moment presented itself. The less she talked the sooner they would arrive at a destination known only to one of them. Over expensive bottles of Bordeaux, Arianna opened doors that led to other doors, to secret passages, to inner sanctums. Each revelation was a step up a ladder of intimacy.
They met twice a week, late afternoon, when the sun was softening, casting long shadows on the boulevards of Paris. Light moved in a gentle arc to illuminate the center city and wash over the great museums along the river. On one occasion, a month after they had met and when the conversation seemed at last to have exhausted memory, Arianna spoke words Seda was not prepared to hear, but that she sensed their tête-à-têtes had been leading to, inexorably. Still, the few words the stately Iranian uttered stunned her. She felt dazed, concussed. Traffic stopped, and street noises became strange. An opaque light settled over her friend, who now seemed a stranger again, vaguely familiar but at a considerable distance. Words now banging around her head were not delivered in Arianna’s usual manner. They were stunningly direct. “I know how your brother died.”
This was not the first time her brother had come up, but prior reference had been in passing, never directly addressing the mystery of his disappearance. Seda assumed her friend was too discreet to pursue the matter and she was content to indulge her own carefully chosen fantasies. She thought there was yet a chance her brother would materialize; that he had been shanghaied; that he had fabricated the disappearance for reasons he would make plain, financial reasons, perhaps. The whole affair could be a nightmare from which there would be an awakening, however long that took. Her brother was a third rail that ran alongside the path they were on. Both were aware of its presence, neither dared get close to it. But now it seemed the space between the tracks was about to be breached.
Seda was not prepared, had no reason to be prepared, for the narrative thread Arianna began to unspool. She recounted events well known to Seda. “Your brother was a charming polymath who fast became a favorite of the Queen. She and the Royal Highness helped him build his business. They cleared the field of competition once his talents became manifest. All those exclusive tenders – why bother with lesser lights when he could be trusted to deliver world-class results? His special status was no secret.” What was not known, not by his sister, not by the press, not even by his wife, was how close he had come to the throne. “You see,” the regal Iranian continued, “the monarch’s sister fell hard for your brother. Late to love, she was carried away by his romantic attention. He, no doubt, had no idea how deep would become her ardor. He became her obsession, the one for whom she would move heaven and earth, the one she physically craved, the one she was prepared to renounce her title for, to become a commoner. He may not have shared the same feeling, but he dared not resist her. He knew how high the stakes were. He had scaled heights from which there could be no turning back.
“There were clandestine assignations in Europe and in royal hideaways sprinkled throughout the Gulf. She arranged for him to accompany her on trade missions. On one occasion he even flew in the royal jet when she travelled to the Far East to represent the crown at a state funeral. They took elaborate steps to avoid detection. He could control what he knew, but he had no idea what was afoot with blind assassins who could move undetected in the pitch dark. You see, it turns out there was a cell that handled extremely sensitive matters, matters that could not be touched by the King and that would not be allowed to touch him. The King knew of the cell and its head, knew how the men were recruited, trained, their sworn duty to protect him to the death, but he also knew to leave it at that. He had no knowledge at all of operational matters. He understood why the extra-legal, the unacknowledgeable, had to be kept from him.” Seda was made sad; she knew immediately how the story would end. Still, there was no stopping it.
“This cell had discovered early on that your brother was flying too high. Their job was to bring him back to earth. It was a relatively simple matter from a logistical standpoint. They lured him to a nondescript facility on the outskirts of the city with the promise of an early look at a tender. It was a familiar drill, one he had participated in countless times. This project, however, was bigger than anything he had seen before. It would put him in a new rank. Of course, the project had been invented for the occasion, with sufficient specificity to pass close scrutiny. They need not have bothered. He hadn’t paid much attention. He had grown complacent. The meeting had gone well, a customary round of drinks had followed. His was laced with heavy sedatives. Dead asleep, in minutes he was transported to a nearby military base and flown south over the Gulf. He was wrapped like a mummy and placed in a body bag. Weights were attached to the bag. His body never moved, not even when the hatch door on the aircraft was opened at thirty thousand feet.”
Seda was incredulous. “How could you know all this?” she asked Arianna. “It was told to me by my husband a year ago on his deathbed.” “How could he know?” The answer dawned on Seda before her friend could reply. “Oh my God, he wasn’t one of them. How can civilized people commit such acts of barbarity?” Arianna could scarce disguise her irritation with the question. She lit a Gauloises with a gold lighter that appeared and disappeared in a flash. She exhaled from the side of her mouth. Elbows on the table, she held the cigarette tin between her satin hands, turning it delicately as she spoke. “My friend, look around you, tell me what you see. You see Paris, you see the epitome of civilization, and the seat of the enlightenment, where every artist draws his inspiration, where the hunted flee to inhale the sweet scent of freedom. The city of light, arbiter of fashion, gastronomy, culture. All are reasons why people like you and I gravitate to this magnificent place. It seems incongruous that words like ‘drugged, stripped, dropped’ would be used here. They belong to the old world, to the primitives in distant lands which need to be colonized, modernized, civilized.” Seda could not wait, “but what does this have to do with the murder of my brother?” The reply was, “Everything! You asked how civilized people can commit acts of barbarity such as dropping a human being to his death from an airplane, and I asked you to look around, because this is where such practices were hatched. Yes, it was the sons of Voltaire, Rousseau, Monet who threw Africans out airplanes in Madagascar in ’47, in Algeria in ’54. The other side might have done the same had they possessed aircraft, but they made no claim to cultural superiority.”
What she heard sounded absurd. She was incredulous. It was rumored that the king himself had taken an interest in the case, had appointed his most trusted advisers to oversee the investigation, to spare no expense, leave no stone unturned. She blurted, “But the royal family…” As if reading her thoughts, Arianna gently took her arm, looked her in the eye, and whispered, “His Highness did not know. He did not know,” she repeated. “How could that be?” Seda almost shouted. How could the most powerful monarch in the world be kept in the dark about the collapse of such a bright star? Who would dare take such action without his imprimatur?” She could not fathom such a possibility. She would not be convinced of the king’s ignorance. Arianna could only describe in greater detail the role of compartmentalization in the country’s security system, a system designed to protect the Monarch at all costs.
Seda asked why Arianna had kept this information from Margo, why she had waited to unburden herself to her. Arianna said she tried to build a relationship with Margo, but Margo was aloof, unapproachable. Margo seemed unwilling to risk intimacy with anyone but her children. She made it a point to keep all other relationships at a superficial level. What Arianna did not say was she expected the revelation to travel like wildfire through the family. It was also her expectation the family would not utter a word of it, certainly not in public. What was there to be said, who would be petitioned for remedy? The matter was all too fantastic, a nonevent, not of this world, involving non-people. If it was beyond the king to know, then it was beyond the power of any mortal to redress.
Now both friends were in tears. The look on the regal Iranian’s face told Seda how lonely had been the woman’s journey, the weight she had been carrying, why she had gone out of her way to befriend her, the importance of finding the one person to whom she could deliver her husband’s confession. They embraced, they kissed, they both sensed this would be their last meeting. Seda could not stay in Paris. She could not stay anywhere. Several years of travel finally put enough distance between her and the awful moment to finally stop, to rest in the company of friends.
Seda had added details to Raffi’s life story the general contours of which were already known to her intimate friends. Her revelations about the circumstances of his death and the manner in which she came to know them transformed what had hitherto been grief to horror. In the tight knit Iranian-Armenian community, the brutal assassination was viewed by all as a personal injury. Another tear in the fabric that would have to be borne silently lest the safety of the community in Iran be placed in jeopardy. Loose talk would almost certainly lead to the liquidation of Arianna, something Seda was quick to point out when horror turned to anger among the ladies and some talked of leaking information to American and European media. Seda cautioned that few mainstream media outlets would carry such a story without far more evidence than her word, and in any case, who in the west was prepared to embarrass a staunch ally like Iran? This did not stop the rumor mill but those that decided to go public were marginalized as anti-monarchist Armenian radicals or dismissed outright as cranks with an axe to grind against authority.
Seda waved away all suggestions about steps she might take to avenge her brother’s death. She looked around at her good friends, some of whom she had known since grade school, then she looked down at her folded hands. She uttered what they knew would be the last words from her about the matter. “My brother, you all knew my brother,” she said in a low voice. She lifted her head and tilted it toward a near window, “I blame my brother, yes I blame him for being so careless with his ambition. Make no mistake about it, what he did was for him only. He would not be content with worldly success, with happiness, with leaving well enough alone. Each step up the ladder of success revealed a new horizon, a new world to conquer. It was the striving he loved most, the rush of energy that comes with conquest. He needed it to ward off the demons that plagued him when he was still. He was always in flight, as much from as to something. He could not keep his distance from what he must have known would destroy him, and his fall left those who loved him to suffer in silence. I also blame his royal lover for giving in to her passions come what may, for placing herself above all codes of conduct, daring the fates to come between her and the object of her desire. She knew he would not survive the high wire, how thrilling it must have been to prolong the tension. In the end she was left with nothing more than memory and longing. And what of the assassins? Did each make a deathbed confession? Did each feel absolved of guilt by such unburdening? There. Done. Gone.”
The women fell into silence as in the split second after a stage goes dark and the audience breaks into applause. But there would be no such moment on this day. Some rose slowly to clear the dishes, others moved close to Seda tearfully embracing her and gently touching their cheek to her forehead. “Beyond good, little gods the lot of them,” Seda murmured.