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Chapter 21

The Shah's birthday--Illuminations--The Shah in his
automobile--Ministers in audience--Etiquette at the Shah's
Court--The Shah--A graceful speaker--The Shah's directness of
speech--The Kajars and the Mullahs--The défilé of troops--A
blaze of diamonds.

There are great rejoicings in Teheran and all over Persia on the Shah's birthday and the night previous to it, when grand illuminations of all the principal buildings, official residences and business concerns take place. Large sums of money are spent in decorating the buildings suitably on such an auspicious occasion, not as in our country with cheap, vari-coloured cotton rags and paper floral ornaments, but with very handsome carpets, numberless looking-glasses of all sizes and shapes, pictures in gold frames, plants and fountains. Nor are the lights used of a tawdry kind. No, they are the best candles that money can purchase, fitted in nickel-plated candlesticks with tulip globes--thousands of them--and crystal candelabras of Austrian make, or rows of paraffin lamps hired for the occasion.

It is customary in Teheran even for foreign business houses to illuminate their premises lavishly, and the Atabeg Azam or Prime Minister and other high officials go during the evening to pay calls in order to show their appreciation of the compliment to their sovereign, and admire the decorations of the leading banks and merchants' buildings.

In front of each illuminated house carpets are spread and a number of chairs are prepared for friends and guests who wish to come and admire the show. Sherbet, tea, coffee, whisky, brandy, champagne, cigarettes and all sorts of other refreshments are provided, and by the time you have gone round to inspect all the places where you have been invited, you have been refreshed to such an extent by the people, who are very jolly and hospitable, that you begin to see the illuminations go round you of their own accord.

The show that I witnessed was very interesting and really well done, the effect in the bazaar, with all the lights reflected in the mirrors, and the gold and carpets against the ancient wood-work of the caravanserais, being quite picturesque. The crowds of open-mouthed natives were, as a whole, well behaved, and quite amusing to watch. They seemed quite absorbed in studying the details of each bit of decoration. The Bank of Persia was decorated with much artistic taste. Side by side, in the wind, two enormous flags--the British and the Persian--flew on its façade.

Fireworks were let off till a late hour of the night from various parts of the town, and bands and strolling musicians played in the squares, in the bazaar, and everywhere.

The following morning the Shah came in his automobile to town from his country residence, driven, as usual, by a Frenchman. The Persian and foreign Ministers were to be received in audience early in the morning, and I was to be presented after by Sir Arthur Hardinge, our Minister at the Shah's Court.

The strict etiquette of any Court--whether European or Eastern--does remind one very forcibly of the comic opera, only it is occasionally funnier.

As early as 9 a.m. we left the Legation in a procession--all on horseback--the officials in their diplomatic uniforms, with plenty of gold braiding, and cocked hats; I in my own frock-coat and somebody else's tall hat, for mine had unluckily come to grief. We rode along the very dusty streets and arrived at the Palace, where we got off our horses. We entered the large court of the Alabaster Throne. There were a great many dismounted cavalry soldiers, and we were then led into a small ante-room on the first floor where all the foreign representatives of other nations in Teheran were waiting, received by a Persian high official.

We were detained here for a considerable time, and then marched through the garden to another building. By the number of pairs of shoes lining both sides of the staircase in quadruple rows, it was evident that his Majesty had many visitors. We were ushered into the Jewelled Globe Room adjoining the Shah's small reception room.

After some adjustment of clothes and collars in their correct positions, and of swords and belts, the door opened and the Ministers were let in to the Shah's presence. One peculiarity of the Shah's court is that it is etiquette to appear before the sovereign with one's hat on, and making a military salute. In former days carpet slippers were provided for the Ministers to put on over the shoes, but the custom has of late been abandoned, as it looked too ludicrous, even for a court, to see the ministers, secretaries, and attachés in their grand uniforms dragging their feet along for fear of losing a pantoufle on the way.

There was the usual speech of greeting and congratulation on the part of the doyen Minister, and presently the crowd of foreign representatives returned to the ante-room in the most approved style, walking backwards and stooping low.

My turn came next. As we entered, the Shah was standing almost in the centre of the room, with the familiar aigrette in his kolah (black headgear) and his chest a blaze of diamonds. He rested his right hand on a handsome jewelled sword. He looked pale and somewhat worn, but his features were decidedly handsome, without being powerful. One could plainly see depicted on his face an expression of extreme good-nature--almost too soft and thoughtful a face for a sovereign of an Eastern country. His thick underlip added a certain amount of obstinate strength to his features, which was counter-balanced by the dreamy, far-away look of his eyes heavily shadowed by prominent lids. His thick black eyebrows and huge moustache were in great contrast to the Shah's pallid face. His Majesty appeared bored, and was busy masticating a walnut when we entered, the shell of which lay in débris by the side of two additional entire walnuts and a nut-cracker on a small jewelled side-table.

We stood at attention with our hats on while Sir Arthur, who, as we have seen, is a linguist of great distinction, delivered to the sovereign, a most charming and graceful speech in Persian with an oriental fluency of flowery language that nearly took my breath away.

The Shah seemed highly delighted at the nice compliments paid him by our Minister, and graciously smiled in appreciation. Then Sir Arthur broke forth in French--which he speaks like a Frenchman--and with astounding grace proceeded to the presentation. The Shah was curt in his words and much to the point, and I was greatly delighted at the charming directness of his remarks. There was no figure of speech, no tawdry metaphor in the compliment paid me.

I had presented his Majesty with two of my books.

"Vous écrivez livres?" thundered the Shah to me in lame French, as he stroked his moustache in a nervous manner.

"Malheureusement pour le public, oui, Majesté," (Unfortunately for the public, yes, your Majesty), I replied, touching my hat in military fashion.

"Combien de livres avez vous écrits?" (How many books have you written?)

"Quatre, Majesté." (Four, your Majesty.)

"Combien livres avez vous envoyé moi?" (How many books have you sent me?) he roared again in his Perso adaptation of French.

"Deux, Majesté." (Two, your Majesty.)

"Envoyez encore deux autres." (Send the other two.) And with a nod the conversation was over, and we retreated backwards through the glass door, but not before Sir Arthur Hardinge had completed the interview with another most appropriate and graceful little speech.

The foreign Ministers departed, but I was allowed to remain in the Palace grounds to witness the various native officials and representatives paying their salaams to the Shah.

After us the foreigners in Persian employ were received in audience, and it was interesting to notice that they had adopted the Persian headgear, and some even the Persian pleated frock-coat. The Shah's reception room had a very large window overlooking the garden. The glass was raised and a throne was placed close to the edge of the window on which the Shah seated himself with a kalian by his side.

Then began the défilé of native representatives. The Kajars in their grand robes and white turbans paraded before the window, and then forming a semicircle salaamed the head of their family. One of them stepped forward and chanted a long poem, while the Shah puffed away at the kalian and stroked his luxuriant moustache. Every now and then the sovereign bowed in acknowledgment of the good wishes paid him, and his bow was repeated by the crowd below in the court. After the Kajars came the Mullahs. Again another recitation of poetry, again more bows, more kalian smoking. Then foreign generals stood before the window, and native officers, Court servants and eunuchs. The défilé of troops, colleges, merchant associations and schools came next, and was very interesting.

Persian Cossacks in their nice long white uniforms and formidable chest ornamentations; bandsmen with tin helmets and linoleum top boots; hussars with plenty of braiding on cotton coats and trousers; infantrymen, artillerymen, military cadets,--all were reviewed in turn by his Majesty, who displayed his royal satisfaction by an occasional bow.

There were no shrieks of enthusiasm, no applause, no hurrahs, as they went, but they all walked past the royal window in a quiet, dignified way--no easy matter, considering the extraordinary clothing that some were made to wear. One had a sort of suspicion that, not unlike the armies marching on the stage, one recognised the same contingents marching past several times to make up for numbers, but that did not take away from the picturesqueness of the scene, in the really beautiful garden, with lovely fountains spouting and flowers in full bloom.

The procession with banners and music went on for a very long time, but at last the garden was cleared of all people. His Majesty wished to descend for a little walk.

Absolutely alone, the Shah sauntered about, apparently quite relieved that the ordeal was over. The Atabeg Azam was signalled to approach, and Prime Minister and Sovereign had a friendly conversation.

Although personally not fond of jewellery, I must confess that I was much impressed by the resplendent beauty of the Shah's diamonds when a ray of sun shone upon them. His chest and the aigrette on the cap were a blaze of dazzling light, with a myriad of most beautiful flashing colours.

The great social excitement of the year in Teheran was the Prime Minister's evening party on the Shah's birthday, when all the higher Persian officials were invited, and nearly all the Europeans resident in Teheran, regardless of their grade or social position.

This evening party was preceded by an official dinner to the members of the Legations. Elaborate fireworks were let off in the beautiful gardens and reflected in the ponds in front of the house, and the gardens were tastefully illuminated with vari-coloured lanterns and decorated with flags.

The house itself was full of interesting objects of art, and had spacious rooms in the best European style. Persian officials, resplendent in gold-braided uniforms, their chests a mass of decorations, were politeness itself to all guests. Excellent Persian bands, playing European airs, enlivened the evening, and it was quite interesting to meet the rank and file and beauty of Teheran official and commercial life all here assembled. Persian ladies, naturally, did not appear, but a few Armenian ladies of the better classes were to be observed.

The gentle hint given to the guests to depart, when the Prime Minister got tired and wanted to retire, was quaintly clever. A soft music was heard to come from his bedroom. It was the signal. All hastened to make their best bows and departed.