My mother comes from a big old family, one of those you read about in stories. Her grandfather was a merchant who did business with the Russians, more than a hundred years ago. He was one of the richest men in the town until the Russian economy started to suffer, so my great grandfather’s business started to suffer, and so the wooden and iron chests full of Russian money valued no more than toilet paper.
My grandmother had given me a small chest that I keep on top of my bookshelf; now it’s full of my childhood books, but when she gave it to me, it was filled with old Russian money, which I used to play with. And she told me stories about her father’s house with rooms full of gold coins and silver coins, and about the Russian merchants who came to meet her father and she – being a small curious girl – hid in one of those rooms and peeped at her father’s guests. One day, one of those men had seen her through a door, and the beautiful girl that she was with light blue eyes, he had told her: “Your eyes caught me like a hound dog…”
Or perhaps, this never happened, because my grandmother didn’t speak Russian… Perhaps it happened with an Iranian merchant, a wealthy man from Tabriz, because her father worked with all kinds of people. Perhaps it was even a Turkman, a traveler, or it could have been all made up by my childhood imagination…
My great grandfather, though, was real; he was a merchant, with a big family, which he built a big house for. And he did have business with the Russians. I can send you a picture of my small antique chest! The Russian money, unfortunately, is gone; my parents’ house was rubbed twenty years ago and the burglar who thought we had hidden jewelry in this old mysterious box, broke the lock but found nothing but useless paper in it – my writing included! Long story short, I’m here to tell you about where this big family of my story comes from! And the interesting part, I just discovered it myself a couple of years ago, when my great grandfather’s house in my hometown – which had turned into a ghost house – was handed to a company to be refurbished, and one of the seven yards of the old house was open to the tourists.
This was where it hit me: wait! I have heard this story before! No, I have written this story myself! Now, did I have the ‘Big House’ on my mind when I was writing the Palazzo Bellini? Honestly, no! And trust me, the picture of the Italian fashion manager Alberto Bellini with his Italian suits and silk ties is nothing like my great grandfather, Haaj Mohammad Reza Bagheri, whom you’ll see a picture of attached to this post! But accidentally, both their surnames start with B, they were both businessmen, were famous and rich, had a big heritage house, and a bunch of kids who just let that heritage go to the dogs.
It seems that the outlines were drawn for me long before I called myself a writer; I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories of the Big House, that’s what we in the family call the place: Manzel Bozorg. And I used to visit my mom’s aunts and uncles who lived there when I was a child. Every year we went to see my grandmother’s half-brother for Nowruz, and I used to run around with my cousin, playing hide and seek in the yards of Manzel Bozorg, and call every yard by the name of the aunt or uncle who lived there: Hayat e Daei Majid, Hayat e Khaleh Zobeyde’s… And we wished to find the treasure that was said to be buried in one of those yards, the gold and silver coins my grandmother used to tell us about.
Eventually, my mom’s uncles and aunts left Manzel Bozorg one by one, leaving their memories and names in the yards and rooms they had lived in. One by one, we went to their funerals, and dinners which were cooked on huge bonfires in huge copper pots in the main yard of Manzel Bozorg, and the smell of steamed rice and lamb stew filled the narrow allies and the old bazaar outside the long walls of the house. They left and the house got older and emptier, until the heirs decided to sell it to the Department of Heritage and Arts to be preserved. It was already a ruin when they sold it. And I didn’t see the house until two years ago when my mother told me about this company who was going to repair the place and turn it into a hotel.
And it was four years after I wrote Silk and Roses.
On my first trip to my hometown, my husband and I went to the house. I was happy to see the changes; they had opened only the main yard, and were working on two others: the stables and the kitchen yard, which seemed to be dug by gold diggers, the gold no one had found in any of the rooms and yards of Manzel Bozorg and it’s still said to be buried somewhere.
So, yes, I used my ancestors’ house in my story, and who know? I might have adapted my great grandfather’s character for the handsome Italian Alberto Bellini whom I wrote 5000 pages about (which I haven’t published). I could’ve given the color of my grandmother’s eyes to my Italian family with their Bellini blue eyes, but let me tell you, none of it I did on purpose. They were just in my head, somewhere, and they came out in another form. Ironically, they were even out in another language that neither my grandmother nor her father spoke. And when I realized how the little writer in my head has kept all those stories and re-written them, I was filled with joy. Of course, I could have saved myself from all this trouble if I had just written the story of Manzel Bozorg and not the Palazzo Bellini. I could have written in my mother tongue, which – trust me – would have been much easier, and I could have been an honor to my big and old family as everyone was going to read my book and sympathize and be proud.
Then why didn’t I? I had a perfectly suitable old house in my hometown with an attractive character of a merchant great grandfather who had married four times and each of his children was a unique story to tell; why on Earth did I make an imaginary palace in north of Italy with an imaginary family who needed names and personalities and whatnot, which I had to write about in English, when I could have simply written about my own family in the language I was born with?
If you’re a writer, you know the answer. No, I didn’t do it to show off about my skills or boast about speaking a second language. The answer is: we writers love a challenge. Tell me, where’s the fun in writing about something which is actually there? Don’t get me wrong; it is fun sometimes, but I can also give you the address of this house so you can go and see it yourselves, and give you my mom’s number who can tell you all about the history of the Bagheri family much better than I would. Writing my great grandfather’s biography was no challenge to me. Writing about a non-existent family who owned a non-existent palace in another country in another language was the challenge, which I took. Fortunately, our roots always take us back to where we come from, so if you step in the Palazzo Bellini, please go to the library on the second floor. You’ll see Alberto Bellini’s picture hung on the wall; look carefully, and you might just see something of my great grandfather in him, or you may remember a pretty little girl spying on her father’s Russian guests, by searching in his blue eyes.