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Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran

Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran

by Terence Ward

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The unique culture of Iran and the sweep of its history are revealed in this evocative travelogue of an American family searching for a lost friend in the country of their youth.

Growing up in Tehran in the 1960s, Terence Ward and his brothers were watched over by Hassan, the family’s cook, housekeeper, and cultural guide. After an absence of forty years,


The unique culture of Iran and the sweep of its history are revealed in this evocative travelogue of an American family searching for a lost friend in the country of their youth.

Growing up in Tehran in the 1960s, Terence Ward and his brothers were watched over by Hassan, the family’s cook, housekeeper, and cultural guide. After an absence of forty years, Ward embarked on a pilgrimage with his family in search of Hassan. Taking us across the landscape of Iran, he plumbs its unimaginably rich past, explores its deep conflicts with its Arab neighbors, and anticipates the new “Great Game” now being played out in central Asia. Insightful, informative, and moving, Searching for Hassan enhances our understanding of the Middle East with the story of a family who came to love and admire Iran through their deep affection for its people.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Astonishing and deeply poignant.” –The Washington Post

“Quixotic, colorful and amusing. . . . An unexpected ode to Iran.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Informative and touching . . . provides a marvelously nuanced portrait of Iran.” –Francine Prose, Elle

“Ward describes a more intricate image of a nation caught in a tug of war with itself. . . . He shows the country in all its complexity.” –Los Angeles Times

“[A] nostalgic, sometimes harrowing pilgrimage.” –The New Yorker

“A wonderfully tactile, rich book . . . written from the right place (the heart), and with the right kind of search in mind (the search for grace).” –Esquire

“Ward’s sympathetic and humane portrayals of everyday Iranians can help us transcend today’s policy papers and State Department briefings in order to find commonalities.” –USA Today

Searching for Hassan should be required reading for U.S. foreign policy makers.” –BookPage

“Ward hooks the reader with his unique past and observant eye.” –Detroit Free Press

“A powerful memoir that plumbs the depths of Iranian culture and tradition. . . . A memorable journey.” –Library Journal

Publishers Weekly
A U.S. State Department warning is usually enough to deter most Americans from traveling to countries in turmoil. But when the mission of the trip was to find a long-lost Iranian named Hassan, not even the inability to obtain visas in the U.S. could stop the Ward family. In 1998, Ward, his parents and three brothers returned to Iran to track down Hassan, a warm, thick-mustached chef and dispenser of folk wisdom who had looked after their family when they lived in Tehran during the 1960s. Ward skillfully draws readers into his family's state of heightened anticipation, especially since their only tip was the vaguely remembered name of Hassan's hometown. "Toodesht," Ward's mother remembered. "Well, just a minute.... Maybe it was... Tadoosht. Or... Qashtood." Aided by a 30-year-old photograph, the Wards traveled to Tudeshk and eventually found Hassan's mother-in-law, and later, Hassan's wife, Fatimeh, who is so taken aback that she dropped the receiver. Using the trip as his main narrative thread, Ward weaves Iranian history, culture, politics and religion in and around it. The writing stiffens and the pace slows only when Ward reaches back to describe his childhood in Tehran. Ultimately, Ward, a Colorado-based management consultant, succeeds in his loving portrait of a constantly changing, complex land. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In 1998, Ward, his three grown brothers, and their parents traveled to Iran in a nostalgic quest to find a man named Hassan Ghasemi. In a highly readable narrative, Ward shares how they also wished to renew their contact with the country they had left when revolutionary confusion related to the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini struck in 1969. Ward's parents (employed by ARAMCO) and their sons had lived in Saudi Arabia and Iran for ten years. They had formed a close relationship with Hassan, described by Ward as "our housekeeper, our cook, and our young Persian father." The search was not easy. Hassan is a common name in Iran, and all they had to go on was an imperfectly remembered village name and an old picture. They finally found Hassan, his wife Fatimeh, and their extended family and delighted in a warm-hearted reunion. Ward, who wrote this book to give people a genuine view of the Middle East, interweaves his observations with a thorough sense of history and world politics. A clear love of Iran and its hospitable people, despite the country's ubiquitous "Death to America" mantra, shines through in Ward's writing, but the book lacks the incisiveness of two other traveler-in-Iran books this reviewer has reviewed for KLIATT. Library patrons interested in Iran today should have available Neither East Nor West: One Woman's Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran by Christiane Bird and Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 322p. illus. bibliog., Boardman
Library Journal
Ward was born in Colorado but spent his childhood in Iran, where his father was an economic adviser. When the Wards returned to the United States in 1969, they lost track of Hassan Ghasemi, a family friend who had played the role of "Persian father" to Ward and his brothers. The aftermath of the Iranian revolution hindered attempts to find Hassan, but after the lessening of international tensions in 1998, the Ward clan traveled back to Iran in search of Hassan and his family. In a powerful memoir that plumbs the depths of Iranian culture and tradition, Ward describes a memorable journey through a country few Americans know or understand. His Iran is the land of contrasts, where mystics double as city taxi drivers while nomadic tribesmen roam the desert highlands. Here the poetry of Hafez is as well known as the words of the Koran, Zoroastrian festivals are as common as Islamic holy days, and the glories of past Persia are forever linked with the country's future. Echoing the experience of the man whose background in cross-cultural communication has earned him consulting jobs with companies throughout the Middle East, this debut is remarkable for its vivid prose and depth of information. A valuable addition to any library. Mary V. Welk, Chicago Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In a prologue set in Tehran in the 1960s, Ward relates how he and his brothers were initiated by the wise Hassan into the mysteries of the Zoroastrian fire festival. But these boys, who so wholeheartedly absorbed their mentor's teachings, were not Iranians but Americans. Returning to the United States, their parents lost touch with Hassan. Iran went through an Islamic revolution, a devastating war with Iraq, and finally another reform movement; the boys grew up and their parents grew older. Yet they never stopped missing Hassan and his family. In 1998, when Iran once more began to admit Westerners, the whole family-four grown men and their now-elderly parents-went back to search for their old friends. Miraculously they did find Hassan-but this is just one aspect of the story. Readers will feel a part of the family, learning how the strengths of each individual contributed to the success of the quest, and the journey is described to striking visual effect, conveying a passion for every experience. As the author reflects on the history, politics, and religion of the country, complex cultural issues become understandable in the light of real human lives. The spiritual lessons learned from Hassan, and new ones gained from new acquaintances, carry the Wards forward as they learn to "look beyond the predicament of politics" to find the "timeless, immutable soul of Iran." An illuminating and fascinating adventure.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An intellectual family trip across Iran to find a long-lost friend.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Fellow Travelers

The start of a journey in Persia resembles an algebraical equation: it may or it may not come out.
—Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana

In early April 1998, my family began our long-awaited journey back home. Not to our ancestral Ireland, but to Iran. While most Americans still recoiled with images of ranting hostage takers and wild-eyed terrorists, we put our fears aside. My three brothers and I, with our elderly parents, would cross the vast Iranian plateau on a blind search for Hassan, our lost friend and mentor who had taken care of us in Tehran so many years ago. Our seven-hundred-mile overland trek, from the ancient southern city of Shiraz, once called the Paris of Persia, all the way north to Tehran, the metropolis of modern Iran, would be a cross-cultural odyssey to rediscover a country, its people and our much-loved adopted Iranian family.

Journeys are often conceived in a miraculous split-second flash that illuminates the purpose and route of passage. Once the embryo forms, everything else falls into place in scattered pieces—visas and plane tickets, weathered maps, oblique itineraries—a jigsaw puzzle of fact and fantasy.

In early December 1997, my youngest brother, Richard, phoned me with surprising news from his home in Saudi Arabia. In the Gulf island state of Bahrain, he said, visas for Iran could be found. His voice, broken up by a poor connection, barked and echoed.

"Just heard that ladies from Arabia-bia flew into Iran on a shopping binge. They landed in Isfahan, bought their carpets-pets and got out safely put a rug under each arm."


"Got their vi-sas in Bahrain."

"For how long?"

"Less than a week."

"Any Americans?"

"Don't know. Tomorrow I'll find out. So, baba, are you ready-eady to go back-ack?"

"Mamma mia," I stammered.

"Goo-ood. Great id-ea! Ask Mom and Dad. What about the whole family-mily?"

His question fell through the receiver with the weight of heavy granite. The entire family?

"A tough sell," I remarked.

"No tougher-er than the Karakoram-ram."

After living in the Persian Gulf for eight years with his wife and two young boys, Richard had developed a thick skin. His baptism in Middle Eastern turbulence began in 1991. Overnight, Saddam Hussein's army poured across the Saudi border into Kuwait, only to be stopped by an accidental and chaotic firefight in a small village called Khafji, a few hundred miles from Rich's green suburban lawn in Dhahran. While his kids played in their treehouse, Scud missiles rained down.

For his latest vacation—Rich was an environmental geologist—he had climbed in Pakistan's rugged Himalayas, the infamous Karakoram Range. His hiking trip swiftly turned into a feat of endurance. Halfway into the trek, his companion fell twenty feet onto a rock ledge, fracturing his leg. Single-handedly, Rich fashioned a leg splint, lifted him onto his shoulders and hauled him down to the Hunza Valley to be airlifted out. Rich had long before earned my admiration as a fearless, no-nonsense scientist. He was in love with nature's geological wonders and was determined to witness each one in person. But Iran seemed daunting, as remote and impassable as his snowbound Karakoram peaks.

When I asked my brother Chris whether he would be coming along, he replied, "Are you nuts?"

For years, only the odd foreign journalist had dared venture into the somber Islamic Republic. News reports were dismal. Boys used as human minesweepers on the Iraqi front. Women trapped under black chadors. Clenched-fisted zealots led by mullahs in the ritual chant "Marg bar Amrika, Death to America." Cast as a pariah, Iran had been cut off from the world. All travelers except the foolhardy few kept a safe distance. And rightly so. This fundamentalist state had flogged offenders, covered women and defiantly thumbed its nose at the West. Yet there was reason to be upbeat: a moderate cleric had just been elected president.

Mohammad Khatami's surprise landslide victory in August 1997 ushered in a new era. Many hailed this heady period as "Tehran Spring." In a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour on January 7, 1998, President Khatami welcomed cultural exchange. He offered an olive branch to Washington for the first time since the Shah's fall in 1979 and spoke of "people-to-people" contacts with Americans. His fluency in German and English surprised world leaders, as did his penchant for quoting Kant and Tocqueville. The smiling, soft-spoken leader dared to suggest reform, democratic rights and change. Responding characteristically to his critics, he spoke of the need for a "kinder, gentler Islam." Women and young voters had responded with overwhelming support. In Tehran's bazaars, this refreshing moderate who promised to restore a "civil society with rule of law" was jokingly being called ""Ayatollah Gorbachev."

If Ping-Pong diplomacy helped normalize relations with China, could soccer and wrestling do the same for Iran? Iranian hard-liners were concerned, and for good reason. Thunderous applause and chants of "USA! USA!" echoed when American and Iranian wrestlers hugged each other after a friendly match in Tehran a month later, in February. The recently announced World Cup draw was nothing less than miraculous. Iran was scheduled to play Team USA in Lyon, France, on June 21.

A black-and-white photograph had haunted my family for years. It was a weathered picture sitting on my mother's desk in Berkeley in which Hassan, the proud father, stood with his young wife and his mother-in-law. Both women wore scarves. Fatimeh peered sheepishly with large brown eyes through her horn-rimmed glasses. Khorshid held baby Ali, who grinned under his pointed elfish cap with drooping earflaps. Hassan beamed handsomely, and his smile bore a half-moon of white teeth under his mustache, aquiline nose and glistening eyes. Four faces shining in the living room as silent reminders.

Late at night, during spirited reunions, when our talk circled back to earlier days in Iran, my mother would always raise the same ghostly question left hanging in suspended conversation: "I wonder what happened to Hassan. I just pray he's all right, that his family is safe." My mother, especially, was tortured by a lingering guilt about not having done enough for the Ghasemis. Frustration and worry would swell in her eyes.

"But what more could we have done?" my father would ask.

My father's Irishness weighed in heavily whenever my family spoke of those halcyon days. In the wee hours of the morning, after we had conversed our way back through Persian time with bittersweet memories of cherry orchards, the snow-crested Elburz and Hassan's magical fables, my father would repeat Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Celtic adage to remind us, ""It's no use being Irish unless you know the world is eventually going to break your heart."

"Nostalgia" comes from the Greek word nostos, to return home, and algos, pain. The ancients used the term to describe the state of mind of Hellenic soldiers of Alexander the Great garrisoned in far-off Asia. There was only one effective cure: the journey back. Andraae Aciman, the New York-based writer, haunted by his native Alexandria, described his sense of separation in Shadow Cities: ""An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss."

My parents' exuberant voices were firm and fearless when I first asked them about the journey back. Playing the seer, my father chose the departure date that he felt symbolically mirrored our quest: April Fool's Day, 1998. I was elated, but also troubled.

I wondered how our search would alter our cherished memories and our nostalgia for Hassan's "Mullah Nasruddin" tales, mint tea, buttered steamed rice and glistening eyes. Any journey of return runs that risk. Odysseus's crew paid dearly for their homing instinct: only the captain survived. Peering through smoked glass blurs memories. Aging mirrors may reveal strangers. And what if the past were to be erased, finally and completely, no longer there? What then? Were we doomed to Chekhovian dreams of lost cherry orchards?

After the Islamic Revolution, questions haunted my family for years. Did Hassan pay a terrible price before a judge? Had he become embittered, betraying our memory, denouncing my family as crude imperialists? They were unresolved questions, a haunting abandonment, unfinished business. My mother's worries about Hassan surfaced whenever the word "Iran" was mentioned, while in my brothers' homes, Hassan's storytelling antics were carefully being passed on from one generation of wide-eyed children to the next.

But what of Hassan himself? Had he survived? After two decades, the Islamic Republic's impassable gate, long padlocked, was finally creaking open. The answer lay inside.

Yes, the time for our journey back had finally come. To arrive at his doorstep we would need Irish luck and Allah's blessing. In the cold light of day and on close study, our search for Hassan seemed improbable. Only two clues existed. The first one was that faded black-and-white photograph taken in the spring of 1963. The second lay embedded in my mother's memory: the name of his ancestral village, "Toodesht." Our only hope was that he had settled there. But the multiple pronunciations of the town were daunting. Over the years, her uncertainty bred extraordinary mutations.

At dusk, as the thick San Francisco fog crept up the Berkeley hills to engulf my parents' redwood observation deck on Grizzly Peak, my mother ran up and down her scales of names, hoping to catch the true melody of Hassan's mysterious village, wedged somewhere in the mountains between Isfahan and Nain. It was a recurring theme, a broken record that always ended with gasps and laughs, exasperation and hopelessness.

"Think back, Mom. Now, what do you remember Hassan telling you before we left Tehran?"

"That one day he'd return to his village."

"And it was?"


"You're certain?"

"Absolutely. Well, just a minute."


"Maybe it was Tadoosht. Or Qashtood."



My father summed it up: "No Ithaca this, I assure you."

No matter how upbeat we all tried to be, we were certain that Hassan hid behind clouded mists, never to be seen again.

U.S. State Department officials mouthed predictable doom. My brother Chris voiced his fears repeatedly. No visas could be obtained in America. Kevin remained skeptical. Only my parents and Richard were defiantly thrilled. When a Foreign Service officer told me, "Americans are strongly advised not to visit the country," I countered by saying, "A moderate mullah has been elected president." Unfazed, he snapped, "And public floggings have tapered off."

Chris skittishly pleaded with my father over the phone, "You know, I've got two sons to worry about."

Dad cut him short. "So what? I've got four and I'm going."

The Ward clan's view about the journey remained divided. It was decided that the wives would not join us, which suited them just fine. Terror and dire omens underlined our phone conversations. Friends kindly offered unsolicited advice, showering us with warnings. "It'll be hot, dry, dangerous, dirty and scary. There's no embassy to protect you, you'll be taken hostage, your books will be confiscated. You'll be confiscated. And your parents, how can you put them at such risk?" One dapper bicoastal socialite reminded me darkly, "There'll be no fashion."

I asked my father, "What's the dress code?"

"Dress for a funeral," he advised.

So, like fashionable New Yorkers, we packed black.

Riffling through my files, I found a faded piece of paper. At the top was written: Useful Arabic Translations. During the height of Lebanon's civil war, in the early 1980s, it was slipped to me before I boarded a flight for Beirut. I realized only later that this sorry attempt at Arabic was gibberish mixed with a few Farsi words. I faxed it to Chris and Kevin:

Meternier ghermez ahliah, Gharban.

The red blindfold would be lovely, Excellency.

Balli, balli, balli.

Whatever you say.

Shomah fuhr tommeh geh gofteh bande.

I agree with everything you have ever said or thought of in your life.

Akbar kheli kili hfir lotfan.

Thank you very much for showing me your marvelous gun.

Khrei, japahah mansh va fayeti amrikany.

I will tell you the names of many American spies travelling as reporters.

Suro arraigh davatsaman mano sepahen-hasi.

It is exceptionally kind of you to allow me to travel in the trunk of your car.

My brothers faxed back terse responses. They were not amused.

For advice, I browsed through Lonely Planet's Iran: A Travel Survival Kit, the only serious guidebook published since the Revolution. The author, David St. Vincent, a tenacious English chap, was not one to flinch. All his tips came from firsthand experience. During one of his four trips, he was dragged before a revolutionary court on the charge of "plotting to import Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses." Wedged between the exhaustive lists of hotels and monuments lay a few unorthodox words of counsel: "Never underestimate the ruthlessness or strength of the Komiteh and its network of informers. Don't be the first to discuss politics with a stranger." He described the Revolutionary Guards as "a combination of Spanish Inquisition and the Gestapo." About photography and cameras he offered further advice: "There's still a certain amount of paranoia about foreign spies, and Iranians can get very suspicious of Westerners with cameras." He suggested getting OKs before shooting, "if you don't want to risk having your camera smashed or stones thrown at you—don't think it doesn't happen." I especially appreciated his culturally sensitive how-to advice in dealing with authorities: "Answer your interrogators in such a way that their curiosity is satisfied, their suspicion allayed and their self-importance flattered." And, most of all, his upbeat succinct reminder: "You have been warned."

Another young writer, William Dalrymple, had also passed through Iran recently. In his book In Xanadu: A Quest, he delivered a witty and learned trans-Asia travel account, tracing Marco Polo's thirteenth-century footsteps to the East, from Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher to Kublai Khan's mythical palace in Mongolia. He was stunned by contemporary Iran: "Mullahs speeding past in their sporty Renault 5s. Iran was proving far more complex than we had expected. A religious revolution in the twentieth century was a unique occurrence, resulting in the first theocracy since the fall of the Dalai Lama in Tibet."

It was so true. Some historians suggest that the Iranian Revolution stands as the most original of this century. Only Iran's Revolution defied Marxist ideology. Dalrymple explained: "Yet this revolution took place not in a poor banana republic, but in the richest and most sophisticated country in Asia. A group of clerics was trying to graft a mediaeval system of government and a premediaeval way of thinking upon a country with a prosperous modern economy and a large and highly educated middle class."

My Florentine wife, Idanna, told me of her ancestral city and a fiery Dominican priest named Savonarola. When Lorenzo the Magnificent ruled Florence during the Renaissance, a brilliant and charismatic friar spoke audaciously from the pulpit of San Marco, railing against the city's decadence. With Lorenzo's death in 1493, Florence's popolo sent the entire Medici clan fleeing for their lives. The new Repubblica Fiorentina was born. Its guide was a visionary monk.

Meet the Author

Terence Ward was born in Boulder, Colorado, and spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia and Iran. He is a cross-cultural consultant who has advised corporations and governments in the Islamic world and the West. He divides his time between Florence, Italy, and New York.

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