All good stories begin before the main character is born. In order to know me, let me take you a few generations back. We will open The Adventures of the World ’s Luckiest and Unluckiest Man, my father Aziz’s handwritten autobiography. This is his introduction of his own grandparents:
The name of my maternal grandfather was Noah. He was almost 115 years old. My grandmother’s name was Pari. She lived to about 110 years of age. She was a very righteous woman. She used to read Torah, and every day, from morning till night, would spin thread from goat hair. She would get money from people for this, and give to the needy. In addition, as she was very righteous, she cured everyone’s pain like a doctor. Every person who had jaundice — she quickly healed them. Every person who had eye-pain — she immediately cured it. Likewise stomach ache and other ailments — she cured them and did not take money, but they used to give her many presents.
My cousin Elisha Yonati writes about our grandfather Isaac:
Our illustrious and truly grand grandfather, of blessed memory, was a righteous man (sadiq) in the full sense of the word: an altruist, a family man, highly respected by people of all religious denominations in Rezaiyeh. He could not cross the street, pass through the bazaar or go anywhere without being hailed. At 105 years of age, he sensed that his time has come. He invited his friends and all the family to his home in Holon, Israel. He read the Mi Sheberakh (“He who has blessed”) prayer for his family and the whole nation of Israel, and with a smile, closed his eyes and departed the world. May his memory be blessed.
Aziz (1908 – 5 June 2004), son of Isaac, also known as Dadasha Khakshouri (dadash is slang for “brother,” from Turkish), was born in the beautiful city of Urmia, which Reza Shah Pahlavi later renamed Rezaiyeh.
My mother, Nanne (1919 – 2 Nov. 1962), daughter of Ruben, known as Sheikh Ruben or Sheikh Rahim, was a devoted woman who cared about everyone but herself.
When Agha Aziz came of age, his brother went to a prestigious family to ask their daughter’s hand for him. The bride they took for him was Nanne Khanom, a petite 14- or 15-year-old girl, as opposed to Aziz himself, who was a robust man, two meters (6’7”) tall, and very courageous.
And so they began their life together.
My father, Agha Aziz, was a very diligent, hyperactive merchant, good-humored and kind-hearted, daring and fearless… but also careless and reckless. His job in Tehran, for example, was to ﬁnd a new job.
In Tabriz, he had a partnership with his two brothers, producing raw wool for factories, and outside his shop you could always see workers – men and women –– sitting on the ground and separating wool from ﬂeece. Today we do business by email. Imagine that in those day there wasn’t even a phone! If you wanted to call Tehran from Tabriz you had to schedule a time with the other party by telegram (the original kind, not the mobile app), both sides had to go to the post office at the same time, give the number you wished to call, and sometimes wait a few hours for the phone to connect. So in that state of affairs, my father’s business was mostly based on local, walk-in customers, and people who came specially to his office in the bazaar. He would also export his goods directly to Russian government institutions with whom he had established good connections, and once in a while a Russian specialist would come to Tabriz for quality assurance. My father always received them with savory meals and Russian vodka. Their cooperation, the understandings they reached, and my father’s general fondness for the Russian experts all created a very strong friendship between them.
The whole family lived in one house, that of my grandfather, Isaac. Four families living together under one roof was as tough as you can imagine, and then some. The stresses of life took their toll, and all of a sudden my mother fell ill. Turning to specialist doctors and even fortunetellers and soothsayers had no effect. My mother was hospitalized in the Russian hospital for professional medical care, where my father visited her on a daily basis.
One day, on his way to visit my mother in the hospital, my father came across a group of weeping mourners carrying a corpse. Something about the small size of the corpse aroused his curiosity. He inquired, and was told that it was a young girl who died because her family did not have money for life-saving surgery, and the surgeon would not operate on her.
Tears in his eyes, he suddenly noticed the girl was moving; she was not dead yet! He told them to rush the girl back to the hospital. He went with them, they found the surgeon, and my father scolded him for his negligence. The surgeon justiﬁed his actions, saying that the hospital was a government-run institution with a ﬁxed budget, and he couldn’t allow himself to treat a person for free. “Is there a way to save this young girl?” My father insisted. The surgeon said: “If the operation is paid for, I will do it right now.” My father reached into his pocket, took out money he had there to pay off some debts, gave it to the hospital, and the girl was saved from certain death. My father would visit her frequently when she was hospitalized.
It was only thanks to her optimism, her faith in my father, and my father doing everything in his ability, and some things beyond his ability, that my mother was saved and returned to health. This is yet more proof of the fact that when everything seems to be over and lost, there is always hope, which together with faith, keeps us on our feet.
After Sonya’s birth, our father took the family with him to Mahabad, where they rented a two-room apartment and started their new life from scratch. However, business brought them back to Tabriz. My father’s struggle to provide for our family demanded frequent changes of place, and so we went to Rezaiyeh twice, moved from one city to another and from one house to another. With full faith in the Lord, my mother was able to adapt to varied climates, and keep her husband and children happy and healthy.
My father’s business took us to different cities in Iran: Tabriz, Rezaiyeh, Tehran… We, his children, found it difficult to get accustomed to new, unknown and sometimes strange cities, but the frequent moves introduced us to the various customs and etiquette of people from different places, and taught us to adapt more easily. My father, his brothers, and their sons also made some remarkable deals with Soviet merchants and institutions, which in themselves could be the subject of a whole new book. All these life events and changes had an unbelievable impact on every aspect of our family’s life. When I grew up, and fortune brought me to Russia, a big country with a vast variety of people — from the Caucasus to Moscow and Leningrad — I thanked the Lord for these experiences.