Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Once as I walked through Golestan Palace in Tehran, I was attracted to a painting in a palace gallery. It showed a turbaned man sitting with a worn book in his hand, speaking to two veiled women. Although the painting is of a fortune teller, the man reminded me of my grandfather, a village doctor. I imagine him dressed in this way, dispensing medical advice to two women from his village.

The painting was by Kamal-ol-mulk, an Iranian artist born in the mid-1800s. My grandfather was also born in that time, in that place. I have sometimes imagined that my grandfather learned his medical skills at Dar al Funun – Iran’s first modern university, established in Tehran in 1851. Kamal-ol-Mulk studied there.

My grandfather could read and write – and only a small percentage of Iranians at that time possessed those skills.

The name Kamal-ol-mulk is an honorific. The artist’s given name was Mohammad-Khan Ghaffari. One day, the Pivot of the Universe, Nasir ad Din Shah, paid a visit to the school and one of Kamal-ol-mulk’s paintings caught his eye. The Shah installed the painter at his court.

Disillusioned with royalty, Kamal-ol-mulk became an ardent support of Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1906. He died in 1941.

He is considered one of Iran’s most famous painters. His admirers consider his work sublime; his detractors dismiss it as ordinary. In a book of his artwork which I purchased in Shiraz, it says “Although born in times of deceit, flattery, injustice, treachery and despotism, Kamal-ol-mulk was an utterly honest man. He was a patriot, a liberal intellectual and a man of honor who refused to sell his art for gold even in times of need.”

Never at ease with the intrigues of the court, later in life Kamal-ol-mulk retired to a rural estate. He lost one of his eyes in an accident and eventually came to see his desert retreat as a cage, rather than the place of solace he sought.

"Become placeless, for to change this place of water and clay
is but to move from one prison to another."

-Mirza Muhammad Ali Sa'ib of Esfahan