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> Desperately Seeking Ingredients...
> Passionate about Mill Road
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> A Sanctuary on Mill Road
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> Going Green with Al-Amin
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> The Girl from Arapau
> Still Sweet and Spicy
> A Real Neighourhood
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> Flight from Baghdad
> Streets of Revolution
> Stepping up the Ladder
|Streets of Revolution
Shapour Meftah came to Cambridge from Iran and runs Cantab Millennium opposite St Barnabas Church in Mill Road. His story is one of massive upheaval on a personal and national scale.
Its coming up to six in the evening and Shapour Meftah and his assistant Nather Al-Khatib are still busy in Cantab Millennium. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute’, Shapour signals to me, still negotiating with a supplier on the phone. The shop counter is loaded with computers awaiting repair. Nather is patiently explaining to a distraught Italian student why she hasn’t been able to contact her mother on MSN messenger. Every time the door opens a high electronic tone sounds and a harried looking customer comes in and heaves another uncooperative computer onto the laden counter.
Click image to enlarge
Eventually the last customer is seen, the closed sign is hung in the window, and Shapour is free to be interviewed. We descend to a cluttered underground workshop where several computers in a state of disrepair spill out their guts and mother boards. ‘This one is water cooled’, says Shapour pointing to a particularly large machine on the bench top. I think he is joking until he shows me the water pipes snaking around the thing’s innards.
‘The guy built it himself; it’s supposed to predict the winners at Newmarket. People expect me to fix everything.’
I clear a tangle of snaking cables off a chair while Shapour brews us a cup of Typhoo tea in the kitchen cubby hole. When I remark on his taking sugar, he says ‘Ah, but if this were Iranian tea, I wouldn’t need sugar. It has such flavour…’ He is still standing with the used tea bag suspended on its string above the steaming mug. He knows I have come to hear his story and perhaps it is this that has already put him in the mood to reminisce about Iran.
Shapour’s family comes from Teheran. His father had been the Shah of Iran’s Minister of Defence and they led a very comfortable life in a large house in a good part of the capital. The word khan attached to their surname marked them out as a kind of nobility, something equivalent to the title ‘Lord’ or ‘Sir’ in Britain. Gilt-framed pictures in the high-ceilinged drawing rooms bore witness to his family’s links to the Peacock Throne: his grandfather shaking hands with his Imperial Majesty, his father being received by the King of the Aryans, his mother attending a glittering reception with the beautiful Princess Shanaz Pehlavi. In 1975, Shapour, the youngest of four children, was 12 and had just got into the prestigious Kharazmy School for boys.
‘We had a very loving family, my mum and dad, my older sister, my two older brothers and me’, Shapour remembers. ‘But my mother had taken in a young girl to look after. My dad was never into having her in the family and my parents argued about it. After several years living with us, she was like a sister; the girl stole from the house. Money, jewellery, valuable rugs and carpets, she took a lot and ran off to get married. My mother was shocked and betrayed. My dad felt he’d been right all along. They argued a lot about her. To set things straight my mother decided to go on a pilgrimage or haj to Mecca and return and make a fresh start.’
It was only a few days after his mother had left for Mecca that the radio broadcast news of an extensive tent fire that had swept through the Iranian section of the haj. Later broadcasts reported the cause of the fire as an exploding gas cylinder. Two hundred pilgrims were dead, and listed among the missing was Shapour’s mother. Because of the millions of pilgrims already gathered in Islam’s holiest site, the Saudi authorities allowed only one member of each family to come to identify relatives and collect the luggage of loved ones. An uncle was chosen to undertake the grim task, while the family waited, desperate for news and fearing the worst. ‘My uncle stayed only a few days. The authorities started bulldozing the ground to continue the haj. So he found nothing. My mum was so looking forward to coming back and starting afresh. But it wasn’t to be.’
|"One day Bibi and my sister called me and said ‘We want to talk to you. You’re wasting your time and you’re not getting an education, we’re going to send you to England’. I didn’t want to go, but looking back, I’m glad they convinced me."
||His mother’s death was a massive upset for the family and was fraught with consequences. A year later, Shapour’s father flew to England to visit the eldest boy, Shah, who was studying in London. ‘My dad had only been here a month when he had a heart attack and died. He couldn’t cope without her, they were in love with each other, you see.’
So within one year, Shapour lost both parents. His twenty-two-year-old sister, Shahnaz, took over and their Bibi (grandmother) stepped in. ‘We missed our parents terribly, but we made a family again. It was beautiful. That’s something very important in Iran, respect for the family, for your elders. It’s what got us through.’
Respect is a theme which is to crop up several times in our conversation. Its apparent absence in Britain shocked the young Shapour when he first arrived. It is one of the reasons he is standing as local Conservative councillor in his local ward of Arbury. ‘Old people are afraid to leave their house after dark. When I go canvassing at six or seven o’clock in the evening, I have to show my badge before they’ll open. They have three locks and a chain on the door.
I ask them if they have any problems and they say ‘Lots! Come and see what the youths have done to our fence…’ I just want to do something to change this and I think if you can address the problem of lack of respect among young people it will help.’
The reduced Meftah family pulled together and managed to make a stable family life. Soon, fourteen- year-old Shapour was excelling at maths at school. But more upheaval was on its way. ‘There was a growing movement against the Shah’s regime. My older brother and I would attend massive demonstrations. The Shah’s intelligence police would be taking photos and footage of the crowd. For us it was exciting and we just wanted to be where the action was. The government imposed a curfew in the city after seven o’clock, but my brother and I used to sneak out. We’d see the Shah’s soldiers coming to our neighbour’s houses. A lot of people were rounded up and taken away. We thought we could stop them. One time, soldiers came after us. We ran off and my brother jumped into a kind of deep gutter or culvert which we have in Teheran on the sides of the street. He hid under the grille. But the soldiers started stabbing their bayonets through it, trying to get him. I’d run home by this time so I didn’t see it all, but when my brother got home he was holding his side and blood was pouring out. We couldn’t take my brother to hospital because they would have arrested him on the spot as a revolutionary, so we patched him up at home.’
It seems remarkable that the teenage sons of an ex-minister of the Shah should be in the streets protesting against him, and risking their lives to defend their neighbours from the regime’s soldiers. ‘I was a kid. It was exciting. And we thought it was wrong to be arresting innocent people.’
‘The Islamic Revolution itself happened in a strange way. Everything went quiet. There were rumours and whispers around my college that something was happening, that the university students had protested against the Shah. Some students had been killed. Then they closed the university down. One day we heard police sirens, shouting and crowds running away. The revolution had started.’
‘You’ve got to understand that at this time it was an uprising against the Shah’s authoritarian regime we were joining. We were very young and, to be honest, it was fun! Everyone was talking about change. The mojaheddine (fighters of god) started the revolution, and no one foresaw that it would be taken over by Islamic hardliners. I remember once I was marching with one group who had asked me to be like a reporter for them because I was into writing. The hardliners saw me and laid into me. Being a journalist, even at 14, was dangerous because you were spreading ideas. An uncle of mine was editor-in-chief of a big Teheran daily, Etelaát. The new regime arrested and imprisoned him. They put a hood on his head and said they would shoot him. It was a kind of torture. He was actually released in the end, but he could never leave Iran again. So what I was doing, marching along and taking notes, was extremely dangerous, even if I didn’t realise it.’
|"It did get very lonely in the van on my own on a roadside in the middle of nowhere with no customers. I’d say to myself ‘What the hell am I doing here?’"
During the revolution normal life shut down. The schools became no more than a gathering place from which hoards of young pupils would be organized in rallies.
‘We chanted “Death to America!” The TV broadcast denunciations of the Shah and his government. It was impossible to tell what the real situation was in Teheran. At night our family gathered round the radio and tuned to the BB C Farsi service to find out what was going on in our streets.’
The Meftah family continued living in the large house, fearful of the knock on the door which could herald arrest, torture, disappearance or death. The framed pictures of the family members with His Imperial Majesty were taken down and hidden in the attic.
‘One day Bibi and my sister called me and said “We want to talk to you. You’re wasting your time and you’re not getting an education, we’re going to send you to England.” I didn’t want to go, but looking back, I’m glad they convinced me.’
Little did they realise another cataclysm was looming. The Iran-Iraq war. The Iran-Iraq war is considered one of the deadliest wars since World War II. It started in September 1980 when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and lasted eight long years.
‘If I’d stayed a few months longer, I could not have escaped conscription. They closed the borders so no one was getting out. Looking back, I think I only had a few months to live. I’d probably have been among the one million Iranians who died in that war.’
Shapour left Teheran with fifty other students. His first experience of Britain at Heathrow was a rude customs official. ‘What does your father do?’ he asked. Through an interpreter I said, ‘He’s dead’.
‘What about your mother?’ he snapped, I answered ‘Dead as well’. ‘Well, who is going to support you?’ He demanded my bank statement. It was only because it had a healthy balance that he eventually stamped my six month visa, and I was in’.
The group of young Iranians was taken to Ramsgate where they were enrolled in a school to learn English. Within a few months of arriving, Shapour passed his maths O level. ‘I got a B although I hardly spoke any English, but I could recognize the equations. We’re very good at maths in Iran, and of course chess which we invented. In physics I got D because I couldn’t even understand what they were asking me about Newton’s Law.’
Within six months of being in Britain, Shapour moved in with his older brother and managed to renew his visa to stay on. But with the Iran-Iraq war raging, the Iranian Embassy made it difficult for funds to be transferred. The visa extension ran out and with no funds from Iran, the Home Office were serving deportation orders. It looked like Shapour would have to return to Teheran, which would mean being cannon fodder in a war which was daily consuming thousands of young men on both sides. It was not easy studying for A levels, uncertain if he would still be in the country to sit the exams, or fighting Saddam Hussein’s soldiers on the front.
‘I’ve still got that Home Office letter somewhere. You have two weeks to leave the country. I couldn’t study anymore and they were after me. I went into hiding in Cambridge, joining an Iranian friend who was here. There were six or seven of us young Iranian guys living in a room in Coleridge Road, we couldn’t afford anything else. We did what we could, cleaning jobs, hotels, delivering pizzas, everything.’
At this time Shapour, aged 19, married a British Iranian girl, Annette.
‘The Home Office detectives were after me and some other young Iranians. One local language school agreed to give us lessons and we cleaned for them in return. The school was very good to us. We actually pooled our earnings and tried to hire an immigration lawyer, but she was too expensive.’
|"I’d love to open an Iranian restaurant, somewhere like Regent Street, or why not Mill Road. We have such wonderful food in Iran."
||Then, when things were looking bad, the European law changed: as the husband of a British national, Shapour was allowed leave to remain. There followed a hectic period where he worked twelvehour night shifts as a panel beater on an assembly line in Bourne. After that, he worked in a Haverhill factory as night shift leader making electrical trunking for the channel tunnel. He and his wife managed to save and buy their first house. Determined to go to university with the excellent A levels he had gained, he completed a diploma course in computer technology at the Technical College (now Anglia Ruskin University). Seeing his top grades, his tutors encouraged him to get the full degree.
‘To support myself through my degree, I bought a kebab van. I used to go to university in the day and be up till all hours selling kebabs by night. My wife did all the vegetables. I wouldn’t get through till about one or two in the morning. Then it was back to the Tech in the morning at nine. I did that for three and a half years. Most of my assignments had grease marks on them!’
It was a far cry from the life trajectory expected of the son of a high ranking minister to the Peacock Throne. ‘I couldn’t tell my family I was running a kebab van’, Shapour shakes his head. ‘That’s not what they sent me to England to do. It did get very lonely in the van on my own on a roadside in the middle of nowhere with no customers. I’d say to myself “What the hell am I doing here?’’ ’
He has come a long way from the days of cleaning and delivering pizzas. His brother helped him set up Cantab Millennium in 1992 and any time spent on the premises will tell the casual observer that business is thriving. Shapour’s can-do approach to the most challenging of computer glitches, and his Iraqi partner Nather’s remarkable patience with computer illiterates, has made Cantab Millennium place customers swear by.
In 1991, Shapour returned to Iran after over 20 years’ absence. ‘I remember stepping off the plane in Teheran when the aircraft doors opened. I thought, Oh my God, I’m back in Iran... My heart was pounding and I didn’t know what to expect. It was just after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was wonderful to see family again. And the food, the familiar smells of spices and pastry shops! I don’t know what it is, but if you pass a florist in Teheran, I tell you, the smell is so overpowering, you’ll die. And when you walk past rose bushes, you think you are in heaven…’
It may be years of absence and longing that make Shapour convinced Iranian roses smell like no others. Psychologists tell us that the memory of smell is governed by the hyppocampus – that primitive part of the brain buried deep below the temporal lobe. It is here that our emotional states are generated from a lifetime of stored memories. An encounter with a particular scent not smelt since childhood is bound to trigger powerful memories and dispose us to lyrical reminiscence. Nostalgia endows the distant past and the experiences of a faraway childhood with an intensity that makes the present pale in comparison.
Shapour remarried this year, his second wife Tina has not yet been to Iran. ‘Neither have my two children Ali (17) and Soraya (14) from my first marriage. I’d love for them to visit my homeland. We were all set to go a few years back but it didn’t happen.’
When asked about future plans, Shapour’s eyes slide over the dozen or so computers in ongoing states of repair. He smiles. ‘I’d love to open an Iranian restaurant, somewhere like Regent Street, or why not Mill Road. We have such wonderful food in Iran. The smells of Iranian spices, you have no idea…’
Shapour Meftah ran in the local elections and became a Conservative candidate in 2004.
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