The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
Both Khan and his niece, Touran, seemed quite taken with me—a tall American boy who'd earlier leaned to speak their language fluently and eagerly and who examined everything Persian with an obsessive passion. In hindsight, I can see that his ancient, exotic land had provided me with an escape hatch from my 1950s doldrums, yes, from the bland, gray-flannel-suit conformity of a decade that had seemed, at the time, more sour than sweet.
I had just discovered I was gay. Two years later—when he was 75-- and when I told him, Khan shrugged as if my outing of myself meant little or nothing to him. There was no change in his attitude and he remained as much my confidante as he'd always been, as warm and kindly, hospitable and poetic as beforehand:
Ah, fill the cup—what boots it to repeat
How time is slipping underneath our feet:
Unborn tomorrow, and dead yesterday
Why fret about them if today be sweet!
As Persia's ambassador to Turkey and southern Russia, Khan also represented his native land at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I. On his living room wall was a personally- autographed photograph of President Woodrow Wilson. Khan knew my country inside out, I discovered. He was familiar with its great poet, Walt Whitman, and with Whitman's early mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had mastered English to perfection, and, in fact, quoted Whitman—when I was 15—in hopes I'd delve into Leaves of Grass.
Initially my family had been nervous about my absorption of Persian culture, about my obsession that led to the playing of strange music on our living room Victrola, about my scribbling in notebooks with Persian characters that they couldn't read. But that all changed when they met Khan. He enchanted them. He placed a silver goblet in my mother's hands, a symbol of our family's Eastern-Western friendship. Today, when I visit mother—she's in her mid-80s—I look on up her living room shelf, and there it is: hand-carved and sparkling, kitsch that'll never go out of style.
When I returned to Washington, Khan and his niece did too. They took residence on Rock Creek Park, overlooking treetops at an Islamic minaret puncturing the Washington sky in the distance. Washington, I liked to remind myself, was an international city, filled with people from everywhere. Nearly every afternoon—through 1954 and 1955—I walked with Khan across the Connecticut Avenue Bridge. He always had his hands folded behind him, and often—as we stood at the railings-- he wept openly, remembering Florence, his recently deceased American wife, a woman, he said, who had been not just beautiful, but wise.
In the late afternoon or evening when he lay surrounded by books and papers, I sat at the foot of his bed rummaging through his bookcases. One of the things I liked best about him was that he was willing to study the works of thinkers whose ideas conflicted with his own. Machiavelli was one of these, and he marked The Prince carefully, telling me how I must begin to acquaint myself with all of the world's philosophers. Yes, I was 15, and I could hardly spell philosopher, but I wanted desperately to be one, in part to earn Khan's approval.
Touran welcomed me daily too. We sat in the kitchen where she poured her heart out to me, wailing in a manner common to many Middle Eastern women. A Moslem, she prayed continuously that her uncle would become one too. But no, he was a Baha'i, some more recent heretical train of Persian thought, and I often wondered if Touran wouldn't be better off if she were a Baha'i too. Baha'is, after all, espoused the equality of the sexes, while Moslem women had to play second fiddle to their men, it seemed. She loved her uncle desperately, though, and had decided to remain at his side until he died rather than to consider marriage.
I hated school and had managed to avoid attending Alice Deal Junior High altogether by marching into the principal's office and explaining—unabashed—that I was homosexually-inclined. The principal, a 65- year-old West Virginia woman named Bertie Backus, fixed things so that I could cut classes without being charged as a truant. She wanted to know me better, she said, and insisted that I be her personal pupil. She reminded me in appearance of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I'd always thought of as kindly. I acquiesced. "I'd like you to meet my Persian friend, Khan, I told her. He likes Whitman and Emerson just like you do. I'm sure you two will get along."
I read aloud to her about what I needed—at my age-- to feel:
"The world considered me low, held in contempt my kind and therefore myself, believed me an inferior and unworthy specimen of mankind. The need for self-acceptance burned within me, and I could only throw off the influence of those who thought me beneath them by always striving, despite hardship and impediment, to excel even beyond my capacities. My ethical standards must be above reproach, my honesty greater than that of others, my loyalty to friends and ideals firmer than that of other people, precisely because—knowingly or not—they thought so little of me, and precisely in order that I might think the more of myself……
"The homosexual, cutting across all racial religious, national and caste lines, frequently reacts to rejection by a deep understanding of all others who have likewise been scorned because of belonging to an outcast group….The person who has felt the sting of repudiation by the dominant culture can reflect that after all, he might have been of another religion or race or color, an unacceptable in India…It is not for him to join with those who reject millions of their fellowmen of all types and groups, but to accept all men, an attitude forced upon him happily by the stigma of being cast out of the fold of society."
What I'd imbibed from Khan, his Baha'i message of the unity of earth's peoples, of the equality of the sexes, had led me precisely to such views about gay men and lesbians, I began to realize. When I shared these views with Bertie Backus, there was no way she could disparage them and still remain true to her own value system—one through which she'd planned (had she lived) to organize a great parade through the nation's capital to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the freeing of the slaves.
It meant much to me in 1953-54 to get the kind of assurance I got from Khan and from Miss Backus. These two elders became—through me—great friends. We all spent many Sundays together, riding through the Maryland and Virginia countryside, sharing picnics on the rocks of the Great Falls of the Potomac. Both Khan and Miss Backus recited Emerson and Whitman to me—talked of self-reliance, of intellectual independence, of caring for others.
Though I was never to meet Khan's daughters, Hamideh and Marzieh, I did correspond many years later with Marzieh, after seeing a biography of Khan she'd had published by George Ronald (Oxford): Summon Up Remembrance, a book that captured his early years—in last century Iran.
There's a mysterious picture of a youthful Khan in this book, one in which he looks handsome to me now, remembering him only, as I do, in his 70s. Dressed as a wandering dervish, he's got a water pipe and a book of poetry in hand.
It makes me think of some of the verses he'd recited from Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat when first we'd met:
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And wilderness is paradise enow.
Come fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
The winter garment of repentance fling:
The bird of time has but a little way
To fly—and lo! The bird is on the wing.
Previous People Features from the GayToday Archive:
Leonard Bernstein: A Divided Life
Bob Basker: An Activist's Life