A source on Mideast history, language, media and culture.
Ten Days in Iran
The number of people who said don’t go to Iran was really astounding, even more so now that I’ve been there and back. The country is a pleasant surprise in many respects. It is very clean, very green, very organised. People are friendly but few move over the line into what tourists often consider harrassment. I was intending to book a fixed itinerary with the travel agent through which I got a visa but due to some last minute flight changes the bookings were never made, so I went there free to move as I pleased but nervous that that would expose me to trouble with the authorities. I decided anyway to stick to the hotels that I had agreed on with the travel agent. I didn’t even have a guide book. At the airport on the way out I got myself a decent camera and a pair of sunglasses but there was no time for more than that in the rush. When I arrived, on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, there was no form to fill out at Shiraz airport and the immigrations officials only poured over the British visitor’s credentials for a few minutes more than the others in the queue. It was all incredibly easy and ad hoc for a country that gives the impression of being closed and unfriendly. Once you are in, it’s anything but. I was concerned though about the fact that I was a journalist, so didn’t want to ask too many questions and take too many photos in non-touristy locations. But part of the point of the trip was to improve my Farsi so I wasn’t going to keep quiet, as some people suggested.
Shiraz is the quintessential Iranian garden city. Driving in I first experienced the confusion that meets everyone over Iranian money, with its official denomination in riyals but reference on the street as toman. “Pool-e irani heech!” the taxi driver declared with a cynical laugh. “Iranian money is nothing!” At the hotel they gave me a useful map and explained where the Eram Garden and the tombs of Hafez and Saadi were, so I headed out, walking. I love just walking and walking in new cities, so here I was again. A new country. A new language. Doing it alone, as I was as a student one summer heading into Syria, Jordan and Palestine to improve my Arabic. It was immediately striking how Iranians love their gardens, but the first surprise came when at the Hafeziye – people would touch the tomb and say a quiet little prayer. After the puritanical minimism of Saudi Arabia – which may have been three years ago now but which projects itself in Arab culture and politics so that its omnipresent – this was a shock. I headed over to another garden and museum, the Jahannama, where I got chatting to a tour guide from Bandar Abbas. We walked up to the tomb of another poet, Khaju, and noted a large unfinished hotel on the mountainside, apparently owned by Qataris, she said, but which faced licencing problems. I can only imagine they were able to build the thing in such a location in the first place through partibazi, I suggested, connections.
Having set myself three days in each city of the central Iranian triangle of Shiraz-Isfahan-Yazd, I thought I might as well head to Persepolis immediately. I went with one of the hotel staff, Vahid. We talked on the way about music. The problem is that the government doesn’t let people engage with music freely, he said, so the pop stars were all products of the Los Angeles Iranian scene, Dubai or elsewhere. Even the great classical singers still around such as Shajarian were no longer welcome on state TV – a point I heard repeatedly from Iranians, though they were playing him everywhere. “After the Islamic revolution there’s a lot of things they took away from us,” he said. He put on Siravan Khosravani. “He’s clearly influenced by the Los Angeles air, it’s ‘Western tendency’, gharbgarai,” I said. We laughed.
A trip to Iran’s ancient sites such as Pasargad and Persepolis, the Achamaenian capital that put Persia on the imperial map of the early world civilisations, raises the perennial question of why the Arabs became the Arabs after the conquests and the Iranians stayed the Iranians. Iran retained its language, the key element in remaining Iranian. Those who in time, even if it took centuries, adopted Arabic have a right today to call themselves Arab, even if there are some Muslims, Copts, Levantines, North Africans, etc. who resist the designation “Arab”. After the Romans took Gaul, the Celtic language declined but when the Franks later took France they only succeeded in giving the Latinised country their name; similarly when the Normans took England they did not dislodge Anglo-Saxon, but they did induce a huge influx of French into the language that was to evolve into modern English. Something similar is going on with Farsi, where the influx of Arabic words has been massive. The tomb of Cyrus, or Koroush in Farsi, was striking for the explanation in the on-site description that Iranians had lost historical memory of who the grave was for after the Arab conquests, thus it taken the name of “the tomb of Solomon’s Mother”. The fact that Cyrus was supposed to be buried there was “rediscovered” in 1820, it said. I asked Iranians repeatedly about this point during the trip and one answer I got was that this was the propaganda of the Arabs after the invasion, in their desire to wipe out the Iranian historical memory. But again at the site known as Naghshe Rostam – another misnomer – the signs said that locals had forgotten who the graves were for, and so named it symbolically for Rostam, the hero of Firdousi’s Shahnameh.
It’s good to get beyond the language barrier created by the Greeks: to know that Xerxes is Khashyursha, that the Parthians in Farsi are the Ashkanian, that Middle Persian – the Sassanid period – is Parsi Miyaneh, or Pahlavi Miyaneh. While I was musing these issues at Pasargad, a group of Iranian tourists started chatting about the Sassanid rulers. Anushirvan had been a socialist, one of them said; he wanted to distribute the nation’s wealth more fairly among the people, “so that Ahriman would die,” a reference to the Zoroastrian figure of bad deeds. At which I should have added, “and is Ahriman still alive?”, which is what he was kind of implying, but sticking to my no-provocative-politics policy I just listened. Another group who were students wanted to know what I thought of Iran. “The government wants to have problems with the whole world but not the people,” one said. The images of Kartir, chief Zoroastrian priest of the early Sassanian period, were arresting: Kartir, one could say, now runs the show. Surveying the plain amid the mountains where Cyrus’ tomb sat, Vahid noted that little had been done to prepare it for tourism or give it the majesty it deserved. “Imagine what England would have done with this site, there’s nothing here. There would be shops, restaurants,” he said. This was a theme that came up often during the trip: that the government cares about public morals and religious festivals to the detriment of everything else.
Persepolis was designed to inspire awe: the massive complex contains walls that depict delegations from the vassal peoples of the region bearing gifts before Persian generals leading them towards the Shah; Medes, Elamites, Babyonians, Libyans, Scythians, Kandarahis with Bactrian camels, and barefoot Indians in dotis carrying handwoven baskets of golddust and leading donkeys. I got that from the Indian tour group I listened in on. I didn’t see any Arabs, though as Semitic peoples/speakers you might count the Babylonians as proto-Arabs. “The Indians are always very practical!” one of the tourists joked, noting the donkey. But the city built by Cyrus and Darius in the 500s BC was overrun 200 years later by Alexander. The last Shah had a famous party here in 1971 to which he brought leaders from around the world, commonly viewed as one the milestones in the tragedy of his demise. The skeletons of the tents have been left standing amongst trees on the road in. Yet today I couldn’t help but wonder if Persepolis had not come to represent a lost glory for some Iranians, though maybe not those fully committed to the Islamic republic.
Back in Shiraz that evening, while visiting the Masjed-e Vakeel as the sun set I got chatting to a mining and minerals expert from Tehran on a work trip to Kerman. We went to a nearby restaurant that had been recommended to both of us (Sharzeh, it was very good) where live Qajar and Pahlavi-era music was off for the evening. The reason was that this was one of the Iran’s numerous mourning periods, this time for the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. In his view this was typical of the concerns of the state: promoting religion as the ideology of the state, doing little to promote tourism, isolating the country from the rest of the world. Thus the plethora of 10-day public mournings (azadari), the lack of attention to a sites like the tomb of Koroush. “They only care about mosques,” he said. “And you know the reason why we have so many mournings? They are 14, they have the 12 imams, then add the Prophet and Fatima. It’s because it’s a chance for them to talk and do their thing.” To fill public space, further, with the discourse of the regime. Basij, muncipality, hotels and other buildings carried slogans such as “Fatima, what was your crime?” (i.e. she was wronged), “by relying on the strength of this people we will not feel weak before any world power” and “to obey Khamenei is to obey the Imam (Khomeini)”.
As we walked along a main road near midnight, the streets were full of young people speeding around in cars, whooping and playing loud music. “People just want to have a good time, but they (government) don’t want us to have this, they want mourning. But God didn’t want us to be sad.” He even began on the Safavids, saying they had forced Shi’ism on the people and were cruel. I was surprised to hear him say this, but he said those who are interested in historical questions are well aware of it. Though he wasn’t from Shiraz, we did note that Karimkhan Zand – founder of the 18th century Zand dynasty – made Shiraz his capital: Zand is looked back upon as one of the most enlightened rulers of recent centuries, certainly in comparison to the decline the country witnessed during the Qajar period that followed.
On Sunday I walked to the shrine for Saadi where again I found people touching and praying over the tomb stone. There was a man there singing. Everyone stood around listening, rapt by the beauty of it. I don’t know the verse he was singing, but he kept repeating man mandam tanha, I remained alone (here’s a video link). Most of the music I heard during the trip, in gardens and restaurants, was Shajarian or Eftekhari, two ageing classical singers. Over a pomegranate bastani I pondered the question of which figures occupy national consciousness in a similar manner in a country like Egypt. It struck me that the only figures who really compared were very modern, such as Umm Kalthoum, Mohammed Abdulwahhab, or Abdulhalim Hafez, or, in Lebanon, Farid al-Atrache or perhaps the still living Firouz. All of them have a resonance for Arabs from around the region, they are not solely figures of the nation-state in which they primarily operated. I could not help wondered though why Iran’s connection to the more distant past seems more live than Egypt’s. My suspicion is that the answer could lie in the language and identity convulsions after the Arab conquests. Egypt spent centuries negotiating shifting balances between Muslim-Christian, Arabic-Coptic. When Iranians ditched Zoroastrianism, they did not adopt Arabic or take on that identity. Saadi and Hafez were the product of a culture that, post Firdousi and his celebration of the pre-Islamic Iranian past in the Shahnameh, knew it had survived and was able to celebrate this. Egypt’s struggle in a sense was a much longer one, it laboured under the rule of foreigners until the emergence of Abdulnasser, the era that produced its most revered national heroes.
At the museum of Zinat al-Muluk, a Qajar society lady, I bumped into the guide from Bandar Abbas once more. Not a fan of the Islamic republic she praised Zoroastrianism and Koroush’s declaration to the peoples brought into the Achamaenian empire (another Greek garbling, it’s Hakhamaneshi in Farsi), which is described in Iran as “the first world charter of human rights”. I bought a copy of it and was surprised by the language used in the Farsi foreward: the Hakhamaneshi imperial expansion was referred to with the ideological term fath (literally, “opening”) and futuhat, the plural of the term. Fath is an Arabic term used ideological to describe the Arab conquests in positive terms as a civilizational advance because they brought Islam. The striking thing is that Iranians refer to the Arab conquests in Iran as “invasion” (hamleh), and avoid the use of the term fath, although Farsi talks of futuhat-e islami in a general sense. Yet here the invasions of the Achamaenians were given that ideological makeover denied to the Arab conquest that brought Islam and elevated to fath!
The tour guide, whose name I promised not to mention, said she had lost a job as a teacher because she refused to wear the chador. “I said I don’t pray and I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not. One week later I was sacked,” she said. “They turned this country into a big prison.” The garden had a museum with information on famous Shirazis. There was an explanation of the mythical Phoenix in its Persian guise, how after 1,000years of life it chooses the place of its death but lays an egg in the process, allowing the rise of the Phoenix (Quqnus in Farsi, though I’m sure how this term came into being since there also the Simurgh, mentioned in the Shahnameh) again: the link to the Iranian nation in history was explicitly made in the description, which seemed to quite move the guide. Elsewhere in the museum, there was a celebration of famed Shirazis, including Hallaj, the famous executed Sufi of Baghdad. The description went into some detail on the vicious death he suffered, and after he had made pilgrimage to Mecca. A girl next to me tutted in disgust, for sure at what the Arabs had done to him, though I noted that the judge who pronounced the death sentence was an Iranian from Isfahan. The services Iranians performed for the Abbasid empire were considerable; it was more of a joint Arab-Iranian project really. On similar themes of Iranian identity, I was amused to find a signpost for a school named after the ancient Iranian fertility goddess Anahita.
The next day I took the bus to Isfahan. It was instantly impressive. A very large city dominated by a main river with delightful bridges, trees and parkland around both its banks. I was struck by the numbers of people staying outdoors late into the night. Signposts by some of the parts even warned people not to set up tents. It was green, clean and happy. The heart of the city is its Safavid core with a large number of mosques, markets, public squares and architecturally fascinating period-piece palaces. The fence surrounding the Chihil Sotoon palace and other buildings was lined with Quranic verses containing various pieces of wisdom. As I walked by them reading one after the other I was half expecting to come across a few from Saadi and Hafez. Iran’s garden cities are beautiful. Of all the Arab countries, they reminded me most of Iraq. The architectural style involving the sun-baked bricks in Baghdad is very similar; the caliph al-Mu’tasim moved the seat of Abbasid government to his new garden city of Samarra in 833 CE. Iraq was a garden-inclined place under the Babylonians before it fell to Persian control. I imagine the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon (Taisefoon in Farsi) was a pretty green place. The elaborate gardens and the tile-work of the mosques are a stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, where the preference at least during the third Saudi state has been for the austere white aesthetic that happens to chime with the stripped-down modernist style.
The next day I made a concerted effort to see all the main buildings around the Naghshe Jahan square. At the Ali Qapu palace I came across a group of Lebanese tourists, they seemed to be a kind of pilgrim tour group. They panted onto the top floor of the palace, a really amazing music room where the wall consists of hollowed out wooden alcoves in order to stop the sounds waves resonating and bouncing back. One began poking at the wood. Down in the market they were rather aggressive with the shop owners. “Yalla! Yalla!” one guy was barking in order to get his bargain price for a pair of sunglasses.
I walked over the river to the university area where there is a Zoroastrian temple hidden in the back streets and an Armenian cathedral. It was only at this point that I began to notice how much make-up a fair proportion of women wear in Iran. As I was looking in the backstreets for the temple, an editor from Reuters in London called me up. He was tickled pink to be talking to someone searching for Zoroaster in backstreet Isfahan, Axis-of-Evil. “Oh my Lord, that is extraordinary!” he laughed. Which was rather funny. I was in a rather ordinary middle-class neighbourhood. I asked a shopkeeper if it really was here and he said yes, it was just down the road I had been on. The building looked very ordinary which is why I had missed it. I noticed the tell-tale Zoroastrian winged symbol, the fravahar. At first time I see the iconography and materiel of Zoroastrianism, I was amazed. There was a flame of fire protected in an alcove, a large painting of Zoroaster meeting a Kayani Shah in Balkh, a Zoroastrian centre where Firdowsi says Zoroaster died. A young worshipper came in, dressed in white robes and cap, and sat reading the Avesta. When I went back out to the courtyard there were two journalists interviewing someone who seemed to be responsible for the temple in an office. I wanted to talk to someone and turned to a man who had just come in, saying it was a very interesting place. He said yes and asked me where I was from. After I explained, he suddenly bellowed in English: “You are a very amazing Orientalist!” then walked off. Quite bizarre. I took from that: suspicion, an unwillingness to talk and a sense, that always lingers, of tourism as aggression.
I headed next to the nearby 17th century Armenian cathedral of Vank, where there was a really fascinating mix of architectural styles going on: a dome, Persian floral motifs and harrowing images of martyrs under the Ottomans. The Armenian area was rather gentrified, with cobbled streets and cutesy coffee shops. I found a Lonely Planet guide inside a book shop and gave in: I bought it. Despite their obvious use I always find them a bit culturally centric and mono-formatted: certain things in whatever country are presented as cool, certain things are not, there’s the same laconic style running through them all comparing everything to some always unstated standard that you know is in fact England and Australia. A few flicks through and suspicions were confirmed: numerous references to male-female relations, covered hair, public morality, as if the place is a freak show. The authors put down the removal of most of the teashops along the See-o-Seh Bridge to a desire to stop young men and women being able to meet and chat. The theory is ridiculous. The city is full of enough gender mixing to give a Saudi mutawwa a heart attack (granted, that wouldn’t take much). They clearly removed those shops in order not to spoil the picture postcard perfect view of the bridge. The one teashop left is on a far side by the bank where it’s less noticeable. I already noted the rampant make-up going on; women were hardly shy of talking to a foreign tourist like me either. Lonely Planet falls into the trap of mainstream media generally which gets confused between its themes of modernisation and history: streets or districts are cooed over for being real, authentic and living, as long as they are just a small part of the modern city. Talking of that bridge, it was deliberately partly dammed so that the water makes a noise as it flows out of the other side, to add to the aesthetic effect as people walk over the bridge or by the river bank, or sit in the teashop.
At the Nagshe Jahan square the next day, when it fills with people picnicking and eating bastani and faloodeh before sunset, I got talking to a law student named Zahed. He was another champion of Zoroastrianism as the pre-Islamic religion, though he described himself as an atheist. It turned out he and his friends had a carpet shop but it was in interesting chat all the same. He knew Arabic, French and Spanish and I think that’s why he knew how to talk a bit in all three, though his Arabic would have been from school. Back at their shop two of his friends were learning German, which is what most tourist groups I saw spoke. I said Egypt was not only cut from its Pharaonic past by losing Coptic but by the Christian period. The entire country ditched the Pharaonic religion for Christianity before Islam evolved after the Arab conquests. I put it to him that Iranians appeared to have lost a sense of past empires and civilisations too – locals forgot who was buried in the tomb of Koroush. This, he said, was the result of Arab propaganda when they came: in their effort to erase the Iranian past they called the tomb by another name to help people forget who it was really for. I don’t know enough about the period to know if this is true, but it’s interesting that this is what Iranians, in this current period of tension at least, think. They were blatant about their disdain for Arabs. I said but the term is very wide, from Moroccans to Egyptians to the Gulf. A lot of those who you term Arab have equal disdain for the Gulf, if not the term Arab itself. And wasn’t the Abbasid caliphate a joint Arab-Iranian project anyway? Anyway, I managed to leave without any trouble. I got a free pass partly through knowing Farsi.
Later that evening I met two students, Satar and Mohammed Reza, who wanted to express their unhappiness with the country. Again it wasn’t overtly political, in the sense of questioning the regime or physical repression (police brutality), but complaining about bad governance, international isolation and social repression. They could give you 80 lashes for being caught with an unmarried woman. Isfahan, they said, is a showcase city for foreigners, people are not as happy as one would think. They expressed a sense of helplessness before the state’s policies: will Iran be attacked, will it not, is the United States bent on attacking them, what do people think of their country? “We don’t know what’s going, we don’t know anything or what to believe,” Satar said. He punctured holes in the country’s pride in its self-sufficiency. “Look at these cars, they look different but the engines inside them are all the same!” he said, pointing to the Lada-style standard you see on Iranian roads. The isolation really hits you in Internet cafes. The computers are bulky affairs from another age, the keyboards dysfunctional and connections look fora few seconds like they might work before proving not to. Facebook, hotmail, twitter and other sites are banned, and so will everything else be soon when the government’s Iranian Internet is up and running. The state seems bent on cutting the country off as much as it can. Having said that, Wifi connections were good and a lot of hotels had them. And Iran is not the only isolated country around: I don’t recall getting into Israel, West Bank or Gaza being very easy, for Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims or others and the Israeli state is happy with that (and there is military censorship).
On Thursday I finally got to Yazd. Despite the fact that it has an ancient mudbrick quarter at its core, it has become a reasonably large modern city with streets and tenement blocks like other, so that as you drive in you wonder if you’re heading wrongheadedly into a preserved zone that is not representative of the whole. Yet that zone is very real. People live and work there and it’s where the historical mosques and other buildings are. It’s also where some lovely hotels and restaurants have sprung up in recent years inside preserved mud buildings which tour books can genuinely describe as authentic. When I got to mine, I came across – backpackers! Situated on the central Iranian plateau, Yazd is more or less the end of the backpacking regions of central and south Asia; head westward and you arrive at the unbackpacky major cities of Iran. It was a chilled-out place and there were as many Iranian tourists staying there as Europeans.
Yazd is a place to learn more about Zoroastrianism – it’s Iran’s main centre now – but the system of irrigation canals known as qanats – as well as the windtowers known as badgir. The badgirs are not there for show like in the UAE, they are means of cooling houses in the heats summer, and extremely effective too. Reading some of the material in museums and elsewhere I realised another word that perhaps came into Arabic in Egypt via Persian, or maybe vice versa: tulumba for water pump is tulumbeh in Farsi. Pondering this, it crossed my mind that plan or programme in Farsi, barnameh, is the origin of barnamij in Arabic, which in turn gives us programme in English, while the Farsi word is a compound of bar and nameh. Such was Yazd.
I took a day trip with a driver called Amir who did not want to say anything about his Zoroastrianism and three Iranian ladies who stayed in the same hotel. What was nice was that we did the whole thing in Farsi, which I could mostly follow. The highlight was the Chak-Chak mountain, so-called because water drip-drips inside a Zoroastrian temple near the top. This was where thousands of locals hid during the Arab conquest, which help maintain Zoroastrianism in the area. We visited an abandoned mud-town called Meybod which was in use up to a generation back. Eating Yazdi faloodeh later, I expressed my belief that it was golleh ye tamaddon, the pinnacle of civilisation (or maybe bastani haveej, ice cream in carrot juice), which highly amused Amir. I visited the main Zoroastrian temple in Yazd the next day where I again got the impression that Zoroastrians don’t want to talk. There was no staff around, no shop, no cafe; we were encouraged to go in, look around, read the explanations of the religion (which were enlightening), then get out. Wandering round the neighbourhood behind it, it was clear this was a Zoroastrian area, with youth clubs and other buildings. A grocer said there were more like 20,000 around, rather than the 5,000 given as an official figure. “There are loads of temples here, but they won’t let you in,” he said.
Back in Shiraz one more night before leaving I had an interesting chat with one of the guys working at the front desk. Back to the Arabization of Iran. We know which words we have that are Arabic and which are old Persian, he said, citing vazheh for kalemeh. The Arabs tried to kill many Iranians during the conquests, he said, and now, despite his criticisms of the government, the biggest threat to the region was the conspiring of Saudi Arabia. The big fear many Iranians have, he said, is that if there is an American attack it will extend to the destruction that was rained down upon Baghdad in 2003. “You know that even now they only have electricity for certain hours of the day in Baghdad, that’s what we fear will happen to us, they want to push us backwards. Even if the Mullahs we have aren’t so great, things will be worse.” I noticed more and more that books on the streets were about Koroush, Darius and Zoroaster, “the prophet of ancient Iran,” as one title said. The interesting thing about this Zoroaster fetish is that it’s a form of challenging the religious authorities, who have encouraged the use of Arabic words even more since 1979. Outside Vakeel market that night a man jumped me on the street for a conversation and was so insistent I couldn’t say no. He kept repeating over and over with fascination that I was from Scotland but lived in Dubai. He joined with in a taxi since we were heading to the same district: I wanted to check out a shopping centre, he lived nearby. He told the tale to the taxi driver, who had dyed red-brown hair and was smoking an opium pipe, of this Scotsman who lived in Dubai. I really didn’t have the energy for a long night as his guest, so I declined an offer to visit his home. He seemed impaired somehow, and it provoked a sadness for the country as a whole – so pleasant, so cultured, so proud; surviving, yet trapped and unsure of the future.
On the morning of the day I left I took a second trip to Persepolis. I was prepared for a more open political discussion now with Vahid, who was driving. People exaggerate, he said, things aren’t so bad in the country. There are problems if you want to get a visa, moving money abroad and the low value of Iranian money compared to outside. But these are old problems, people are used to them, he said. “Distribution of wealth is an issue, and when you seek jobs in many government sectors they want to know what you’re background is (are you ‘Westernised’, traditional, religious), there is bad management of the country. People can’t find jobs yet Iran has so many natural resources,” he said. As we drove, we passed by large signs on the roads telling people that “Friday prayer is key to the our unity”, “Through the rule of the jurisprudent (velayat-e faghih) we are alive!” and “We are ready, Oh wise leader”. “We need freedom to sing, to do things, this is a new generation, they need to loosen up,” he said, adding the underlying discontent could bubble up any time. “It’s like there’s a fire smouldering under the ashes.”
In conformity with the easy manner in which I entered, leaving was pleasantly humdrum. A quiet provincial airport; sheets of A4 printed with “death to Israel” in Farsi, Arabic and English stuck haphazardly to a wall in a far corner; queue-jumping that produced an argument that could be heard from one end of the hall to the other. With my remaining tomans I bought Eftekhari and Shajarian CDs, that haunting music you here everywhere in Iran, had a hamburger – Iranian-style since the global brands haven’t cracked the country – then boarded the plane without so much as a question about what I’d been up to. And went home sadly.