Illuminating Iran

Iran has been an Islamic Republic since the revolution in 1979 and the observance of the Muslim religion is strongly encouraged (some might say enforced) by the new regime. Around 94% of the population belong to the Twelver Shia branch of Islam, the official state religion and its influences in Iran are pervasively conspicuous; in the omnipresence of the chador (the Iranian Hijab), the absence of alcohol and the eye-catching minarets of the mosques that litter Iran’s cities and towns. However despite the prominence of Islam it has been said that the true spiritual leaders of the people of Iran are their poets. Poetry is central to the hearts and minds of Iranian people, it is learnt in every classroom, cherished in every home and recited by friends in every café. The great Persian poets are commemorated in street names and remembered each year by the thousands who visit tombs such as those of Hafez and Sa’di in the city of Shiraz. Rumi is one of these greats (and one of the few to be lauded in the West); he was a 13th century Sufi poet and is called in Persian ‘Mowlaana’, the Master. Rumi is still one of the most beloved of all Persian poets and his words, which continue to inspire a nation, can help us to understand a country and a people that are often deeply misunderstood.

Iran’s past is full of conflict with various forces, from the Medes in 7th century BC and the Greeks just two centuries later, to the Anglo-American staged coup in 1953 and the war with Iraq that lasted throughout the 1980s, the graves from which still stand amidst the orchards and fields of Iran’s most idyllic countryside. As Rumi says, ‘Where there is ruin there is hope for treasure’, and in fact one of Iran’s greatest treasures is indeed its ruins. Iran has one of the richest archaeological histories in the world, with cultured civilisations and urban settlements dating back thousands of years to as early as the 4th millennia BC, centuries before there was civilisation in Mesopotamia. In the ruins of these civilisations can be seen the grandeur and splendour of Persia that was. Persepolis, named by the Greeks as the city of Persians, was to be the grand ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Founded by Darius in 518 BC and built-upon by his son Xerxes, Persepolis was captured by Alexander the Great in his conquest of the East and burnt down by him, according to Plutarch, in a drunken fit. But from the ashes and in the ruins has arisen one of Iran’s greatest tourist attractions. The ruins of Persepolis lie 70 km North East of Shiraz but even now, as broken stone rising from the sand, the city is glorious: walking through Xerxes’ great gate towards Darius’ magnificent Apadana palace, imagination brings the stone to life and transports you back to the splendour of these ancient Persian kings.

Rumi’s sentiment can also be applied, less literally, to Iran’s more recent past. The revolution of ‘79 was ruinous for many of Iran’s people when around 3000 people died (to be followed by many thousands more in the conflict with Iraq). This short period of Iran’s vast history also changed the country’s image in the eyes of the international community. Previously represented in the wider world mostly by rich Persians who travelled, Iran was viewed as a place of culture and science. Suddenly it wore the mask of fundamentalism and hatred of the west. Instead of being admired it became feared and condemned. However, even from this ruin there is still the hope of treasure. The treasure that is the Iranian people, after all, still exists and the dogma of the regime is rarely, if ever, reflected back to you by the unreservedly warm and welcoming people you meet in the street. Instead, the Iranian people seem to take their lead from another of Rumi’s poems: ‘Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone.’ Certainly the people of Iran will attempt to make a friend out of you, inviting you into their home, feeding you dainties and delicacies, plying you with endless cups of saffron tea, asking your opinions on Iran and quoting their favourite poems to you. This generosity of spirit is typical of the Muslim world and is abundant in Iran.

The Muslim conquest of Iran took place in the 7th Century and the subsequent Islamification of the country and (the majority of) its people has been something of a double-edged sword. The famous wine of Shiraz is a treasure lost (as alcohol has been banned since ’79) and women who live and travel in the country, whether they are Muslim or not, are expected to be completely covered in while in public, with only their hands and faces visible. Conversely, after the Muslim conquest, Iran became one of the jewels of the Islamic world producing some of the greatest artistic and scientific developments of the 10th and 11th centuries. Incredible Muslim art and architecture is found all over the country and in no other place in Iran, possibly in the world, is the beauty of Islam more apparent than in Esfahan. The city’s huge Imam Square is quite simply dazzling; with its turquoise domes, sparkling mosaics, sweeping arches, wide lawns, flower beds and fountains, it can leave you breathless. The traveller in Iran, even those sweltering under a manteau, will certainly be grateful for the Islamic aesthetic when they behold the stunning beauty of Esfahan.

Tehran may not be as beautiful as Esfahan or as grand as Persepolis, the streets are clogged with traffic and the air is thick with choking fumes from the poorly refined petrol sold in Iran, but it is nevertheless essential to understanding Iran today. Tehran is the centre of the country’s politics and commerce and if things are going to change, they will do so here first, as seen 32 years ago. The streets of Tehran were the stage for the revolution, the platform of Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascension to Supreme Leader, the field for Ahmadinejad’s election and his re-election in 2009 with all of the troubles that accompanied it. The presence of change can be seen once again on the streets of Tehran, slow and small but definitely there. Like the café bars that have opened up all over the city and the women whose clothes, though still covering their bodies and hair, are tighter fitting than previously tolerated, enabling you to see that a woman is indeed a woman. Three decades after the revolution, people are slightly less afraid, authorities are marginally more lenient and attitudes a fraction less severe but it will be a long time before people can behave truly at their leisure.

The people of Iran will greet you with a smile and open arms but it cannot be denied that the current regime has changed Iran and that for many people it has afforded them little to smile about. Inflation and poor wages make living costs hard to meet, especially for state employees such as teachers (and the majority of people are employed by the government in some form or another). Another consequence of the revolution is a severe reduction of civil liberties; Iran is not a country where freedom of expression and exchange of information are always possible. Rumi also wrote, ‘I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.’ Unfortunately, were Rumi alive today and living in Iran he would almost certainly be denied his wish. The level of censorship and repression of free (dissenting) speech in Ahmadinejad’s Iran has reached new heights with many human rights groups claiming that mass executions of criminals have been carried out in order to mask the government’s disposal of political/religious dissidents.

Another of Rumi’s ideas has been rejected by the Islamic Republic, that which says ‘Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.’ In particular the Baha’i community (Iran’s largest religious minority) have been repressed and persecuted for years, denied university education and other basic rights. Iran has a history of tolerance, acceptance and cohabitation going back even to the time of the Ancient Greeks when the historian Herodotus wrote of how ‘the Persians receive foreign customs most readily of all men’, receiving and assimilating aspects of all cultures, even conquering ones. Rumi echoes this ancient Persian sentiment, ‘Listen; there’s a hell of a universe next door. Let’s go!’ as do most Iranians who are inquisitive and welcoming not only to foreign visitors but to the many different people who live within their own country; the numerous nomadic tribes as well as people of different religions and nationalities. The inhospitality that the regime shows to many living in Iran was, for a while, extended (at least in appearance) to the rest of the world. The revolution created an idea of Iran as isolationist and hating of the west, but this is certainly not the case for most Iranian people, especially the young who now amount to seventy per cent of the current population. Even the government, despite its fear of foreign non-conformist ideas contaminating Iranian minds, is accepting the need for tourism. Iran has such a wealth of beauty, art and culture to offer and given the current state of their economy, it would be unwise for the government not to capitalise on what could be the nation’s greatest asset.

Rumi talks much in his poetry about not being judgemental, prejudiced or ignorant and the importance of trying ‘to see a treasure in everyone.’ His words not only reflect the attitude of most Iranian people but should be heeded by travellers as containing the best outlook with which to experience not only Iran but any country. Of all the Rumi poetry that I have read there is only one part that I would disagree with: ‘if in the darkness of ignorance you don’t recognise a person’s true nature, look to see whom he has chosen for his leader.’ I wonder if Rumi would stand by these words now or whether, life myself, he would rather say look not to the leader but to the people themselves for therein lays the true heart of a nation.

Bridie Chomse