After wandering in its fragrant gardens and picnicking under its shady trees, I am convinced, the reason why Iranians do not wish to open up to the world is because they have found paradise within their Persian Gardens. The walled gardens derive their origin to Zoroastrian word: “pairi-daeza” which comes from Indo Aryan word “para desa”. Paradise, in the biblical context, is the divine Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve roamed freely, eating fruits of longevity from the celestial Tree of Life.
Having visited Iran, and having spent Nowruz with an Iranian family, I have learned a lot more of what it means to be Persian, and about the country that has given so much to the world, yet, it lives in the state of permanent state of exile, plagued by unfavorable opinion of the Islamic Republic.
Many take Islamic Revolution as their point of reference, often forgetting that the Revolution was merely an interruption to Persia’s rich interweave of social, cultural and historical influences that makes it a country of stark contrasts.
Proud of plurality
The first discovery I made was that the country is extremely diverse and celebrates plurality.
Historically, Iran has been a mix of many ethnicities that includes Persians, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Arabs and Kurds; religious groups that includes Shias, Jews, Zoroastrians, Armenian Christians, Sunnis and Baha’i; as well as nomads such as Loris, Turkmen and Baluchis.
With the decline of one dynasty, a new tribe filled the power vacuum by asserting its dominance. For instance, the Achaemenids and the Sassanids were Zoroastrians; the Parthians and the Seleucids were Greek pagans; the Qajar were Turks; the Safavids were of mixed ancestry, belonging to Kurdish, Azeri and Georgian lineage; the Zand dynasty was Kurdish; and the Pahlavis were from the Caspian Sea province from the north of Iran.
So, by the time, the Arabs, Mongols and Tamerlane came to Iran, the Persians were already an integrated society, proud of the heritage their ancestors had left behind. From Cyrus the Great freeing Jews from Babylon to Darius building the awe-inspiring Persepolis as the federal capital of Persia; to the Parthians who built the country’s dominance along the Silk Route; to the Safavids under whose patronage arts, craft and architecture reached its zenith; to the Sassanids opening up the Maritime Silk Route via the Persian Gulf – Iran laid and example to the world for being much ahead of time while its plurality continued to define the Persian culture through the ages.
The influence of Silk Route
The ancient Silk Route lent its influence in the exchange and adoption of religions and the influence that came with it. This further enriched the Persian culture which was a keen and willing melting pot.
Shia and the sharia law
Thirdly, as a sect Shia is more liberal (even though the country has adopted strict Islamic penal code under the Sharia law). For instance, expressions of animals which is prohibited by Sunni, is allowed via carvings and craftsmanship. I saw depictions of lion on mosque in Kashan as well as Swastikas on the ceiling of Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan and on the Jame Mosque in Yazd. Zoroastrian beliefs, in particular, have intermixed with Islam to create a hybrid. (The lion and sun was the emblem on Iran’s national flag until the Islamic Revolution. It dates back to ancient Babylonian astrology, signifying that the sun was in the house of Leo. The insignia has had many historical meanings and the Iranians strongly associate as their identity. It is interesting that crescent moon is the sign of Sunni sect and sun is the sign of Shias.)
I was also told that Shias prayed only 3 times a day and that going to the mosque was not compulsory; in fact, the younger generation didn’t pray at all and there was no compulsion for them to do so.
In Isfahan’s hip Jolfa district, I saw youngsters beautifully made up and wearing fashionable clothes on the streets. Scarves were mere accessories and wearing the full hijab was a matter of personal choice. Smoking shisha is common and so were women drivers. There is no doubt gender disparity but I felt that the Iranians were a homogenous group, proud of the varied ethnicities living amidst them.
No Ruz – the Persian New Year
Nowruz literally means New Day, and occurs on the first day of spring. The day marks new beginnings and rebirth, somewhat similar to Easter. The country was readying itself for the New Year with Haft Seen table top arrangements in virtually all places – shops, airport halls, public spaces, hotels and homes. Interestingly, this year marks the year of the dog, similar to the Chinese New Year calendar.
Haft Seen has 7 bowls filled with displays of Sabzeh or sprouts representing rebirth; samanu or sweet pudding made from wheat germ representing abundance; sanjed
or Russian olives to represent love; seer or garlic to signify medicine and good health; seeb or Apple to represent beauty; sumac to represent sunrise or signifying light overcoming darkness; serkeh or vinegar to represent graceful ageing; and sikke or gold coin to represent prosperity.
The bazaars were bustling with people shopping for new things – clothes, shoes, jewellery, scarves as well as sweets, fruits and dry fruits; laundromats were whirring to wash curtains, carpets and kilms; streets and homes were being spring cleaned and decorated with flower pots, and the atmosphere was happy and festive. This led to a lot of traffic jams and a wonderful vibe in the city. My driver apologetically explained: “We don’t have this amount of traffic on other days. If we do, it is only when we have demonstrations.”
Indeed, the country has seen a few demonstrations in the recent weeks, in Tehran, in Isfahan and Shiraz and my guide explained that it was to protest against the government in response to the the job situation which was pretty dire. My guide’s daughter was studying medicine and wanted to become a doctor and migrate to the US some day. “We have a lot of brain drain,” she explained, adding that most Iranians work at least 2 jobs to make ends meet.
View of the world, in particular, the US
Surprisingly, Iranians don’t view the US negatively and have many relatives there. They also prefer the US over Europe or the UK.
Majority of the cars in Iran are Peugeot but I saw an old Chevy in Isfahan and a battered old Buick in Tehran. The Iranians also play a lot of popular pop songs on the radio; I even heard a Farsi rap song. Apple phones were popular too as were selfies (if they can be considered an American influence).
People are inquisitive about tourists and asked us questions such as where we came from, why we decided to visit the country, what were our impressions before visiting and what do we think of the country now.
Hospitality is an integral part of Iranian culture. Ensuring visitors have a good time and feel welcome is very important to them. I can’t remember how many times we got invited to their homes and were treated with utmost kindness that melted our hearts.
At the same time, unlike countries like Thailand, India, Egypt or China who rely on tourism to earn a large portion of their revenue, tourism and opening up of the society (like it was in countries such as Myanmar prior to it opening up in 2011), did not seem to be a priority for the government. By and large, the Iranians seemed quite self-sufficient and enjoyed a good quality of life, living inside their walled paradise, reading poetry by Hafez and soaking up the mysticism of philosophers like Omar Khayyam. We passed by many luxury residential areas with large houses and beautiful gardens. Obviously, the sanctions, inflation and unemployment did not in the least affect these households.
Overall, I felt that Iranians were both proud and protective of their culture. Whether it was the Armeninans in Jolfa or the Zoroastrians in Yazd or the Jewish people in Tehran, they preferred to be seen as Persians first. Fire temples, mosques, churches and synagogues (there are about 60 synagogues in Iran) thrive in the country and there didn’t seem to be any sense of persecution, exclusion or violence towards a specific community. The only discontentment the Iranians had collectively was with their government for unemployment and inflationary pressures which was a result of sanctions.
Pinch and punch of sanctions
I did feel the pinch of sanctions when I had to buy a bottle of sun screen. The locally made one was three times cheaper than Nivea. Fortunately, we found many locally made products that copied western counterparts – like ZFC, Hiss (a Kit Kat knock off), cheesy chips, and the recent fad of eating pizzas – quite satisfactory, and did things the way the locals did.
A batch of these goodies is on its way to my nieces and nephews, two totally different cultures celebrating the start of spring.