Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Persian Lions, Persian Lambs

There has been a long succession of books by Western visitors to Iran, stretching back two hundred years. A few have achieved 'classic' status, but those written during the latter half of the 20th century have largely slipped into obscurity (The Garden of the Brave in War is the only one I've heard people mention). Persian Lions, Persian Lambs (1965) deserves something better. It's written by novelist Curtis Harnack.

Harnack went to Iran on a teaching fellowship. After a bit of a slow start, the book recounts with perception, Harnack's adventures in Iran and his impressions of the people he got to know. He does so with humor and sensitivity.

In one chapter he's confronted with the wastefulness of his culture when compared to the Iranian need to make the most of everything. He discovered that the things he considered disposable were being scooped from his garbage by his housekeeper, Hassan. Harnack writes, "Hassan was always absorbed by what he found in my garbage pail...

I would watch him from the window as he shambled along slowly, poring over the treasure trove for the day. His wife, swathed in veils, would fly from the house to help him, like a carrion bird whose mate had found a choice morsel. Hassan would shoulder her aside angrily and make his way alone past the little chicken coop and dog house to a spot almost out of sight. Then he would begin his excited perusal, lifting out the burnished Tuborg beer cans as if he had found miniature bronze samovars...the malleable metal strip from a coffee can lid could be twisted and looped. Hassan would sell this to a droshky driver for one and a half rials; it would be an admirable device for holding together a broken harness.

In some ways a squirrel tendency began to develop in me, and I hesitated over everything before attempting to discard it. All kinds of string were wrapped into balls; my closets began to fill with empty boxes and odds and ends...the empty Hollandia butter tin became my nail container and the cardboard wedges in a shipment of phonograph records from Sam Goody's became mats for some drawings I tacked up on the wall. for a while, I saved used razor blades and one or twice caught myself long-pondering their possible usefulness.

One day in spring when Hassan's little treasure room near the chicken coop happened to be open, I peered inside, and there in an enormous heap was what he had collected from me - at least what he had not yet sold or disposed of. It seemed indecent that I had consumed enough canned food to have left this tremendous pile. And most disturbing of all, I saw many little things that I had not been conscious of discarding: bottle caps, empty folders of matches, underwear buttons, and a used kerosene wick. Next to all of this was a round, somewhat dusty red ball; had this, too, once been mine? I found that it was made of wax and for a moment I could not imagine what connection it had with me. And then suddenly, as if it were a waif to whom much had happened, I recognized it despite its changed form: this was the red wax outer layer of a few Dutch gouda cheeses I had eaten.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Reveille For a Persian Village"

It took me a while to warm to Najmeh Najafi's 1958 book, "Reveille For a Persian Village". The prose is sometimes overfurnished and the sentiments are at times a bit misty-eyed. But as I continued to read I gradually realized this is the story of a remarkable woman. After going to college in California, Najafi returned to her native Iran. There she settled in a small village, gradually winning the hearts of her neighbors as she provides them with medical care, teaches their children and helps the villagers begin to work together. She's a devout woman and she shows a keen sensitivity to the traditional ways of the village. Her depiction of village life underscores just how little its changed in hundreds of years.

At one point in the book, Najafi describes an unexpected visitor who came to her home in the village. The visitor had heard of the author's success in teaching and treating people:

"Her bony feet were naked...her dress was worn, her eyes were weary, but there was that about the way she held her head that made be think the one word, "Queen."
"Lady Najafi?" she asked.
"I am of the village of
Shel-shach-meh. I have come to invite you to my village."
She stayed with us for a day and I showed her the clinic, the washhouse for the dead, my chicken house, the village center, the schools where in the winter the girls and boys learned to read and write and figure, the work-study room. I had her rest on a bed which I put up in our general room and bathed her tired eyes with warm water. The next day...I had Ashghar bring a rented donkey and we three, the old lady, Ashghar and I started for the village.
"Why did not some man, perhaps the kadkhoda, come to me? I asked.
"I am the head of the village."
This village was the first matriarchate I had heard of in Iran.
"All the people of the village are my children, their children, their children."
At last we came into the little village. She called everyone to come visit with me and one of her grandsons brought a rug for me to sit upon - the only rug in the village. Nearly every child in the village had trachoma, scald head, other illnesses. And there was such poverty!
To say poverty in a country like America means very little. It is not until you have seen children actually cry for a spoonful of rice when the mother has none to give that you realize poverty means the pangs of hunger, the warping of little bodies...Poverty means not enough coverings at night to sleep through from dusk to dawn in comfort, not enough clothing to keep the body warmth next to the body, not even a pair of shoes to cover cracked, bleeding, purple-blue feet.
These things I saw in this little village. I can never be really lighthearted again.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Thought for the Day

“So long as humanity exists, the struggle will not cease between dogma and free investigation, between religion and philosophy; a desperate struggle in which, I fear, the triumph will not be for free thought, because the masses dislike reason, and its teachings are only understood by some intelligences of the elite.”

Sayyid Jamal al-Din "Afghani" Asadabadi (1838-97)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"A Year Amongst the Persians"

I’ve been reading E.G. Browne’s “A Year Amongst the Persians”, a wonderful account of his travels in Iran 120 years ago. Unlike other western chroniclers from the period (and there are many) Browne has a deep love and appreciation of Persian culture and a knowledge of the language. He travels from city to city, village to village by mule and horse, introducing us to people along the way; some are high-born, others are servants and villagers – all are colorful. He also shares with us some of the tales he hears. Here’s a sample:

On the second day after leaving Teheran, we entered the dismal region called by the Persians Malaku ‘l-Mawl Dere (The Valley of the Angel of Death). Around this spot cluster most thickly the weird talkes fo the desert.

There are several species of supernatural monsters which haunt the gloomy defiles of the Valley of the Angel of Death. Of these the ghuls and the ‘ifrits are alike the commonest and the most malignant. The former usually endeavor to entice the traveler away from the caravan to his destruction by assuming the form or voice of a friend or relative. Crying out piteously for help, and entreating the unwary traveler to come to their assistance, they induce him to follow them to some lonely spot, where, suddenly assuming the hideous form proper to them, they rend him in pieces and devour him.

Another monster is the nasnas, which appears in the form of an infirm and aged man. It is generally found sitting by the side of a river, and bewailing its inability to cross. When it sees the wayfarer approaching, it earnestly entreats him to carry it across the water to the other side. If he consents, it seats itself on his shoulders, and, when he reaches the middle of the river, winds its long supple legs round his throat till he falls insensible in the water and perishes.

Besides these, there is the pa-lis, (“Foot-licker”), which only attacks those who are overtaken by sleep in the desert. It kills its victim, as the name implies, by licking the soles of his feet till it has drained away his life-blood. It was on one occasion circumvented by two muleteers of Isfahan, who being benighted in the desert, lay down feet to feet, covering their bodies with cloaks. Presently the pa-lis arrived, and began to walk round the sleepers to discover their feet, but on either side it found a head. At last it gave up the search in despair, exclaiming as it made off, “I have wandered through a thousand and thirty and three valleys, but never yet saw a two-headed man.”

“A Year Amongst the Persians”, Edward G. Browne, 1893.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Zagros Restaurant in Tehran

At the top of Park Jamshidieh, above the shadowed walkways and benches, there is a long, long series of stone stairs. You follow them and gradually the ever present cheesy music that wafts from the food stands and the voices of the young couples and families fade from your hearing.

You climb and climb, pausing breathlessly along the way to make promises to yourself about getting into better shape. The sun is bright and the sweat and discomfort spoil your appreciation of the view below, so you plunge upward toward the restaurant that lies ahead perched on the mountainside.

Your goal reached, you take a seat on a carpeted platform and peer down through the bright dyed wool Qashqaei decorations. Tehran is far below under a smear of smog. You're beyond the reach of its noise and its smell and its heat. The ghalyan arrives. You're with friends. There's talk and teasing about who struggled most on the long stairway. The conversation lapses into silence as you stare out over the city, amazed and grateful to be in this place.

Friday, March 2, 2007

On Deluding Ourselves

Like that fond dervish waiting in the throng
When some World-famous beauty went along,
Who smiled on the Antic as she pass'd -
Forthwith Staff, Bead and Scrip away he cast,
And grovelling in the Kennel, took to whine
Before her Door among the Dogs and Swine.
Which when she often went unheeding by,
but one day quite as heedless ask'd him - 'Why?' -
He told of that one Smile, which, all the Rest
Passing had kindled Hope within his Breast -
Again she smiled and said, 'O self-beguiled
Poor Wretch, at whom, not on whom I smiled.'

-From Bird Parliament by Farrid Ud-Din Attar (d.1230), translated by Edward Fitzgerald

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lotf Ali Khan Zand

Lotf Ali was the last of the Zand Dynasty rulers (ruled 1789-1794). His heroic struggle against the cruel eunuch Agha Mohammad Khan, the first of the Qajar kings, is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. After horribly torturing his rival, Agha Mohammad had him put to death and interred at the Mausoleum of Imamzadheh Zeid in the old bazaar in Tehran.

Lotf Ali's uncle, Karim Khan Zand (ruled 1747-1779) is considered one of the few truly benevolent rulers in Iran's long history. Karim Khan never took the title of King or Shah, choosing instead to call himself Vakil "regent of the people." For that reason his name remains on street signs and landmarks after those of past royals were removed following the Islamic revolution.

"The happy reign of this excellent prince, as contrasted with those who preceeded and followed him, affords the historian of Persia that kind of mixed pleasure and repose, which a traveler enjoys on arriving in a beautiful and fertile valley during an arduous journey over barren and rugged wastes. It is pleasing to recount the actions of a chief who, though born of an inferior rank, obtained power without crime, and who exercised it with a moderation that, for the times in which he lived, was as singular as his humanity and justice." (John Malcolm, The History of Persia, 1829)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mullah Nasiruddin

Mullah Nasiruddin is a popular character in folk tales throughout the Middle East and south and central Asia, including in Iran, Turkey and the Arab countries. He is at once a fool and a wise man, at turns absurd and down-to-earth. I'm not sure what character in Western culture is a close approximation of Mullah Nasiruddin, but I think of Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp".

Many of the Mullah Nasiruddin stories have to do with his donkey. Here are two short pieces:

"One day the mullah's neighbor came to borrow his donkey.
The mullah said, 'My donkey isn't here.'
At that moment there was the long bray.
The neighbor said, 'You told me the donkey wasn't at home. Where did that braying come from?'
The mullah became angry and said, 'How strange people are. Will they believe a donkey before they will believe me?"

The mullah put some wood on his back and got on his donkey.
The neighborhood children asked, "'Why don't you put the wood on the donkey's back?"
The mullah said, "It would displease God if the donkey had to carry both myself and the wood."

Friday, February 2, 2007

"I see beneath the ashes the glow of fire
And it wants but little to burst into a blaze
And if the wise ones of the people quench it not,
its fuels will be corpses and skulls.
Verily fire is kindled by two sticks,
and verily words are the beginning of warfare."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


"Men travel by night
and their destinies
travel toward them."

-Imam Hossein
from the ta'ziyeh (passion play)

Iran's Supreme Leader: Up Close and Personal

There used to be some very good photos on the Web site of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, http://www.leader.ir/ but I guess he has a new photographer and there aren't as many interesting ones.

Remember, in Iran the rial stops with the Supreme Leader - not President Ahmadinejad.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Iran Women - Hani Restaurant

This is Fatemeh Tarighat Monfared. She's the owner of Hani Restaurant in Central Tehran. It's a well-run restaurant with terrific food. Check it out if you can.

Monfared has owned Hani for more than twenty years. As a woman business owner, she's part of a small minority. She says her family opposed her entering business. Her father refused to speak to her for several years and her husband divorced her.

Much is made of the legal inequities affecting women in Iran, but if the laws were all changed tomorrow, there would still be deeply ingrained cultural norms regarding the role of women. Women are working to change these norms. They see this not as an abrogation of Islamic ideas, but as a reinterpretation of what has up to now been a solely patriarchal reading of these principles.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Kayhan Kalhor and Siamak Aghaei

Kayhan Kalhor is Persian music's only international star - he's worked with Yo Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet and a variety of other cross-cultural projects. However on a recent evening the program was purely Persian. Kalhor, who plays the kamancheh (spike fiddle) was joined by Siamak Aghaei on santur. The results were sublime: a single unbroken improvisation in which the musicians traded solos. with pulsating drones building into frenetic exchanges. The variety of sounds that came from these two instruments was truly amazing. It was a transporting tour-de-force of rhythm and melody.

Notably, Kalhor explained in an interview that he doesn't perform in Iran, although classical music concerts are permitted. Kalhor says the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to get government permission for a performance are cumbersome and "disrespectful."

The program notes were written by ethnomusicologist Laudan Nooshin who writes that, "like other Middle Eastern traditions, Persian classical music is based on the explortion of short modal pieces: in Iran these are known as gushehs, and there are 200 or so gushehs in the complete radif [repertoire]. These gushehs are grouped according to mode into 12 modal 'systems' called dastgah. A dastgah essential comprises a progression of modally-related gushehs in a manner somewhat similar to the progression of pieces in a Baroque suite...The training of a classical musician essentially involves memorizing the complete repertoire of the radif. Only when the entire repertoire has been memorized - gusheh by gusheh, dastgah by dastgah - a process that takes many years, are musicians considered ready to embark on creative digressions, eventually leading to improvisation itself. So the radif is not performed as such, but represents the starting point for creative performance and composition."


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Qurrat al-Ain

Should I unveil my scented hair
I’ll captivate every gazelle
Should I line my narcissus eyes
I’ll destroy the whole world with desire
To see my face, every dawn
Heaven lifts its golden mirror
Should I chance to pass the church one day
I'll convert all the Christian girls.

-Qurrat al-Ain

Few Iranian women are as remarkable and as little known as Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani. She was born in about 1817 in Qazvin. Her father was a well-respected mullah who encouraged his daughter's religious education at a time when learning wasn't considered proper for young girls.

In other ways her upbringing was strictly traditional. At 14 she entered an arranged marriage with a cousin and the two of them moved to Iraq so he could pursue his religious studies. Fatemeh, also, continued her studies. She became interested in Shaykhism, a mystical school of Islamic thought. A teacher called her Qurrat al-Ain (Solace of the Eye). Central to Shaykhism was the idea that a special individual could serve as an earthly mediator between believers and the Mahdi, the hidden 12th Imam.

Fatemeh was in her 30s when she heard of a man from Shiraz who had declared himself "the Bab" - the Gate - the interlocutor between mortals and the Mahdi. She soon became a convert to Babism. She preached passionately and eloquently on behalf of the Bab, speaking to groups of men and women from behind a curtain. This was an era when women typically veiled their faces in addtion to covering their bodies.

“Such fame did she acquire that most people who were scholars or mystics sought to hear her speech and were eager to become acquainted with her powers of speculation or deduction. She had a brain full of tumultuous ideas, and thoughts vehement and restless.”

Fatemeh and the Bab never met, but he was sufficiently impressed with her through her correspondence that he declared her one of his 18 disciples. He called her Tahirih the Pure.

At a critical moment the Bab declared that he was more than just an intermediary between his followers and the Mahdi. "I am that person you have been waiting for for one thousand years!" he announced before a gathering of learned mullahs.

In declaring his own prophethood, the Bab completed his break with Islam. Some of his followers resisted, insisting that their beliefs were simply refinements of Mohammad's teachings. Other, more radical followers of the Bab, insisted their's was an entirely new religion. Qurrat al-Ain was among them. Babism promised a break with calcified orthodoxy, perhaps a greater role for women and a religious intensity that suited Qurrat al-Ain's personality. She impressed even skeptics and detractors of the Bab. Crowds of the curious and the faithful came to see her.

In 1848, Babis met in the Iranian village of Badasht to try to resolve their differences. Quarrat al-Ain was the only woman among the 80 leaders who convened there. On a summer evening, standing before the Bab's followers and curious villagers, Quarrat al-Ain removed her veil and revealed herself.

"All stood aghast before this sudden and most unexpected apparition. To behold her face was, to them, inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was a thing which they deemed improper..."

Its said that one man was so shaken he cut his own throat and fled. The meeting ended in disarray. Babi persecution was on the rise and in 1850 the Bab was executed. He was 31.

Two years later, after an attempt on the Shah's life, the Bab's followers were rounded up and put to death. Among them was Qurrat al-Ain. In the hours before her execution she bathed, perfumed herself with rosewater, and dressed in a white gown. It's said she selected the silk scarf with which she was strangled.