Postcards from Iran
What has emerged for me as a storyteller?
Although I travelled as a tourist, the trip has certainly enriched my professional life. Time spent in a story’s home deepens the telling. We see the landscapes, meet people and listen to their voices.
There is an immediacy to Iran’s history, when told by Iranians. Fleur spoke to me about the humanism of Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian empire and writer of the first declaration of human rights, and the great deeds of Darius and Xerses at Persepolis. Her admiration was palpable, as if these men who lived thousands of years ago were members of her own family.
She told me the story of Amir Kabir as we stood beside a pool in the Fin Garden in Kashan, As Prime Minister during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (Qajar dynasty, 19th century) he brought reforms to the educational and political system which led to modernizing Iran. He was murdered in the bath at Fin Garden by his conservative opponents. We saw the very place and debated how exactly the murder had come about. By the time Fleur finished speaking I could almost see the blood on the floor.
For several years now I have told tales from one of Iran’s greatest poetical works, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. From now on when I speak of Fereydun galloping towards the palace of the evil Zahhāk, I will see the mountains he crossed and feel the distances he travelled. As Rudābeh lets her hair down for her beloved Zāl to climb up, I will see the palace layout and the rooftop she is standing on.
I hear the call to prayer and the voices of merchants in the bazaars calling their wares. I smell the spices and the flowers.
Here is what has emerged so far.
Questions for another trip!
There are many more things I’d like to learn about Iran.
Iran is a multi-cultural nation. In light of my years of work with Turkic nomads in southern Siberia, I’d love to learn more about Iran’s two million nomads, many of them also Turkic. They live mainly in the Zagros mountains and near Iran’s borders. We saw their black tents near Persepolis and on the road to Kalat. Women in multiple Qashqai skirts were shopping in Shirāz. Several museum exhibits were devoted to nomads.
Historically nomadic people were powerful in Iran, They are not indigenous, having migrated into Persian territory relatively recently, at a time when most of Iran was still tribal. This put them on an equal footing with the Persians and several dynasties were ruled by them. Their history is thus quite different from that of Canada’s aboriginal people. In spite of these differences, they share with many or the world’s indigenous peoples problems concerning language and land use. Their grazing lands are restricted because of ever-increasing population. Many have settled, due to pressures of modernization and government restrictions on their migration. Other potential problems lie in the fact that some of them are Sunni Muslims rather than Shia.
I’d love to hear stories from the mouths of their storytellers. Are they similar to those from Turkic Siberia?
There are photos I wish I had taken — of the men selling huge bouquets of roses in a Tehran traffic jam, of pilgrims on the road to Mashhad, of children riding in the open backs of pick-up trucks. The mountains on the road to Meymand, between Kermān and Shirāz, and from Sāri to Semnan are all different, all beautiful. Men and women ride donkeys beside flocks of sheep. I loved the lively street scenes, with shops, street vendors, and busy shoppers.
I admired the magnificent tile work and carpets that I saw in such profusion and would love to know more about them.
I’m aware that there are whole sections of society I didn’t get acquainted with — country people, the poor, and the deeply religious who support the present government. Who are those children who came tugging at our clothes selling greeting cards in the street?
What are the stories of people who suffer for their activism or who fall through the cracks of the system?
While travelling we avoided political discussion. Nonetheless I wonder how much the international sanctions are affecting the economy, and more importantly how people in Iran perceive the cause of rising prices. The two may not be the same. Inflation is nothing new — it was happening before sanctions began. A lot of food and other items such as building materials come from within Iran. But on the other hand, during the three months since I arrived in Iran many prices have at least doubled. Things are escalating.
Many people talk about how the arts were blooming in the Shah’s time, compared with the present. How do we reconcile this with the public image of his reign being so terrifyingly cruel and the levels of fear that people, including artists, endured?
After the revolution the repressions continued, with a change of focus. Things opened a bit for a few years but recently repressions have gotten far worse. For more on this see Amnesty International.
Just as I question a good deal of the news as reported in the western media, I’m also curious as to how Iranians interpret the news that they receive about things like the attitudes of the US and Israel towards Iran. Those who watch only state-sponsored media may not be aware of them at all. Those with satellite TV and full internet are better informed.
This trip introduced me to the human face of Iran, which means there are now people I care about in a personal way. I watch the way things unfold differently than I did before. Meanwhile I send thanks once again to all the wonderful people who shared the richness of their world with me.
I’d love to hear your responses to these impressions. Please feel free to write to me.
My warm and since thanks go out to Fleur Tālebi, Hossein Mashreghi and their many friends and family members in Mashhad, Bajestān, Kermān, Esfahān, Tehrān and Semnān who all filled my first trip to Iran with warmth and pleasure.
Thanks also to friends at home who have listened and questioned, helping my thoughts to take shape.
Special thanks also to my Farsi teacher Haideh Hashemi who patiently helped prepare me to communicate with the people I met. And to Robert D.MacNevin for putting it all so beautifully onto the web page.