The Islamic Republic of Iran is pretty Islamic. The dominant iconography is of ayatollahs looking down on the population, their expressions alternately stern and benevolent. Qu’ranic quotations and the imagery of martyrdom and Islamic revolution are also popular. What you hear from so many Iranians is: we are different to our government. Travelling around, the multiple strands that make up Iranian society, culture, and history bear out this view, rounding out the picture.
1. Persian culture
Our excellent friend Alireza in Shiraz drove us from garden to garden. We saw the tomb of Hafez; set in a cupola in the middle of a beautiful garden, the tomb was surrounded by Iranians reading from his poetry. Hafez’ work is hugely important in Iran, and the high Persian culture he represents vies for position with Islam; visually, this was nicely summed up by an old man who approached us for money in a park. In one hand, he held Muslim prayer beads – in the other, a book of Hafez. Shiraz’s gardens in the evening are full of light, fountains, and the chatter of people walking about or picknicking with their families. I always thought of Iran as quite an austere place. Their excellent snacks alone can mount a credible challenge to this view. This is the Persia of Lettres persanes, the Persia that I think of when I am sitting in my Director of Studies’ office, which is entirely swathed in carpet. Possibly the most surprising thing I have found about Iran is how sensual it is.
2. Ancient empires
We visited Persepolis from Shiraz. It’s tucked away on a natural rocky outcrop; steps lead up to the main plateau. Where the ancient Achaemenid city once stood is now the car park and gift shopping complex. I like the Achaemenids. I like their names – Darius, Cyrus, and Xerxes, which still retain an air of nobility despite having been co-opted as baby names by upper middle class North Londoners. But I digress. I like their penchant for strange hybrid creatures like gryphons and winged bulls. I especially like their fine Persian beards. The graffiti at Persepolis is hilarious. Generations of colonialists have tried to carve their names in ridiculous copperplate; some of it is in Cyrillic. The murals of vassal nations bringing tribute to the Achaemenid king are a cornucopia of pre-Islamic empires. The Scythians, Medes, Ethiopians, Arabs, Lydians, Parthians, and many more are all representing at the next level. It’s a reminder of how young Islam is, and how young Christianity is. Speaking of which…
Our slightly delirious host in Yazd, Balal, took us to see the Fire Temple, where there is a Zoroastrian sacred flame that has been burning since 470AD. You can see the flame from the entrance hall to the temple; it’s no feeble little eternal flame like you get in churches, but more of a burning bowl of fire. A single flame burning since 470AD is a bit head-spinning. Later, he took us to the Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to be picked clean by vultures; beliefs about the purity of the earth prohibit them from burying people. The Towers are on top of two hills just outside of Yazd. It is a sweaty climb to the top in the desert heat (Yazd hits 50C in the summer) but once you are there, they are quite extraordinary. Standing inside one, you can only see the sky. It feels as though you are floating above the earth. Back at Balal’s house, he offered us some ‘beer’ that he had bought from an elderly Zoroastrian woman. It turned out to be a startingly strong home-brewed spirit. In the Yazd bazaar you could buy pendants of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, as well as some of the distinctive clothes they wear. Ben and I picked up some enthusiastically patterned Zoroastrian trousers. Everything about Zoroastrianism is basically really, really old. It was founded about 8000 years ago and, like the sacred flame in Yazd, is still going, despite difficulties following the 1979 Revolution.
4. Dissent and distrust
Our friend Alireza in Tehran told me he didn’t know who was in the right, the Israelis or the Palestinians. ‘Our government tells us it is the Palestinians, of course. But they lie about everything else, so why trust them on this?’ Despite the case of Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani being front-page news in the West, Alireza knew nothing about it. He said he had largely given up on the news, given the censorship and the government propaganda. Alireza is a writer and photographer. Last year, during the anti-government demonstrations, he took a few pictures of some burned cars in the streets. His camera was confiscated and he had to sign a document saying he would never take photos again. Another Alireza, the Shirazi who drove us around the gardens, was arrested four times last year. ‘Before the elections, I didn’t know what a police office looked like,’ he said. We sat in a cafe with a TV broadcasting an Ahmedinejad speech. Alireza sighed and shook his head. ‘He is saying that with our religion we can rule the world,’ he said. ‘This man is crazy, I hate him.’
5. Girls, cars, and parties
Alireza took us to a house party in Northern Tehran. We rang the buzzer and went upstairs. Inside the flat, Iranian men danced with women with their headscarves and manteaus removed, dressed in tight jeans and glittery tops. We were given whiskey to drink in plastic cups; you can buy it anywhere, said Alireza, as long as you know someone, you just give them a call. The shish-hasht music got progressively louder as the evening went on. The owner of the flat had taped flattened egg cartons over the windows as rudimentary sound insulation. Alireza in Shiraz showed us how younger Iranians spend their time; cruising around in cars at night, listening to music. We drove to an ice cream place and ate it sitting on the hood of his car. I felt slightly like I was in Grease. Speeding through the streets of Shiraz, I took off my hijab and felt the wind in my hair.
* holla, Iskandar