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After 25 years
Part 1

July 14, 2004

Returning to Iran after twenty-five years may best be compared to a bout of manic-depressive disorder. One moment the highs of sheer elation, followed by the depths of utter despair. I had tried to unload the emotional burden of memories of the past, and discard the prejudice of a person whose life, house and name, and even the grave of a husband who died young (five years before the revolution broke out), had been confiscated and dragged into the mire of revolutionary excess.

Throughout the ordeals, my love for my language and culture had not been affected at all, Nor my faith in my people diminished by an ugly passing phase, such as many other countries in the old world had known time and again, and one that might ultimately be edifying enough to rid the nation of the stultification of patterns of thought.

Major transitions are never easy, and often imply a regression of sorts and ours was the damned generation who had had to pay the high price before another Iran could reemerge from the cinder heaps left by revolution, ignorance, war, corruption, abuse, intrigue, and a host of ills so widely and gleefully and at times a little unjustly brandished in the Western media.

Siavush's ordeal of fire might yet engender Kei-Khosro, who, this time around, would manifest himself, not as a king but as the very nation iself at the grassroots level, with its feet firmly rooted in its own traditions but looking with confidence to a long overdue evolution imposed neither from above, nor from outside.

I had kept up as much as possible with events and was beginning to feel that the evolution was beginning to make itself felt. I often felt dismayed that Westerners, nourished by biassed accounts, should view us as a kind of Saudi Arabia.

What extremes of absurdity such views of Iran and Iranians could reach hit me hard in the taxi on the way to the airport, as the driver remarked about my impending flight to Tehran, 'You will be hot in that coat' (I had chosen a shapeless black overcoat for this first visit back). 'It has been snowing in the mountains to the north of Tehran', I tried to explain, but the image of snow did not fit in well with cliché images of 'Middle Eastern' Iran. The 'Middle East' (which now has no Far and no Near and changes its meaning according to the needs of realpolitik) conjured up images of desert sands, fanatics, oil rigs and sheikhs who rob a hardworking driver of his meagre earnings.

When I told him that my house had been confiscated, he asked where I would stay. With my mother, I said, in a two-story house, now crushed between a pair of highrises of the kind the new regime equates with modern progress (even the Shah had expressed his desire to fly his helicopter over a landscape of highrise buildings). And what does she do with her life over there? At ninety, I said, she supervises her father's endowment (the Malek Library) and receives an increasing number of scholars coming from abroad to study the manuscripts and coins.

High-rises in Iran? Snowy mountains? Working women and Western scholars? Two-thousand year-old coins? It was too much for him. His universe of knowledge was falling apart, and he was reluctant to believe. He put me to the test and thought he was right on target by asking me about religion. Are you a believer? He was hoping to hear an affirmative that would allow him to follow up with a discourse about fanatics. Well, hardly, I replied. He almost had a fit, so strong is the impact of the media on minds fallen into the lethargy of what I have named 'the vacation syndrome' which, in the case of the United States, might be better termed 'the eternal shopping syndrome'. Either way, the result is that the brain is benumbed by creature comforts, and shuts off everything save the half-digested reports of the media news.

The 'vacation syndrome' leaves no room for nuances, nor for the subtleties that transcend simplification; nor does it give due to the idiosyncrasies shaped over millennia from a wide range of very different sources. So they lump us together, because of Islam and oil politics, with strange bedfellows, few of whom have much in common with us in terms of character, customs, language, history or any of the habitual markers that distinguish a nation with a sense of identity as strong as our own. That identity has indeed remained strong, as I was to find out, regardless of the fact that foreign intrigues are chipping away at its vulnerable edge.

As I advanced through the lounge at Mehrabad airport, I was struck at first sight by the unsightly bands of Koranic script framed in bright red and green. The workmanship was bad and the script was devoid of the elegance of the work of Persian calligraphers who had carried the art to heights unequalled anywhere else in the Islamic world. If the people who run the country today cannot even produce a better example of calligraphic art, not even for the Koran on the basis of which they claim to derive their legitimacy, I could only expect the worst.

I had heard and read much about the ugliness and kitsch of Tehran, and was happy that at night I would not see much. But as soon as I had passed the checkpoints and come into contact with the people, I knew I was home. I had travelled a lot in these twenty-five years, but the place where I landed, despite the ugliness, was its own special self. Naturally I had found reminders in places like in Central Asia, in the pre-Taliban Afghanistan as well as in eastern Turkey, though less in the so-called 'Middle East' to which we are supposed to belong. This was Iran and these my people, like no other I knew (no value judgment meant).

The next morning, the morning of Nowruz, I woke up to fluffy snowflakes falling all over the little garden patch still miraculously left in my mother's possession. I wished I could have sent a postcard of that scene to the taxi driver. The majestic snow-covered Alborz mountains rose above the city, fully visible thanks to the exodus of the Nowruz period. The Haft-Sin was ready to receive visitors who came bearing bouquets whose flower arrangements would have made a Parisian flowershop proud.

And they all used the ta'arof formulae I liked - with moderation. Nor was that restricted to our guests alone, as I was to find on my first venture out into the streets of Tehran. The populist speech that had favoured addressing women as madar or khahar had vanished with the Mojaheddin, and neither will be missed. The Persian language, with its range of nuanced refinements and courteous formulae, its subtle metaphors and delicate humour, and its singing poetry was very much alive. But the names of the streets were alien to me.

I had been warned that the people had become very hard, but my stay was perhaps too short to encounter that unfortunaate trait. If anything, I found the people to have improved - more educated (a better than 90% literacy rate is as high as it gets, even though quality has suffered apace), more aware of the world (with some misconceptions, but much less than the West has about Iran), lively and curious, talkative, subtle, inventive with words, and able to joke, not the silly gratuitous jokes that were common before, but pointed ones focussing on the present regime and its incompetent staff.

The capacity to joke, the subtle humour, which Iranians have developed into an art, has allowed the nation to defy adversity again and again. Maybe Nowruz had something to do with the general mood, especially in a year, when, although coiniciding with the two Shiite months of mourning of Moharram and Safar, the more cherished feast of Nowruz had been officially acknowledged by the mayor of Tehran, who had sponsored bonfires for Charshanbeh Suri.

By Sizdah Bedar, with everyone picnicking on patches of green where the snowflakes had thawed to showi fruit blossoms on branches beginning to come back to life, one could hardly believe that this was a land sandwiched between two benighted countries. No wonder many of the two million Afghan refugees, including many Pashtuns, refuse to go home. (In fact, they are the ones who do the hard work, much as the immigrants in Western countries, except that they have no language problem).

If ever there had been a dream of America saving Iran, it had vanished as surely as the century-old planes and cypresses that had graced the gardens and streets of Tehran and many other cities of the Iranian plateau >>> Part 2

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian




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