Rethinking "Ey Iran"
This terrible song is for silly royalists, whining Mossadeghists,
sheepish ex-Hezbollahis, and clueless leftists, both inside and
April 1, 2005
I have just opened my 27th Nowruz e-card containing a recording of Ey
Iran. The centrality of this song to Iranians' collective identity
first struck me when I gave a lecture at an Iranian association in the United
States a few years ago. I was flabbergasted that proceedings began with a playing
of Ey Iran, as the audience got up, put the right hand on the heart
Iranian gesture attested in the Avesta and the Shahnemeh, no
doubt), and looked solemn. Never mind that most of them had probably counted
the seconds before
they could take the oath "to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely
all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty."
a moment I thought of remaining seated, but the only other person who disapproved
of the gesture had a certain Fada’i-ye Khalq look about him,
and I did not want to be associated with him. More importantly, the first duty
of a guest
is to be charming, and so I got up to, hoping that at least some in the audience
would notice the hint of a smirk on my lips with which I endeavoured to show
my displeasure with the corniness of the situation, for public displays of
patriotism have always struck me as unbearably corny -- nowhere more so than
in the United
"Oh Iran, Oh boundary full of gems," as the title of
the song felicitously translates for anyone whose Persian vocabulary
derives from everyday speech alone, is considered by many, if not
most, Iranians the national anthem of their ever-so-glorious fatherland.
This goes for silly royalists, whining Mossadeghists, sheepish
ex-Hezbollahis, and clueless leftists, both inside and outside
The fact is, of course, that choosing a national anthem is
not up to the people, it is up to a state's political authorities.
The Marseillaise was adopted by the French Third Republic in 1879,
and the Star-Spangled Banner was made the national anthem of the
United States by an act of congress in 1931, as a quick googling
of the words "national anthem" just informed me.
It might be argued that Iranians' spontaneous and unorganized
plebiscite in favour of Ey Iran is the first time
that a nation has given itself a national anthem (even in Australia "Advance
Australia Fair" was adopted in 1984 by the people from a list
proposed by the government), and that this choice should therefore
be welcomed as an expression of Iranians' ability to overcome differences
and take their destiny into their own hands.
The trouble is that
most people have terrible taste -- just look at the architecture
of Tehran. And even though occasionally, and to my eternal shame,
I find myself humming its bouncy tune, Ey Iran is
a terrible song. Let us first look at the melody, then at the
The first thing one notices about the melody is that it is in
the minor mode. The mode, that is, which is associated with sadness
and melancholy. Now Iranians love the minor mode. In fact, even
their favourite Western songs are all in this mode: Ochi Chyornye ("Black
Cumparsita, Besame Mucho, even the
first movement of the late W.A. Mozart's 40th symphony, immortalized
by Elaheh in a hit song of the Golden 1970s.
But a country cannot
hope to be taken seriously by the rest of the world if its national
anthem is in a minor key. I just finished listening to a CD with
the 25 national anthems of the European Union, and all are in
the major mode. To be sure, Turkey's national anthem is in a minor
key, but look how the Europeans are treating it.
By the way,
the pre-1979 and the current national anthems of Iran are in
the major mode -- which may or may not explain why both regimes
been so unpopular, in spite of standing for diametrically opposed
The second problem with the melody is that it can't be scored
for a normal Western orchestra. If you don't believe me, take your
guitar or sit behind your piano and try to come up with a sequence
of chords to go with the melody. It is not impossible to do that,
but the sequence is exceedingly complicated -- unlike the three
chords that are needed for the current official anthem or the old
One might object that since Iranian music is not
polyphonic, the lack of fit between the melody and traditional
Western chord progressions is irrelevant. Fair enough, but a
national anthem is played by all sorts of bands and orchestras
world, and unless the national football team and the head of
state want to take an Iranian orchestra with them everywhere they
Iran's national anthem must admit of being scored for a standard
military band in a way that sounds pleasant to non-Iranian ears
And now to the text. Understatement and rhetorical reticence
have never been the forte of Iranians, and the lyrics of Ey
Iran are no exception. They were penned by a gentleman who was a botanist
and whose name was Gol-e Golab. It is reported that during the
occupation of Iran by Allied troops in World War II, he witnessed
an American soldier manhandling an Iranian grocer, which led him
to vent his patriotic indignation in a poem that Ruhollah Khaleqi,
a very respectable musician, put to music.
In other words, the
whole song is borne out of resentment -- hardly a recommendation
in a world where far too many people have an ethnic, religious,
or national chip on their shoulder and everybody considers the
group to which he happens to belong to have been victimized by
other groups, leading to the endless spirals of suspicion and
violence that we see all around us.
Let us take a closer look at some of the assertions in the text.
After the usual professions of eternal love that one finds in most
national anthems, we learn in the sixth diptych that Iran's mountains
contain dorr, which is geologically a bit improbable if you think
dorr means pearl, except that dorr also signifies mountain crystal.
In the same line it is averred that the soil of Iran’s plains
is better than gold, which strikes me as somewhat dubious.
eleventh line, Iran is called a khorram (blooming, fresh) paradise,
which anybody who has ventured outside Gilan, Mazandaran, and
a few other places will immediately recognize as wishful thinking
at best. The type of wishful thinking that makes one forget that
the Caspian Sea is becoming a polluted cesspool, that what little
forests Iran had are being cut down, that urban sprawl is eating
up agricultural land, and that the ground-water level is sinking
because there are too many deep wells.
When Iranians finally get a government worthy of their contribution
to world civilization, which is (and has been for the last quarter
century) six months from now, I hope they will not make Ey
Iran their official national anthem. Let it be the
nation's signature song, like Australians' "Waltzing Mathilda." That
way it can continue bringing Iranians together, which, on second
thought, may not be such a bad thing after all.