That those in the seat of power in Tehran cannot tell the difference between good and bad is also obvious in carpet-making, which is rapidly becoming a losing venture, not least because the beauties spontaneously produced for centuries by illiterate girls are so bastardized now. How can you combine wheeling and dealing with refinement and knowledge about architecture?
When I saw Coca Cola bottles in cafés to the delight of Iranians addicted to the stuff (except dentists who know that dentures left in a glass of Coke overnight have been found to dissolve), I expressed my surprise that Coke should be readily available instead of the local variety, so heralded once as a substitute drink of non-American make.
I was told that the concession had in fact been obtained by the Grand Ayatollah of Mashad, Vaez Tabasi, probably via an emirate like Dubai. No wonder the beautiful complex in Mashad has come to look so much like Disneyland now. For all one might know, some mollas may be involved in the production of wine, for I tasted an excellent velvety one at a dinner party and was told that it is produced not only by Armenians who are officially allowed to produce and sell wines, but by local farmers in Takestan near Qazvin, whom thankfully nobody seems to pursue. How can they pursue a farmer when the quantities of hard liquor imported cannot have slipped through without paying bribes to high officials? The same people who sell Iranian girls to the sheikhs bring back liquor.
The contrast between the good work and the bad is very striking, enough to make one a manic-depressive, as already said. The consensus is that everything good is achieved by the people themselves, including those who work for Miras-e Farhangi, such as the person in charge of the Azarbaijan office, about whom I heard praise from every quarter. How he must squirm when he passes in front of the Mosalla in Tabriz. By contrast, the Blue Mosque under his care is a jewel to behold, well taken care of, mainly because it is no longer in use.
And so is the lovely Armenian monastery of St. Stepanus set in a delightful red gorge of the Aras river, not far from Julfa. As is the Sasanian sanctuary of Shiz at Takht-e Soleiman, high up on a volcanic plateau at 2200 meters, with a deep and dark lake in the middle of extensive ruins that comprise a hunting pavilion of the Ilkhanid Mongols, the beautiful tiles of which, ornamented with simorghs and graceful deer, can be seen in the Museum of Islamic Art in Tehran, while local artists have taken to painting charming copies of the same tiles to sell to the decreasing number of foreign tourists. Leave the people alone and they will eventually learn to do what is right.
One only hopes the government will not interfere in one of the loveliest areas of Iran. With the pink-coloured earth of surrounding mountains, also used for the façades of village houses (which have so far remained immune from concrete) and embellished with doors and windows painted blue to dazzling effect, the site and its surroundings, including the bucolic Zarrineh-Rud (whose twin river, the dried-up Simineh-Rud, is a harsh reminder of the potential risk to water reserves), the whole area exudes a magical mystery that is hard to match.
The local boys, mostly Afshar Turks and Kurds, go up to the site on Fridays to 'admire our heritage', said one who was armed with a guitar and an antiquated movie camera for fun. (So much for those who believe that the Kurdish and Turkic tribes are not an integral part of the history of Iran). They were cleanly shaven and impeccably dressed, something one would not have expected around here twenty-five years ago. Yet, instead of assembling to play cards or attending a sermon in the mosque, they come here to breathe in the magical atmosphere of an ancestral site.
The mollas do not care, so long as their hold on power and money is not contested. The people at the top pride themselves on the fact that they have risen humble backgrounds, indeed from the slums. There is nothing wrong with that, if only the move from the rags of the slums to the riches of the top occurs with a corresponding change in values. You cannot apply the vision and values of the slums to the country at large without incurring substantial damage to culture, to environment and even to the integrity of a time-honoured land whose neighbouring areas, once part of itself, are gradually becoming hotbeds of intrigue against Persian culture.
The peasants, attached to the land always knew about its limits from the cumulative experience of the centuries past , and never inflicted the kind of damage that ignorant bureaucrats so often do. But the slums teach nothing, except vulgarity, corruption, hatred and profiteering. While Iranian exiles are contributing their talents to the flourishing West, this regime has chosen to ignore the experts and employ on the basis of how ragged and unshaven a candidate looks. Qualification, knowledge, experience are not a concern, even less are they considered virutes.
It is a mistake to view the present regime in Iran as a theocracy, for that is a façade for populism. It so happens that the lowly, who were left out of the boom, grew up with an overdoes of religion at home, for lack of other education to be had. That they should have found the road to riches a better one than that to God shows how skin-deep their religiosity was.
They bear all the hallmarks of populist regimes: the explosion of poor taste, disregard for the natural environment which, to them, is no different from wealth confiscated from the rich, something to be used and abused without heed for tomorrow's backlash. The environmental damages wrought by the Soviet Union and by Mao's China are well-known enough, even though they were better endowed than Iran in terms of water. One would have thought that the mullas, no matter how cut off from the world, would have learnt their lesson.
The long-term results are yet to be seen. It takes little to upset a fragile environment like that of Iran, which has been subjected to over ten thousand years of abuse since the dawn of agriculture. Does the Minister of Enviroment, the hostage-taker who swapped the miniskirt of her Amercian youth for the voluminous drapes required for the high seat of power, have enough compassion for her children's future?
Even if she does, she no longer will have the last word henceforth, since her new deputy is no other than the notorious former ambassador to Argentina, who has been suspected of a murderous plot in Buenos Aires; justly or unjustly is irrelevant in the light of the fact that he is not qualified for the post he now occupies and has no doubt been placed there to defend the bazaar's right of developing agricultural land, to which his predecessor had proposed to put an end. He is already committing crimes against the future generations of Iran.
Is it any wonder that without accountancy about revenue and spending, the country should be awash in the wildest rumours? Erosion of soils, salination as a result of inconsiderate overexploitation of cultivated lands, industrial waste seeping unfiltered into water reserves, GM foods, pesticides, dioxins, and cancer from the uranium mines in the vicinity of Yazd, are a few examples. Instead of providing answers to allay such anxieties and fears, the government continues its money-making schemes without consultation of the people involved. And the speaker of the Majles goes to the Bazaar to reassure them that the government is still behind them.
Why is there no hint of alarm among groups so ready to criticize Iran for sins like the nuclear threat and human rights abuse? What greater abuse of human rights can match the flagrant mismanagement of natural wealth? Significantly the report compiled by the British parliamentary group, who visited Iran in October, did not even utter a word on the environment. Why should they speak out when they themselves are planning to pollute the Caspian into non-existence for a few barrels of oil? When, under the late Shah, Austria was making a deal to send out its nuclear waste for burial in the Kavir in exchange for substantial payments to Iran, it did not give a damn about what would happen to Iranians themselves.
So none of this is new or limited to Iran. Even the southwest of the United States is suffering from water shortage warnings. And as far as bad taste is concerned, there is worse in 'liberated' Kabul which now has a hotel with a fancy swimming-pool and Las-Vegas-style pink-and-gold colonnade planted in the midst of hovels still lacking water and sometimes even a roof. The Taliban tragedy has left Afghanistan with a single elderly expert of the Shahnameh and three archeologists, of whom one in Paris, so that Halliburton has to call up the British Museum about the important remains Begram (ancient Kapisa) buried under Kabul Airport which a subsidiary of the company is building anew.
But Iran has the experts who can put most things right, if they are paid enough. And they deserve to be paid, for the scale and the scope of problems are huge and they must be attended to without any delay. If nothing is done with urgency to prevent despoliation by deforestation, toxic pollution and water abuse, irreversible damage may be round the corner. It is interesting to note the comparison with the end of Sasanian Iran, when over-exploitation of land without drainage to leach out the salt unleashed terrible floods and famine in Iran and Mesopotamia and thus did Zoroastrian Iran go down to the least likely conqueror on the historical stage.
Any faith in the young of Iran must depend on whether they can count on good water and soil. For now everyone eats and eats very well. Even Dubai imports much of the food for its luxury hotels from neighbouring Iran, mainly because of the high quality. But for how much longer? The Iran of today, like the United States, is a land cleft in two, with good an bad weeds. In Iran the bad weeds, though powerful for now, are vastly outnumbered by the good elements which, however, have yet to prove their ability to act and to be effective. There is plenty of good will, especially amongst those who work from within, and whose task is therefore doubly hard.
As I was returning from one of my trips, my driver-guide announced with a very long face that, according to television reports, the arch of the Taq-e Kasra, the impressive portal to the Sasanian palace on the Tigris, a landmark monument about which I have already written in this space, was in risk of collapse. I was very upset, and was trying to figure out how to raise funds and how to convey them to the disaster area before it was too late. Would there be experts willing to go to Iraq and would they obtain the visas to accomplish their work?
The following day, as I was packing to leave, my aunt, who keeps up with the news, walked in to tell me that the government had announced that it was sending a team of experts to restore the great arch. This is a momentous decision, I thought, for it goes against everything the mollas stand for. After all it was the fall of Ctesiphon-on-the-Tigris, where the Sasanian palaces and administration were, that set off the Arab Moslems on the conquest of Iranian lands all the way to the Hindu Kush and Central Asia resulting in eventual conversion to Islam. To send off a team to Iraq to repair the Taq-e Kasra, would be symbolic.
I was elated, but so far, nothing seems to have been done. I do not even know who bears the blame for the lack of action, the want of determination on the part of the mollas or American paranoia and reluctance to allow Iranians into Iraq. A case of the devil and the deep blue sea.
Upon my return to Europe, my taxi driver turned out to be of Macedonian-Albanian origin. As much as the other one had been ignorant of Iran, this one (and later, a colleague of his) was very much aware. Not only aware, but counting on Iran. They both said that only Iran (as opposed to the Arabs, and for different reasons, to the Turks), could really save the fate of moderate European Moslems like themselves, in other words the original ones, not the hot-headed immigrants of more recent date). If only Iran would play its cards right! For to them our culture represents the more flexible and versatile Islam, but they are fully aware of the weaknesses inherent in the current regime.
Some day, when Iran can once again fulfil its historical role, noone will be able to lay claim to the culture and history we should rightfully share with others. There is a lot at stake here and and there are indicatoins that neither the regime nor its opponents fully understand or address the issues and their implications. That is a story that has yet to be told. >>> index
Author 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”.