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 (an ancient 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.”
For 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 States.
“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 Iran.
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 lyrics.
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 Eyes”), La 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, both the pre-1979 and the current national anthems of Iran are in the major mode — which may or may not explain why both regimes have been so unpopular, in spite of standing for diametrically opposed ideas.
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 pre-1979 one.
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 around the world, and unless the national football team and the head of state want to take an Iranian orchestra with them everywhere they go, Iran's national anthem must admit of being scored for a standard military band in a way that sounds pleasant to non-Iranian ears as well.
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.
On the 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.