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    New is good
    Hunger for modernity discards of history

    September 10, 1999
    The Iranian

"All things new are good." Perhaps as a perverse reaction to ten millennia of history which weighs heavily upon the Iranian soul and society, all things new are idolized and the old is approached with a mixture of curiosity, revulsion, and boredom, interspersed with inventive plans to milk it for dream-like sums of easily-earned hard cash. While in the United States, any building older than 50 years is usually protected by zealous "Historic Society" types, in Iran, entire old neighborhoods - some dating centuries - are demolished to make way for ugly uniform new development.

In Mashhad, a large diameter around the Imam Reza shrine has been cleared for a vast cement park in order to accommodate the millions of pilgrims who are the bread and butter of the city. In Shiraz, I saw the remains of gorgeous old homes demolished between the shrines of Shah-Cheragh and Astaneh to make room for a gargantuan mosque complex which I can't even begin to imagine whether and how would ever be filled by human bodies. On my visit, the sensuous arches and old brickwork of the scarce walls that remained were sad reminders of all that once was and no longer is.

In smaller cities, the functions of native architecture in mud-brick and adobe - its insular character, its adaptability to yearly renewal and repair at low cost, its eco-friendly quality - all have been forgotten in favor of cement-block homes whose front, only the facade, is covered in marble brick or thin decorative bricks, while the rest, the cement blocks, the unattractive baked brick can all be seen from other directions; a bitter metaphor for a society which pays so much heed to surfaces and appearances, unaware or indifferent that its naked unattractive ass hangs out for all to see.

"All that is new is good". Well-meaning relatives always want to take you to the chic malls and shopping strips and streets. Some of the younger women are bored to tears by the magnificent ruins of Persepolis, this "bunch of rocks and stones," and consider the awesome Chogha Zanbil "a hill of dirt," the incredible Throne of Solomon a "pile of rubble," preferring an afternoon of extravagance at the malls around Cinema Sa'di in Shiraz or Mohseni Square in Tehran.

Aside from the lucrative trade in smuggled archeological artifacts which enrich corrupt officials of all color and creed, ancient ruins are lost to pollution, to natural corruption, to neglect, to forgetfulness, even to election campaigns. When even the divine tile-work of the most exquisite mosque in Iran -and arguably the world- the 16th century Masjed-e-Shah of Esfahan becomes a bulletinboard for tacky council election posters, what is safe?

"All that is new is good." In a rush towards modernity, old families sell their old handmade silver and termeh (heavy hand-woven silk cloth) and Qalamkar (hand-painted fabrics) to dusty antique shops in order to replace them with the lovely machine-made and preferably Western variety of goods. The antique shops in turn find amenable and eager customers in hordes of German and English and French and Italian and Japanese tourist who willingly spend the revered dollar for a piece of someone else's history.

The irrefutable symbols of progress, modern bridges and modern monstrosities of public monument and mausoleum are honored with a reverence not afforded the ancient wonders of architecture. The utterly plagiarized tomb of Abu Ali Sina built in the latter half of 20th century receives far more visitors than the original 10th century tower - Gonbad-e-Kavus - it shamelessly copies. The meager suspension bridge of Ahwaz, rusted and humble that it is, is cherished with far more awe than the near second millennium old bridges at Shushtar. In all cities, some 20th century ode to the Empire, usually constructed during Reza Shah's era of state-building, draws visitors in droves, while the more ancient wonders rot slowly in the sun.

Simply said, what is native, indigenous, and part of the fabric of a nation, culture and history, is rapidly, intensely replaced with what is new, transplanted, and often mass-manufactured. Somehow, there is glory in conformity here, and a hunger for modernity which translates into discarding of history. The magnificent museums of Tehran, repositories of all that myth and beauty and history are deserted while the new malls of Mirdamad teem with masses of humanity.

This revulsion for the past is perhaps exacerbated by the coercive forcing of history and tradition upon the population to the exclusion of all else, and without an intelligent plan of education. It is natural that when a number of middle school girls are brought forcibly to the Carpet Museum and one can see that they are visibly bored to death, that they will hate the carpets, hate the field trips, and touch the carpets out of sheer rebellion or boredom. No one explains that the reason behind the stern "Do not touch" sign or the barking forbiddance of an old guard is that the natural oils of human hands can damage valuable old specimen already falling apart from passage of time. Kids that have seen rougher version of these delicate masterpieces underfoot at home, and who have accepted the valuable commodity as an everyday consumer product with no other intrinsic or artistic value, are often unable to distinguish the 200-year-old silken carpets as something extraordinary and prized.

But at least at the Carpet Museum, there ARE signs and there ARE stern old men who lovingly guard the old rugs. At the Chogha Zanbil, other than a couple of disinterested young men at the entrance and a few rusted signs in the same location, nothing prevents idiotic children and adults from carving their names into 4000-year-old bricks bearing immeasurably valuable and important cuneiform texts. I can't even begin to talk of the 16th century palaces of Ali Ghapu and Chehel Sotoon in Esfahan, where 400 year old murals are scratched away by crude instruments to memorialize some immensely stupid nincompoop who wants to record some day in history upon the face of a work of art. And there are no protective screens covering these valuable (and perhaps too-naked and un-Islamic) paintings from abuse.

But aside from the archeological sites which -unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately- few Iranians visit, the march of all things new, this irrevocable call to "progress" and "modernity" affect other things too: the ingenious, eco-friendly qanat system used for irrigating farms in semi-arid lands, whose history is buried deep in the fogs of time, has long been abandoned for deep mechanized wells that easily access water tables that can not be so easily replenished. The Bandari architecture of Persian Gulf littoral towns -which captures the smallest winds and provides proven methods of insulation and cooling, is slowly disintegrating an deliberately being forgotten. The ancient remedies sold in "Attari" shops -eagerly researched and analyzed elsewhere in the world- are being pooh-poohed and forgotten by an educated class which is too eager to take an American antibiotic or pain-killer regardless of its side effects or long-term consequences. The old cotton and wool fabrics which breathe and keep the wearer cool or warm as required are set aside so that polyester - the venerable unbreakable invincible polyester- can enhance and magnify the natural body odors of every poor soul in the city who is forced to climb on top of each other in buses and bazaars and other closed spaces.

The slogans "all that is new is good" and its sinister sister "all that is foreign is great" are so prevalent and ingrained that a cheap and cheaply-made Korean plastic sandal is preferred to the equally cheap and beautifully crafted guivehs of years gone by. The buyers of ceramics of Laljeen have now been so limited to tourists and interior decorators that their production has been curtailed and the ceramics find inadequate and unworthy replacement in polyethylene dishes made in France or China. It is such that old skills are lots and since there is no industry or industrial planning to speak of, the workshops dissolve in unemployment.

Cultural products also suffer much the same fate. Since the right wing has monopolized the state-owned radio and television and since it only plays traditional music (of usually mediocre and grating quality), and entire generation of young Iranians have -as a form of resistance to all things state-sponsored- turned their back vehemently on traditional music. Guitar and keyboards are far more chic and hip instruments to learn than the ancient tar and santoor. Since tradition has been translated into oppressive rules governing social and private spheres, a rebellion against the claustrophobic rules has eventuated in wholesale discarding of the past.

The more the state supports traditional art forms -such as the miniature- the faster and further the young artists and audiences run away from these art forms. The relative absence of freedom of expression has resulted in the artists restoring to esoteric and obscure symbolism and to a pronounced renunciation of sociopolitical content for fear of its consequences. Foreign cultural forms which have been so enthusiastically adapted -the sit-down concerts in concert-halls, the theater- are only slowly beginning to assimilate traditional forms of entertainment -the roo-hozi, the puppet-shows, the epic storytelling of wandering bards- and only by the most brilliant artist and writers, most of whom are only now being allowed by the Ministry of Guidance to publish or perform after 20 years of repressive censorship.

In this, the land of "ancient civilization" where every educated and semi-educated person utilizes on long gone glory as some sort of inherent and obvious evidence of our inherent and obvious superiority, the actual disregard for the real past -not the concept in abstract- is so glaring and so prevalent that I wonder how much of our oral tradition, our folk history, our identity is slowly dissolving in the catharsis of modernization. In this part of the world, despite pronouncements of venerable pundits in the West, history is not dead. But there are multitudes who are too happy to assassinate it so that from under its bloody exhausted remains the phoenix of prosperity can rise.

* Laleh Khalili's articles index

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