In Praise of Persia

Arabia, Bedouin, Caliphate, civilisation, desert, Empire, history, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Muslim, Persia, philosophy, Political Culture, Religion, thoughts, Travel, Tribes

I watched a riveting BBC4 documentary last night called ‘The Art of Persia’. Contained within that visual treasure trove were cultural jewels of incalculable worth. The West might look on with a mixture of bemusement and disdain at the black chadors, the mass weepings, the ceremonial burnings of Imperialist flags of red, white and blue, and the tales of woe spun by Persia’s disgruntled diaspora everywhere from Tehr-Angeles to London, but that’s not the half of it. The country known since 1935 as Iran is arguably as great a continuous civilisation as there has even been, anywhere. But what makes Iran so interesting is how its personality traits reveal a duality deep in its cultural psyche.

To the Persians, who live either in wealthy North Tehran or else abroad, the name Iran is anathema to them because of its proximity to all that is humiliating to a once insuperable civilisation. To them Iran equals the puppet Shah. Iran equals fanaticism. Iran equals paranoid pride. Iran equals vice and virtue and blasphemy and stoning and vicious assaults on the freedom to think out loud. Iran equals secret shindigs with homemade grog. Iran equals ousted premiers. Iran equals the Ayatollahs. Iran equals political prisoners. Iran equals implacable hostility to nearly everyone except fellow villains, Russia and Syria. The name Persia, on the other hand, conjures nothing but antiquarian admirers. The Iran we know today, in stark contrast, has nothing but perceived enemies. On top of this litany of woes, for Persians the name Iran strikes fear into the heart because it equals Islam in its most austere form of submission and at its most fervent. To those Persians who see themselves as secular patriots – defenders of 4,000 years of unique culture, rather than defenders of a faith imported from impoverished desert lands – Iran in its present state will eventually be consumed by the larger meaning of Persia. For everyone, including Orientalists like me, Persia denotes the literary romance of Sheherezade in the 1001 Persian Nights and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; of intoxicating poetry recited in a garden of red roses, crocuses and pomegranate trees; of revelling in the NOW instead of waiting on God, as is the wont of modern Islam. Persia is the Sufi mysticism of Rumi as opposed to the stripped-down demystification of latter-day political Shi’ism.

To the Iranians, who live everywhere else in Iran’s hinterland, Persia is something to be taken, if not lightly, then with a degree of scepticism. Persia equals complicity with the predatory West. Persia equals lingering resentment of being conquered by an inferior culture who brought a book – the Qur’an – which changed everything. Persia equals ambivalence, at best, toward the idea of Islamic piety. Persia equals antiquity, an age that’s gone forever. Persia equals wine and hedonism from the quills of drunken poets who saw things very differently from the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. Persia equals Zoroastrianism and the fire temples of old. Contrarily, Iran equals Shi’a, a tough, oppressed, self-flagellating branch of Islam. Persia equals all that is effete: of brocades and silken rugs; of grand viziers in courtly costume; of silver filigree and lapiz lazuli glaze on priceless urns; and, of artistic depictions too close to iconoclastic for comfort. In short, for Iranians, nostalgia for old Persia is the antithesis of political Islam. It is a weak underbelly that allows outsiders to enter the forbidden gates on the pretext of weakening the present land by exalting its past.

The BBC documentary highlighted this duality as such. Uncovering the many layers of Persian culture we learn that when it comes to a civilisation that stretches back to the Elamites at Susa 4,500 years ago, an empire that during the reign of the Achaemenids under Cyrus stretched from Greece to Afghanistan, a simple either/or will not do. When something is that old and that far-reaching, dichotomies are rarely that simple. The BBC4 series taught us that even the political Islam of the 21st century Republic can not wash away that feeling of distinction held by so many Iranians. Their exceptionalism chimes with similar exceptionalism experienced by Brexit Britain and the Trumpite United States. It is this analogue with great Western powers that plunges modern Iran into a state of competitive hostility with them. It is the similarities therefore, and not the differences, that explain the fraught relations between the anglo-American West and the new Persia.

Eternally unknowable and all-mighty for being so is what makes Iran so much like the God of Islam it has worshipped for nearly 1,400 years. A bruised civilisation in such a battle for true identity on the shifting game board of power politics is what makes Iran the Persia it truly is to this day, and likewise what makes Persia the true Iran it has become. Its place at the head of the table of nation states has become problematic, none more so than within Iran itself. This was the first civilisation to claim the one true god, Ahura Mazda. Its official state religion of Zoroastrianism was as long-established as Persia itself. But all changed so suddenly. Zoroaster’s fires were extinguished by the Arab Conquest of 637AD. In many respects, an inferior culture usurped one whose deeds it could never match. A tribe tamed a civilisation, and I don’t think Iran has ever come to grips with that. Alexander sacked Persepolis in 330BC, but he razed it to the ground supposedly in the name of Hellenic Civilisation. The Arabs who swept into Sassanid Persia on the command of the Caliph Umar just four years after the death of the prophet Muhammed were a tribe of tribes with all the ostentatiousness of a Glastonbury festival-goer. They came unadorned and, other than tax and sovereignty, demanded little else. These bedouin Arabs were no Islamic State. Their relative tolerance was their enduring power. As the documentary states, Islam was adopted in Persia at a rate that Arabisation never ever was. The Persians took the commandments of Muhammed readily enough, though it was the language and cultural traits of the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula that had little staying power in the eyes of a people who believed, rightly of wrongly, that they had nothing to learn (other than the revelations in the Qur’an) from these usurpers in their raggedy clothing.

I taught a bunch of Iranians about ten years ago, all of whom had come to the West not so much for a taste of cultivated learning, which of course they could have delved into at home. They came, rather, to throw off their chadors and to relive the secular freedoms their parents had enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty. They came to change Iran not from within, which was too dangerous, but from without. Away from the Iran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard they could embrace the Persian in themselves, throwing off the shackles of the Iranian who boarded the aircraft in Tehran. In our ignorance, some locals asked if, being Muslim and existing in the heart of the Middle East, they were Arabs. The Iranian reaction was prompt and dismissive to say the least. You could actually see them wince at the mere suggestion. In my classroom there they sat together, far from the ethnic Arabs who were seated at the other end of the room. They looked and spoke different. They carried themselves differently, for unlike the Arabs in the room, the Persians had a dual identity: the one Iran foisted upon them at birth, and the Ferdowsi-reading Persian residing permanently in their heart. 

 

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?

 

 

 

Barons of a Barren Land

Arabia, Bedouin, desert, Emirates, Islam, Landscape Photography, People, Photography, Portraits, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized
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This Is How we Are, This is How we Have always Been, This is How we Shall always Be.
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When it’s Gone, it’s Gone, Until it Returns at the Break 0f Day. 

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Flaming Eyes of Amber Blue Give the World a Solemn Hue. 

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Old Friends Cast Long Shadows. 

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A Night on The Town, Except There Is No Town, Only Night.