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. 


Where Oil and Water Mix


Oil tankers button up the horizon bright as warning beacons. Beneath the blackness of the ocean sky at night, their floodlit decks abut one another such that from the shore the view could be peninsular. That daisy chain of bow and stern stretch for untold kilometres from the port terminal to where anchor is weighed and each vessel drops off the edge of the visible horizon and into the Indian ocean proper. Some will ride the Agulhas current around the South African cape, but for most their laden hulls will cut the water south and east, curving under Sri Lanka until they reach the oil thirsty Orient. Few places in the world but here can give the straight profile of a coastline a proboscis it never had before.

Down at the port meanwhile, the 300km Habshan pipeline from Abu Dhabi has to gush in to something. Set out like mythical checkers pieces stacked three high, oil storage tanks are epic of proportion. Each cylindrical tank bunkers more cubic metres of refined oil than crystal blue seawater lost in the Great Blue Hole of Belize. Perhaps not depth-wise, but diametrically these oil bunkers could be scooped-out sinkholes. The barren, serrated mountains lying behind them seem to shrink in their grandiose presence. There are few bigger statements of a globalized economy paid for in petrodollars than this. Nor is playing dumb an option. Turn your back on them and still they find a means to remind you they are the reason you are ultimately there. For those downwind of it, the air that carries the gas condensate is acrid and unpleasant but otherwise hard to pin down. It smells, as you might expect, like any compost fermenting in the infernal bowels of the earth since the Carboniferous period.

The mountains themselves saw action long before the tankers. They came through like a row of tiger shark teeth ninety million years ago when the Arabian plate was ordered to hump the floor of the Tethys Ocean, but instead slipped under it. The stuff that made the sea floor buckle and the saltwater rush in was so heavy with plutonic rocks that after it rose up it refused to bow back down, so after all this time this petrified lower jaw bites into the sky hard as the day the upper jaw crawled out of that now rearranged ocean to bite the land.

Ninety million years of gentle wind, fitful rain, and desiccating sunlight could not do the work of erosion quite like a bundle of dynamite. At intervals along the steep pitch of the peaks engineers have blown their tops to make room for giant pylons that power towns and villages running on 56 degrees of longitude up to the Straits to Hormuz. The electricity cables form a cobweb over a landscape that had little interference to contend with for all but the last few seasons of its long geomorphic history. If it weren’t a suicide mission, zip-wiring those cables from mountaintop to flat bed would be a thrill and a half. Time changes the work of everything and everything changes the work of time. In which order, our world in flux does not reveal.

The settlement just north of the terminal consists of shabby roadside buildings wide enough to take an oversize 4WD in for cleaning. For all the dust and fine-grained sand that blows up and over from the western desert, settling evenly on everything moving or otherwise, the big cars remain improbably clean. If not for the army of poorly-paid labour drafted in from the Sub-Continent cleanliness would scarcely be the next best thing to godliness. All this spit and polish shines in an ethnocultural context, where religious piety comes in a shroud of either immaculately-laundered white for males or a beautifully-tailored black for females. Ironic when you consider it, the black syrupy source of national affluence – one of a dirty duo alongside coal – stains fabric like nothing else. Yet the white kanduras and black abayas, for all their over the ankle length, never show so much as a minor blemish. Same score with fleets of $80,000 Toyota, Nissan and Lexus 4WD desert tractors that continually roll off the big boat from Yokohama. White is the shade of choice and not only for reasons of Bedouin sartorial tradition. As any driver of a black car will testify, as no woman in a black abaya will, white reflects the phenomenal heat of summer and black does not. Until familiarity breeds contempt, which it often does in an indigenous population spoiled by oil wealth into treating anything of value as easily replaceable, the new eight cylinder heavyweights are as shipshape and immaculate as the kanduras sitting in the driver’s seat.  Are cars and kanduras (dishdashas) white in defiance of the colour of oil, or did oil come out black as a defiant warning to those who would wear white never to get too close?

These are strange days we live in. Fuel is the fuel that sends heads spinning and markets trembling. The blood that makes the world’s economy boil is transfused into everything from heaters that keep the hearth burning against winters that never seemed so cold to boats that deliver desperate refugees to a premature end, from American aircraft carriers plowing dying oceans to Russian jets zipping over a Syria they have neither seen nor cared for.

In a country that reserves the severest punishment for drug dealers, these storage tanks are meth labs on an industrial scale. High is the feeling from the fumes, empty is the feeling when the tank runs dry. Pure as crystal, dirty as the thoughts we ascribe it. How many more drug runs before the peninsula sinks under a rising ocean?