The Silk Road, China

Friday, 27 April 2007

Shiraz: the culture that holds it all together

After the rather characterless sprawl and noise of Tehran, the wide green boulevards of Shiraz were a welcome surprise. So as soon as we had settled into our hotel, we thought we would go and see for ourselves a legendary Persian garden.

The Iranians are clearly proud of their parks & gardens: every town has them, and they tend to be far more intricate than your average London park. Every garden is carefully tended, water is major feature of most and many have a highly decorated building at their centre.

They are also extremely sociable places, particularly in the late afternoon and early evening. We found ourselves in Melli park, a small park across the road from the shrine of the 14th century Persian poet, Havez. Immediately it became clear how much more open and relaxed Shiraz was than Tabriz. We chatted for half an hour or so to a softly spoken driving instructor, who had taken his three young children to play in the park. Then, as we moved towards the shrine, we were again befriended by Mahmoud, a retired man in his sixties with youthful looks and enormous charisma, who reminded us both of a mutual friend, RD-L.

We joined him and three of his friends on a bench, and in due course were joined by four university girls in chador. Assuming we were in safe hands as far as the 'red line' (see previous entry) goes, we saw for ourselves the product of the strong (and mixed sex) Iranian education system: a barrage of questions regarding our impression of Iran and Iranian women.

We then all wandered up to the shrine of a poet who has an extraodinary presence in everyday Iranian life: nearly ever city has a road named after him, most houses have a book of his work and most Iranians can quote him. People mill around his tomb paying their respects and there is a wonderful teahouse in couryard next to the tomb which is - like the park we went to in Tehran - both the place for the young to be seen and to date. There we sat drinking sweet black tea and eating nuts, feeling completely at home with Iranian men and women we had only just met. To the sound of
Persian music, Mahmoud then recited some lines of Hafez in Farsi - magic.

Iranian society is conservative: politeness is very important and confrontation is avoided if at all possible. We noticed with interest that Mahmoud simply chose not to translate for us when he felt our the conversation was heading in a direction with which he wasn't comfortable: he would not allow the girls to exchange email addresses with us and - slightly harshly, perhaps - was happy to make us squirm in our seats with their questions on the veil but wouldn't pass on our questions in reply about their views on it! This conservatism was particularly interesting coming from a man who had alluded to how things were better before the revolution (although wouldn't be drawn further).

Mahmoud invited us to breakfast the next morning at the tomb of Baba Cui, who was the mentor of Hafez. We met at 6am, picked up some bread and drove with him to the foothills of Shiraz. It was Friday, the day of rest, and so we joined a stream of hundreds of people heading up the hill to enjoy their day off work. The sun was already warm and view over the lush, green city was spectacular.

At the top was a little square next to the tomb where people young and old were singing and clapping and celebrating the lives of Hafez and his mentor. We sat just above the square and at our breakfast - sangak bread and a tasty green gunk that served as a dip. Some passers by gave us all tea and it later transpired that noone knew them; they had shared the tea they had carried up the hill with total strangers.

The strength of Iranian culture which is deeply rooted in the past along with its ability to appeal to all age groups really struck me. Here we were in place where retired men and teenaged boys (complete with American football shirts - one with BUSH on the back)chose to spend their spare time. Cynics could argue that it is due to a lack of alternative social activities, but nevertheless the net effect must be a positive one.

Nor is this cultural expression tied to religion. Quite the opposite in fact. The Mullahs frown on such merrymaking: singing is discouraged in public and we were told that the clerics had moved in recently on the square with their prayer books in an attempt to encourage more 'appropriate' activity.

This hasn't stopped the locals, however. The days of the morality police (who would issue on the spot floggings for violation of the law requiring appropriate covering of the skin) are thankfully over and the clerics realise they cannot suppress such well-meaning gatherings. As we sat, clapping and shouting drifted from the trees on the hillside and walked over to find a dance in progress. This consisted of a few (male) dancers hopping and shaking their shoudlers to a drum beat, egged on by forty or so whooping onlookers (including some women towards the back). Thankfully we managed to esccape thge 60 year old moustacheoied man who told us that everyone was demanding that we dance!

A few (younger) people were quite vocal about how absurd they thought the rules are. Mahmoud, as ever, spoke of the positives of the dancing rather than criticised the regime. What's clear is that the 'red line' is constantly being pushed in many aspects of life. Someone mentioned that to me that one of the dancers had been drinking illegal whisky... I just hope that one or people overstepping the mark won't give the Mullahs an excuse to try and clamp down on such harmless fun.

What is clear is how strongly Iranian culture runs right through the people. Add to this a nearly universal faith (90% of Iranians are Shia Muslims and it seems that it simply the degree of devoutness varies from person to person) and an strong awareness of foreign intervention in Iranian history (old and new) and the result is an extraordinarily powerful sense of a unique, shared identity and a willingness to defend it to the last. Rightly or wrongly, the USA (and most recently the British seamen), are widely perceived to be aggressors seeking to challenge this identity.


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