Another view of Iran…

SQUEEZING IN another blog post before the end of the month, I’ll include a link to a story I wrote for Eureka Street, pondering the recent Oscar win for the Iranian film, A Separation, and the Persian Cultural Crossroads conference I posted about earlier. You can read the Eureka Street story here.

The most positive thing to come from the Oscar win is that Iran made headlines for something different: not war or weapons or bellicose utterances from some official or “mullah”, but a cultural acheivement. Ashgar Farhadi, writer and director of the movie, recognised this as a moment to capitalise on, trumpeting Iran as somewhere with a rich and venerable culture rather than just as somewhere that is anti all things Western. It’s a valid point. Iran boasts millennia of cultural achievement; the anti-Western tilt of the Islamic Republic is little over 30 years old, and, I’d wager, not very deep rooted.

The Tehran regime had no time for conciliatory statements or expressions of friendship such as Farhadi made. State TV initially trumpeted the award as a triumph over Zionism, on the basis that the Israeli film Footnote was also nominated for Best Foreign Film. However, Reuters reports that Israeli and Iranian filmmakers came together at the Oscars, leaving aside such petty rivalries, the Israeli stars of Footnote remarking on the warm-heartedness of the Iranians.

Iranian hardliners subsequently criticised A Separation for its depiction of the grim realities of Iranian life. Yet the Iranian movie has been enthusiastically received in Israel, attracting praise from critics and large crowds of movie goers keen to gain a window into Iranian society.

And it would appear, on the basis of the movie’s international acclaim and the enthusiastic attendance at the State Library of Victoria’s Love and Devotion exhibition, that there is considerable interest out there, people who want to be able to see beyond the sabre rattling and see what really makes Iran tick.

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Karakoram highs

Last weekend, The Australian ran a travel piece of mine about trundling up the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar towards the Pakistan border. You can read it here. The Australian has recently instituted a paywall for a lot of its web content, but clearly my story isn’t deemed premium because it appears to be freely accessible.

Doing some very amateurish forensic etymology, I figure that “Karakoram” includes elements of Turkic (kara = black) and Persian (kor = ember) languages. An alternative interpretation is that the name comes from the Kirghiz (itself a Turkic language) for “black gravel”.

It seems to me appropriate that the mountains in this neck of the woods should have a Turko-Persian moniker, as this is a corner of the world where Turkic and Persian peoples have commingled for a very long time, although there’s nothing particularly black about the mountains, from my observations. It’s appropriate for my experience, too, having travelled from Uyghur Kashgar, into the realm of the Kirghiz and finally the Tajiks (a Persianate people thought to be the descendants of the Bactrians and the Sogdians of classical antiquity).

As with many stories, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to include – beginning in the market at Upal and continuing to the wedding in Tashkurgan and beyond – but it turned out that I had way more to say than the 1500-ish word limit would allow and I ended up paring back a lot.

I had set out along the Karakoram Highway after a couple of days in Kashgar. The trip up the highway, gaining almost 3000 metres from Kashgar to the mountain pass into the Tashkurgan district the following day, was quite exhausting considering that the bulk of the time I was just sitting in the back of a taxi. Perhaps it’s a travel thing:  moving long distances, be it by train in Europe, by bus in Turkey, or as in this case uphill in a taxi just tends to be wearying.

The altitude, too, as my article points out, knocked me for six. Karakul Lake is at 3600 metres above sea level. I was exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. Taking a motorcycle tour with some of the local Kirghiz guys, I clung on for dear life, grimacing at every bump, of which there were many. I exchanged one word with my motorcycle chauffeur – “yak”, which I took to mean “yak”, and which of course has a very Turkic ring to it. They took us to a place which my fellow traveller, Ibrahim, described as “jennet” (heaven). The rolling hills, the serene blue skies, the brittle wind, the looming snow-topped domes were all intoxicating. I couldn’t get the refrain from REM’s Near Wild Heaven out of my head: a wussy song, but the experience felt wild and the location had a rough-around-the-edges nearly heaven feel.

There was something compelling about racing by motorbike around the lake in the late afternoon.  A lustrous sky, somehow the shade and resilience of pale-blue nacre; immaculate white mountains that seemed to draw the light in, to retain a dull pulsing radiance, a presence that was irrefutable; the earthy grey of the hillsides and roads that we travelled on. It was a million miles from home but somehow familiar.

Returning to the yurt, we gathered around the brazier, which roared and gave off a pleasing smoky tang. We ate dinner, hearing the wind – the coldness made tangible – outside, seeing the utter darkness through the window. I bedded down on a raised, carpeted platform (I’m sure these have a specific name – they appeared in a lot of houses that I saw in Xinjiang), all the while struggling with a thumping altitude headache (which I didn’t think I should highlight in my piece for The Australian).

In the morning the highway reached an elevation of 4200 metres at the entry to Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County then descended into Tashkurgan town. Tashkurgan undeniably is a Turkic name (tash/taş = stone; kurgan = fortress), although the fortress that is the centrepiece of the town, described by Peter Fleming as “excessively romantic”, is made of what appears to be mud brick. Ibrahim explained to me that it is in fact the town itself that is the stone fortress, in that it is ringed by the precipitous peaks of the Pamirs.

Interestingly “Tajik”, too, is a Turkic word, first attributed to the great 11th-century Uyghur scribe Mahmud Kashgari, who used it to refer to all of the Persian-speaking people of Central Asia. The Tajiks of Tashkurgan are Nizari Ismailis (that is, a sect within Shi’ism); their language is related to that of the Wakhis in nearby Afghanistan, and, of course, to the residents of Tajikistan.

The Tajik wedding was somehow familiar too. The way the women went about the tasks at hand, preparing food, distributing cakes and cups of tea. The way the men hovered, muttering, at ease. It was, of course, a family gathering, but it somehow called to mind family gatherings I had experienced at my grandparents’ house in Berkeley Street, Hawthorn, in the 1970s. All that was missing was the Savoury Shapes and Schweppes lime juice cordial.

It was all over quickly. We headed back down the highway, passing the turn off to Tajikistan (the border is closed to Western travellers, I believe). Then the taxi suddenly stopped, due to a leak in a radiator pipe. After Ibrahim made several unsuccessful attempts to fix it we waved down a minivan of Chinese who were heading our way. We squeezed in, and some distance on they suddenly broke into a Chinese song that sounded uncannily familiar. It turns out they were Chinese Christians and we duly rolled back down the Karakoram Highway into the gloaming singing Chinese-language versions of Amazing Grace and Song of Joy. Amazing Grace indeed!

At the Persian crossroads

IF IT WERE Persian poetry rather than the inflammatory statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Tehran hardliners that made the headlines then public perception and global discussion of Iran would be of an altogether different tenor today.

I don’t really speak a word of Persian (I have struggled through – and promptly forgotten all of – the first three chapters of Teach Yourself Colloquial Persian) but hearing the language recently, I was struck by its mellifluous ring, its delicacy and musicality, its cadence that is unlike any other.

Earlier this month I attended the “Love and Devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads” conference at the State Library of Victoria, hearing a range of speakers, many of whom periodically broke into the delightful, hypnotic lilt of Persian poetry. The conference is a corollary to the Love and Devotion:  From Persian and Beyond exhibition which is running at the library until July 1.

The exhibition brings from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, to Melbourne the largest collection of Persian manuscripts ever gathered in Australia. These are objects of intense beauty, inspired by the works of the mystic poets Jami, Nizami, Sa’adi, Rumi and Firdausi, created in the princely courts of Persia and Persian-influenced Turkey and India from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Speakers and guests of Iranian origin at the “Persian Cultural Crossroads” conference expressed their pleasure at the fact that the exhibition brings to the broader public an alternative image of Persia/Iran to that usually seen in the media. For me, the conference was an inspiring and exhilarating couple of days: to see people with such depth of knowledge, such passion and intellect articulating their ideas in a scholarly yet digestible way, to hear of new and quirky nuggets of knowledge, to learn more of the richness and depth of Persian culture and history and its links to and influence in the wider world, the Ottoman Turks, the Mughals, the Özbek empires of the Middle Ages and even the (Christian) (European) West.

Some highlights and noteworthy utterances:

Alasdair Watson (Curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian) expounded on the history and diffusion of the tale of Leyla and Majnun, a story originating amongst the Arabic tribes of the Hejaz in the 7th century, detailing the love of Qays, an Udhri tribesman, for Leyla, a local girl. Societal strictures keep them apart so that Qays is driven to madness (henceforth being known as Majnun, meaning “possessed”) and departs for the wilderness where he lives a life of ascetism. He eventually dies, years later, broken hearted on the grave of Leyla: shades (or antecedent) of Romeo and Juliet.

The tale spread well beyond the Hejaz and became incorporated in various Sufi allegories, the message of which appeared to be that chaste love is a path to martyrdom (which, apparently, is a good thing…) In relation to this story someone once remarked, “love is graver than madness; love never subsides but a madman has only occasional fits”. The most famous versions of Leyla and Majnun are by Nizami (who died 1209 in Ganja, Azerbaijan, thus is claimed by the Azeris, a Turkic people) and Jami (d. 1492).

Zahra Taheri (Lecturer in Persian from Australian National University) spoke of the women in Jelaladdin Rumi’s circle. Rumi arrived in Konya (now in Turkey) in the 13th century fleeing the Mongols; he was a Sufi/mystic who attracted an enormous following, becoming known as Maulana (“our leader”; Mevlana in Turkish). His followers, after his death, became the Mevlevi order, now known as the Whirling Dervishes. To the Turks, who claim him as their own, he is Celaladdin Rumi; he is the highest selling poet in modern America. He was an Islamic mystic of a different order (no pun intended). Apparently he once fell into a long conversation with a prostitute in a Konya caravanserai; he stated his admiration for her because she was without pretence or artifice. “She is who she is,” Rumi stated. No doubt such a judgement was highly unorthodox, not to say scandalous, in that era. Rumi highlighted the sacredness of music and poetry: “The sound of music is equivalent to prayer: both call people to the truth,” he said.

Poetry, of course, is central to the exhibition at the State Library of Victoria: all of the manuscripts are illuminated retellings of the works of the mystic poets. But the beauty of the poetry has long been apparent to many even outside the Persian-speaking world. Mario Casari, Lecturer in Persian at Sapienza University of Rome, spoke of Giovan Battista Raimondo, director the Medici Oriental Press, established in 1584. Raimondo was so enamoured of Persian that he said that it was a gift from God to mankind specifically created in order to express the “conceits of poetry”. “Persian should be learned perfectly by everybody,” Raimondo asserted.

Goethe, the great German poet and polymath, too, was inspired by Persian poetry, specifically the Divan of Hafiz who wrote in the 14th century. Marcelo Stamm, from RMIT, gave a magnificent, dramatic presentation detailing the “constellations” of creativity that existed between the poetry of Hafiz and Goethe, who wrote his own divan (collection of poetry) in a Persian style in the early 19th century. Central to Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan was the poem Blessed Longing , a poignant evocation of his unrequited and unconsummated love for Maryanne van Willemer. Another of the divan’s poems, Suleika, allegedly written by van Willemer, not Goethe, stirred a struggling young musician, Franz Schubert, to composed love songs, one of which was described by Brahms as the most beautiful love song ever. Schubert, of course, died at the age of 31. There’s a lot going on there – constellations indeed! We’ve got chaste love, enduring longing, death and mystical unions – how very Sufi!

Not everyone remains in thrall to the Persian poets, however, and this brings us full circle to the hardliners of modern Iran. Anne Démy-Geroe, Co-director of the Iranian Film Festival of Australia, told of Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 movie Shirin, which consists entirely of close ups of the faces of Iranian women  as they watch a pre-1979 (ie pre-Islamic Revolution) movie of the tale of Shirin and Khusrau, which itself dates back to Iran’s pre-Islamic history and is included in Firdausi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). This was Kiarostami’s way of conveying the emotional gravitas of the story of yet another of Persia’s pairs of doomed lovers, a story that despite its resonating across the broader Persian populace for (literally) 1000 years  remains unfilmable in the Islamic Republic due to its pre-Islamic origins.

Right, I’m off to grab my copy of Teach Yourself Persian