Monday, February 28, 2011

Unexpected Diversity

Iran is by no means a homogeneous country by any measure. We've already covered the landscape and climate, but the people are a mixed bag too. Only half of the population are ethnically Persian. Another quarter are Azeri (known locally as Turks) with the other quarter made up of a motley crew of Kurds, Lors, Bakhtiari, Turkmen, Arabs, Laks, Baluchis and Mazandaranis. During this little jaunt down to the south I've met most of these different ethnic groups and although they all have their own languages, cultures and histories there is a uniting factor amongst them, and that is their Iranian identity. This pride goes far deeper than religion and the current Islamic regime and its ubiquitous slogans and propaganda: even fervent Muslims will often have a pendant or sticker on their car of a farohar, an old Zoroastrian symbol. More than once I've heard people say that they are Muslim in name only and that in fact they identify more closely with the tenets of the older, indigenous religion (for non-Muslims the bureaucratic machine can pose unwelcome hurdles). The biggest holiday is also No Ruz, a spring festival that predates Islam by millennia and which the ayatollahs, much like the Muslims who conquered 13 centuries ago, strove to ban when they initially came to power, but without success. The following encounters are a sample of the seemingly contradictory cross-section that there is within Iranian society.

A farohar over the lintel of a Zoroastrian temple in Yazd. The symbol, although religious, has been adopted by Persians, proud of their non-Arab heritage, as a national symbol.

The most unexpected meeting we had was not because of the person or his views, but because of the location. On our way to the mountains of Lorestan we stopped off at the last town with a shop to stock up on supplies. We ducked into a humdrum grocery typical of your average Iranian neighbourhood shop. The first reaction was the same as everywhere else: "where are you from?" And the stock reply was Jomhuriye Chek (Czech Republic - since I'm travelling on my Czech passport I think it's best not to complicate matters with my convoluted background, plus no-one has any political antipathy to Czechs). The usual recognition this name elicits, when any at all, is Czechoslovakia, which still seems to be how most people know the country despite the Velvet Divorce 18 years ago. Sometimes, from the more erudite, we may also get the name of a footballer lobbed our way. Instead the young man behind the counter said, "ah yes, the Prague Spring." And so started a one-hour conversation ranging from totalitarianism to education via economics and religion across the counter whilst other customers came and went. Such a depth and breadth of knowledge and informed opinion is rare even among the educated upper middle classes of Tehran, but to find it by chance in a shop in a town so insignificant it didn't even have a sign was truly astonishing.

Whilst in the southern province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq we visited the town of Shush. Quite unremarkable today, but in it's day it was known as Susa and was the summer capital of Ancient Persia and one of the greatest cities of its time. Destroyed by the Mongols when they came rampaging through, all that remains of this glory is an extensive elevated mound squatting next to the modern buildings containing millennia of archaeological treasures and a few token column bases and mud-brick walls that have been unearthed over the past century. It was initially the French who started excavations and, to protect themselves from local bandits built a castle atop the mound using available building materials, namely mud-bricks scavenged from the archaeological site, so the walls, despite being only 100 years old, are dotted with original cuneiform inscriptions and glazed bricks, priceless treasures now incorporated into a European folly. Locals might occasionally wander up to the mound but most prefer visiting the tomb of Danyal (Daniel of the Bible). Daniel has next to nothing to do with Islam and yet the tomb is decorated like other tombs of Muslim saints, with Koranic verses and tilework, and devout (Muslim) pilgrims come to kiss the cage surrounding the tombstone, leave money and perform namaz (prayers) as close to the tombstone as possible. The adoption of a Jewish personage by devout Muslims, especially here in Iran, is unexpected to say the least.

During the Iran-Iraq war Khuzestan saw the brunt of the brutal fighting and many of the towns were levelled by Iraqi shelling. Although the Iraqi forces didn't reach the city they got to within 3km and bombarded the town from a small rise which saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war which cost over a million lives on both sides. The rise is now the site of a memorial for the martyrs of the war (the cult of martyrdom is big in the Shia psyche). Whilst wandering around the site and taking pics of rusting Russian-made tanks we were approached by a couple of locals, one of whom looked like a clean-shaven Ahmadinejad with a flat-cap. It turned out that Flat-cap was a local artist working on posters for the site. He was also a Basiji and had, as a child of 13, volunteered for the war. He offered to guide us around the site. He showed us the Iraqi and Iranian lines of bunkers and trenches which came to within 20m of each other, how they would hurl insults and pot-shots at each other. He told us how these young volunteers would clear minefields by walking through them in line, forming a bridge of dead, young bodies as successive mines exploded beneath them until they reached the other side, certain in the knowledge that they would go to heaven as martyrs. The war was brutal with trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons by Saddam and the targetting of Iranian civilians and towns. The eight years left an indelible scar on the Iranian national consciousness as not a single family was unaffected in some way. It also, more than anything else, helped cement the current regime's grip on power by giving the nation a common enemy and also crystallised the sense of persecution and conspiracy from the West: Saddam's launching of hostilities was tacitly approved by the West; the Iraqi army was supplied to the hilt by the international community whereas the Iranians were under sanctions and usually had to resort to scavenging weapons from their defeated adversaries (not that this didn't stop the Reagan administration from selling Iran arms on the black market to fund Nicaraguan death squads); when Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilian populations came up for censure before the UN Security Council in 1986, before the atrocity in Halabja, it was vetoed by the US (see note at bottom of the list in the link page); and when the war finally did end there was little condemnation of Saddam by the international community for starting it, or pressure put on him to pay war reparations (this blind, unquestioned support for Saddam, despite the moral arguments against, came back to bite the West on its collective ass a few years later when he invaded Kuwait). I may have no truck with the current, barbaric, theocratic regime, but I can certainly understand their paranoia vis-a-vis America.

Being shown around the bunkers from the Iran-Iraq war. In the foreground the Iraqi forward position and only 20m away (to the left, where the bushes are) the Iranian trenches. In between them our guide points out the minefield (which hasn't been fully cleared yet).

Ooops, I seem to have gone off on a rant, but they were things I felt needed to be aired as these historical grievances go a long way to explaining the current situation and are all too often ignored or simply not known by commentators, let alone the common public, today (although I'm planning to address the issue in a more detailed post somewhat later). Anyway, back to my Basiji guide. After showing us around we were not allowed to leave, not until we had had some tea and then dinner. The hospitality, like everywhere else in Iran, was overwhelming. In a way I wish I hadn't met him as it would have let me keep the image of the Basijis as dumb, bestial thugs with little care for humanity. But of course the picture is far more complex. He was a kind person with a family, and an artist as well (OK, most of his art is to glorify the regime and martyrs, but still). Plus he, and others like him, put their lives on the line on countless occasions to protect their country and fight for something they believed in ... at the age of 13. I don't know if I could do that. It was only when the conversation veered towards politics, which I did my best to steer clear of, that the otherwise charming and decent side was displaced by propaganda.

Along with the diversity of people there is also natural diversity. I've talked about mountains and whatnot, but, despite rampant habitat degradation over the past 30 years there is still some spectacular wildlife hidden away in the remoter nooks and crannies of the country. I remember reading about a particularly rare newt last year that survives in only 4 little pools in the mountains of Luristan. There are thought to be less than 1000 of the cute, colourful salamanders left in the wild and when I knew that I would be passing close by I knew that it was now or never. To get to the trailhead we had to leave the car and take the train to the village of Talezang in the first folds of the Zardkuh mountains, and from there it was another 5 hours to the waterfall and pool where they live. People on the train told us that we ought to get a local guide and to be wary of the mountain people who "are all thieves". I was disinclined to listen to them but upon reaching Talezang the locals and police were very insistent and so we acquiesced. Morteza grew up in the area but was now studying in Tehran and had only come back for a few days, nevertheless he accepted to take us up to the waterfall and pool and back. Although I thought a guide superfluous it was nice to have Morteza and he talked to us about life in Luristan and his hobbies such as kung-fu. As we had set off in the late afternoon we only got as a small village of Shevi where we slept in the porch of the local school - the simple fact that such a remote village with no road connection and so few people had its own school definitely impressed me. The next morning we set off early up the steep valley to the source of the stream. A few kilometres out of the village I decided to ditch my big rucksack as it was proving a dangerous liability in some of the steeper, narrower sections, and I hid it amongst some trees, something I've done numerous times before whilst hiking, although Morteza did advise against it. Lightened it was a straightforward trek up to the beautiful, fan-shaped Shevi waterfall that gushed straight out of the mountain. And there, in the limpid waters of a cave were a handful of the amphibians, only 10cm long or so, black with bright red and orange splotches, at ease in the safety of their home. They are without a doubt the rarest animals I will ever see in the wild, and, I am sad to say, will almost certainly not be around outside of captivity in another 20 years time due to the salamanders' fragmented habitat and the strong demand from collectioners for these beautiful animals which, unfortunately, don't have the cachet of pandas or tigers and so will slip through the net of protection and into oblivion.

The unashamedly cute, and extremely rare, Kaiser's newt.

The way back was easier, although when we got to my rucksack we hit a small snag. It wasn't there. Morteza's fears were well-founded, and despite being almost literally in the middle of nowhere, half-way up a hillside, hidden amongst some bushes, and weighing a good 15kg it had been half-inched. He did have an inkling as to where it might be and so headed over to the nearest house a couple of kilometres down the valley. As we approached he nonchalantly pulled out his nunchuks and gently toyed with them as the patriarch explained to us that his son had spotted the bag and had carried it back home for "safekeeping" because "you can never be too sure round these parts". Suffice to say that I got it back OK.

For those thinking of travelling to Iran I'm not sure whether these unconnected vignettes have anything in common to help guide or give an impression of the country other than to expect the unexpected......

1 comment: said...

The faravahar has a perfect equivalent in Indonesia, as the garuda bird. Originally hindu symbol, perpetuated by the Javanese royal courts, it is now the symbol you see everywhere in the country, even in remote animistic-protestant tribal villages of Timor.

Good report. I liked mostly the Iran-Iraq part, a wound almost forgotten outside Iran (and I suppose Iraq).