Iran: Poetry in strife

Malini Nair | Updated on December 04, 2019

Larger than life Isfahan — the former capital of the Persian Empire — is an improbably beautiful city straight out of an illustrated Arabian Nights storybook   -  Ender BAYINDIR

In poetry pocketbooks, grand ruins and glorious plazas, strains of music and fizzy colas, the country has lived to tell its tale — fighting every odd

It has spent the last 40 years, off and on, in sanctioned isolation, is run by an iron-fisted regime, and only two months ago were its women allowed into football matches. So, when I decided to join a bunch of women journalists on what seemed like a wildly adventurous trip to Iran (‘Going where?? Come back alive, ha, ha.’ ‘Of all the places... Isn’t there some war on?’), I packed more scarves than expectations.

I imagined a bleak, dour landscape with scattered scraps of a once-glorious civilisation standing with its back to the wall. What I found instead was a lively, irrepressible country, proud, defiant and helpless in turns, full of flavours, colours and the friendliest people on Earth. And despite everything, filled with an immense zest for life, food, fun, music and literature.

Iran isn’t an easy travel destination — you can’t book a sunny room using a credit card and Airbnb, and every transaction has to be managed with bewildering fistfuls of rials and tomans valued at a ridiculous fraction of the dollar. Sanctions have sent most global entities — which made modern life easy — packing from Iran.

But, as Iranians tell you: “We can’t stop living, can we?” So, with rebellious inventiveness they have found their way around every wall. There is no Uber but there is Snapp and Tapsi, no Ubereats but Changal and Delino. Instead of Subway, you could have Freshway; there is no KFC, but there is Chicken Piken, and, if you are yearning for sugary fizz, there is Zam Zam Cola.

Inflation is dizzyingly high and most youngsters have to hold down two jobs to make a living. When oil prices were raised by 50 per cent mid-November, there were countrywide protests, followed by an internet lockdown, followed by — you guessed right — another US sanction.

But for a curious Indian traveller, Iran is a richly riveting destination. After all, we were there way back in 6th century BC to celebrate Navroz at the court of Darius the Great in Persepolis, bearing bagfuls of goodies and, for some reason, a mule and two double-bladed axes — all documented with precision for eternity in a bas relief.

We love Hafez and Sa’di and Rumi as much as the next Iranian. We brought their ornate gardens here, their glorious blue mosaics and tiles, and the meditative quality of their dastgah music to our khayal. And Persian was the language of the courts and the erudite till less than 200 years ago. Even today, it is littered with familiar words; it seems our own, give or take that lilting accent.

It is impossible to distil Iran into a single narrative, but here are some snapshots:

Half the world

Isfahan, at the heart of Iran, and an hour from capital Tehran, is precisely what it sounds like — an improbably beautiful city straight out of an illustrated Arabian Nights storybook, packed with luminous blue domes covered with filigree creepers. There is a good reason why the former capital of the Persian Empire, built like a dream by Safavids in the 16-17th century, makes an outrageous claim: “Isfahan nesfe jahan” — Isfahan is half the world.

Naqsh-e-Jahan, the sweeping plaza in the shadow of the Zagros mountains, is generously dotted with grand mosques, sweeping boulevards, gardens and fountains. It is curiously European in its appeal, and what is even more fun is wandering into the bazaars for a visual feast of kilims, saffron, enamel work, miniature art and sweetmeats. I let myself be talked into buying an “original” miniature for $10 by a gentle old soul in the arcade. What is the point of being a tourist if you return home without being gypped?

The night must be devoted to the five historical covered bridges that span the river Zayanade Rood. But this isn’t just magnificent architecture that makes for great Instagram. Isfahan’s monuments are owned by its people.

At the Khajou bridge, a stunning work of Persian architecture, I am drawn by the sounds of great a cappella singing, sometimes throaty and robust, sometimes plaintive, mingling with the sounds of the river. In the tunnels, some lit, and others totally dark, Isfahan’s singers gather every evening for impromptu soirées. Some have small knots of listeners, but a few also sit alone in quiet niches — and sing for themselves. Persian folk songs, love songs, classical airs, you can hear them all here, for nothing. A Farsi song I heard loosely translates to:

Come to Isfahan/ sit by its quiet rivers/ no matter how broken your heart is/ come sit by its quiet river and let it mend

Lives in verse

Ey paadeshahe khuban/ Daad as gham-e-tanhayee/ Del bi to jaan aamad/ Vaqt ast ke baaz aayi

(O dearest of beloveds, this despair that springs from the grief of separation/ It bleeds the life out of my heart/ It is time you returned)

Iranians love their classical poets: For them Hafez, Sa’di and Rumi do not belong to libraries and literary circles. They are a part of everyday life, quoted often almost like proverbs, much like Kabir in India; they are seers who show you the way when you are troubled, beloved friends and mentors.

On a smoky, melancholy November evening, the gardens around the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, in southern Iran, are buzzing with people, especially the young. They sit in little groves and alcoves, armed with Hafez in pocketbooks or smartphones, reading to themselves or their friends.

Niloufer Pejhan, a design student from a family of booksellers, says she is here at least twice a week with friends on her own, with her well-thumbed copy of Diwan-e-Hafez (a 14th century compendium of Hafez’s works). “It is remarkable how well he seems to know me. It doesn’t matter what is troubling me, I just open the diwan to a random page and find answers. He has been a part of my life and our home for as long as I can remember,” she says.

A lot of Iranians tell you this — that Hafez has uncannily apt answers to their problems. At his tomb, his fans, connoisseurs and ordinary people come and tap the cold marble to remember him, many moved to tears. Hafez wrote often of love and wine, and the regime notwithstanding, he is the nation’s favourite.

An ode to love: Visitors throng Sa’di Shirazi’s tomb   -  SARVESH


Sa’di’s tomb in Shiraz, the most beautiful shade of blue imaginable, is less crowded but he, too, is loved for his humanity. The most quoted of his poems is from Golestan, a book he wrote in the 13th century. Bani Adam, the poem that almost everyone can recite eyes closed, is woven into a rug at the UN office in New York.

Bani adam a’za-ye yekdigar-and/ Ke dar afarin-aš ze yek gowhar-and/ Co ‘ozvi be dard avarad ruzgar/ Degar ‘ozvha-ra na-manad qarar/ To k-az mehnat-e digarān biqam-īna-šayad ke nam-at nahand adami

(Adam’s children are limbs of one body/That in creation are made of one gem/ When life and time hurt a limb/ Other limbs will not be at ease/ You who is not sad for the suffering of others/ Might not deserve to be called human.)

Grand old Persepolis

Historic treasures: Persepolis is a stunning tribute to the Achamenid Empire and Zoroastrian kings   -  ISTOCK.COM


Persepolis does precisely what grand ruins like it — Hampi and Pompeii, for example — do: Stun and awe from miles away. A magnificent tribute to the spread of the Achamenid Empire and the Zoroastrian kings, it sits on a bare landscape, an hour from Shiraz down a smooth, if somewhat desolate, highway.

Everything is larger than life: The king single-handedly tackling a lion, the bulls, the scowling homa, a bird of Iranian fables — everything dwarfs you in this showcase of a civilisation that overwhelmed nations across Africa and Asia nearly 3,000 years ago. And like all grand ruins it was wrecked pretty exhaustively, by Alexander.

Mixed bag

Everywhere in Iran, Indians are greeted with whoops of joy and demands for selfies — apart from requests to pass on greetings to Salman Khan and offers to sing Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge from the film Sholay.

Tehran, framed by snow-peaked Alborz mountains, is a sprawling megapolis, with all the attendant issues. There are massive traffic snarls and pollution enough for schools to shut down for an entire week. But it is worth a visit for two reasons: The lovely bazaars, replete with fruits, vegetables, dry fruits, preserves, kilims and craft. And the superb museum that showcases a remarkable collection of both pre- and post-Islamic art.

To see the everyday face of the Tehranian, head for its ancient winding, covered bazaars and teahouses. The Tajrish Bazaar in northern Tehran is bursting with merchandise and people going about their lives. We run into a woman, on her own in a quiet corner of a teahouse, feet pulled under her, and ruminating over an end-of-the-day hookah.

Every bazaar in Iran is a carpet/kilim lover’s dream. If you don’t have the money to splurge on the essential silk Persian carpets, consider the brilliant, rougher woollen carpets that can liven up any room corner. There are lots of bargains to be had if you can dig your heel in and cajole your way into a sharp price drop. Almost every region of Iran has a speciality carpet, so regardless of where you are, you won’t be disappointed.

Last but not the least

Watch what you photograph. Streets are marked with firm ‘no photography’ rules and it is a good idea to not flout them. There are many traveller tales of reckless folks getting into serious trouble for not watching where they aim their smartphones.

The hijab is non-negotiable for women. You can decide on what version of it you want — a slim scarf, a full head cover, a dupatta thrown across the head — but wear it you must. As for the demands for modest dressing, Iran’s stunning street fashion can be a revelation on how to stretch the definition.

(The writer was in Iran with a group of women journalists from India)

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Published on December 04, 2019

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