Out of the Oven
July 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Kheyli mamnoon, eid mobarak…”
We were standing in a seven hundred year old mosque on the morning of Eid Mabas, or the day the Prophet Mohammad received the revelation from God telling him that he was to be the Prophet. It was quiet in the blue-stoned mosque on that particular morning, only a lone woman knelt at the mihrab (an arched centerpiece of the mosque that faces towards Mecca; the mihrab is lowered into the ground so as to show humility before God; also to protect the devout–several imams were assassinated while in prayer at the mihrab) of the Jumeh Mosque in Yazd. It was the first structure of its kind we’d entered in Iran, and the effect was awesome. Standing before intricate and perfect patterned walls that tower multiple stories high, one can’t help feeling both their incredible smallness and the infinite complexity of living. The entire building was covered in little blue tiled mosaics, dutifully placed in exquisite patterns of stars and flowers, interweaving corners of hexagons all in shades of the finest turquoise, cerulean and aqua blue. “It has a cooling effect” Bahman tells us, “to enter a place that is all blue.” It was outstandingly hot that day in Yazd, with highs of 52C or 120F. But oddly enough, I didn’t feel it–the heat in Iran is ever-present, but the air is thin and there is no humidity, leaving my skin porcelain-smooth and my hair–though a sight yet unseen by most in my group–silky and soft, a similar effect to winters in Boston. We were in the city of Yazd, and with its heat, eternal flame and famed yellow bricks, it seemed to be the oven of Iran. Most of the old city is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is entirely constructed out of dust-colored yellow bricks formed into arches, low walls and careful entryways. Yazd is known for the religious minority it houses: the Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was, according to most, the world’s first monotheistic religion, and was practiced by many kings of Persia until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century CE. The Zoroastrians worship fire, and have kept the same eternal flame burning in Yazd for over 1515 years. They believe in good thoughts, good deeds, and good speech to aid in the triumph of good (embodied in Ahura Mazda) over evil (Ahriman). The Zoroastrian women can be identified by their dress; though they often wear the chador, it is usually dark blue or black in color, and covered with a pattern of small bright-colored flowers. But today was a Muslim holiday and there was more to the celebrations.
This night, we visited a real, Iranian gym, that had been built inside of a water cistern. Water cisterns were a common site in Yazd, they rise out of the ground in a beehive-like fashion, standing a story and a half or so tall, and allowing for deep recesses into the earth where yazdis used to keep their water supply. But on ground level, there was a gym fashioned into this circular building, with the same humility built into the architecture: the main gym floor was lowered a few (five or so) feet into the ground. We toured it once in he morning, seeing the equipment used for calisthenics that the men would do later that day, including oar-like bats, at least half a foot in diameter along the bottom, that evened out into a small handle at the other end. These were like elaborate weights that the men would hold over their shoulders and rotate in large circles, almost mimicking a forward stroke in swimming. When we returned at 6pm that night, the show had already begun. A group of twenty or so men–ranging in age from 15 to 75–were spread across the inner circle, doing coordinated push-ups. The leader in the middle was probably about 70, and was once the national champion in wrestling. But the men weren’t the stunning part, rather the sounds emanating from the front of the circular room where a man was chanting prayers, to the beat of a drummer who sat beside him. Bahman explained that this particular form of exercise was developed during the Iran-Iraq war, when prayer was often used as a motivator for the troops. It felt almost too intimate, like we were watching the men engaging in some sort of Iranian-style exercise dance class, but the mood was extremely serious and, even proud. At one point a little boy–maybe five–walked into the gym, picked up the smallest set or oar-like bats, and started following the ex-champion’s lead. I could imagine men kissing their wives and mothers goodbye after the afternoon siesta (everything in Yazd is closed, at least in the summertime between 2 and 5pm to avoid the heat), grabbing their gym clothes (and what clothes they were! Elaborately embroidered paisley pants and tight exercise shirts in white and green) and setting off for the old water cistern.
It reminded me, of what I have observed to be, the most incredible trait of Iranians throughout history: the ability to adapt without losing their identity. As we walk through varying museums and old homes, learning about the ridiculously chaotic history of this nation, I can’t help but stand in awe of Iranians today. To be Persian means so much–you can see the pride in people’s faces when they tell us about their country. Even Bahman, the true essence of a respectful guide, who aims to educate not to convince, is fierce when differentiating the Persians from those people around him, and even from the rest of the world. As a twenty-something year old at the halfway mark of her undergraduate career, I have regular identity crises which all end the same way: who am I, where do I come from, and who will I be? All undergraduates should visit Iran. Hell, all people should visit Iran. Regardless of age I look to everything around me for definition, including what I study, where I live, what I do with my free time, what I read and who I admire–but in Iran everything seems, from what I can tell, to run so much deeper. It’s not external, as the exterior is not the space for autonomous identity-formation. Rather it is the personal, the relationships with extensive family, people, and one’s own self that is the driving force behind Iranian identity. Looking out of the windows of our little bus, the streets are lined with pictures of martyrs from the war; Khomeini and Khameini peer down from store windows, billboards and even the rials we exchange for dollars; Imam Ali can be found everywhere from the mosque to the back window of a Shirazi taxi. But it is not this space, outside, which provides personal identity. It’s the interior, one’s relationships, one’s views–even though we espouse the American dream as the ultimate testament to our individuality, I constantly feel plagued by the burdon of showing, expressing, and defending my own self, whatever that is supposed to differentiate myself so much from anyone else off the street, in every public portal: from Facebook, to what I wear, to the thoughts in my head–it’s all a public entity. We may have the freedom of expression, but I feel it as a weight of personal defense. I envy the Iranians, their pride and seemingly inherent knowledge of who they are. I don’t mean to make black-and-white comparisons, but I do mean to highlight the potential for personal strength in a place where one’s public identity is already defined, already distinguished.