Half of the World

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Apadana, Darius the Great's ceremonial palace, where he and his court would celebrate Norooz, or the Persian New year

We’re just arrived back in Tehran, where it all started and where it’s all about to end. After Shiraz, we were whisked away to Isfahan, famously dubbed “Isfahan, nefs-e jahan,” or “Isfahan, half of the world” because of the commerce that thrived there under the rule of Shah Abbas the Great. Before we could arrive in Half of the World, we took a detour to the highlight of our itinerary: Persepolis. This is the famous site of Darius the Great’s ceremonial palace, dating back to the sixth century BCE, and the sight is awesome. The grounds were burned (reportedly) by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, leaving only remains–but the sheer size of this place is enough to see the pomp and circumstance of Darius’s court. You enter through the Gate of Nations, meant to represent all the territories under the Persian Empire’s control under the Achaemenids, and looking up at 60-foot rock reliefs, all I could feel was small and in awe. This place was older than anything else I had ever visited, and kings–true kings who ruled the “four corners of the civilized world”–had walked through the same gates I was. Persepolis was one of the first things I ever visualized about Iran, and truthfully probably the first part of my eclectic education about the country. Though my knowledge would be compounded later in Beatrice Manz’s comprehensive course, History of Iran, it all really started in a dingle (a double room inhabited by a single student when a roommate moves out) in Tilton Hall, one of the all-freshman dorms at Tufts. When people ask me how I became interested in Iran, I can always trace the answer back to that room, on that April night at the end of my freshman year. It was all quite odd, actually. After dressing up for the Arabic Academy Awards that afternoon, a mandatory event for all first-year Arabic students to showcase our final video projects, I was surreptitiously invited by my friend Afsheen to crash Friday night Shabbat services at Chabad House. So, after an afternoon of Lebanese food and Arabic chatter, we promptly stuffed ourselves again on gefilte fish and challah–as the only two non-Jews in the room, we spent a lot of time humming along to prayers and avoiding any questions about religious beliefs–but the food was great and the night was just beginning. Somehow we ended up back in his room that night, with a whole bunch of friends, listening to Persian pop music on YouTube–after a few music videos I started asking questions, and soon we were watching clips of documentaries about the great, ancient, Persian empire. It’s a rare pair that enjoys ten-part YouTube documentaries on a Friday night, but somehow I found it all fascinating. This was a whirlwind glimpse into a place I never considered myself fit to hold opinions on–Iran was wrapped up in political connotations, a language most foreign to me, and a whole bunch of misconceptions that I didn’t have the time, energy, or confidence to investigate for myself. But there we were, he telling me about Zoroastrianism, the ancient Achaemenid kings and translating lyrics using a mixture of Arabic, English and Spanish–all things that brought this place closer and closer to me. Perhaps I could know about this place after all. By this time everyone else had cleared out, we had been sitting on uncomfortable dorm chairs for hours, and we were both enraptured by a six-part series on Persepolis. All sorts of recreated scenes played out before us: Darius’s palace, replete with massive columns, Xerxes’s ceremonial rooms, and of course, a procession of kings through the Gate of Nations. My education would continue past that night (which lasted from four in the afternoon to six in the morning, no joke)–him teaching me about his homeland, me reading about it, academics theorizing on it–but that little video of Persepolis was the starting point of a seemingly endless passion, and here I was seeing it in the flesh. Things seemed to have come full circle.

So, we traveled on to Isfahan, Half of the World–which was almost as surreal as Persepolis, though for an entirely different reason. Instead of incredible size and enviable age, Isfahan is a city of stunning beauty that seems entirely out of place. Running through the city is a huge dried-up riverbed (it fills with water in the wintertime), and along either side of the river are two parks, stretching twenty miles on each side. These parks are larger-than-life reincarnations of famous Persian gardens, stretching as far as the eye can see. Large sycamore trees shade the sidewalk, grass stretched for blocks and blocks and flowers spring up at every corner. However, like most things that seem too crafted to be naturally formed, Isfahan has a very conservative and at times oppressive feel. The city lost the most amount of martyrs during the Iran-Iraq War, and it is still considered a center for fierce patriotism. But oh, to see this city is to behold something immortal. Imam Square, the second largest square in the world, houses a couple of mosques (Sheikh Lotfollah and Jumeh Mosques) and an old Safavid Palace, Ali Qapu. The architecture in this square is exquisite, detailed, and like the rest of the city, a little elusive–Isfahan was shrouded in impenetrable greenness, everywhere from its trees to the tiles lining the Friday Mosque (Jumeh Mosque) and the color of its famous enamel handicraft. Perhaps like its riverbed (othwerwise called the Zayanderud River, or “life-giving” river), the purpose of this ex-capital had dried somewhat, but its effect was just as stunning.

And from the beauty of Isfahan we have returned to Tehran, city of script and verse. We leave for the airport in a few hours, and I miss this place already. We’ve said goodbye to our guide (baba, or “daddy,” as he’s come to be known), our driver (Hamid) and the rest of our group. I’m hopeful that my eclectic education is still growing, twisting and speeding along without my control and into some new adventure into the depths of the Persian identity. All I feel is lucky, and extremely humbled in the face of all I have seen, all whom I’ve talked to, and all I’ve discovered here in Iran. For all of you who can, learn anything about this place–pick up a book, google”Hafez” or “Rumi” or “Sa’di,” find a friendly Iranian and ask questions, or get your hands on some Persian music and get to know this place for yourself. I am so grateful for that one spring night freshman year, when an acquaintance became a close friend and I got a glimpse into a culture I never thought I would be educated enough, or that I even deserved, to study or to know Iran’s changed my life forever, and I am so lucky I got to travel here myself, make my own opinions, and continue this particular education. Shab-be kheir, goodnight, and lots of love from Tehran!

Approaching Persepolis

The Gate of All Nations, where all the vassal states of the Persian Empire entered to greet the Shah



Family, Iranian Style

June 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Somehow, when an American is embarking on a trip to Iran, every single Iranian-American knows about it, and promptly calls their family back in the motherland to prepare a true, Iranian welcome. My father happens to work in the construction business, the least likely place to find any Persians (all of which are doctors, lawyers, or engineers). Yet, he happens to work with a man named Ahmad, who, upon learning that his colleague’s daughter was visiting his home country, insisted that his cousin in Shiraz meet me to show me around and offer me a home-cooked meal. The next morning, my aunt ran into me and told me that her new Persian clients had already called their parents in Tehran and we must meet up. It’s astounding. It’s like I have a whole family waiting for my homecoming, and I don’t even know these people!

I saw Woody Allen’s new movie this afternoon, Midnight in Paris. The main character (played by a Allen-esque Owen Wilson) is accused of having Golden Age Syndrome. As he walks the streets of Paris at night, he dreams of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, his literary idols, and the splendor of their lives in a time so much more meaningful than his present. This syndrome, an awfully “pedantic” side character elucidates, befalls those who are perpetually dissatisfied with life in the present moment, and wistfully worship another time. I instantly thought of the country I am about to visit, and how all of its people (in my amateur diagnosis) are plagued with Golden Age Syndrome. For you see, Iranians don’t just idealize another time in the past, they can actually call upon the era when Persia, the Empire, ruled the world. These are not just illusions of a better time, but the painful and tragic knowledge that the best time has come and is now long, long gone. And so maybe it makes sense, when a foreigner departs for Iran, the locals wish to show the splendor of their past, a wish to make their reality known. This must be family, Iranian style.

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