Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:46 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:46 | SYDNEY

Portrait of Iran (part 3)

1 March 2011 16:11

Vanessa Newby is PhD candidate at Griffith University who is studying Arabic in the Middle East. The photos in this post are her own. Part one here; part two here.

The second time I visited Iran, the British Museum had just loaned the Cyrus scroll. I nearly ran into the President himself when I visited the museum to see it. I arrived as the museum was closing because he was due shortly to attend a dinner there. I started to get a bit nervous that I might stand out and look a bit suspicious to the swarming mass of security so I didn't hang around to catch a glimpse of the man himself. 

But the excitement and importance Iranians attach to the scroll is a reflection of their understanding of their identity. As one of the oldest states in the world, their sense of history is immense. Iranians don't think in tens of years, they think in thousands of years. When you ask an Iranian about the Arab invasion which occurred around 640 AD, they speak about it as though it were yesterday.

The Atash Kadeh with the symbol of Ahura Mazda on the roof.

Iranians are required to study Arabic until they enter university, but as I traveled round the country, I only managed to find one person who would actually speak Arabic to me. When I told people I was studying Arabic full time, they tended to get a look of horror and ask incredulously, 'Why''. Sure, the Semitic grammatical structure of  Arabic is incredibly complex compared with Farsi, an Indo-European language, but I always got the sense they viewed it as the language of would-be colonisers.

The Zoroastrian religion is another reminder of Iran's rich history. It is credited with being one of the first monotheistic religions, which created one God called Ahura Mazda. There are around 20,000 Zoroastrians in Iran and they are allowed to practise their religion. I visited Yazd, the home of Zoroastrianism, which houses the Atash Kadeh, a flame said to have been burning since AD 470.

The symbol of Ahura Mazda can be seen in many historical places in Iran, but I also noticed it on shop fronts and businesses and it appeared to me that it offers many Iranians an alternative way of expressing their national identity and possibly their views on politics.

Another form of Iranian identity that appears to be having a renaissance is reverence of famous Persian poets such as Hafez, Sa'adi, Khayyam and Ferdowsi (to name but a few). The shrines to these poets are intertwined with Zoroastrianism and Sufism but Iranians who visit them never fail to say a prayer as they touch the tomb of the poet. The sites of Hafez (left) and Ferdowsi were packed with all sorts of people when I visited them, from those in chadors to the notably more secularly dressed. Whatever comfort Iranians receive from visiting these shrines is hard to discern, but they are a powerful reminder of the spirit of nationalism within this culture.

While in Iran I bought an English translation of the 'Shahnameh', the story of the history of Iran, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. It is highly instructive,  and you cannot but be struck by how strongly Iranian concepts of justice and morality come through in the stories of the heroes. 

Iranians know who they are and where they have come from. How united they are in their ideas about what Iran can be or should be was impossible to discern, but I was left with the impression that everybody cares enough to have some pretty strong ideas.