~ Iran ~
I’m a real Berliner, born & bred…
…but my heart is in the Middle East.
My mom is German, my dad Iranian, and I’m a proud holder of both passports. That’s sometimes not easy (for example when you need to travel to archives in the US between those fateful years of 2016-20), but my Iranian roots are hugely important to me. I speak Persian, and live the culture in my day-to-day life. I also consider myself an ambassador, building cultural bridges across the political sound and fury. Iran is both more complex and more exciting than those images leaking out of the country and into Western newspapers suggest. My thinking tends towards what is similar, rather than what divides.
In these two expressions lies comfort: friendliness with friends, tolerance with enemies. (Hafez)
Throw-back summer 1998.
Heat. An intense wall of heat hitting you once you step off the plane and onto the grey tarmac. Lights in the dark distance dance and glimmer as buildings of this mega-city crawl up the flanks of the still-active vulcano. Men and women part ways before security. You worry, because you only know a handful of words, but for handing over your passport, you don’t need any language. She behind the glass looks stern at your papers, her face white and pale in the stark light of a 5am airport, not a single hair escaping the typically Iranian version of the modest Muslim woman’s garb, a formless black cloth called “chador”, or “tent”. Lots of women wear tents, at least when passing the border between away and here.
Here. Tehran. Bustling, chaotic, exciting, nerve-wrecking, and so very different from the Western cities you’ve walked before.
The air is thick with heat, the taxi driver races on bumpy streets through suburbs, yet asleep. It smells of petrol, summer, cigarette smoke, and that elusive, undefinable, totally subjective scent of…home.
I was 11 years old when I went to Iran for the first time, and what a profoundly significant journey it was. Except for my grandmother, I hadn’t seen any of my dad’s family ever. The streets, the sounds, the sleepless nights in August heat, flat peaches, and sweet cucumbers the size of fingers only – all was so different from my childhood in Berlin. And so familiar at the same time.
That first journey was followed by several others during my teenage years, and then on my own, as an adult. The older I get, the more I seem to think about identity, culture, and belonging. Or make that “identities, cultures, and belongings”. People ask me what’s Persian, what German, in me, and in the people attached to those adjectives at large.
I have no idea.
I just know that belonging is a feeling, a practice, a pull on the heart strings, the belly button, like an umbilical cord. Like the umbilical cord it is.
Persian is a language rich with metaphors and images. Some of my favourite words are combinations of the adverb “both”, or “same”, ham in Persian. هم
One can be ham-nafas, or “same-breath”, your contemporaries, your fellow human beings near you, those with whom you share the same air. Your community. Your هم نفس.
One can be ham-sar, or “same-head”,همسر , that’s your spouse. Because you share the same mind (ideally!). That’s early feminism for you! Or because you put your heads on the same pillow. Persians are so romantic…
Click above for a video of me playing the Persian frame drum daf with my teacher Siamak Moghaddam.
My favourite is ham-sayeh, “same-shade”, همسایه You and your neighbour, enjoying the shade of the same tree in the crazy Iranian summer heat, or the shade from both your houses, protecting one another, or your joint wall.
Then there is ham-del…we who are of “same-heart”. All of us share similar experiences, feelings, thoughts…who are like-minded, congenial, compassionate for one another’s plights, crying together, and triumphing, too. همدل
It can be tricky to be ham-del with a people thousands of miles away. I don’t share the same financial struggles as Iranians do on a day to day basis; I don’t hear the call for prayer five times a day; my herbs for cooking those nourishing Persian sauces are dried and imported, having travelled through land and air to get to my local Oriental shop. I cannot be ham-nafas, but I can be ham-del with Iranians by practising Iranian customs, exploring Iranian history, and being ready to engage when someone is curious and wants to ask.
Rice is of course on the menu at my house – every day. I’m also playing daf, the Oriental frame-drum with different shapes and rhythms for different cultural contexts.
Persian poetry is, of course, world-famous, and rightly so. I’m improving my Persian with poems by Rumi who is probably the Middle Eastern poet who is most famous in the West. Although he’d never call himself a writer, just a lover…
The picture shows the poetry collection of Hafez, another mystical writer which Iranians use for fal, or “divination”. Ask Hafez any question, pick a card, or open a page from his book, and you’ll get your answer. That doesn’t mean you will understand it! It’s poetry, after all…
Of poets we are not poor. Those of old include Saadi, Ferdowsi, Rudaki, Nizami, Attar, and of course Khayam whose short but lush lyrics inspired Edward Fitzgerald’s English versions enchanting a whole generation of Victorians. Modern Iranian poetry is still strong, too: there’s Hossein Shamloo, for example, Fereydoon Moshiri, and Forough Farokhzad, my favourite female poet. You might know Mimi Khalvati, the superb British-Iranian writer.
Rumi produced innumerable poems, although he never wrote them down. His disciples, or people from his entourage would. Rumi just spoke. He spoke about what came to him in his impromptu speeches on God and the universe, ourselves in it, and the love between each one of us, and towards our higher power. Most of all, however, Rumi danced…
Or rather whirled. Whirling is an ancient form of meditation and prayer, and an intrinsic part of the sufi practise. Sufis are followers of the mystical side of Islam that’s not about right or wrong, but about goodwill, unity, and connectedness. Muslim self-development, basically! Through turning around oneself for several hours, things become dislodged in your body, mind, and soul: quite literally, as all your blood is being pushed to your fingertips, and your brain is ringing alarm bells that such constant falling backwards and backwards feels very dangerous indeed! But the real healing happens in your psyche, of course; one can touch enlightenment, when the drum of the daf gives the beat to the feet turning, the skirt flies up, fluttering like the green ocean, and in the centre of it all yourself, yourself.
“We came whirling out of nothingness scattering stars like dust. The stars made a circle and in the middle we dance.”
What has me excited about Iran?
Iran – as many Iranians will tell you – is not like their neighbours! Do not, under any circumstances, call us Turks or Arabs. We are unique. That is true – and also a myth.
Iran is its own self, recognisably different from those around them – and it shares customs, expressions, and ways of being with those to the east and west of the Iranian high plateau. The stress, here, is on “and”, not “but”. Iran is a country and culture of blending, of mixing and mingling, and at the same time, perhaps precisely by doing so, Iranians have been able to carve out their own identity from among the hodgepodge of languages and habits available to them.
Iran sits at a bustlings crossroads of geographical routes and historical intererests criss-crossing each other again and again, bringing with them words, wisdom – and wealth. To the east, there’s the powerful Indian influence with Pakistan and Afghanistan as channels of transmission. Persian cuisine shows this kinship in its plentiful sour-and-sweet dishes customary to the Indian subcontinent. To the north and north-west, turkic peoples have always mingled with Persians, to the south south-west, Arab culture rubs against the Persian life world.
While Iran was (and certainly still is) a force to be reckoned with, it’s fertile land is hemmed in by mountains, making it hard to conquer – and expand from.
Even when Persians had conquered other lands: their secret weapon has always been soft and subtle… rather than control and subjugation, Persians betted on culture and cooperation with the locals. The language, the architecture, the customs, the values – they would ooze out of its bounds, creating an indefinite belt of Persianate regions around its core. Take Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. They experienced a flourishing of scholarship in the tenth century C.E., bringing forth scholars like Abu Ali Sina and Biruni. Persian influence is still visible there today as it is in all of Iran’s neighbours.
Iran’s landscape is as diverse as its regional customs: the north borders the Caspian Sea, sporting humid rainforests; the south around the Persian Gulf is dry and hot, with temperatures habitually climbing above 40°C in summer; two deserts stretch themselves from east to west, bordered by snow-capped mountain ranges with over 5000m high peaks. You could travel from village to village and be met with a totally different nature and a completly new vibe.
I wonder what the newly-converted Arabs thought when they took Iran in the eighth century C.E., coming from a desert as they did. Iran had been Zoroastrian for thousands of years before Islam arrived, and (although the people slowly converted and Persian is written in Arabic script until today) Persian culture managed to digest the conqueror’s belief and language, making it uniquely its own, softening its hard edges, infusing its luxuriant natural world back into a religion of the desert.
In spite of 1200 years of Islam and a full-blown Islamic revolution, the customs patterning an Iranian’s life today remain essentially Zoroastrian, and thus connected to nature: on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the whole family cosies up at home, eating red life-bringing fruits like pomegranate, telling stories, and staying awake the entire night to chase away evil demons. At the beginning of spring, we celebrate for 13 days, visiting family and friends, having picknicks, and performing fun rituals like bonfire jumping, and throwing plants into running water (it’s all about that fertility!). Zoroastrians believed in the balancing out light and darkness, night and day, striving for a simple ethical life. Those convictions, rhythms, and festivities live side-by-side with Islam, and it’s typical for that particularly Iranian mindset to surrender to the powers that be, absorb, amend, change, ever so subtly, and produce a robust mongrel version of what works best for its particular people and particular place.
I like this gentleness. I like this flexible attitude of acceptance of circumstances, while also playing the long game. Change is inevitable, so let’s roll with it and change and precisely thereby preserve what’s near and dear to us.
Iranians are good at surviving.
Oh, and about the difference between Persia and Iran? Well.
It can be a contentious issue – but it doesn’t have to be. Strictly speaking, Persians are just one of the tribes of Iran, albeit the most populous and wide-spread one. In the West, the country was commonly known as Persia owing to French and British interest. Since 1935, the country requires to be known as Iran in order to step away from its semi-colonial past, and clarify its ancient history (a form of the term “Iranian” goes back thousands of years).
If you ask me, I don’t really care. I use the adjectives interchangeably. But “Persia” sounds more exoticising and less current to me, “Iran” more accurate and up-to-date. As a child, I used “Persia”; as an adult, I’ve been using the word “Iran” for as long as I can remember. Perhaps because the one trapped me in the lush glorious ultimately illusory past, in memories I never made but my dad bequeathed me, precious but paralysing. Perhaps I now choose the other because it refers to what I’ve seen with my own eyes, experienced with my own sensing self, however fraught the harsh reality of life in Iran is today.
“Iran” sounds like the future, burnished, hard, alive.