Friday, March 16, 2007

More than mullahs

An American friend sent out these images out of concern that her country might go and change Iran's landscape, the way it has Iraq's. Here's what her e-mail made me think, and what I wrote to her:
The first I heard about the horrific brutality of the Iranian Revolution was from an American magazine, the one that Mad magazine (in the 1970s, when it was funny) called Reader's Disgust. I must have been nine or ten. Fortunately, around the same time, I also happened to see an exhibition at a Theosophical Society school in Mumbai, which had pictures of everyday scenes much like the ones you sent (I recall being especially amused by a picture of a young woman putting on a burqa over a mini skirt).

In India, Iran has been a strong influence on popular culture for centuries. In that perspective, the Islamic Revolution seems like a hiccup, or possibly a bad cold. For me, and for many of my compatriots, I'm sure, Iran is far more than fanatic mullahs (although there are unfortunately many of those at the helm there). Iranian classical and folk traditions have heavily influenced Indian ones, especially in painting, poetry, music, and architecture. Iran in the popular Indian imagination is not an Islamic pilgrimage site (unlike Najaf / Karbala in Iraq, or Mecca / Madina in Saudi Arabia), but rather a country of orchards and high culture. Together with Afghanistan, Iran was famous in the India of my grandmother's generation for figs, raisins, nuts, apples, berries, etc. Itinerant vendors sold the dried fruit and nuts from door to door. As a child, I imagined Iran to be a bit like Kashmir before terrorism (beautiful and rich land that yielded exotic things like saffron, walnuts and chestnuts; beautiful people; snow in the mountains; and exquisite art). Looking back now, I don't think I was far off the mark, although Kashmiri cities today are far less developed than Iranian ones (Kashmir being a less peaceful place than Iran). A substantial portion of most modern Indian languages consists of Farsi words (and it's not because of writing alone -- I include my own language, which has no script). These are words for ordinary things like salt and sugar, not just arcane literary or architectural forms.

I think this strong and rich cultural relationship between Iran and the Indian subcontinent may be in part what has kept Indians from becoming ideologically opposed to Iran in these days of popular anti-Islamic sentiment. Remarkable, because India is home to two persecuted Iranian religious minorities -- Zoroastrians and Baha'is. (Of course, there are other strategic reasons why India and Iran have been on relatively good terms... like the Cold War, and especially our nukes! But let me not start on that one.... I suppose the scenario would be different if India and Iran shared a border, given India's record with countries that share a border...)

Thanks to my Iranian roommate of two years in State College, at one point I knew just about every Iranian in State College -- Shi'a, Sunni, and Baha'i. Most of them were very attached to Iranian culture, loved science, had a terrific sense of fun. My roommate herself was quite batty about volleyball. She and the other women all loved beautiful clothes (western style).

Do you really think the US will attack Iran? I doubt it. There are just not enough Americans to send there! Even the great Cheney must be much weakened by recent events and scandals. I hope there is greater political fallout from the Libby verdict, and that people can see how much the US has been weakened by the war in Iraq, but unfortunately it seems such things don't catch the popular imagination very easily. Still, I think there would be popular resistance in the US if it really went to war in Iran -- how many are willing to fight now?


George Wesley said...

With your permission I would like to excerpt from this post for my blog Baha'i Views and link.

SloganMurugan said...

I recommend a dose of Iranian movies for people who would like to know more about Iran.