Sunday, November 6, 2011

Post #48 - Iranian Culture

"Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20)
"There is no secret conference of three but he is their fourth..." (Koran, Sura 58:7)

"...let us there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one each the voice of his neighbor." (Genesis 11:7)
I have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another

Persian (or farsi) is a member of the Indo-European linguistic family, from which both Germanic and Romance languages flowed. Although many in the West lump Arabs and Iranians together, they are racially and ethnically distinct, Arabs (and Jews) being Semitic peoples while Persians are not. (Like Hebrew and Arabic, however, Persian reads from right to left, and there are many similar letters in the three alphabets.) One can find cognates in English that show our common linguistic roots. The word for father is paydar (similar to pater and padre). The word for brother is baraadar. The word adam, is clearly related to the name of the original man, but in Persian it refers to a human being of either gender (by the way, in Islam Eve did not bring Adam into sin -- they acted together). When we read “a star in the east,” that star would be called in Persian setar. And our "name" – or naam, in Persian -- was known by God since before we were formed in the womb.

Outskirts of Shiraz
During my Peace Corps training in Vermont, several Iranian staff members (who were our exemplars of authentic Persian lanague and culture. Only after I went to Iran could I understand their reaction to the green hills around Brattleboro. They came to call the area "zendaan-e-sabz" -- “the green prison.” Americans fill up New England country inns each year to take in the fall foliage. However, for people who grew up in the wide, spare spaces of central Iran, where one sees the rocky spine of each mountain with clear blue sky above them, Vermont's wall-to-wall woods meant a severe case of claustrophobia. I had to experience their reality for myself, however, before I could really grasp their point of view. This gap between our perceptions was a first step toward learning that my own way of looking at the world was not the only way.

Park in Shiraz
I was initiated gradually into Persian "ta-arof," a complex and subtle fabric of custom and verbiage that can be very inadequately translated as “etiquette” or “patterns of deference.” Many societies have hierarchical systems of relationship (the caste system of India comes to mind), and every society has ways of lubricating the interfaces between its constituent parts to avoid having petty friction flare into fatal conflagration. But in becoming used to Iranian daily life, I found that ta-arof, at base, was an outward expression of the idea that each of us deserves consideration, each of us must be allotted a place in society, each person has dignity. By a process of trial-and-error, I slowly became initiated into Persian gentility. I learned to add to my speech the niceties that act like illuminations in a manuscript. I learned how to decide who should precede whom through a door, reflecting age and rank. I learned that a spur-of-the-moment invitation to sup with a family was heart-felt, even when the person offering it had no food in his larder, and no real expectation that I would accept. Had I accepted, food, drink and the comforts of home would have been arranged in short order, no matter what it took.

Bas-relief at Persepolis, c. 520 BCE
Ta-arof may often strike our Western sensibilities as flowery and impractical. We Americans value informality and equality; we say “don't stand on ceremony;” we valuate according to achievement rather than ascription. Yet, a traditional culture maintains a space for each of its members by making the rules reliable and the roles predictable. These provide security not only for those on the top of the heap, but for those at the bottom as well. While monarchs, feudal lords or clerics are privileged in a hierarchical system, the chaos that can come in breaking that system down can be a frightening prospect – witness the upheaval we witnessed in Iraq, with the dismantling of a brutal Baathist dictatorship. One effect of the arrogance of the West comes in our always believing that we can make things better (overnight) – even when we don't yet understand what is there already. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, we unleash forces we can't control. I realized that such core cultural systems have been evolved to maintain the dignity of human beings in that society, without which all are at the mercy of the basest drives of human nature.

(More on this subject in my next post.)

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