Thursday, March 1, 2012

Post #199 - Timeless Words and Wordless Tears

Continuing my 2006 trip report:

In 500 BC, emperor Siroosh (known in the West as “Cyrus the Great”) established a bagh or garden named Paradiseh – from which our word “paradise” comes. When we visited Bagh Eram, we could see how that etymological borrowing would have occurred. An oasis in the midst of the barren dryness of central Iran as large and enchanting as the Boboli Gardens of Florence, it has giant palm trees sculpted with ivy and shrubs to look like forty-foot-tall pineapples, a grove with hundreds of species of roses, long pedestrian avenues lined with evergreens, quiet nooks with fountains where an intimate conversation can be enjoyed on the warmest of days. (It was once the private garden of the shah’s last wife, Farah Diba.) Members of the group chanced to meet families out for a picnic or tourists like us who had come from another part of Iran; all were affected by the atmosphere of timeless leisure that the garden had been designed to evoke. People were ready to talk about the sublime pleasures of Persian poetry, or the trials of living in a country with too few jobs for too many university graduates. (Over 50% of the population is 19 years old or younger.) They wondered how their president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad was being perceived in the West. The former mayor of Ardebil (a town in the northwest where I had once done in-country orientation for new Peace Corps volunteers), had triumphed over the insider Rafsanjani (too much associated with official corruption), reformist candidates who had disappointed the public with their ineffectual attempts at change, and others much more knowledgeable about governance than himself. He promised a “common” touch, alleviation of poverty and a defiant attitude toward the West, which has been imposing sanctions – and with them hardship and scarcity of the tools for development – on the people of Iran for many years.

As we gazed upward toward the Shiraz University campus on a hill overlooking the Garden, delegate Emil Roy, retired academic and medical writer, mused that he might investigate securing a position with their well-reputed medical school, helping scholars polish English versions of journal articles (the school, established with an endowment by a wealthy philanthropist, carries on all its instruction in English). Emil was my roommate and “buddy” (for the inevitable counting of heads at critical points) during the trip.

As we split up and were absorbed by the enormous maze that was the Garden, I snapped pictures, enjoyed the shade of the green corridors, and eventually stumbled on a couple of members of our group who were deep in dialogue with three young Iranians. This turned into three one-on-one conversations, with me paired with an earnest young man, schooled at the University of Shiraz. He was one of the millions of Iranians for whom poetry is a both pastime and a precious cultural possession. He wrote out – in a careful hand, so that even I could decipher the Persian – one of his own poems, which spoke of a beloved so perfect that she must surely have arrived from a heavenly world to this one, bewitching any mortal whose eye she caught. In an American high school, he might have been laughed out of class, but romance -- imagery of roses and wine, themes of friendship and frustrated desire -- is still very much in style in Iran.

Tomb of poet Sa'adi
We visited the tombs of two poets in Shiraz – the most famous of all Persian writers: Saadi and Hafez. Popular attractions for locals and travelers alike, they were both monuments to unique artistic visions of the world more than to technical skills of versifying or description. Saadi, writer and philosopher born in Shiraz and the greatest poet of the 14th Century, dealt with the moral, social and mystical subjects of his time. At his tomb and memorial, rebuilt in 1952, there is an underground chamber that contains large goldfish, a common feature of Persian garden pools.

In  a teahouse, talking poetry
Hafez, whose volumes can be found in nearly every Iranian home, is at once simple and refined, traditional and innovative. His poetry can still be understood by today’s readers, though written a thousand years ago; often a book of his poetry will be used as some people do use a horoscope – a randomly selected page offers the reader advice on life decisions. At the beautiful Hafez memorial, which we reached after sundown, I again ran into my young poet friend; he said he could be found there every Friday evening! He treated another delegate and me to tea (though it had been my invitation, allowing me to pay was unthinkable, as we were mehmoonan – “guests” – in Iran).

Delegate Sahar Driver (whose mother came from Iran) wrote afterwards about her experience of the shrine:
I have been moved to tears only twice on this trip, my first to Iran. The first was when I encountered my family waiting outside the airport in Teheran, many of whom I had never met; the second was today when we visited the tomb of Hafez. Both times the tears were spontaneous and unexpected. Both times I felt intimately close to what it means that I am Iranian and American.
Tomb of Hafez
The poet/mystic Hafez [“reciter”], named such for his ability to recite all 6,000+ verses of the Qur’an by heart, is beloved by Iranians the world over. His rhythmic stories of love and laughter and wine have pierced the hearts of Iranians like the cupid’s arrow – and now they have pierced mine.
Tonight there was a full moon and magic in the air. Hafez’s shrine was bustling with people paying their respects. Families with children running about with their sneakers that light up with each step, young and hip-looking girls, the young ‘fashionista’ men in their tight black jeans and silver belt buckles, women in full hijab, and us, the American tourists who always raise a curious eyebrow or two.
I walked up to his tomb to kneel at its side and offer my blessings when I was struck by a young woman kneeling herself, with her head lowered and set against the stone grave. I watched her body heave, sobbing as she tightly clutched a book of Hafez’s poems. In this moment, my own tears fell easily, suddenly and without heed.
On this trip I have been highly aware of my insider/outsider status. I am often mistaken for being Iranian, which is ironic as I feel less so here than in the United States. Some of the questions that other delegates ask, however, I know the answers to intimately, making me feel less American and more Iranian. The pendulum swings both ways throughout the day as I shift back and forth between identities. In this moment however, basking in the light of the moon, soaked in Middle-Eastern melodies that ring in the night, I watch this young girl weep – maybe for a lost love or an appreciation that overcomes her, but in this moment I understand.
Love fills the air, the song of the nightingale and the rose (gol va bolbol) intoxicates everyone nearby, and as I pass by young men and women sitting in groups all about, laughing, talking, taking in the scene, I think: There is something I can learn here about love and respect for the dead who have offered much, and for a history that cannot/should not be forgotten.
How might we as Americans overcome our historic amnesia that contributes to so much violence, even as we espouse ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’ for all? We come as delegates for peace, yet what more important thing can we do towards this end but to listen, pay attention, and learn from these people?  If all I have done as a result of this trip is begun to dispel the myths that circulate about Iranians, then I have done a lot. And if I can hold up a mirror, then I have done even more. Violence begins in the smallest of spaces. Peace then, must as well.

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