Monday, April 2, 2012

Post #232 - Monarchs and Mullahs

Nearing the end of my 2006 trip report:

We delegates started our day by visiting the small rented house where Ayatollah Khomeini lived upon his return from exile. A modest two-story structure in a middle-class neighborhood, it had a small bed-sitting room where the leader met with political leaders and visitors; in a slightly larger building next door he later would hold press conferences; part of it was made into a museum following his death. One can see photos of Khomeini striding down a country road in the Parisian suburb of Neauphle le Chateau, where he went when deported from Iraq in 1978, Khomeini arriving back in Tehran in triumph and the Supreme Leader meeting with other notables of the Revolution, and with his grandchildren.

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From the Khomeini home we drove to the Shah’s Palace in the Niavaran district. Our tour guide pointed out the spacious hallways bedecked with art, the gilded appointments, the sitting room with two end-tables full of framed, autographed pictures of some of the Shah’s guests and associates: Queen Elizabeth II, Mao Tse Tung, Ataturk and Adolf Hitler. The sharp contrast between the simple life style of the revolutionary leader and the excesses of wealth enjoyed by his predecessor were hard to miss; the two sites are open to visitors, one assumes, partly to underscore that difference for Iranians and foreigners alike.

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Iran’s National Carpet Museum is housed in a modern concrete building whose exterior arches are intended to evoke the warp and weft of a carpet or kilim. Inside, delegates were treated to one of the world’s finest collections of this noble textile art. At once a thing of beauty and a durable “built environment” for nomads and city-dwellers alike, carpets had held no special attraction for me, until I went to Iran in the sixties. Literally living on carpets to eat, talk, and sleep every day (instead of just treading on them as floor coverings), the carpets in homes, office and shops evoked first my fascination, then admiration, and finally enchantment with the virtually infinite variety of pattern, color and quality. The museum displayed the ultimate examples of carpetry, such as pieces woven to produce a different scene on either side, those so tightly woven that one would have difficulty sliding a coin into their pile, those that startlingly change their coloration as one walks from one side to the other, or those that almost stop the heart with their artistic expression. This was like walking into the Louvre or the Met: you don’t walk out exactly the same person.

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Mrs. Mallah
A visit in the home of Mrs. Mahlagha Mallah and her husband was the perfect thing for our last day of the journey. The founder of Women Against Pollution, she was a woman who had earned her PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris, a person of great humanity and gracious hospitality. From the twinkle in their eyes, she and her spouse clearly had been in love for better than sixty years. She had identified women as critical to environmental improvement, recognizing their traditional roles as mothers (a key to controlling birth rate), as natural teachers who guide their children and form their behavior, and as homemakers. Dr. Mallah spoke with real concern about “the shopping disease” – consumerism and conspicuous consumption engineered by capitalist forces. She and others protested a Tehran-to-the-Caspian highway because of its potential impact on old-growth forests and they have advocated for the Kyoto protocol; such activities have even landed her in jail. Her organization now has over 1,000 members in Tehran and 5,000 throughout the country, 80% of them women. Recently, she said, a new cabinet position has been created to advance new energy sources, and all schools will include environmentalism in their curricula.

Speaking for all of us, a moving thank-you and farewell was given to Dr. Mallah by delegate Lily Yeh. Early in the trip, this diminutive, vibrant Chinese-American had said that what she did as an artist-activist was to “go to places that are broken…and do art with people.” Those “broken” places have included depressed areas in Harlem and West Philadelphia, as well as places like Rwanda. Lily hoped her own work would be focused on meeting people where they are and working with what they have – as Dr. Mallah has done with the women of Tehran and their communities.

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A glorious farewell dinner at the Ali Qapu Restaurant (named for the palace on the Imam Square in Esafahan) gave us a chance to meet the adult son of Nayareh, the retired teacher and consultant to FOR who had arranged much of our professional itinerary and Mr. Saeed Azam, Promotion Manager of Iran Doostan Travel, who presented us each with a framed Persian miniature as a souvenir of our journey. As we enjoyed our last Persian meal and reflected on the sojourn now drawing closer to its conclusion, we were treated to fabulous musical performances by traditional artists.

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