Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Post #388 - Below the Fold

Just after the new year began, I saw the obituary for a Canadian, John Vernon Sheardown, who died in a hospital in the Canadian capital.  His noteworthiness rested (for our media here in the southern portion of the continent) upon his having helped a handful of U.S. citizens who narrowly avoided being taken up in the Tehran hostage crisis of November 1979.  Having broken both legs once jumping off a plane during WWII, and after serving in the Canadian foreign service in London, Glasgow, New Delhi and Los Angeles (where he married his second wife, Zena Khan, in 1975), Sheardown was one of those who sheltered -- and eventually spirited out of Iran -- the fortunate few who managed to escape becoming "guests of the Ayatollah."

For two months, at the Sheardown residence in North Tehran and in that of Canadian Ambassador Taylor, the half-dozen Americans lay low.  Their hosts had to pay attention to everything from noise and motion to grocery purchases and outflow of trash, in order to maintain their invisibility to prying eyes.  After the departure of the six from Iran (with assumed Canadian identities and passports), Sheardown and his wife followed suit, to avoid the reaction from the Iranian authorities that was sure to come.  [Some of the story was touched on in the recent film Argo.]

Recalling that episode of subterfuge and sanctuary put me in mind of the age-old and continuing element in Persian history (and therefore Persian culture) that I will call "under the korsi."  The korsi was a simple device used in traditional Persian homes during the winter months.  A sort of low table or platform was placed above a brazier of hot coals.  Atop the platform (the korsi) was spread a large, heavy cloth that overhung the table, so those seated around it could enjoy the captured heat of the brazier as they shared a meal or a game of backgammon on a chilly evening.  The enveloping cloth not only prevented heat-loss, but provided the same sort of privacy that the "modesty panel" on a Western office desk gives to women with short skirts.  It has occurred to me that one could hide one's hands if nervous, or touch the leg of one's bride -- all under the cloak of the korsi's concealment.

In Persian society, there have been many reasons to wish to hide aspects of one's life:  Persian patriots had to practice arts of war stealthily during the Mogul reign. Diplomats had to cultivate "constructive ambiguity" when their country was occupied by the British, the French, the Russians or the Americans. Modern-day Iranian women must reserve their jewelry and designer dresses for closed-door mehmoonees (home gatherings) -- their "korsi," when on a public street, is the all-encompassing chador or the Islamically-correct hijab.  And, playwrights and poets must somehow find ways to say what can't be said, in words that can't be missed.

The Iranian handling of the current stand-off with the West over nuclear plans and threats is a continuation of the now well-engrained Iranian custom -- not showing all one's cards, not allowing peeks behind the curtain, not taking off the protective camouflage.  Too often, what has followed incautiously trusting disclosure has been a lethal blow.

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