Into the heart of ancient history

I have been intrigued by Iranian life and politics since the age of nine, a passion heightened by a vague sense that my own identity is somehow bound up with the mystique of this Middle-Eastern country.

So it was with both exhilaration and apprehension that, after a 12-hour wait in the duty free lounges of Dubai International, I boarded the flight to Teheran. Iranians packed the plane. Arabic evaporated into the ether as Farsi words filled the cabin.

The women and men were decked out in designer clothes and brand-name watches. Some women had dyed blonde hair, one of them with plaits kneaded into dreadlocks.

These were members of Iran’s cosmopolitan elite, frequenting Dubai, London and New York on shop- ping sprees in bold defiance of the stereotypes that surround Iran’s religious regime.

A display of Iran’s geography flashed on to the screen at the front of the plane. Teheran was located in the far north of the vast country, tucked into a rugged range near the Zagroes mountains. The names of other cities twinkled on the map: Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz, all famous for the names of Persian carpets, the fabled Silk Route, beautiful ceramics and exquisite mosques.

Trade and investment between South Africa and Iran is growing at a tremendous rate, especially in the wake of the Gulf War. The Iranian embassy in Pretoria reports that it is struggling to cope with the flood of visa applications. Iran’s total exports to South Africa, mainly in oil, stood at R5,2-billion in 2002, constituting 40% of our supplies, while South Africa’s exports to Iran in 2002, mainly sugar, amounted to R325-million.

A number of South African companies, including oil giants Sasol and PetroSA, have invested in the Iranian petrochemical sector, while a consortium of Iranian companies, One Vision Investments, recently invested R500-million in a housing development in Parklands in the Western Cape.

Iran has a binational commission with South Africa to foster cultural and business ties between the two countries, and I was fulfilling a life-long dream as part of a team from South Africa sent to explore a range of potential scientific and cultural exchanges.

As the map of Iran faded from the screen, it became clear that these business and diplomatic forays into Iran have the potential to travel into the heart of the ancient country and explore its mysteries.

On the sides of the high walls of Teheran’s buildings, in the business districts, are a patina of political murals honouring those who gave their lives to the senseless Iraq-Iran war that went on for almost nine years, pictures of major figures within the clerical hierarchy along with anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans.

The friezes provide snatches of the issues and icons that shape Iran’s contemporary national psyche. I had landed in Teheran with a mixed dose of Africa, Western liberalism and an eclectic mix of Islamic influences inherited from my parents.

These provided me with some reference points with which to try to understand the society that swirled around me. Modern Iran stirs mixed feelings in outsiders: both an epiphany because of its rich and mystic heritage, and the fear of fervent pan-Islamism.

I knew intuitively there was a complexity at play that required abandonment of all prior views. I chose to ignore the chorus of negativity that we are accustomed to from the Western media.

The glitzy women with Gucci sunglasses in the plane were a symbol of many of the Iranian elite’s flexible, rather than fundamentalist, approach to Islam. These women were not fully covered as are women in Saudia Arabia or Afghanistan. Their chadoras (a black robe-like cloth) covered their breasts but allowed flashes of naked neck flesh. Their hands and arms were left free to display a wealth of bangles, rings and other paraphernalia.

It also became clear to me that as much as Iran’s Islamic revolution seeks to embed its values in the private and public space of its citizens, these people — without relinquishing the basic faith — are able to exercise a range of freedoms and choices.

I saw relations between men and women that especially brought this home. Much of it was open and without hesitation. Women are found in every workplace and government institution. Iran has many women in its Majlis (Parliament). At the World Summit for Sustainable Development held in 2002 in South Africa, the minister of environment was a woman surrounded by her male advisers. Iran’s most prominent human rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Iranian women continue to play an active role in public life, as they did during the revolution.

Iran has a population of about 60-million, which tripled from 18-million in 1980, making it a relatively youthful country — one of the biggest woes for the religious establishment is its restless youth, who are easily amenable to Western influence. And, these days, satellite television and the Internet have broken cultural isolation.

The last vestiges of the Persian empire, in the form of the Pahlavi Dynasty under Shah Reza, came to an end when the Shah was overthrown in 1979 following the Islamic revolution.

That Persian empire stretched from east to west, and lasted for about 3 000 years. Under Cyrus the Great (558 to 529BC), it became the centre of the world’s first em-pire. Successive invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Turks introduced new cultural influences in Iran.

To understand modern Iran and the origins of the revolution one needs to understand the religious character of its society. But it is perhaps the pervasiveness of its history that guarantees such diversity in the country.

Shias, who are a minority in Islam, have historically found themselves ostracised and persecuted by majority Sunnis and others — very much like other diaspora groups such as Jews and Gypsies. To survive as a minority, Shi’ism was marked by both political quietism and bouts of sporadic rebellion and revolutionary activism.

But the Shia Islamic revolution has not succeeded in emaciating Iran’s non-Islamic past as the period of the great emperors Cyrus and Darius remains a source of inspiration to the country’s people, its intellectuals — and for travellers. Pre-modern Persian culture leaves an indelible imprint on Iranian sense of place.

Iran’s current political history and outlook are largely shaped by the hostility between its government and the United States. The Bush administration identified Iran with Syria and North Korea as the “axis of evil”. Iran is also blamed for stoking insurgents from the ranks of the Shia majority in Iraq. These are sources of parodies that disguise the true richness of that country and its heritage.

I was in Iran for a woefully short time. I benefited from my Islamic background and knowledge of Shi’ism. My aunt told me once, when I was about nine, that our family may have come originally from Baghdad. All of this fuelled a personal intensity of curiosity.

But anybody who visits Iran these days is bound to be struck by the sense of both pride in its independence and a determination to sort out the many instabilities that derive from the complex fusion of secular life and religion that was reflected in the dress code of the elite on that plane.

Which is why anyone among the hundreds who now have the privilege of taking a business or diplomatic trip from South Africa to Iran should take off, from work as well as the typecasts, for at least a few days to explore the mythic, historic and contemporary complexities of this very ancient society.

Saliem Fakir travelled in a government delegation to Iran as part of a cultural and technology exchange between the two countries

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