After spending a week in Mashhad, I found there are at least three perceived versions of contemporary Iran: one, an isolated Iran presented by the Fox News et al, second an iron-curtain Iran purported by post-Islamic revolution regimes, and third an innovative Iran represented by a cultured, youthful and subtly simmering society which according to an Iranian medical professional has nonetheless become “too mature and too tired”.
Hoza-e-Hazardastan, a basement restaurant in downtown Mashhad museumises a flavour of Iranian cultural nostalgia. This exotically curated restaurant presents Iran’s diverse antiquity interwoven with mythical, religious and left-radical expressions – starting from the imaginative sketches of religious veterans, paintings depicting male darveshes in womanly attire to the centrally-placed sculpture of Mirza Koochak Khan, a socialist-nationalist known as Koochak-e-Jangli, who founded the Red Republic of Jungle in the forest areas of Gilan in 1920s.
Buried in Tus — a few miles from central Mashhad — Ferdowsi, the poet author of Iranian epic Shahnameh is considered a great nationalist-linguist who preserved Persian language against the cultural and lingual onslaught of Arab invaders. Dr. Mohsen Rahjerdi, a PhD in psychology narrates: “It’s been one thousand and seven years now that Iranians owe a lot to Hakeem Ferdowsi for building a reservoir of Farsi language by writing fifty thousand couplets in classical Farsi. Most Iranians believe that Farsi language exists today because of Ferdowsi.”
Visiting Tus on a soothing bright spring day and paying homage to Ferdowsi was a great spiritual expedition. Experts have noted that the shrine design is inspired by the Achaemenid architecture specially the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The day we visited, the tomb was thronged by a college tour of radiating female students, clad in black burqas or hijabs, wearing jeans and taking selfies – of course keeping Ferdowsi’s mausoleum right in the backdrop. They did not hesitate to pose for pictures and neither did they look like they were nervous or victims of self-doubt.
I was pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming participation of women in public and social life of Mashhad. It reversed some of the stereotypes that I had brought with me to Iran. Women from various age groups – although mostly the younger lot – had a massive representation in public places. Women were driving cars freely – alone as well as accompanied by male members of their families sitting in front seats. In big shopping centres, women were managing businesses and running shops.
I happened to interview a girl at such a centre in Mashhad who also works as a part-time model for non-Iranian products. She desires to work in films dedicated to social issues. Naumi Mehr, a Mashhad-based English language teacher, told me in a persuasive tone that women, at least in urban areas, are not restricted to their homes only. They go out and step into social, educational and professional realms of life, she argued.
It was another a feast to attend a musical evening presenting folk tunes, rustic vocalists and traditional instrumentalists from Khorasan-Razvi province at Nigar Khana-e-Ferdowsi — established in a building dedicated to Dr. Ali Shariati where he and his father used to teach. “The Khorasan-Razvi province beholds various cultures and ethnic music styles representing Kurd, Turk, Turkmen and Hazara ethnic tribes,” explained an eloquent English-speaking moderator of the event. The evening was filled with soulful musical performances by people from the mountainous North Khorasan and desert dwellers of South and East Khorasan.
Wearing a double-folded turban resembling the one that the Baloch wear and dressed in white starched outfit, Rameznali Saeedi opened the evening with zurna (a wind instrument resembling the shehnai) accompanied by a dhol player. Mujtaba Ghaytaqee, researcher of Khorasan music explained to curious audiences: “Dutar (two-stringed lute), Zurna (shehnai), Kamancheh (bowed string instrument related to Rabab), Qoshme (double clarinet), Dhol (drum) and Ney (end-blown flute) are among common musical instruments of the Khorasan region. He further commented that “dutar is better adopted and engaged in Khorasan and instrumentalists regard it an instrument of prayer and spiritual purification and its music is an attempt [towards] a spiritual transcendence.”
Bakshi art, a combination of lyrics, instruments, and narration, is another valuable antique from Khorasan province; and, according to some legends, is similar to the art by minstrels of ancient Persia. In central and upper Punjab, Aalam Lohar and Ba’ali Jatti are famous for the theatrical art of dastangoi closely related to Iranian Bakshi art. Gholamhossein Ghaffari and Mohsen Askari presented piece of Bakshi art and it took me a while to differentiate if I was listening to Persian folk or music from the Indus.
Indicating towards all male artists performing at the event, I asked a venerable host: “I wish one day the exiled Iranian-origin female pop singer Googoosh performs at Mashhad’s Nigar Khana-e-Ferdowsi; is it possible?” “Insha Allah, why not?” came the enthusiastic response.
Next day, Mashhad was preparing for Nowruz — a pre-Islamic ancient Iranian new year which begins with the onset of spring. The city administration was eagerly involved in the beautification of the city by decorating flower vessels, greenbelts, turning pathways into artificial meadows lit with all shades of sharp colours dominated by saffron. “Nowruz is an elaborate ritual extended to thirteen days of complete sign-out from work, school, business and other daily routine,” Dr. Amir Azizi, head of Mashhad Municipality elaborated how they prepare city to celebrate the indigenous new year. Naumi Mehr reiterated that “we celebrate only our new year, we don’t celebrate 31st December as a new year.”
Citing Haft-Seen as a central element of Nowruz, Dr. Mohsen Rahjerdi lamented that the concept of Haft-Seen is misconstrued by some western scholars who have changed it to Haft Sheen. He recounts those seven key elements of Nowruz: sabzeh, samanu, senjed, seer, seeb, somāq, serkeh. “You see, all these seven elements are either directly picked form a tree or a plant or made of it,” Dr. Rajheri explained. This is how Nowruz in Iranian imagination is attributed to nature, ecology and self-renewal.
Masuod Souhili, a young filmmaker who runs a film company in Mashhad distinguishes between new year based on any religion and new year determined by a seasonal calendar. “I like our new year more than others because it’s based on changing seasons not religion,” Souhili remarked. “Even though it’s from Zoroastrian culture, it does not have much of a religious influence on it,” Souhili clarifies. “By spring, everything will be renewed in nature; by Nowruz we have this chance to refresh many things within ourselves.”
Souhili also talked about some fading Iranian cultural traditions and as an example he refeRRED to Chahahrshanbe Suri. “Under this tradition, we celebrate the last Tuesday of the year by making fire, singing and dancing. It used to be a great festivity but through some modern distortions, it has become one of the most dangerous nights of the year…because the meaning of fire has been changed in this festivity. Technology also changed many things in these celebrations.”
Given my brief (week-long) interaction with diverse groups of people across genders, ethnicities and age groups, I could not agree more with Masoud Souhili that people from outside largely see Mashhad only as a religious city and fail to appreciate the wide range of cultural shades of the city. He even went on to point out that if you have a chance to visit cinemas or theatres in Mashhad, you’ll see how important art is for the people.
Since coming back, I have been thinking about how this side of Iran is conveniently overlooked while Iranian society celebrates another spring, another Nowruz, irrespective of the continuous stereotyping.