Iran: A Cultural Paradise Lost

A sense of frustration pervades Iranian society, most evident in its women for whom outward expression, in their dress or their actions, is forbidden.

A book of verses underneath the Bough A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness – Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow -Omar Khayyam When visiting Iran, one is often struck by acts of generosity and kindness. There exists a sense of hospitality that knows no bounds, inspired by poets such as Rumi who once wrote: “If you have much, give of your wealth; If you have little, give of your heart.” Yet a sense of frustration pervades Iranian society, most evident in its women for whom outward expression, in their dress or their actions, is forbidden. The words of Khayyam, Rumi or Sa’adi describe a culture now in exile from its country. These classical Persian poets speak of an exuberant, expressive people of a character inconsistent with the dictates of those governing modern Iran. Today, to enjoy a “Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou” would be to risk a dreadful rebuke. There are many other expressions that for too long have been denied these wonderful people. To be sure, the suppression of choice and freedom in Iran preceded the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The previous rulers of the Pahlavi Dynasty were in many ways equally repressive. Traditional Islamic clothing was forbidden and police forcibly removed chadors from women who resisted. The pendulum, fixed to one extreme, then sung violently to the other, as the Islamic Republic mandated the wearing of the veil. Choice was denied in both cases. The pendulum is now held tightly, unlikely to be soon released. Written on posters and painted on walls are regular warnings that women should guard their modesty, and men avert their eyes. Empathy is often sacrificed when you look the other way. But restrictions that were so strictly enforced in the early years of the regime have been relaxed. Women are by law not allowed to be in the presence of a man who was not mahram, a close relative, but an increasing number of women defy this dictate. I spoke to one who whose marriage was arranged. Divorce soon followed – but only after she had tried to take her life. Conservative-minded Iranians live comfortably under the current regime. The right to practice their religion had been eroded under the Pahlavi Dynasty. Such rights have been returned at the expense of the freedom of others as successive regimes created artificial divide between secularists and adherents of the Islamic faith. It is possible to be pious in a properly secular society. Iranians remain children of their culture, which is the sum of many parts: faith, literature, language and architecture. Whilst driving from Esfahan to Tehran, I looked out on the clear night sky and caught a glimpse of Canis Major, my identification of this constellation the product of my final year of primary school, during which I was prisoner to my teacher’s keen interest in astronomy. Seeing this constellation as clearly as I would in an Australian night sky, it reminded me that we are one under the stars. Is there really so much which separates the hopes, fears and desires of people everywhere? Were the sentiments of Khayyam, Rumi or Sa’adi, beautifully expressed through a distinctive tradition of classical poetry, so different to those of artists born to other cultures? Artists of diverse backgrounds and different traditions often employ different styles to describe a common humanity. Conrad once wrote that the artist appeals to the “subtle but invisible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in inspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear which binds men to each other, which binds all humanity.” But the common thread that runs through most writers is empathy – of which the current regime is devoid. Those who summoned Farsi to the service of poetry expressed an open mind and an open heart. Rumi remains widely read in Iran, but in the years following the Islamic Revolution, western writers were banned. Cinema was in the decades following the Revolution famously censored by a blind man who required an assistant to narrate the scenes and record his decisions to consent or to cut. The atmosphere is now more relaxed, but artistic expressions such as music and cinema are still censored. The result is a culture living in exile from its people, replaced by a dogmatic approach that cannot be softened through an exchange of art which “binds all humanity”, as such exchanges are limited, censored or banned. Will our generation come to know the people of this culture, whose instinct for kindness is inspired by poets such as Sa’adi, who once wrote: “Blessed is he for whom the wellbeing of all mankind/Is far superior to his own comfort?” Gradual, painful change is evident, but a balance between the pious and the secular, the exuberant and the strict adherent, remains in the distant future. As we wait for the moving finger to write, essential parts of the lives of many Iranians remain behind closed doors.

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