Month: January 2015

Iran: Cultural Revolutions

I went to Iran consciously looking for signs of rebellion and protest. As the days passed when I was there it was clear that I didn’t have to look very hard- there were signs of protest and rebellion against the regime all around. Whether it was the aforementioned Zoroastrian symbols on show, or the Tehrani girls seeing just how short their mantows could be, and how much their hijab could fall off, it was quite obvious that lots of people had different ideas from that of the government. In history, Persian culture spread to the surrounding areas despite numerous invasions. It was Persian culture that triumphed, and not the conquering peoples’. It doesn’t seem too dissimilar to modern day Iran, where their rich and sophisticated culture is seeping through the cracks in the Revolution’s restrictions.

…In Isfahan, under a bridge, an elderly gentleman starts to sing. He sees me, singles me out and sits me down next to him in the middle of everyone. Mortified, I politely sit and listen to his love songs. He tells the gathering crowd that they must show the foreigner how welcoming and friendly Iranians are. He says he can only sing one more because the police will come soon to move him along. Embarrassed, out of my comfort zone and slightly wary of the fact undercover police are probably mingling amongst the crowd, I silently listen and appreciate his gesture of goodwill and kindness to the blondie in the crowd. Singing under bridges is an old Persian tradition, where people gather to sing and listen. These days, public gatherings of this nature are frowned upon and the gent knew this only too well. But still he sang. He sang to me…

In Tehran, I went to the theatre. I can’t say I used to go a lot at home, only a handful of times I think, but the absence of some kind of sophisticated, domesticated culture in my life made me jump at the chance. Picture the Iran we think we know from the news. Now picture a European theatre with educated professionals, students and liberals. If I’m allowed to make judgments based on appearance, the Tehrani crowd was filled with the latter. I could’ve been in London. I had no idea what they were saying, but I felt very comfortable and inspired by the existence of the performing arts there. I tried to follow what was going on by the (very well performed) expressions on the actors’ (and actress’s!) faces. The title was Calvin and Castellio’s Revolution. I saw Christian monks, lots of weeping, and an obvious challenge to the Catholic authorities in the story line, but it was a little difficult to piece it all together. I knew about John Calvin, but that was about it. What was slightly apparent is that it resembled modern day Iran and the Mullahs. After the show, it was pieced together for me…

“It was about the Catholic Church sentencing a writer and also a physician for his controversial writings and beliefs. The writer, Michele Serveh, thought of God as a source of mercy which contradicted the priests’ image of Him. The priests considered all people as natural born sinners who should have their sins removed through asceticism and self-restraint from carnal desires.  In the court, the priests explicitly condemned Serveh for his merciful view of God and talked about how the expansion of this belief would be a threat to the Church and everyone.

Sebastian Castellio was a lawyer. At the beginning of the play Serveh asked him to accept his case, which he did at first. However, after a few days and as a result of the pressures imposed on him by the priests, and the threats of taking away his pregnant wife, he decided to decline the case.

At the end of the play and after the execution of Serveh, Castellio realises what a mistake he has made and decides to change his path and make up for it. Thus, he goes to the priests who are having dinner around a table covered with a red table cloth (symbolising blood). The layout of the table and seats was similar to ‘the last supper’. It was there that Castellio declares his anger for their incorrect deeds as so-called men of God. He says: ‘I have decided to be your Judah, although, I do not see any Messiah at this table’.

John Calvin was one of the priests who had great influence on the attorney and their verdict.

In general it was talking about inquisition, about how the authorities can use religion and fear of God as a means of oppressing people, and about the authorities’ fear of people gaining awareness (through books, or any other means).

The interesting point is that even in the brochure of the play the director clearly writes: ‘The approach used in this play is intended to create a situation where the audience find themselves in the time of the original event’.”

Quite shocking that this kind of thing is allowed to go on in theatres. I’m told it’s fairly normal for the theatre to be controversial, subversive and revolutionary. If it was a book or a film, it’d be banned. But in the theatre…voilà. There’s more than a little hope for Iran. If this section of modern Iranian culture is anything to go by, revolution is happening again. Not like the last one that was hijacked by the current powers that be, maybe they can’t trust that kind of revolution again. This is more like a cultural revolution, where the authorities are realising that they just can’t make people behave in the way they want. In nearby lands, I get the impression that the status quo is generally supported by the masses because it’s their culture. In Iran, I got the impression that it isn’t supported as much because it isn’t their culture. I was told that in the last couple of years there have been signs (e.g. with dress and theatre) that the authorities are simply starting to give up. It’s depressing to see such a sophisticated lot, cultured and educated, be put under such restrictions in life. Despite not understanding a word, the trip to the theatre was the most interesting evening for me. I’ve been to the majority of the middle east, and this was the most inspiring side of humanity I’ve seen in any of the countries. Perhaps it was patronising of me to not expect this. But the fact is I didn’t expect it, and I was very happy to discover it. It showed me a side of Tehran that completely contradicts the negative western image of Iran, and showed me that cultural rebellion is alive and well, and the future of Iran might not look all that bad. I think a healthy society is one that can, with a wink and a smile, show two fingers to the authorities. It seems that certain segments of society are doing just that. Viva la revolución

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I don’t normally go in for souvenirs. But I couldn’t resist…

Calvin

Iran: Armenian Orthodoxy

My Christian tourism in Isfahan was an unexpected bonus (Christmas trees!). Whilst looking at pretty churches and cathedrals can become very samey in Europe, there’s something magnetic about seeing them in majority Muslim countries. It’s no doubt because they don’t exist where I live, full stop. Iran on the other hand, has a decent sized Armenian community, and some very old churches. I think it’s the political implications of churches in Muslim countries that interests me – and yet another example of how very different Saudi Arabia is from most of the surrounding countries. So a little unwisely, that was the angle I went for when talking to a man in Vank Cathedral in Jolfa, Isfahan. Incidentally, I believe Jolfa comes from the area lots of Armenians fled from during the holocaust, and were given sanctuary in this part of Isfahan, so it’s named after them.

It’s difficult to tell if people are angry or not when everything’s being translated, but I think he was a little annoyed at my British ignorance. After we’d established that they were indeed Orthodox and not Catholic, I asked the obvious question (to me) about government interference in their religion. I felt I got a disgruntled answer, and I was a little embarrassed in all honesty… He wanted to know why on Earth I’d be asking that question. Couldn’t I see how open the church was? Tourists were popping in and out, Muslim and Christian, Iranian and foreign. The wall art was in good condition, and people were marvelling at its detail and colour. The shop sold Christmas items, icons, rosaries and various Christian trinkets. What part of all this makes me think I should ask a question about government interference?

He had a few things to say about Britain and the way we (don’t) educate ourselves. Paraphrased, the Armenians had Christianity before Britain did, but we seem to forget that Jesus wasn’t English. There were a few choice words about the Armenian Holocaust too, when Britain couldn’t help out because, “our boats couldn’t reach them.”

It was refreshing to hear a Christian Iranian so anti-British whilst pro-Iranian at the same time. My stereotype of Iran beforehand led me to believe it would be the staunch Shi’a regime guys that would be like that, which I’m sure they are, but this man’s church was selling Christmas cards. It’s hard to disagree with him when he claims we’re lied to about Iran. I guess it isn’t nice to hear negative propaganda about “those Iranian Muslims” when there’s clearly a safe minority of people who belong to an older version of the same religion most western countries have come out of.

But anyway, I apologised on behalf of the Queen and he laughed reassuring me that history had nothing to do with me. I’ve no idea how I would have been made aware of the situation of Iranian-Armenian Christians if I hadn’t travelled there. As far as I know, the Daily Mail hasn’t ran that story yet.

I took a peek in the shop and without a hint of cheekiness wished the girls there Merry Christmas. It’s remarkable how much I think Saudi culture influences me even when out of the country. I wouldn’t have thought ten years ago that me saying, “Merry Christmas” in public would be a source of amusement.

…Round the corner in the Church of Holy Bethlehem, Gregorian-style music played softly in an old decorated church with evidence of the sun god “Mehr” on the outside walls showing the influence of Persian culture on Christianity in the past…

As a final note, I also went to a Catholic Church in Tehran, which had an Irish priest, on Christmas Eve for their Midnight Mass. I only stayed an hour, but it was filled with Armenians, Iranians and foreigners – mostly with their heads uncovered. They had a musical nativity thing going on, and it was all very…normal…I think that actually broke the stereotype of Iran and Christianity more than Vank Cathedral.

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