Yearning For the Beauty of Iran

I STROLLED down Tehran's Pahlavi Avenue past French boutiques, Persian carpet shops, and Armenian-owned stores. The aroma of grilled lamb drifted from a restaurant, and a bored clerk stood in the entrance to a cinema, jingling coins in the pockets of his trousers. Men in Western suits and women in thin summer dresses or dark flowing veils thronged the streets. Chauffeurs guided sleek cars down the tree-lined avenue, and blocks away heavy-laden donkeys lumbered down dark alleys.

East and West, secular and sacred, mingled easily. But strong currents surged beneath this placid surface. A hated shah totteredon his Peacock Throne. And in Iraq, an exiled ayatollah, like the man in the moon, pulled the tides of Iran's future. It was 1978, and these were the last months of the Pahlavi dynasty.

The next year I joined my husband, Hashem, in the exodus that followed the revolution, reluctantly leaving a people and a land I had come to love.

But the beguiling Persian culture still haunts me, surviving the bitter years since the revolution and the disturbing portrait of Iran which has become America's collective image.

My ears strain for the twang of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer with his chant of ``Arise, awake, prayer is better than sleep.'' My mouth waters for succulent grilled kabobs eaten under olive trees in the mountains. My nose misses the scents of turmeric, saffron, and coriander wafting through the air. My eyes yearn for fountained Persian courtyards and blue and gold minarets rising slender against a cloudless sky.

But most of all, my heart misses the lavish, sociable, and affectionate Iranians, a proud people, conscious of the great civilization which is their birthright.

Iranians luxuriate in their history, an opulent parade of rogues and cavaliers dressed in sparkling diadems and twisted turbans. Shahs and viziers, poets, imams, and ayatollahs have traipsed across Iran's stage, leaving their imprint on the Iranian people. Their history abounds with plots and counterplots which have left them skeptical masters of strategy with scant trust of any government. They have learned to lie low in times of trouble; to find solace in poetry, music, and religion; to live, not in step with their government, but in spite of it.

Yet they are a politically savvy people, made so by their strategic location and oil reserves, long coveted by powerful nations. As long as one person in a village can read, villagers are informed, and tea houses across Iran are filled with illiterate villagers discussing international alliances, American elections, and OPEC quotas.

The Iranians are dreamers and philosophers, nurtured by miles of barren deserts, and hardened by the snow-covered mountains which rise above the Iranian plateau. ``All Iranians are artists,'' said the late Shah. They are all poets as well. Iranians, from simple shepherds to government ministers, can recite the poignant verse of Hafiz, Sadi, and Ferdowsi. Millions visit the tomb of Hafiz each year, removing their shoes before entering. This is hallowed ground.

My husband, Hashem, recited verse to our son Michael as he lay in his crib, as his father had done before him. There is a continuity to life in Iran, a rhythm of traditions passed from generation to generation. When Hashem's father called, he went to him. It was his duty. He kissed his father on both cheeks each time they met and consulted him on all matters of importance. ``He has lived longer than us,'' Hashem said. ``He is wiser.''

We called my father-in-law Hajji, because he had made the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. He spent his days counting his money, saying his prayers, and adoring his grandchildren. ``You are the milk,'' Hajji said to his children. ``And they are the cream,'' he said, motioning to his tumbling grandchildren.

Hajji's home on the edge of the desert blazed with carpets, which captured the Iranian love of gardens and growing things. Elfin fawns cavorted under the tree of life, which branched out across the carpets. Blossoming flowers rambled along flowing streams, and tiny birds fluttered above. Entwined with it all was the name of God, woven into the carpets in brilliant colors, just as religion is tangled into Iranian life. These carpets personify the Iranian character, which combines a joyous love of life and beauty with a hunger for spirituality.

Fatima, our 40-year-old Kurdish housekeeper, possessed these two traits. Dressed in worn, dark clothes, her eyelids heavy with iridescent green powder, she bowed low in prayer five times each day. In the evenings, after murmuring Michael to sleep with Persian lullabies, she spun through the house, dancing like a whirling dervish.

One day I found Fatima fingering a garish rhinestone necklace which had lain in my drawer, unworn, for years. ``Madame,'' she said, turning the necklace in the light, ``when you go to America, please bring me such a thing.'' I gave her the necklace and I never saw her again without it.

When the sun set, friends and families gathered to while away the evening. Dancers, often with children on their shoulders, undulated around the room. Old men lounged on carpets in courtyards underneath the star-strewn sky while children romped among them. The devout splashed their hands and face in ablution, and prostrated themselves in prayer while others spoke in hushed voices and clinked their glasses.

Our dinners were feasts of lamb kabobs, grilled and served atop a heaping tray of rice, golden with saffron; salads dressed with lime juice and sprinkled with mint leaves; succulent stuffed eggplants sweet with raisins; freshly baked flat breads; baskets of pastry scented with rosewater, and fresh fruits - oranges from Israel; pomegranate seeds, sparkling like rubies; and tiny grapes, purple against their emerald leaves. They were prepared by many hands, and served by women swaying to Persian music.

It was a tender life style, but it has changed now. The Iran of the ayatollahs marches to the cadence of mournful Islamic chants, echoing through a land where Persian music once tinkled like silver coins. Countless mourners wander dusty cemeteries, and others, like Hajji, mourn for cherished children and grandchildren scattered throughout the world. Women shroud themselves in black, and Fatima's glittering necklace is hidden beneath the obligatory Islamic veil.

It's a harsh tune the ayatollahs are playing, and the Iranians cannot dance to it forever. Iran is still the shining land of Persia where Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes rode horses flashing with jewels on perfumed paths strewn with hyacinths. This ancient legacy burns within the Persian psyche; even the stern morality of Islam cannot extinguish it.

The Iranians are lying low now, taking cover as they have done in times of trouble throughout the ages. But like Fatima's glittering necklace, the vibrant spirit of Iran still glows beneath today's solemn Islamic wraps.

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