Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Zoroaster's Children

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Zoroaster's Children

Article excerpt

At the main bus station in Tehran, a shabbily dressed man stopped in front of me and ran a finger across his throat. 'Iran no good," he whispered. I wanted to ask him why, find out what his story was, but already he was gone. All I can remember now is a terrible blankness in his face and then the back of his head as he slipped into the crowd until, seconds later, I could no longer tell which one was his. Almost exactly the same thing would happen to me in Isfahan: a scarecrow of a figure standing beneath a concrete bridge, same words, same gesture. When I stopped to say hello, pretending I hadn't understood him, he repeated the sentence over and over, as if it were a mantra drained of significance, his deadened eyes fixed upon some point further than I'd ever be able to see.

Should one describe a country in terms of its extremes? I could just as easily have begun by relating any number of kindnesses, but even these, as I moved from formal pleasantries to serious discourse, often had their sorrowful edges. Although my journey would take me, in a sense, from darkness towards light, what struck me most about the Iranians was their tragic demeanor. They seem to lack what the Arabs have in abundance, a sense of irony, and with it a capacity for easy laughter; they suffer endlessly, deep within themselves. "One does not laugh too loudly here," I was told, "for fear of upsetting one's neighbor." If a cold shaft of steel runs through people's lives, this is not at odds with their extraordinary hospitalityrather, it serves to explain it, as if there were nothing else to do but huddle together for warmth before a small fire.

Nearly the whole of history has been, as contemporary Iranians see it, one blow after another. One can almost smell the tears on the breeze. Still they speak of invasions, first that of the Arabs, this uncouth desert people who brought with them, on the tip of a sword, their new and majestic faith. I met even devout Muslims who spoke of the Arab invasions with more than a tinge of regret in their voices. They complained of how heavily their neighbors, destroying everything as they went, had struck at the Persian psyche. "The Arabs, even now, refer to us as ajam, 'they who do not speak the language'." At the same time they boasted of having given the Arabs, in their architecture and literature, the greater culture. There is a sense, though, in which the winged symbol of Ahura Mazda still hovers above the people. A merchant in Shiraz told me, "Scratch any Iranian and you'll find a Zoroastrian beneath the skin." I think this helps explain why in a country that has so often persecuted religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is, the surviving Zoroastrians have been given more latitude than most. If the Muslims are tolerant of the Zoroastrians, it is perhaps because they remember what they themselves once were.

Some six hundred years after the Arabs came the first of the Mongol hordes. A shudder runs though people when they speak of this. Almost the entire population of Isfahan was slaughtered by Tamerlane, who had the skulls of his victims heaped in pyramids. The Orient is a place where news stays news, something that we in the West ought to bear in mind when scratching our heads at, or when seeking to remedy, ancient grievances. The Iranians are quick to see imperialistic designs in every movement, in every shade. Another merchant spoke, almost with admiration, of the English, whom he feared for their intelligence more than he did the Americans, who, he said, are more honest but infinitely more naïve. "A hundred years ago, the English gave us the opium trade," he laughed, "and now there are warehouses in Isfahan full of the stuff, all of it destined for Europe."

Far more recently, of course, came the Islamic Revolution, when corpses dangled from cranes. "It was something we did in a terrible moment of drunkenness, out of some misdirected sense of hope," a cabdriver told me. "By the time we sobered up it was too late. …

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