All entries for Saturday 24 December 2005

December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas and more!


Hope everyone has a wonderful christmas full of merriment and good food!

Christmas is only celebrated by the Armenians (and any other Christians) in Iran and therefore it is not a national festival. However, there is another celebration here which has its similarities to Christmas: wednesday night (dec 21st) was shab-e yalda, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, an occasion for family to gather around each other and celebrate. Shab means night and yalda means birth: this night is recognised as the birth of the sun god Mitra, a god of Zoroastrianism (an ancient religion of sun worshipers which still exists today), and is thus symbolic of the triumph of light over darkness as the days become longer and the nights become shorter. Here is a carving of Mitra (figure on the right) from a Persian temple:

And here is a very popular western relief of Mitra sacrificing a bull:

Similar celebrations to shab-e yalda exist in Egypt and Russia, amongst other countries, who all celebrate this triumph of light at the begining of the new solar year. On shab-e yalda, families gather together and light a candle as a representation of light, prepare a feast of good food, nuts and fruit, with watermelon and pomegranet being particularly significant because the red colour of these fruits symbolises the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life, invoking the splendour of Mitra. Another tradition is to read poems especially by the poet Hafiz. With Hafiz's poetry it is possible to read fortunes: you close your eyes, ask a question and open Hafiz's divan at a random page. The poem that you open to will give the answer to your question (and more often than not it answers correctly). Shab-e yalda, being the longest and darkest night of the year, has become a symbol in Persian poetry, a representation of prologued separation from a loved one, loneliness, anticipation and here are some examples from the poet Sa'adi:

'The sight of you each morning is a New Year
Any night of your departure is the eve of Yalda'
'With all my pains, there is still the hope of recovery
Like the eve of Yalda, there will finally be an end'

The similarities to Christmas so far are the gathering around each other. However, historically on shab-e yalda, which was a pre-Christian festival, families would put presents beneath a tree and then distribute them amongst the poor the next morning. Sound slightly familiar? Shab-e yalda is also the reason that Christ's birthday is celebated on the 25th dec instead of its original date of 6th jan:

Over the centuries Mithraism [Zorastrianism] spread to Greece and Ancient Rome via Asia Minor, gaining popularity within the ranks of the Roman army. In the 4th century AD as a result of errors made in calculating leap years and dates, the birthday of Mithra was transferred to 25 December. Until then Christ's birthday had been celebrated on 6 January by all branches of the Christian Church. But with the cult of Mithra still popular in Roman Europe, the Christian Church adopted many of the Mithraic rituals and proclaimed 25 December as the official birthday of Christ.

Interesting stuff. What did I do on shab-e yalda? Gathered around some friends, ate a lot, lit candles, read love fortunes, sang songs…I then then joined my cousins at a party, arriving just in time for a recital of Hafiz accompanied by a deep, juicy bowl of pomegranet seeds :) mmmmmm.

One of the highlights of this past week has been visiting the Museum of National Jewels (previously Royal Jewels). The museum is in a vault beneath the Melli (national) Bank of Iran. It houses some of the most exquisite rareties of the world including the 'Dariaye Nour' (The Sea of Light) which is the worlds largest pink diamond, the sister of which is the world's largest white diamond that lives in the Tower of London amongst the Crown Jewels. I have never been to a museum of royal treasures and thus this was the first time I had ever been exposed to so much shiny, expensive, beautiful things. I wandered around like a sedated magpie, staggering from one work of art to the other. We latched onto a tour group and got the lo-down on all of the monarchs which owned the jewels too. One of my favourite items in the museum was Nader Shah's throne:

This is a bad picture but I am sure you get the idea. It's a wonderfuly intricate piece of art with something like over 1000 (correct me if I'm wrong) precious jewels embedded in it, and the entire surface is decorated with mina-kari, a special style of Persian painting. The best thing about this throne was that, with all its majesty, it was not even a palace throne – it was Nader Shah's picnic chair!

My other favourite item was an ostritch egg which had been engraved with carvings of birds and flowers. I was blown away by the delecacy of the carvings and the fact that someone was skilled enough to be able to creat such a carving by hand without cracking the egg. Sadly there aren't any pictures of it to show you. I can't descibe it all, but other things that made me smile were the ornately expensive domestic items such as ghelioon (shisha), bowl covers, dishes and foot exfoliators which were adorned with gold, silver, mina-kari and some of the worlds most precious collections of emerals, diamons, rubies and turqouise stones.

Whist I was browsing the cases of rareties, I got talking to one of the guards and as soon as he found out I was from England the questions issued forth…the first being 'So, is it better here or back in England?' It is amazin how many people have asked me that. Everyone wants to know what you think of Iran as a Westerner, and why. Why is it good? or bad? Would I live here or there if I could choose? It is always hard to answer this question because the two environments are completely different. There is a phrase here that I use which is that Iran and England are as different as the sky is to the ground. I love being here in my holidays, having fun with my cousins and going out to nice places every day, but to live here is another thing altogether: to work, to study, to learn the language to a professional level, to earl a salary in rials but have to spend money at the rate of dollars, to learn my way around, to accept living under an Islamic Republic…etc etc. It is something that I would like to experience in my lifetime. Something that is important for me to understand, but I'd have to adjust to a completely new way of life.

People here often ask about how different things are in England from a cultural point of view, and I realised this trip that I have to answer from two persectives, from that of the student community that I belong to and that of England in general. This is because our student environment is a highly sociable one. When we started at Warwick, no one knew anyone and everyone was keen to make friends. Living together in halls and close by each other on campus created a wide network of people there to support each other, cook for each other, comfort each other, effectively act as each other's family. This is a social system that is not generally characteristic of English society because England is, generally speaking, an individualistic society, every person acts for him/herself, not as part of a network/community of people. This university community we have is more like the collectivist family and residential communities of Eastern cultures. University, especially Warwick, is a bubble of support, opportunity and culture that is not realistic of the 'real world' so I always have to think twice when answering the above question from the point of view of my current way of life.

But, in general, things are very different here. For me, spending money here is very cheap because of the rates, but for someone earning a salary of toumans/rials it is very expensive. Knowing this, it is hard for me to accept the tradition of 'tarof' here. What is tarof? I'm not sure that it has an equal term in English so I will try and explain. It is a term that encompasses many etiquets here and the best way to illustrate it is to give examples. Say my cousin takes me out for coffee, we will not pay for ourselves, one of us will pay the bill and treat the other person. The tarof is that we fight over who will pay and both refuse to let the other person pay. The etiquet is that if your a visitor, the person taking you out will never let you pay the bill, so I have paid for hardly anything here! Another tarof is if someone offers you something and you refuse politely, they will persist in offering until you take some of whatever they're offering, or refuse quite profusely. There are just two examples, there are many other instances of tarof but I hope you get the idea…tarof is an extremely important etiquet in Iranian culture, and other cultures too, but especially with the Iranians :)

One treat I accepted was that yesterday I went skiing at the Tochal ski slope with my cousin and her husband. Tochal is in the Alborz mountains just above Tehran. To reach the slope and the beautiful hotel there, you must take a 25 minute tele cabin ride up the mountains. It's by no means a hindrance because you see Tehran spread before you like an immense sea of lego that spreads past the eye's horizon, and then the buildings give way to the shoreline of mountains and the view of peaks rising and falling stretches for miles around. We got to enjoy the view of Tehran and some of the mountains, but our telecabin soon entered a light blizard and the fog grew so thick that at one point we couldn't even see the telecabin cable above our heads. It was as though the world had been erased from around us and it felt like we were somehow weightless and floating in an expase of nothingness.

We skiied for a while before the slope had to be closed due to the thick fog and heavy snow, but it was worth going for the experience.

One thing I have felt here is that people really have a passion of life. They are energetic and enthusiastic and brimming with kindness. I know this is a biased point of view because I am a visitor and for the two weeks that I am here people make an effort to show me a good time, but I also think that this enthusiasm for life is inherant in the spirit of the Iranian people. Maybe it is a result of being restricted under such an opressive political regime that the Iranian people make the most of what they do have to bring joy to their lives: the beautiful landscape, mountains, rivers, passion for a subject or band or place, good food, good music, good literature, and most of all good company…or maybe it is just in their blood. Whatever it is, as I've said before, with all of the downfalls and difficulties and inevitability of "bad" people existing in this country, there is still a strength of spirit and hospitality that I have not experienced anywhere else.

There is so much still to write stored away between my ears, but I think I'll save it for another time, a poem, a story or a later conversation, or maybe it'll remain locked in the chest of my mind forever. Who knows. For now, MERRY CHRISTMAS, enjoy your presents and I'll see you soon!

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