Monday, October 13, 2008

The Towers of Silence, Yazd: plus, George Michael, Lars Von Trier and Iranian youth's Western pop culture diet



According to Mansour, my host in Yazd, the ‘Towers of Silence’ that lie just outside the city are a few thousand years old. We took a cab out there after I had spent the night at his classmates’ place, sleeping on a mattress in their couch-less, bed-less one-room apartment. Their walls were bare but for Persian poems and images of Ali and Hossein, two of the twelve Shi’a imams.

Mansour has dubbed one of them Clint, as in Eastwood.

“You know ‘Dirty Harry?,’” Mansour explained to me. “He looks just like him from that famous scene!”

Clint is Baluchi, one of the handful of ethnic minorities in Iran, but speaks Farsi at home. Apart from Baluchistan, in the southeast, Baluchis also live in Pakistan, to Iran’s east, and share similar loose, flowing garb and Sunni Islam with the people from that nation. They are often linked to the lawless drug trade that takes place along the Pakistan-Iran border. Clint however, could not have come across as more clean-cut: shy and ruggedly handsome, having his roommate translate for him while explaining Iranian card games to me.

Clint lives with Alef, who is from Bam, also in the southeast. It was once one of Iran’s most famous tourist destinations, because of its fairy-tale mud castle, but which was badly ruined along with much of the city by a 2003 earthquake . Alef wants to go back and work in tourism in Bam after his studies. All three of them are doing a BS in tourism management at Yazd University.

My CS buddy Mansour, at ease at a restaurant in town.


They have, like college students throughout the world, a solid collection of downloaded movies and music on their PC. Iranians have an unfortunate, if understandable enthusiasm for soft rock, which only seems to grow over time from a song’s original release. George Michael's "Careless Whisper" must surely be the country's English-language pop anthem, it's grip on the nation's psyche even rivals that which Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” continues to have over China's. Kenny G and Michael Bolton feature from car stereos and restaurant muzak playlists. A techno remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way” was pumping at a hip fast-food joint in Shiraz. Most of the time, however, the Iranian youth I’ve met seem to prefer Farsi pop, whether it takes the shape of electronica, hip-hop or otherwise.

So I was impressed to find a far more current movie collection on Alef and Clint’s PC. “Snatch,” “Crash” and one of my favorite documentaries, “Baraka,” were all there, as was the Korean cult-classic “Old Boy.” “The Piano” and Lars Von Trier's “Europa” were also neatly stored away, alongside a curious Indian-English animated musical. Iran's DVD stores seem filled only with “Die Hard”-aping action films and cheesy Hollywood romantic comedies, but these two college guys seemed to have acquired a more high-brow taste. No Iranian films however.

Away from European films, the two Towers of Silence and some well-preserved Zoroatrian buildings stand in the suburbs, next to a mine, not far from the university. Like Yazd's famous old city, the buildings are crafted from mud and thatch, and whose smooth, multi-domed roofs recall sand castles and children's paintings.

The garden courtyards of Iran have a most classic beauty (Yazd)

Mansour and I climbed to the top of one tower, taking breaks for his smoker’s lungs and my general lack of fitness. At the top, we stared into the circular hole where the Zoroastrians (whose prophet, Zoroastria, is also known as “Zarathustra”, of Nietzschean fame) would leave the bodies of their dead for vultures to pick clean. According to their religious beliefs, the elements are sacred, and so burying or cremating corpses is considered impure. Tibetans have a similar practice known as sky burial. However, due to hygiene concerns, the practice has been banned in Iran since the 1960s, and there’s now a Zoroastrian cemetery nearby.

Interestingly enough, the Zoroastrian symbol, “Faravahar", has been adopted as a symbol of Persian people, in direct opposition to the Arab influence upon the country, since the original Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Many Iranians make no qualms about displaying their resentment towards Arabs, generally separating the Arab people from Islam, the faith that they brought to the Persians. It features the profile of a male figure, with long wings and a tail/skirt below his torso. My host in Shiraz, Arshiya, wears it with pride, telling me he appreciates the simplicity of Zoroastrian doctrine: “You simply have to think, speak and do good.”

1 comment:

Francisco Galárraga said...

Fabulous post! Wonderful insights on Iranian culture. Can't wait to travel there!