Iran: Persian Miniatures Drawn From Life

The shah is a man in a hurry, eager to turn his prosperous country into a modern, secular state, but much of Iran’s citizenry insists on honoring its ancient traditions.

Persian miniatures are as intricate and puzzling to the Western eye as is the land of Iran itself. As in the miniatures, so in real life it is hard to distinguish between the finite and the infinite, the main event and the sideshow, reality and fantasy, the world as it exists and the world of symbolism. The traveler in Iran, enchanted by the beauty and stylishness of what he discovers, also finds himself troubled by the uneasy present.

The man next to me on the plane from New York to Tehran was an American, a geologist, on his third mission to Iran. This time he was to participate in the final decision as to whether or not a nuclear power plant should be built near one of the largest cities. Iran is earthquake country, and that creates an acute problem of finding relatively safe sites for the twenty or more nuclear power stations the shah has decided to build in preparation for the time when, in twenty to thirty years, Iran’s oil reserves will have run out. He showed me on a small map how earth faults crisscross Iran and how hard it therefore is to find safe locations, even though none of the faults have moved for some 35,000 years. One of them could move at any time, the geologist said, or maybe not for fifty or a hundred years. After all, what is a hundred years in geology?

He expected to meet with two seismologists, two structural engineering experts, one soil engineer, and the representative of the Iranian government who is responsible for the shah’s costly nuclear power plant construction program, to decide whether the plant would be safe in the chosen spot and how much quake resistance to build into it, and to determine the cost. The geologist explained to me that a built-in 30 percent horizontal resistance is now being planned, but in his view that is less than the safe minimum. (In California, nuclear plants, because of the greater potential danger of earth motion, have a built-in horizontal resistance of 50 percent geothermal units.) In the case of the Iranian plant an increase from 30 to 40 percent would double the cost from one to two billion dollars.

I was not to discover what the final decision was. But the encounter, even before I had set foot on Iranian soil, provided the first of a series of insights into the diversity of the problems facing the shah as he seeks to prepare his country for a future in which the shocks may be as readily political as geological.

The women

Among the political shocks, and one that is causing a profound upheaval, is the drive for women’s emancipation. Mrs. Afkhami, the minister for women’s affairs, is a handsome, welldressed lady in her mid-forties. She is highly articulate, businesslike, and, having taught at the University of Colorado, something of a disciple of the American women’s liberation movement. She knows that hers is an uphill battle, because, as she puts it, the opinion-forming people—the new middle class—approve of the new role for women, but the silent masses do not. Some doubt whether the newly educated, budding middle class can adjust as easily to the modernization of Iranian life as Mrs. Afkhami believes, but she is convinced that the shah has begun to gain from them the political support for which he is hoping. Freedom, though, is a personal thing.

Noosh is nineteen, and offers an instructive example of the hopes and frustrations of the liberated Iranian woman. She is one of eight children; her father, an army officer, died two years ago of cancer, her mother five months later of a heart attack. At twentyfour, her oldest brother, an electronics engineer, is now more or less in charge of the family, whose youngest member is only five years old. Noosh takes care of the youngest.

“Because there are no parents now,” she explained, “there is a great difference between this little girl and others of her age. Just as there is a difference between a flower that grows in a garden and one that lives in the mountain, where the earth is not that good and the winds are sharp. She can take much more than a girl of her age normally would, and that makes it easier for me to look after her needs, even though I have a full-time job.”

Nevertheless, she said, her brother hates her having a job, hates her taking French lessons (she is now saving to go for a summer to a university in France), hates her independence and her desire to be a person in her own right. This may not go excessively beyond male chauvinism as we know it in the West, but he also objects to her riding a bicycle. And recently he threatened to kill her if she defied his order. I asked whether he meant it literally or just figuratively, and she gave me a pitying look and replied: “Of course, he meant it literally. But how else am I going to get to work?”

When I told Mrs. Afkhami the story, she was a little skeptical. Then she admitted that maybe the brother did mean it, for the idea of women shaking off their inferior status is still very hard to swallow for the majority of Iranian males, especially those of the traditional middle class, the bazaar merchants who resent innovations and whose organizations, the guilds, remain powerful enough to resist orders from the shah. They and the peasants still insist on their women wearing the chador, the symbol of the subordinate role of women: a drab, long, square cloth that hangs loosely from the head and covers everything from the hair down, concealing the woman’s female attractions in accordance with the prescription of the Koran. In Tehran most of the young women and girls one sees in the streets have rid themselves of this symbol. But in the countryside, in southern Iran, and in most of the smaller towns, the majority of women still wear them and pull them shyly over their faces when they notice a man looking at them.

On the university campus at Esfahān, most of the girls wear hip-fitting blue jeans and T-shirts, but to my surprise there were also a few who wore the chador, which Reza Shah Pahlavi, the father of the present shah, sought to abolish as early as 1934. When I asked one of these students whether she resented the women’s liberation movement, she replied that she wore the chador only on campus, not in the streets. Not that she accepted the subordinate role of women; on the contrary, she wore it as a symbol of protest against the shah and the governmental establishment. She resented the extent to which the shah was squandering oil revenues on the military and wished he would spend more on education and social welfare; she resented the low caliber of the teaching at the university and the way the police treat student demonstrators. She talked about the inadequate number of schools—only 44 percent of children of school age can attend classes—and the fact that some 150,000 students must be sent to universities abroad because the facilities at home are so limited and the need for skilled people is so great. She counts herself among the new middle class of professionals, engineers, economists, teachers, and scientists who hope to turn Iran into a prosperous modern state. She was a modern-thinking woman, and yet in her fervent opposition to the shah she made common cause with the mullahs, the clergy who use the power of the Islamic religion to resist the shah’s efforts to transform Iran into a secular state.

The shah is probably correct in assuming that only his autocratic rule can overcome the enormous obstacles to reform and modernization in Iran. But although he has dispossessed the rich landowners, and sharply reduced the power of the leading industrialists, and although he has weakened the stranglehold of the mullahs by promoting the secular state, too many of the new middle class still stand waiting and uncommitted. To demonstrate that he is not a dictator, he has slightly eased control of the press, even allowing news of demonstrations against him to be reported in the front pages. But it is all part of an effort to find out how far he can go in loosening his control without losing it altogether.

The fine tuning of political freedom is a delicate and uneasy business, and its results are unpredictable. The university student in her chador, whom the shah hopes to win, wants much more than he believes he can afford to give. Noosh, with her high school education and her simple clerical job, is satisfied with what the shah offers: “I admire the shah,” she told me; “he inspires my optimistic outlook on the future.”

The navy

The four-lane highway from the airport into Bandar ‘Abbās calls to mind the finest autostradas in Italy. The asphalt surface is immaculate, the fluorescent overhead lights are stylish, the landscaping is magical. Yet only fifteen years ago, Bandar ‘Abbās, on the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz, was a tiny fishing village surrounded by bleak desert land, unbearably hot in the summer. It was a place of banishment, a prison for the worst criminals, with a reputation like that of Devil’s Island. Now it has changed.

Ever since the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese controlled it to protect their shipping lanes to India, the strait has been considered a vital thoroughfare. Now the Iranian Navy patrols this stretch of water which connects the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and through which passes 51 percent of all the oil consumed in the United States, 80 percent of Japan’s, and 70 percent of Western Europe’s. A small fishing fleet inhabits the harbor, but the ships of the Iranian Navy overshadow it and everything else, giving the town both a new flavor and a new strategic significance.

There are still age-old bazaars where everything from a sack of flour to Sony radios, from dresses with Parisian labels to pocket calculators, is sold, and where, despite the availability of the calculators, the abacus reigns supreme. Old women still wear masks over their faces and men smoke their ghalians, but it is the automobiles and trucks of the navy, the large compounds of onefamily homes or tall concrete apartment buildings for the naval personnel, that give Bandar ‘Abbās its character now. Frigates, destroyers, and freighters lie at anchor at the purposefully remote naval base, surrounded by sprawling office buildings. There is a huge naval air base with the most upto-date hangars for the F-15s and a well-designed officers’ club with an olympic-sized swimming pool. On a hillside overlooking it all is a palatial villa, the residence of the base commander.

There is no evidence of skimping on what is the Iranian Navy’s largest base; it seems to get all that it needs, and by the time the six American Spruance destroyers are delivered in the early eighties, it may even have more than it needs. The officers, mostly trained in British and Italian naval academies, look as neat and snappy as any in the world, and the enlisted men are equally spick-and-span and well disciplined. When they talk about the shah, and about Iran’s national interests, their commitment sounds unequivocal, their disdain for dissenters absolute. The navy’s role is to protect the Persian Gulf, but, together with the army, it is also one of the pillars of internal security.

Shifting ties

One might find it hard in, say, a restaurant in Tehran to distinguish an Arab from a Persian, but they are as different as the British are from the Spanish. The idea, so widespread among Europeans, that Iran is part of the Middle East, and hence of the Arab world, is not one that appeals to the Iranians who prefer to see Iran as part of Central Asia. In modern geopolitical terms, however, just as the British have had to abandon their sense of separation from Europe, so the Iranians are gradually admitting to an inevitable role in the Middle East.

The shah, not unlike President Nixon, saw Israel for a long time as militarily and politically a reliable anticommunist base in the Middle East. He had very little confidence in the stability of various Arab governments. He also shared the Israelis’ mistrust of the Russians, and, at least to some extent, their profound distrust of the Arabs. But since President Sadat’s peace overtures to Israel, the shah has seen Israel’s policies as an obstacle to peace in the whole area, a threat to moderate Arab governments, and by implication a threat to him. He talks about his deep concern that Israel’s procrastinations could bring to power radical governments under the leadership of another Arab nationalist and empire-builder like Nasser. Iran has 200,000 Jews; they are not immigrants, they settled here under the second Babylonian empire, they have become an ingrown segment of the population, they encounter no prejudice.

Just as the Iranians are getting used to the idea that they are part of the Middle East, so the Arabs are gradually accepting the fact that they need to be on good terms with Iran. But, as one Western diplomat put it to me: “The shah likes to think that he could mediate between some of the Arab states, but for that the Arabs are not yet ready emotionally.”

Black oil, clear waters

Few people have ever heard of a tiny island called Khārk in the northeast part of the Persian Gulf. But as the largest oil terminal anywhere, it is perhaps the most important small island in the world. If you are a romantic collector of beautiful islands with privacy and endless beaches, then forget about Khārk. It has only one function, the dispensing of black Iranian nectar—oil. The world’s largest tankers come here and the automated and computerized facilities can provide as many as 10 million barrels a day. The storage tanks on the island are fed through six underwater pipelines from a pumping station on the mainland; the storage capacity is 25 million barrels.

There used to be ample vegetation here in historic times, but the sand that blew across the water from the desert on the mainland choked it all to death. A fast trip in one of the British-built Hovercrafts the Iranian Navy uses to patrol the waters surrounding the island against sabotage gives one an idea of Khārk’s yellow drabness, the lack of vegetation, and the reason for the extreme security measures. A special permit is needed to visit the island; tourists are altogether excluded.

But what interested me most was the reason the waters surrounding Khark are so surprisingly clean. The answer is that tankers now must carry their water in compartments strictly separated from the oil tanks, so that when it is discharged, it is not polluted with oil. I took a swim at the Eghbal Seaside Club, a sandy cove, and except for the fact that one must be careful not to go too far out, into shark-infested water, it was a most delightful experience in water whose cleanliness the Mediterranean cannot match.

Soaring ruins

When, after years of waiting, one is finally on the way to Persepolis, the last thing one wants is to be diverted. Expectation combines with impatience to brook no delay: yet if one is a guest, how can courtesy not prevail? My guide said that first I had to see the tent city just below Persepolis, which the shah built in 1971 to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian Empire. It was there that he received the great conglomerate of presidents, kings, and princes who came to render homage almost the way the bas-relief friezes show the petty kings and governors honoring the king of kings, Darius I, who reigned 521-486 B.C. The claycolored tents with their Bordeaux-boudoir-red interiors are still standing, the furniture and the chandeliers are all in place, but while I was there, the skies unloaded a sharp squall of rain and water began dripping into the tents through the leaky canvas roofs. It is a mistake to maintain them at all in the shadow of the beauty and grandeur of the soaring ruins of Persepolis, one of the most sweeping monuments in history. Only the portals and vast bases of the palace, some of the towering fluted columns and broad staircases, and the delicately carved marble friezes have survived the fire allegedly set by Alexander the Great. But despite the passage of time, here, almost tangible in its impact, is the sense of the once-upona-time power of the Persian empire.

The lush green along the Caspian seacoast almost blinds one’s eyes after the yellow, barren desert and the aridlooking mountains of the south. There are the paddies like cracked mirrors along the road from Bandar-e Pahlavī to Roudsar, the phalanxes of women picking the dainty tea leaves in the tea plantations; there is the steep mountain chain overgrown with thick forests; and there are a few sea resorts with their jarringly modern-looking hotels. In contrast to the south, the people along this coast are much more at ease with themselves and with foreigners. They feel relatively prosperous and independent. Each family owns about two or three hectares of land, they live in spacious whitewashed houses, and they all have enough to eat. Of all the meals of my trip, one of the best, if simple, was in a small village near Roudsar. The wife cooked it, the daughters served it, but none of them were allowed to sit at the table because a foreigner was present.

On arrival my guide got an unusually enthusiastic reception; most villagers rushed to shake his hand and to kiss him. The reason, he explained to me later, was that he had lived in this village as teacher for two years and, with the financial and physical help of the villagers, had built the first local elementary school here. It was a primitive house, consisting of two bare rooms, but it changed the life of the village.

Near Esfahān, on my visit to Persepolis, I was shown a farm corporation, the equivalent of a commune. Each member owns a certain number of shares; they cannot be exchanged for land, but they entitle him to a certain percentage of the income of the cooperative. The ones I met did not exude the same pride or interest or enthusiasm as the small farmers on the Caspian who owned their land. In the main office I expected to hear about the fine accomplishments of the corporation, but the place was deserted, with just a few production statistics outlined on placards. How different from a Chinese commune, where every visitor is treated to a half-hour lecture on the brilliant record of progress! Here, nobody seemed to care. The farmers we met on the well-paved roads and along the stone buildings looked sullen and standoffish.

Arts and finances

Many of the problems of modernization and reform today have their reflection in Persian art. Persian artists were perfectionists but not innovators. They excelled not by originality but by craftsmanship: they specialized in form rather than ideas, concentrating on geometrical patterns and floral composition, not on painting from life, from nature, or from personal inspiration. The same is true of Persia’s poets: for centuries poetry remained cast in a mold no one really dared to break. The creative desire was either missing or strangled by convention, and so poets, like painters, remained frozen in tradition for centuries.

Recently, however, poets have begun to deviate from the classical past and venture into ideas about social reform and political expectations. Gradually ideas have become more important than words. New ideas remain hard to come by and harder still to carry through. It is the same lack of mental flexibility in adaptation to new conditions, in grasping new and unfamiliar problems, remarked upon by foreigners who face the task of training Iranians, negotiating and trading with them for their new world.

The men in charge of Iran’s economic and financial planning are as competent as any in the world. They are trained experts and they are backed up by foreign specialists. But to plan ahead in Iran is not easy. The oil revenues are staggering, but so are the financial commitments. Above all, one of the biggest items in the budget, military spending, is under the sole control of the shah. When I asked one of the chief planners about this problem, he said: “We don’t enter into this discussion, because His Majesty is directly in charge. Our planning organization is informed about how much is to be spent but not consulted. We are entitled to ask the military about details, but the overall decisions reach us only after His Majesty has made them. He is also the final arbitrator in the discussions we have with the military.”

Flora and poetry

The palace garden in the walled city of Shīrāz is one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen. The combination of form and color, of flowers and water, is breathtaking. Yet I found still more enchanting a much smaller private garden that had once belonged to an Iranian tea merchant, who willed it to a local hospital. What makes it unique is its combination of flora and poetry, which perhaps anywhere else in the world would seem nothing more than romantic kitsch. On almost every tree there is a plaque with a carefully chosen quotation from a famous poem. “If you made a sad heart happy by your generosity,” my guide translated, “it’s better than to rebuild a thousand ruined mosques.” Appeals to human kindness, to the human heart, to nature, spoke from every side. “Whatever you see in a flower from the point of view of appearance, color, and scent is the appearance of a friend and his beauty.” “I asked a flower, For whom are ail the flowers? and the garden shouted, For all my friends.”

Except for a young student and his beautiful dark-haired girlfriend, no one else wandered around the garden. I enjoyed a sense of peace and refuge and so, clearly, did the young couple, who were deeply engrossed in one another, inspired by love and poetry. Even though their formal surroundings spoke of Persia’s overwhelming past, they seemed totally liberated from it, perhaps the two freest people I saw in Iran.

The man in power

The shah is a man in a hurry. He has a dream and he wants to make it a reality. He is also very shrewd and intelligent, and must know that things will be quite different once he is gone. He wants his talented son of eighteen to succeed him in eight to ten years, but above all, he wants to see the fruits of his labors. A man in a hurry, however, is in danger of losing his sense of time. He is pressing forward with reforms and has provided Iranians with the justification for a new sense of national self-respect. He is building roads, schools, power supplies, television stations, vast industrial complexes.

But, in pursuit of minipower status for Iran, he is forcing the pace of progress beyond the resources and skills of his people and what they can mentally adjust to. He lacks the necessary trained manpower, the experts in specialist fields, an efficient civil service. So he has had to import labor from South Korea and Pakistan and experts from almost anywhere, and he is offering government support to many of the 150,000 students who are studying overseas. The peasantry, the most committed to the traditions espoused in the Koran, are still the largest group in a country whose arable land amounts to only 11 percent of its total surface. They contribute only 20 percent of the agricultural produce consumed. The costs of imported food are rising. About half of the 34 million Iranians are illiterate, and there is the specter of Iran’s oil running out in about thirty years.

Economic and social progress achieved so far is impressive, but the shah’s basic problem is that, having stepped with such dramatic determination into the twentieth century, he is now faced with the inevitable problem of how to keep social and economic appetites satisfied and yet stay in power. (The politically motivated arson that killed nearly 400 persons in an Abadan theater as this report was going to press dramatizes the bitterness and ruthlessness of his many enemies.) In assessing his dream and his performance, therefore, it is only just to bear in mind that if you choose simply the unfavorable aspects, then, as a Persian saying goes, all you are seeing in a peacock is its bad legs.