Following the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejade Iran is once again in the news and the western reaction seems to be one of fear. We fear their nuclear ambitions, we fear their casual dismissal of western opinion, and most of all we fear all those sternfaced bearded clerics. Ironically, Iran is now ruled by a non-clerical president, the first in its post-revolution history, though alongside the elected president and government there exists a unelected “Supreme Leader” and “Expediency Council” who ensure that modern Iran does not stray far from the revolutionary ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini. The system of government in Iran is complex, to say the least, but what is certain is that democracy, albeit eccentric in form, is in place in a way that it is not in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. However, not only the system of government but the whole country and culture remains a mystery to most of us in the west. Iran could well be the next country to acquire nuclear weapons and yet it remains a closed book for most of us.
Travel to Iran is not easy – visas are issued, but only after an interminable wait. Yet it is a fascinating and rewarding country to visit. I first went to Tehran in the 1990s and found a city quite at odds with my expectations. My experience of the region had been limited to Pakistan and Afghanistan, both fairly conservative Islamic countries, and I expected Iran to be even more conservative.
It is, after all, a theocracy. Yet Tehran has a considerably more relaxed feel than either Kabul (then in the grip of the Taliban and rather scary) or Islamabad. What is striking in Iran is the sharp distinction between public and private life. In the streets the people, especially women, are conservatively dressed and public places are segregated to prevent the immoral mingling of men and women. Yet in private homes the atmosphere is far more relaxed than in other Islamic countries; more like it was in Afghanistan before we helped to turn it into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism by bankrolling Saudi freedom fighters.
At a party I attended in a Tehran suburb I was surprised to find my hostess wearing shorts and a T-shirt as she relaxed with a whisky and soda: not something I had ever encountered over the border in Pakistan. Much conversation among the guests that evening concerned the recent US trade blockade which had deprived Tehran’s CocaCola plant of Coke concentrate. The plant had been constructed on the eve of the revolution and was for a matter of weeks the largest brewery in the Islamic world. It had been hastily converted to produce CocaCola and now even that had stopped, though not through any anti-western doctrine of the Iranian authorities but through the intervention of President Clinton.
Food and drink are a popular topic of conversation in Iran, and with good reason, as the cuisine is excellent. We might be more familiar with the flavours of India (though in the UK that usually means Bengal) and the Arab Middle East, but Persian cuisine has its own unique style. Iranian cooking is heir to two and a half thousand years of saffron – and rosewater – scented history. The foods of the courts of ancient Persia (as Iran was called until the 1930s) included perfumed stews flavoured with cinnamon, mint, and pomegranates; elaborate stuffed fruits and vegetables; and tender roasted meats – dishes that have influenced the cooking of countries as far-flung as India and Morocco. In many ways, Persian food is the original “mother cuisine”.
The history of Iranian cooking goes back to the sixth century BC, when Cyrus the Great, the leader of a tribe called the Pars (Persians), created an empire that eventually stretched from India to Egypt and parts of Greece. This vast, unified territory became a conduit of culture and cuisine, and native Persian ingredients such as saffron and rosewater were spread throughout the empire. The Persians also traded with the kingdoms of the Far East: caravans travelling along the Silk Road from China to present-day Syria brought citrus fruits, aubergines and rice from Asia to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Photo Empics The Persian empire eventually fell to Alexander the Great (known locally as Alexander “the Barbarian”) and later to the Arabs (who converted the Persians to Islam), but each successive wave of rulers proved fond of the Persians’ flavourful cooking. The Arabs even brought Persia’s distinctive sweet-and-sour flavours to North Africa, and in the Middle Ages, exotic Persian techniques such as gilding (painting foods with elaborate gold or silver leaf) travelled to Europe via the Crusades, becoming all the rage at regal banquets.
Contemporary Persian cooking wears its heritage on its sleeve. Rice has a place of honour, prepared with a prized, golden crust formed from clarified butter, saffron, and yogurt. Lamb and chicken are marinated and grilled as kebabs, or mixed into stews called khoreshes with fruit and sour ingredients such as lime juice. Cinnamon, cardamom and other spices are used in great abundance, along with a multitude of fresh herbs, and pickles and flatbreads are served at every meal. Desserts feature rose water and pistachios and refreshing drinks called sharbats are made from diluted fruit and herb syrups.
In fact, thanks to the Moghul empire, you have probably tasted Iranian food without realising it. The Moghuls took with them to India not only the traditions and language of the Persian court, but also those of the Persian kitchen.
The direct influence can be easily identified in many Indian dishes today: biryani is from the Persian word for baked (beryan), while boorani is the Arabised Persian word for any yoghurt dish mixed with vegetables. Persian bread (nan) made with yeast and baked in an oven (tanoor) took India by storm when it was first introduced there. Kofteh (meatballs) and kebabs are both Persian in origin.
When we think of Iran we tend to think of a monolithic Islamic state, so it comes as a surprise to many that there are also Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities there. A number of Christian denominations are represented. Many members of the larger, older churches belong to ethnic groups with their own distinctive culture and language such as the Armenian and Assyrian churches. The members of the newer, smaller churches are drawn both from the traditionally Christian ethnic minorities and, to an increasingly larger degree, from converts from non-Christian background. Most Catholics in Iran are Chaldeans, as in Iraq.
Nowadays Christians are a tiny minority, but there is a surprising amount of religious dialogue taking place in the country. In 2002 two monks from Ampleforth (one of them the then Abbot, Fr Timothy Wright) were invited to give a series of lectures on the theology of Vatican II by Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali (the head of the Department of the Philosophy of Religion at the Imam Khomeini Institute for Education and research in Qom, the leading seminary for Shia Islam). At another Iranian seminary scholars are busily translating the works of Thomas Aquinas into Farsi, so perhaps Iran is not quite as isolated and inward looking as we tend to think.
It is easy to apply labels, but politics are far more fractured in Iran than in most western countries, and expressions like “the conservatives” or “the reformists” have much less practical meaning in the Iranian Majlis than they would in Congress or in the Commons.
Like the socks you buy, Iranian elections are “irregular”. But fraudulent, in the manner of soviet systems or banana republics, they are not. Iranians have had 27 of these elections since the outset of the Islamic Republic. That the floor of participation in nine presidential elections has never fallen below half of the eligible population shows that Iranians treasure whatever democracy these flawed elections have to offer.
What changes President Ahmadinejade may bring only time will tell, but the West may have cause to be grateful that Iran’s democracy is skewed by the influence of clerics.
President Ahmadinejade is not only “conservative” but has a working-class support base. He has already reversed many of Khatami’s earlier changes in Tehran, for example. If his followers harass people in the streets, attacking men who shave and women who show their hair, there will be much greater social tension and the possibility of future violence.
The implications of this will be worrying to the religious leadership as it is the more affluent in Iran who usually want to follow western styles. And although Ayatollah Khamenei is a religious conservative, he will not want class warfare breaking out in the streets.
So although President Ahmadinejade won a sizeable majority last Friday, he will not necessarily be able to do what he wants.