A Kashmiri scholar's impression of a two-year journey within Iran.
Iran is politically and economically isolated and in that isolation, to call it an experiment of nation building is misleading, but nevertheless, it is an on-going exercise. Under the crippling sanctions, the party is still on!
I don’t have the usual agenda to visit Iran. I’m not an intrepid western traveler barging into the forbidden land, to explore my political other. My two year journey within Iran is a certain sojourn necessitated by my consistent desire to unravel the personal and political meaning of my existence. As a Kashmiri scholar burdened by a political inheritance of the prolonged Kashmir conflict, I seek to unearth the connection between Kashmir and Iran. This connection, as I understand now, is not simply political, in that both places are Muslim dominated, but more spiritual. It is in the erasure and random references to Kashmir in Farsi through which I attempt to understand the crisis of a Muslim consciousness entwined with the political domination of an imperial world order.
I encounter Kashmir as a meaningful reference in the poetry of Iran’s national poet, Hafiz.
Be Shaer e Hafiz mikhanando miraksand
Seyah Cheshmane Kashmiri o Turkane Samarkand
The poems of Hafiz are recited and danced to, by the black eyed
Kashmiris and the Turks of Samarkand.
That was written six hundred years ago. Today, to most Iranians, Kashmir evokes no memory except as faint melancholia or as part of something that is lost. This loss is a complicated mourning for a political self or for imperial ambitions—since Iran once extended till Hend, India. When I mention Kashmir, I hear that it was an Islamic scholar from Esfahan who brought Islam to Kashmir. That Kashmir is a paradise that was once recognizably one’s own, and still not a forgotten past. However, now political borders rupture those continuities.
Sometimes, I’m trying to find a connection and embracing a random tourist self but no one picks me out, and no one asks me where I am from. I try to fake an accent in my newly acquired Farsi, just so I can say, I am from Kashmir. But then suddenly at Golistan museum, where all the gifts to Qajar Kings from different countries are stored, Kashmir peeks out at me. The beautiful gifts from around the world are marked and labelled by the countries of their origin. I walk on the right and spot a gift item labelled ‘az Hend’ [from India] and then several steps later lies the magnificent handmade walnut woodwork labelled ‘az mulk e Kashmir’ [from the country of Kashmir]. It works as a post card from the past, as a yesterday made of political autonomy which only makes today’s loss more grievable.
But unlike Kashmir, Iran is fighting a war against time. It has birthed its new self from elegies written of its past. The continuity between the bygone and the new self is not harmonious but it rests on the active corpse of the past and the zeal of the today’s militant self. In between is the poetic Iran, in search of a perfect balance, tired and done with war. All of this is a race against time but time moves faster in Iran— it is almost American and so are its mannerisms. But the pulse of its cities is melancholic whether in the baskets of raw walnuts sold around the city or in the whiffs of Isfand emanating from the pots held by penury stricken men at the traffic lights. I’m sent, almost as by a magic jinni, to my Kashmir home during an afternoon tea. The melancholia is short lived, brief and intermittent— the rocking metros of Tehran quickly transport you back to the pulsating life of today.
The narrow corridors in the women’s section of the metro are nothing less than displays for French styled mannequin women with their manicured hands and slightly lifted-at-the-edge eyebrows. Tehran is the world’s nose-job capital, so you get a sense.
There is the hustle and bustle of hawkers trying to sell all kind of things, who are then chased by Chador-clad police women.
Tehran is a well-planned urban space, and often just a replica of the United States. This similarity in the life-style and landscape of the two countries is unmistakable to one who has visited both countries.
There are innumerable burgers and pizzas served every day at eateries across the country and they are extremely delicious too, and women in hijabs serve at most restaurants. Women are in every sector, albeit in the hijab. While I tend to see it as one of the successes of political agency of women during and after the Iranian revolution, my partner tends to be a better feminist and says it’s because women’s labour is cheaper, okay, I give him that. But in the university systems women are in higher numbers so much so that government considers banning women from entering universities to reverse the imbalance. Again my partner pitches in, and says this has to do with the women’s degrees beginning to matter for their marriage suitability. If you want an engineer husband, you better have a Ph.D, I can understand that, I have seen that happen in Kashmir too. Women chase degrees not to build careers but to increase their chances to marry professional men. But that’s not all that there is to women’s embrace of the public space.
The most beautiful nature bridge is built by a woman architect, and my partner better have an explanation for that. My point is women in Iran are more mobile, educated, outgoing, something which completely blasts the myth of Muslim women as silent victims.
The country has burgeoning talent and skill though still very few avenues and ways to utilize all of that. The seventy year-long industrialization has led to a huge vibrant middle class in the country. The society is equitable more or less and there is hardly any visible poverty in and around the urban spaces. There are however, deeper issues of resources distribution, center/border conflict and tussles of linguistic autonomy. The organized alternative intellectual space is weak and underdeveloped because perhaps it is the only sector that still works in unique indigenous ways to evade censorship or persecution. The intellectual class is embedded within, and word of mouth is still how Iranians educate each other. Unlike the manic culture of WhatsApp forwards in India, Iranians use the Telegram app to educate themselves, and there are innumerable groups organized around a single subject to educate general Farsi audiences. Both the state monopoly of and censorship in the knowledge sector are evaded through such use of social media.
The image of Iran as a country of censorship or anti-intellectualism is fast changing. The Iranian state is repositioning itself as a pro-intellectual country in the Middle East. On Eid this year, I went to the two month old Book Garden opened in the city, which may be the world’s largest. This book store houses more than seven hundred thousand books predominantly in the Farsi language. From books to magazines to every written word you touch, the concept had entered Iran from countries to the West and the East. Translations of English, European, Indian, Chinese and South American literary works are available at the store.
While glancing at the books on Western philosophy, I spotted a book offering literary criticism of Camus [whom I learned to worship in my leftist circles in India] and also a volume on the political occupation of Kashmir. For now, it has given me an opportunity to rethink Iran-Kashmir connection beyond a melancholic past, as a parallel tussle for a lost political autonomy.
Further ahead at the other end of the Book Garden is a science section dedicated to children. Here I was greeted by a bizarre hijab-clad goat statue specially set up for Eid.
Even before I could think, “these cheesy, backward Muslims”, my eyes fell on a group of hijab-clad women filming themselves using a drone.
And the next exhibit I saw was the wax statues of Iranian nuclear scientists suspected to be killed by Mossad, just outside the workshop where seven year olds were learning to build robots. My mind still reels from the juxtaposition of these three images.
I encountered so many disruptions in my understanding of the region one after the other, that I began to ask, what is the place of such anomalies in the world discourse on Muslims and why are there so many missing links? Perhaps a journey to Iran gives us an opportunity to see the missing link. While walking through the gallery I glanced at the portraits of medieval Muslim scientists, accompanied by quotes from Prophet Muhammad and Imaam Ali, which were about the necessity to acquire a critical mind. This is quite obviously done as an attempt to bring into perfect continuity the ruptured transition between tradition and modernity.
Though these attempts are needed but they are far from the actual political ruptures within the Iranian society today. The Islamists and liberal secularists won’t look each other in the eye. However, from Iran I see a complete world coming into a cohesive union, which is capable of freeing me from a dominant west centric gaze. Perhaps the Middle East is not just in the middle of the earth, from the Middle East a moderating view of the world is possible and from here the world seems fuller than it is through the binaries of ‘East’ and ‘West’.
* The piece was first published on Kafila.