Sunday, April 26, 2015


It’s one of the oldest places in the world. These ancient lands have been traversed for thousands of years. It’s the setting of many of the exotic stories from Arabian Nights and often conjure up thoughts of bands of horsemen waving swords and stealing the sultan’s beautiful daughter for ransom. And even though it’s such a controversial place in the news today, I just have a feeling there’s more than what meets the eye about Iran. I have a feeling there’s much more to this country than what we’re willing to admit and talk about. Years ago, I was working at a Japanese camp in northern Minnesota (part of Concordia Language Villages), and we had a woman who worked there for one week. One day when I was talking with her privately, I found out she was a native Farsi speaker because her family was originally from Iran. I was so fascinated with how the Farsi (Persian) language sounded, that it’s stuck in my head all these years. I wish I had known her for longer. She was such an interesting person to talk to. 


Iran used to be called Persia, which has leant its name to certain things, such as Persian rugs, Persian cats, and the movie/video game Prince of Persia, among other things. The word “Iran” came from a word meaning “land of Aryans.” The word “Persia” came from the word that the ancient Greeks used for this area. Although both terms refer to this country, the word “Iran” is its official name. 

Iran is a fairly large country in the Middle East, surrounded by the countries of Iraq (which I’m doing next), Armenia, Azerbaijan (including the Naxcivan exclave), Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It also touches the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman. It’s directly across the Persian Gulf from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. It’s also across the Caspian Sea from Russia and Kazakhstan. This country has a very diverse landscape: from desert to the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush to coastal regions to salt lakes. Because this country has a diverse climate and landscape, it also has a diverse flora and fauna including Persian leopards and Asiatic cheetahs. Almost half of the country is desert, and it only has one navigable river (the Karun River), but it’s only navigable for a short distance. 

This area was mainly agricultural in ancient times, and there are actually many pre-historic sites that have been excavated by archaeologists. Iran was once like a corner lot in the neighborhood – all the kids would cut across your yard. It seemed like everyone was passing through this country, and there were many tribes and empires that fought their way in and stayed. For hundreds of years, Persia was occupied and ruled by one ruling tribe, there would be a fight, and then the power would change hands. First there was the Median Empire and the Achaemenid Empire who unified several city-states under their power and eventually grew to be quite a large empire.  Then Alexander the Great invaded the country, followed by the Parthian Empire and the Sassanid Empire. Islam was introduced to Persia and became a dominant and important religion. Turkic tribes integrated into Persia, and then the country was invaded by Genghis Khan. And of course, the Ottoman Empire had their turn, too (you know you were waiting for their entrance). During the 1800s, Persia still had quite a large empire, but in efforts to avoid being controlled by any European country (namely Britain or Russia), they conceded part of their territory (although the British did occupy Persia during WWI, and then acted like an unwelcome house guest and didn’t leave until three years after the war was over). From the 1950s through the 1970s, there were several events that led to instability in the government and economy, building up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. At this regime change, Iran officially became an Islamic Republic, which promoted a very strict theocratic government. Throughout most of the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were biting each other’s heads off.  Mahmoud Amedinejad (who I share a birthday with – and how many people can say they share birthdays with ballsy world leaders? It’s kind of a small club.) was under fire for corruption and voter fraud, and many world leaders questioned their intentions concerning nuclear weapons as opposed to utilizing nuclear energy. 

Tehran is Iran’s largest city and is the capital. Now, the US has only had a couple of cities act as its capital before finally settling on Washington, D.C. But Iran has had 32 cities act as the capital city at one point in its history. At that rate, it’s like an Olympic host rather than a capital. But seeing how Tehran has been the capital since 1796, I’m pretty sure it’s staying. For now. With about 12.7 million people in the metro area, this city is definitely a 21st century city. Today, it’s filled with shopping centers, traditional bazaars, traditional and world cuisine restaurants, public transit, universities, sports arenas, theatres, museums, parks and gardens, and iconic religious institutions.  However, Tehran is one of the worst polluted cities in the world. Some estimates report that as many as 27 people die each day from air pollution-related diseases.  So, if you visit Tehran, be sure to wear a fine-particle mask like they do (or should be doing) in China. 

Iran has a varied economy with a mix of local agriculture to large private corporations to government-owned oil and utilities businesses. Some of the major agricultural products include a variety of fruits (apricots, sour cherries, watermelons, quinces, cherries, dates, figs), vegetables (cucumbers, eggplant, gherkins), and nuts (pistachios, walnuts). They also have a thriving tourism industry, albeit most of it is domestic tourism. Some of the most visited cities are Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz (also the name of my favorite red wine). Of course, everyone knows that Iran is an energy superpower: they are OPEC’s number two exporter of oil.  They are also working toward diversifying their energy sources by utilizing natural gas, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, wind power, geothermal power, and solar thermal power. 

The official language of Iran is Persian (although it’s sometimes referred to as Farsi, whish is the form of Persian spoken in Iran. There are actually two other dialects of Persian: Dari is the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and Tajiki is the variety of Persian spoken in Tajikistan.). While most people in Iran speak Farsi, there are a number of minority languages spoken throughout the country: Luri, Lari, Kurdish, Turkic dialects, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, and Neo-Aramaic. 

Before Islam arrived in the area, Zoroastrianism was the major religion of this area. Today, Iran is mainly dominated by the Twelver Shi’a branch of Islam. I’ve never heard of this branch, but apparently, it’s one of the largest branches and acts as the state religion in Iran. A very small number of Muslims in Iran are Sunni Muslims, and Iran also has small pockets of Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, Yarsanis, Yezidis, Bahá’ís, and Mandeans. However, since the Revolution of 1979, the Bahá’ís have consistently received prejudicial treatment, namely in the forms of the denial of their rights and civil liberties, free access to higher education and employment, and in some cases, they have been subjected to executions. It always blows my mind that this treatment happens in Iran because the Bahá’í Faith was started in Persia during the 19th century. But part of the Bahá’í belief system is the unity of humankind and that all major religions have the same God, which I suppose doesn’t sit well with the Muslims. 

I believe this Persian cat is my husband's spirit animal.
I am also puzzled and ashamed at the oppressive treatment of women in Iran. It’s just so bizarre that people can treat anyone like that. I don’t know how widespread some of these things are (I’m sure there are probably individuals who may not think or treat women this way), but in some areas, girls can be married off after their first period (the fancy word is menarche). Homosexuality is illegal, but polygamy is legal. However, once a girl is married, she has to stop going to school. Women and girls above the age of 9 must wear a hijab and can be punished for not wearing it or not wearing it properly. If women want to get a job, then they must ask their husband for permission, and in some cases, women are barred from studying certain fields in universities. Iran is also at the heart of the international eye as a haven for human trafficking. To read more about these issues, do a search for Amnesty International. There are numerous reports online with information on how to donate or get involved. But on the plus side, Iran has some tasty food. It was difficult, but I finally set my menu. And I get to purchase a lot of fresh herbs, which makes me very happy.

Up next: art and literature

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