As I read Sam Sifton’s column, “What to Cook This Week,” in this morning’s Sunday New York Times, I was reminded of the food that I ate during the summer I spent in Iran. The American Institute of Iranian Studies had a cook, and while I stayed there I got a sampling of home-cooked meals every lunchtime. Sifton’s recommendations included two Iranian recipes following an article on food for the Yalda celebration, a pre-Islamic family celebration of the winter solstice, less well-known to foreigners than the Iranian New Year, Nowruz
Everyone has a tendency, ingrained in humans no doubt, to accept as normal what is familiar. Many Peace Corps volunteers who went to Morocco had little previous experience with Islam or North Africa and the Middle East, so Morocco became their norm for the Islamic world much as it was for the Moroccans they lived and worked with since most had never traveled abroad.
Morocco existed as a fairly homogeneous area before it became a modern state, and its ethnicities had been established for a long time. Morocco was a dead end, not a crossroads. Jewish and Arab refugees from Spain settled after the Reconquista and the Sultan Moulay Ismail settled some slaves from West Africa, but that was it. Morocco has been the same Morocco for a long time, once the Arab armies conquered the area and revived urban life, filling the tabula rasa left by the decline of Rome and the barbarian invasions.
Foreign influence in Morocco today is largely a result of colonisation by the French and Spanish in the twentieth century. The basis for Muslim culture in Morocco was the Islam brought by early conquerers, tempered by an admixture of Berber beliefs and customs.
The countries of the Middle East are quite different from Morocco in that they are far more heterogeneous. Some were the centers of great empires and aspects of those earlier cultures are still important, especially language and religion. The Middle East has always been a crossroads, too, with trade and armies constantly stirring the cultural mix of peoples.
In this respect, Iran is a great contrast to Morocco. Ethnically, it is much more diverse, with Farsi-speaking Persians living around the perimeter of the Iranian plateau and important populations of minorities living on the edges of the Iranian state: Turkish speaking Azeris in the northeast, Arabic speakers in the southwest, Turkish speaking Turcoman nomades in the northeast, Baluchi tribesmen in the southeast, and various smaller groups. Furthermore, Persian civilization was far older and more urban than that of Morocco.
Modern Iran is the descendant of the great Persian empires of the ancient Middle East, conquered numerous times, most recently by the Arabs, who provided a new religion. However, the Persians kept their language, adopting the Arabic script and borrowing many Arabic words. Farsi was a vehicle for the transmission of ancient traditions, literature, and even religion. For those in the West, the Persians are often seen as the villain, fighting to conquer Greece, but they were also notable in allowing self-rule by minorities, as well as for building great roads and creating a postal system.
Iran eventually freed itself from rule by non-Persians, and formed an empire under the Safavids, one of the so-called gunpowder empires, who made the Shia sect of Islam an official religion for the first time.
The Iranians preserve and cherish pre-Islamic history to a far greater extent than the Arabs. I think that one can safely say that there is nothing remotely comparable to the Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, in Arabic. Though written after the Arab conquest, this epic Persian poem looks backward to ancient Persia. Like the Chinese, the Iranians remember and are proud of the ancient past of their land.
For a semester, I had an Iranian roommate at university, and I got to know him as well as all his fellow Iranians there. His pride of being an Iranian was palpable, though he himself came from Tabriz in the northeast and was a minority Azeri. Cya had the same love of language and poetry that my Moroccan friends had, but it was for Farsi, of course, and, though he was religious, he complained about all the words borrowed from Arabic and the purity of Persian spoiled by too many Arabic words. Farsi is an Indo-European tongue, distantly related to English and there are recognizable cognates like mādder and fādder, mother and father in English. Iranians firmly believe in Islam, but they also cherish their own tongue and the Persian heritage that comes with it.
Monuments, ruins, and the mounds of buried cities all bear witness to the ancient history of Iran, but in traveling that country, I witnessed more contemporary evidence. Most striking to me was the tower of silence that I saw by taking a taxi from the city of Yazd.
Towers of silence are structures where Zoroastrians expose their dead to carrion birds until their bones are picked clean of flesh. The bones thus purified are then buried in a pit. The tower that I visited appeared to be still in use, and a niche on its locked entryway seemed to have some kind of ritual offering.
Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the great Persian empires before Christ or Mohammed were born. Little is known about the reputed founder Avesta, but ancient religious texts have survived and the beliefs of the religion are clear: a single God, a struggle between good and evil, mankind with free will, belief in a final judgement, and heaven and hell. After Persians converted to Islam, Zoroastrians came to be regarded as People of the Book, in the same way that Jews and Christians were. Regarded as inferior and treated as such for choosing not to follow the true religion, Islam, the People of the Book were still protected because they had partial access through their holy books to the divine revelation in the Qur’an. They paid a poll tax and were subject to social restrictions, but beyond that they were free. They could not marry Muslim women, but they also were not to be forcibly converted. There was a certain utilitarian side to this, since if everyone converted, the ruler would have no one to tax. Muslims were not taxed in the earliest days of Islam.
Today the Zoroastrian population of Iran has dwindled and more Zoroastrians live in India than in Iran, where they are called Parsees. In the region around Yazd, there are still Iranians who practice this ancient faith.