by Tobias Thornes
It was with some trepidation that I prepared to board a boat to Iran. It’s ironic that in the interlinked world of today borders are more sharply defined and suspiciously watched than ever, so that it’s no longer possible to travel freely, like our ancient ancestors on their long, slow trek out of Africa, even by foot over ‘national borders’. The rigidly defined nation-state was a foreign idea even to Europeans only a few centuries ago, when one’s allegiance lay more with one’s own city, village or region than with the king and country. Now, in the wake of the colonial and, later, capitalist empires, it’s become a convention universally imposed.
But as it transpires, my apprehensions are needless. This is 2018, and fortunately this particular border has seen restrictions slacken over recent years. Iran’s icy stand-off with the west has been thawing, gradually, for some time now, as the country eagerly seeks to encourage a growing tourist industry. I obtained my travel visa months in advance, and besides, I’m taking the easy route in – via Kish Island.
As I am ferried steadily across the glistening blue water, it isn’t difficult to discern that Kish is no paradise – at least, not by any definition I’d countenance. If I had taken Dubai to be the shiniest plastic jewel in the capitalist crown I was about to be rudely re-educated. For Kish is nothing other than a giant luxury shopping and holiday resort, the true Queen of Consumerism. Over my head the planes pour in as the richest ranks of Asia gather to splash their grotesque gluts of cash, on a modern-day pilgrimage to the man-made Mecca of Money. This is not a place in which I can bare to stay long: an island full of people piously performing their ritual sacrifices to the never-dead religion of worldly pleasure. Ritual buying, ritual consuming, ritual craving – on and on the capitalist cycle turns, consuming their lives and, with its superficial satisfactions, hiding the silent sufferings of the soul.
Ever has it been thus, since man first fashioned for himself gods of wood and stone and bowed the knee before his own creations. Religions of ritual providing easy answers to the questions of life and throttling thought; easy means of holding power over a people by promising happiness in return for a few simple actions. Sacrifice this ox, worship this golden calf, buy these new ‘consumables’ to keep the economy growing – it all has the same effect. There’s no need to think or question, only to obey.
There are few places more religious than Iran. I don’t mean by this a personal piety amongst its inhabitants, or any special degree of faith or enlightenment in its people, something that would be difficult for an outsider to assess. Rather, it’s the officialdom of religion here that’s so striking. Humans in all places, of all ethnicities, possess a common capacity for weakness of spirit and succumbing to selfish temptations, and the very public religiosity of the Iranian state profoundly demonstrates this weakness whatever the true beliefs of its subjects. Prophets, in their many guises, have lived and died to show humankind the secrets of good religion – practises grounded in empathetic love, tolerance and contemplation. And yet, as I step from another ferry onto the sandy shores of the Iranian mainland, I find myself in a country that, in the name of one such prophet, imposes a strict religiosity that has nothing to do with his compassionate message and everything to do with worldly power.
I carry no camera on my slow travels, and here it is just as well. The Iranian state is deeply suspicious of anything that might constitute an internal or external threat to its Draconian government, and photography of anything but obvious tourist attractions could cause trouble. I do not fancy the life of a foreign ‘spy’ in an Iranian jail. Likewise, ‘western’ films and music are heavily restricted lest they encourage free thought and expression. Despite the sweltering heat, long sleeves are compulsory; were I a woman, I’d also have to cover my hair.
Yet whatever the government may desire, and whatever images may filter through the negative ‘western’ media, the minds of the people of this mythical land are far from closed. Sharing a meal in a local guest-house, I hear for myself some of the fables that still run through the very blood of this ancient caring people, who treat each weary traveller with a selfless hospitality. It was in these very hills that Zoroastrianism was founded, an ages-old source of enlightened revelation. ‘Iran’ is an ancient word for what we once called ‘Persia’, and its adoption as the country’s name in 1935 reflects an ongoing pride in a not-forgotten heritage more than two millennia after the mighty Persian Empire fell with the rise of Greece and Rome. But it is the Islamic Empire that has held the most lasting sway of all upon this people, and through day-to-day acts of kindness is their true ‘submission to the will of God’ displayed.
I have arrived at the beginning of the holy, ritual month of Ramadan, and so we eat our meal after sunset and prayer. The state marks this month by banning eating, drinking and smoking in public outright. But the true spirit of the Muslim fast lies only within its genuinely willing adherents. You can see it in their eyes in these difficult early days: the hunger and the inner struggle they all must make. But in their kindly words and actions the people that I meet show few outward signs of fasting. The benefit of this ritual lies in private piety, not public pomp, for any true Muslim.
The government – except to display its own power – really has no need to enforce the Ramadan ritual. Indeed, the Iranian Christians, Jews and others, with their own rituals and traditions, can only be hampered by enforced outward conformity. I meet few of these on my onward journey through the rugged mountain towns; though there are three-hundred-thousand Christians in Iran, conversion from Islam can be punishable by death. Most of my travel is by train, on the slow line winding north from the coast through Sirjan to Bafq, and thence east along a brand new, shiny stretch of rail to Zahedan and on to Pakistan. I alight often to breathe in the fresh mountain air and hear the chatter of an unfamiliar tongue.
In places, amidst the mesmerising Middle-Eastern architecture, it feels as though I walk through the remnants of a former world, almost overlooked by modernity in its hasty spread across the globe. But one can’t help wondering whether this reflects genuine reverence for tradition or compulsory conformity, and the very presence of the railway hints at change to come. As I look out from the ageing carriage window, with majestic mountains sweeping down towards the pretty plains and desert, I reflect that somewhere, still, out there Iranian cheetahs dwell. But the lions and tigers of old were chased out by the twentieth century. Which of these ancient rites and rituals will be buried by the twenty-first?