S: Morocco and Iran: Recent and Ancient Worlds Pamela Portwood
FC: Morocco and Iran: Recent and Ancient Worlds | Pamela Portwood
1: Morocco and Iran | Pamela Portwood | Recent and Ancient Worlds
2: Copyright Pamela Portwood 2011 | Cover photo: Girl brides at the Moussem at Imil Shil, Morocco Photos previous page: Pillars and inner view of a dome in Isfahan, Iran Photo on back cover: Tile detail from Isfahan architecture | All photos were shot by Pamela Portwood in Morocco or Iran in 1976 | Published by Mixbook | To Huston Smith Author and scholar of comparative religions | Huston Smith with Harriet Hall at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Iran
3: After the first time, I could always tell what was coming. Everyone around me would be conversing in Farsi, and I would be smiling politely at words I could not understand. Suddenly the room would fall silent, and everyone would begin smiling expectantly at me. Once again, the father of the Iranian family with whom I was staying would explain that his relatives or friends were eager to hear my recitation. And so I would recite the first verse of the Quran in Arabic, beginning "Bismi 'Llahi 'r-rahmani 'r-rahim" (in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate). Throughout most of the Muslim world, Arabic is the language of divinity to be used for all religious rites much as Latin was once used world-wide in the Roman Catholic Church. In Islam, the purer one's accent in reciting holy texts in Arabic, the more grace one is awarded in heaven. I don't remember how my Farsi-speaking family discovered I had memorized the opening of the Quran while I was studying classical Arabic, but my first recitation was for their grandfather who was revered as a devout Muslim. He prompted me when my memory faltered, and on that occasion, my recitation was clearly considered an act of reverence and piety. Later, when the neighbors were visiting, I may have been more of a sideshow marvel: a foreigner who knew the Quran and had a good Arabic accent to boot. It was the fall of 1976, and I was one of 33 students traveling through the Middle, Near and Far East, studying religion, anthropology and philosophy under the auspices of the International School of America's International Honors Program. That year IHP was led by Huston Smith, an internationally known scholar of comparative religions whose friends gave us entrÃee into places rarely seen by Americans. I was 19, a junior in college, and like many of the students, I had grown up abroad. I spent most of my five weeks in Iran (once known as Persia) living in the holy city of Isfahan where another student and I stayed with an Iranian family in their home. The 35-year-old mechanical engineer, who spoke English, and his 30-year-old wife had two children: a ten-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. The husband's older brother, sister-in-law and their 14-year-old daughter also were living in the house temporarily while their own house was being built down the street. In 1976, while the second Pahlavi Shah was promoting a secularized state, Iran's religious heart was bared in the centuries of religious art available seemingly everywhere. Isfahan's cityscape was defined by the turquoise and gold domes of sixteenth-century Safawid mosques. Their tiling is patterned in abstract, floral, geometric and calligraphic designs because icons depicting Allah, Muhammad or any religious event or figure are sacrilegious in Islam. On the entrance portal to the Luftallah Mosque, tiling placed on honeycomb shapes gives the ceiling an amazing three-dimensional quality as though this metaphoric sky might grow fingers, reach down and touch an outstretched human hand. Inside the mosque, floral designs in concentric patterns wind outward from the domes' central cores like unimaginable ivy, each tiny line connected to another, each overwhelming pattern created as a tribute to Allah's greatness. From within, Iranian mosques are large, airy, open spaces so that many worshippers can place their individual prayer rugs on the floor oriented toward Mecca for praying. Five times a day, from the minarets and the radio towers, muezzins call the faithful to prayer. Five times a day, devout Muslims pull out their prayer rugs, kneel, prostrate themselves, repeat the appropriate religious texts and pray wherever they find themselves. Men who can pray in a mosque do. Women, for reasons of modesty, rarely pray in public. All men are expected to go to a mosque for the communal, midday prayer on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Between the five calls to prayer, the mosques are quiet, cool, often empty places, perfect for meditation and reflection. In Iran, unlike Morocco and some other Muslim countries, the mosques historically have been open to outsiders, whether their interests were in the religion or the architecture. I spent many undisturbed hours in Isfahan's mosques peering at the tiling, thinking and writing poetry. Perhaps, I was seeing everything in the light of poetry, but the Palace of the Forty Columns seemed a tribute to the RubÃaiyat and the other Persian poetry I had read. Built by Shah Abbas II as a king's party pavilion in the seventeenth century, the Isfahan palace was being restored in 1976 as a museum of Persian art. Here the reflection of reality and reality itself are one: The 40 columns are the actual 20 wooden columns and their 20 reflections mirrored in a pool in front of the palace. Above the palace doorway, inset within an immense archway, is a honeycomb of mirrors and tiles to reflect the reflection. | Iran: Millennia of Art and Culture
4: Within the palace, the restored wonders of Persian painting on both a grand and an intimate scale peer out from behind a whitewashing administered by the Afghans during their 1722 occupation. Large historic frescoes depicting the life and deeds of the Safawid dynasty fill the upper portion of the walls. Beneath these are small genre paintings concerned with the traditional subjects of Persian poets and miniaturists. Here are the couples sharing Omar Khayyam's "a loaf of bread beneath the bough,/ A flask of wine, a book of verse Â-- and thou." Here the young women shake their tambourines, and the young men bear the bounty of the hunt. The rituals of life are played out slowly beneath spreading trees and mountains whose rocks roil like ocean waves. Even now, I cannot imagine what it would mean to feel part of a culture dating back not just centuries but millennia, to be born in a country that is not an immigrant nation, to grow up in a world where people have lived in one place, generation after generation. Looking out over the ancient ruins of Persepolis, I was filled with a sense of wonder that any place whose foundations were laid in 518 B.C. could have survived to the twentieth century. Begun by Darius (who succeeded the son of Cyrus the Great), Persepolis was to be a celebratory capital of the Persian Empire. In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great invaded and burned the palace before it was completed. From the nearby hills, the panorama seems an ironic juxtaposition of logic and myth. The stone foundations of buildings and pillars form grids filled with perfectly placed circles. At both ends of the city, the Gate of Xerxes is flanked by two sets of enormous animal legs, the remains of monumental winged bulls, the guardians of 36-foot doorways. Their hooves alone are bigger than several human heads. Elsewhere, a grouping of doorways and their lintels remain clustered together, and from a distance they look like a Stonehenge maze. Large, excavated sculptures of a two-headed lion and a two-headed horse with a bird's beak are straight out of mythology. From close up, two great staircases leading to the royal audience hall are covered with beautiful bas-reliefs. The stairs and the wall are lined with rows of meticulously carved soldiers and men from over 20 nations bearing tributes of goods and animals. Looking out across all of this, I wondered about the nature of human aspirations to grandeur and the matching compulsion to destroy the dreams of others. Since the time of Persepolis, one of the ways traditional, religious culture has been maintained within the cities of Iran is through the zurkhanah (literally, Â“the house of strengthÂ”). While I had the good fortune to witness the ritualistic calisthenics of the zurkhanah, few Western writers have been able to explain or agree upon the significance of what I saw. Apparently, the zurkhanah dates to the time of Darius and the Zoroastrian religion. When Persia converted to Islam, the zurkhanah and its athletic warriors were entrusted with the protection and propagation of the new faith. Because of their religious context and insular nature, the zurkhanahs fell from favor during the reign of the first Pahlavi Shah. However, they experienced a revival post-World War II and survived in a more secularized form. In 1976, there were over 100 zurkhanahs scattered throughout Iran. The core of the zurkhanah I attended was a room covered with framed photographs of muscular men, past and present. The master of the zurkhanah, who was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt and an ankle-length red cloth wrapped about his loins, stood in a raised booth and pounded an incessant beat on a drum. I sat with my fellow students and a few Iranian men around a sunken, central arena where the athletes or pahlavans gathered. Attired for the most part in red drapes (with and without white T-shirts), the athletes invoked the name of the martyr Ali upon entering the arena. They performed a series of weight-lifting exercises and calisthenics alone and en masse. Men of various ages raised and turned large, striped clubs above their heads. Watching their calm faces, I would never have guessed that a pair of those clubs could weigh up to 90 pounds. Later, the men manipulated archery bows made of iron and strung with metal chains, weighing up to 100 pounds. Since the pahlavans no longer were responsible for the defense of the faith, their weaponry had turned symbolic. In an exercise derived from the Sufi whirling dervishes, the pahlavans individually danced, jumped and spun (with their arms extended) in the arena while the other athletes clapped to the drum's beat. What I saw was a daily, practice session. For their public performances, the men bared their chests and wore the heavily embroidered leather breeches hung on the zurkhanah wall when not in service. The calligraphy in the tile work on the master's booth said "Allah," and a sense of religiosity beneath the physical practice permeated the air.
5: One day as I was wandering through the market in Isfahan, I came upon the shop of a metal engraver and found a poem simply waiting to be written. Using only a hammer and nail, the engraver created a typical Persian scene on a smooth, metal plate. He began with a quickly penciled outline. Then, as he tapped hammer to nail, a finely engraved silhouette appeared. Suddenly, a branch stretched out to support an elegantly plumed bird. Leaves emerged, without a sketch. Buildings appeared, and then without warning, window after window opened and a crisscrossed mosque dome filled the sky. Returning to the outlined figures, the engraver found two lovers twined together. | The lovers were oblivious of the woman beside them who stroked her harp's newfound strings. Beneath the tree crouched an old man. Face worn, mustache drooping, he stared at an earthenware jug, and his eyes cried out, "I came like water and like wind I go." Behind the harpist stood another turbaned man. His outstretched hand pointed toward the distant mosque, and his passionate eyes gazed on the scene before him. Like KhayyÃam's muezzin from the Tower of Darkness, he cried, "Fools! Your reward is neither here nor there!"
7: Details of tiling from mosques and schools | Isfahan, Iran
8: The Ruins of Persepolis | Persepolis was founded in 518 BC by Darius (the son of Cyrus the Great) as the celebratory capital of the Persian Empire. In 330 BC Alexander the Great invaded and burned the palace before it was completed.
9: The remains of a monumental winged bull that flanks the Gate of Xerxes.
10: Carvings at Persepolis | Men from over 20 nations come bearing tributes of goods and animals to Persepolis. | Carved soldiers line the stairs.
11: The lion biting the bull's hindquarter is a symbol of the spring equinox.
12: Nakshi-i-Rustam | Two tombs at Nakshi-i-Rustam, Iran | Nakshi-i-Rustam includes the tombs of Darius the Great and three other Achaemenid kings. The site is located seven and a half miles northwest of Persepolis and dates to 1000 BC. The tombs were looted during Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia. | Carving with Shapur I of Persia
13: The Tomb of Cyrus | IHP students at the site of the Tomb of Cyrus the Great | Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid Dynasty. By about 590 BC he had conquered most of southwest Asia and much of central Asia. | the Great
14: Palace of the 40 Columns | Chihil Sutun (literally "40 Columns") is the pavilion in front of a palace built by Shah Abbas II for his entertainment and for receiving foreign dignitaries. The 40 columns refer to the 20 physical columns and their reflections. The palace was completed in 1646. | Pamela Portwood at the Palace of the 40 Columns in Isfahan, Iran 1976
15: Mirrored entryway to the Palace of the 40 Columns, with mirror detail | Sculpture in the palace garden | Fresco in the Palace of the 40 Columns
16: Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness -- And Wilderness is Paradise enow. from "The RubÃaiyat of Omar KhayyÃam" | Frescos from the Palace of the 40 Columns
17: Fresco from the Palace of the 40 Columns Isfahan, Iran
18: Safavid period building in the Main Square | Safavid period building in the Main Square | Lutfullah Mosque 1603 | Dome of the Mother of the Shah 18th century | Pilgrimage site outside of Isfahan, Iran | Royal Mosque 1611-1629 | Isfahan Architecture
19: Tile details from Isfahan mosques and schools | Courtyard in an Isfahan mosque or school
20: The Zurkhanah | "House of Strength" | The pahlavans wore these embroidered, leather breeches for public performances in Isfahan, Iran.
21: The zurkhanah dates to the time of Darius and the Zoroastrian religion. When Persia converted to Islam, the zurkhanah's athletic warriors were charged with protecting the faith. Because of their religious roots, zurkhanahs fell from favor during the reign of the first Pahlavi Shah who secularized Iran. In 1976, the zurkhanah's athletes performed with symbolic, iron weaponry. | The pahlavans spun with their arms extended in an exercise derived from Sufi dervishes who whirled when they went into religious ecstasy.
22: The bride wore a baby-blue dress brocaded with a silver floral pattern. The sleeves and the front were inset with white and pink floral brocade. The shape of the dress was rectangular and had no waistline because this was Fez, Morocco. If the bride were to hold her arms out, the dress would have extended beyond her fingertips straight down to the floor. It must have been six feet wide, and as she sat on a dais, the dress was spread around her like ornate upholstery. The bride sat unmoving in a gold crown, gold brooches and a gold belt. She wore heavy black eyeliner and turquoise eye shadow, and half a dozen sequins circled her eyes. When she cried, one of the women sitting beside the dais would get up and touch a handkerchief to her face. Her lips were pink with lipstick, and she never smiled. I had heard there was some disagreement in the family about the wedding. The bride was a cousin to the family with whom I was staying. The women sitting beside the bride were dressed in smaller brocaded dresses in colors of gold, turquoise, lavender, chartreuse and more. While some of the women wore scarves on their heads, none of them wore the full veil assemblage. In Morocco, traditional attire for women entailed a caftan-like robe, a headdress similar to Peter O'Toole's head covering in Lawrence of Arabia, and for older, conservative women (such as the mother in my host family), a small veil across the nose and mouth. By 1976, the majority of young women didn't wear headdresses even in the city streets, and many of them wore contemporary Western dresses. Almost all the men wore Western clothes, just as they did in Iran. For most of the wedding evening, the women and the men sat in different rooms. The typical Moroccan tea and cookies were served in the women's room. At home, the mother of the house made tea by sprinkling a little black tea in the bottom of the silver teapot and then stuffing the pot with fresh mint leaves. She would add half a dozen immense chunks of sugar on the top and pour boiling water over them to fill the pot. Tea was always served in small glasses, so one had to hold the rim to avoid being burned by hot tea. The sweetness and the strong smell of mint were cloying. After some time, the bride was escorted from the room and returned wearing a more incredible robe. It started on top of her head with a rectangle of ornately filigreed gold inset with opaque green stones. From this, descended yards of red and white striped cloth embossed with golden patterns. On one side, the cloth fell to the ground, and the other side was long enough to fold and wrap around the front of the bride. Gold medallions inset with green stones dangled from a large, white dickey. The whole ensemble must have weighed pounds, yet the bride sat unmoving as a red and gilt mountain. Then, the men joined us, and the groom sat beside the bride. He was a Black man, and it was clear that in North Africa, the melding of Arab and African ethnicities was nothing unusual. The groom wore a dark suit with a red, patterned tie. He had to sit several feet away from his wife-to-be to accommodate her monumental attire. In one of my photographs, he looks over at her with a question in his eyes. She continues to look straight ahead, her face an expressionless stare. Later, the two maids who had reared the bride from childhood helped her to sit on the floor in what looked like a four-foot-wide tambourine. They tucked her robes into the circular shape. After a while, the two large women picked the bride in the oversized tambourine up on their shoulders and walked in circles in the middle of the room. Suddenly, the music became deafening, and the people clapped and sang and shouted cries of "you-you" in celebration of the happy event. Then, the crowd began to dance to the drums and music. The sisters in my family held their arms up in the air, sometimes dancing alone, sometimes with each other. Finally, there was an enormous meal for the relatives. We sat on the floor at tables spread with the food of luxury and celebration: meat, fowl, bread and grapes. There was no couscous, no grains or vegetables of any kind. The mother in my family sat across from me and continually picked out the best pieces of meat from the common plates for me, an honored guest. In Morocco, marriage could mean many different things. When my student group went into the High Atlas Mountains for a moussem, an annual tribal gathering, we saw the eligible Burber girls dressed in the traditional black-and-red-striped blankets worn like closed capes and pinned at the neckline. They also wore black cloths over their heads, tied on with many twists of red string and | Morocco: A Marriage Celebration
23: dangling silver coins. (The older, married women wore pointed black caps decorated with coins and other colorful items.) The girls were, perhaps, 12 or 13 years old, and their cheeks were stained with red circles that dipped downward like giant commas. Their eyes were lined with kohl, a black powder Middle and Near Eastern women put in their eyes. Their tears wash the powder from their eyes, but the kohl leaves the interior of their eyelids perfectly lined with black. The girls' eyebrows were heavily penciled in red, too, and some of them had tattoos of lines and dots on their chins while others held veils of black cloth across their faces. They had just passed puberty, and one of the points of the moussem in Emil Shil was to find husbands for them. Selling goods and engaging in competitive horse events were the other two major activities. The hillside was strewn with horses, and the valley was full of tents and cars. Here the men wore traditional robes, blanket-like capes and turbans. In the city, Omar, the cousin of the family with whom I lived in Fez, was engaged to Amina, one of the family's daughters. Amina was about 17, a pretty, young woman whose world largely encompassed home and family. Omar was in his late 20s or early 30s. He had studied in Paris and spoke English. It was an arranged marriage. Omar and Amina did go out on dates although they always were chaperoned by her sisters or others. They were getting to know each other before the ceremony, for which Omar, as the groom, would bear the brunt of the costs. This was quite unlike a country wedding another student attended where the bride was 12 years old, and she and the much-older groom didn't even see each other's faces until he lifted her veil at the wedding. Although most Americans might expect arranged marriages to fail more often than not, statistics suggest the success rate for marriages is about the same in cultures where people marry for love as it is in cultures where marriages are arranged by families. One of the | reasons, I think, is that people have different expectations of an arranged marriage. Family alliances are based on similar backgrounds, mutual needs, familial concerns and some times shared interests or even astrology. More importantly, the couples do not expect to live happily ever after as they often do in the United States. For those couples who do deal with the hard years and support each other through death, loss, illness and frustration, those experiences become the cement to bind a relationship together rather than the conflicts to tear it apart. While I had access to the cultural ceremonies of Morocco, I did not have access to the religious activities. As a non-believer, I was not allowed to enter the mosques, and their exteriors often were hardly distinguishable from other buildings unlike the beautifully tiled domes in Iran. I had heard that the father, the eldest daughter and the older maid at the house where I was living prayed five times a day, but those were private rituals I never witnessed. Sometimes the muezzin's call to prayer woke me at 4:30 in the morning, and that voice echoing through the neighborhood, through every neighborhood, reminded me how different Morocco and the United States were. . | The bride at a marriage celebration in Fez
24: High Atlas Mountains | Journeying by truck through the High Atlas Mountains to the Moussem in Emil Shil | The Burbers set up tents to create a giant encampment for the Moussem near Emil Shil, Morocco. | Vista of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco | Morocco
25: The Moussem was an annual gathering of the Burber tribes to race horses, sell goods and find husbands for girls who had entered puberty. An encampment of tents, pickup trucks and animals surrounded the town of Emil Shil for the Mousssem in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains. | The Moussem at | Emil Shil
26: Burber child brides at the Moussem at Emil Shil wear the traditional striped blankets. Their cheeks were stained with red patterns and their eyelids lined with kohl. | Married Burber women at the Moussem wear traditional pointed caps that are decorated with coins and other colorful trim.
27: Wedding Celebration | The bride in her two wedding garments | The bride and groom | Fez, Morocco
28: The bride is seated in a large, tambourine-shaped tray and then carried around the room on her two maids' shoulders.
29: Amina (with whose family we stayed) and her boyfriend Omar | Amina's sister dancing to celebrate the marriage | Another of Anima's sisters (on right) dancing to celebrate her cousin's marriage | Musicians playing after the wedding