Culture builds bridges between Russia and Iran

by Olivia Kroth

Relations between Russia and Iran date back to the 16th century. Both nations share a long tradition of cultural, economic, political and social interaction, facilitated by the close neighbourhood on the Asian continent and many common interests. 

The first Persian ambassador to Russia was Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi in the 18th century, during the Qajarid dynasty. There was a lively exchange of commerce and trade, but also of culture on both sides. 

Nowadays, the news about Russian-Iranian arms deals and fueling the Bushehr nuclear power plant might overshadow the less spectacular information about cultural activities, but they are happening, nevertheless.

Iran has aligned itself with Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Russia and China, in which Iran has observer status and might join in soon. Russia and Iran trade in agriculture, energy and telecommunications. 

Both countries established a joint oil exchange. Gazprom and Lukoil are involved in Iranian oil and gas projects. Other areas of trade are carpets, textiles, chemicals, glass, plastics, plaster and stone products. 

Many scholars agree, however, that Iran's prize possession has always been its rich culture which manifests itself in many facets throughout Central Asia. Iranian culture is, for example, those hand-woven Persian carpets, which display a multitude of colors and forms in artistic, creative designs. They are some of the most beautiful rugs, made of the finest silk, a prize possession, handed down from one generation to the next.  

Persian-Iranian culture is several thousand years old, one of the richest heritages in world history, including architecture, calligraphy, literature, music, painting, pottery, metalworking, manufacture of tiles and stonemasonry.

Persian literature inspired such western poets as the German classical author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It still continues to inspire many people worldwide today, last but not least, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who loves to read the poetry of Omar Khayyam. In 2008, he said in an interview that he admires Iranian literature and history, which is part of the world's history.

"Iran is a world power. Its territory originally stretched from the Middle East to India. Even part of the former Soviet Union was ancient Iranian territory. What I want to say is that the history of our countries and the interaction of our cultures goes much deeper and has much stronger roots than specialists sometimes think. This is the guarantee that we will always find a way of solving any problems that arise, because we understand each other", President Vladimir Putin explained.

At the 24th Moscow International Book Fair in September 2011, a selection of poems by Omar Khayyam was presented in Russian translation. The volume comprised the favourite poems of the former Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati. As always, Omar Khayyam's poetry received a warm welcome in Russia.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet. Born in Nishapur, he was educated in Samarkand and later moved to Bukhara, where he lived for the rest of his life. He wrote about 1000 four-line verses. The Persian name for such quatrains is rubaiyat. Omar Khayyam's philosophical outlook on life is expressed beautifully in the following rubyiyat:   

The mowing finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

What has been done, remains done. Therefore it might be wise to think before acting, or in the case of a writer, to think before writing. Omar Khayyam's thoughts about the futility of life and the insecurity of human existence stand out in this rubyiyat:

Into the universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing,
And out of it, as wind along the waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

"Omar Khayyam is a venerable and honoured figure who brings to mind the delicacy and gracefulness of ancient Persian civilization," the Iranian journalist, Kourosh Ziabari, writes in his essay, "Introducing the heritage of Omar Khayyam."

Just like the Iranians, the Russians are book people. Reading literature is highly valued and long reading lists are a must at all schools. Thus, it comes as no surprise that literary activities play a leading role in the cultural exchange of both nations.

Recently, the Iranian Majlis' (Parliament) Library gave historical books to the Russian State Library as a gift. Among them were ancient manuscripts and the Holy Koran. They are important for researchers and theology specialists, as well as for students of Iranian culture and history. The Russian State Library in Moscow and the Iranian Majlis' Library in Tehran have been working together for over two years and plan to continue their fruitful cooperation.

From the 14th to the 19th of November 2012, a week of literary exchange took place in Iran, dubbed the "Literary Bridge between Russia and Iran" and organized by Tehran's Book City Institute. The "Literary Bridge between Russia and Iran" is part of a five-year plan. In 2013, an Iranian group will visit Moscow in return.   

A group of Russian literati and scholars was invited to participate in a series of literary events with visits of the Iranian Academy of Persian Language and Literature, the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Tehran, then onwards to the beautiful city of Shiraz, where the mausoleum of the Persian poet, Hafez, is a tourist attraction.

The group of Russians included Professor Marina Reisner of the Moscow State University, Professors Natalia Chalisova and Maxim Rusanov, both from the Russian State University for Humanities. Two Russian writers, novelist Ildar Abouzyarov and poet Sanjar Yanishev, were also invited.

At the Hafez Shiraz Institute for Higher Education, Director Kurosh Kamali Sarvestani spoke about the affinities between Persian and Russian literature. Professor Martina Reisner held a lecture about the influence of the Persian language on the literature of the Middle East and Russia, comparing the Persian poet, Hafez, with the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. 

Professor Natalia Chalisova spoke about the translations of Hafez's poetry into the Russian language. She uttered the opinion that the subject of Hafez's poems was the beauty and elegance of human beings. 

The Russian novelist, Ildar Abouzyarov, delivered a speech about the influence of Persian stories on his own writings. "My father had a box full of Persian stories. He read them for me when I was a child. This made me dream of becoming a writer," the novelist confessed.

Hafez (1315-1390) was a Persian poet born in Shiraz, where his mausoleum attracts many visitors from all over the world. His poetry collection, the Diwan, can be found in the homes of many educated people in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. They learn his poems by heart, using them as proverbs for every day. The themes of his ghazels are love and faith. They can be interpreted literally, mystically or both:

Last night, from the cypress branch, the nightingale sang,
In old Persian tones, the lessons of spiritual stations. 

The cypress tree is a symbol of love in Persia, the nightingale's song also evokes the idea of human love, but the "lessons of spiritual stations" suggest a mystical undertone.

Hafez was prominent in his home town Shiraz, where he held the position of court poet. In his memory, a dome-like structure was erected above his grave in 1452 at the order of Babur Ibn-Baysunkur, a Timurid governor. This grave with dome was the center of the Musalla gardens that featured Hafez's poetry.

In 1773, a bigger memorial was constructed, with two rooms built at the east and west end, while the north and south sides remained open. The building split the Musalla gardens into two regions, with the orange grove in the front and the cemetery in the back. The marble grave was engraved by a calligrapher with excerpts from Hafez's poetry.

In the 19th century, however, the grave and gardens deteriorated. The site even remained in ruins for two years, until 1901, when it was restored. In 1931, the orange grove was repaired and the Ministry of Education organized the building of a new mausoleum for Hafez.

The present day structure is elevated one meter above ground level and encircled by five steps. Eight columns, each ten meters tall, support a copper dome in the shape of a dervish's hat. The underside of this dome features an arabesque, colorful mosaic which is well lit at night, presenting a focal point for tourists.

In the Musalla gardens, seven rectangular pools were added. Paths, flower beds and orange trees evoke the idea of paradise. The word "garden" itself stems from the Persian language. Persian gardens were designed as a reflection of paradise on earth. Who could possibly resist entering paradise in the Musalla gardens of Shiraz, to read the engravings of Hafez's poetry on the poet's tomb?

According to Faramarz Amirian, head of ITTC, the Iranian Tourist Board, Shiraz belongs to the most visited tourist hot spots in the country. Not only Russians, but multitudes of people from around the globe visit Shiraz every year. Iran gives short term tourist visas to 68 nations, so they can profit from nature and cultural sites in Iran.

An international tourist poll states that Iran belongs to the five top countries worldwide, visited for its beautiful nature. It is the 10th country globally on the list for important historic places. Faramarz Amirian attributes Iran's attractiveness for global tourism to its old culture. Iran is famous for being the "cradle of civilization."

The Iranian Tourist Board operates 64 tourist hotels in different regions of the country. Those in Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran and on the Island Kish receive the highest numbers of international visitors. Furthermore, seniors get discounts on travel packages within Iran.    

Iranian literature is not only popular with adults in Russia, but with children, too. Recently, the Russian State Children's Library in Moscow unveiled Iran's "Good Stories for Good Children," written by the Iranian children's writer, Mehdi Azar Yazdi. This book was jointly printed by Russia's Veche Publishing House and Iran's Amirkabir Publications.

Veche editor-in-chief, Sergei Dmitriev, and Amirkabir director, Ahmad Nesari, Pushkin Library Foundation director, Maria Vedenyapina, and Iranian diplomats attended the ceremony, together with a group of Russian children who enjoyed the reading. 

Mehdi Azar Yadi (1921-2009) wrote stories for children after Persian masterpieces, such as the Gulistan, in eight volumes. They also include stories from the Holy Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. His collection of stories won a UNESCO prize in 1966, and was selected as Iran's book of the year in 1967.

Furthermore, a host of other bi-national festivals have been held in Tehran and Moscow this year. In October 2012, Iranian artists displayed their works in Moscow during Iranian Art Week, showing calligraphy, films, handicrafts, paintings and photos. 

The opening event was a public screening of "Days of Life" by the Iranian film director, Parviz Tadi. The Russian Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, gave a report about the growing cultural relations between Tehran and Moscow in recent years. 

During the last week of November 2012, an Iranian theater group played "Hey Macbeth, only the first dog knows why it is barking," at the Moscow Nights Festival. This musical comedy, directed by Ebrahim Poshtkouhi, blended in the traditional zar dance ritual of Iran's southern Bushehr Province with William Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth.

Zar rituals originally stem from East Africa, supposedly they began in Sudan, but are popular in the South of Iran as well, especially in the Province of Bushehr, which borders on the Persian Gulf. Zar is an old religious, spiritual custom, involving the possession of an individual by a spirit. 

Zar rituals are usually accompanied by percussion instruments.  Here, in this play, it was the Persian dammam. Loud and rich rhythm is the hallmark of zar music. The drummers produce the rhythm with great mastery, so the dancers will fall into a trance.

"Our play is rooted in the legends and rituals of southern Iran. I hope I can represent an interesting aspect of Iranian theater," the company's director pointed out. The play was accompanied by a blend of African, Indian and southern Iranian music, composed by Reza Abbaspour. 

Bilateral ties are further boosted by Iranian broadcasting in Russia. In November 2012, the Russian satellite Express-aM22 began broadcasting a package of Iranian TV and radio channels on the territory of the Russian Federation and CIS. 

The satellite, owned by the federal state enterprise, Russian Satellite Communications, is now carrying eight Iranian TV channels and eleven Iranian radio stations. The main idea behind broadcasting this package is to provide the Russian audience with more information about Iranian achievements in the fields of culture and research. 

Prepared for publication by:

Lisa Karpova


Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey