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The Arts in Iran Are Defying Conservatism

The arts and cultural activity in Iran today have greatly expanded from the time of the Revolution of 1978-79. Many aspects of the arts challenge conservative religious authorities, but they are flourishing nonetheless to the great appreciation of the Iranian public.
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The arts and cultural activity in Iran today have greatly expanded from the time of the Revolution of 1978-79. Many aspects of the arts challenge conservative religious authorities, but they are flourishing nonetheless to the great appreciation of the Iranian public. I have just returned from an extensive tour of Western and Central Iran encompassing a dozen cities and small towns and have seen evidence of this increased attention to the arts at every turn.

Foremost is the extraordinary efforts in preservation of cultural and historical monuments. Iran has a huge number of heritage sites, sixteen of which have been designated as UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites. In the distant past these were poorly maintained. Now the major and many smaller sights are beautifully maintained. Many others are still in the throes of extensive restoration. The public response from Iranians has been overwhelming. Iran has one of the most extensive domestic tourism industries in the world today as tourist sites become more accessible, transportation has improved, and lodging and food options have modernized and expanded.

In the stunning city of Isfahan we encountered a group of Iranian Kurds from the western city of Mahabad touring with a chartered bus. We caught up with them at the 17th Century Chehel Sotoon Palace in Isfahan. They were on a two week tour through Central Iran. They were not family, just friends, this was a very different pattern of travel. Several couples had actually left their children at home. In the past a group of otherwise unrelated adult tourists would have been a rarity in Iran. Now it appears to be commonplace.

Chehel Sotoon itself has been a tourist attraction for years not only because of the building, but also because of the marvelous Safavid paintings of court life and battles that cover the walls. The lively depictions of musicians and male and female dancers are somewhat at odds with conservative Islam. On the Nakhsh-e Jahan square, which contains major Islamic and secular monuments in Isfahan, is found the Ali Qapu Palace, which is also under continual restoration. The marvelous paintings and cutouts in the palace are slowly emerging in their original beauty. Many of the miniatures on the walls of the palace are distinctly erotic, and these too are being lovingly restored.

In one of the traditional restaurants near the spectacular Masjed-e Imam (formerly the Masjed-e Shah) we encountered a young woman using goache colors to add decoration to the walls and columns. She was a graduate in fine arts (painting) from the University of Isfahan, and did this side job, while working on the restorations in the Ali Qapu. We asked her about careers for artists today, and she replied that this was one of the real sources of growth in employment as restoration expanded throughout the nation.

The Armenian Orthodox Church in the Isfahan quarter of Jolfa has also been beautifully restored. It is now a semi-museum used only for religious services on five major Christian celebrations. It's hybrid decor is most interesting. The lower parts of the walls in the church are covered with ceramic tiles reminiscent of the great mosques while the upper portions contain scenes from the life of Christ. The church was swarming with Muslim tourists on the second day of the Islamic fasting month, Ramazan.

In the museum portion of the church there are numerous figurative paintings. One Muslim boy insisted on having his picture taken in front of a dramatic picture of the Crucifixion, depicting, as is usual in Western art, but not in Islam, the semi-nude Christ. I later found out that the boy and his family were from the southern city of Abadan at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. His father was a member of the Iranian national water polo team. They came to the church because they had heard about the dramatic paintings.

Eating in the excellent restaurant in the Jolfa Hotel, I noticed that all the canned music consisted of recordings from Armenian singers from an earlier age who were popular throughout Iran before the Revolution of 1978-79. To my surprise the younger people in the restaurant knew all the songs and even hummed along. The walls of the restaurant were lined with large paintings of Iranian-Armenian artists and musicians.

Gardens are a major art form in Iran and the major gardens in Shiraz, Isfahan and other cities are a magnet for the public who picnic on the lawns or just use the parks and gardens as places to relax. Even the wealthiest citizens will pack elaborate picnics for social time out of doors. Of great interest to me was the large amount of public art in these parks--not just statuary but also contemporary sculpture incorporating human figures, again, a challenge to the most conservative authorities who see such monuments as a form of idolatry.

The great bridges of Isfahan, Si-o-Se Pol ("33" bridge) and the Pol-e-Khaju have also been landscaped and made in to a large, beautiful park. People stroll the bridges (now dedicated to pedestrians) and inhabit the grassy areas. In times other than Ramazan there would be food vendors out during the day, and we were told that they would indeed appear after dusk, when fasting ends.

On the Pol-e-Khaju an elderly gentleman sat and sang the classic Iranian love story of Leila and Majnoon to the delight of the young people crowded around him. I sat next to an older woman who had worked 30 years in a woolen factory producing suiting and blankets. She was now retired and came with her daughter just to enjoy the park at sunset. She said she loved the ambiance and the occasional informal concerts taking place on the bridge. Two young guys were college students in Isfahan sitting on the bridge. My companion asked me to ask them if they were looking for romance. They laughed and said that indeed this was one of the most romantic places they knew and chances of meeting girls were very good in their experience.

Of course, handicrafts are everywhere. They are still a lively industry. I was delighted to see two women working in a silversmith's shop. They had degrees in art, but said that apprenticing to a silversmith master was the only way they could practically learn the trade. Their work was stunning and original.

Our group was very keen to go to a contemporary art museum. Fortunately there is an excellent one in Isfahan. It doesn't have its own collection, but mounted an exhibit of three contemporary graphic artists. The docents were all young women graduates in studio art from the University of Isfahan. Two were painters and two were experts in carpet design.

One of the painters identified herself as a "feminist artist" and seeing images of her work on her phone we knew what she meant. Using herself as a model, she had arresting images showing a woman in situations showing both hope and restrictions on thought. She did her final intellectual project on the work of the well-known contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, whose work, exhibited in the New York City Museum of Modern Art, was well known to her.

There is intense interest in music, both Iranian classical and contemporary. I have been involved in several discussions about the quality of music whether the traditional "dastgah" classical Iranian musical suite or Iranian rap music. Recordings are regularly available and are broadcast on radio and television. I asked about the prohibition of music by some conservative clerics. One young man sniffed and said, "people should ignore them." The recent annual Fajr music festival resulted in prizes for many musicians.

However, music remains a sticking point for some conservative clerics and pockets of resistance in the government. Iran's Minister of Culture and Guidance, Ali Jannati, has been a fierce defender of musical culture. He recently announced a program of exchange with Armenia in which musical groups would explicitly be exchanged between the two nations. His ministry has authorized a steady stream of music concerts of all varieties of music (except for solo female singers, who are still not permitted). However, in some instances the concerts have been canceled at the last minute by the police with no warning. Minister Jannati objected strenuously in the Iranian press, saying: "Alongside prayer and fasting the people need and deserve music."

Film is such a prominent art form now that most newspapers devote a whole page or section to it. Iran has its own "Oscars." Now it its 15th Year, the Hafez Awards give prizes to the best films, documentaries, television programs, actor, actress, comedian and comedienne (for both film and television), film singer (which went to the very well known singers Homayun Shajarian and Shahram Nazaeri). The top film this year was Masud Jafari-Jozani's new comedy drama, Iranburger. Our group of Americans had seen Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film, A Separation, and his most recent release, About Elly. We couldn't find anyone from age 15 and up who hadn't seen these films either in cities or small towns. Discussion of these films were always a conversation starter.

Theater is slowly making inroads again in Iran. The City Theater (Theatr-e Shahr) in Tehran is not only an active producing institution, it is also a training ground for actors in stage, television and film. Live theater, once common outside of the capital, is slowly finding its way back into the life of medium and smaller cities. Actor training is also found in many universities today.

I have to end with a mention of cuisine. Traditional Iranian cuisine has always been world-class and it is no less so today. The traditional kebabs and rice and khoreshts (stews of meat and vegetables or fruit served over rice) are still there, but have been elevated to a new level. Of most note is the large number of new vegetable offerings on menus, particularly as salads and cold offerings. Thirty years ago a vegetarian or vegan would have had a hard time in Iran. Not so today. Menus are full of vegetable offerings and with healthful preparation with little oil (yoghurt bases are most common). A new kind of Iranian cooking based on traditional roots is in the near future.

This appears to be no accident. A nutritionist at the Ministry of Health informed me that the government has been successful in eliminating trans-fats from the Iranian diet. Healthful vegetable oils are now the rule, and the Iranian diet is now employing home-grown vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, once rare, in much greater quantities in delicious, original preparations, beautifully presented.

While on our journey, Iran beat the United States team in volleyball in a tournament in Tehran. Everyone was glued to any television they could find to watch this game. As we watched in a crowded hotel lobby, one man turned to me and said, "You know I'm happy we won, but I was really delighted to hear how happy the United States team was at our hospitality. We wanted them to have a good time while in Iran."

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