Archive for the ‘Persepolis’ Category

Bigger than Nowruz

April 5, 2009

Sports and politics

Tehran Bureau | comment

Fifty years ago, Greco-Roman style wrestling was the favorite sport of Iranians. Over the years, however, football has replaced wrestling as the most watched and played sport in Iran. For many football matches are the most important TV event of the week. For others still, the results of a football match are much more important than, say, who the next president is going to be. In Iran football is more than a sport or passion; it is, quite literally, an obsession. Perhaps you have to be Brazilian to understand.

For me, it all started with the two football clubs: Persepolis and Esteghlal. In school you had to be a fan of one. If you weren’t interested, you were left out and picked on. So as is the tradition in my family, I became a Perspolisi, a fan of Persepolis, or one of the Reds. (The Esteghlalis are the Blues.) Almost all of my fights in school were related to football. At every recess, we were divided into two teams, the Reds and the Blues. We played football until we were called back to class. Even when following a fight the headmaster confiscated our football, we played with a stone! It usually took an injury, such as a broken tooth, for our headmaster to be persuaded to return our ball.

The Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs have dominated the Iranian football league for decades. Even when they haven’t been league champions, they have been the most followed. These two teams have very large fan bases; in fact, it has been suggested that Persepolis has the largest fan base in all of Asia. Both teams were founded in the pre-revolutionary era to represent the capital Tehran in the national league. Esteghlal used to be called Taj, or crown, but with the revolution all symbols of the monarchy were abandoned and the club was renamed Esteghlal, meaning independence. Persepolis was also changed to Piruzi, meaning victory but, the fans continued to call the club Persepolis — a rare manifestation of defiance in the Islamic Republic. The clubs play in Azadi stadium, which can hold 100,000 people. It is one of the largest stadiums in the world, and certainly one of the most monumental.

Thousands flock from all corners of the country for the popular Tehran derby, where Persepolis and Esteghlal face-off. The rivalry between these teams is like that of Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Juventus and Inter Milan. Fans are willing to endure just about anything: hours in long queues, camping outside the stadium overnight, enduring unsanitary facilities, among many other inconveniences. I have never watched the derby up-close myself, but each time younger members of my extended family gather at my aunt’s to watch the match, it is the greatest family event of the year, even bigger than Nowruz.

In recent years the match has become boring — suspiciously so. Games end predictably in a draw, as if ordered by authorities. Perhaps they are concerned that the fanatic supporters of the losing team will tear apart not only the stadium, but the whole city. Even when the match ends in a draw, hundreds of buses are vandalized and thousands of seats in the stadium are ripped apart.

As I was growing up, Iranian state television began to broadcast European football matches. It was the safest form of programming, with little or no need for editing or censorship. As a result, my generation avidly followed European football clubs. I favored the Italian club, Juventus, and my brother Bayern Munich. We even became passionate fans of foreign national teams. I have always been a strong follower of Germany’s national team, while many in my family are strong fans of either Italy or Brazil.

Our obsession however remains with Iran’s national football team. Our greatest source of pride is its success, our greatest despair its loss. I’ll never forget the historic match between Iran and Australia in the 1998 World Cup qualifier in Melbourne. I was just 14 then. Iran was down by two goals when Karim Bagheri and Khodad Azizi scored two goals. The tie, plus the previous one all draw in Tehran, meant that we were on our way to the World Cup finals. I was so ecstatic, I couldn’t stop jumping up and down for an hour after the match was over. The walls in my room were suddenly filled with posters of the new national heroes. Since then I have rarely missed a national football game, but I have to admit, the games have never been the same.

One match came close in 1998, the World Cup in France. The game was between Iran and the United States, the first ever public encounter between the two after the revolution. Iran won that game and the nation burst out in joy. Millions took to the streets and we celebrated throughout the night, dancing and singing. It was the first time the Islamic Republic had to deal with such crowds in the streets. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but they were outnumbered. We went on celebrating en masse, in definace of a many-year ban on such an act.

Iran managed to make it to the World Cup finals once again after that, in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The deciding game was between Iran and Bahrain. We won and again the streets were filled with young people celebrating the victory. The victory coincided with the Iranian presidential elections, the one where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president. As is custom around elections in Iran, the atmosphere was relaxed and the authorities used the celebrations to show freedom in the country.

The victory over Bahrain had another significance: It was a victory over an Arab team, the very team whose win over Iran in the previous World Cup qualifiers had denied Iran the chance of qualifying, thus sending the Saudis to the final stages. No one has forgotten that the Bahrainis took a victory parade around the stadium holding the flag of Saudi Arabia.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes back many years. Iranians prefer to lose to South Korea (our other formidable Asian rival) by a six-goal margin than to lose or tie with Saudi Arabia.

Our worst nightmare was realized during these Nowruz holidays when Iran lost to Saudi Arabia at Azadi stadium during the 2010 South African World Cup qualifying games. The loss means that Iran has very little chance of making it to the finals. Worse still, we lost to Saudi Arabia. And we lost in Tehran, before a home audience, with hundreds of thousands of fans watching.

It is a bit like everything else that has gone wrong during the administration of Ahmadinejad: football has not been spared. Some superstitious people blame the defeat on Ahmadinejad’s presence in the stadium! Iran was ahead by one goal until he showed up, and then Saudi Arabia scored two goals.

It was not the first time that Iran lost in Ahmadinejad’s presence. A few months ago, in the final World Cup match of Greco-Roman wrestling, everything was going well. Iran was ahead in the overall team score and needed only one last victory to become the world champions. Iran’s heavyweight champion, Fardin Masoumi, was ahead of his Azerbaijani rival, then Ahmadinejad showed up in the stadium. Masoumi lost the match and Iran lost the title. This is why many blame Ahmadinejad for the failures of Iranians in sports!

To be fair, there may be some basis to this. Sports in Iran are a governmental affair. All of the major sporting clubs are run by the government and the whole thing is very political. Take Persepolis and Esteghlal. They are owned by the Iranian Sport Organization whose head is appointed by the president. The current chief of Iranian sports is a very controversial figure, Mohammad Aliabadi. He had no prior experience in sports or sport management before being appointed to the post. He is also head of the National Olympics Committee, which is banned under the Iranian constitution. His blunders and mismanagement have cost Iran much. In the Beijing Olympics, Iran’s performance was one of the worst in recent memory.

Through his insistence, Iranian football hero, Ali Daei, who has a limited coaching background, became the coach of the national football team. On his watch, the national football team, which many argue now possesses more talent than any othr time in its history, is being eliminated in the World Cup qualifying stage. In the past year, FIFA threatened to ban Iran’s football federation from international competitions because of the government’s intervention in the sport.

I think sports have come to symbolize many of the wrong choices Ahmadinejad has made for managerial posts in his administration over the past four years. Like almost every other sector, sports in Iran are in critical need of reform, reforms that a new president may be better suited to implement.

Realted reading
Notebook: Blind Luck
Notebook: Nowruz in Abu Dhabi

A Guide to Iran

January 25, 2009

A jaunt through Tehran, Esfahan and Persepolis.

Tehran Bureau | passport

The joke was barely out of my mouth before I regretted making it.

“The Great Satan,” I’d quipped when the Iranian airport security official asked me where I was from. Unsmiling, he looked me up and down and said, “Please come with me.”

A thousand thoughts exploded in my head, none of them comforting. But it turned out the man only wanted to walk around the corner for a little privacy so he could ask about getting a visa to come to America.

It was a most unexpected welcome to Iran — but not, as it turned out, all that unusual. During the month I spent there one fall not too long ago I had similar exchanges with Iranians from all walks of life, few of them interested in discussing the animosity that has existed for so long between our two governments.

Nobody burned an American flag in my presence. Nobody threw rocks or taunted me. Many, in fact, expressed embarrassment over the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days.

And rarely did average Iranians air their grievances with the United States, of which there are many: the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that overthrew a democratically elected prime minister; the decades of U.S. support for the unpopular Shah; the help given to Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war against Iran; and the shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing all 260 people aboard. The United States says it was a horrible accident; the Iranian government maintains it was deliberate.

Nor did anyone bring up the current contretemps over the enrichment of uranium and Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. (My visit was before Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bizarre conference of Holocaust deniers last December.)

Understandably, though, most Americans are reluctant to travel to an “axis of evil,” as Bush calls it. But it’s perfectly legal to do so. Unlike Cuba, where U.S. law makes it virtually impossible for its citizens to set foot, Iran can be visited by any American who can get a visa (which, admittedly, is not always easy to do).

And there are plenty of reasons to go. In 2005, UNESCO ranked Iran seventh in the world in terms of historical, natural and archaeological assets. There’s world-class diving in the coral-rich Persian Gulf; skiing and mountain trekking take place amid peaks over 18,000 feet. But visitors don’t have to worry about jostling crowds: Iran ranks only 70th in the world in tourism revenue, which means not many are coming.

As an Iranian American growing up in Marin during the 1980s, I was constantly confronted with images of Iranians that never matched my perceptions or the experiences of people I knew so well. From an early age, I wanted to go to Iran and get to know it for myself, beyond both the U.S. propaganda and the often-distorted nostalgia of Iranian expats living in America.

Focused on the past

Arriving in Tehran, it’s hard to imagine there would be much worth staying to visit. The smog hangs over the city so thickly it has a texture. The city streets often resemble a parking lot. Many of its old architectural gems were destroyed by the Shah and replaced by drab, modern buildings, many now cheerlessly adorned with billboards honoring martyrs from Iran’s war with Iraq. Tehran, one quickly discovers, is a little rough around the edges.

Something about it, though, kept me transfixed. Tehran’s charm doesn’t lie in prettiness but in its surprises. For a city of its size (somewhere between 12 million and 15 million; no one is really sure) Tehran is improbably warm and friendly. Since the streets are packed, many Tehranis opt to take taxis. Unless the passenger is ready to pay for the whole cab and clearly states so, the driver will pick up as many passengers as the car will hold. This is a great way to see Tehran and get to know its residents. Any official gender segregation goes completely unnoticed, and men and women from all social strata discuss everything from government corruption to American pop music to computers to ever-rising inflation. I speak a little Persian, but it’s not essential for a visit; many Iranians, especially the younger ones, speak English.

One afternoon, to escape the smog, I hailed one of these communal cabs and headed for the top of Tehran, to one of the Shah’s former palaces. As I made my way through the entrance of the Sa’ad Abad Museum Complex, I felt I was in another world. The grounds were covered in lush, mature trees that appeared to be well manicured. On the ample lawns that surround the regal buildings, couples of all ages sat and flirted, making sure not to do anything too risqué.

It was clear from the literature provided at the door and from the bored and scruffy-looking guards — who were all too willing to give a guided tour of the artifacts of monarchial excess — that this museum was meant to show the evils of the Shah’s reign. The effect, though, was of a wistful nostalgia on the part of every visitor I saw, most of them ogling the large Persian rugs (the likes of which have all but vanished from Iran into the collections of Westerners) while the elders recounted the Iranian achievements of that era. Iran, I realized, is a nation fixated on what could have been.

Tehran today

Returning to reality — and to the smog — I made my way back to Tajrish, a bustling, upscale neighborhood in the north of the city, where I was approached by a women shrouded completely in black, a rare sight in that more liberal part of Tehran.

“Are you going to Vanak Square?” she asked.

I told her I was, but that I wasn’t a driver.

“I am!” she snapped, as if it should have been obvious. “Get in and let’s go.”

One of the few female taxi drivers in Tehran, she took us on shortcuts through residential neighborhoods and drove as if she would know them with her eyes closed. With every pothole we hit, she cursed the inefficiencies of the regime, to the delight of the five of us who were her fares.

For visitors from the West, the role of women here is an eye-opener. Sixty percent of university students are female. Women now hold many of the traditionally male jobs and are a conspicuous and beautiful part of Iranian public life. Compare these numbers with U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, and it leads to head-scratching. And as I learned that night, they can most certainly drive cars.

One site in Tehran is far more fascinating to visiting Americans than it is to most Iranians: The old U.S. embassy, site of the 1979 student takeover that so badly soured relations between the two nations.

It’s an imposing site, taking up several city blocks in central Tehran, and it’s surrounded by a huge brick wall. The walls are covered with anti-American and anti-Israeli murals and quotes from Ayatollah Khomeini. Above the wall is barbed wire.

These days, much of the grounds are used as a headquarters for a military group, while the main building is an anti-imperialism museum open only a few days a year. A couple of rooms are dedicated to depicting American operations within the “Den of Spies,” as the Iranians once called the embassy. Other exhibits honor the students who took over the embassy and spent weeks painstakingly piecing together shredded U.S. documents. Photo exhibits depict atrocities perpetrated on Iran and other developing nations.

I happened to be in Tehran on one of the few days the museum was open. When I asked a taxi driver to take me to the “old American Embassy,” his response surprised me: “Old American Embassy? There’s only one American Embassy, which is the property of the U.S.” He went into a long diatribe about how international law was broken when the embassy was seized. For most Iranians, the embassy takeover was clearly not their proudest moment.

When I arrived, groups of schoolchildren were being led around and quizzed about Western atrocities against Muslims. After I made it clear to everyone there that I was American, the scene quickly changed to one of curiosity and friendliness.

“What’s new in Hollywood?” asked one of the students in a hushed voice. Young Iranians are more informed about American pop culture than I’ll ever be, but as far as American political history goes, they seemed uninterested.

‘The Persian Florence’

If Tehran is an acquired taste, Esfahan is an epiphany. Travelers returning from Iran have for centuries boasted of the “Persian Florence.” Visiting the blue, mosaic-tiled mosques that help quench the desert’s ravenous thirst for civilization, though, I had to question that comparison. Both towns rose to glory during the same era, but it was Esfahan, not its unofficial European sister city, that was Earth’s most populous capital. Behind every corner I stumbled upon spectacular reminders of that rich past.

The city was built around the river Zayandeh Rood, which is crossed by two of the world’s most picturesque pedestrian bridges. The first is Si-o-Se Pol, literally “Thirty Three Bridge,” named for its 33 arches. The second, the Khaju bridge built by Shah Abbas in 1650, has two stories and features stone stairs that descend to the river. It’s probably the best place in Iran to dip your feet on a hot day.

A popular Persian rhyme of the day that “Esfahan is half the world” gave Esfahan’s square its original name. Indeed, the square has been the heart of the city since it was built in 1612, flanked by some of the most important buildings of the Islamic world and a labyrinthine bazaar that still serves as the center of commerce.

After five centuries, it remains one of the largest public squares in the world. It is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and from the moment I entered through one of its ancient corridors it has been my favorite place on earth. Not surprisingly, the past two regimes have co-opted the square as its own, going predictably from “Shah Square” to “Imam Square.” But, as a dapper young doctor in Levis and Reeboks told me, “We are proud of our city and its place in history, and to us this will always be known by its original name, ‘Reflection of the World Square.'”

Esfahan continues to be Iran’s most religiously diverse city, with a number of churches, Zoroastrian temples — and, yes, synagogues. This comes as a big surprise amid all the anti-Zionist rhetoric, but Iran is home to more Jews — about 30,000 — than any other Middle Eastern nation, other than Israel. In a country known for its devotion to religious icons and martyrs, for me Esfahan itself was the ultimate pilgrimage.

Ruins of an empire

Stepping even further back in time, I visited the ruins of Persepolis, south of Esfahan — the ancient Persian city constructed by Darius the Great, beginning in 512 B.C.

What remains today is a series of bas-reliefs with intricately carved characters that include brigades of soldiers and mythical figures such as the winged Homa, which predates Islam by many centuries but remains a symbol of Persian pride.

Buried under sand until the 1930s, when it was excavated, the remains only hint at the grandeur of this desert palace. Darius’ father-in-law, Cyrus, was the founder of Persia and the first architect of a human rights declaration. During his reign the Persian Empire spread to become the largest nation the world had yet seen.

The construction of Persepolis took nearly 150 years, and the city’s glory was short-lived. Alexander the Great’s army burned the city to the ground in 330 B.C.

Wandering the ruins early in the morning, I thought about how Persepolis represented Iran’s first what-could-have-been moment, and how it is facing another fork in the road right now. Based on the warm welcome the people here gave to a citizen of their ostensible enemy, I left full of hope.

Jason Rezaian, director of Iran Media Services, is a guide to journalists visiting Iran.

Persepolis, à la Grecque

January 23, 2009

Photo/Effie-Michelle Metallidis

Shiraz, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

My hand scrapes along a wall of fallen Persepolis as the sun wanes. We’ve reached the site just as the centuries-old ritual between sun and stone begins, the play of light evoking how far the remains have endured, surviving not merely ancient grudges, but modern arrogance. A pass under the Gate of Nations reveals as much: the American journalists Henry M Stanley of The New York Herald has already been here in 1870 as per a carefully chiseled inscription; so has a DSP E Andre, who also carved his name into the base of the entry gates in 1899, while J Granytam, JB Marrige and Wm Lundt all took their time to etch their names in cursive in 1810.

I can only imagine witnessing the grandeur of Persia’s glory a few hundred years ago, when the absence of digital cameras and websites made viewership an exclusive affair. The heightened adrenalin that, much like mine, coursed through veins of travelers passing through the remains of what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, torched to the ground. Or, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, had torched to the ground at the command of Thais, an Athenian woman whose vitriol caused the historian to enthuse that “the sacrilege committed by Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the Acropolis of Athens was avenged by a single woman, a fellow-citizen of the victims, who many years later, and in sport, inflicted the same treatment on the Persians.”

But the journey I made to Iran during late November of 2008 wasn’t on the premise of rehashing bygone enmity. Nor was it to examine Persian relics as a DSP E Andre or Wm Lundt; nor was it to ride the coattails of a new-found Orientalism. I came as a Mediterranean whose roots were mottled by centuries of conquest and empire, whose ethnic identity seemed as malleable as the red clay of sequestered Abyaneh. I did not come as subject nor conqueror, but as Alice, peering through the looking glass, and watched as a remote language re-aligned itself in a familiar pattern that told of the same humor, hospitality, culture and traffic violations.

It is the folly of nationalism that has disrupted the complexity of geography, thrusting Iran and Greece into their present states without paying much heed to the intertwined history both cultures continue to share. From the carved Greek and Persian inscriptions on a horse at Shaipur’s Parade in Naqsh-e-Rajeb, to the controversy kicked up over Hollywood’s interpretation of Thermopylae in 2006’s 300, to the fact that history still calls Persia’s crown jewel a name given to it by the Greeks, the ghosts of past alliances linger, and they walk among the living.

It is partly through a raging 19th century Hellenophilism, trumpeted by the likes of Byron and other romantics, that has kept Greece in the popular imagination of the West, while Iran, its shah, its revolution and its past, have slowly drained from the annals of collective memory. In imagining Iran, my generation has had little to draw on other than the sound bites of antagonism: the Iranian hostage crisis, Iran Air flight 655, sanctions, isolation, distortions further parlayed into the imagination through portrayals like Frank Miller’s comic book yarn of the freedom-loving Spartans facing Xerxes’s barbarous empire.

Staring at the remains of Persepolis now with Greece in mind, the relics of these two ancient civilizations seem to collude together as only former centers of the world can. There is something of the retired cabaret dancer in both of them; a sad beauty that only hints at past performances of a stunning nature. In Iran, the relics of the fallen empire aspirate an empty grandeur. In Pasargade, only columns and a mute tomb remain. The hollowness consumes the space between the monuments, the vapid breath of the valley. Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab are quiet, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they exist off of the E-7 highway, the path of modernity at pains to make concessions for no one. There, in an area marked off by a fence and some gravel, the remains of Sassanid bas-reliefs. Further down the road, tufts of withered grass on the dirt path leads to the tombs of Achaemenid kings. The casual nature of their existence, 4000 years of history chiseled into rock that follows along an asphalt road, reminds me of a mother with too many children to look after. There are simply too many layers to count, too many historical moments to cordon off and venerate.

The sites are at once glorious, tragic, forgotten and persistent, and nowhere more so than at Persepolis. I shuffle through the gravel, following the stele of a regal procession showcasing delegates of the 23 nations under the empire. How to parse and separate them? How to delineate between East and West, Greek and Persian, here or there, when no such partition exists in the mind, when then, as now, labels fray like threads when put under intense pressure?

It is maddening. And all the time, ever-present, ever-watchful, the eyes of Persepolis. The soldiers, the demi-gods, the lions, the lamassus, the Gopat-Shah, even defaced, even the replicas. Large, round, rubbed with a dark tint that lends dimension to their muteness. Ever-watchful of their environs and their visitors, the round surface of each orb, all-encompassing, as was the empire from which they emerged.

And yet among the difference, I find myself experiencing a strange sense of deja vu. The empire – the Hellenic, the Persian – worn down by time, pollution, visitors and memory, their ruins still speaking of a shared legacy, as when one Iranian friend journeyed to the Acropolis and, upon hearing his background, have a Greek remark, “You didn’t come to finish the job, did you?”