The taxi honks at the door. It’s time to go. My friend Mehdi insists on seeing me off at the Tabriz station. The train to Tehran is scheduled to leave at 6:30. I look back. Shima is standing at the door. She remains there until we take a sharp turn to get on to the highway for the station.
The brief ring of wave that a Musafir from a far-away land might have created for a fleeting moment in the placid life of this lower middle class couple, who hasn’t gone anywhere outside of Iran, vanishes as if it never was. In that tiny one-room apartment with only one bathroom, they had arranged my stay, making my bed in the living room sofa-cum-bed every night. They showed me around Tabriz and its suburb, fed me, and made sure I never, not for a moment, felt ignored. For what? I didn’t pay them a dime. I don’t search for an answer. Gone. The ring on the water. Gone for ever. Damn. Why do I take this on me? Why not stay at a hotel instead? How seamlessly they smile you out of their lives the moment you have checked out! I don’t search for an answer.
The train starts rolling with a small jerk. It’s a neat four bunk coupe. There’s a TV even! A short gentleman with stubs of three days’ white beard and close cropped uncombed hair is sitting on the opposite bunk.
“Salom! Shoma az Hind miayad?”
“Salom! Bale. But I am sorry I can’t speak much Farsi.”
“No problem. I can speak little bit of English.”
Thus begins our conversation, after I tell him that yes, I am indeed from India. He is Prof. Fakr. He was an English teacher in Tabriz University. He is retired now, and he is going to attend a religious conference in Tehran. I quickly get to the point. My question is straight, “How eager are the present President and Rahbar of Iran to steer Iran out of the isolation?”
Prof. Fakr caresses his beard for a few moment, and then challenges the basic premise of my question, “I am not sure why are you calling it isolation. Why don’t you call it independence? You see, Aqa, the countries with which we have excellent relations far outnumber the countries that are against us. We will not be subservient to the US or to the EU. If they can accept this, we welcome them with open arms.”
I do not argue with him pointing out that it’s not really a number-game. The US, the EU countries and Russia (Soviet or not) have colonised and devastated nation after nation with such brutality that all nations, including my own country India, are scared shit of them and have generally played servant to one or the other. It is common knowledge how the Manmohan Singh government voted against Iran in the UN in November, 2009, and walked away from the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project to be on the right side of the US so that it could fulfil its own highly questionable nuclear ambitions. But in the dictionary of geo-strategic diplomacy the word ‘betrayal’ doesn’t exist.
“The UN Security Council permanent members and Germany, particularly because of US President Barrack Obama’s initiative, have now signed a deal to ease sanctions against Iran. Do you believe that this upsurge in relations between the West and Iran will last?”
Prof. Fakr caresses his beard even longer this time, gives me wry smile and replies, “It is very difficult for me to have trust on the good wishes of the US government. Let’s see.”
I am consulting my notes, as I write these lines. Prof. Fakr uttered those words in the evening of November 3, 2015. Donald Trump was not even in the horizon. Today, as I narrate my conversation with Prof. Fakr, I have only one adjective for his words: prophetic. And his words convinces me yet again, that a mechanism must be found by which all people across the globe continue to interact among themselves irrespective of the relations between states. The state as an institution cannot be trusted to represent the people beyond a point. I have not an iota of doubt in my mind that a vast number of people in the US have no use for Donald Trump’s uninformed hyperboles on Iran. Conversely many Iranians, I have seen myself, do not share the Rahbar’s politico-religious ambitions. It is here that people need to assert their will over the state, for the state survives on fragmenting the human kind through assertions of borders of ‘interests’, which are not necessarily that of the people. My deep and continuous engagement with Pakistanis over decades has also convinced me of this unassailable reality. But it’s easier said than done. With the internet, however, we have the first rudimentary tool. I hope cross-border groups, such as the ‘clans’ of the Clash of Clans, will soon find a political purpose, and teenagers will begin a subversion the state that will not just be a game. Will I live to see such a day?
Prof. Fakr explains in detail the cultural and economic trajectory of the policies of the present Islamic regime in Iran. It is complicated. Very briefly put: modernization within broad Islamic codes is the goal. But isn’t religion a matter of pure individual choice? I ask. The professor has an interesting reply to that: In an ideal world, yes. But that world must be free of the essentially Western relentless consumer capitalist carpet bombing of the mind with advertisements that propagates a very definitive idea of civilization. “When they stop brainwashing the little girl that she is not ‘beautiful enough’ unless she uses the X or the Y or Z beauty-cream, we can stop enforcing the codes of Islam that believes in the beauty of the mind and not of the skin.” The enforcement, feels Prof. Fakr, is necessary to an extent in the face of that ‘hollow materialist’ onslaught. Honestly, I cannot dismiss the essential grain of truth in the professor’s position. Albeit it does open up to the question: who decides to what extent? Perhaps that’s what Iran is experimenting with.
And then there is the question of the religious minorities. I decide to express my opinions candidly to Prof. Fakr, in reply to his searching questions. I tell him that I personally believe that a democracy’s success is directly proportional to the overall wellbeing of all kinds of minorities, particularly the religious ones, because religion is perhaps the most emotive divisive force in most societies. In India, our post-Mughal Empire record in this regard is abysmal. But I also hurry to add with great pride, that my country is the only civilized nation in the world where the Jews were never persecuted, not once, except during the horrendous terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, by a bunch of killers, brainwashed, aided and abated by the Pakistani deep-state. Indeed, persecution of any community, as different from exploitation and very violent exploitation, has been alien to Indian culture for four thousand years until as recently as the 1920s when a handful of very charismatic leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim communities imagined that the two communities were really two different nations. That imagination gave birth to a sordid reality, which has left us divided and deeply scarred.
How’s Iran handling its minorities? Prof. Fakr assures me that the minorities are safe and fine in Iran. I do not take his words at face value, and make sure to at least have a peak into Iran’s minority world.
Oops! That’s a very long queue. Mostly chirping school children, giving their teacher a difficult time in maintaining the queue. Doubtless a study tour, which I guess all over the world is a joyous moment for children to escape from the horrendous monotony of classrooms. I am standing in front of Iran’s oldest Christian Cathedral Kalisa-i-Vank, New Jolfa district of Isfahan on the south bank of the Zayande Rud (River Zayande). I am in no particular hurry. How about exploring the area a little and let the crowd clear? I have both sufficient time and battery in my camera. It’s a little before 10 in the morning. The sun is as golden and as pleasant as it gets. Isfahan is a clean and green city, out of which the New Julfa neighbourhood appears to be particularly neat, with its litter-free tree-lined pavements, picturesque little shops and restaurant with windows decked with bright flower plants. There’s a sense of satisfaction in the air: a kind of a place where you let out soft sigh and smile for no apparent reason. Soon the district reminds me of some areas of Kathmandu, with the bustle blotted out. One of the most amazing cities that I have visited the Nepalese capital is an astounding collage of the grand and intricate old and the modern, the modern that is not the designer modern of the Fifth Avenue, but the humdrum modern of most developing nations’ cities. New Julfa does give you a sense of that. A sharp turn, and a narrow alley suddenly opens up into a park with a large sun-dial fountain, surrounded by trinket shops. People are passing through in unhurried strides. Many are chatting on the benches along the border of the park. I am overcome with a sense of lethargy. I purchase a packet of mixed nuts and recline back on one of the wooden benches.
New Julfa is not really new. It’s once again a story of history’s helplessness as an objective narrator of events. Iranian and Armenian official state positions, that I have been able to look into so far, hold that the Armenians, uprooted by Ottoman persecution during early 17th century wars, were very kindly resettled by Safavid emperor Shah Abbas I outside Isfahan. Yet private researchers indicate that there’s a little twist in the tail of this story. During the Ottoman-Safavid war raging between 1603 and 1605 CE, the defence strategy of Shah Abbas included ‘scorched earth’ policy. In simple terms it meant, burning down habitations, crops and forests, poisoning sources of water, forcing people to move out with all their livestock, and butchering any left behind, so that advancing enemy troops did not get an iota of life-sustaining support from conquered territories, but had to depend solely on their own supplies for sustenance. The idea was to then attack and cut off that supply line from both flanks.
In 1604 around 300,000 Armenian Christians and others were evicted by such scorched-earth strategy and forced to move deeper into the Empire. A vast number of them, as was the order of the day, were left to find their own destiny. Most of them died in the effort. A select Armenian population from a small mercantile town Julfa, on the banks of the Aras River, received relatively privileged treatment and were resettled near Isfahan, on the banks of the Zayende Rud (1). The Julfa Armenians had a unique experience and expertise of silk trade with European merchants, which Shah Abbas was quick to recognize and nurture, knowing well that the resettled populace was too rootless to threaten his authority even if they were allowed to leverage significant economic powers. Thus grew the prosperous largely Christian town of New Julfa.
And for me it was indeed of particular interest to find that the New Julfa Armenian traders had deep connections with the courts of the Mughal Emperors for centuries. Indeed, it was largely through New Julfa Armenian trader Israeli Di Serhat’s (2) persuasive skills that enabled the British East India Company to obtain the Zamindari of three villages Sutanuti, Kolikata and Govindapur on the banks of the Hooghly river in Bengal in 1698. Post that the history of India, and even the world for that matter, took a sharp new turn.
Notwithstanding ominous headlines of opinion pieces in leading Western news media, such as “Iran’s Oppressed Christians” (3), this is what the Republic of Armenia’s Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan said on October 21, 2014, “Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is Armenia’s neighbouring country, has created all the conditions for the Armenians to preserve their culture. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Iranian government, Iran’s honourable Ambassador to Armenia for creating the atmosphere for Armenians to feel Armenian in Iran and Julfa.”(4) The occasion was the foundation of 350th anniversary of the foundation of the Surp Hovsep Arematatsi Church of the Holy Savior Monastery of New Julfa.
And I enter this Church, the Kalisa-i-Vank, exactly one year and 17 days after that address, which may again be driven more by geo-strategic diplomacy than truth. I don’t know.
- From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa. Sebouh David Aslanian. University of California Press. 2011. Pp 1-7.
- Serve the Power(s), Serve the State: America and Eurasia. Juan Carlos Garavaglia(Editor), Michael J. Braddick (Editor), Christian Lamouroux (Editor). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2016. P 254.
- Iran’s Oppressed Christians. byLiana Aghajanian March 14, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/15/opinion/irans-oppressed-christians.html?_r=0 . Accessed: March 13, 2017
- http://www.mindiaspora.am/en/News/3082. Accessed on March 3, 2017.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra