In Iran Episode 25

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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Murghi keh nawai dard ranad ishq ast
Paikee keh zaban-i-ghayeb danad ishq ast
Hasti keh keh bah neestit khawaneed ishq ast
Wa-aanach keh az tu tura rahanad ishq ast

What is here that is associated with the great Sufi Saint Shams-i-Tabrizi? ‘Nothing,’ says Mehdi with supreme disinterest.

Mehdi looks typically Greek. Six feet tall. High cheekbones. Sharp projecting nose. Flowing hair almost touching shoulders. At the Tabriz bus stop he arrives late, giving me a few moments of tension. It takes me a few hours to realize that he is one of those guys who handles life on his own terms, rather than being handled by life on its terms. Good. Suits my temperament. He doesn’t have a car. He doesn’t have children, but does have a very beautiful wife, Shima. The couple can’t be more than 30. They are a working couple, but they have taken leave to host me. I realize over the next couple of days that I am a drop of excitement in their placid life, in this beautiful ancient city, which can compete with any European city in terms of modern civic amenities. The air is crisp and cold, and the sun bright golden.

This is the city that gave its name to Shams. Hence my obvious question, which meets with almost a cynical dismissal. I also find, over the next couple of days, that neither Mehdi nor Shima has an iota of interest in religion and consider the Islamic regime utter nonsense. So, it is with some trepidation that I tell the couple, after breakfast at their home, that I would like to begin my Tabriz tour with a visit to Masjid Qabut, the Blue Mosque.

 “But of course,” Mehdi readily agrees, and we hop into a taxi again. It’s a short ride. “That’s the Blue Mosque,” he says, pointing to a biscuit-coloured medium size mosque, built in brick that hasn’t a drop of blue anywhere. “And this is Khaqani Park,” he adds. We stand in front of a large life-size statue of a handsome gentleman with flowing hair, flowing beard and flowing robes. Afzaladdin Ibrahim ibn Ali Nadjar, a remarkable Persian poet born a millennium ago, around 1121, and known largely by his second Takhallus Khaqani Shirwan.

He was remarkable in many senses: for his great poetic prowess, by which he experimented with unusual rhyme patterns and became one of the pioneers of the unique poetic form known as the Ghazal; but more significantly, for me, it’s his Habsiyye, the prison poems. Shirvan is region in the eastern Caucasus, which now is part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. His poetic genius quickly made him the court poet of the Emperors of Shirvan, the Shirvanshahs. This remarkable man, however, soon ‘fled from the iron cage where he felt like a bird with a broken wing’.

Court-life and its inescapable servitude to the king and his cohorts was not for him. Indeed the imperial court, for many a cherished dream, was Habsgah-i-Shirvan, the prison-house of Shirvan, for Khaqani! And he soon became a musafir, wandering across West Asia. While the Encyclopaedia Iranica suggests that he was possibly imprisoned twice by the Shirvan rulers, his English translator Paul Smith is certain that he was thrown into prison by Shah Akhistan. After his release the poet moved to Tabriz and died there sometime between 1186 and 1199.

Standing in the park for a moment I suspect that Mehdi has cleverly made sure that my exposure to Tabriz begins with exposure to a rebel poet, who authored such deep lines as the ones I quote right at the beginning:
The bird which sings the ode of pain is love
The messenger who knows the tongue of the unseen is love
The existence who is reading you into the nonexistence is love
And that what frees you from yourself is love

We approach the mosque through the pages of Khagani’s garden. A section of the Oghuz Turks had occupied and ruled over Azerbaijan, Armenia, a portion of Iran, northern Iraq and eastern Turkey calling themselves the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty between 1375 and 1488 CE. Tabriz was the capital of this kingdom. Emperor Jahan Shah of this dynasty had Masjid Qabut built in 1468. Unfortunately, much of the mosque except the main aiwan or hall was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1779. Some two hundred years later in 1973 in a marvelous feat of restoration it was rebuilt, but in keeping with all the modern ethical codes of restoration, under the direction of one of Iran’s finest architects Reza Memaran Benam. Apparently the restoration itself is something to see and learn. I miss my wife, Baisakhi, one of India’s leading museologists. She would have really appreciated the effort. I only notice that there has been no effort to hide the fact that it has been rebuilt, keeping the new portions distinct although totally in sync with the old.

The name Blue Mosque, however, automatically brings to mind a comparison with Istanbul’s 17th century Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also famous as the Blue Mosque. In terms grandeur this one frankly is no match. The light. Yes, it was the light inside main aiwan of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque which really swept my senses. The bright sunlight was streaming through the coloured glass panes of 200 long windows, floating down and mingling with the soft light emitted by hundreds of lamps on the huge circular chandelier that filled almost the whole of the aiwan. Later I read somewhere that to prevent the chandelier from cobweb attacks, that universal insignia of ominous time, they used to keep ostrich eggs tied to it! I had heard of massive omlettes made out of ostrich eggs but never before had heard of its insect repellent qualities.

However, what made my Tabriz trip memorable was not the Masjid Qabut, neither its sprawling bazaar, nor the city’s beautiful parks. The highlight of my visit to the capital of East Azrbaijan was a day-long tour to a small hilly village of some 170 families, about an hour’s drive from Tabriz. Kandovan. One reason for that of course is that, in only one other region you can find such a strange living habitat: Cappadocia, in the Anatolia region of Turkey. I have never been there. But I am told it’s much larger and far older. Incidentally that region was also part of the vast empire of Iran’s King Darius I some 2500 years ago. In comparison, Kandovan is only yesterday’s affair: just about 700 years old.

Strangely, Kandovan immediately brought to my mind poignant memories of a visit to a dead village in another continent, five years ago. Like Kandovan the inhabitants of that habitat also had chiseled out of solid rocks, fascinating multistoried homes. A millennium ago. Bandelier. New Mexico. On a bright morning we started off in a midi-van from Santa Fe. In ten minutes all the sun was blotted out and it started snowing heavily. The pitch-black silken highway meandered up a dry brown hilly terrain. Soon, we shouted the driver to a screeching stop.

The object of our curiosity was a huge rock: the famous Camel Rock. Its stunning similarity to a sitting camel has to be seen to be believed. We got out of the van. It was snowing incessantly, soft flakes silently covering the vast denuded terrain, the gigantic camel, the shining black St. Mary’s Driveway. Close by a large red glow sign kept blinking. You couldn’t miss it. Suddenly I felt drowned in tears. Did I hear a voice floating in from somewhere afar? An ominous Native American voice:
Your casinos are booming
even Las Vegas is mad!
You have done it.
Now you have the right to gloat
But remember your Elders
and the warning they gave:
beware the white man’s gold!
$ $ $ …(1)

Poet Laurence T. The Red signed blinkered on: Camel Rock Casino. The Casino, I was told by the driver, was run by Native Americans of the Tesuque Pueblo. This vast landscape rolling into the horizon, this camel rock, this gambling den: over all this would be roving fearless riders on lightning horses chasing prey, only a few hundred years ago. Hunting. Dances around raging flames. A constant dialogue with those who have left for the next abode, the Elders. It was different world, and that world belonged to them. Then arrived Christopher Columbus. That ominous first sentence of an epoch-making magnum opus: “It all begun with Christopher Columbus.”(2) And then they came from all over. And they kept coming: a relentless flow in trails after trails. The Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail. Gold Rush: the heartrending saga of devastation of the forests, of all wildlife, of pueblo after pueblo after pueblo. Beware the white man’s gold! On the other side of the same canvas was being drawn a radically different chronicle of How the West was Won! A narrative of exemplary adventure, courage and new beginnings.

Standing there in high snow, shivering, facing the primal Camel Rock and the modern Camel Rock Casino, I couldn’t but ask myself: You, Indian, decimated by 200 years of White colonialism, Which Side Are You On? I ran into the heated shelter of the van.

I remembered: only yesterday I was there: the city square right in the middle of Santa Fe. Native Americans coming from various pueblos nearby, sitting in long rows had displayed their goods – ‘Native American collectibles’: bison-skin purse, bracelets studded with big blue stones, long colourful earrings, strange looking topaz pieces, a myriad knick-knacks. They were selling almost anything that seemed dispensable. Middle-aged men and women, old people, with a million creases across their faces, unusually fat, smelling of strong whiskey. Locals and tourists thronged in numbers: such beautiful mementos at throw away prices. I trained my camera at an old gentleman, only to be waived away angrily. I asked myself again, Which Side Are You On? I had no answer. The van rolled on. The blinkering red sign faded out of sight.

Sun again. Brilliant sun radiating out of rolling dark clouds. The black Driveway was meandering up into the hills. The lead-colour cloud-cover spread far into the horizon. Suddenly a strip of bright blue sky. And then a spread of rolling brilliant white clouds. Underneath were jutting out dark grey hills, with tops cut-off flat: Mesa. Some are deep reddish brown. Grey fields with dark green stocky trees and bushes. A world of pure colours. A vast canvas of Georgia O’keeffe, the ‘mother of American modernism’. She had made this terrain her home.

Wafting through that vast canvas we finally reached our destination: Bandelier National Monument. Old Native American Warden Lee Warren welcomed us. And with this we started off for a long historical walk over 33 thousand acres of the skeletal remains of an ancient civilization.

On one side were grey bushy hills, and on the other large rock formations. Inside the belly of the rocks were caves: rock-cut homes in several stories and in hundreds. And right in the middle lay the skeletons of the last remains of a circular habitat: the Tyuonyi Village. Between 1150 and 1500 CE this used to be a bustling Native American habitat. And then? Then ‘it all began with Christopher Columbus’. That was 1492. It took another hundred years for the ‘brave white pioneers’ to arrive. And after that in the 19th century the exodus to the West, the famous Trails. Now a wonderful tourist attraction carefully preserved by the US Government: The Bandelier National Monument.

Christopher Columbus, however, never arrived in Kandovan.


Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra

Reference :

  1. O’nen Ki Wahi by Laurence T. Lulu Publishing. 2009. Poem: The New Native
  2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Dee Brown.


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2 Response Comments

  • Doug26/09/2017 at 8:43 PM

    Hi Nilanjan – Nice transition from Tabriz to Santa Fe. I didn’t know the name for Shams comes from Tabriz – how so?
    And another question which interests me: Did you perceive any cultural difference between the Turkish-speaking Tabrizis and the Farsi-speaking Tehranis?

    • Nilanjan Hajra06/10/2017 at 4:16 PM

      Shams-i-Tabriz literally means Sun of Tabriz. While there is a considerable debate over where he was born and where he died, there is generally consensus among scholars that he spent a considerable time during his youth and learning-days in Tabriz. Hence Shams of Tabriz.
      As for cultural difference, during my very short exposure it appeared to me that the people of Tabriz were more intellectually and culturally eloquent than the people I met in Tehran.

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