Monday, September 10, 2012

The Many Faces of Iran

Khatam (marquetry) boxes from Isfahan
By Heidi Noroozy

Every year, Tehran hosts a folklore festival that celebrates Iran’s vast ethnic diversity. For seven days, the locals get to sample cuisines from every corner of their country, check out displays of colorful handicrafts, and experience a small slice of life in villages and nomadic communities from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, from the Afghan/Pakistani border to the Zagros Mountains.

By some stroke of luck, my latest trip to Iran coincided with that festival, and I spent a sunny afternoon with friends one day, wandering about the grounds of the Bahman Cultural Center, where we sampled Kurdish koloocheh (a kind of flat doughnut) and sipped tea in a nomad’s tent whose sides were draped with colorful carpets. We watched a Qashqa’i tribeswoman make butter by gently rocking a cream-filled sheepskin suspended from a makeshift wooden frame. When night fell and the dancing demonstrations began, the master of ceremonies kindly saved me a seat right in front of the “stage” (a clearing in the crowd), which not only gave me an unobstructed view of the dancers but also a deafening proximity to the Qashqa’i drummer.

Like any nation with a long history, Iran’s diverse population reflects the country’s geographic shifts, with borders expanding in one period and shrinking in another, with entire communities being relocated to suit a leader’s political ambitions.

There are too many ethnic groups to describe in one short post, but here are a few that I've encountered on past visits:

Azeri dancers at the Bahman Cultural Center
in Tehran
The Azeris, or Azerbaijanis, are the largest minority, accounting for 15 to 25 percent of the population. They occupy four provinces in the northwestern part of the country—Eastern Azerbaijan, Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan—and speak a Turkic language. If you’ve been following the news of the Iran earthquake that took place last month, its epicenter lay near Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan. Azeris refer to themselves colloquially as “Turks” (torki), and most are Shia Muslims. They are well integrated into society and play important roles in business and politics. Many merchants at the Grand Bazaar belong to this ethnic group, and their language can be heard throughout the marketplace. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri, with a father from Tabriz.

The Kurds are a Sunni Muslim minority whose territory spans four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurdish populations of all four countries have pushed for autonomy from their governments in a desire to form their own independent nation. But even non-separatist Kurds in Iran are fiercely proud of their heritage, as I discovered on a trip through the Zagros Mountains. Close to midnight, my companions decided to stop by the side of the roadto stretch their legs, they said. We drove up a short dirt track to wide plateau, where they cranked up the CD player. After piling out of the car, we formed a line and danced to the rhythm of a lively Kurdish folk tune—with me stumbling along to keep up with the fancy footwork. The leader took my scarf and twirled it through the air as the line wove back and forth under a bright moon. When headlights signaled an approaching vehicle, one man reached through the window and silenced the CD player. We stood motionless under the starry sky until the other car had passed.

Iran has several Christian minorities, the largest of which is the Armenian community. This ethnic group traces its history back to the 16th century when its members got caught up in a war between the Persians, led by Shah Abbas of the Safavids, and their Ottoman neighbors. As part of a “scorched earth” policy to prevent the Ottomans from launching attacks from Armenian villages, Abbas depopulated the border region and resettled the people in his nation’s interior. Because the Armenians were known for their artistic skills, he used them to help build his new capital of Isfahan, and the city’s Jolfa neighborhood is still a center of Armenian life in Iran. It has an Armenian school, 12 churches, and the beautiful Vank Cathedral.

Making butter in a sheepskin
The Qashqa’is hail from a nomadic tribe that traditionally led a pastoral life, following their herds of sheep from summer pastures in the mountains near Shiraz to winter quarters along the Persian Gulf. Today, most of them have abandoned the nomadic life, but they are still known for their skill in weaving colorful textiles, using homespun wool and natural dyes. Gabbeh, a movie by the Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, paints a lyrical (if fictionalized) picture of life in a Qashqa’i tribe.

My husband is an ethnic Persian, but his extended family includes Kurds and Azeris. Through their eyes, I’ve learned about different cultural practices, languages, and—best of all—cuisines, which together form the colorful patchwork of Iran’s multicultural society.


  1. I love learning about Iran Heidi, your pieces bring it alive in a beautiful, unique way!!

  2. Thank you, Sangeeta! Glad you enjoy the posts. So nice to see you here again.

  3. Azeris are the largest ethnic minority in Georgia too--not surprising I guess given the location. Although in Georgia many speak Russian and Azeri rather than Georgian, which along with their religion creates some barriers.

    1. That's very interesting, Edith. Do they have their own schools in Azeri or are the schools still in Russian? There are Georgians in Iran, too. Like the Armenians, they were relocated by Shah Abbas, and some of them converted to Islam.

  4. Just found your post. I'd love to make it to this festival someday, thanks for sharing! -Louisa

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Louisa! I hope you make it to the festival. It was so much fun.