TitleHow birds reflect the Iranian spirit and dream

Birds becoming words

20 May 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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It is June 18, 2009. I’m in the back of a taxi, making a tour of the Isle of Hormuz. Sweat is trickling down my forehead. I’m looking at the glittering water of the Persian Gulf, when suddenly I ask the driver to stop. I want to see from close-by what I have just laid eyes on: a huge ‘picture’ of a bird on the beach.

It is made of cobblestones that are partly buried in the sand. The sight of the bird touches me: Iran is in turmoil after the rigged presidential election outcome, and my heart has been bleeding for a couple of days as well. I had witnessed the tremendous hope of the Iranian people before the election. During the night of June 12, I had watched the election results on a small television set in Isfahan. Waking up on June 13, I had felt both sick and furious.

Five days later, I have arrived in Bandar Abbas. Tehran is on fire and I’m watching a stone bird with spread wings, making the gesture of flying but not being able to really do so. It was such a striking symbol for what had then just happened: Iranian people were ready to fly toward a green and brighter sky, but the regime had brutally turned their feathery wings into stone.

Let’s keep drawing birds and writing words that are able to form wings and spread them

Reminiscing that bird when I was writing my book about my journey in Iran, I thought about how important a part birds play in Iranian art and literature. There is of course the Simorgh, a mysterious winged creature in Iranian mythology that has the shape of a bird. It appears as a kind of peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion; sometimes however also with a human face. The Simorgh made its most famous appearance in Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings) and Attar’s Matiq at-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), where thirty birds desire to know the great Simorgh but realize in the end that they themselves are the Simorgh – a clever word-play, as si morgh is Persian for ‘thirty birds’.

Other examples of birds in Persian culture abound. There is the morning bird in the marvelous song Morghe Sahar, who is called upon to break its cage and compose the song of freedom for mankind. In Hafez’s poetry, the nightingale declaring his love to the rose is undoubtedly one of the most powerful scenes. Birds are also a recurrent motif in Persian carpets, which brings me to a great Iranian painter who is currently living in the Netherlands: Masoud Gharibi. In his work, birds are omnipresent. Never have I seen birds that radiate so much silent melancholy as those painted by Gharibi. When I look at them, I hear them singing, and when I hear them, I can smell Iran. The powerful colors of his paintings add hope to the melancholy, making his work a very strong expression of the Iranian spirit today.

A painting by Masoud Gharibi

Art reflects life, so I believe it is no coincidence that birds play such a big part in Iranian culture. Look at a bird in the sky. It is free, and freedom is what Iranians have been struggling for since many centuries already. But free as a bird may be, it is also very vulnerable. For ages, people have been locking up birds in tiny cages, sometimes forcing them to talk as human beings – the thought of foreign interference in Iran immediately comes to my mind.

Iranians long to be as free as birds but are at the same time very much aware of their vulnerability, as their newly formed wings have been often cut in different periods of history, often by people at first pretending to be friendly birds, but turning out to be real birds of prey. There is such a wicked bird of prey in Samad Behrangi’s very topical children’s story Mahiye siahe kuchulu. The little black fish is swallowed by a heron and ends up in its belly, where it starts tickling the heron so that another captive tiny fish can escape as soon as the heron opens its beak. The tiny fish manages to escape and the heron drifts down into the depths of sea, but there is no sign of the little black fish. Has the bird of prey eaten the little black fish? The ending is open, but there is a subtle indication in Behrangi’s story that the fish has survived the bird. After all, isn’t grandma fish telling her story about the little black fish way down at the bottom of the sea, where her 12.000 children and grandchildren have gathered around her? The sea is what the little black fish had been looking for, and grandma fish is one of his descendants telling her family story.

In Persian calligraphy, words sometimes take on the form of birds. It is a very fitting image for what is going on in Iran today: there are millions of words desiring to spread their wings and be free forever. If Iran is freed from its dictatorial regime, I dream of a new flag with words becoming birds and birds singing liberated words. Some months ago, 18 mothers of jailed Iranian activists wrote an open letter that starts as follows: “My son placed his watercolor paints beside me. He asked me to draw him a bird. I pressed on the color gray with the brush and painted him a square with locks and metal bars. His eyes widened with wonder as he replied, “But this is a prison…Don’t you know how to draw a bird?” A bird image also ends their letter: “May the imprisoned bird live on and witness the blessed day when the world is no longer a cage.

We don’t know when this will happen in Iran, but let’s keep drawing birds and writing words that are able to form wings and spread them. I’m sure that one day, the stones on the beach of Hormuz will magically disappear and that big bird will start flying all over Iran.

Tehran Review
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    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.