“Persia/Iran” a story by Jamila Gavin

My parents met in Persia. My mother came from England, my father from India, and both taught in Esfahan. Persia is how Iran was known in the thirties and Persia is how I still think of it: the land of the great poets like Rumi and Omar Khayaam, of heroic stories of Sohrab and Rustum, and the collection of myths, and legends and fabulous tales of the Shahnameh.

This was the heart of the ancient Persian Empire challenged only by the Greeks; the empire which Alexander the Great fought, conquered, devastated, then loved. Like him, my parents fell in love with the country, its landscape, its culture and language. Both learned to speak and read Persian and, by the time we three children were born, my parents felt a sense of loss that we had not experienced Persia, though held a profound hope that one day we would. They spoke so much about their time there, before we were born, that we felt imbued with this country. We knew the names of the cities, of which my parents spoke with such awe—Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Kerman—and of their beauty, history and culture. Numerous photograph albums still exist filled with tiny sepia pictures of dusty winding Persian roads lined with spindly poplars, of donkey trains, horse rides, picnics in the deserts, distant snowy mountain peaks, minarets and mosques, and Persian gardens.

We grew up and inherited the large highly ornate, carved Qur’an desk, which has moved to and fro, from Persia to India to England; from the Punjab to London, to Cologne, and back to England, where it now stands in a corner of my cottage in the Cotswolds. Likewise, the beautifully woven hangings and carpets, which have decked ev- ery room we’ve ever lived in. Indeed, I thought all carpets were Persian! Ours stayed with us wherever we went, till we were grown up and their lovely colors and patterns had long faded, and their pile had worn threadbare.

Thus did we inherit a deep love and respect for Persia, and have learned to call her Iran even though for me it is still the old name Persia, which resonates with history, lit- erature, and romanticism. When I was invited to a children’s book festival there in 2005 I almost felt I was going back to some kind of land of my birth—or pre-birth; I felt so strongly connected. I felt greedy to see and experience all the things my parents had, and it was with great joy I visited Esfahan. We walked the bridge I had seen in those photographs, drank tea under the arches, admired the great mosque and the amazing market square. For me, Esfahan would always be the Blue City because of the glorious blue tiled mosques. Most of all, I felt so connected to the people, as if I were one of them, an Iranian. I felt as if I had come home, as though my parents’ love for Persia had been passed on to me through their genes.

But I must not to be carried away by some kind of inherited nostalgia. Iran today is not the Persia of my parent’s youth. It has been through revolution, change, more revolution and more change. The Shah was deposed decades ago and it is a theocracy. Iran established its independence from foreign influence, especially that of the West, becoming more overtly Islamic. In the nineteen thirties, my mother wore western dress. A tiny photograph shows her sitting by a fountain, her head bare and her arms and legs uncovered in her flowery summer dress. I, however, had to wear a headscarf and conform to the strict dress code for women in Iran, being fully covered except for my face and hands. Indeed, in the 1930s, it was forbidden to wear the veil, and my parents remember the Shah’s horsemen riding through villages, and ripping the veil from any woman they saw wearing it. Such brutal measures seem now to be as much an infringe- ment of women’s rights, as the strict Islamic dress code imposed on them today.

Yet despite everything, I was still able to recognize the Persia/Iran that they loved: see the cities they loved, the landscape they loved, and the people they loved.

Although this was my first short visit, there was a sense of familiarity and recogni- tion. Whatever happens, Iran will never lose her profound sense and pride of her own history and culture, which will abide and continue to inspire, and I long to return.


About the writer

Jamila Gavin

Jamila Gavin was born in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas and now lives in London. Her book, Coram Boy, won the Children’s Whitbread Award, and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Adapted for the stage, it had two highly successful runs at the National Theatre in 2005/6, followed by a season on Broadway. Her charitable projects include abridging Measure for Measure for the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Visit her at: http://www.davidhigham.co.uk/clients/Jamila_Gavin.htm