Ask most people in the West what images they associate with the words “Middle East” and you’ll likely get descriptions of oil wells, desert dunes, and men in flowing robes and Bedouin headgear. More recently, you might hear of crowds filling public squares demanding the downfall of autocratic leaders. But while such images might suit the reality of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, they do not at all fit another regional colossus—Iran.

Iran has oil aplenty and a reform movement, but that’s where parallels end. Islam was brought to Iran by seventh-century Arab invaders bent on eradicating Zoroastrianism, the traditional Persian faith. The language, Farsi, is not native to the Middle East, but rather an Indo-European language that migrated from Europe, undergoing numerous transmutations along the way. Iran does not belong to the “Arab brotherhood,” and its relations with its neighbors have always been tinged with unease. Traditions are different; food is different. Falafel, hummus, tabouleh, and pita bread do not appear on Persian menus.

One hundred fifty miles south of Tehran I visited the city of Kashan, home to landmarks that illustrate the cultural divide between Iran and the Arab Middle East. Near the city center, four large houses hunker, fortress-like, behind blank, formidable walls that give no hint of the riches of Persian history on the other side. The houses were built during the dynasty of the Qajar rulers, which began at the end of the eighteenth century and lasted into the twentieth—a time when Iran looked westward for cultural inspiration, primarily to France and Germany.

Beyond the doorway of one the Kashan houses, a large courtyard is bordered by salon-like rooms evocative of central or southeastern Europe, whose wooden doors feature stained-glass windows. Carved floral patterns decorate the interior walls, but the biggest surprise is the ceilings, where drawings of women dressed in satin gowns that reveal shoulders and necklines look down on the visitors below. None wear headscarves. One figure stares flirtatiously, as if from a naughty French postcard.

I asked my guide, Dariush, how such pictorial boldness squared with the proscriptions of Islamic art, which prohibit the representation of living creatures, and certainly of provocatively clad women.

“When Islam arrived here, all of its rules couldn’t be imposed,” he said. “We were a literate society, so the Qu’ran didn’t have to be interpreted for people. They could read it themselves and take what they wanted.” Examples of the resulting aesthetic liberty can be found all over Iran, most spectacularly at Golestan Palace in central Tehran, on whose tiled courtyard façades are painted elaborate hunting scenes and bucolic landscapes, all done in swirling curves that flout the conventions of Arabic art, where symmetrical, geometric patterns are the norm.     

Iran today remains more religiously diverse than most of the Arab world, and I asked Dariush: Without religion to provide social cohesion, what makes an Iranian feel Iranian? What does an Azeri have in common with a Turkman, a Turkman with a Baluchi, and any of these with an Armenian or a Kurd?

“The same things that form a culture in any society,” Dariush answered. Literature, art, music, poetry—they all produce a way of thinking, a cultural mind-set. “Back in the fourteenth century the poet Fedrosi told us to think for ourselves, not to bow to the orders of others. Why do you think there’s so much trouble right now? Everything that has happened in the past thirty years is contrary to our history, the nature of our society. You know, many Iranians aren’t that religious.”

This brought to mind something I’d once heard about the difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran: mosques in Saudi Arabia are ugly heaps of stone but filled on Fridays; mosques in Iran are magnificent works of art but empty on Fridays.

As we returned to the street I noticed a young woman standing in a doorway nearby. I’d seen her when we went in; she had smiled discreetly at this foreigner trooping through her neighborhood. I’d been surprised—so different was her behavior from the norm in conservative Arab cultures, where rigid gender segregation rules out even casual interaction between men and women. This time I held up my camera and pointed to the lens. The young woman backed away, but her smile sparkled. I lowered the camera, and she came forward. Again I held it up—and again she drew away, smiling. We repeated the flirtatious charade, and her smile turned to laughter.

No, this was not the Arab world.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 

Christopher Thornton teaches at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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