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The Heartbeat of Iran: new book portrays the real people of an isolated country

  • Written by  Tara Kangarlou
  • Published in Books
Born and raised in the country’s poorest province, Sima Raisi is an environmental activist who recently finished her PhD, all while advocating for people with disabilities Born and raised in the country’s poorest province, Sima Raisi is an environmental activist who recently finished her PhD, all while advocating for people with disabilities Image: Amir Sadeghi
20 Sep
2021
Journalist, author and humanitarian Tara Kangarlou spent four years reporting and writing her new book about the people of Iran. Leaving politics out of the equation, she focused on the reality of life for millions of Iranians inside the country. Here, she shares what she learned

Imagine waking up to the scent of saffron black tea. It’s brewed on a silver samovar and slowly poured into an enamel-crusted glass cup which accentuates the dark amber hue of this morning staple. Next to some freshly bought barbari and sangak – two of the most celebrated and traditional Iranian breads which are never baked to perfection abroad, you find small bowls of rose (gol-e-sorkh), sour cherry (albaloo) and orange blossom (bahar narenj) jam paired with local white cheese and butter. It is all accompanied by a light rice pudding made with rose water and cardamom. A simple breakfast; but perhaps one of the most delicious meals one can ever experience, within one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet.

Whether it is enjoyed in Damavand, a countryside escape just outside of the capital; a rooftop terrace in Masouleh, the ancient city within the green plains of Gilan province; or a spacious villa in one of the back alleys of Shiraz, this morning glory underscores the richness of a heritage that continues to live through its people and their daily lives.

Laleh Seddigh 5Brought up in Tehran, Laleh Seddigh is one of the first female Muslim race-car drivers in the world. Image: Amir Sadeghi

Whether it is enjoyed in Damavand, a countryside escape just outside of the capital; a rooftop terrace in Masouleh, the ancient city within the green plains of Gilan province; or a spacious villa in one of the back alleys of Shiraz, this morning glory underscores the richness of a heritage that continues to live through its people and their daily lives.

In my book, The Heartbeat of Iran, I wanted to take readers to all these places and beyond; but most importantly I wanted to introduce the world to the men and women who breathe life into every inch of this colourful land – a country that’s made up of 80 million human beings rather than 80 million nuclear warheads – ordinary people whose fears, woes, hopes and dreams mirror those of others around the globe.

Unfortunately, for much of the rest of the world, especially the West, Iran’s history starts in the cold winter of 1979. The dreadful memory of the hostage crisis in the early days of the Islamic Revolution; the never-ending saga of the country’s much-disputed nuclear programme; the regime’s rogue behaviour and its domestic failures all seem to be the only view of a country that dates back millennia; one of the cradles of civilization.

Copy of IMG 8869Aren Barkhordarian is a Christian Iranian-Armenian who can be found flipping juicy burgers at his small joint in Tehran. Image: Amir Sadeghi

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And yet, long before the existence of the United Nations or superpowers, which in the name of democracy wage wars and invasions around the world, Persia’s Cyrus the Great wrote what’s regarded as one of the first declarations of human rights in 539 BC. In the 11th century, long before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi composed two of the greatest love stories in history: Leili and Majnun and Khosrow and Shirin. And, long before modern medicine, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the great Persian scientists and polymaths Avecina and Zakaria-e Razi paved the way for some of the most critical medical and scientific advancements of the next millennia. In no other time in history has it been more crucial to distinguish between the people of a country and the government. In the case of Iran it is of grave importance if we are to avoid thrusting aside a nation whose inventions, arts, literature and cultural contributions continue to be of spectacular value and whose geography includes some of the richest and most diverse agricultural ecosystems in the world.

Copy of IMG 4153A survivor of the Iran/Iraq War of 1980, Khalil Koiki is a well-known calligrapher and painter. Image: Amir Sadeghi

While writing my book, which is told through profiles of ordinary and extraordinary Iranians, I met a huge diversity of people: a hardworking saffron farmer anxiously cultivating the world’s most expensive spice; a blind Sunni environmental activist who just finished her PhD; a young rabbi teaching modern Judaism in Israel’s enemy state; the energetic Armenian–Christian owner of a burger joint in Tehran. I learnt that people’s shared humanity, culture and aspirations are far greater and more powerful than any rift or divide. Of course, I had to acknowledge the back-breaking social, political and financial hardships that impact ordinary Iranians. But it’s key to remember that celebrating art, hard work, heritage, beauty and the ordinary lives of people in Iran does not negate their many daily struggles. Highlighting life does not mean discounting woes. In fact, on the contrary, such an outlook can help develop an inherent empathy for those living in far away lands.

More than anything I wanted to blur the walls, barriers and borders that exist between the people of this often-misunderstood country and the rest of the world. You may not be able to wake up on that balcony and bite into that freshly baked bread, but through stories, it is still possible to travel to this mysterious country and sit at the table of its diverse, complex and colorful people.

IMG 1889Archer Zahra Nemati is the only Iranian woman who has simultaneously competed in the Olympics and Paralympics. Image: Amir Sadeghi

Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning American journalist who has written, reported, and produced for NBC, CNN and Al Jazeera America. Her book, The Heartbeat of Iran is out now.

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