Upon entering each town on the road that hugs the Caspian coast, you’re greeted by a different 10 meter tall sculpture of an animal. Most are birds, from roosters to pigeons, swans to eagles. Some are wired down to their last claw nail. At night, these light up with thousands of Christmas-tree bulbs, wrapped around the wire frame.
Judging by its public sculptures, Iran looks more like Disneyland or a not-so-miniature golf course than the self-confessed enemy of the West. Statues of plants and animals dot the round-abouts, intersections, and town squares all around the country. Some are monumental, others are so small they hide behind the bushes, like a life-sized diarama. While some act as mascots for their given region, others seem to be lost in the wilderness. Sculptures of grapes dotthe highways and roads leading to Shiraz, home of the famous Shiraz grape. But what dolphins are doing near the border with Turkmenistan is anybody’s guess. The planners and commissioners have been reading more of La Fontaine than the Qu’ran.
Iranians are obsessed with the diversity of their country. The Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance , Ahmad Masjed Jamei doesn’t fail to mention it: “Iran definitely suffers from an identity problem. Not only politically, but geographically. Iran is one of the only countries in the world where one can find all 4 seasons at any given time of the year.”
It is, to say the least, a country rife with extremes, both in politics and landscape. Along the Caspian coast, peaks reaching heights of 3000 meters suddenly plunge to marshes 80 meters below sea level. From the hottest deserts, snow-capped mountain appear like a mirage in the distance but they are very real and remain white throughout the scorching summer months.
In most countries, public spaces commemorate historical figures, like Winston Churchill in Trafalgar Square, or events like World War I or II. But when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Iran underwent a cultural revolution similar to that of China and Russia. Universities closed down for a full year to re-think their curricula. Museums and galleries shut their doors. Certain books were banned. For a short while, even musical instruments were prohibited. Most remnants of Iran’s 2500 year old royalist past had to be whited out in one large swoop. And something had to take its place. In the 26 years that followed the Revolution, more than 4000 sculptures of beasts and botanical wonders have been created by some 250 artists.
But unlike the French or Russian revolutions, the Iranian one didn’t look to the future but rather to the past, going back more than one thousand years to find a theocratic model for the present.
With the past, you open a real can of worms. No statues of past religious clerics are to be found. Nor any safe bets like writers or mathematicians. Why? Because the left has no difficulty digging dirt on past clerics . Few religious or political figures were able to resist offers by foreign powers eager to curry favor in strategically –important Iran. The more religious right, on the other hand, refuses to consider literary heavy-weights like Ferdowsi or Omar Khayyam because, they claim, both expressed religious uncertainty . So, instead, an idyllic, fantasy world of deer, doves, lions, and grapes greets travelers making their way across from city to city.
As a cultural historian at the University of Tehran explains, “These plants and animals hark back to a pre-Islamic Iran, one where tigers and lions roamed the plains, where we were caught in the battle between good and evil. When Iran wasn’t even Iran but Persia and one of the largest world empires.” Nothing is as politically safe as plants or animals for they lack ideology. This is very much a third way that would make Blair and Clinton jealous indeed.
These animals offer much-needed solace for a population living in the political spotlight of the world for over 30 years. Our generation has seen statues of Lenin fall, Stalin tumble, and Saddam toppled. Will there come a time when the horse, the rooster, and the lion must go too?