The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Susan Killeen.
While showing guests through the Syrian Room at Shangri La, one of my joys is lighting up the low tea table (65.9) under the nineteenth-century Moroccan embroidered and appliqued textile in the smaller room. It’s as if the table waits patiently in the dimly lit space to perform for visitors when the light shines, and it never fails to elicit a chorus of oooos.
The table, or khwan, is a beauty from late nineteenth–early twentieth-century Iran, probably the Qajar period. When created, it very likely did not have the same legs, and may have had short ones to elevate it just slightly. Rather than a table, this ornate piece was most likely an elaborate tray or “trencher” as it might be called. One might imagine that it once carried an array of sweet and savory dishes to be shared with guests.
An excellent example of the artistic genius found in Islamic art, the table asserts the details of geometry, calligraphy, floral, and figurative imagery—a visual delight. The surface is a painted, gilded, and lacquered wood graced with scenes of princely life. Exquisitely featured medallions or cartouches depict several figures in a forest landscape with a variety of birds and wild animals. A number of leisurely figures interact while two youths demonstrate their prowess on horseback. The overall dimensions of the piece are 11 3/8 x 32 5/8 x 62 inches.
A narrow, floral border frames the central panel. Inscriptions of Persian poetry surround the edges of the table, beginning in the upper right hand corner and continuing around to the left. True to the artistic culture and custom of the period, the poetry (translated by former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston) praises the table for its beauty and service:
habbaza khwane ki naqshash bas khwash u zebasti
O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!
hamchu chihr-i dilbaran janbakhsh u ruhafzasti
Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing.
rashk-i naqsh-i Azar u Mani ki naqshash chun nigar
A design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous.
dilsitan u naghz u khwash u zebasti
Ravishing, comely, beautiful, good, and charming you are.
inchunin alhaq qarin-i khanda khwan u naqsh band
Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter.
diljo-i bazm-i shahanshah-i jahan-arasti
You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings.
For me, the fact that an otherwise utilitarian object would be so charmingly embellished speaks to the fact that the arts have the power to lift us up and enrich the function and beauty of the everyday items we use. The artisans of Islamic culture certainly appreciated this concept as a way of life.
About the Guest Author: Susan Killeen is a writer and producer, having worked in television and on educational documentaries. She served as executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts and as President of the Honolulu Pen Women. She has taught creative writing and has worked as an interpretive guide at Shangri La since 2011.
On May 19, 2012, award-winning Iranian filmmaker Shahin Parhami; executive director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia Anne Démy-Geroe; and Asian film scholar Dr. Wimal Dissanayake participated in a symposium at Shangri La that focused on aspects of love and devotion in Persian culture. The symposium capped off a week of related activities that included film screenings at the Honolulu Museum of Arts’ Doris Duke Theatre and a public forum at the East West Center. All the events were made possible through a major grant from Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute to Asia Pacific Films and NETPAC/USA, and they were co-sponsored by the Honolulu Museum of Art and Shangri La.
Director Shahin Parhami (Nasoot, 1997; Lahoot, 1998; Jabaroot, 2003; Faces, 2007) opened the symposium with a talk entitled “The Roots of Iranian Cinematic Culture.” His lively presentation, which included clips from many classic Iranian films, examined the influences of Persian storytelling, poetry and visual culture on Iranian cinema. Parhami’s most recent documentary, Amin (2011), kicked off the Persian Nights film series at the Doris Duke Theatre.
In the next presentation, “Iranian Cinema and the Poetry of Rumi and Hafez,” Honolulu-based film scholar and University of Hawai‘i Academy of Creative Media professor Dr. Wimal Dissanayake explored the relationship between modern Iranian cinema and traditional Persian poetry in terms of themes, style, imagery and vision. He stressed the significance of poetry in contemporary Persian culture and underscored how strongly the works of Rumi and Hafez resonate in modern Iranian cinema.
Next up was Brisbane-based film scholar and executive director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia Anne Démy-Geroe. In her talk, “The Complications of Allegory and Metaphor in Iranian Cinema,” she focused on the themes of love and devotion as depicted in two very different Iranian films: Abbas Kiarostami’s My SweetShirin and Homayoun Asadian’s Gold and Copper. Kiarostami’s film focuses on womens’ faces and emotions as they watch a film based on the classic Persian love triangle between King Khosrow, Princess Shirin of Armenia and the sculptor Farhad. The imagery is constructed entirely though close-ups of the audience’s reaction to the movie they’re watching; the soundtrack is that of the movie being seen. In Gold and Copper a Tehran-based mullah-in-training struggles to take care of his ailing wife and their children. This moving film tells a story in a more linear way, and serves as a metaphor for other aspects of life in contemporary Iran.
In conjunction with the symposium, the Doris Duke Theatre hosted a Persian Nights film series. Audiences loved Parhami’s Amin, the opening-night film, which tells the story of a young modern nomad from the south of Iran who dedicates his life to preserving and perpetuating the music of the Iranian Qashqai people. Other films in the series included Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me, an Iranian adaptation of Tennessee William’s play The Glass Menagerie; and Ali Rafi’s Agha Yousef, a film about familial love.
If you’d like to learn more about Iranian films, check out these feature films and documentaries on the topic of “Love and Devotion in Persian Culture” (with introductions filmed onsite at Shangri La by Shahin Parhami, Dr. Wimal Dissanayake and Anne Demy-Geroe), plus a host of additional Iranian film classics on AsiaPacificFilms.com.
Aid-e-Shoma Mobarak! Today is Nowrouz, a Persian holiday that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. In the Iranian calendar, Nowrouz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year. This year, it occurs on March 20, in line with the vernal equinox. Nowrouz celebrations are characterized by family gatherings, sharing with friends, and expressing hope for the New Year. Shangri La interpretive guides Farideh Farhi and Azadeh Rezaie Nikou were both born and raised in Iran and agreed to share some of their childhood memories of Nowrouz holidays.
Farideh remembers Khooneh tekooni (literally home shaking) or house cleaning, the setting up of the traditional haft seen table and family visits. “My childhood memories of Nowrouz in Iran are all associated with what I would call a bundle of newness. Nowrouz literally means ‘new day,’ but in practice it also meant making everything new or like new. Glass windows had to become squeaky clean; carpets, drapes, and even walls washed; and everything we wore had to be new at the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. Last but not least, making everything new also entailed renewal of familial and friendship bonds through the highly ritualized practice of did-o-bazdid (meaning visit and re-visit).”
Another Nowrouz tradition is the assembly of special items that make up the haft seen table. The term haft seen means seven seen (a letter similar to ‘S’ in the Persian alphabet). The basic idea is to put on the table seven objects that start with seen. The haft seen items frequently include sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts, representing rebirth), samanu (creamy pudding made from wheat germ, regarded as holy and representing affluence), seeb (an apple, representing health and beauty), senjid (dried fruit of the lotus tree, representing love), sir (garlic, regarded as medicinal and representing health), somagh (sumac berries, representing the color of the sun and the victory of good over evil), serkeh (vinegar, representing old age and patience), sonbol (hyacinth plant), sekkeh (coins, representing wealth), aajeel (dried nuts, berries and raisins), lit candles (representing enlightenment and happiness), a mirror (representing cleanness and honesty), decorated eggs (representing fertility), traditional Iranian pastries like baklava, a bowl of water with goldfish, rosewater (said to have magical cleansing powers), national colors (for a patriotic touch) and a holy book or poetry book.
“The setting of our haft seen table could only be finalized on the day winter turned to spring,” Farideh explained. “Mother was of course in charge of everything that had to be taken care of in advance, such as growing the sabzeh, which in our home included both wheat and lentil sprouts, and buying of the goldfish. But painting eggs was something everyone did on the last day of the year and so was the actual placing of the special haft seen items on the table.”
Farideh continues, “Mother would wake us up about half an hour before the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. The children would excitedly wear their new clothes and stand in front of the haft seen table and wait for the radio or television to announce the moment of change. Kisses and hugs would follow; brand new unfolded paper money would be taken out of pages of the Quran, which was on the table and handed out to children. If tahvil was during the night, with daybreak there was serious business to attend to. The homes of the oldest members of the family had to be visited on the first day of the New Year. No complaining was allowed on those visits and, in any case, the lure of crisp bills—as well as wonderful sweets—was always there.”
Azadeh recalls baking special sweets, going on picnics and taking a road trip to Isfahan and Shiraz. “Nowrouz has always been very special to me,” she said. “Counting down the days to Nowrouz was a delightful preoccupation of all Persian kids. Right before the end of this festive period of celebrations, the majority of families and friends would get out of their homes and enjoy small and large community picnics all over the nation. At home, and prior to the first day of celebrations, women had to take care of their own preparatory rituals. I remember my mom always had her own way of preparing her little sweets for the occasion. Baklava, honey sweets plus garbanzo, rice, and fruit pastries were all made superbly and delicately, and they were always deliciously fresh.”
Azadeh also remembers trips to Iran’s cultural capitals. “After the first week of intense family visitations, people would often get out of the house and travel. One year, my parents decided to travel to Shiraz, the birth place of the famous thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi. My father planned for us to stay in Isfahan, at the midpoint of our trip to Shiraz, for one night to rest and enjoy a theatrical play. A famous Isfahani comedian by the name of Arham e Sadr Arham would present specially crafted plays for his eager audiences, who would come from all over the country to visit Isfahan. My dad had arranged for us to see one of these Arham plays. That night, we watched the play and laughed ourselves to the end. When we arrived in Shiraz, I realized why people had often called the city poetic and romantic. The city was clean and filled with colorfully organized public flower parks and open Persian gardens. Everywhere we drove I could see people smiling and exchange pleasantries. The city was friendly, lively and inviting. Our stay in such a beautiful city and my brother’s spacious new house were nothing short of heaven itself. For the next few days we cheerfully ate, played, and celebrated Nowrouz in a playground we could only have dreamt of.”
The celebration of Nowrouz continues to be a joyous tradition in many parts of the world, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. We extend our best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowrouz around the world.