I was fortunate enough last week to listen to two brave people sharing their cultural wealth. For an hour and a half I was transported to a distant land and was gifted an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the Iranian culture and landscape. The bravery of the two for coming out and speaking was incredible and my heartfelt thanks goes out to them, however for their safety of them and their families I won’t mention their names but you know who you are and I’m grateful.

For the first part of their presentation Y. played a traditional instrument called a santour, a beautiful wooden stringed instrument the size of a small desk, the second santour he played was much larger, perhaps the size of a small canoe. I guess in theory the instrument works much like the inside of a piano with a wooden resounding body and finely tuned strings which are hit with small padded hammers, although in the case of the santour the hammers are wielded by the hands of the musician, not struck by the mechanism of the piano. Strings and hammers may also be an apt way to describe the music and perhaps even Iran herself.

Firstly Y. played a traditional Western piece of music from Vivaldi and you could hear the precision in his movements, the small flutters of the hammers which fit Vivaldi’s undulating music so well. What I especially enjoyed was hearing the piece fresh again, with new ears, the Western music on an Eastern instrument with Eastern influences made it new again and I really listened to the piece like I hadn’t for a long time. Old things became new.

The second piece Y. played was a traditional Iranian piece and it was truly a mind blowing experience. The minor key and undulating melodies were incredibly emotive, but for me where the true magic happened was I what I could see in the music. You could hear the landscape, huge mountains and rocky outcrops, flat plains and lakes, busy cities and hot winds, and a history of traditions going back for thousands of years. The music was thick and dense in places light and soaring in others, unfamiliar to my ears and rich.

The third and last piece played was a piece Y. had written after immigrating to NZ. X. also told us that they had made both instruments in NZ (it being difficult to take things out of Iran) and that they are made out of NZ woods like Rimu so the instruments themselves are hybrid like the music which was influenced both by traditional Iranian music as well and NZ music.

What was incredible about the composition was that you could hear Y and X’s journey from Iran to New Zealand. You could hear a different landscape emerging, hear the high mountaintops and valleys of Iran but the music was tempered with more water in it, the rippling streams and crashing shorelines of New Zealand, what I could also hear in the blending of landscapes was also traces of New Zealand’s colonial past, fragments of music from the European influences brought to NZ and integrated into it’s history. There was a melancholy to the music, a longing for homeland both past and present.

X.’s talk flew us through Iran from an insiders’ perspective, from someone who loves their country, it’s traditions and landscapes, it’s cities and people. It was counterpoint to the Iran seen in the media. X. took us through the ancient cultural symbols and cities, the festivals, dances, costumes and architecture. Slowly the topics changed to the shifts and restrictions placed on people and how womens rights have changed dramatically for the worse in the last 30 to 40 years. However, we were also shown how despite the limitations people find a way to live their lives fully. We were shown how things have changed and the effects of a government that acts as a negative force, not only in it’s persecutions but also in it’s negligence in regards to protection of the environment and the local economies that depend upon it.

Finally X. talked of the fear that pervades life, of police blocking universities and arrests being made for having fun in the street. Of a place where ” one sentence is enough to end your life” where people grow up, go to university then disappear. Where the families of those who are missing dare not protest in fear of further”disappearances” and arrests. I was struck by the bravery of these two people who shared so much with me and I share with them their hope for their homeland that “one day Iran can be happy and free”.

Tears and hope.


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