email contact

Friday, 22 January 2010


A few days ago I had a cleaner in. The only display cabinet we have in the house is a narrow rectangular glass case by the kitchen entrance, and even this does not contain “proper” display objects like vases and crystal, as is usual in Iran. It houses an assortment of odd objects, and the cleaner had a thing or two to say about this.

The top shelf contains a miniature bronze samovar with a baby teapot sitting on it, six antique teacup holders, and an old, faded melamine plate resting against the back of the cabinet, all anchors to the past.

“What’s all this?” the cleaner asked. I knew where she was coming from. In her experience, such objects have no display value: only freaky foreigners who don’t know any better would put these on display.

“The samovar and the cup holders were my mother-in-law’s, so they remind me of her.” In fact, they remind me of something else too, but that was a long story to tell. Over the years Maman-jun had collected all sorts of decorative objects in anticipation of the time when she would move to a bigger house and she would have the space to display them properly. Until then, they were kept in an attic storage room.

Eventually, in the spring of 2002, they sold the old house and bought a new one. She arranged her crystal and china in a display cabinet, so her wish had finally been fulfilled. Six months later she came to London to visit us and she unexpectedly passed away there. My father-in-law, Aqa-jun, and her sons and daughters could not bear living in that house anymore, so less than a year after it was bought, it was sold again, and Aqa-jun and his youngest son moved into a flat. Maman-jun’s china and things went into storage once again, until we moved to Iran in the summer of 2007. By that time Aqa-jun had also left us, and the youngest son-on-law with his young bride lived in the flat.

One evening all the children of the family gathered in the flat to clear out the store room. Maman-jun’ things, all those serving dishes and fruit plates and vases she had lovingly collected, were bought upstairs. Her daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters chose the things they would like to keep, and the rest was packed to be given to the poor. As the boxes were being stacked near the front door, I thought of the futility of life.
This is what the samovar and the teacup holders also remind me of.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Music without Borders

I have now attended twelve sessions of Traditional Iranian singing (Avaz Sonnati), and although I find the vocal flourishes (tahrir) difficult, I enjoy the lessons a lot.
A couple of sessions ago we were talking about Byzantine (Greek Church) and Greek traditional music, which are much closer to Iranian than to European music. I then mentioned the rich musical tradition of my native island of Kassos, Dodecanese, a subject I love. Despite the fact that Kassos is a very small island with only about eight hundred permanent inhabitants in the winter, its musical tradition boasts of some seventy-two different melodies (skopoi, or tunes).

The avaz teacher was interested in listening to one of them, so I sang the Palios Khaniotikos tune to the class. She loved it immediately and asked me to Bluetooth an amateur recording of it I’ve got and also to sing it myself so that she can record it.

Even though every singer can sing any distich to this tune, these two distichs (mandinades) are often sung to this tune:

You don’t go as far as killing me
But why don’t you put me put of my misery?
I’d much rather you killed me
Instead of hurting me so.

I owe this mortal body to the earth
And one day I will have to return it
But what do I owe to you
And you torment me so?

Interestingly, the similarities between the mandinades sung to the Kassos music and classical Persian poetry, which provides the lyrics to Iranian traditional singing, are striking. Overwhelming Love, the feeling that the Beloved is everywhere but forever out of reach, and a sense of separation from the object of one’s love, be it a person, God or the homeland that one has left behind but to which one yearns to return. Themes, images, poetic feeling…how similar the two apparently disparate cultures are.

For more information in English on the music of Kassos, visit, press the button for "Traditions" and then "mandinades" and "mousiki".

Sunday, 10 January 2010

New Year

Happy New Year to everyone.

This is the (belated) first blogpost of the year. In Greece, last Friday was the first day back to school after the Christmas break, in England almost a whole week of the new term is gone, although, as I hear, with disruptions because of the snow. In Iran the (Christian) new year barely registered. The children are sitting end of term exams but are otherwise off school in order to study.

However, we observed the Greek custom of Vasilopitta, or New Year cake: on New Year’s eve, a cake is baked at home in which a coin is mixed. After the stroke of midnight or on the first morning of the new year, the family gathers around the table and the father of the family cuts the cake, assigning each piece to a family member, including those who are absent, and Christ, the Virgin Mary and the poor. The person in whose piece the coin falls is given a present or money, and can expect good luck in the new year.

The coin of our cake fell to the lot of my sister-in-law’s son. I forgot to ask about my mother’s cake in Athens.

In a previous post (14 Dec 09) I wrote about the charity wedding at my daughter’s school. The proceeds of the evening came to an equivalent of £1,700 ($2,500) in cash donations and another £3,500 ($5,500) in goods donations.

How a health scare can influence social behaviour: the general outbreak of influenza A got Iranians, just like everyone else, worried. The Ministry of Health made recommendations designed to limit the spreading of influenza A. These included refraining from shaking hands and kissing (the social type, which, as I detailed in Among the Iranians, is common between members of the same gender). Over the months I have observed that such physical contact in social situations is reduced considerably, with people only nodding and bowing. I wonder whether this will be a permanent change or whether Iranians will revert to their usual practice once the threat is minimised.