A book that emerges out of visits to Iran to revive the ECO train provides vivid details of Iran’s history and present
Historically, the story of occupation of vital trade routes is all about wars, raids or invasion. To understand the dynamics of a region or get an idea about global connectivity, it is important to begin with the politics of vital trade routes. Without fully understanding the politics of the famous Silk Route, you cannot understand the last 2500 years of Asian history.
The post-15th century world witnessed the rise of Sea Trade Routes and the gradual fall of Land Trade Routes; yet in the 21st century with the rise of China there is the revival of land routes.
Cognisant of this reality, Pakistan is showing great interest in the revival of the Economic Cooperation Organisation’s Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul train. Economic Cooperation Organisation or ECO (founded in 1985) is a successor to the famous Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) of 1964; in both tripartite agreements, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey were partners.
Interestingly, the construction of this very train route was envisaged even as far back as 1879. However, the British abandoned it to focus on combating the rise of Bismarck’s Germany. Later on, the colonial masters created two artificial fault lines (Durand Line in 1894 and McMahon Line in 1914) ruining any chance of revival of the ancient route. But the rise of China as a new global economic leader paved the way for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the ECO train.
In order to revive the ECO train, the Chief Marketing Officer of Pakistan Railways and an acclaimed author, archaeologist and historian, Zubair Shafi Ghauri visited Iran thrice. Along with the resumption of the Quetta-Zahedan freight train, Pakistan Railways today is making steady progress.
Nairang-e-Iran: Kharasaan ta Azerbaijan is an immediate outcome of Ghauri’s visits to Iran. Although Ghauri uses the early 20th century Urdu vocabulary with Arabic and Persian influences in his prose, his selection of topics compels you to read each and every detail. His writings also reveal his intimate association with the Sufi tradition.
The book under review starts with Ghauri’s visit to Mashhad to attend the ECO conference on March 4, 2014. The conference was part of the ECO train revival process that was started with some hesitation in 2009 but finally stopped in 2012. From Islamabad to Istanbul, the train has to cover a distance of 6431 kilometres.
The chapter on Mashhad takes the reader back in time to enjoy the past glory of Persia -- its antiquities, political and spiritual history as well as scholarship. In less than 15 pages, you are taken on a virtual journey to the Goharshad Mosque built in 1418 by the wife of Shah Rukh of the Timurid Dynasty, the Imam Reza shrine, mausoleum of Nadir Shah Afshar and his huge statue. The book paints a vivid picture of the times of Abbasi Kings, the conversion of Sanabad into the city of Mashhad and the politics of Bramka.
The author gives a similar treatment to places like Toos, Tehran, Shrward, Nahavand, Tabriz, Qom, Salmas, Razi and many more places in the following chapters. To add to this, the readings about Imam Al Ghazali, Ibn e Sina, Ferdowsi, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Quratulain Tahira or Tahirih are enjoyable. Pictures of statues of Ibn e Sina, Nadir Shah, Firdowsi and Babak Khorramdin show that unlike its Pakistani counterpart, Iranian Islam has no reservations with statues.
Although the author pays less attention to the Pre-Islamic past of the region especially its Zoroastrian kingdoms and community, he boldly discusses the presence and scholarship of different schools of Islamic thought present in Iran. In the book, the author recalls a ziyarat (visit) to the Imam Reza shrine where he could not control his tears. However, this does not keep him from recording some reservations about the status of Muslim minorities in Iran: in the past, the acceptance of diversity was a strength which seems to have been forgotten in modern times.
The chapter regarding Qazvin has interesting details about Ibn Majah (one of the six main collectors of Hadith in Sunni Islam), the non-state actor Hassan-i Sabah and Alamut Castle (Eagle’s Nest) and the evergreen Quratulain Tahirih, the lady who introduced soft image of Persia in the mid-19th century.
Qazvin, also spelled as Caspin (meaningful resemblance with Caspian Sea), was not only the capital of the Old Persian Empire but also the seat of knowledge. Even after the advent of Islam, it remained associated with personalities who introduced out-of-the-box solutions. Iranians, Azerbaijanis and Tats are major ethnic groups in Qazvin.
The lady Quratulain (Solace/Consolation of the Eyes) Tahirih (the pure one) was a rising star in the Babi Movement which was a rationalist movement in Persia from 1844 to 1852 founded by Ali Muhammad Shirazi, who took the title Bab (Gate of 12th Imam). Due to Tahirih’s ideology she was executed during the reign of the Qajar dynasty in August 1852 when she was in her early 30s.
Táhirih was probably best remembered for unveiling herself in an assemblage of men during the Conference of Badasht in July 1848. The unveiling caused a great deal of controversy and she was finally executed by the clergy and monarchy. Ghauri, on page 50, reproduced a speech of Tahirih in which she not only advocated for women’s rights but also emphasised on equal distribution of wealth. This was happening at the time when Karl Marx had just released his The Communist Manifesto (1848).
When Ghauri asked Iranians abut Tahirih, he witnessed a gleam in their eyes. The Islamic Revolution could neither erase Tahirih nor her poetry despite the continuous campaign and character assignation by successive governments since 1852. The author aptly reproduces a couplet of Allama Iqbal in which Iqbal placed Tahirih with Ghalib and Mansur Al-Hallaj and called her Khatoon-e-Ajam. He says that the poetry of Al-Hallaj, Ghalib and Tahirih gives you sustainable spiritual peace and that is a tremendous tribute. Among the three, Tahirih is the only woman and becomes a beacon of hope for South, West and Central Asian women.
You may differ with the author on his interpretation of history but the selection of events in this book gives you an opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of Persia of the past and today’s Iran. The narrative of the book and the occasional pictures together serve as a guide to elaborate the past and present of Iran allowing those who have never visited Iran a free tour before they can sit in the ECO train.