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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

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Balancing East and West: Pars Grows Up
April 12, 2000

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Family and friends feast together at Iranian celebrations
Once upon a time, there was a young boy named Pars who traveled a long way from his homeland in Iran to go to university in America. As a student in California he learned a great deal from his classes, but he also learned a great deal about a culture very different from his own. For the first time in his life he was exposed to people of all different races, and made friends with all kinds of people, girls and guys alike. The college atmosphere was progressive, and he was amazed at the freedom students had to express themselves, paying no mind to conformity or tradition.

After four years at the university, Pars went home to spend the summer in Iran with his family. He was happy to see his family and old friends, but viewed Iran in a different light now. His family got together to celebrate his return. His cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends came to his home for a big traditional feast. Everyone was happy to see him and eager to hear about life in America. "If they only knew what the parties I went to at college were like!" he thought to himself.

Pars had indeed changed quite a bit during his four years in America. He kept to himself a lot more, and seemed to judge his family's behavior. He used to drink cups of tea with his cousins on the front porch, but now that seemed like a boring waste of time. The biggest change in Pars was actually his attitude towards religion.

Fire is an extraordinarily powerful symbol of cleanliness and purity. That's why Zoroastrians do their daily prayers in front of a light. Here's how a Zoroastrian friend we met in Yazd explained it to me: "When a person stands in front of the fire to pray, it closes the circle of the seven sacred elements. Fire, on one side, is the most obedient element, but the least free. It cannot do anything other than be fire, but this it does with such a rare intensity. Humans, on the other hand, are the opposite. They have all the freedom of will and movement, but humans are not a pure elemental energy the way fire is. Humans are dependent on the other elements to survive. Divinity is in all seven elements, but the raw intensity of fire makes it the easiest element in which to see God."

Pars' family is Zoroastrian, the ancient religion of Persia. Though Zoroastrianism started in Persia in the 7th century BCE and once was the predominant religion of the entire country, today it has been largely replaced by Islam. Since Zoroastrians are such a small minority, the bond within the community is very strong as families hold on to the traditions to keep them alive. Pars didn't care for the traditions any more. He quietly slipped away when it was time for one of the five prayers of the day, and avoided most religious ceremonies.

"It all seems so silly. Why are people so hung up on religion in Iran anyways?" thought Pars to himself. "In America, I didn't even know what religion any of my friends were, it just didn't matter. But here, it's the center of life. My family is still doing things that were done over 2,000 years ago, not even realizing all the modern advancements that have been made in the mean-time!"

Pars's family was sad that he scorned their philosophies and customs. They were proud of how he excelled at his studies in America, but were sad that as a result he was substituting modern Western culture in place of his own. No one in the family said anything to him on this matter for fear of upsetting him, but one day Pars pushed the limits too far.

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Traditional Zoroastrian homes pay tribute to the sacred elements through paintings, courtyards, and fountains
He had gone out again to eat pizza for lunch instead of eating with the family, and when he returned his grandmother was washing clothes outside by the tap in the courtyard. He came in and said, "Salaam".

His grandmother did not respond with Salaam, but instead told him to put out his cigarette.

"What's wrong with you people? What does it matter to you if I smoke cigarettes, I'm 22 years old, I'm old enough to make my own decisions!" said Pars in an air of pride that one would not expect to hear directed towards an elder. He flicked his cigarette into the water drain and started to walk inside. "What do you think you are doing?" said his grandmother in a stern voice. "You think you know everything now that you have a degree from America? You have forgotten everything that is important to us. Do not enter the house. This is a clean home, and you are polluting it. Go and think about what you have done, and the many ways you are disrespecting yourself, our family and God."

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Pars was surprised to hear his grandmother use such strong words with him. She was always so kind, and he always cared very much for her. He turned around and left the house, wondering where he would go. He walked through the streets disturbed by his own thoughts. "I want to understand my family better, but I can't. Why are the teachings of a man who died 2,700 years ago so important to my family? I bet my friends in America never had to deal with anything like this!"

Pars continued to walk aimlessly through the streets, and somehow ended up at a familiar street corner...right in front of the Ateshkade, the Zoroastrian fire temple. Pars used to come to this very temple with his family when he was growing up, but he hadn't been back to visit it in over four years. "Maybe I should take this as a sign," he thought to himself and headed towards the temple. Above the entrance, Pars gazed up at the image of the winged old man holding a golden hoop hung there. He remembered the image so well. The inscription read: Good thinking, good saying, good doing.

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Wise advice greets you at the Zoroastrian fire temple: Good thinking, good saying, good doing
He went inside and walked around reading the excerpts from the holy Avesta that hung in frames on the wall. There were messages about God, man, and his duties on earth. He approached the sacred fire in the altar, and stared into it for a long time. "It really is incredible that this very fire has been kept alive by Zoroastrians for over 1,500 years!" He thought as he lost himself in the raw energy of the flame.

He looked at the painting of Zoroaster on the wall, and gazed into his kind face and deep eyes. "You really did have some wise lessons to teach, I had forgotten how much sense the teachings made."

Pars left the temple and looked back at the image of the old man above the entrance. "Maybe I should start paying more attention to what elders have to teach me. After all they have a lot more experience on this earth than I do. Maybe my grandmother knows more than I give her credit for." He caught a bus headed to the outskirts of town and got off once he saw his destination: The Towers of Silence. These towers, built on the desert's edge, symbolized what embarrassed Pars most about his family's religion: the ancient traditions. However, today he wanted to revisit them, and use the desert solitude to collect his thoughts. The Towers of Silence were where ancient Zoroastrians took their dead. Instead of burying them or cremating them, the Zoroastrians left their dead on these hilltops for the vultures to eat. Pars always found this very backwards, and even though the Zoroastrians of today no longer continue this practice, he used to hate the fact that his family agreed with such customs.

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Hiking up to the Towers of Silence; the vultures won't find a thing to eat these days!
He walked up the hill and sat down on an old brick wall at the top. The setting sun tinged the desert in a beautiful orange glow, and Pars looked down at the land he grew up in. It was a very beautiful sight. "How stupid I have been to have forgotten so much!" he thought to himself.

'It's so obvious!' he thought. 'How could I be so blind as to not see the divinity in all that is around me?!'

Pars remembered the teachings of Zoroastrianism that he had learned when he was young, but hadn't thought of in a long time. One of the basic premises of Zoroastrianism is a deep respect for the elements and their purity. There are seven elements the Zoroastrians worship to represent the seven different aspects of God. They are: water, fire, air, earth, plants, animals, and man. Each one of these is a living entity that embodies the divine, thus it is of utmost importance to respect the elements and keep them clean. That is why the Zoroastrians bring their dead to the Towers of Silence. Once the 'fire has gone out' in a body, it is no longer a Godly entity, so burying the corpse would pollute the earth and cremating the corpse would pollute fire.


conformity - action in accordance with some specified standard or authority
scorned - open dislike of something mixed with disrepect
symbolized - to represent, express, or identify by a symbol
utmost - the most possible
entity - an independence existence

"Of course that's what sparked my grandmother this morning! I practically disrespected all the elements in one fell swoop! Cigarette smoking disrespects the tobacco plant, it pollutes the air and my body, it puts fire to a wrong use, and by throwing it into the water stream, I polluted the water too! I'm sure if I thought about it long enough I could figure out ways in which I harmed the earth and animals too!" he laughed at his insensitive ignorance.

"I've been so arrogant since I returned from the United States. Yes, I have learned a lot from that modern culture, but it doesn't mean that I need to forget where I come from either," he thought, realizing that a faith in Zoroastrianism in no way infringes upon his newfound freedoms in America. "Good thinking, good saying, good doing. I will not be unwelcome in my own home anymore, it's time to go home and show grandma all that I learned from her!"


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Jasmine - The Golden Age: Safavid Rule
Monica - Home is where the Heart is.... Zartosht's House
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