Critical Anthropology, the Hupd’äh and Zoroastrianism

It was very propitious right after I had started a blog entitled Indigenous knowledge that I received an invitation from Mina Rad to see her film entitled The Hupd’äh. Her work with Brazilian anthropologist Athias in Amazonia responded directly to my call. Strange, two Iranian women, an anthropologist in Tehran and a film director in Paris try to see what we can learn from indigenous knowledge which could help us during this Corona period. I, an anthropologist formed at the New School for Social Research, in New York, during 1970’s with critical perspective, and having read about aborigines from Canada to South America, particularly about the Yanomami about whom many films were made and I saw one in Paris, and of course knowing about the lot of Australian aborigines and how all these populations have been killed, destroyed, de-culturated, en-culturated, and having later heard about the Mongolian population being forced to leave their pastoral nomadic way of life, and knowing about Iranian pastoral nomads being forced to sedentarise in the name of modernity….it was very refreshing to see how 2000 people totally marginalized have been able to survive among some 35 other such populations deep in Amazonia which is under pressure for exploitation of its woods.

During this Corona period, we have been receiving humanitarian calls of people becoming more capable to look at each other in the face, to become more human, to care for others, to care for the elderly, children, animals, plants, bake bread at home, enjoy little things in life and put in question the everyday rush for money and work outside. Criticism to modernity and Cartesian way of thought is on the one hand put into question, and on the other it takes hold of indigenous knowledge to enable the status quo to continue. In the film we see Mina say in her own voice that seeing the Hupd’hä, she is reminded of Zoroastrianism, and the trilogy good thought, good behavior, good words, and then duality of good and evil. It is good that she is reminded of Zoroastrianism, but it would have been better if we would be sure that she did not mean that the Hupd’hä were somehow related to Zoroastrianism, a plight from which lots of Iranians suffer, thinking all can find their origin in Iran. What is worth reflection is the duality which Zoroastrianism offers, good and evil, and the diction it professes in all its writing that good and evil constantly follow each other, and this style of thinking is prevalent in traditional story telling where stories follow each other to no end. After a good event when we think it is over and all will be well, there is something evil which happens and there is a new struggle…This style of thinking has penetrated our daily life whenever someone laughs, they avert him that something bad may follow, or after a terrible event, it is said “the end of darkest night, is daylight.” There would be a good amount of search within Zoroastrian literature and the oral tradition of Hapd’ha to take place and see if there are such similarities in thinking of the two people. This would not necessarily be due to borrowing one culture from another (geographical distance makes it unthinkable), rather real life at the dawn of civilization would have made human beings think of their existence in such a similar way. This coming of a bad event after 200 years of progress due to modernity is a short while in the life of our predecessors where prophets lived more than 100 years.

There are other points in the film which can make us question today’s diverse practices. For example the ritual of death where one is set on a new journey, all his belongings are put in a coffin with him and the rest destroyed (so that people are not reminded of him?), where the dead lives on among the living in another form etc. Compare this with todays’ behavior toward the dead in Western countries where death is separated more and more from the life of the living and there are many less rituals accompanying the passing away of an elderly. Comparisons can be made on many points. In another domain the vocal world which is present in the village reminded me of a kitchen in Baluchestan area of Iran. For me the kitchen was like a voice box, from which human voice emanated when everywhere else there was silence. This voice world could be compared: how do humans through their voices take distance from nature? How are these worlds different from modern voices, where one must keep silent, hear organized voice through a medium, or have different places to voice different sounds, talks, views etc.etc. There was a point about talking and playing with words, and it was interesting to me to see how people pass their time playing with words for hours, in domestic settings. In Iran the Esfahani people (with an old urban culture) pass hours punning on words, and laughing endlessly on how cunning they are. It is a mistake to think the Esfahani tell jokes, it is the spontaneous use of language and the cunning of the person to play with words, meanings, puns etc. which are appreciated. As soon as a child begins to talk, he is en-culturated into this use of language.

Modernity has been propagating and taking the whole cultural world of various peoples and having an instrument of advertisement to pronounce itself the best and the end of civilization. The problem, the cultural problem it has with Iran today, is just in this regard. Why is the head of one nation saying to the other “you must behave?” What does this mean, a civilization which has lasted more than two thousand years knows definitely very well how to behave, at least better than a nation which is only 200 years of existence. In my view as an anthropologist this is the crux of the matter between the U.S. and Iran, and if right after the Revolution Foucault came to Iran, it was just to see how human quality is supposed to enter the everyday life of people after this Revolution. I am not concerned with what has been going on in official discourses, I am interested in how Iranian culture is responding from within to modernity. Millions of Iranians have left Iran with reasons we know most of which are cultural rather than economic or political, and I think it is the domain of culture, which happens to be our expertise which should find responses to this juxtaposition of two cultures.

Indigenous knowledge is not just knowledge about plants and animals which could be understood, formalized, finally go into a tea-bag and make a concoction. It is a different mind-set, different way of thinking about oneself and others and behavior towards them, and oneself. It is a way of thinking about the universe and one’s place within it and what has been well formulated in environmental discourses of active groups ever since 1980’s. The critical perspective in anthropology has given us many writers and books on the topic, and today the Corona virus is making us reflect on the topic in everyday life engagements. We shall see how and if any of this style of thinking will prevail, or if modernity, with its greed for more and more, for having made money its sole rod of measurement, will be happy that some people die, and it will have less to worry about and continue on its project of thinking in a specific way, and that is the sole and the best way of continuing life on the planet.

One of the most important points about anthropology which is pointed out by critical anthropology is its reflexive-ness: After one does research, one can critically look at one’s own society. It is culture which has been capable to make societies different, and when one sees and understands other cultures, one can see one’s own culture from a different perspective. I think both this film and the Corona period are reminding us of this quality of anthropology. We should not think that the culture we are living in is the only possibility and shape that this culture is obliged to have and that it is the only possible culture. No, definitely not, and we as anthropologists have the arena to speak about it. And this is really the time for our profession to make this point quite bold.

Interview with Prof. Faye V. Harrison; a noted American anthropologist: “Systemic racism in the US assumes a variety of covert and overt forms”

Interview with Prof. Faye V. Harrison; a noted American anthropologist and Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaig: “Systemic racism in the US assumes a variety of covert and overt forms”

Indigenous Knowledge and Coronavirus Times!

Marocan turban used instead of mask in San Fracisco

As anthropologists, we have been learning from other societies and writing about them. Now in this crisis I think we can look again at our data and see what can help us survive or pass this period in a more congenial way. We can integrate life ways to continue, hopefully, into a post-corona period. We can offer this local knowledge to the world at large. Below I shall give a few examples from my knowledge earned from Iran, my native country.

Ever since travelers have come to Iran, particularly the European travelers, they have disdained and ridiculed Iranian women because of their veil. I shall not critically analyze this perspective here, but only will give you some hints on how useful this object can be. This semi-circle cloth can be wrapped up or taken off in a split second. It can separate self from others very quickly, so it can provide social distance, and become handy when one does not want to be touched and it can ward off hands, or any pollution coming from outside.

Facial masks were an urban cover, but in the extreme heat of southern Iran, women wore facial masks which protected their faces from the sun. It covered their mouths and noses. Still today they are worn, they are very colorful and can be beautiful additions to one’s attire. After corona, facial masks are soon moving into becoming protective measures. Seamstresses are making facial masks to go with one’s attire.

Living with large families was an asset, was a way away from boredom of very few people living together. Few days ago I visited a pastoral group in the mountains of Northern Iran. Four families lived each near one Collin, each had a few children and at our arrival some ten children were happily playing together. In the adjacent town where part of the family lived, they continued their close knit existence, in a two floor apartment house, three families were related, and the fourth one was a tenant. Their children again formed a close knit group who played together. The parents would visit and share tasks and had no complaint about this Corona period, as they continued their lives as before. So having close knit family or friend groups is very opportune for such tense periods, one is protected from lonesomeness.

Iranian New Year is an event for which there is an important preparation and that is a tradition of cleaning the house. No speck of dust should remain anywhere. According to ancient Zoroastrian tradition, the spirit of the dead of the family come for visits at New Year, and they detest dirt and dust, so everything, including carpets, beddings, trunks and all corners of the cellars, rooms must be cleaned. This tradition has been helping people to respect cleanness, and this has been helpful in making most people respect the codes of cleanness during this period.

Folk oral tradition has been very important in Iran, as teachings of Zoroaster which were burned by Alexander, were written down later, as they were kept within the oral tradition of men of religion. Poetry and games related to poetry have been practiced in various regions of the country. Voice imitations, pantomime, traditional plays etc. have been practiced in different regions. These were people’s past-time before the television came to individual houses and people stopped even to tell stories to their children. So a revival of these oral traditions can also help people to pass these tedious periods of listening to the news.

Celebrating a victory or celebrating according to the calendar all specific dates related to seasons or birthdays have been a tradition. I had just arrived in Iran and wanted to familiarize myself with local culture from my anthropological perspective gained after years studying in the U.S. I opened the grand epic of Kings Shahnameh ofFerdowsi  (written around 1000A.D.) and soon realized any important victory was celebrated by summoning musicians to play, dancers to perform and food to be served. Gaiety with these specific components was repeatedly reported. Still today even when there is a traffic jam on a highway, you see people (generally a few cars of friends or relatives) getting off their cars and they start to dance with the loud speakers of their cars. Today with Corona Restrictions, this part of everyday life is absent, and people cannot congregate to celebrate. But musicians have been practicing, playing on line, sharing lots of clips. This has been an important component and a solace for these days in seclusion.

Ever since the Second World War the reasoning for engaging in more and more acquisition of instruments of war has been, “If we do not do this, the enemy will do it.” Vengeance has been at core. Today the world has realized that the enemy does not have a geographical boundary, and engagement in scientific research can help overcome this omnipresent enemy and the ones which will come afterwards. So, let us hope cooperation instead of competition and vengeance, in finding preventive measures and technologies will gain the upper hand in this crazy world created ever since 1950’s.

Iran has the luck of living in centuries at the same time, she had not yet totally forgotten her life style of thousands of years ago and tremendous hardships she has suffered, and some of them may profit her as looking into this past has always helped her to revive. I think lots of countries can do the same and share in this knowledge to make the survival of our kind more peaceful. So, please do share information on indigenous knowledge from where you did your fieldwork, or where you are actually living to make us all share this knowledge and perhaps practice them.