Beauty unbound: Flowers in Iranian culture

January 15, 2012 - 15:1
When we are happy, we often remember the times we were sad, perhaps because from the spectacles of fear, happiness is always eyed cautiously for its fleeting and flirtatious nature. But when we are unhappy, we rarely recall our days of joy, perhaps because it takes a lot of courage to hear the faintest memory of laughter in the hollow silence of sorrow. The gravity of grief seems contagious and addictive and the weightlessness of bliss feels indispensable. Life too is a necessity, not an addiction. Addiction is something that keeps dragging you all the time but necessity is something you run after, no matter what the hurdles of the path do to you.
Like many other hopeful schools of thought, Persian worldview encourages us to embolden words of light and disregard those of darkness. Why reinforce the enemy's identity by paying attention to it? In truth, there is no enmity but an absence of friendship. And what is darkness or injustice but the absence of light and justice? In fact, every absence is a call for a necessity, a presence. All empty spaces long to become places with names. 
I must have been in thinking along these lines when I walked into one of the oldest and grandest flower shops in the city as I was walking home a few days ago in the winter cold streets of Tehran. Perhaps, the absence of warmth and the soundless premonition of snow had waited to call me to the company of flowers. Waiting is always snug in the very bud of absence. But waiting for what? Another sun perhaps, or a new shade of blue and the color of hope in the horizon. I need to write about this, I tell myself, I need to write about flowers in the time of weeds. 
As I walk in an aisle of fragrances and hues, I remember reading somewhere that love can turn weeds into flowers. I pick up four Holland roses (or roz-e-holandi, as they are known here) of four different colors and decide on a bouquet for no one in particular. The florist, a young man in his early thirties looks up from the counter as I hand him the flowers. "If you want a bouquet, take one more or just go for three flowers," he says. Before I can ask why, he tells me that in bouquets, odd numbers of flowers are used because the one who presents the bouquet is also a symbolical flower, in a way you are also declaring the beauty of your presence like the flowers you give away. The only time people take even number of flowers, he reiterates, is when they want to declare their love or dislike.
My mind runs in colors. "Do you mean yellow flowers?" I ask, somewhat rhetorically. I too had heard yellow flowers were a symbol of dislike. "But why give flowers to someone you don't like? That is one costly way of declaring hostility," I remarked hardly able to hide the glee in my voice. But the florist who was already engrossed in arranging the flowers did not even look up, "We are supposedly civilized human beings. You don't need to yell or shout your dislike. You can send flowers instead." Like or dislike, I think yellow flowers are just as beautiful as any. "When yellow flowers are used in even numbers they carry that message, otherwise they are a symbol of loyalty," he says as he adds a few other decorative plants to my bouquet. So, even flowers are not safe from human stereotypes. Not wanting to miss the chance of being a flower, I pick up one more, a blue rose and place it on the counter next to the red, green, pink and white roses. What do these colors stand for? Love, life, compassion and innocence? I am not sure. All are natural except for blue which is actually the triumph of human pigmentation over genetic limitation. Blue flowers are cultivated, says the florist, because they are high in demand. Why? Perhaps because we simply cannot resist the temptation of things we cannot have.
Smiling, I recall a blue rose instance from my childhood: When the seemingly ugly gentleman in the Beauty and the Beast story (Fielder Cook's television series), magically presented the beautiful girl of his dreams with a blue rose; she dismissed them as "ugly and unnatural". Unnatural, yes but definitely not ugly. At least not as unsettling as the day when the science class teacher first told us that the sky was not really blue and that from the sun it borrowed its glorious hue.
"You know, flower bouquets in Iran are as old as time," says the florist with a patriotic smile as he breaks into my musings and ties a fanciful lemon colored ribbon over the violet wrapping, "if you ever go to Takht-e-Jamshid  you will see Darius the Great on a stone carving holding a two bud lotus flower in his hand."
I have to admit at this point my curiosity had climaxed and I asked him if he would agree to a short interview and talk about flowers in Iranian culture. It was then that I knew that his name was Farhad Deliri, he had been a florist all his life and was obviously in love with what he was doing. I also learned that the most expensive flower in the market is Cymbidium Orchid, a single flower worth approximately 30 dollars as they are "imported and last longer" (about 40 days in water). When I asked him to show me a sample, he said he did not have any as they were not really in demand during the month of Muharram in which festivities are low key.
"Who buys such expensive flowers anyway?" I ask, concerned about the current inflation rate. People who are "golbaaz" (literally, flower buffs, as in film buffs), comes the swift reply. Hearing this term for the first time, I can't help but give out a little laugh. 
"Flowers can communicate with you and look at you, if you know what I mean," he said as he started to give me a short tour of the shop. 
The cheapest flower in the market is Gerbera, about 70 cents. Can students with meager allowances also buy flowers? I want to know if educating beauty and beautifying education are still important. He assures me student still buy flowers, not really bouquets, just a few. They mostly buy Holland roses which are famous for the variety of their colors and size. The seeds from Holland are planted and cultivated inside the country. 
"Iranians love nature. They love talking in and about flowers and whenever possible, they will not miss a chance to give flowers," he says. 
Known as the land of four seasons, Iran's soil is home to almost any type of flower and plant in various regions of the country. As I make my way to the greenhouse at the back of shop, I try to make a mental list of flowers I had once smelled and felt in Persian literature.
First, there is Narcissus-who else?- a metaphor for beautiful eyes in Persian poetry and a symbol of looking inward and within. Then there is Susan or Soosan (Lily) as they call it here, also a girl's name and metaphor for tongue because of its long petals.
Even if Hafez becomes ten tongued like Soosan
He will remain silent as a bud in your presence
Hafez, Persian poet of the 14th century
Soosan is also often referred to as Aazaad (free, liberated) in Persian. And yes, there is Gol-e-Sorkh (the crimson flower) or gol-e-Mohammadi (named after the prophet of Islam), a traditional Persian synonym for variety of pink rose flowering shrub. This rose is depicted as the king of the garden or the bride of the meadow in literature. In Persian poetry, the crimson flower is a metaphor for the beloved while the nightingale represents her unconditional lover who serenades her day and night. Next there are Anemones, a delightful sight when they grow in vast fields and a symbol of enduring love. The black center of this flower symbolizes the heart of the lover which is burnt with the wound of love.
There is much more, like Laleh (Tulip) which is the national symbol of martyrdom but I am already inside the greenhouse and learning about even more new plants and flowers. As Farhad explains the features particular to each plant, I can't help but draw analogies between them and humans. While some flowers need a lot of sunlight; others thrive only in the shadow. Many need constant care and a lot of water; but for some like the Cactus, a little is too much. Some have thorns that signal distance and the price of touching them, while others are so fragile that they seem at the mercy of fate's hands.
One plant in particular which Farhad calls, Paradox, is eye catching. I linger for a few minutes before the upside down plant growing from the bottom of a hanging pot. No wonder he calls it Paradox, like a rebel, this one is resolved to thrive against the flow, reaching for its origin rather than cherishing the ambition to reach the sun. Another anomaly I come across is the air plant, Tillandsia which can grow almost anywhere, sans soil-quite the vagabond!-and depends on other plants for support. 
The greenhouse with the soothing sound of flowing water at the entrance feels like a mini garden. I tell Farhad how I am almost reminded of Persian Gardens which were previously central to Persian architecture. Gardens were previously built within houses, a phenomenon that faded with the advent of apartments and urbanization. This is when he tells me that we can now take a sense of those gardens to modern apartments with terrariums, an enclosed area of wood and glass that replicates the ecosystem on a smaller scale. Terrariums, what a name! Like the aquarium which is a mini sea, the terrarium is a mini garden. Thank heavens for the soothing art of replication. 
As we step out of the greenhouse, the multihued flowers in the shop greet our eyes once again. Farhad then tells me one of the sweetest moments for him as a florist is when he arranges bouquets for an elderly couple who take turns to surprise each other with flowers.  
"The woman is 75 and man is 80 and they are still in love. Even their children don't know about this," he says with another broad smile. Love that Lasts Longer than Flowers. That will make a good movie title, I tell myself, hopefully, without sounding cynical. 
A friend of mine once told me her father thought buying flowers was useless and not such a great way of throwing away money. He assumed buying a kilo of potatoes for someone was more worthwhile.  
When I tell this to Farhad, he tells me the story of a mother who once worked as a maid and earned two dollars per day. With one dollar, she bought bread and the other dollar was spent on flowers for her son who grew up to be a famous artist whose name he does not remember. Flower or flour, beauty or necessity, I can see the core meaning of this story regardless of the urge to confirm its validity. 
"When you have beauty, you will never be hungry," he says as I put on my winter coat and take my exquisitely colorful bouquet of five-I being the sixth-flowers from him. 
I could have argued the contrary but I just thanked him for the educational tour and let the sliding doors of the shop reintroduce me to the cold shoulders of the city. If anything, I had learned effortless silence and the natural art of sharing from flowers. 
Perhaps what he said made sense after all. Hunger for beauty and thirst for creating beauty would sharpen our sense of difference, keep us alert and alive. Perhaps if we unbounded ourselves from the fetters of indifference, then we could probably appreciate our differences and value the presence of beauty-whatever that maybe- savor her taste, glorify her goodness and speak of her splendor at cost of even the impossible and wait, wait patiently for it to bloom alight, even from the depth of the densest darkness and dullest dearth until it is delivered once again to the brink of harmonious hope, knowing that in the abyss of that absence, “beauty”, “hope” and even “waiting” are also in waiting with us. Perhaps, we have to believe that our love affair, if any, with the universe is not unilateral after all, that if we love a flower, there is a possibility that it may love us back, someday. 
Lexical Aesthetics
Talking flowers
Language of every nation is deeply entrenched in culture and like many other cultural concepts; flowers have also thrived into the Persian language. Many girls are named after flowers: Ra'na (Blanket Flowers), Shaghayegh (Anemone), Banafsheh (Violet), Yaasaman (Jasmine), Niloofar (Lotus flower), Nastaran (Eglantine), Laleh (Tulip) etc. The word, gol (Persian for flower) is also used as a prefix or suffix in many words.
Iran has always been known as the land of flowers and nightingales (mamlekat-e-gol va bolbol, a designation often used nostalgically). Persian proverbs, idioms and poetry are replete with fragrance of flowers. "May you be as beautiful as a flower but not have the life of flower" is a common way of wishing someone well as flower are beautiful and short lived. Also, gol pesar (literally, flower boy) and dokhtar-e-gol (flower girl) are used to express good qualities and niceties of young males and females. Ye dasteh gol (literally meaning, a bouquet of flowers) is an expression that indicates beauty, charm and in short a bundle of good qualities. Dasteh gol be aab daadan (literally, throwing the bouquet in the water) is an expression for causing trouble. Gol bood, be sabzeh niz aaraasteh shod (There were flowers, now there are decorated with greens too) is perhaps equivalent to "adding insult to injury". Har goli zadi be sar-e- khodet zadi (whatever flower you pick, you will have to pin it to your own hair) is another way of saying, whatever you do, you will have to bear the consequences. Also gol goftan va gol shenoftan (talking flowers and hearing flowers) refers to chatting about good and enjoyable things. Az gol nazoktar be kasi nagoftan (not saying anything more fragile than flowers to someone) is to treat someone with outmost care and respect. 
When someone has to turn their back and not face the elders in their presence, they usually excuse themselves before doing so. Gol posht va roo nadareh (flowers are flowers from either side) is the common response to such courtesy.
These are, of course, just a handful of flower instances in the Persian language.
1- The oldest and perhaps most beautiful evidence of flower bouquets in Iran is found the stone carvings of Takht-e-Jamshid, Iran's most majestic ancient monument. Over 2500 years old, the stone carvings show Darius I (550 – 486 BCE), holding the scepter of authority in one hand and a lotus flower with two buds in his right hand, symbol of royalty. Flowers were used in birthday, religious festivals and rituals, Norooz (Persian New Year) and coronation ceremonies much before the reign of Darius. 
2- Historical and archeological evidences prove that Iranians were among the first nations who gave and received flower gifts. After observing the Takht-e-Jamshid monuments, French orientalist and archeologist, Eugen Flandin concluded in 1841 that flower bouquets were integral to Iranian festivities and Iranians were and are still in the habit of presenting their friends with flowers.
3- The lush green Persian gardens which are famous for their variety of flowers and designs, may have originated as early as 4000 BCE. The outline of the Pasargad Persian Garden, built around 500 BCE, is viewable today.
4- It was customary in Persia to hand out red or fragrant flowers to wedding guests.  In the olden days, the people of Isfahan Province followed the Sassanid (224 AD to 651 AD) custom of flowers in the Khastegaari (demanding a bride) ritual. The eligible young man would send flowers to the girl's family. To show their approval of the union, the girl's family would reciprocate with a bouquet.
5- Flowers and flower bouquets are essential elements in the official proposal ceremony in Iran today. The boy and his immediate family go to the girl's house with usually a bouquet of flowers and a box of sweets. 
6- Flower Decoration of Mashin-e-Aroos (literally meaning, bridal car) or the bride and groom getaway car and the bride's wedding bouquet is an ever thriving business for florists.
7- Flowers are also used in funerals and while visiting the graves. People visit cemeteries during weekends (Thursday and Friday are weekends in the Persian calendar) with flowers and candles. In older days, however, golaab (literally meaning, flower water) which is actually rosewater was used in funerals as it is believed to be a natural tranquilizer which can easily bring about a change of ambiance. Rosewater continues to be an essential element in many rituals and ceremonies.
8-Soosan-e-Chelcheragh (literally meaning, Soosan of forty lamps) or Lilium Ledebourii is a native and rare species grown only on the heights of Damash village, northern Iran and in the Republic of Azerbaijan. This flower is a natural heritage of Iran.
Bizarre Buzz!
Flower misnomer
Flowers often take their names after their shape, color and place of origin. But sometimes they are also known for the way they were first found. 
Lonicera of the Honey Suckle Family, known as Pich-e-Amin Aldoleh (literally meaning, Amin Aldoleh's curve or turn) in Iran is one such example.   Amin Aldoleh was a reformist prime minister at Muzaffareddin Shah, the Qajar king's court (1843-1904).  It is believed that he was the first to plant the flower in the Amin Aldoleh Garden, a family state in Old Tehran. There are about 180 types of this plant. The word pich means curve or turn in Persian and therefore some people think Pich-e-Amin Aldoleh is the name of a place.
Another flower with a contradictory name is the Peony, known as the Gol-e-Sad Toomani (literally, the 100 Tomans flower). It is said that the gardener who first planted the flower received prize money of 100 Tomans from the ruler which was a substantial amount back in the good old days. 
The flower is now sold for 1000 Tomans (approximately 70 cents) but it is still known as the 100 Tomans flower.