Iranians adore a picnic. During the country’s most ancient festival, Nowruz, the Persian new year, they brandish baskets of food as they swarm into parks and gardens to celebrate Sizdah-bedar, the 13th and final day of the Nowruz celebrations and the coming of spring. In Britain, it’s only just getting warm enough to enjoy a khoresht stew or doogh, a yoghurt drink that tastes a little like Indian lassi. But venture out to Hyde Park and you’ll see groups of young and old Iranians sitting in the pale springtime sun.
The Persian picnic is generally a family affair. Pretty much every Iranian has fond memories of Nowruz meals; eating fragrant rice and meats with kindly aunts. These picnics are best enjoyed in one of Iran’s ancient Persian gardens (Bagh-e Irani), which first emerged during the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great. Even ignoring the mullahs’ absurd ban on alcohol, Iran is a dry country. There’s not a lot of water, so the Iranian idea of paradise is a verdant one. Lush green with plenty of water and its ornamental offspring: flowers. Images of gardens spread throughout Persian art and have remained lodged in our collective minds ever since Cyrus launched his empire in 550 bc.
The effect on Persian society has been huge. ‘Iranians are always prepared for a picnic,’ says Roham Alvandi, a historian of Iran at the London School of Economics. ‘On pretty much every road trip I’ve ever taken, a picnic seems to materialise on the way. I’ve been at airport gates waiting for a flight either to or from Iran and have seen an Iranian family suddenly produce a picnic with condiments and all the cutlery. Picnics are something really established in the culture, centred strongly around the family.’
But what was once a family jolly has become, thanks to the oppressive Islamic Republic, something more political. It’s not uncommon for families to eat on the graves of dead relatives, laying out blankets on top of memorial stones. But in recent years, Iranians have been taking their Nowruz picnics to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, widely regarded as the country’s greatest ruler. Cyrus is an avowedly Iranian hero who predates Islam by almost a millennium. Picnics at his tomb have become a way for people to embrace their Iranian – rather than Islamic – identity.
Since the Islamists took control of the country after the 1979 revolution, the regime has tried to engineer the reverse: they see Iranians as, above all else, Muslims. That tension between the Islamic and the Iranian has squatted like a toad on public life. The former head of the Revolutionary Courts, Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, a sordid murderer known as the ‘hanging judge’, was always desperate to bulldoze the great Achaemenid city of Persepolis, believed by some to have been founded by Cyrus. Scratch a religious fanatic and you’ll almost invariably find a Philistine, too.
For a lot of people, picnics by the tomb of Cyrus are how they give the middle finger to the regime.‘It’s tough for the regime to respond because Cyrus is a great icon,’ Alvandi explains. It’s also hard to get too angry about a picnic without looking absurd. So the revolutionaries are stuck, watching happy Iranians munching Koobideh kebab in defiance of their austere leaders.