Arts of the East: the Edinburgh Iranian Festival

Last Friday, February 6th, saw the opening ceremony of the 4th biennial Edinburgh Iranian Festival. Taking place over ten days, the festival will see a variety of events taking place all over Edinburgh, including performances and exhibitions of Iranian music, art, fashion and film. According to its website, the festival “aims to increase understanding of Iranian culture, history and people, at a time when perceptions of the country in the Western world are heavily skewed by politics”. It aims to be “non-political, non-religious” and “span both Iran’s rich traditions and its contemporary cultural life”.

Saturday 7th placed the spotlight on Iranian fashion, with a fashion show at the National Museum of Scotland. Sunday saw talks on subjects ranging from Persian calligraphy to travel in Iran in the Nomads Tent on St. Leonard’s street. On Friday 13th there will be a lecture, performance and workshop of Persian music at the Sutton Gallery. Then Saturday 14th will see lectures on Persian history and architecture by Professor Carole Hilenbrand and Professor Robert Hilenbrand. Monday 16th, the last day of the festival, features a talk at the University of Edinburgh on Iranian pop music star, Googoosh. Throughout this period there will also be art exhibitions, such as the Perception Art Exhibition at Summerhall, which opened on Saturday. The festival will also feature a series of Iranian films shown at the Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road. The first film, The Desert Fish, was shown on Sunday 8th and there will be a different film every night until the 15th.

The festival has garnered a lot of interest and support, evidenced by the excess of £120 over their target of £500 that the organisers managed to raise through the website Crowdfunder.

There are almost five thousand Iranians living in Scotland and it was also in Scotland, at Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s, that the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, completed his PhD, entitled, “The flexibility of Shariah (Islamic Law) with reference to the Iranian experience.” UK relations with Iran hit a low at the end of 2011, when a group of protesters broke into the British embassy and ransacked it. The UK closed its embassy in Tehran and severed direct diplomatic ties with Iran. However, recently relations seem to be thawing somewhat and progress has been made towards reopening the embassy in Tehran. Iran has a six thousand year history, however tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and its isolation from the rest of the world have meant that perceptions of Iran have been coloured by much more recent events such as the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the storming of the US embassy in Iran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for well over a year. However it seems that at least some perceptions are changing. There is much greater interest in Iran in terms of tourism, with CNN reporting that tourist visits to Iran have increased by 215 per cent. With seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites, Iran has a lot to offer visitors, but there is still nervousness surrounding travel to Iran. Katie McHugh, an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, puts this down to Iran’s “bad reputation in some countries.” In terms of visiting Iran, she said, “I would probably be skeptical because of the security situation, but at the same time I’ve heard there are some beautiful things there.” The Foreign Office also advises against all but essential travel to Iran, and against all travel in some areas, such as the province of Sistan-Baluchistan. On Sunday, travel to Iran was highlighted by a range of talks entitled ‘Iran and Tourism’. Travel experts from Persian Voyages were on hand to discuss concerns and offer practical advice, such as on obtaining visas.

The festival looks set to be very interesting and enjoyable. However, it seems likely that it will take some time, and several political changes, to permanently alter perceptions of Iran in the West.


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