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Immigrants weave carpet magic

Date

David Ellery

An Iranian couple who moved here in the 80s is bringing the history of traditional rug making to Canberra, DAVID ELLERY reports

Abdollah Saeedi, left, and Mehrak Osloubi of Antica Persia in Fyshwick.

Abdollah Saeedi, left, and Mehrak Osloubi of Antica Persia in Fyshwick. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

 

I

f the test of a truly multicultural city is the ability of the people you meet to transport you to another world then Abdollah Saeedi and Mehrak Osloubi help Canberra pass with flying colours.

A model of a woman traditionally making a rug.

A model of a woman traditionally making a rug. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

The couple, who have run an oriental carpet shop from Wollongong Street in Fyshwick for almost half a decade, moved to Australia from Iran in the 1980s to escape the devastating war between their country and Iraq.

The eight-year conflict claimed the lives of more than a million people, including an estimated 100,000 non-combatants. It ended with no clear victory for either side. ''I am a peaceful person,'' said Abdollah, who was born in 1946 in the village of Arak, 200 kilometres from Tehran. ''We have always been against war.''

It distresses him most that Australians, taking their information from the news headlines, perceive the country of his birth as little more than a place of violence and unrest.

A 100 per cent silk antique rug.

A 100 per cent silk antique rug. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

While he and Mehrak are very happy with the lives they have made in Australia, which have now grown to encompass the lives of children and grandchildren, they still have a strong emotional attachment to Iran. For them it is the Persia of the ancients, the setting for many of the tales immortalised in The Arabian Nights and a land with an incredible history, a fun-loving and joyous people and great cultural diversity.

''Iran is a lovely country; it is 1000 kilometres from north to south and there is a great deal of cultural and geographic difference,'' Abdollah said. ''In the summer you can have temperatures between five degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius depending on where you are. In winter the temperature can range from 30 degrees Celsius to minus 25 degrees Celsius.

''You only have to travel a short distance and the landscape, the people and the language have all changed. Iran is not a desert country; there is a small desert in the centre, that is all. At least 200 million people could live in Iran if they all worked hard.''

Abdollah, who makes regular trips back to buy carpets for the store and to visit family, says the eastern tradition of hospitality is alive and well and that the guest is treated with great honour. ''Even during the time of the revolution [the uprising of 1979 that led to the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini] no foreign tourists were harmed,'' he said.

And despite the country's present reputation for religious fundamentalism, it was once known as one of the most tolerant and multicultural countries in the Middle East.

''My father worked for the education department and we also had a farm; we grew beans, vegetables and grapes - we were not far from Shiraz, the ancient capital of Persia - and we made wine,'' he said. ''This was sold in the village where many of the people were Armenian Christians. Christians and Muslims lived together with no problems and in many parts of the country there were Jews and everybody got along.

''My father had many sons and wanted to make sure we were well educated [Abdollah has three brothers in Australia and three still living in Iran). I moved to Tehran to go to school. I studied mathematics and then aircraft maintenance and avionics. I then went to the US for further studies [in the early to mid-1970s]. The Shah was trying to modernise the country and to advance skills. Overseas study was supported by the government.''

While he would have found it easy to find work in America after graduation, he was expected to return to put his knowledge to use in his own country.

Abdollah returned to Iran permanently in 1975. He had met and married Mehrak, a beautiful 18-year-old whose family knew his family, during an earlier visit home and she had accompanied him back to America for the last part of his studies.

Mehrak, who said the two families had known each other for years, recalls the young Abdollah as being ''sweet, charming and shy''. ''I liked it that he was a little shy,'' she said. ''We married very quickly because he was going back to America and fell in love afterwards. The love is still there; it has never gone away.''

Abdollah recalls being instantly smitten by the beautiful young woman the two families had arranged for him to marry. ''I am a very fortunate man,'' he said.

Travelling from Tehran to America was not a major cultural shift for either of them; Tehran was an open and modern city and Iran was very progressive. ''People were expecting more and more in the way of education and opportunities and almost every major city in the country had its own university.

''New industries were emerging. It was a period when there was much money and much change. Progress was more rapid in the cities; life in the countryside was more traditional in nature. Iranian people are very smart; they will find the short cut and they want to make things better.''

A major challenge facing Mehrak after her wedding was the need to learn to cook. A cosmopolitan and modern woman who worked as a fashion designer and was studying Iranian literature, she had taken full advantage of the fact her mother was a superlative cook and the family also employed a cook who did much of the work when she was at home.

''I started to cook in America and mixed some American [cuisine] with what I remembered my mother doing,'' she said. ''Over time, about two years, I became confident in the kitchen. Lamb is an important part of the Iranian diet. Our lamb is very tasty; it comes from fat-tailed sheep and is moister and has a more delicate flavour [than Australian lamb].

''We spice it with a wide range of different ingredients - black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, saffron and rose petals.'' Rose petals are a mild flavouring agent that have a distinct taste that is recognisably their own. Sweet treats and confectionary are popular and Iran has its own take on baklava, which is not as sticky and greasy as what most Australians would be used to. Gaz, a nougat made with pistachios or almonds, is another favourite.

Mehrak said that Farsi, the Iranian language, and one of the oldest in the Middle East, is lyrical and melodious and lends itself to poetry. ''You would have heard of Omar Khayyam,'' she said. Asked how well the famous Edward Fitzgerald version compares to the original Farsi quatrains, Mehrak observes poetry from one language is effectively impossible to translate into another but that the 19th century author had done a good job of capturing the spirit of the quatrains that inspired his own.

For an outsider, Iran's antiquity is hard to grasp. The land was a cradle of civilisation long before it rose to become the Persia famous across the ancient world. The earliest known examples of carpet weaving, some of which date back almost 3000 years, originated there.

''People once thought the art of rug making began in Turkey,'' Abdollah said. ''That changed with the discovery of the Pazyrk carpet.''

This remarkable artefact, found preserved in the icy tomb of a Scythian prince in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, is almost three metres by two metres and was made about 2500 years ago. It is, in all significant particulars, identical to the carpets being woven in Iran today and has 36 knots per square centimetre.

For Abdollah and Mehrak the hand-knotted carpets, some of which represent years of work for an individual, are part of their heritage, works of art and furniture all rolled into one. Not all of the carpets in their store are for sale. They are particularly proud of a signed ''silk on silk'' creation that stands out because of its iridescent colours, beautifully detailed patterns and remarkable workmanship. It is signed by Mohamadi, the maker.

''Some things are beyond price,'' Abdollah said on being asked what it would be worth. ''These are very hard to find and we may not be able to buy another.''

Mehrak, who worked in retail for many years before the couple opened the shop as a retirement project, takes great delight in her trips back to her other home. ''I love the literature, the multicultural aspect and the food,'' she said. ''But the people are what I miss most. For me, visiting family is the main thing; but on every trip I make sure I visit a different part of the country.''

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