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White hair and the colors of prestige: The social and cultural status of the elderly in Iran

By Maryam Ala Amjadi, Tehran Times

If you really want to hear heartfelt stories about the city and get a good taste of the true Iran, then you probably would have to sit in a taxi in Tehran and strike a conversation with the driver. By the time you reach your destination, you would not only have a firsthand political, social, financial and cultural analysis of the overall situation of the country but you may also find that in the process of the conversation you have opened up to a total stranger about what ails you most of all. It is as though you are taking a trip within a trip, riding the car and sharing a mental journey, perhaps on a therapeutic road. Besides, conversation makes the distance seem shorter. And Tehran’s taxi drivers make shrewd critics of the past and the present, assuming the future as simply predictable with their wild interest in details. 

One of the most common stories that one hears is about difference between the past and the present generation, mostly a vivid glorification of the past and how “hormat” (literally meaning, reverence) particularly regarding the elders and the elderly were observed more than today, how the walls of “haya” (literally meaning, coyness and bashful politeness) and modesty have been run down by our hurried modern life.

Although this may be true to some extent, particularly in the capital and major cities, compared to other places, one can still witness good deal of instances of respect and high regard for the elders. Marked by wrinkles of experience and white hair earned through the vicissitudes of life, elder family members are still considered as the “barkat” (literally meaning, blessings that generates prosperity) of the house, qualified individuals in the school of life whose words of wisdom one should cherish and live up to. In fact, there is a saying in the Persian language which the elderly often use, pertaining to the value of lessons learned by old age: “I have not whitened my hair in the mills.” (Meaning: I have earned my experiences through hardships of life and know things. It is not easy to fool me)

White hair and white beard have always been used as signifiers of reverence for old age wisdom and honoring the elders in the Iranian culture. In fact, even today if an elderly person and a young one fall into the pitfalls of disagreement, it is expected that the young would observe the “hormat” of the elder’s white hair and white beard, probably keep silent and not retort. 

Greeting the elders is, of course, a must in the Iranian culture and a sign of polite behavior. Standing up in respect before them and never stretching one’s legs or raising one’s voice in their presence are also deemed as good manners.

Despite their declining physical or mental health, the elderly are never truly casted out of social and family functions. In fact, they still continue to play a significant role in the lives of their immediate family members. In the mosque, the first rows of the communal prayers are where the elders of community stand and pray while others line up behind them. Previously, if a wife had a row with her husband and left the house for her father’s, it was always expected that an elder member of the family would intervene and make truce between the couple. The elders still seem to have a say in husband-wife conflicts, particularly in rural areas. Their presence and opinion in the traditional pre-marriage meeting of parents and the youth- known as ‘khastegaari’ (literally meaning demanding a bride) is still of importance. After the wedding ceremony, it is also upon the elder members of the family to host the “paa goshaee” feast (literally meaning, opening the feet) whereby the newlyweds are received and welcomed home a few days after the official wedding. 

The question is whether the youth centered modern life and its constant emphasis on “individuality” could really and eventually wipe off our regard for our old accustomed traditions and good manners?  One would think that “decorum” and “good manners” are never out of fashion.

Once on a long drive across the town, a taxi driver in Tehran shared the following anecdote with me. 

“When I was a child, I used to come home from school and my mother would ask me to slow down, “Shush! Your father is asleep. Be careful not to wake him up.” and now when I come home from a long day’s work, I hear my wife say “Shush! The children are sleeping. Take care you don’t wake them up” I feel I am a victim of two generations!”

When old is indeed gold 

Ancient Iran was among the first civilizations to appoint an annual day (16th of September) to honor the elderly and pay gratitude to the contribution of its seniors. Known as Asis Vang, this ceremonious day dates back to at least 3000 years according to some records. In fact, not only senior citizens were never fully isolated from the social scene but they also contributed their wisdom and experience towards betterment of the lifestyle of the others. For instance, naming a newborn was previously the task of the eldest in the family, known as “rish sefid” (literally meaning, white-beard). One could say that the custom is somehow still alive in small towns and villages. Seven days after birth, after a feast and gathering, the infant is placed in the arms of the eldest family member (usually a grandparent or great uncle) and he is asked to pick a name. The white-beard will then write a few names on a piece of paper and keep it between the pages of the Quran. He will then recite azan (call for prayer in Arabic) in the infant’s right ear and a few other Islamic verses in his left ear. After this, he will pull out one of the paper slots and read aloud the name and all those present will approve by saying “salawat” (“Peace be upon him” is a phrase that Muslims often say after saying or hearing the name of the prophet of Islam). In some rural places, there is also a custom known as “roogoshaei” (literally meaning, opening the face) which involves an elder (usually a grandmother or grandaunt) opening and unveiling the face of the newborn after his first bath. The elder pushes away the towel or any other wrapping from the baby’s face and greets it with a smile. It is believed that if a good natured, good humored and happy person greets the baby, he will grow up to have a happy smiling face.

The white-beard was not only a part of other people’s joy but he was also someone that people looked up to and counted on in times of trouble. If a neighbor or a member of a certain community was in financial trouble, the elders would make an effort to help them through a ritual known as “golrizoon” (literally meaning, casting flowers) which was a euphemism for donating money to an anonymous cause. Trusting their elders, people would willingly donate money to help out a person in need whose name was concealed out of fear of embarrassment. The custom is still alive in some parts of the country. Modern variations include charity boxes known as sandoghe-e-sadaghaat (box for alms) set up across all cities in Iran and the call for donations to social and cultural causes often broadcasted on the television, radio and billboards. Also, in times of conflict, particularly in case of divorce, arguments among siblings, parents and offspring, neighbors and other community members, elders were expected to intervene, help in resolving the issue and make peace. Their role was significant because it was axiomatic that persons involved in the conflict, would hopefully listen to their elders, act upon their wishes and work out a way of compromise out of respect. In fact, white-beard slang has found its way into pop culture. “Let’s resolve this white-beard style”, is something you may hear from young people involved in an argument, which actually means, “Let’s talk about this peacefully and work it out in a civilized manner”.

Youth and the white beard culture 

No one can argue with the fact that elders are appreciated and revered to a great extent in Iran. Although modern youth culture, particularly in major cities, has naturally created a rift and conflict with the previous generation, respecting elders and the elderly still tops the social and cultural ladder of manners. In fact, Persian literature (didactic literature in particular) is replete with instances that emphasize the importance of regarding elders with eyes of respect and valuing their words of wisdom. Persian proverbs, too, offer a great deal of advice to the youth on their mannerism with the elderly. These proverbs can roughly be divided into two major groups: A- Proverbs that emphasize glorification of the elderly and acknowledgement of their wisdom and experience, hence the earned respect: “Have some respect for his white hair”, “What the young man sees in the mirror, the old man sees in pure adobe” and “An old mind is worth more than the fortune of youth” are some prime examples. B- Proverbs that mainly depict the disadvantages of old age and pertinent physical conditions. These proverbs are actually the flip side of youth: “Old age is adorned with one thousand and one causes (illnesses).”, “Buy lame, buy blind, just don’t buy old” and “There is no pleasure in being an old king” are some examples that embolden the value of youth and youthful energy, as the past life of the elderly. Respecting elders, revering the elderly, parents and even those who apparently seem a bit older than us is considered a must and violation of this unsaid agreement could cause social and cultural downfall in the eyes of the public. “War with one’s father is humiliation and bad omen”, “Children can be found, but parents never” and “Respecting mothers is better than going to Haj” are some of the proverbs that show the value of respect for parents and elders above anything and anyone.  Even Islamic sayings and teachings which are deeply intertwined with Iranian culture, regard respect for parents and elders as the first commandment after worshipping God. The prophet of Islam, Mohammad (PBU), says, “Blessings lie with your elders.” And “He who is not kind to children and respectful of elders and the elderly is not one of us”. To have the blessings of one’s elders (parents and grandparents in particular) is believed to bring blessings and good omen to one’s life. Many people believe in gaining the approval of their parents, particularly mothers as an auspicious act. 

Also greeting one another and saying hello is greatly stressed in Islamic teachings, but it is mostly customary for the youth to greet the elders as a sign of respect. Usually when an elder enters a room or a gathering, it is upon the young to stand up and greet them. Their words and experiences are redeemed as pearls of wisdom. In fact, if a family conflict (such as divorce, arguments between siblings) emerges, it is expected that the white beard of the family (or the elders who are of age) can help in resolving the issue as hopefully the youth would not disregard the words and advice of their elders. 

Making Space 
House for the elderly, home to the disabled 

Founded in 1971 by the late Dr. Mohammad Reza Hakimzadeh in a small, derelict and underequipped house in southern Tehran, today the Kahrizak Charity Foundation (KCF), has thrived into a well-furnished, pristine, modern and spacious establishment where the elderly and disabled with no financial support are cared for, free of charge. What was initially a one bed, one patient room has now expanded into a 1600 bed center. The KCF, a private, non-governmental, non-profit, charitable organization, is situated in Kahrizak, in Rey County of Tehran Province. Known as the center for living, education and rehabilitation predominantly for the elderly, the KCF officially defines itself as a “place for living and not merely staying alive”, a beautiful motto to which it has strived to live up to. And its mission: To deliver “personalized and professional care” and restore the “dignity of individuals” and improve the quality of their lives as much as possible. As a matter of fact, one could say that the KCF has blossomed into a well-constructed and coordinated city within a city. The establishment is surrounded by gardens, lawns and pools which enhance the beauty of the space. An integral part of the KCF is also the Ladies Charitable Society (LCS) founded by a group of dedicated, philanthropic women who decided to co-ordinate their humanitarian efforts in pursuit of assistance those they offered to the KCF. In 1998, the LCS was recognized as NGO with special consultative status by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC). Also the Mother and Child Center, affiliated with the LCS was founded in 1990 to aid children who became orphaned after the devastating earthquake in Roodbar, Gilan. 

1- Although, 60 plus individuals are almost universally known as seniors, the National Health Committee for seniors in Iran has declared 70 years as the age for senior citizens. 
2- As of 2011, the overall life expectancy for Iranian citizens is 71.14 years, with a male life expectancy of 69.65 years and a female life expectancy of 72.72 years.
3- Iran has a population of over 5 million elderly citizens which makes about 7.3 percent of the country’s total population. 51.8 percent of the senior population are males and 48.2 percent are females. Interestingly more than 88 percent of senior males and 51 percent of senior females are married. 
4- It is predicted that Iran will have an estimated senior population of 26,393,000 individuals by 2050 which would make about 26 percent of the total population.
5- As of 2011, more than 16,853 individuals aged 100 years or more are living in Iran. 
6- Gilan Province in north Iran ranks first in the country’s senior population.
7- In Iran, elderly relatives are usually kept at home, not placed in a nursing home. It is still a kind of social stigma to put one’s parents in a nursing home if an immediate family member is alive. 
8- Although there are professional geriatricians in Iran, one could say that Geriatrics is a relatively new field of medicine and practice in the country as senior citizens are in the habit of referring to general practitioners.
9- There is also a growing trend of marriage among senior citizens. Previously eyed as a not-so-acceptable act by the public, more and more people are becoming open to marriage among seniors.

Bizarre Buzz!
World’s oldest man in Iran 

Born in 1893, Mohammad Tayeb Khalili Shahmirzadi is Iran’s and the world’s oldest man alive. The 118 years old who was in good health and shape until some time ago is presently admitted to a hospital due to physical ailments pertinent to old age. Prior to this, all his acquaintances never recall him taking any medicine or going anywhere by car. Speaking to reporters, his 40 years old granddaughter said that her grandfather always ate simple food in less quantity and if he fell ill, he would fast for 3 days in order to clear and cleanse his body from the disease. Although his house was distanced from his workplace, he would always make an effort to go by walking and every week he would travel on foot to the Shah Abdol Azim Shrine or the Friday Prayer venue. Shahmirzadi who has been schooled up to the 8th grade (junior high school) has taught reading and writing to many of his friends. His granddaughter believes his dedication to prayer and reading books as the secret to his long life. 

... Payvand News - 11/20/11 ... --

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