Iran, a Middle Eastern country south of the Caspian Sea and north of the Persian Gulf, is three times the size of Arizona. It shares borders with Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Physiographically, Iran lies within the Alpine-Himalayan mountain system and is composed of a vast central plateau rimmed by mountain ranges and limited lowland regions. Iran is subject to numerous and often severe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The country is divided into 30 provinces.
Iran's central position has made it a crossroads of migration; the population of 68,017,860 (according to the 2005 estimate) is not homogeneous, although it has a Persian core that includes over half of the people. Azerbaijanis constitute almost a quarter of the population. Other ethnic groups include Gilaki and Mazandarani – 8%, Kurd – 7%, Arab – 3%, Lur – 2%, Baloch – 2%, Turkmen – 2%, other – 1%. Iran has a large rural population, found mainly in agrarian villages.
Iran has a long and rich history. Islam entered the country in the 7th century A.D. and is now the official religion; about 90% of Iranians are Muslims of the Shiite sect. The remainder, mostly Kurds and Arabs, are Sunnis. Other religions – Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i – constitute 2%. The principal language of the country is Persian (Farsi), which is written in Arabic characters. Other languages are Turkic dialects, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and Arabic. Among the educated classes, English and French are spoken. The literacy rate is 79%, according to the 2003 estimate. Iran has been an Islamic theocracy since the Pahlavi monarchy regime was overthrown on February 11, 1979.
Agriculture contributes just over 20% to the gross national product. The most important crops include wheat, rice, other grains, sugar beets, cotton, fruits, nuts, corn, etc.; livestock is raised. There is a variety of natural resources found in Iran. The petroleum industry is Iran's economic mainstay. Textiles are the second most significant industrial product.
Business operations are traditionally family affairs in Iran; often large government loans for business ventures have been obtained simply because the owners were recognized as members of families with good Islamic and revolutionary credentials (The Islamic Revolution occurred in 1979). Political activities also follow family lines. Successful members are expected to assist less successful ones to get their start. A person without family ties has little status in the society at large.
The head of the household - the father and the husband - expects obedience and respect from others in the family. In return, he is obligated to support them and to satisfy their spiritual, social, and material needs. In practice, he is more a strict disciplinarian. He also may be a focus of love and affection, and family members may feel a strong sense of duty toward him. Thus, in the film
Children of Heaven
and other Iranian films (
The White Balloon, The Color of Paradise
) we probably observe a typical poor Iranian family, where the father is the central authoritarian figure who is in charge of the function of his family.
Children of Heaven
Directed by Majid Majidi; Runtime 88 min.; In Persian, with English subtitles
Zahra's shoes are gone; her older brother Ali lost them. They are poor, there are no shoes for Zahra until they come up with an idea: they will share one pair of shoes, Ali's, and keep it a secret from their parents. With difficulties they manage to carry out this plan for some time. When Ali participates in a race, there's a chance for them to obtain new sneakers. Ironically, Ali's victory does not bring the desired result.
The simple plot does not transmit the sense of an exceedingly tense atmosphere these two children find one day, after the shoes are gone. Their parents are preoccupied with various daily difficulties, such as paying rent or finding a job that brings a little bit more money to buy medicine for the sick mother. So, Ali and Zahra under any conditions cannot reveal the regrettable incident concerning Zahra's shoes. One night, when the whole family is together and the parents are discussing their plans for everyday survival, the viewer becomes a witness of the children's unspoken code of behavior not to impose more problems on their hard-working parents. Zahra agrees to tolerate the lack of shoes and runs as fast as she can every day after school for her brother to be on time for his classes. Their efforts are almost in vain, because Ali keeps coming late at school. One should see with what self-control and restraint he endures requests of the school headmaster about the reasons for his tardiness. Ali simply can't explain the whole situation with the shoes, because if he does the parents would surely be involved and very dissatisfied with this situation. At the age of nine he realizes that as a son he should be a support in the family, and not a source of troubles. Meanwhile he cares about his younger sister silently suffering the loss, and tries to please her with little but sincere signs of attention. This way he demonstrates his gratitude to Zahra for her courageous solidarity.
We also observe how incredibly exhausting it is for a poor Iranian man to provide for his family. Ali's father takes Ali on the search for work gardening in the city. We can't help admiring with what readiness and compassion Ali helps the father in this endeavor. He is eager to be useful to the family, and when the father is riding a bike on the way home, excitedly discussing future purchases, Ali timidly asks only to buy a new pair of shoes for his sister. What a noble heart he has!
Of course, when Ali finds out about the prizes for winning in a town school race, he can't miss the chance. With tears he persuades the physical education teacher to include him in the limited number of participants. He has to win the third place, because that award is what he and Zahra need most of all in their life now – a pair of sneakers. He cannot fail Zahra, because she trusts him unconditionally. The scene of the race is a culminating moment of the film. When it becomes especially unbearable to run, Ali hears the reproaching words of Zahra in his head and forces himself to continue the painful competition. To the enormous joy of his teacher, and to his and Zahra's unspeakable disappointment, Ali wins the first prize. But, unfortunately, the victory does not bring the desired pair of sneakers.
I view this outstanding film as a hymn to the responsibility a nine-year-old child feels towards his family, his sister, and his school. I would be very curious to see the reaction my students will have about the film and the main characters. With all my heart I wish they would observe such role models as Ali more often.