October 12, 2005
Stargazing Bug Seizes the Imagination in Iran
TEHRAN -- People in the southern Iranian town of Saadat Shahr make sure not to miss Friday prayers.
How else will they get the imam's comprehensive update on which stars, nebulae and meteor showers will burn brightest in the following week's night sky?
Saadat Shahr, 390 miles south of Tehran, has gone stargazing-crazy, reflecting a national passion that has seen new members flocking to astronomy clubs across the Islamic Republic to devour information about what lies above.
Women in Saadat Shahr have even sold their jewelry to help science teacher Asghar Kabiri realize his dream of building an observatory.
"School janitors and teachers all paid a small share of their salaries to help build the observatory. Now it has become the pride of the town," Kabiri told Reuters by telephone.
"Astronomy is a divine science and is encouraged in Islam. So in a small, traditional community like Saadat Shahr, people contribute to our activities just as they would chip in to build a mosque," he added.
The Koran often cites natural and celestial phenomena as proofs for the existence of God. The imam in Saadat Shahr has tuned into the local obsession and uses the weekly prayers to talk about what's coming up in the skies during the days ahead.
"The townspeople even allow their daughters to stay out at night if they know they are going stargazing," Kabiri said.
In rural Iran, many people still respect the strict Islamic code which encourages segregation of the sexes and obliges women to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting dresses.
There is further proof of the extraordinary importance of stargazing in Saadat Shahr: if there is some important astronomy to be done, Kabiri just gets the authorities to cut the town's electricity -- all the better to see the skies.
ESCAPE TO THE STARS
Babak Tafreshi, editor of the Nojum astronomy magazine, has noticed subscriptions increasing and amateur clubs attracting more members. At the time of eclipses and shuttle launches, Nojum will run off 10,000 copies.
Tafreshi's bedtime television show has the highest viewer figures on Iran's Channel Four and he is sometimes approached by fans on the streets of Tehran.
"They say they like the show because it is not connected with any problems in society, politics or religion," he said.
Nojum was deluged with telephone calls last year when panicky Tehranis, observing the peculiar position of Venus, feared a flying saucer was prowling overhead.
U.S. amateur astronomer Mike Simmons, a regular visitor to Iran, said astronomy had a strong historical resonance for Iranians.
"They meet at historical sites. Iranians feel strongly connected to their past and I have noticed they sense that connection ... through astronomy," he said.
Tafreshi said there was a profound sense of this continuity among amateurs who meet at the observatory in northeastern Nishapur, home to the medieval poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam.
But despite this fascination with the past, most of Iran's astronomers are the faces of the future: they have an average age of 19 and are 60 percent female, Tafreshi said, adding that the mingling of young men and women on nocturnal outings was one of the few things that could get astronomy clubs into trouble.
"In the United States most astronomers are middle-aged and very few are women," Simmons said.
GIRLS' NIGHT OUT
Some 30 of Iran's enthusiastic young female astronomers gathered in the silver dome of the Zafaranieh Observatory in northern Tehran to identify lunar craters.
Fariba Yazdani, director of the observatory, said each week up to 280 young people would voluntarily come to observatory classes, both theoretical and practical.
"They tend to be very gifted children," she said. "The ones for whom books are not enough, the ones who need a glimpse of the infinite."
The girls noisily jostled for a look through the telescope. Much of their banter hinged on the double meaning of the Persian word "moon," which also poetically refers to a beautiful girl.
"I cannot see a thing. Where is the moon?" said one girl, squinting through the telescope.
"I think you will find she is stood right here," said another haughtily, unleashing a wave of titters.
Arezu Khani, 17, said she was addicted.
"It is about more than just observing. The more you learn about the theory just makes you even more curious."
(Additional reporting by Alireza Ronaghi)