Tuesday, July 08, 2003

July 5, 2003


Those of you who are curious about the democracy demonstrations have come to the wrong place. Those demonstrations might as well be happening on another planet for all we know. The first city we visited, Arak, is too religious (or, should I say, Hezbollahi? That’s what K’s family would say to describe the political tone of the town) for much unrest. The second city, Ahwaz, is too wealthy. Both cities have universities that have remained open. We just arrived in Tehran and may have more information soon.

“A lot of the opposition groups in Los Angeles,” says K, “seem to think that democracy means that they will get to open casinos and liquor stores in Iran. Some of the people I talk to think it means they will be able to walk on the streets with their girlfriends.”

Democracy is a lot of work. As an American, I am constantly struck by the feeling that many of my cohorts have that the government should take care of them. I learned very young that some of the biggest whiners about American democracy don’t vote. If they do vote, they often ignore the primaries or local elections. This is my favorite line of crap about the presidential election: “We don’t have any choice. There are only 2 candidates and they are basically the same” What the fuck are they talking about? I remember a primary chock-filled with choices. Where were they when the small minority of us voters was choosing the two candidates that they don’t like? Likely they were too busy to notice the primaries. Democracy is a lot of work and a lot of compromise and it does not take care of you. You take care of it. If you don’t take care of it, somebody else will.

If you want government to take care of you, then come to Iran. This government will tell you how to dress (men and women), what religion to believe in, and what to think. (Not that Iranians are listening…) Government that cares for you turns you into a child.


(For those of you who are not interested in women’s dress, skip this.)
Now I know where the reporters live. We are in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran. It is a good 7 degrees (Celsius) cooler here than a few miles down the mountain in the south of Tehran, the air is a bit cleaner, and the grocery store has mozzarella. When we look out the window, we see a mountain and the garden of Rafsanjani’s son.

Like the reporters say, the women here are barely covering their hair. Their manteaus look great and many of them wear ankle-revealing Capri pants. The first woman I saw here had her fashionable black manteau open to reveal a skin-tight tiger print shirt.

K and I walked for hours downtown. After the all-black sea of Arak’s women, the multi-colored, fashionable women here were quite a sight. I could not stop looking. It was as if my eyes had been starved for color and now they were being fed. Orange, purple, blue, pink… I was starving.

Restrictions aside, the worst thing about wearing the manteau and headscarf is that people tell me how good I look in them.

Here comes the judge

C asks me to put on my scarf while his friend the judge is visiting. I just have to put it on my head. K does not want me to tie it.

Meanwhile, we are watching Roman Polanski’s film Bitter Moon, which features a crazy woman and a crazy man having alternative sex. “Why,” I ask, “am I wearing a headscarf while we’re watching this movie?” Everyone laughs, but no one can explain.

C adds that I also wanted to know why men could see me without my manteau when we went swimming in the river, but in the city it was required. (More about swimming in your clothes later...) Again, no one could explain.

Eventually our conversation turns to politics. “Are Iranians aware of the concern the rest of the world has about its nuclear capabilities?” (wmd info)

“No. But neither were the Russian people under the Soviet Union.” (We all know what happened to the Soviet Union…)

K thinks nuclear weapons will protect Iran. “I am against this government, but I think they are right to get nuclear weapons. Israel has them, Pakistan and India do too.” I think they will make Iran less safe. The judge agrees.

“I am with this government,” he says, “but I think they are wrong. Israel has a different geopolitical situation. Pakistan and India are enemies. Iran has no enemies. America is not our enemy. We make them our enemy. I think the Iranian leaders lack wisdom when it comes to dealing with America. America is like a strong and powerful young man. You tell him you are his friend, and he will do anything for you. You tell him you are his enemy, and he will attack.” (Our judge friend might be interested in an article published in Al-Quds Al-Arabi and translated by Memri, which discusses the root of bad leadership decisions in the middle-east.

"[The first anomaly] is the backwardness in the decision-making process. [The second] is the inability to rationally read the balance of powers before entering any given struggle. [The third is] the deluded belief that divine intervention in history will produce results contrary to the laws of the balance of powers. Finally, [the fourth anomaly] is the suicidal madness of the Jihad [war] and of sacrifice on the altar of faith as a magical religious solution to the deficiency in the balance of power."

Later in our conversation the judge adds, “You know what makes a country secure? A good economy and happy people. Nuclear weapons and a strong army do not make a country safe.”

When we wake up the next morning K says, “I don’t want the mullahs to have nuclear weapons. You guys are right.”

Worried Dad

“Is mom as worried about me as you are,” I ask my father?

“No. She’s pretty cool with the whole thing.”

“What are you worried about?”

“Everything. Like what happens when people find out you are American?”

“Everybody here is so nice to me. When they find out I am an American they are even nicer. Iranians love Americans. They just don’t like Bush.”

“Then we have something in common,” my father laughs.

Later that evening when our visitor, the judge, arrives, I tell them this story. “Americans have no better friend in the Middle East than the Iranians,” the judge says. (This is the conversation that led me to ask about nuclear weapons.) He adds that there are plenty of Iranians who like Bush. I just have not met them yet.

The Bus

We took the bus to Tehran. Everyone had assigned seats, but there were no numbers on the seats. Three men worked on the bus throughout the trip: the driver, the guy who talked to the authorities at each toll stop, and the guy who handed out soft drinks and snacks. Our snack consisted of two cakes, two pieces of candy, and one chocolate covered cookie. Iranians love their sugar.

We saw a movie that seemed to fit the pattern of the typical domestic Iranian film: young couple gets married, there is some tragedy, a lot of arguing, some craziness, a couple of laughs, and then they work things out. I can see this pattern clearly from the trailers we see for other films. The films exported from Iran also fit a pattern: people in a village struggling or people from a village struggling. (Okay, this is not 100% true. It certainly isn’t true of my favorite filmmaker: Kiarostami.)

A message panel at the front of the bus displayed the time, inside temperature, and outside temperature. I know how hot it was every minute of the trip from Arak to Tehran. “Look K, it’s hotter inside than it ever gets in Holland.” And we felt comfortable.

Iranians complain to the UN

R says, “We have to complain to the UN about America. America has closed the border with Iraq and that has made it much harder for us to get good whiskey.”

“Don’t bother with the UN,” I say. “We Americans don’t pay any attention to the UN anyway. I’ll write to my congressman for you.”

I’ve had a lot of whiskey here. The best is at the home of the most devout member of K’s family. Before I go on, you have to understand that he has this whiskey for guests; he does not drink it himself. In his case, hospitality trumps devotion.

Church lady

How many of you have seen The Saturday Night Live skit: Church Lady? If you have, you will be happy to know that Church Lady is alive and well and appearing daily on Iranian television. Only this show features Mosque Man and his sidekick, Holy Woman. They have a call-in talk show with the exact same set (no kidding) that SNL used for Church Lady. Today they were discussing what makes a woman good or bad. I could not understand enough to tell you what makes a woman good or bad, but I gather that neighbors, husbands, clean houses, and devotion to the Koran all featured in the discussion.

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