Sunday, August 31, 2003

More from Karbala

We were drinking some delicious tea with K’s sisters. “It’s from Karbala,” they told us. So were a couple of new kitchen items and some fabric they had recently acquired.

People have beer and whiskey again: from Karbala.

We all got sick recently. K’s sisters told us, “People are bringing a microbe back from Karbala.”

Everything is from Karbala.

Left-handed Iranians

Before I arrived, I read that you should never ever eat with your left hand or extend it or serve people with it. During my first week here I observed very carefully and saw that many Iranians use their left hand to eat and don’t seem to mind if you use it as well. Oh, and guess what, I have met quite a few left-handed Iranians.

The Lonely Planet Guide warned me that most people would not talk to me if I were with a man. Instead they would talk to the man. Again, this has not been the case. Most people want to talk to me. In fact, sometimes I get exhausted just from talking.


I was tired and was taking a break Thursday afternoon. I turned on the television and had this choice of shows on Iranian TV: a documentary about tornadoes (always fascinating), The Ten Commandments, a documentary about Martin Ritt, and the film about blacklisting in Hollywood, The Front. One day you have got to hear the Iranian actor who dubs Woody Allen’s voice.


Which brings me to: Films. I see most films on buses between cities. I saw a weird Indian film about a present-day hero avenging past life crimes. I saw the Iranian film, “Women’s Prison,” which is really worth seeing. I saw “Seduced by a Thief.” I saw a fairly funny Iranian comedy about a couple having a hard time getting married because of their feuding families. I saw the Iranian version of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” I saw some pretty boring young love movies. Yawn, yawn.

One thing I have noticed is that the movies on the buses are less censored than the films for sale in the stores. You can buy stolen films in many, many stores. Some were downloaded, some were filmed in movie theaters, some were copied off of dvds. What they all have in common is that they have been censored. For instance, Analyze That is missing the scene when Billy Crystal gets drunk. Women showing cleavage have big blocks floating in front of their breasts. They are all more censored than the films on the buses. Tell me, is censorship here getting worse?

Friday, August 22, 2003

The Onion? or is this for real?

MEMRI: Latest News
Question: "What do you think is the value of the gold, silver, and clothing that was stolen, and how do you calculate their value today?"

Hilmi: "If we assume that the weight of what was stolen was one ton, [its worth] doubled every 20 years, even if the annual interest is only 5%. In one ton of gold is 700 kg of pure gold – and we must remember that what was stolen was jewelry, that is, alloyed with copper. Hence, after 1,000 years, it would be worth 1,125,898,240 million tons, which equals 1,125,898 billion tons for 1,000 years. In other words, 1,125 trillion tons of gold, that is, a million multiplied by a million tons of gold. This is for one stolen ton. The stolen gold is estimated at 300 tons, and it was not stolen for 1,000 years, but for 5,758 years, by the Jewish reckoning. Therefore, the debt is very large…

"The value must be calculated precisely in accordance with the information collected, and afterward a lawsuit must be filed against all the Jews of the world, and against the Jews of Israel in particular, so they will repay the Egyptians the debt that appears in the Torah."

Question: "Is a compromise solution possible?"

Hilmi: "There may be a compromise solution. The debt can be rescheduled over 1,000 years, with the addition of the cumulative interest during that period."


[1] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt) August 9, 2003.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

What I like

I could never say anything as bad about Iran or Iranians as Iranians say about each other and their country. I guess that is why I am surprised that many Iranians think that I am only critical about Iran. (It’s too bad K has not posted in such a long time, because his posts make mine look more positive.)

Here is what I like:

I like being an American here. Everyone is so nice to me. Everyone seems to think that Americans are wonderful. One restaurant owner had to restrain himself from hugging me when he discovered that I was American. People shake my hand. They talk to me. Sometimes they tell me that they don’t like Bush, but they always tell me how much they like Americans. This is so refreshing after a couple of years of living in Europe where all I heard was how evil Americans were.

I like the fact that I can get a really good challah at a bakery in Tehran. It’s almost as good as my grandmother’s, but not quite.

I like the fact that everyone has an opinion and that they tell me what they think. I like all the complaining and grousing. I like all of the discussions. I like that people are unafraid to voice their opinions.

I like learning Persian. I enjoy speaking the language.

I like the way that Iranians are dissatisfied with their society and their government. I like that they are working to change it (slowly). One thing I always complain about in the Netherlands is that Dutch people are too satisfied. Everything seems finished there. Everything bad that happens in the Netherlands is the fault of their immigrants. In Iran (like America, I think), there is a sense that society is an ongoing project. Things are most definitely unfinished and moving forward.

I like how K’s sisters care for his mother who is ill. I like that his older brother taught his daughter to wrestle and that he calls her, “My lion.”

I like the way his family helps each other.

I like taking the bus between cities.

I like the fact that Iranians have managed to hold on to their cultural identity despite efforts to squelch it.

I love pistachios.

Friday, August 15, 2003

More on Karbala

We are back in K’s mother’s city. Since we were here last week, even more families have gone to Karbala. One more family on her block went, which brings the total to four families in a block of ten houses. K’s sister and I counted about 8 more families who have recently returned in a 4-block walk that we took this morning.

K’s sister and I were shopping for kitchen things. We were in a store when a couple came in to buy a crystal plate. “Excuse me. This is a gift for a family who just got back from Karbala, they are at our house now. Can you wrap it?” The shop owner wrapped the gift and then continued with our order. It turned out that he had also just returned from Karbala. “How was it,” I asked?

“It was great. It was so clean. The Americans were great. They really cleaned the shrine to Imam Hussein.”

“How was the road?”

“The road wasn’t so good. We walked through the mountains for 8 hours to get to Karbala.”

The people who have not gone talk about how dangerous it is to go. “The Americans are arresting people as spies,” we hear (from more than one source.) “Many people are getting killed in accidents on the road.”

“It’s all lies,” K’s brother told us. “The Iranian government does not want people to go, so they are broadcasting lies about how many people have died and how many people are being arrested. One person from Arak has died. Three people from Qom. That’s it. The government says that many more have, but that’s not true.”

He continued by telling us that his friend who went to Karbala told him that when he saw an American tank, he kissed it. The American soldiers then gave him money.

The wedding: an update

Jeff Jarvis wrote me that he posted our wedding story on his blog. It drew a lot of comments from people.

I need to add a couple of details that we discovered later. There were two reasons that the wedding party attracted so much attention from the religious police: the first, and most important, was that there was a funeral or a death anniversary of a martyr just three gardens away. That event was attended by some government bigwigs who called the religious police to complain.

The second detail was that the party was on the eve of a mourning holiday for Fatimah. When K’s brother heard the story, he said that the family was reckless to plan a party for the eve of a mourning holiday. Maybe that shows how much more relaxed Iran has become.

BTW, the wedding we were supposed to attend at the very garden where all the brouhaha was did get moved successfully. The new location ended up being close to the Shah’s summer palace, right across the street from a police station. To enter the garden, we walked past armed guards. No one bothered us the whole evening.

Iran-Iraq war veterans

I was somewhere I never thought I would be: in a room filled with Iran-Iraq war veterans. Well, three. All three had been Basigi (revolutionary guard) during the war. Maybe they still were. I don’t know. All three served during the war, and all three lost at least one brother. Two lost more than one. The third, I don’t know. Maybe more than one of his brothers was killed as well.

One of the men was in his mid-40s (no surprise there, right?). The other two were young. They were in their early 30s. “Everything seems easy to me now,” the 32-year old veteran told us. I will call him Ali for the purposes of the blog. “Since the war, everything is easy.” He enlisted when he was 13. “I remember when we were bombed. We had nowhere to go.”

“I remember too,” said Katayoon. “During the war, I visited my family in Kermenshah. Every night, bombs fell. We did not have anywhere to go. We just went out on the terrace and watched and hoped they did not fall on us. My mother told me that it used to be worse.”

Ali told us some stories about battles against the Iraqis. He told us about being hungry, cold, and thirsty. He told me to ask any question I wanted to. What I really wanted to know was what he thought about 13-year olds joining the military. I could not ask very well. I could not seem to formulate my question in either Persian or English. What he understood from me was “Do you think 13-year olds would go to war again?” His answer was, “Of course they will go. War will make them men. If there is a war they will go. Imam Khomeini spoke with the voice of God, and when he died that voice was passed onto Khameini. Of course, he is not an imam.” What I really wanted to know was what he really thought about 13 year-olds going to war. I wanted to ask a subtle and complex question. I wanted to get a more nuanced answer than I got. K thought that he could not answer me honestly in that room. “He had to feed you that line. Not that he is not a believer, just that he had to say what he said.”

While Ali was talking, I wondered how he survived the war. He was 13 when he went in. So many young boys were killed. How did he make it through? By 16, Ali was commanding a division. “The war was good for us. It turned us into men,” he told us. “It made us good managers.”

For the record, Ali is one of the smartest, most respectful men I have met in Iran. He speaks to women as equals: not just foreign women, like me, but Iranian women as well. He appreciates honesty and disagreement. I enjoy his company.

Saturday, August 09, 2003


“I thought the banners meant that we were having another revolution,” K said when he saw all of the white banners hanging from houses. “During the revolution, there were white banners everywhere.”

When you leave Tehran and go south and west, you see white banners and strings of colored lights everywhere. Neighbors, friends, and family paint the banners to welcome back people who are now making pilgrimages to Karbala. On K’s mother’s street there are at least two families who have recently returned from a pilgrimage to Karbala. Everyone I know knows someone who has gone or someone who is going. “Why these people would go now when it is so dangerous is something I don’t understand,” a friend of ours tells me. “But my friend is going. I told him that it is dangerous. I told him that many people are being arrested as spies. Maybe they really are spies, I don’t know. But if they are arrested, no one can help them.” No one can help, because officially Iran still has a closed border with Iraq. The American military is supposed to keep the border closed as well, but from what we hear, they are welcoming the pilgrims. In fact, I have seen several young men wearing US military fatigues. I wonder if they are souvenirs.

“My grocer told me that he is sacrificing a lamb in honor of George Bush. ‘We love Bush,’ he told me,” an American woman tells me. “Sometimes he even calls him ‘W.’” The pilgrims believe that the American military has opened a door for them, and that door is Karbala. Karbala is one of three important pilgrimage sites for Shi’ites. Someone else can tell you why. For a long time now (exactly how long, I am not sure), Saddam has prevented Iranians from making pilgrimages to Karbala.

The returning pilgrims say that the American soldiers have pills that make water cold. (Is that true? At first I thought, no way. But now I have heard it from several sources. None of whom, by the way, believe the story.) They say that the American military is saying; “Khomeini good! We love Iranians.” Could they possibly be saying “Khomeini good?” Maybe they mean Hossein Khomeini (see below…)

Iranians love Americans…

…And they will continue to lover Americans if we can avoid acting on their suggestion that we “give them their freedom.”

Ken Wheaton (As I Please) sent me this quote from the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hossein Khomeini:

"In Iran, the people really need freedom and freedom must come about. Freedom is more important than bread. But if there's no way for freedom in Iran other than American intervention, I think the people would accept that. I would accept it, too, because it's in accord with my faith."

He wanted to know if I was hearing similar things. What can I say, every day I hear similar things. (K hears this even more than I do since of course his Persian is better.) Iranians also say that they do not want a revolution. “If the regime would just leave us alone, they could stay,” I hear. I also hear that the nation is ready to go to war against any invader. “If we have to, we will fight,” I hear. “The people are ready.”

The more I stay here, and the more I hear, the more I wonder what Iranians mean by freedom. What is it that they actually want? Our friend’s brother complained that when the democracy demonstrators asked people to support them by driving nearby and honking their horns, only a few cars showed up. “All you had to do was drive your car there and honk. If the police asked you why you were there, and why you were honking, you could just say that you were stuck in traffic.”

People tell me they are afraid of the regime. Trust me, I know that this regime has done terrible things, but this is not a nation of timid people afraid to speak their minds. The Iranians I meet seem more afraid to tell their host that they are thirsty than to complain about the regime. What does this all mean? I don't know. Sorry.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

The Wedding

K and I are invited to a wedding. We don’t know the bride or groom. We only know a few relatives.

A few nights ago, our good friend who got us invited to the wedding, went to the pre-wedding party, a kind of rehearsal dinner for family only, in a private garden outside of Tehran far from other people. “You should have seen all of the women, they were so chic. I looked like a slob next to them.” There were tables of food, a good band, and about 250 “just family” there.

About 2 hours into the party, my friend heard shouts of “Scarves! Manteaus! The religious police are here!” The women ran for their manteaus. The band disappeared. The men went to the door to bribe the two religious police at the door. After about five minutes, they were successful and the two bearded guards of Islam left.

45 minutes later, however, the religious police were back. This time it was a different group with about 20 18-year old representatives of the religious police charging in with guns and rifles ready. These guys did not want to be bribed; they wanted to make arrests. The shouts were more panicked this time: “Run! Run!” The women crowded into a bathroom together. The men came in with their manteaus and scarves. “I saw the fear on their faces,” my friend said. “It was terrible. The worst thing was that I saw that people did not help each other. They only thought for themselves.” The women who were working at the party were dressed traditionally in black manteaus and black hooded scarves. They were in the bathroom changing into western clothes. “It would have been worse for them to be caught working at the party. That’s why they were changing.”

Meanwhile the religious police were on their radios calling for buses to come and pick up all of the women and all of the men at the party. “We can’t get buses at this time of night,” the response came from their command center. Other police were inside the party smelling the glasses and checking for alcohol. “Thank god we didn’t have any,” my friend said. Still another set of bearded 18-year-olds was terrifying the groom, who was not Iranian. My friend’s brother was helping the groom by translating for him. “My brother threw off his coat and tie and went to the groom’s side. He told the religious police that the groom had a heart condition and that if they continued to frighten him that he might have a heart attack. He told them that then his blood would be on their hands.” Apparently that line worked, and they stopped harassing the groom. Some of the men finally succeeded in bribing the police, but not before the father of the bride and the owner of the garden were arrested.

“The young women weren’t scared,” my friend said. “They were saying that they had been arrested several times recently and that it wasn’t so bad. They told us that you could not show any fear. You have to stand your ground. The minute you show fear, they know they have you. The older women, on the other hand, were scared. They did not want to be arrested again. It’s the humiliation that scared them. They weren’t afraid of being hurt, just of going through the whole process of being humiliated.”

The rest of the party was quiet. The food went untouched. The women remained in their hijabs. Now the parents of the bride have to find a new location for the party since they are not allowed to have it in the private garden anymore. Plus they have to find guards (preferably from the religious police) for the party and notify 500 guests and all of the staff and caterers of the new location.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

August 2, 2003

K tells me that I don’t offer enough editorial opinion in my blog. I tell him that I am still overwhelmed by everything I am experiencing and that all I can do is report. His job is to editorialize, but he is too busy to write. That said, I do want to offer an opinion now, and I want people – especially women – to respond and help me understand what I am experiencing.

First an introduction, I am reading a book called A Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. (My friends have been trying to get me to read this for years, so they will be pleased that I am finally reading it.) The book is a discussion of the way that certain patterns make the world work. Here is a useful quote from the book:

In short, a pattern lives when it allows its own internal forces to resolve themselves.

And a pattern dies when it fails to provide a framework in which the forces can resolve themselves, so that instead, the action of the forces, unresolved, works to destroy the pattern.

Alexander convincingly writes that one failed pattern in a form can work to corrupt other patterns. This has become intriguing for me in relationship to Iran because so much of the way that the society works has to be enforced by outside forces. Sometimes those outside forces are made up of one or two people. Sometimes they are made up of groups of people. Sometimes they seem to be based mainly on habit or fear. Because of this enforcement, people have become accustomed to not revealing themselves. This, I think, is not new for Iranians. I have read that this pattern has ancient roots. The Okay now for my comment…

I am beginning to feel that women themselves are responsible for much of the way that society in Iran works. I see this pattern time and time again: women, mothers, aunts, everyone, raise their daughters to deny their true self. From the time they are very young, the daughters are looking after other people. They are serving guests, serving their fathers, serving their brothers, serving their mothers. They are encouraged to be cute and do cute things. They are told not to complain or say that they are hungry or ask for anything. They are told to obey. Later, when they are adults, Iranians, both men and women, complain that Iranian women are manipulative. How could they be anything else but? Because they cannot honestly ask for things, they learn to manipulate situations to get what they need or want.

When they are adults, women complain about the amount of work they have to. And believe me, they do a lot of work. Caring for a family is a lot of work. Everyone knows that. Sometimes, however, I wonder if it needs to be as much work as the women do. If a man or boy tries to help they are told not to. If I get up and look around for one second, all of the women in the room ask me if I need something. If a man needs something, it is the same.

Men who help out are teased. K is made fun of by both men and women for helping out around the house. Young women complain that this teasing keeps men from helping.

When I talk to a 27-year-old male friend about this, he tells me that he has learned not to do anything for himself around the house. “If I try to do anything, the women stop me. They say they don’t want my help, but I know they do. They just won’t let me help. Now I am lazy.” (His mother would argue that he was born lazy, and she might be right. )

He adds, “I ask my young women friends all of the time why they accept this situation. They have the power to change it, but they don’t. They all tell me that they are happy this way. I think they just have never experienced anything else.”

It is much more difficult for me to talk to women than to men. The women are too concerned about my needs to relax around me. It takes a long time for a woman to relax around me and not care if I am thirsty or hungry or tired or comfortable. I don’t have that much time with most women. Men are so used to being taken care of, that they engage me in conversation pretty quickly. They are polite. They offer me food and drink, mind you. But they are not so attentive that they overwhelm me with care.

K thinks this blog will get me in trouble. “I have told many Iranians my opinion; they agree.”

“But what about all of the women in university and all of the women entering the work force,” K asks?

“I am not saying that women aren’t powerful or professional. I am just saying that they raise their daughters very differently from their sons. I am looking at a pattern, not at individual cases. That said, I’ve heard the same story from professional women as from women who stay home. They complain that they have too much work with the family even when all of their children are grown-up with families of their own.”

K tells his brother and sister-in-law my opinion. They agree with me. “Iranians prefer boys,” they tell him.

Despite all of this, Iran still has a pretty even split of boys and girls. Girls are not dying young. They are not neglected. When you look at population figures for Iran, you see that this is not a society that disdains its girls and women. Iranians need women to take care of them. (Just kidding, but maybe that is partially true.) One thing you have to realize about Iran is that this is not a static society. It is changing and changing quickly. Iran is a society that is working on itself.

Just for a little comparison, I want to write about one of the last conversations I had with my great-Aunt Rose. She said that what amazed her most in her lifetime was how much men had changed (which means that women had changed at least as much). “When I was young, my husband did not do a thing in the house. He did not touch the babies or help with the children or cook or clean. Now I see my grandsons changing diapers and cooking dinner, and I know that the world is getting better.”