Saturday, January 31, 2004


The earthquake in Bam has left me (and many others) face-to-face with the unpredictable God of the Old Testament. This is a God who swallows whole cities in punishment for crimes against him -- a God who punishes a man who has committed no crimes against him. Job, Jonah, Lot, and his wife: all of those stories make sense to me now.

Here is part of a correspondence between me and a friend:

From my friend:

I am so immensely relieved that you and K are okay -- I knew you were traveling around in Iran and wasn't sure until I got back to my computer yesterday and could check your blog to make sure that you were both okay. I am horrified at what has happened, and can only imagine how it has felt like for you both to be so close to such an enormous disaster. My thoughts have been and continue to be with you and with the people of Iran.

Have you read the novel _White Teeth_? It's a great novel. There is a character in it from Bangladesh, living with her husband and family in London, and at one point she thinks to herself that her central question about where one lives in the world is "do you ever, even occasionally, have even the slightest fear that the earth might swallow you, or that you might be suddenly buried under mud, lava, or water," and she makes a central division between those for whom the answer is "yes," and those for whom it is "no." I am not doing the passage justice, but it is an interesting division of the globe not into first and third worlds, or colonizer and colonized, but in terms of the stability of the land itself, although of course this too is a rapidly shifting situation.

From me:
About Bam, all I can say is that the whole frigging old testament suddenly made perfect sense to me. There is no doubt in my mind why the three major monotheistic religions emerged from this weird part of the world. Islam and Judaism make more sense to me now. Job isn't just a tale, it's the way this part of the world works: you survive what your family and property does not and eventually start all over again. Sodom and Gomorrah: obviously true. (Maybe not the god part, but certainly the destruction of the city.) This is the way this part of the world works. And that is why our God is not benevolent. He's a bit of a maniac. I get it now. It makes sense.

Another correspondence:

--- Kaveh wrote:

It is very hard to view the pictures from the Bam earthquake. I am one of those Engineers you mentioned. I don't live in California, but close enough. I have worked in Iran, and believe me there are many ways to improve the structural safety of buildings in Iran.

I am saddened every time I visit Iran and see the same construction methods used for generations. Even if we engineers develop an economical construction method in tune with the native materials, Iran still needs regulatory agencies and enforcement to implement it. I am sure it will happen someday.

Kaveh A. PE

P.S. In US it happened thru the insurance companies lobby.

From me:

There are things I love about the lack of over-regulation (of some things) in Iran. For instance, I like getting on a bus when the driver's family is riding along and helping him out. (Never happen in the US) I like seeing fathers working with their sons (in a way that does not smack of child labor). I like the cheap taxis. (Okay so the cars are about to fall apart, but I can afford them.) I hate the fact that my stove is not made of tempered steel and that every bldg I go into scares me. I am constantly asking people about earthquakes and how well their bldgs would stand up. They reassure me, but I am sure they would collapse.

It makes me realize that there is something to be said for lawsuits, consumer protection, and insurance companies when I know how much safer our products are in the us and europe.

Thanks for the letter,


From Kaveh:

We always pay a price for the gains we make. The West has more control of their destiny and the East is a romantic place where control is irrelevant. As Rumi says" If you want to be in love let away of control".

You may print my two cents in your Blog.


Obviously, this is what you want to read if you want to follow the political crisis in Iran:- Iranian Truth -.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Hat dramas and other television programs
Obviously, you are not reading this for hard-hitting political news. If you are, you are in for a disappointment. Instead, I'll write about something really important: Iranian television, which seems to consist of football, soap operas, serials, comedies, hat drama, mullahs, cartoons, news, news, and news, a couple of films here and there, and Palestinians.

Despite what you might expect from reading the news or seeing photos of Tehran's rooftops, it seems that most Iranians (certainly most of the Iranians we know) do not have satellite tv. Even those who do seem to spend most of their time watching Iranian community television out of LA and homegrown Iranian tv. And Iranian tv is chock-filled with what I have come to think of as "hat dramas." Men in fezes, turbans, and black pointy hats star in historical dramas from Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Women wear elaborate multi-colored headdresses with jewelry and other elaborations (even to bed), scarves, and hoods in those same dramas. Everybody wears hats.

What I find absolutely amazing are the ads for joining Sepa (the revolutionary guards). The first ad I saw started with staged footage of soldiers running by explosions, followed by documentary footage of a young man actually getting hit by mortar fire. His leg twitched uncontrollably as he swooned into the arms of a fellow soldier.

Layered over this scene was a bearded soldier praying.

I kept thinking: you mean getting hit by mortar fire inspires one to join the revolutionary guard?

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

No connection
Almost one week with no connection to the internet… Who knows what has happened? I have been traveling: planes, buses, and automobiles…

I spent some time in the house of some religious friends of ours. There were many women and girls in the house. One of the girls was shocked by my lack of knowledge of Islam. Her father gave me an English Koran to read. There was one chapter (surah) that I read that was all about how Muslims should not be friends with Jews and Christians. By the end of that surah (is it 5?), I was extremely depressed. I felt that my friends must be uncomfortable to be my friends. This, despite the fact that I know that one of Mohammed's closest friends was Jewish. I did not get a chance to ask them how they felt.

I felt so comfortable with this family. The women and girls were not what I expected. This is my prejudice, of course: I expect traditionally religious women of all stripes to be meek and boring. I cannot remember ever meeting a traditionally religious woman who was meek and boring, but they must exist. They were neither: they were fun, smart, and at ease with themselves and with me. The funny thing was, that as the only non-family member in the house, I was the one wearing the headscarf, while the other women dressed as they pleased.

During the past week, in many different cities, with many different people, I can tell you that there was one topic that was notably absent from conversation: the upcoming elections. Taxi drivers did not discuss it. Friends did not discuss it. Family did not discuss it. No one said a word.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Iranian Council Bars Thousands From Vote: "The Iranian Student News Agency reported that governors general around the country had said in a letter to President Khatami that they would resign if the disqualification of candidates was not reversed. 'Clearly if there are no results within a week, governor generals see no reason to continue their jobs in conditions in which they cannot provide free elections, which is one of the fundamental rights of citizens,' the news agency quoted them as saying."

Saturday, January 10, 2004


I talked to a couple of people who recently returned from Karbala and heard the stories of several more second-hand. Whew! What a change from the summer! The Iranians I spoke with did not interact with any Americans (they are all walled in now and away from people). They all agreed that Karbala had become filthy. "You know the river by our house that is filled with garbage?" K's sister asked. "Well our neighbor who just got back from Karbala said that Karbala is worse."


"That's what she said. She said that they went into a restaurant to eat, but that it was filthy so they left. The whole week they just ate bread, cucumbers, and cheese that they prepared themselves."

A man I talked to told me that he saw a whole wall of garbage. "I had to wonder what it meant… a fence of garbage? It was like a message of some sort. Like the people there just don't care about anything."
What a depressing difference from last summer when people talked about how friendly the Americans were and how clean the city was.

The Domestic Flight

I took my first domestic flight. First to get into the airport, you go directly through a security checkpoint. Men go in one direction and women in another. I didn't quite realize this and had to be gently guided to the women's door. It is much easier for women to get into the airport, so this worked to my advantage. The men I was traveling with spent about 5 minutes more than I did just getting into the front door.

The airport was absolutely filled with people running to and fro and waiting for their planes. It reminded me a bit of a busy waiting room at a bus or train station. The entrance was filled with purplish plastic chairs. Most of the people waiting were men, but there were plenty of women and children waiting as well. There were many soldiers flying home or to other locations, more mullahs than I normally see in one room, and lots of government officials. (Lots of green suits and pale green shirts: which seems to be the government employee uniform.) We saw a man with a huge mane of white hair and a Karl Marx-like beard. Later this same man greeted a Santa Clausy cleric (dark beard, not white beard) who wore his headdress in the same fashion as most of the women there and was easy and relaxed with his gestures. "I bet he's American or something close," I told K. "He has style," said K. His gestures were so un-Iranian. He did not seem full of self-importance, like most of the clerics you see, or reserved, like most Iranians. Instead he had an easy, sincere smile, and frank body language. He soon was standing next to us. When I heard him speak Farsi, I said, "I was wrong. K, what kind of accent is that?"


"Yeah, but from where?"

"I don't know."

Later we discovered that the cleric in question was a French citizen who converted. "His Arabic is even better than his Farsi," we were told.

We flew Caspian Air to our destination. I immediately recalled the words of one acquaintance, "As long as Iran Air is flying to the city you want to go to, you are fine. Any other airline, and you have problems. The last time I flew on an airline other than Iran Air, the pilots were drunk because they had recently come from Russia, and I spent the entire time praying."

We got on the plane, which was unlike any plane I had ever been on before. There were tons of seats jammed into the mid-size jet. I saw that our seats were at an emergency exit. "Well thank god for that," I thought to myself. Then I looked out the window and saw that the emergency exit opened on to the engine. There was no way we were getting out of the plane if we had to use this door I realized." During the entire 55-minute flight, I stared at the instructions for the emergency slide. They were lengthy and the letters were pealing off the formica case for the slide.

" M RGENCY L DE," I read. Someone had made an effort to scratch in the missing letters of the paragraph-length instruction text that followed, but somehow I knew that that effort was not enough.

The flight was uneventful, but I swore never to get on Caspian Air again. We flew back on Iran Air in a brand new Fokker with real emergency exits. I was relieved.

We stayed in a city close to the border with Iraq. "What did people think about the announcement of Saddam's capture?" I asked.

"Iranians were very happy about it," F explained. "When we went to the bazaar, the Arab shopkeepers said that there was no way the man who was caught was Saddam Hussein. They did not believe it."

"I saw picture of Iraqis leaving Desful to go back to Iraq."

"Saddam really bothered Desfulis." It's interesting the way they use the same word for teasing or annoying for what happened to the people of Desful during the Iran-Iraq war.

Yesterday a 4-year old friend of mine (K's niece) was visiting. She earnestly began telling us about her dream ("what I saw while I was asleep"):

"I was at the hospital when they brought in the children from the earthquake. Everyone was dead. And then we were sleeping. Uncle K was sleeping here and Aunt F was sleeping like this," she curled up on the ground. "T was sleeping here, and I was sleeping between T and Uncle K. Abji [sister] was right there," she pointed to the ground, "and my mom was there. And then an earthquake came and everyone was dead but we were not dead. All of us were sleeping."

It seems we have all been dreaming about earthquakes. One morning, very early, I felt the house rumble. I was too tired to get up. "If it keeps shaking, I will get up," I said to my sleeping self. Of course, it was just one of the many trains that shake K's mother's house several times a night. When I heard the whistle I resumed my sleeping.

This made me think of my friend who was in Tehran during the war with Iraq. "One night, like many other nights, the air raid sirens went off. I was so tired that I could not wake up. My mother-in-law came into my room and started shaking me to wake up. 'I can't get up,' I told her. 'Go yourself.' She left me there, sleeping. The whole family went to the shelter, but I could not get myself to move. It was a good thing that no bombs hit nearby."

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

K's sister and I were out walking, combing bookstores for novels in English. Here is the list of what we found:

The White Buffalo
A book-length horoscope for Capricorns circa 1978
A Sidney Sheldon novel (Something about a mirror)
A poorly translated Iranian novel (I decided not to buy it when saw good bye spelled "good-buy")
Tess D'Ubervilles
Hard Times (which I bought)
Robinson Crusoe
The Scarlet Letter

On the street we ran into a woman who had just returned form Kish (Iran's shopping mecca on the Persian Gulf). She told us that she saw the tents the Japanese donated for earthquake relief in Bam for sale in Kish.

As we walked away, I told F that I did not believe her. F insisted that it was possible. "People donate things, but nothing is arriving."

"K and I saw huge trains heading for Kerman on the way here," I told her.

"Nothing is getting there."

Rafsanjani's driver wears gold shoes

We got in a taxi with a man who claimed to have been Rafsanjani's driver. "I was Rafsanjani's driver for eleven years until he caught me smoking opium and fired me," he told us.

It was as though we had gotten into a cab with Brer Rabbit or some other mythical storyteller. He started our ride with a long, and according to my two traveling companions: false, story of his recent trip to Bam. "In Tehran, they have drilled holes into the ground to release the pressure on the faults," he told us. "That way we won't have as big an earthquake here."

The guy went on and on. And we sat and sat. The traffic was terrible. I wanted to get out and walk, but I thought that K and his nephew were enjoying the conversation with the driver. I did not understand enough of it to judge what was real and what was not. The only thing I knew for sure was that there was no way that holes drilled into the earth were going to help in the case of an earthquake.

On our way home, we had a sane driver. K and A told him about our earlier ride, and the driver said: "Rafsanjani's driver wears gold shoes. He doesn't drive a broken-down taxi cab."

More drivers

It snowed and snowed and snowed here in Tehran. K and I decided to go to the mountains, see the snow, and fall on our asses for several hours.

People everywhere were engaged in snowball fights. A stray snowball hit me on the shoulder. When we arrived at the mountain, there were thousands of other Iranians there as well. Our driver was a former fighter pilot who now teaches at the university. He insisted on speaking a broad and friendly English to the two of us. K finally convinced him that he was a small-town Iranian boy himself.

"I trained in America," the driver told us.


(When I told my father this story he thought that the guy probably trained at Rantoul.)

"No. I flew F14s, F10s."

(Maybe he thought that "Texas" was a kind of plane the way I pronounced it.)

"Now I drive taxis and teach at the university."

There must be an agency that only employs former pilots. I've had so many drivers who have told me that they used to be pilots. They have all been the right age, and they have all spoken English.)

"America has lifted the sanctions," he told us.

"Did you hear that, T?"

"I don't believe it," I told K. "If they have been lifted, they have not been 100% lifted."

On days when I do not connect to the internet or get an English newspaper, my news comes from taxi drivers. That's how K and I found out that Saddam Hussein had been captured months before he was actually captured. You can imagine that I do not always trust my sources.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

A couple of days we were visiting K's mother and sisters. "The radio is reporting that 100,000 people might be dead in the region," K told me.

"I was shaking for a whole day," his sister told me. "I could not sleep for two nights. It is just so bad."

"Now people are saying that it was God's way of punishing drug addicts," his sister said. I'm sure that is a great comfort to people who lost their entire families.

"That's crazy," I said. "I get so mad when people say things like that. If God wanted to punish drug addicts, why would he just strike them down? What kind of a God do people believe in?"

"That's exactly how I feel," K's sister said. "That's what I said when I heard this. What about the babies, the children—were they punished for drug addiction?"

Later we happened across some friends of K's family who opened a private event center. They had a huge, well-heated tent set up in the garden. "After Bam, everyone wants to be in the tent," K's friend said with a small laugh. That made good sense to me.

The thing is that everywhere you go, you see steel frame buildings being constructed with hollow bricks filling in the spaces between the frames. My first reaction when I saw this construction was that it would crumble in an earthquake. Bricks? California doesn't have bricks, and California has a lot of earthquakes. My Californian nephew was surprised and excited the first time he saw brick houses. He was about three, we were walking in my parents' neighborhood, and he turned to his mother and said, "Look blocks!"

I think an enterprising engineer could make a profit selling some kind of earthquake protective dome of some kind. I imagine some space-age, inexpensive, strong, & lightweight material that can be assembled inside a home. Families could make at least one room of their house a "safe room." Somebody please do it. Thanks.

Oh yeah. Happy New Year.