Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The military police

This is something that I have wanted to write about for awhile: the uniforms of the Iranian military police. They wear these outfits that look like they were designed for the Tintin cartoon strip. And the worst part of it is, they know how frigging silly they look. It’s clear that they are embarrassed by their uniforms. The worst part of the uniform is their white boots. In combination with their red hats, they become doubly silly looking. The young men slink in their uniforms. They appear as though they are trying to make themselves smaller. They look like they *know* they have “kick me” signs taped to their backs that they are not allowed to remove.

They are out in force these days assisting the traffic cops with their efforts to improve the driving habits of Iranians. Today, as I strolled to do my shopping our corner was just filled with these guys. There were three of the guys in the silly uniforms looking with envy at their colleagues, the traffic cops, in their sleek black boots, shiny black jackets, and helmets. One of the traffic cops had a microphone on and was urging drivers to follow basic driving etiquette. When a motor biker zoomed through a red light he called, “Hajh Agha, Hajh Agha!” (Mr. Hajh – doesn’t really translate well). The biker paid no attention. Those calls were joined by, “Faster! Move on! Drive on! Stop! Make your turn!” and other helpful hints.

Just to ease your mind… I’ve been told that Iran is getting new uniforms for the military police. (I don’t really think they are the military police, but Iranians tell me they are.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Finger across throat, slide to the right

Most Iranians I meet are really curious about Americans and the way Iranians are perceived by the outside world. If you’ve been reading any part of this blog, you know that. I tell them that most foreigners do not know the difference between Iran and Iraq or between Arabs and Iranians. This surprises and upsets them.

“I watch an American movie almost every night to learn more about your culture,” one bearded man told me recently.

“Then I don’t think you’ve learned much about my culture,” I answered.

He continued, “That’s how I know you do not have the problems with poverty that we do.”

“We do have problems with poverty,” I told him. “We have 40 million uninsured people and one of the lowest health care standards in the developed world. Our poor are fat because fast food is cheap. Iran’s poor are healthy looking because nutritious food is cheap here.”

“That’s true,” he answered.

[I am always amazed at how healthy looking Iran’s poor are. Fast food is still a luxury here, and it is expensive. Many fruits and vegetables are cheap in Iran. Only the rich can afford to be fat in Iran. For less than the price of a Hardee’s Burger, you can have an excellent meal. Meat is expensive. Greens are cheap. Case in point: herbs. Iranians eat tons of fresh herbs. For about 50 cents they can get a gigantic bunch of mixed herbs. The equivalent would cost us about $20. I am always scavenging and saving herb scraps that Iranians would throw away. They think I’m weird.]

The man continued by telling me about family he has in Germany. “Their neighbor is a German woman. She is a good friend to my brother’s family and visits often. She loves my brother’s family, and they love her. Recently they asked her to come visit Iran with them. She said no. When they asked her why not, she answered [the throat-cutting gesture: finger across throat, slide to the right]. We were so disappointed that she felt that way about us.”

[Another reason that poor men look especially good in Iran is that they cannot afford to be fashion victims. Young Iranian men have a pathetic sense of style (sorry boys). They use way too much hair gel and shape their hair into bizarre shapes. They sport odd shaped facial hair growths, cell phones, pointy shoes or converse tennies, and wear American logo-wear --- most of it fake. Poor men can’t afford all that shit.]
The University Directors…

…Are frustrated and angry. This is no secret. This is taxi-talk, man-on-the-street talk, tv-talk, Khameini-talk.

In one car our driver said: “I was watching tv, and I could not believe it! There was a meeting with the directors of all these universities and Khameini was there and the cameras were there and they were complaining about bad management. I called Hajh Agha [Mr. Hajh refers to any man who has been to Mecca or any man at all depending on the speaker] and I said, ‘Turn on the tv! The university directors are saying what you are saying, and they are saying it to Khameini!’”

In another car we heard:

“I was watching with my sister, and we were in shock. I turned to her and asked: ‘Was there a revolution I did not hear about?’ There were university directors from all over the country, and they were so frustrated that they could not keep their mouths shut. ‘Our country’s problems aren’t big,’ one said. ‘They are complex and knotty, and they need delicate hands to untangle. We don’t have delicate hands, but if we look hard enough we can find someone who does.’”

We made comments about the hands comment. I asked, “Who do they mean by the someone?”

K answered, “I don’t know.” No one else in the car knew either.

The conversation continued: “There was a woman from Isfahan who said: ‘We don’t have money; we don’t have resources; we have people in positions that they should not be; and people who should be in those positions that are not.’”

They are speaking for the entire country.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

I'm acting like a blogger. I am linking to an article--maybe not a blog, but still...

The first paragraph of Thomas Friedman's opinion piece made me laugh out loud. I read it to an Iranian friend who also laughed. Neither of us had to read the second paragraph to know the right response...

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: A Political Arabesque:

"I have long believed that any American general or senior diplomat who wants to work in Iraq should have to pass a test. It would be a very simple test. It would consist of only one question: 'Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?'

If you answered 'Yes,' you would not be allowed to work in Iraq. You could go to Korea, Japan or Germany - but not Iraq. Only those who understand that in the Middle East the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line should be allowed to carry out U.S. policy there."

Friday, December 17, 2004

One nation, under God

I read an editorial in some respectable newspaper somewhere that critiqued the pledge of allegiance and the late addition of “One nation under God.” (And, once again, I am proving to be a horrid blogger because I did not blog it at the time and cannot find it now…) The writer provided a whole list of groups who could be offended by this reference including Muslims. This, the writer claimed, was because it mentioned God and not Allah.

Allah means God. It’s just the Arabic word for God. My Koran is translated into Persian and English. In the Persian translation, Allah is Khoda. Khoda is the Persian word for God. In my English version, however, Allah is Allah. The Torah is the Tawrat. Jesus is Isa. Mary is Maryum. Moses is Musa. Abraham is Ibrahim. Jonah is Younes. And on and on. This poor translation makes it seem as though Islam is something other than a continuation of Judeo-Christianity.

In the Koran, God is still angry with his chosen people (an anger begun in the Old Testament or Tawrat). That has not changed. I expect he will remain angry. I think most members of the tribe would agree with me in this statement. The Koran continually refers to God’s need to hold a mountain over the heads of his chosen tribe in order to get them to accept his word. That’s nothing new, is it?

(No matter what kind of feminist I am, I cannot accept that God is a she. If that’s true, then I must be a man.)

So, the long and the short of it is, that there may be many reasons to be critical of the comment: One nation under God. But one of them is not that it leaves out Allah.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A nation of hypocrites

What does enforcing an interpretation of religious beliefs on the unwilling do? It creates a nation of hypocrites.

What does enforcing an interpretation of religious beliefs on the willing do? It creates a minority of disgusted believers.
What believer needs or wants to be forced to believe? No one that I know of. It’s insulting.

We were in the home of a devout woman. She has been to Mecca 5 times. She can chant the Koran in a deep gravelly voice. I am certain that she is trying to die on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But boy does she resent the mullah-ocracy. I was a bit shocked by some of the things that were said about them.

It’s no real surprise though. The mullahs in Iran represent bureaucracy more than religion and where is there a people anywhere in the world who loves their bureaucrats?
But you cannot play pool with men…
I went out with some friends and K. It was raining and snowing so we decided to duck into this upscale Chuckie Cheese type place (without Chuckie and all the cheese…). There were lots of families there playing air hockey and vending games. We went upstairs to play pool.

It was fun until the morals police came to tell me I could not play. I had an overwhelming urge to throw off my headscarf, undress, and dance naked on the pool table. But instead I went outside to take a walk. That was smarter.

Okay, so you can play miniature golf, air hockey, squash, and golf with men. You can sit on one’s lap in a shared taxi. You can ski or snowboard with a man. But you cannot play pool. Must be something in the Koran about that…

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Response to email

I am responding to this email in the blog, because it is filled with questions that I often receive in emails. It’s from Samantha:


I came accrossed your blog "A view from Iran." Firstly, I would like to say that it is quite well written and would like to thank you all for writing your opinions and perspectives when such might not be the best option in a highly regulated society.

Me: Thanks. Anybody who says that the blog is well-written must be smart, charming, and most wonderful.

Anyway, am I right in thinking that one of the writers is an American woman?

Me: That would be me. T.

Someday, probably within the next three years I would like to visit Tehran perhaps for only a week or two, but if possible working with a social work/development initiative.

I am curious as to the challenges big and small an American woman living in Tehran might face beyond the obvious regulations regarding wearing hijab/chador and gender segregations. For instance how do women seek public transport, accommodations etc?

Me: Public transport is no problem. The buses and metros are sex-segregated – Thank God. If you are a woman getting on to a crowded subway car, wouldn’t you rather be in a car crowded with women than one crowded with men? Women smell better. Plus they are nicer when packed in like sardines. The metros also have family cars that both men and women can ride in.

Women ride in the back of city buses. You often see buses half-filled with men practically standing on one another for space while the women are leisurely sitting. It’s not fair, but it works to our advantage.

Intercity buses are not nearly as sex-segregated. Families and couples can sit together, but a single man cannot sit next to a strange single woman.

Minibuses are just crowded. Shared taxis are also crowded. It’s a great place for Iranians on dates because physical proximity (think: sitting on one another’s laps) is permissible.

Accommodations are different for foreigners than for Iranians. Only on rare occasions would a foreign woman be hassled over accommodations.

How does one deal with nationalist contempt (or indeed not deal at all.) Is Iran "safe?" I am not really sure where to start with my questions, so any advice you give is welcomed.

Me: I have NEVER experienced any nationalist contempt. Iranians love foreigners (oh, that is if you are not Afghani or Arab.) On top of that, they adore Americans. I mean, we could not be more loved in Texas itself. It’s such a pleasure being loved. I have often used this space to encourage my fellow citizens to treat Iranians like princes and princesses when you meet them. That’s the way they treat me.

I always tell people that there is no one with more access in Iran than a western woman. We get access to both men and women. The dangers that exist in Iran are no different (for us) than the dangers we face in our own countries. I am not saying that Iran is the safest place on earth. All I am saying is that if you are not coming here to organize a revolution, then you should be okay by keeping up the normal defenses that you would anywhere else.
It’s all a big mistake…
A friend of mine that I will call "Jeff" wrote to tell me of a dream he had about Iran’s uranium enrichment program:

Your blog got me thinking and I remembered a dream I had some time ago.
I dreamt that the whole uranium enrichment program was a big misunderstanding – what the Iranian government was really embarking upon was an Iranian Enrichment Program. I'm not sure what that would be– some sort of cultural exchange, I suppose.

Iranians are tough negotiators. It’s clear to me that they understood that the EU was the more desperate of the two parties. The EU was desperate to show America that it could negotiate a treaty with Iran. Iranians had to have known this going in.

And what should Iran be desperate for? Iranians may be desperate for improved relations, but their government is not. They would like relations to be bad enough to keep them in power and good enough to keep their consuming citizens happy (or, should I say, complacent). Believe me, these guys are smarter than we are. I think that most people think that the regime is idealistic instead of what it really is: realpolitik-al (is that a word?)

Do they really think that we want to drink this stuff?

Last night I went to the pharmacy with K’s nephew. He needed some things, and I wanted some rubbing alcohol. They handed me a tiny bottle of rubbing alcohol. “Don’t you have anything bigger?” I asked. “Or is rubbing alcohol really expensive here?”

“No it’s cheap,” the woman answered and then called to her manager, “Should I get a bigger bottle for them?”

The manager came out to look at us. K’s nephew said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to drink the stuff. We have something much better at home.” This comment made the whole store full of people start laughing.

“I can give you two small bottles,” our clerk told us.

“Look, I just want to clean my ears with the stuff,” I said. I turned to my partner in crime and asked: “Do they really think we want to drink rubbing alcohol?”


“You’re joking.”

“Iranians do.”

“Well,” I responded, “I have often felt that I was being served rubbing alcohol. Now I know that it’s true.”

Anybody know where you can buy cat litter in Tehran?

Contact me: resoponses@gmail.com


A couple of friends of ours have been picked up for violating the Islamic dress code. (Which is what? I have been reading the Koran and so far the only thing I have read is that a woman should hide her private parts and her ornaments. What exactly does that mean? Isn’t the definition of “private parts” more social than religious? The whole hijab thing is seeming more like a fetish to me than any religious doctrine. It’s just like the injunction against eating pigs. Why make such a fuss over some parts and not about others? At this point, however, I have not completed reading the Koran, and I am *not* an expert.) They had to attend a class on hijab. I got the sense that it was kind of like driving school after being ticketed. “There were at least a 1000 people there. There was even a 14 year old girl. I mean, she was just a little girl,” our friend told me. “Everybody had at least one relative with them and some people brought there entire families. They showed us a film, gave us a lecture, and sent us home.”

The other night, I was stopped by one of these guards of Islam who did not realize that I was a foreigner. “You can’t dress like that,” he told me. I was baffled. I was wearing loose fitting Levi’s, a men’s baggy windbreaker, and my scarf. Without the scarf, they would have assumed I was a man. Only in a country like Iran could I have been accused of provocative dress.

K came to my rescue. He was livid. He really cannot abide anyone telling anyone else how to dress. The two other times that someone had the nerve to tell me that too much hair was showing, K really let loose with verbal abuse. “If I were to accept their comments and say nothing, this place would really be Hell,” he told me. “It’s none of their business.”