Monday, March 28, 2005

Fires, visiting, new year's tv, and the latest fashion news

The last time I wrote, K and I were on our way to search out the best fire-leaping district. We walked for 2 ½ hours and saw a few boys lighting firecrackers, caught site of some private bonfires, and got sore feet. We returned to our neighborhood only to find that we were living in Chahar Shanbeh Souri-Central. In our small neighborhood, there were several bonfires. Our tiny street (2 whole blocks) featured 3 or 4 bonfires. The whole neighborhood was out: from newborns to one-foot in the gravers. Young men were dancing in the street. There was music and singing. I didn't know we lived in such a happening place.

It was so wonderful to see Iranians having fun in public. Fun is such a great thing. I feel pretty red after a night of fires and dancing.

The next day, we flew south and joined millions of Iranian tourists visiting Kouzestan's spring. Ahwaz's river was so high that it reached the stairs of the Hotel Fajr. Flowers were everywhere. Women were in their new manteaus: short, salmon, and tight. Southerners were wearing these tiny little scarves woven with metallic threads. Every other young woman seemed to have one. So, last year the new scarf fashion was a shawl that let your bangs show and the back of your pony tail. This year's seems to be an oversized handkerchief that can just be tied under your chin and shows even more of the back of your hair than the shawl. Pretty soon we'll be wearing skull caps.

Haven't seen too much fashion back in Tehran yet, but then, no one is here.

TV is much better during the New Year's holidays than it is during religious holidays. There's a pretty funny serial on now that features a pizza parlor, a Mercedes, several goofy men who end up in and out of jail for a series of misunderstandings, and silly women. We've been enjoying it.

There is a campy tv game show with a series of silly feats that feels like it must have been borrowed from Japanese tv. I find it pretty funny. People seem to either love it or hate it. K is in the second camp. I am in the first. There is also an Iranian version of the Weakest Link. Anyone who has ever seen Ann Robinson tear apart the contestants of the British version of this game show would be amused by the Iranian version. While Iranians are capable of making insults, those insults are subtle and require a pretty thorough understanding of Iranian manners in order to be understood. Mostly, Iranians are so unfailingly polite that the type of insult that is the hallmark of the Weakest Link is impossible for them. Every time someone loses, the host politely wishes him luck and says something cloyingly nice.

Here is a sampling of the movies on Iranian tv: Whale rider, Troy, Shanghai Knights, The Inlaws, Lord of the Rings (parts 1, 2, & 3), Antz… The only movies that don't get heavily censored are the movies with casts of men or cartoons. This means most of the movies worth watching are violent or cartoons. The only time I have seen real men and women touching on Iranian tv was when they were fighting. If they had been hugging, that would have been cut. Sword through the belly, okay. Man and wife showing affection: cut!

We saw our fair share of satellite tv during our multiple New Year's visits. Most people were watching Tapesh 2 or PMC: both of which feature mainly, but not solely, Iranian music videos. For the most part, the videos suck. Most of those shot in California seem to be shot at the same location. The men wear all white or all black, have no style, and have forgotten how to dance. (Iranian men are great dancers!) Mostly naked women dance in the background. The other type of video features a stage with flashing lights. Everyone's favorite videos were: Kamran and Hooman singing Toro Micham, Arash singing Boro Boro, and a woman (what was her name?) singing Mirdamad.
Coming soon... Norooz holiday report: until then, Ted Rall's "Guide to Zoroastrian America"
Yahoo! News - Ted Rall
The New York Times > Magazine > The Security Adviser: Is a State Sponsor of Terrorism Winning?:
"Yes, Iran, the nation the Bush administration calls the greatest state sponsor of terrorism, is having some good days, largely at our expense. In the 1980's, Iran suffered an estimated one million casualties in a seven-year war against Iraq. From Iran's perspective, the purpose of the war was to place Iraq's majority Shiite religious faction in charge, to unseat Saddam Hussein, to protect the Shiite holy places and, perhaps, to get its hands on Iraq's vast oil deposits. The costly war ended in a draw, after the two sides exhausted themselves. Seventeen years later, Iran has now achieved three of those four war goals, thanks to 13,000 American casualties and scores of billions of American-taxpayer dollars."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Wow, it's been more than one year

"Our friends are all asking when our crazy daughter is coming home," my mother tells me.

"And we say, 'which crazy daughter?'" my dad chips in.

"Tell them they can call me crazy to my face. I will just laugh and agree with them. I won't even get offended."

You want to hear the craziest thing? There are things I really like about living here. Yes, there are things I like about Iran. Iranians seem to think that I only write about the negative aspects of life here. Not true. (To be fair, Iranians outside of Iran think I'm pretty positive…)

Living in Iran means that you get sucked into all of its attending neuroses: depression, passive aggression (or 'tarof'), uncertainty, indecisiveness, etc… Like others here, sometimes I get overwhelmed by uncertainty and depression. Sometimes I am paranoid; sometimes I am desperate; often I am frustrated. I am never bored; I am often amazed; and sometimes I am dazzled.

The two things that dazzled me most this year were these: K's cousin playing the drum while his brother-in-law sang and the capacity that Iranians have for change that does not compromise their core identity.

The first represents one of the unexpected pleasures of life among Iranian culture anywhere that I have experienced: unexpectedly some banker or engineer will start singing in a beautiful, clear voice while another plays the traditional drum or traditional stringed instrument. (Sorry their proper names escape me.) This year I have cried as K's sister sang folk songs she learned from their parents and been overwhelmed by the quality of amateur musicianship.

The second is connected. Iranian culture is open and changeable while retaining its essential identity. Oh the change I have seen in one year… Possibly much of the change is internal. Possibly I have become a keener observer, a more nuanced observer. Possibly I things have changed as much as I think they have.

I can't quite describe the changes in this post. It needs time. I will be attempting to describe these changes in my next few posts, but don't expect too much in the next couple of weeks…
Happy New Year
K and I always joke about the number of new years we get to celebrate. My favorite one is Persian New Year. Here are its advantages:
Timing: I mean, who can beat the Spring equinox for a new year's celebration?
Timing again: Iranians and other Norooz celebrants all over the world celebrate the New Year at the same moment: the exact moment of the equinox. It's comforting to know that families in Los Angeles are cheering in the New Year at the same time as families in Tehran.
Haft Sin (Seven "s's" – sounds like some new fangled management theory right?): Iranians put out a table covered with all sorts of things beginning with "s." These items represent common new year's themes including renewal, wisdom, health, and prosperity. You usually see a goldfish, sprouts, pudding, coins, eggs, and other items. I love the table. It's beautiful.

Tonight, bonfires will be lit all over Iran (and California) and people will be jumping over them saying: "Give me your red and take from me my yellow." (The symbolism is so obvious that it would be silly to explain.) I plan to make my leap as well.

For the next month, Iranians will look so spiffy in their new clothes, the streets and buildings will shine because they are so friggin clean, and Tehran's air will smell like flowers instead of smog.

Happy New Year all.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The draft

When I was much younger and less nuanced and against the draft, my mother said to me: "The problem with getting rid of the draft is that the military is then made up of people who *want* to be there." Or people with no other options, I would add now.

Now my mother might add that another side effect of having no draft is that most people don't know anyone in the military.

Iran has a draft. Wealthy people can buy their way out of the draft. College graduates have a fairly simple run of duty. Non-graduates, like everywhere, get stuck with the brunt of the service.

A young friend of ours will enter the military just after Norooz (the Persian New Year).

Our young friend is brilliant. He can brag that he is been arrested for cavorting with the opposite sex (a badge of honor among young Iranians since it is becoming more and more difficult to get arrested for hanging out together). He is handsome. His English is wonderful. He is friendly and a fast learner. He goes to movies. He is secular. He lifts weights. He gains weight. He loses weight.

He is normal. He is comfortably middle class which means that his family does not have enough money to pay for an exemption. He did not make the right choice of study when he entered university and as a result lost interest and dropped out. It's not a simple manner to change majors in Iran. And now, he's stuck with serving out a full-term in the military.

The point I am trying to make is that in countries with a draft, the military is made up of people you know. They are not strangers. They are your friends, your family, and the sons of people you know.
Another book to read: The Persian Puzzle

The Persian Puzzle: An Interview With Kenneth Pollack
As far as regime change, I think you need to look back at Iran's history. First off, regime change is coming—it's clear that the Iranian people generally want a very different form of government. It's coming very slowly. Most Iranians are sick and tired of revolutions. They've had one for the last 25 years, and they don't want another one. Those who've tried to spark another revolution have failed time and again. I don't think there's any evidence that somehow, if the U.S. gave these guys the high sign, it would make regime change somehow more likely. Every time the U.S. has tried to interfere in Iranian affairs to help a particular group of Iranians, it's backfired on us, and hurt the group we tried to help. Look, regime change will eventually happen, but this isn't an answer to the very short-term problem of the nuclear program.
Interesting interview... must read book: Lipstick Jihad
Lipstick Jihad: An Interview With Azadeh Moaveni

Yes, I think this is the biggest difference between the US and Iran -- how honesty is interpreted. American culture is incredibly forthright. There’s this premium on telling it like it is and being frank. Iranian culture, and Farsi, the language, is really evasive; it has all these rituals and cues and formalities in how people deal with one another.

I think evasiveness took on a whole new meaning after the revolution. You suddenly had Islamic conservative values governing how society was run, which pushed a lot of things behind closed doors and under veils and chadors. Private behavior became much more weighted.

I write in the book about eroticization. It’s not explicit, ever, but the emphasis on covering and the hidden and forbidden was sexualizing because everyone was very preoccupied with that. Nothing about how you conduct your private life is at all apparent from the way you look to everyone else. Evasiveness, privacy and eroticization all came together in the post-revolutionary culture.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Norooz, fires, fireworks, and satellite dishes
About three nights ago, the chief of police appeared on television to announce that the police will no longer break up the celebrations that occur on the last Tuesday before the new year. On the last Tuesday before the new year, Iranians (and other Norooz –“new day” – celebrants) light small bonfires and jump over them while shouting: “Take my yellow from me and give me your red.” It is a wonderful celebration that I enjoyed on the beaches near Santa Cruz. The chief announced to all Iranians that the police would view this as a cultural celebration and do what they could to keep it safe and help people enjoy it even more, rather than breaking it up. He went on to announce that the police would no longer raid people’s homes looking for satellite dishes.

Iranians have an open and resilient culture that is unbelievably open to change. (I plan to write a post on this soon. So watch this space…) This is not a static culture or static society. Don’t let the nuclear issue become more important than a true understanding of Iran and Iranian culture. Pay attention, folks.
Long time, no write…
Even longer since I started this post…

So… a lot has happened: Ashura, UFOs, better relations with America, and a resumption of uranium enrichment. What’s that you say? Better relations with America? ( Read between the lines…) Worse relations with Iran? That too. Iranians are sure that America plans to attack.

Iranians are smarter about the world of politics than I am. “Iranians have political brains,” one older friend told me. “Americans are much simpler.”

When the Iranians I know say that Americans are simple, they mean it as a compliment. Elaine Schiolino writes in her book Persian Mirrors that it is meant as an insult. Well, maybe it was, and maybe it is. In fact, I am sure it was and is. I do, however, believe that it is becoming a compliment. Iranians of all stripes seem to find American simplicity refreshing. “It’s so easy to work with Americans,” a nationalist Iranian tells me. “They say something, and they do it. They tell you what they can and cannot do. Everything is so straightforward.” (They are not speaking about our politicians, mind you. They are also clearly not speaking about many of our CEOs.)

“I find so much more common ground between American culture and Iranian culture than between Iranian culture and the culture of Europe or Asia.”

“For instance?”

“Americans are religious. They understand religion. When I go to Europe, they think I am backwards because I am religious. Americans understand that. They don’t find it odd.”

Will America attack Iran? Has Iran purposely screwed up nuclear proliferation negotiations with the EU in order to get America to participate in the discussions? Their chief negotiator is busy insulting the EU representatives, saying things like they cannot make up their mind without crossing the Atlantic.

Today (well not today anymore) I received an email with an article from Ray McGovern that concerned attacking Iran. Well, all options are on the table, aren’t they? Listen carefully, I will only say this 10,000 times, Iranians need to clean up their own mess. The regime will not change if America attacks. It will get stronger. (Am I wrong, or didn’t we just fulfill Khomeini’s prophecy that Iraq would become an Islamic state if Iran refrained from taking Baghdad itself and left it for the future? What do you think would happen here?)

Iranians worry too. “It is always people like us who suffer in war,” a friend just told me.

I try not to worry, but I worry too. I do not want to see war. I do not want the people I know and love to be bombed. I don’t even want to see people I do not like bombed. That’s what a sissy I have become.

As usual, the Onion has the best analysis: