Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ashura: the pageant

"America is trying to take Ashura from us," the small, Ahmadinejad-like prayer leader called out to the crowd.

The crowd ignored him. Someone near me said, "He's trying to make this night political. It should not be political."

Still the man tried. It was like watching a rock and roll performer bomb while trying to get people to sing along with him.

Finally he gave up on politics and chanted the prayers for the sick. The crowd got excited then. That is what they came here for after all.

We were at the shrine in Tajrish in Northern Tehran. "Where are you from?" people asked me in broken English.

"America," I answered.

"Welcome to our country."

Inside the shrine, it smelled like feet, women with rainbow-colored feather dusters ushered the hordes of women to the grave. "We love Americans," a woman in a black chador whispered into my ear. "It's your government we don't like."

This was the night before Ashura. The next day we woke up to chants of "Hosseinjan, Hosseinjan." We went outside where a neighbor offered us a rice dessert with saffron. Ashura is a friendly holiday in Tehran. People are excited to be out together. It's an opportunity to express public emotion, to flirt, and to be part of a crowd. Iranians grab every one of these opportunities. Groups of young women looking their absolute best eye groups of young men with ridiculous hairdos while their parents and relatives look on.

The pageantry itself is amazing. Hazzans chant rhythmic mourning songs, men and women beat their chests. Men march, twirling chains and slapping them on their shoulders in time to the chanting. Giant mantles covered with bronze animals, shields, and feathers are carried through the streets.

And the food! Everywhere people were giving out food and drinks! We passed one group that was feeding 12,000 people. Mosques, private homes, private groups: everyone was handing out food. We ate ghemeh: a dish of split peas, potatoes, and mutton. Later we ate the heart, lung, and liver of one of the many sheep that gave its life that day.

Enough of that…

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Three years ago bombs went off in Karbala during Ashura: the holiday marking Mohammad’s grandson Hossein’s suicidal battle.

Iran is now immersed in Ashura mania, which is a bit like Halloween meets Death to America. It’s an opportunity to take to the streets and embrace the anonymity offered by huge crowds.

About a month ago neighborhoods started decorating for Ashura. Huge paintings of Hossein (or “Hossein’s friend” as one observant Muslim told me) went up alongside tents that are used for gathering to commemorate the death of Hossein. There seems to be more decoration than ever in Tehran. “The neighborhoods got more money for the decorations this year,” a man told us.

Iranians worship victim hood. They use graphic war footage of bombs falling on Iranian soldiers to recruit for the revolutionary guards. They embrace every opportunity for a good public cry. They portray themselves as victims rather than as aggressors.

Well, Inshallah, they don't want to repeat history with another suicidal battle.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Tehran is the quietest big city I have ever lived in. Very few sirens. Very few airplanes. Very few cars blasting music that makes your walls vibrate. And no discos. At least no discos that you can hear from the street.

Aahh peace. Yet when our dear friend witnessed a horrific traffic accident in north Tehran, it took two hours for a second ambulance to show up to treat the remaining wounded. There were hospitals within one mile of the accident scene and it was the middle of the night, so no traffic! The price of quiet…

(Business flash you rich Iranians: ambulance services for pay! For the pure of heart, use some of the profits from wealthy clients to subsidize ambulances for the poor and the struggling middle class. I offer this idea to you for free. I guarantee profit. I guarantee thousands of clients per day. Think of it.)

When an official of the government was in a fatal car accident, an ambulance never even arrived. He was carried out in a pickup truck.

This is the land of inshallah. God willing. Inshallah, our houses won’t collapse in an earthquake. Inshallah, America won’t attack. Inshallah, my child will get better. Inshallah, we'll get our delivery of milk by 10 am. Inshallah, we'll celebrate Hamid's birthday next Thursday.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Leader and the Price of Tomatoes

“Khameini is dead,” my sister-in-law tells me. “They’ll announce his death during Ashura.”

“He’s just fine. I saw him on television.”

“They are showing old footage and writing “live” on it. But he is dead.”

That’s just a rumor from abroad,” I add. “They say he’s sick. They say he’s dead. Is he even sick?”

“Yes,” one woman says.

“No,” another says.

One of our friends thinks he looks sickly; another that he looks healthy. There is nothing so subjective as the leader’s health.

“Tomatoes are 3,000 a kilo,” Keivan’s cousin says.

“The most I have paid is 1,700.”

“That’s what I paid last night,” I say.

No one should buy them. They should be left to rot. Tomatoes are too expensive.”

“They are terrible now anyway. The taste is bad, and they are rotten.”

“Ahmadinejad says If tomatoes are expensive then come to my neighborhood to buy them.”

“Yeah, and spend two hours getting there and 6,000 tuman on the cab.”

“Why is everything suddenly so expensive?”

“There are American warships in the Persian Gulf,” I say.

“Eh,” says my sister-in-law who lives close to the Gulf. Her face screws up and she starts to panic.

“Nothing will happen,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. She has already lived through her share of bombing.

“You don’t know, Esther, when Iraq was bombing Tehran it was terrible. The house next to us was hit; our neighbor’s car… Every day we thought that we would be next. It’s so horrible. I cannot take it again,” my other sister-in-law says. “Remember when we were taking care of Nooshin’s dog and how scared he was? He just hid under the couch.”

“That wasn’t during the war,” her husband says.

“It must have been Chahr Shambeh Souri,” I say (Last Tuesday night of the year: lots of bonfires and fireworks…)

She laughs. “You’re right. It was Chahr Shambeh Souri.”

Sunday, January 21, 2007

So, do you think there will be war?

“So, do you think there will be war?” This is the way Keivan starts every conversation these days.

There is a reason: for the third time since we came to Iran, people are seriously afraid of being attacked.

“Please, when you go back to America,” a spice salesman tells me, “tell them not to attack us.” He was probably doubly afraid because his shop is about a mile from a heavily guarded military-industrial site.

“Saffron was 335,000 tuman a kilo last week. Yesterday the price went up to over one million tuman.” Stocking up on saffron in case of war? I would have thought that tuna fish would be more appropriate.

“There are 18 million soldiers ready to go to war if we are attacked,” a taxi driver tells us.

“Where?” Keivan asks. “Where are they?”

Trust me, the West underestimates Iranian patriotism and overestimates the connection between the way Arab political leaders feel (fear of Iran) and the way Arab people feel (respect for Ahmadinejad and his stand against the West).

Israeli sources seem to overestimate the chances of an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel and underestimate the response to an attack on Iran. I think that despite the Shi’a- Sunni split, most Muslims would see an attack on Iran as further evidence of anti-Islamic furor. I am going on record as saying the attack will not make Israel or any of the Arab states or America any safer. I am willing to say right now that the opposite will be the case.

“I sure hope Iran doesn’t use any Shahab missiles. If they do it will be the start of WW 3,” a friend says.

“Why do you think that?”

“They’ll hit everything but their intended target. A missile aimed at Israel will hit Saudi Arabia or Russia or some other country.”

Everyone laughs. Everyone goes about their daily business: hoarding saffron and tunafish.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Tehran City Council Elections

Tehran is a big and sprawling city with intractable traffic and seemingly random road closures. The metro will take you from Mirdamad station, which was once in a far northern section of Tehran and is now close to its center, to the far southern reaches of the city where Tehran's huge graveyard is in just 30 minutes. Getting to Mirdamad station from northern Tehran can take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour depending on traffic. Getting to Khomeini’s tomb from northern Tehran will take 45 minutes at 3 am and up to 2 hours on a day with normal traffic.

That’s just north south. East west is equally large. It’s like Los Angeles, Kansas City, or even Jacksonville: rambling on and on with about as much organization as a rash.

The smart thing to do would be to divide the city into precincts and elect city council members precinct by precinct. Instead, Tehran residents all over Tehran vote for the same pool of candidates. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

Candidates have to run a city-wide campaign to get elected. With limitations on television advertising, this means flyers, posters, sms messages, radio, and balloons. It’s expensive to run for Tehran’s city council. It takes a huge organization. Posters go up like wall paper. One candidate pasted right on top of another.

To make matters even more complicated, each candidate is assigned a code about two days before the election. Ballots are only valid when the candidate’s name and the candidate’s code are written correctly. The most successful campaigners produce cards with candidate’s names and their assigned codes printed on them. This, of course, favors conservatives who have strong organizations. Who else can safely meet and organize in Iran? Simply put, only the conservatives and the fundamentalists have been able to meet with impunity.

Voting for independents or reformers for city council meant scanning through hundreds of names at the polling station itself. Posters with names and codes covered every wall of most polling stations. You had to look carefully, find your candidates, write down their codes, and then vote. Most voters had scrap paper and pens that they carried with them from poster to poster.

It’s a wonder that so many people voted in the city’s elections and that so many ballots were cast correctly.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Surprise party

“Keivan is that you?” Our hostess calls. The road to her house is impassable, so we are making our way on foot through snow and dirt.

“I am so happy to see you,” she calls out. A young man appears at her side. “Be my guest for dinner.”

What’s going on? We thought we were having dinner in this remote mountain apartment with our eccentric intellectual friends. Now we are being herded five into a taxi and making our way through Tehran’s mountainous lanes. On the way, our host catches fire when his cigarette drops on his coat. Pulling up to our destination, the taxi falls into one of the open drainage ditches that can be found alongside most Iranian roads.

We arrive around 9:30, still waiting for dinner. Inside the modest apartment on the inaccessible lane is a lively group of young, budding intellectuals. There is no alcohol, but one of the guests managed to arrive drunk and remain drunk for several hours until he became equally sleepy. How much do you have to drink to remain drunk for three hours with no refills? It seems like a kind of miracle to me, but then again, I cannot drink enough to even get drunk, let alone stay drunk.

“A friend of ours has a cat that eats pistachios. It cracks them open and eats them,” I tell the assembled.

“If the cat eats pistachios, what does the owner eat?” A carpet seller jokes.

A jumbo man pulls out his tanbur – a two-stringed traditional instrument made from a gourd – and begins playing traditional tunes while the drunken man attempts to hush the party goers. “This is the real Iran,” our would-be hostess whispers in my ear. “This is why I don’t want to leave again.” She is incongruously dressed in a designer black party dress and a fur coat while the rest of us wear our ready-to-wear. This is not a party filled with prom dresses and posing.

“What do you think of your fellow classmates,” our hostess asks the assembled students.

“The women have beautiful faces and empty brains,” one young man volunteers. “They are in university just to be students. Our discipline is not taken seriously so you do not need very high marks to get in,” he explains. “The men are worse. They are just there to avoid military service. It’s annoying. There is no conversation, no probing.”

“I am afraid of the military service too,” I say.

“No, you are afraid of the military,” Keivan laughs. “You are not afraid of military service.”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Lest we forget

Whatever you think about the execution of Saddam Hussein, don't forget that his "stability" in Iraq was bought at a heavy price.

From Violence marked his rise, rule and fall
By Borzou Daragahi and David Lamb

Special to The Times

For his country, now convulsed in civil war, Hussein's most lasting and damaging legacy was the way his selective patronage and brutal violence divided Iraqis along lines that continue to split them.

Hussein moved rivers to reward Sunni Arab villagers loyal to his government and drained swamps to punish Shiite Muslims who rose up against him. He moved rebellious Kurds from the northern city of Kirkuk while selling cheap land in the city to Arabs to reward loyalists and upend the ethnic balance of the country's oil-rich north.

He imprisoned tens of thousands, ordered the killings of political enemies, real and imagined, including two of his sons-in-law, and used poison gas to wipe out whole villages in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. He granted construction contracts to favored Arab tribes, while depriving whole categories of people — such as Shiite Kurds — of their citizenship rights.

Such violence and manipulations may have established a semblance of stability. But they also built up a sense of entitlement by Sunnis and resentment on the part of Shiites and Kurds that fueled violence by death squads, militias and insurgents once the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled his regime.