Saturday, December 27, 2003

Read this post:
Editor: Myself | Hossein Derakhshan's weblog (English)

"Ask those in Tehran hospitals with no kidneys about Saddam, as well as from Rumsfeld and Chirac

Nobody was happier than most Iranians seeing Saddam looking like stinky homeless men--except for Iraqis of course."

The day after the Apocaplypse
I had a long blog I was working on, but it will have to wait. People here are stunned by the earthquake in Bam. Yesterday, I was visiting K's family in Western Iran. Around 7 pm we saw a 2-minute news clip about the earthquake, but we could not quite understand what happened. There was no follow-up, we had no internet connection, and no satellite. "If this were American tv," I told everyone, "we would not be watching anything else. We would see this news over and over and over again."

When I got off the plane and got in a car to head home, the man driving the car said that Al Jazeera reported that 40,000 people had been killed. I thought that this must be an exaggeration. Similar numbers were reported after the earthquake in Turkey that ended up killing 10,000 people (still a lot!), I told the people riding with us.

When I got home, I immediately logged on to the internet, read that 5000 people had been killed and was relieved that the number was not higher. It seems, however, that the number is much higher and may even be as high as Al Jazeera originally reported.

Even worse news is that this is not an isolated tragedy. Half of the population of the city of Bam is probably dead, and there are no real earthquake construction standards in Iran. I am willing to bet that a good many of California's civil engineers have Iranian backgrounds. Maybe Iran should consider getting some of them over here to address some civil engineering issues. What happens when a similar earthquake happens in Tehran?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

December 21, 2003

Arabic destroyed Persian
We were riding in a minibus with many of K's nieces and nephews talking about the Persian language, singing, and discussing conversion.

"If I convert," K's nephew told me, "I could be killed. In Iran, it would be okay for any Muslim to kill me for converting. They would not be prosecuted." (is that true?)

I told him that we valued freedom of religion in America. "You still might be killed," I said, "but at least we would prosecute your killer."

"Girls can convert until they are nine and boys can convert until they are 15," K's niece explained.

"That's too early to make a decision."

Later, they were telling me how the Arabic destroyed the Persian language. "We had such a beautiful language before the Arabs invaded," I was told. "Now it's so terrible…so many Arabic words."

(Earlier, a lawyer we met told us that after the revolution Iranians had to use Arabic names for their children. "Imagine, you could not use a good Persian name like 'Sudabeh,' you have to choose an Arabic name instead.")

I pointed out that their own family had been among the Arab invaders. They laughed. "Oh, but on the other side we are descended from an escaped Roman prisoner. What do you think, do we look Italian?"

"Most Iranians could pass for Italian," I answered.

Lately I have noticed that many, many of our friends have last names that betray Arabic ancestry, but all of them feel Iranian. Most of them complain about the Arabic invasion of Persia (A good long time ago!) and feel no connection with other people in this region. Of course, my own name is best pronounced by Germans, but I feel no connection to them either…

Iranians think of themselves as diverse. "You don't see it," K tells me. "But we are made up of so many tribes and ethnic groups. It's amazing." He is right, I don't see it. Although, I have noticed that many Lors have big drooping noses and many people from K's home town have huge, dark eyes and full lips. Almost everyone seems to have one eyebrow. The women here just make sure to trim theirs. Which brings me to my next point…

I never really paid much attention to my eyebrows before, but now they jump out at me every time I look in the mirror. They look terribly wild and ungroomed. Iranian women take such good care of their eyebrows. The older women have pencil thin brows and the younger women have gorgeous, thick, but incredibly shaped brows. Many girls sport a unibrow. I keep wondering when the grooming ritual begins? Is it a kind of rite of passage, kind of like a Bat Mitzvah?

Sometimes I envy the way that grooming habits are so openly discussed here. When I was a teenager, I was horribly embarrassed by my body. I thought that my arms were incredibly hairy (they were not): I hated my pimples; all that typical stuff. Here, flaws are embraced. Maybe the teenagers are mortified here too, but they seem pretty calm to me.

Who knows, maybe I will go get my eyebrows shaped.

Friday, December 19, 2003

December 19, 2003

So is it really almost Christmas?

The official word here is that Saddam's capture is a good thing. K told me that the day the capture was announced there was little discussion in the papers he reads. The day after the official word was negative. Two days ago, the official word was "good thing."

Since the appearance of the famous bearded Hussein picture, many of the papers here have been showing pictures of people in other countries reading newspapers with the bearded Hussein on the cover. I saw a picture of a man in a red and white headdress reading the Gulf News, a group of young men crowded around a French paper, another group crowded around a paper using the Cyrillic alphabet, and many other versions on that theme. It's not all that different from reading Google News with its headlines: "Reactions in Iraq," "Reactions from Russia," etc…

I wonder if people closer to the border with Iraq care more about Hussein's capture than people in Tehran. Until today, no one had even spoken to me about Hussein's capture.

Today I had my first conversation with Iranians about the whole affair. A couple of them felt that the capture was timed to coincide with Bush's re-election campaign and predicted that Bin Laden would be captured right before the general elections. A third person felt that Saddam Hussein had metaphysical powers that allowed him to stay in power and that the man captured was not the real Saddam Hussein. A fourth person just listened.

I guess the opinions voiced were not very different from some of those cited in this USA Today editorial: - There must be a plot to bring back the conspiracy theory.
December 19, 2003

So is it really almost Christmas?

The official word here is that Saddam's capture is a good thing. K told me that the day the capture was announced there was little discussion in the papers he reads. The day after the official word was negative. Two days ago, the official word was "good thing."

Since the appearance of the famous bearded Hussein picture, many of the papers here have been showing pictures of people in other countries reading newspapers with the bearded Hussein on the cover. I saw a picture of a man in a red and white headdress reading the Gulf News, a group of young men crowded around a French paper, another group crowded around a paper using the Cyrillic alphabet, and many other versions on that theme. It's not all that different from reading Google News with its headlines: "Reactions in Iraq," "Reactions from Russia," etc…

I wonder if people closer to the border with Iraq care more about Hussein's capture than people in Tehran. Until today, no one had even spoken to me about Hussein's capture.

Today I had my first conversation with Iranians about the whole affair. A couple of them felt that the capture was timed to coincide with Bush's re-election campaign and predicted that Bin Laden would be captured right before the general elections. A third person felt that Saddam Hussein had metaphysical powers that allowed him to stay in power and that the man captured was not the real Saddam Hussein. A fourth person just listened.

I guess the opinions voiced were not very different from some of those cited in this USA Today editorial: - There must be a plot to bring back the conspiracy theory.
December 19, 2003

So is it really almost Christmas?

The official word here is that Saddam's capture is a good thing. K told me that the day the capture was announced there was little discussion in the papers he reads. The day after the official word was negative. Two days ago, the official word was "good thing."

Since the appearance of the famous bearded Hussein picture, many of the papers here have been showing pictures of people in other countries reading newspapers with the bearded Hussein on the cover. I saw a picture of a man in a red and white headdress reading the Gulf News, a group of young men crowded around a French paper, another group crowded around a paper using the Cyrillic alphabet, and many other versions on that theme. It's not all that different from reading Google News with its headlines: "Reactions in Iraq," "Reactions from Russia," etc…

I wonder if people closer to the border with Iraq care more about Hussein's capture than people in Tehran. Until today, no one had even spoken to me about Hussein's capture.

Today I had my first conversation with Iranians about the whole affair. A couple of them felt that the capture was timed to coincide with Bush's re-election campaign and predicted that Bin Laden would be captured right before the general elections. A third person felt that Saddam Hussein had metaphysical powers that allowed him to stay in power and that the man captured was not the real Saddam Hussein. A fourth person just listened.

I guess the opinions voiced were not very different from some of those cited in this USA Today editorial: - There must be a plot to bring back the conspiracy theory

Monday, December 15, 2003

Back after a long absence…
Maybe one day I will write about it.

The other day I counted 46 different daily broadsheets at a newsstand in Tehran. I got tired of counting when I got to the tabloids, but it looked like there were about 15. This morning, most of the papers carried pictures of a grey-faced Saddam Hussein. By the afternoon, the stands seemed barer than normal and most of the papers left had athletes and celebrities on the covers.

Bus Haiku
These lines were found on the sides of buses. I plan to make this a regular feature. If you have seen buses with little poems on them, please let me know. Thanks!

In the name of God
No smoking

Beautifulle Bus

First snow
We had our first snow in Tehran. The mountains around Tehran are already white with snow.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I said that I would link to Letter from Gotham if the blogger ever started blogging again, and she did. It's worth reading this blog from a woman who is compassionate and non (un?)-dogmatic. Hurray for people who have the courage to change!

Letter From Gotham

Monday, November 03, 2003


Once when I went with my good friend to pick up her daughter at day care, I saw a little girl dressed in a lacy, pink, communion-type dress. "What kind of parents would dress their daughter this way," I asked my friend?

My friend laughed and said, "No parent of a five-year old dresses their daughter. Trust me, she chose that outfit herself."

Which made me realize that just because I always wanted to be dressed in jeans and a t-shirt did not mean that every little girl wanted to be dressed that way. Which is why it is wrong to think that the little girls in headscarves you see in Iran are forced to wear them. Many of them are playing dress-up: trying to look a little bit like their moms. Kamran's 4-year old niece, for instance, likes to wear her aunt's chador (what little girl wouldn't?), his 12-year old niece is proud of her chic manteau and sheer, white scarf. In fact, the little girls may be among the few who have no problems wearing a headscarf.

Iran is a kind of paradise for children. You get to stay up late. Your cousins are often around. Your house is often filled with visitors. Adults let you in on their conversations. It is great fun for kids. People pay tons of attention to you.

Many of our friends in exile (and many of their cohorts here) went straight from the paradise of childhood to the excitement of revolution with no transition. When people return to Iran after years and years away (people like K), they are struck by the difficulties of adult life and tend to blame it on the regime. Adult life here is really difficult. All of things that make it wonderful for children make it difficult for adults: children are always underfoot, guests arrive unannounced and unexpectedly, and you are always expected to be ready to entertain. The regime has added to the stress, of course, by forcing people indoors and giving them few options for socializing.

Despite that…

The parks are always full. For me as an American, there is nothing better than a park filled with people at all hours of the day and night. We Americans have given our parks away. We don't walk in them at night. We are afraid of them. In my travels, I am always struck by a park filled with people at 2 am on a warm summer night. I love it. Tehran and other cities in Iran are filled with parks. (Oh, you didn't guess that did you?) There are two parks within close walking distance of where we are staying. I walk there almost every day. They are always filled. In the afternoons, older people are in the park playing cards and talking to each other. Groups of women meet in the center of the park to gab and share food. Old, Jewish-looking men sit on benches in front of the fountain. (When I see them, I sometimes think that I am visiting a park in Brooklyn.)

At night, the parks are filled with young people and families. There are teen-agers and children zipping through on rollerblades. There are groups of young girls wearing – gasp! – capris and sheer scarves! Young men lean on the stairs and catcall the young women. Children play on the swings while their parents watch. Families spread blankets for elaborate picnics. Stews and rice cook on gas stoves, tea is served, sweets get passed around. Because…

…Iranians love picnics

You will see picnickers everywhere: in parks, in parking lots, on the side of the road, along a stream, in the meridian of the highway, in the mountains, and any other place where there is enough room to spread out a picnic blanket.

When I think of a picnic, I think of a few sandwiches and a coke or something like that. I don't think of stew, gas stoves, or a samovar: all standard equipment for the Iranian picnic. How do they do it? "We're used to it," people tell me.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Wedding Mania

Ramaz(d)an started today. (In Iran it's called Ramazan.) Which means that for a whole month no one can get married in Iran. Which means that the month before Ramazan is filled with weddings. Cars get covered with flowers and honk their way through the streets. Men dance in the streets. Music is everywhere.

K and I were staying in a motel in a strange but loveable city south and west of Tehran. They were hosting two weddings a day. "This is our busiest time," the owner told me. "The weather is perfect and it's right before Ramazan. We have two weddings every day."

"But I saw three couples getting their photos taken," I told him.

"Oh they just come here to have their pictures taken. We have a great site. You'll see today that we are very relaxed here. Men and women dance together. There is good music. People have fun now. It's all thanks to Khatami," he told me.

I have never seen such miserable brides and grooms. By the end of my day there, I had seen at least 15 couples. All but two looked terrified and stressed out. "They are exhausted," K said. All but two looked stonily at the cameras photographing them. Two of the couples looked relaxed and happy. The people accompanying them were clearly having a good time. I got the sense that they were, perhaps, teasing the young couples into a state of apprehension.

The brides wore white. Their hair was uncovered. If they could have smiled, they would have looked beautiful.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Iran - Lifestyles - Nose Job

Another story on nose jobs.
The Seattle Times: Iranian males indulge in nose jobs

I have to say, I had no idea this story had hit the wires until a couple of minutes ago as I listened to Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me on my internet radio. Apparently, nose jobs in Iran are a big story.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003


…means foreigner which is the first word that I could pick up in casual conversation. I hear it just about every single day, several times a day. I hear it from the adults walking by me on the streets, children playing in playgrounds, and 20-somethings curious about me. Everywhere I go, people stare. I will never look Iranian.

The good thing about being a foreigner here is that Iranians treat foreigners really well. They try to be on their best behavior in front of us. Our blond Dutch friend who speaks Farsi better than K does, told us an emblematic story about this. He was in Iran riding on a bus when an argument broke out. People tried to calm down the arguing parties by telling them: "Is this the kind of impression you want to give the foreigner?"

After three months here, I, too, have become completely obsessed with foreigners. Whenever I see them, I openly stare. I make comments to whoever is with me. "Look, a foreigner," I say.

There is one restaurant near us that serves amazing kebabs. Everytime we eat there, there is a foreigner present. The first time we were there, there were two Africans. I was completely mesmerized by their skin. It was as though I had never seen dark skin before. The next time we went, there was a woman who looked Mongolian. Once again, I was completely amazed. I saw a South African man the next time and a whole bevy of people speaking French. One night, the staff of a Lufthansa flight was eating dinner near us. I could not stop staring.

"Mom, Dad, why is my nose so big?"

A whole generation of Iranians is going to grow up wondering where the hell they inherited their big noses from.

Everywhere you go in Iran, you see young men and women with bandages on their noses. One long, white bandage down the front of the nose. Three shorter ones crossing the bridge.

One night we were walking with K's nephews and nieces and sisters when we spotted a man with the bandages on his nose. "How awful does a man's nose have to be for him to get a nose job," I asked?

K's nephew responded, "But I want one."

I thought he was joking. He is a perfectly good-looking man with a bigger than average nose, but one that fits his face very well. His sister also told me that she wanted one. Apparently neither of them were joking. They thought it was pretty funny that their wishes made me laugh.

What can I say? I like an unusual nose. I like big noses. In my whole life I have seen maybe two people I thought should get nose jobs. Only one of them was Iranian...

Friday, October 17, 2003

An Oscar for Iran
K and I were riding in a taxi today. Our driver was as skinny as a man can be without being unhealthy. His high cheekbones practically jutted out of his face and his grey eyes were sparkling. He talked the way a recently converted Moonie talks: you know, kind of excitedly and from a different world. I was sure that he must be a fanatic of some sort and was, I admit, a little scared.

A car cut in front of us and K swore. The driver said, "Aahh… you people who have lived outside of Iran are shocked by the way things are now, aren't you?" He kept looking at K as he spoke. I wanted to ask him to keep his eyes on the road.

"We used to be a relaxed people," our driver said. "Life here used to be good," he added.

"Now we have a Nobel prize winner." Then he turned his attention to me and said in English, "Madam, Irani Oscar has."

"It's Nobel Prize," K corrected.

"You should have seen the airport," the driver told us. "There were so many people there they had to take Ebadi out the back way."

K and the driver talked about the way that the Iranian media reported the prize. (Slowly and in whispers.) "The internet is great," our driver said in that same voice that some guy might tell you that he has just been abducted by aliens and how much fun he had. The two then went on to discuss the difference between the British and the Americans. Iranians do not like the British. "Americans are good because they spend their money," the driver said.

K started to complain about Americans, but we arrived at our destination just in time for me to avoid his lecture.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

There's no joy in blogville...

(I'm sure I'm not the first or the last to write this...)

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Cubs
It turns out that my parents aren’t even fans of the Cubs. "I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan, and your mother is a St. Louis Browns fan." You never give up your childhood allegiance, and the first game that my I saw live was the Cubs. Not that I am a huge fan, mind you. I am a small fan. And I think my allegiance was more to Harry Caray than to any team. I don't have the discipline to be a real fan.

My friend went to visit a shaman who told her that the spirits told him that this is the Cubs' year. Until then, you might want to listen to Harry Caray's version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame and keep praying.
This morning, I heard the BBC's report about Shirin Ebadi's homecoming at Tehran's airport. The people the reporter spoke to sounded thrilled. They also spoke perfect English which made me wonder who exactly they were speaking to. It is rare to meet Iranians who speak so well.

Later a friend came over. I asked him about how he felt. "Oh thrilled," he said. "But our president is a jerk. His first comment was that the award was politically motivated."

"Yesterday he congratulated her," I said. ("There is no one who does not delight in the success of his compatriot," Khatami told journalists after leaving parliament, adding that "I am also pleased that a compatriot has achieved such a

"Well maybe it was politically motivated, but it's the Nobel prize, for God's sake. He could have simply congratulated her the first time."

"Did you go to the airport?"

"My sister did."

"What did she say?"

"She said that it was way too crowded for her to get anywhere near anything interesting. 40 or 50,000 people turned out to greet her." (oooh… so that's why it was so easy to find English speakers…)

"On the BBC they said that people were parking their cars on the highway and walking because it was too crowded."

"The government closed the roads to the airport. That's why people had to walk there."

"Did you see what [insert conservative, pro-government newspaper name here] said yesterday," K asked? "It said that if a thousand people show up to greet Ebadi that the government should see it as a rebuke against their policies."

"From what I head," our friend said, "there were tens of thousands of people. It was an amazing turn-out."

"What was the news coverage like here in Tehran," I asked.

"Well they announced it about seven hours later and at the very tail end of the news. It was barely mentioned."

Now, every day the newspapers here write more and more about Ebadi. She gets more column space by the day.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Wow. What a couple of days. I disconnect from the internet to spend some time with K's family and Shirin Ebadi is awarded the Nobel Prize. This morning I got my email and several of the letters were from people asking me how Iranians feel about the award. I opened my Dad's first (I know him, after all). I was shocked. I had not heard a thing.

Sunday was the birth date of the 12th imam who Shi'ites believe never actually died. (I was hoping that Shia pundit would explain this holiday, but there is no mention of it on his blog.) It is a day of celebration in Iran. The whole country seems to be lit up by green, red, and white lights. Banners fly over the streets, and lampposts are decorated with leafy branches.

Holiday television programming was dominated by a marathon cultural event that was taking place in Tehran. It even supplanted the football (soccer) match between England and Turkey. The next day, there was football between Iran and New Zealand (big win for Iran) and some programming with that deep male voice narrating that signals you are about to hear a load of crap. (You know the voice…)

There was no mention of the Nobel Peace Prize. Not a word. Today, however, the papers all have front-page stories about Shirin Ebadi. Iran News has a positive article and claims that the government has congratulated her.

Iranians that we talk to are excited and happy and proud. Iran News says that she will be welcomed back in Tehran tomorrow. The government says a "top official is expected to attend." What does that mean?

Thursday, October 09, 2003

The Cubs
I was talking to my mom who told me that their small town in Illinois has been unusually cold. "Your father says that hell must be freezing over." This, of course, is his way of expressing cautious optimism about the Cubs? World Series chances.

I am pleased to see that Allah is also a Cubs fan.

I have received several emails thanking me for my limited view of Iran. I can leave, they tell me, the big picture stuff to others.

We were walking down the street when K spotted steam coming from a food cart. "Labu," he said excitedly. As we got closer we saw towers of red, steaming beets. Some of the beets were the size of mush balls (any mush ball players out there?) I am not sure how they get to be so big.

The beets are sold by weight. The guy behind the steam cuts them up, gives you a plastic fork, and you eat them on the street.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The NYT is writing about Iranians in Karbala now. Now that it is legal for Iranians to travel to Karbala (at least from Iran's standpoint), I do not meet as many people who are making the trip. The illegal trip cost about $100. The legal trip, now, costs $400.
Resolute Iranian Pilgrims Meet Awed G.I.'s
Maybe that is why more people are walking through the mountains now rather than taking the bus.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Cubs
My family has been praying for the Cubs. I want to encourage everyone who reads this to join us. This is an equal opportunity, non-denominational request. We don’t care who you pray to, just say a prayer for the Cubs.

For any Iranians who might be reading, the Cubs are Chicago’s beloved baseball team. They have never won the World Series. My father claims that part of the problem is that the fans are so loyal. “The owners don’t think they have to pay for great players because Cubs fans are loyal whether they win or lose.” For us fans, and for quite a number of quasi fans, the Cubs winning the World Series would be the equivalent of Iran winning the world cup.

Women’s Dress
My sister reminded me that I have always been averse to dress codes. “Remember when you got kicked out of PE [physical education class] because you wouldn’t wear the gym suit?” Well it was a stupid gym suit. That’s why I would not wear it.

When I was little I always wanted to wear pants to school because we had to wear dresses. If I had grown up in post-revolutionary Iran, I probably would have been a super-fem. Who knows?

Someone from Austin recently wrote asking what she should wear when she comes to Iran for a tour. Since I have not yet recovered my old emails, I will answer her here. So here you go woman from Austin:

If you are on a tour, you are most likely visiting places that other tourists visit, so just relax. Get yourself a nice scarf. I recommend something big that is heavy enough to sit on your head without being tied tightly around your neck.

When we visit cities that are used to tourists, we see women visitors casually dressed. Many simply wear headscarves. Some wear big shirts and loose fitting pants. Some wear long jackets. Some wear floor length skirts and long sleeved shirts.

Don’t worry about dressing like Iranian women. As a foreigner, everyone cuts you a lot of slack here. Just dress modestly. Since you are coming in the Fall, the weather will be cool enough so that the headscarf and any other outer clothing you wear won’t be a burden.

If you are going to small towns off the beaten path, you may be more comfortable with a longish lightweight jacket in a subdued color. Otherwise, women here are wearing increasingly bright colors: pink, baby blue, and even orange are fairly common. K’s sisters commented that their local newscaster was wearing a yellow scarf (more like a hood than a scarf) the other night. Cream and black are still the most common.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

L’Shana Tovah
Our local grocery was covered with Rosh HaShana decorations.

My sister…
Never reads my blog. Can you believe it? Of course she had some excuse about her computer being too slow for her to surf the web. Hey, it’s text only, sister! And I am writing it for her and the rest of my friends and family so they won’t keep asking me how things are going! Don’t worry, I still love you even if you never read my blog.

A night out
It’s been a bad week. I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say that even K has offered to sacrifice a sheep if things get better.

After a particularly exhausting day, K, his nephew, and I went to the movies. The theater was big, with roomy seats, a big screen, and good enough speakers. The film we chose was a comedy very much in the style of the comedies made under America’s censorship laws: chaste, smart, funny, and charming. It featured a man who is engaged to be marry, but does not quite have his heart in it despite the fact that he loves the woman. During his engagement, he meets the woman of his dreams who is divorced. After a series of mishaps, they finally get together.

On the way back from the theater, we stopped at the hospital to visit a friend. While we were waiting, we watched these absolutely gorgeous women conduct “business.” They were out in front of the hospital looking for “clients.” (Their words.) Just about every single car slowed down for them, including the cars filled with women. The women kicked most of the cars filled with men, did a little dance for the women, and almost got into a number of fights. One acceptable car stopped. Two good-looking, young men were sitting in the front seat. One woman got in. The other waited on the curb. About five minutes later, the first woman was back.

“That was fast,” I commented.

Soon, three other women joined the first two. One was clearly very high. She was a bit unsteady on her cork-heeled sandals and her eyes were narrowed into two slits. Now all four women stood kicking cars that slowed down for them.

“What kind of offer is good enough for them to get into the car,” I asked K?

“I don’t know. Maybe 40,000,” he said.

“That’s more than most prostitutes make in New York,” I responded.

A car stopped and two of the women got in. The driver was a fat, more than middle-aged, unshaven guy. This left two women on the curb.

A woman in a small white Honda-Civic-like car pulled up to the curb. The two women waiting gave here an enthusiastic greeting and piled in. They were all gone now. At least that is what we thought. Less than five minutes later, we saw the women down on the corner. Soon they were back in front of the hospital. They wandered in and out of the hospital. “Probably using the bathroom,” K said.

As the women came and went it became obvious that they could not possibly be engaging in sexual acts. They never rode with a driver more than one block and never spent more than 2 or 3 minutes in the car. (I am sure there are a lot of women making jokes about men right now.) The street was packed with cars, so they had no opportunity for privacy even if 3 minutes were enough to complete any sexual act they had started.

“They must be selling drugs,” K commented.

Meanwhile, a bearded man who was dressed in the green suit that seems to be the uniform of government workers had come outside to make a phone call. He talked on the phone while the four women fearlessly continued their antics.

“A couple of years ago, he would have had them arrested,” K commented. “Now he can’t do anything. What do you think he is thinking right now?”

“He’s thinking that he hates Tehranis,” I said. K laughed.

Revolution (just kidding)

K met another one of the thousands of government officials who roam the streets of Tehran. Of course, K started by telling him how much he doesn’t like the government. He tells everyone this. That is the key part of his standard introductory remarks. So far, this has not gotten him into any trouble. In fact, quite the opposite.

The two were talking when the official told him that there are a number of things that the regime thinks would bring down the government. He mentioned these two specifically:

1. Trying to force women back into chadors and restrictive clothing: “The women would never stand for it. They would bring down the government rather than wear chadors again.”
2. Stopping production of their stinky, dangerous, polluting car: The Peykan. “We know it’s dangerous. We know it pollutes too much. The manufacturing of these cars is a giant monster that we cannot control. Investing money does not help. This could eventually bring down the government.”

Monday, September 22, 2003

September 22, 2003

What me worried?

Why I have not been blogging:

The phone lines were being repaired and only working sporadically.

My computer needed to get backed up and reformatted (always a pain in the ass.) I am still having problems importing my old emails.

Johnny Cash died.

Our internet service provider blocked everything from blogspot. All 1,000,000 blogs. I got a little worried, but resident Iranians have assured me that I have nothing to worry about. “Have you looked at the papers recently,” they all say? “You can’t be more critical than they are.”

That’s true. I don’t even plan to be critical. Which brings me to my next point:

I am not a journalist

A lot of Iranians tell me that my blog makes too many assumptions about Iran and Iranians. “You should take time to get the whole story,” I hear over and over again. This blog is a series of observations about being here. It is not meant as a research project or a piece of journalism. I tell stories about what I am experiencing. For me, what is interesting is how much my experiences of and assumptions about the country and the culture change over time. It is as much or more about me (and K) than about Iran and Iranians.

And besides, how the hell am I supposed to get a complete picture of anything? Does such a thing ever exist? Aren’t we still discovering new things about well-documented historical events? Iran isn’t a mineral with a finite set of characteristics. No matter how long I examine it, there will be something new to understand.

Which gets me to my next point:


People who know and love me know how fond I am of exaggeration. Listen, I am a mere beginner compared to Iranians. “This is the worst regime in the world,” I have heard many people say. I think even Thomas Friedman had a quote from Hussein Khomeini saying exactly that. (I know that I should link to it, but surfing with a slow and unreliable dial-up connection is a royal pain. And you would have to pay for the article anyway.) In the worst regime in the world, every other cab driver does not complain about politics.

“Iranian food is the best food in the world.” Okay, it’s good. But the best? I don’t think so. That said, I know Iranians living in California who eat only Iranian food, pasta, and the occasional (really occasional) Cantonese dish. They are really chauvinistic about their food.

“No other country has the problems Iran has. There are people here who still live in the first century.” True. But my college roommate grew up without electricity and plumbing. I am quite certain that there are many, many countries in the world facing exactly this issue.

Iran is, without exaggeration, the capital of the car accident.

More exaggerations as they occur to me.

Belated blog

Johnny Cash
I am a lifelong fan of Johnny Cash. As a child, I remember seeing his short-lived program on television, marveling at his deep voice, and black clothes. There has never been a time in my life when I have not listened to Johnny Cash. K used to complain that he sang too much about Jesus and religion and then one day, K too fell in love with the songs.

The last hitchhiker I ever picked up told me that he had seen the ghost of Johnny Cash's redemption on the highway in Memphis. It was then that I realized that I should never pick up another hitchhiker.

One afternoon in Istanbul, I was listening to Unchained and reading Isaac Bashevis Singer when the call to prayer was sounded. It was a brilliant moment.

I have introduced many Iranians to Johnny Cash. Some actually seem to like him. Those who do, knew that I would be sad when I heard that Johnny Cash had died and asked me to play some of his CDs for them. That's how we are spending our free time now. Listening to Johnny Cash.

His CD, Murder, is playing right now.

Gotham Diana
I have to say good things about her. Her emails have been really welcome to me. It is a relief to communicate with someone who is just as confused as I am about the state of the world. I like the fact that she does not tow the party line. (Or is it "toe" the party line? Am I putting my toes up to the line or dragging it behind me? I must have learned this once in English class.)

A big public thanks to Gotham Diana for her engaging emails. She told me that she is not blogging anymore, but if she changes her mind, I’ll link to her.

Not to mention thanks to my friends and family whose regular letters have kept me sane.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

The Women's Party


I was invited to a women's party. When I got there, there was a room full of women elegantly dressed and me in my baggy muslin pants and gray t-shirt. I felt like such a slob. The women had their hair streaked, curled, and set. They were wearing tight, tight pants and low-cut nylon stretch shirts. They were wearing beautiful dresses and elegant pant suits. They wore gold and pearls. The house was amazing: three floors of marble with an indoor pool.

The women were also amazing. Once I overcame my fashion faux pas, I started talking to the women about everything: food, men, politics, religion, culture. This was such a new experience for me. Alone, these women were so relaxed. They didn't attend to my every desire or worry that I was not eating enough. At one point I said, you guys are so different when men are not around. "Yes," one woman answered. "With men we cannot be ourselves."

There were women of all ages there from 6 to 80. Everyone crowded around a big table where delicious food, ripe fruit, nuts, and cakes were laid out. There was a lot of talking and laughing. At one point, the conversation turned to politics and religion. It turned out that most (not all) of the women were Ba'hai. They told me a little about the Ba'hai faith and its respect for all religions. They also told me about all of the Ba'hai who were killed during and after the revolution. There were graphic throat slitting motions all around the table.

"Every religion has its martyrs," one woman told me. "At the beginning of every religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, many people were martyred. Here too, with the Ba'hai. Pregnant women and children were even martyred."

"My grandfather was a mullah," another woman told me. "He and his brother accepted Ba'hai, and here we are today."

"Most of the Islamic people I know are very warm and caring," a bulldog of a woman told me. "There are just a few who are intolerant and crazy."

"There were more intolerant people before," said the first woman. "Now we Iranians like each other more. Now we are more tolerant of each other."

This comment surprised me since most Iranians tell me how much worse people are since the revolution. On the other hand, I was not surprised because the people I have met here have been surprisingly tolerant and open. I told them that even the very religious Muslims that I meet in Iran profess a desire for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Later we spoke about America. One of the Islamic women attending the party told us how much she liked Bush. She also told me that she felt Sharon was fighting for freedom of religion.

You never know what you are going to hear.

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.”

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Girls riding in cars with boys

A friend of ours tells us about his experiences working on a film here: “Every day I was out in the streets in Tehran. I talked to everyone. I saw things that people who have lived there longer have not seen. It was like I was there for ten years. Like take prostitution: in Iran there is not a ‘type’ of woman who prostitutes. For many, it is not a profession, instead it is something that they once in awhile. One 16-year-old girl prostitutes because she is mad at her father. A 25-year-old is on the streets because her husband is a womanizer and she thinks ‘If he can… so can I.’ A 25-year-old student doesn’t have enough money, so she goes to the streets to sell her body. Another woman does it just to see what it is like. Of course, some of the prostitutes are also addicts. But that is not normal.”

As I wrote earlier, all you have to do is walk on the streets without a man in order to discover just how prominent prostitution is here. Yesterday, for instance, I was walking with two 10-year-old girls and men still signaled to me. What did they think I was going to do with the two girls with me? You tell me.

A non-resident Iranian friend of ours was asking her brother (a resident Iranian) to point out prostitutes. He pointed to several women getting into or out of cars in unusual places or situations. She was amazed. “Maybe I could make a little extra money,” she joked.

“It’s so easy,” I told her. “All you have to do is get into one of the cars that honks at you or flashes its lights at you when you aren’t with a man.”

“That’s what those drivers want? I just thought they were all taxis,” our friend said. She was leaning out and telling the drivers her destination they way you do when you are flagging down a shared taxi. They must have thought she was nuts.

Speaking of shared taxis
We were in one today. The driver told us that Saddam had been captured. “When is Bush coming here,” he asked? “We need him.”

I said, “You need our political help, not our military help.”

“Why? We need the military help of America. We are afraid of our government,” he said.

“Military help from America will bring about a second revolution here,” we told him. “You don’t want that.”

While we were heading to our destination, a mullah flagged down the driver. Our driver refused to stop. “May grass grow under his feet,” he said.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A nice, cold beer
K and I split a Heineken, it was cold and delicious. It’s amazing how good mediocre beer tastes when you are not allowed to drink it. That said, bad vodka still tastes like rubbing alcohol to me, and bad whiskey is even worse.

Two personalities
Iranians don’t have good things to say about each other. The women don’t say good things about the men, and the men don’t say good things about the women. They don’t seem to like themselves very much.

“The women don’t even know who they are anymore,” one male friend tells us. “They have to go through so many morality tests and pretend so much that they don’t know what their real personality is.”

“Everyone here has at least two personalities,” K’s nephew tells me. “We have to.”

When I talk to people about this, they say, “It was not like this before the revolution.” I am not sure if this is nostalgia speaking or the truth. Since the revolution, I have heard, money has become more important. “Most family arguments are about money,” a friend tells me. Everyday we meet taxi drivers who were pilots, mechanics, and doctors. They cannot earn enough money at any of these jobs to support their families. “Driving a taxi pays a lot better,” we hear over and over again.

So, since the revolution, the mullahs and their families have gotten rich, while others have become poor. One woman we met who served in both the Shah’s army and the Islamic Republic’s army showed us copies of her paychecks from before and after the revolution. Before, she made a decent salary. After, it dropped to $75 a month. “Meanwhile,” she said, “the sons of the mullahs became millionaires.”

Many Iranians I meet think that the reason the regime will eventually fall apart is because they have stolen all there is to steal. “It’s amazing that with all of the money they have stolen that there is still money to build new roads and public services,” one friend says. Her brother replies, “Just think how much money there was that they still could spend some on public services.”


The cities have more than two faces as well. Even though the streets are packed with people, most of the life is private. It’s inside people’s houses and in secret places. People find ways to have parties, students have raves, everywhere people argue about politics, watch Hollywood movies, and listen to pop music. On the outside, Tehran is a dingy, unremarkable, sprawling city. One pale brick building after another fills the neighborhoods. The mosques offer the only relief from the dull architecture. They are gorgeous with blue domes and bright tile work.

Here are some of the things I see almost every day:
Awkward light sculptures of horses and peacocks;
Huge murals of Iran’s martyrs;
4-story paintings of Khomeini (who looks like most children’s imagination of God: a bearded man floating in a cloud) and Khameini;
Billboards of Fatima: a woman in a chador with a light for a face, holding a wounded soldier;
A billboard of a man in a headband looking up and shouting something with the slogan translated as: “Our young folks are the man of martydom and hero;”
A 3-story mural of the American flag: its stripes are the tails of falling bombs with the familiar slogan: “Down with America” perfectly translated;
Deteriorating fountains that sometimes send their streams of water in unintended directions;
Billboards for Samsung, Siemens, and DeLonghi products;
Construction everywhere.

You can get around Tehran pretty inexpensively in shared taxis. To do this, you stand on the street -- usually near a bus stop or crowd of people – and lean out from the curb saying your destination to the passing cars. If the driver is going in your direction, he stops, and you get in. Sometimes we take 3 of these taxis to get to a destination.

The taxis can take 5 people. Three sit in the back. Two share the front passenger’s seat. The first time I got into a shared taxi, I was surprised when a second fairly large man sat in front practically on the other passenger’s lap.

I say that the taxis can take 5 people, but one day when we were outside of Tehran, I saw 12 people get out of a taxi. (With the driver, that makes 13). Two of the 12 were small children, two more were big children, the other 8 were adult-sized. They carried huge pots of food with them as well. It was like watching the clown car at the circus: just when you think that no one else will come out of the cab, 4 more people come out.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

July 23, 2003
American Life

An easy 15 minute walk from K’s brother’s house in Tehran takes you to a busy shopping area. You can get anything there from Eggerman glass to antiques left behind from the fall of the Shah to coffee to flip flops. The stores are deceptively small but seem to hold endless amounts of merchandise. There are at least 2 people at every counter. It seems to me that one person works at each store and the second person is a friend or relative who is there to keep the other company.

I was shopping there with K’s sister and his 18 year old nephew and 22 year old niece. Just outside the stores, we were approached by a whispering man who I automatically ignored. It was a bit like being approached on the streets of New York by men whispering “Pot, pot, pot…” K’s niece and nephew, however, did not ignore the whispering. They responded to the man who then produced a list of CDs and video CDs that he had for sale. They bought two Metallica video CDs, I bought Madonna’s American Life. I just could not resist the opportunity.

Later that evening we all sang along to American Life: K’s nieces and nephews know every word of the song. I put on the headphones to listen to the rest of the CD. Madonna sings this song called something like “I’m not religious” (I don’t know the exact name because my CD just says ‘track 1, track 2…) that actually made me cry. I am becoming quite sentimental.

The next morning, we boarded a bus to travel southwest. The door opened, and we were greeted by two stickers bearing the American flag and the Canadian flag. The text read: Looking forward to welcoming the US [Canadian] team to the World Cup.

The wedding

The young woman upstairs is getting married. Yesterday the family bought a sheep and had it killed in the front yard. Nahid, her daughter, and I went out to watch while K and his brother stayed inside. K thought we were out of our minds. He had never seen an animal butchered and did not want to. I had seen an animal butchered before. It was a pig that my Florida neighbors raised in our backyard. Together we fed it and then ate it for Christmas dinner.

The butcher brought the sheep into the yard. It had green and red stripes painted on its back and was (understandably) very nervous. The family of the woman getting married fed the sheep milk and apples. They calmed him by petting him and talking to him. When he was ready to be killed, the butcher gently held the sheep while the father of the bride talked to him and stroked his head. I think he might have said a prayer. I am sure he thanked the sheep for giving up his life. When he was finished, the butcher killed him with a quick cut of the knife. The sheep died instantly. Some of the men put their hands into the sheep’s blood. I am not sure why.

The butcher really knew what he was doing. He did not get any blood on himself. Everything he did, he did quickly and cleanly. After killing the sheep, he blew him up like a balloon. When he cut into the sheep all of the air came out into the face of a 7-year-old girl who said yick, laughed, and jumped out of the way.

Late last night, the neighbors brought over some liver kebabs from the sheep, which K, his brother, and his brother’s wife ate without telling me. They thought I was asleep.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

(A note to all of my Iranian friends: now I know why you guys get kicked out of so many American campsites… :) Americans like to camp for the fresh air and the sounds of nature and the starry skies. You like all that plus a lot of singing, talking, and flashlight overuse. And you guys never f-ing sleep!)

We went camping. We rode in a minibus to a mountain with ice and snow on its peaks. After all of the hot weather here, I was looking forward to feeling really cool. Because K and I had a lot of work and last minute issues to deal with, we ended up leaving 3 hours later than planned. This meant that when we arrived at the mountain we could not see the path because the moon had not yet risen. Not seeing the path meant that we were stumbling on rocks and through mud to get to a campsite near some shepherd families. The boys laughed as we tried to set up our tents in the dark. The women offered us doogh (a yogurt drink); it was the best doogh I have ever had in my entire life. (I love doogh, btw.) They also offered us a place in their tents for the night. K’s sister agreed, but her daughter wouldn’t let her.

There was a clean, ice-cold stream at the bottom of our camp. It was great to be in really fresh air, with clean, cold water, and the smell of cows and goats.

The next morning, we made our way up the mountain. (I won’t even tell you how much weight we were carrying for our two-day trip. Let’s just say that Iranians are tougher than I am…) We had backpacks, Ikea sacks, coolers, and a heavy gas stove. For almost three hours we headed slowly up, walking on the edge of a river, along a narrow and slippery path. It was not at all dangerous, just a little difficult.

We arrived at our campsite, which was ringed with Red Crescent tents. At first, I thought we had arrived at a sparsely populated refugee camp. (It was the tents that made me feel this way.) K knew everyone there, which surprised me. “I am seeing so many old friends,” he said. I thought it was a strange coincidence. What everyone had neglected to tell me was that we were attending the one-year death anniversary of a family friend. That friend had climbed almost every major mountain in the world, including Everest, and had died the previous year of a heart attack in the mountains close to his birthplace.

When we arrived, there were about 50 people at the campsite. The women and men were dressed the way they felt comfortable. Some of the women were wearing their headscarves, most were not, and some of the men were wearing shorts, most were not.

I felt so comfortable and safe with these people. I looked around and thought, “These are the same men who make me nervous when I see them in the cities.” But among them, I felt at ease.

That day we took a hike to an ice tunnel and cooled ourselves in a waterfall. I got to wear a sports bra and my pants to bathe in the waterfall. “Tell everyone that you could dress this way in Iran,” K’s family told me. “People in Holland go out in the streets in less than this,” I told them. When we returned from our hike, everything had changed. Hundreds of people had arrived, and the women arriving now were no longer removing their scarves or manteaus. The women who earlier had been wearing whatever they wanted were now wearing scarves and, in some cases, manteaus. I told K’s niece that this made me feel unsafe. “Why,” she asked? “Because now I don’t know who to trust. I don’t know who here is forcing the others to dress differently.” “You are right,” she said.

It was this event that made me capable of articulating what is making me so obsessed about the dress restrictions here. Earlier, I could say that it was the restrictions themselves that made me uncomfortable. Now I knew that it was more than that: it was the invisible enforcement that upset me. It was the feeling of not being able to trust completely trustworthy people. And I know, now, that this mistrust is something that both men and women in Iran carry with them all the time.

“Didn’t you see the sign when we entered the village,” K asked? “It said: ‘It’s everyone’s responsibility to report infractions of Islamic law,’ and then it gave a telephone number.”

The ceremony
K and I sat on a boulder overlooking our campsite. From there, we could see lines and lines of people arriving. (It was a little bit like the pictures from the California Gold Rush.) By the time the sun had set, at least 400 people had arrived and there were still more coming. You have to understand that these 400 people were not all strong, young hikers. There were all ages represented. Babies were there, 3-year olds made the climb, the oldest person there was about 70.

There were a speaker and microphone set up. People were making short speeches about the man who had died. K and his brother and I went into the center of the ring of tents for a better view of the ceremony. As we arrived some music came on the speakers. Everyone who was sitting stood up. I looked around and saw that everyone who was still in their tents was coming out. There were at least 500 people now standing and singing along to the recorded music. “It’s the Iranian nation anthem,” K whispered. “Not the Islamic Republic’s.” I can’t tell you how moving this experience was for me – and I am not even Iranian. I am just someone who has begun to fall in love with the different people I meet every day and to wish them the very best that life can offer them.

The rest of the ceremony included speeches, songs, and music. There was some truly beautiful tar (a sitar-like instrument) playing. Later, lights were lit on the summit of the mountain to commemorate the dead friend. You need to understand that lighting the fires on the summit meant that three climbers had climbed almost straight up for one day to light the fire at the exact time of the ceremony. The 500 of us gathered at this site responded with cheers that I am sure they heard where they were: about 2 kilometers higher than us. I felt so lucky to be here among these people. (This was a change from the mistrust I felt earlier in the evening.)

The ceremony wound down, and people got ready for bed. Every once in awhile we were awoken by an announcement. At about 1 am we heard, “We need 5 mountain climbers to go help a family who is stuck down the mountain.” 30 minutes later we heard, “The family has safely arrived.” We were sleeping when the speakers blared back on and singing began. Anybody who had been asleep (like me) was now awake. People started to come out of their tents to sing along. K’s brothers and sisters joined us outside. They were all singing with the two men sharing the microphone. I wished I could sing along.

“These are songs that were illegal after the revolution. If you sang any of them, you could be arrested and put in jail for 20 years.”

Eventually the generator ran out of gas. The lights dimmed, and the speakers were silenced.

The next morning, 500 people waited in line to use the 2 latrines. Luckily, there were far fewer women than men, and luckily, I was the first woman to get up.

About National Anthems
We Americans know ours, the Dutch do not know theirs, and, like most Europeans, are skeptical of any type of nationalism. I, on the other hand, think a little bit of nationalism is a good thing. It brings different “tribes” together under the idea of nationhood.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

K and I are going camping, so it will be a few days before we post again. (K might post early tomorrow.)


The last couple of nights we went to the mountain at the edge of Tehran for dinner. It was a bit like a combination of driving from San Jose to Santa Cruz to spend a day at the beach and visiting Epcot Center. (Only with trash.) There were thousands of people there, almost all of them Iranian. (I did attract many stares and comments as one of the few non-Iranians – maybe the only one.)

The first night, the traffic was terrible. We parked at the bottom of the mountain and walked up to the attraction. When we got to the “entrance,” we saw that there was a police checkpoint. “These guys are terrible,” Fereshte, a woman we were meeting for the first time that night, said in a determined and loud voice. “All they want to do is ruin our fun.” Later we saw the police stop a car just because the music was too loud. (Where are the Iranian police at 4 am when a car is blaring its music outside my window?) “Those guys are stupid,” our friend said. “They know there is a checkpoint, but they are still blaring their music. Now the police can take away their car for a month.”

We walk up past the busiest part of Darband, past families, mullahs, college students, government supporters, government opposition, women with their scarves down below their ears, women in full chadors, large groups of men, large groups of women, the young, the old, babies, two donkeys, barbecued corn, mulberries in syrup, dried fruit, fresh walnuts floating in giant jars of water, grills filled with kebabs tended by men with large straw fans keeping the flames going, cigarettes, gum, toys, masks, and posters of Iranian teen-idols. It’s fun. The air is fresh. A stream runs down the mountain. People sit on carpet-covered wooden beds eating kebab and smoking water pipes. It’s fun. It’s Iranland.

When we go out with our friend Reza, we are in an Iran filled with gorgeous, energetic women who speak English, wear tight, fashionable manteaus, barely-there scarves, and attend lectures by famous philosophers. In Reza’s Iran, people disdain Islam, and the government is about to fall.

At other times, the Iran we are visiting has a government that is still strong even though no one thinks that the mullahs will be running it for much longer. Women dress conservatively even when they are rebelling; there is a tight-knit group of men who are politically savvy, Islamic, and poised to take the reigns from the mullahs when the time comes. Secularization is a long way off and tradition is extremely strong.

Sometimes I feel like I am inside a four-dimensional house. (Who wrote that sci-fi story? Heinlein? I can’t remember.) Each time I walk through a door or look out the window, I am in a completely different place.

Men, again

After my little rant yesterday, I wanted to say something nice. One thing that is nice about being in Iran is that men are free to show their affection for one another (even though homosexuality is illegal). There is something so wonderful about good male friends who are permitted to show each other the kind of physical affection that is common for women friends all over the world. That part of male bonding feels safe and warm.

Another thing that I absolutely adore about being here is that there are no “wild pissers” (as they are called in Amsterdam). It is nice to walk on clean streets, free of human urine, spittle, and dog shit. I like it.

And one more thing about men… as much as they complain about military service, that service gives them a freedom rarely afforded to women here. It takes them out of the house, gives them a bit of independence, introduces them to other men their age who live all over Iran, and provides them with lifelong friends and business associates.

Satellite TV
All over the country, the Iranian stations satellite-casting (is there a word for this) mainly out of Los Angeles were blocked. The government did not want resident-Iranians to hear about the demonstrations planned for July 9th so they blocked the stations. Yesterday we heard, that the satellite-casting was blocked from Cuba. “Fuck Cuba,” K said when he heard.


W is not very popular in Iran. Despite what we heard from the Judge (read the “Here Comes the Judge” post for more information about that), I have yet to meet a resident Iranian who thinks he is anything but a “very bad man and crazy.”

Non-resident Iranians living in America seem to have a different opinion. Here is what a friend’s brother told us, “I may not agree with him on everything, but one thing is for sure, the pressure he is putting on the mullahs is going to have them out of power within a year.”

“Do you mean that troops are coming in,” I asked?

“Not a single troop. Political pressure will be enough. Americans know that Iranians are different from Arabs.”

Monday, July 14, 2003

I am a big fan of K’s blog and wish that he would find time to write. My Persian is not nearly as good as his (for obvious reasons), so I always learn something new when I read his blog.

K, however, is overwhelmed and busy and a much slower writer than I am, so I will have to wait. Until then…


For a long time (at least for the last 20 years since I worked on a construction crew with mostly men), I have been asking myself how individual men can be so nice and kind, but, as a group, can turn into such assholes? Groups of men have always scared me. They often seem to imitate the behavior of the worst among them. Sorry men.

Iran is filled with groups of men and groups of women.

How can a society that is so divided along gender lines be successful? I think it cannot. Please note that I am not saying that you cannot have a successful business or a successful religion. I just don’t think you can have a successful society if men and women are rigidly divided. (Maybe I’m just bitter because I can’t go to the water park with K’s nephew and could not go swimming this morning because the pool was reserved for men.)

Men and women are meant to interact on more levels than just the family level. They should work together and play together and be together. Islamic societies, with their rigid social divisions, cannot be successful. (This, of course, is my own amateur point of view) It is not the West that is keeping these countries down, it is their own social norms.

I was thinking about this very topic when I received an article via email: a talk with Robert Sapolsky about his work with primates. (From Edge 118)

For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man-if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important-balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.

* * *

When it’s just the “girls” and me out walking, we are constantly “chatted up.” (You women out there, imagine a much lower key version of walking by a construction site.) This happens just as often when I am walking with a woman in her early 20s as it does when I am walking with a woman in her early 60s. Another thing happens. Men try to figure out if we are willing to get into their cars with them. For instance, K’s 20-year-old niece and I were crossing the street. First a bus driver with an empty bus flashed his lights and signaled to us. Then a young man in a Range Rover did the same. Then a middle-aged man in a Paykan (the popular & stinky Iranian-made car) did the same. After getting “flashed” by four cars, we made it across the street where K was waiting for us. The flashing stopped as soon as we were with a man.

K wanted a coffee, so we went to the Hotel Homa, which is pretty chi-chi for Iran. The coffee was great. The women were gorgeous. The men were well-dressed. The children were fat. After our coffee we went for a walk. Suddenly we heard some noise and saw two groups of young men running. One guy flew up in the air in a total Buffy the Vampire Slayer kickboxing move that hit another guy right in the head. The other guy, Hossein, was on the ground before the kickboxer landed. Hossein looked dead. His friends panicked. They shook him, slapped his face, and dragged him to the drainage ditch to pour water on his head. We all thought Hossein was dead. I think the worst part of the whole experience for me was that I have had a lot of first aid training (starting when I was six and taking swimming lessons) and knew what to do (at least until professionals arrived). There was no way for me to help or even to offer help. I was as afraid of Hossein’s panicking friends as Hossein’s attackers. “Everyday Iranians watch Rescue on television,” I said to K, “you’d think that they would have picked up some tips about what to do when someone has a head injury.”

BTW, Hossein did finally regain consciousness. Who knows what happened next?

This is the third fight we have seen. This may just be bad luck: no one else we have spoken with has seen as many fights as we have.

Two of the fights were scary and super, super fast; all involved young men and boys. The first fight we saw involved a couple of boys who were fighting in the street. The second was a group of teens with stones and knives, the third was the kickboxing match in Tehran. When we told an Iranian friend about the fights we have seen, he was shocked, “Where have you been,” he asked?

Another story about men.

Most men I have met here are incredibly lazy about work inside the home. One Iranian (a man who lived in Canada for 22 years and is now back in Iran) actually told me that women wouldn’t have it any other way. “We bring home the bacon, after all. Working at home is easy compared to working outside the home. You don’t have to deal with bad bosses or boring work. I think most women would rather just be working at home.”

“You have not been talking to many women,” I told him. The women in the room agreed with me.

(It’s no wonder he is still single.)

Thursday, July 10, 2003

July 10, 2003

One of our readers complained that all of the initials I used were confusing. K and I talked and we agreed that unless the name was unusual enough to identify someone, we would go ahead and use first names. (Note to that reader: all of these names are new. I met them after I emailed you.)

What happened?
Most people probably want to know what happened last night. I know that I would like to know more as well.

“The whole city was supposed to turn out for the demonstration,” Mohsen said. “This was supposed to be a big event. Last night [July 8th], the regime flew in[bused? I can’t remember] over 1000 guys from Kermeshah. They have soldiers, police, and undercover intelligence all over the city now. No one will go out.”

“It usually takes us 1 1/2 hours to make it here from where we are staying,” Farshid added. “You know, traffic and everything. Tonight it took 20 minutes. No one is out.”

They are right. No one is out. Even today, the day after, traffic is light. Right now we are at K’s brother’s house. If I look out the back window, I see a highway off-ramp. Right now, I don’t hear any traffic. That is a first. The traffic near us is always bad because once you leave the highway, the road narrows. Last night, we zipped home. When we arrived here, there was no traffic. It was eerie.

I say we zipped home. On the way, however, we passed several army checkpoints. We got flagged over at the first one. There were 2 adults there: one in uniform, one in street clothes. Supporting them were at least 15 boys in uniform (unarmed, Thank God). These were boys. They weren’t even shaving. Do you know how young an Iranian has to be not to shave?

We saw this pattern repeated at the next three checkpoints we passed. Where did these boys come from? ? They looked like boy scouts. Maybe they were. Later K’s sister explained to me that they were the Basigi (Revolutionary guard) youth.