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.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Happy birthday Eli!
I did not forget. I am just slow.

July 9, 2003
There is a big demonstration planned for tonight. “The government has at least 1000 guys undercover for the demonstration,” K’s friend tells him. (Does that mean we should subtract 1000 from the turnout)

K wants to go, but no one will let him. “It will take about 5 minutes to arrest you. You look too foreign now. Once they arrest you, you will be in prison for about a month.” K is disappointed, but he is not stupid.

We can hear helicopters outside. Inside and everywhere else we go, people are talking about the twins.

They wanted to see each other face to face, they said, and to pursue independent lives. And so Ladan and Laleh Bijani, 29-year-old Iranian twins who were born joined at the head, asked doctors to go ahead with a risky operation to separate them.

Neither survived. The sisters died of blood loss yesterday afternoon within 90 minutes of each other, doctors said, after a team of surgeons at Raffles Hospital in Singapore worked for 50 hours to separate their brains.

Follow the money
Our sources tell us that the mullahs are sending their money out of the country. Hmmm…
“The time for breaking out the champagne is coming,” a friend tells us.

Reap the whirlwind
When you are in Iran, you become really concerned about the price of change. People are really struggling to have normal lives. That’s all they want.

I have visions of suicide bombings. While most of the Iranians we meet are impervious to the rantings of the more hate-filled mullahs (you can easily find pamphlets that print their sermons as comedy), there must be some who are not. The thing is that it doesn’t take many to destabilize and terrorize a region.

“The mullahs are going, but they won’t go out without a fight. Their mobs will be attacking places that they think are western,” C tells us. “Coffee houses, pizza places, pool halls – those places will all be targets.”

What I have learned about judging a book by its cover
I have learned that the woman covered in a black chador that she holds in her teeth may be just as fed up with the Islamic government, its corruption, and the restrictions it places on daily life as the woman with the “diaphanous scarf” (as one of our readers wrote) and the pink manteau.

I have a dream. I dream about a day when police stop harassing women and men about their dress and marital status and start harassing drivers about driving in the wrong lane and on the sidewalk and through a red light.

“I have worked with some engineers,” a friend tells us. “We created a plan for easing the traffic in Tehran. We could implement it in less than a year, and it would relieve the traffic. The problem is that right now, traffic is the last thing on people’s minds.”

Taxi Drivers
As K says, they love to talk. Yesterday I got into a taxi alone (for the first time). The driver was really patient with my beginning Persian, and we managed to have a pretty good conversation. He asked me about K. He wanted to know if he was balding with a face full of hair (pretty standard for Iranian men.) He asked why I don’t have a wedding ring. (I told him that my fingers are too fat. They are.) I asked how he liked living in Tehran (He liked it). In the middle of this fairly innocuous conversation, he announced that the mullahs were bad. “They are bad. Dirty. They have 5 wives.”

Will I ever meet someone who likes the mullahs?

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

July 5, 2003


Those of you who are curious about the democracy demonstrations have come to the wrong place. Those demonstrations might as well be happening on another planet for all we know. The first city we visited, Arak, is too religious (or, should I say, Hezbollahi? That’s what K’s family would say to describe the political tone of the town) for much unrest. The second city, Ahwaz, is too wealthy. Both cities have universities that have remained open. We just arrived in Tehran and may have more information soon.

“A lot of the opposition groups in Los Angeles,” says K, “seem to think that democracy means that they will get to open casinos and liquor stores in Iran. Some of the people I talk to think it means they will be able to walk on the streets with their girlfriends.”

Democracy is a lot of work. As an American, I am constantly struck by the feeling that many of my cohorts have that the government should take care of them. I learned very young that some of the biggest whiners about American democracy don’t vote. If they do vote, they often ignore the primaries or local elections. This is my favorite line of crap about the presidential election: “We don’t have any choice. There are only 2 candidates and they are basically the same” What the fuck are they talking about? I remember a primary chock-filled with choices. Where were they when the small minority of us voters was choosing the two candidates that they don’t like? Likely they were too busy to notice the primaries. Democracy is a lot of work and a lot of compromise and it does not take care of you. You take care of it. If you don’t take care of it, somebody else will.

If you want government to take care of you, then come to Iran. This government will tell you how to dress (men and women), what religion to believe in, and what to think. (Not that Iranians are listening…) Government that cares for you turns you into a child.


(For those of you who are not interested in women’s dress, skip this.)
Now I know where the reporters live. We are in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran. It is a good 7 degrees (Celsius) cooler here than a few miles down the mountain in the south of Tehran, the air is a bit cleaner, and the grocery store has mozzarella. When we look out the window, we see a mountain and the garden of Rafsanjani’s son.

Like the reporters say, the women here are barely covering their hair. Their manteaus look great and many of them wear ankle-revealing Capri pants. The first woman I saw here had her fashionable black manteau open to reveal a skin-tight tiger print shirt.

K and I walked for hours downtown. After the all-black sea of Arak’s women, the multi-colored, fashionable women here were quite a sight. I could not stop looking. It was as if my eyes had been starved for color and now they were being fed. Orange, purple, blue, pink… I was starving.

Restrictions aside, the worst thing about wearing the manteau and headscarf is that people tell me how good I look in them.

Here comes the judge

C asks me to put on my scarf while his friend the judge is visiting. I just have to put it on my head. K does not want me to tie it.

Meanwhile, we are watching Roman Polanski’s film Bitter Moon, which features a crazy woman and a crazy man having alternative sex. “Why,” I ask, “am I wearing a headscarf while we’re watching this movie?” Everyone laughs, but no one can explain.

C adds that I also wanted to know why men could see me without my manteau when we went swimming in the river, but in the city it was required. (More about swimming in your clothes later...) Again, no one could explain.

Eventually our conversation turns to politics. “Are Iranians aware of the concern the rest of the world has about its nuclear capabilities?” (wmd info)

“No. But neither were the Russian people under the Soviet Union.” (We all know what happened to the Soviet Union…)

K thinks nuclear weapons will protect Iran. “I am against this government, but I think they are right to get nuclear weapons. Israel has them, Pakistan and India do too.” I think they will make Iran less safe. The judge agrees.

“I am with this government,” he says, “but I think they are wrong. Israel has a different geopolitical situation. Pakistan and India are enemies. Iran has no enemies. America is not our enemy. We make them our enemy. I think the Iranian leaders lack wisdom when it comes to dealing with America. America is like a strong and powerful young man. You tell him you are his friend, and he will do anything for you. You tell him you are his enemy, and he will attack.” (Our judge friend might be interested in an article published in Al-Quds Al-Arabi and translated by Memri, which discusses the root of bad leadership decisions in the middle-east.

"[The first anomaly] is the backwardness in the decision-making process. [The second] is the inability to rationally read the balance of powers before entering any given struggle. [The third is] the deluded belief that divine intervention in history will produce results contrary to the laws of the balance of powers. Finally, [the fourth anomaly] is the suicidal madness of the Jihad [war] and of sacrifice on the altar of faith as a magical religious solution to the deficiency in the balance of power."

Later in our conversation the judge adds, “You know what makes a country secure? A good economy and happy people. Nuclear weapons and a strong army do not make a country safe.”

When we wake up the next morning K says, “I don’t want the mullahs to have nuclear weapons. You guys are right.”

Worried Dad

“Is mom as worried about me as you are,” I ask my father?

“No. She’s pretty cool with the whole thing.”

“What are you worried about?”

“Everything. Like what happens when people find out you are American?”

“Everybody here is so nice to me. When they find out I am an American they are even nicer. Iranians love Americans. They just don’t like Bush.”

“Then we have something in common,” my father laughs.

Later that evening when our visitor, the judge, arrives, I tell them this story. “Americans have no better friend in the Middle East than the Iranians,” the judge says. (This is the conversation that led me to ask about nuclear weapons.) He adds that there are plenty of Iranians who like Bush. I just have not met them yet.

The Bus

We took the bus to Tehran. Everyone had assigned seats, but there were no numbers on the seats. Three men worked on the bus throughout the trip: the driver, the guy who talked to the authorities at each toll stop, and the guy who handed out soft drinks and snacks. Our snack consisted of two cakes, two pieces of candy, and one chocolate covered cookie. Iranians love their sugar.

We saw a movie that seemed to fit the pattern of the typical domestic Iranian film: young couple gets married, there is some tragedy, a lot of arguing, some craziness, a couple of laughs, and then they work things out. I can see this pattern clearly from the trailers we see for other films. The films exported from Iran also fit a pattern: people in a village struggling or people from a village struggling. (Okay, this is not 100% true. It certainly isn’t true of my favorite filmmaker: Kiarostami.)

A message panel at the front of the bus displayed the time, inside temperature, and outside temperature. I know how hot it was every minute of the trip from Arak to Tehran. “Look K, it’s hotter inside than it ever gets in Holland.” And we felt comfortable.

Iranians complain to the UN

R says, “We have to complain to the UN about America. America has closed the border with Iraq and that has made it much harder for us to get good whiskey.”

“Don’t bother with the UN,” I say. “We Americans don’t pay any attention to the UN anyway. I’ll write to my congressman for you.”

I’ve had a lot of whiskey here. The best is at the home of the most devout member of K’s family. Before I go on, you have to understand that he has this whiskey for guests; he does not drink it himself. In his case, hospitality trumps devotion.

Church lady

How many of you have seen The Saturday Night Live skit: Church Lady? If you have, you will be happy to know that Church Lady is alive and well and appearing daily on Iranian television. Only this show features Mosque Man and his sidekick, Holy Woman. They have a call-in talk show with the exact same set (no kidding) that SNL used for Church Lady. Today they were discussing what makes a woman good or bad. I could not understand enough to tell you what makes a woman good or bad, but I gather that neighbors, husbands, clean houses, and devotion to the Koran all featured in the discussion.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

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Kill me and make me beautiful

I got my haircut last night. It was like venturing into some secret, underground political organization. El took me to an unmarked building. (Okay, it may have been marked in some way that I did not recognize. My reading comprehension is pretty low.) The windows were completely shuttered. We knocked and entered a curtained entrance way. Pushing the curtains aside, we were there: the salon at last!

About ten women were quietly sitting on wooden folding chairs. There was a kind of dentist’s waiting room feel to the whole thing. As I spent more time there, I realized that the reason this felt like a dentist’s office was because most of these women were about to be subjected to the painful process of facial hair removal. Very few were there for a haircut alone. Ouch!

Posters of women with 80s hairstyles graced the walls. A gorgeous woman with really beautiful eyes and a good haircut was busy shaping the eyebrows of a woman in the barber’s chair.

I immediately thought that my good friend in Omaha would love this place. These women know what to do with thick eyebrows!

First there was some tweezing. Then there was this plucking thing that they do with thread. They take thread, make a loop, twist it, and then snap it on a woman’s face to pluck out small hairs.

Most women needed to do this hair removal process in stages. Tears in their eyes, they asked for breaks and sat down for about ten minutes to wait for their next painful session with the snapping thread.

When they were finished, the women had gorgeous, black eyebrows and clean faces.

“Don’t you want to do your eyebrows?”

“Heavy eyebrows are chic in Europe,” I joke. “Besides, I don’t like pain.”

“The more pain, the more beauty,” El says.

Later, when we are discussing my hairdressing experience, El’s mother says, “Just kill me and make me beautiful.”

Hijab, revisited

When I ask K’s neice and nephew who live in Ahwaz, what happens when women don’t follow the dress restrictions, they answer that the police harass them.

Ask K’s sisters, who live just south of Qom, the same question, and they answer that their neighbors harass them.

That’s the biggest difference between Arak and Ahwaz.

Last night an old friend of K’s sister visited us. This woman was dressed head-to-toe in a chador. (It was a very beautiful chador with blue flowers and a white head covering.) The conversation turned to dress restrictions. (I did not steer the conversation that way.) Soon, all of the women in the room were complaining. These women were angry. The woman in the chador said, “The restrictions are ridiculous. Women can decide how they want to dress all by themselves.”

Fa said, “Plenty of women choose to dress in a hijab outside of Iran without any harassment from the police. It is their choice.”

I said, “It is not the scarf itself that is a problem, it’s the restrictions.” I am often overwhelmed with an almost irresistible urge to rip off my scarf and throw it into the face of the revolutionary guards that we (fortunately) seldom see. When we see the guards, I have to walk by quickly to avoid displaying anger. It’s not easy for me.

Other women my age have more than 20 years experience being repressed and forced to be something they are not. Sometimes you can feel their anger hiding behind their impeccable manners. (Or am I just projecting? Let me know what you think.)

This is for everybody who knows T very well. Last week in Arak we visited a small handicraft exhibition of some local artists. Some of the work seemed worth buying, but we didn’t do that because at the end of our visit we got to see one piece made by the exhibit organizer, which was so nice that all of a sudden everything else looked like student work. It was a small pot, carved intensively with figures, flowers, and views from cities. The details of the work showed that this man was a true master of his craft. When I told the artist that I am not very crazy about handcrafts, but that I did love his, he was very happy.

During this visit and as a result of my conversation with this guy I was asked by a nice woman, dressed in total black from the head to foot and whose eyes I could barely see through oversized, ugly brown glasses, if T and I had some time to talk to her about the exhibition for the city’s newspaper. I told her that I like modern art and that Iranian artists need to spend time looking at the changes in art and not try to make copies of things that others have done a 100 times better. I said that they should look for new ways, forms, and techniques. I gave Iranian film as a good example. The films are fresh, simple, with strong story lines. She asked T if she agreed with me. Right before T was going to answer, she had to sneeze 14 times. By the end of this sneezing session the tape was full. You really had to see that.


I am not crazy about Arak anymore. When I grew up there in the 70s, it was small. Its great weather and beautiful mountains made it excellent vacation place for my two sisters and one bother who came there from Ahwaz with their families. Everybody used to knows my family in Arak. It was fun to walk with my father through the city when I was a child and when he was still living. I used to say I that am Araky everywhere I went.

Arak is just a big, ugly city with a lot of bad industry: Big Oil and chemical plants, and
car manufacturers. Half of Iranians pass through Arak on their way to other cities and that is a big problem too. I used to see a lot of stars at night when we went to the roof to sleep. Now there is too much pollution. I feel that Arak is like a sick person who is laying down in the hospital where nobody cares if you are getting better or worse. There is nobody who cares. I even wonder why they should care. Arak looks like it has been run over by the army of Genghis Khan. So far T’s description of Arak is the best. You really don’t know if the city is getting built or destroyed. It is sad to say this, but I will not miss anything if the city gets rebuilt. This may sound like whining. If you feel that way feel free to visit Arak and see for yourself. My family would love to see you.

Arak is not very different from other cities around the country. So far I have seen not many. The only difference is that Arak is my city, and I waited 20 years to see it again.

Everywhere I go my brothers introduce me to guys my age. I should know them but I don’t. Everybody has changed; they are much older looking than I am. I read a lot of fake brand name logos on their clothes; I see pain in their faces; and I could see that sometimes they say about me that he was very lucky to get out of this town. I hate to say this, but they are right. I am very happy to have had a chance to see others‘ way of living and doing things. I also feel I pay for this for long time.

Taxi driver

How many of you guys have seen “Naked Gun 3 and a half?” Every time the detective wanted to get information, he walked out of the police station, went to the corner to this shoe shiner who knew everything about all the crimes committed in the city of Los Angeles. That’s the way Iranian taxi drivers are.

Today we got into a taxi in the city of Ahwaz. My brother in-law started a conversation right after he argued about the price for driving us from downtown Ahwaz to the oil company housing complex which is located about 6 kilometers out of the town. I was shocked about the comments he made. Clinton’s foreign policies are one of the big reasons that Iran got more powerful, he believed. “He was busy with Monica, and the Mullahs got the chance to buy all of the equipment they needed to build chemical and atomic weapons. It’s not just him,” the driver said. “Democrats are always dumb when it comes to Iran. Look at Carter, he was so blinded because of the Shah’s human rights violations that he failed to notice that women in Saudi Arabia do not even have the right to a birth certificate!”

I was wondering if he really was a taxi driver. He was very articulate about everything. His glasses said a lot about him. Like many of my close friends at the beginning of the revolution, he even mentioned the name of Lenin. In the back seat of the taxi, I was using my new amazing Nikon Coolpix digital camera to take some photos. He was looking at me, and after he heard I used to live in America, he said to me to tell everybody that the Mullahs are finished. He used the fact that they killed the wife of a very prominent Iranian intellectual in a horrifying way (they stabbed her 15 times with a knife.) He said, Furuhar knew he would be killed one day, “Maybe that was the price he had to pay for working with the regime at the beginning of the revolution.”

When I took photo of his back in the taxi, the driver got very nervous. He said, “ I hope you didn’t tape me. I have lost everything. This is the only thing I have right now.” I am still wondering what happened to us. Everybody is so sad, so unhappy. Iranians do tell you everything you want to know; they are not scared anymore. The only problem is that they can’t do whatever they want. I was uncomfortable to talk this frankly in my lecture in a Brooklyn college a couple of months ago when I was asked by my good friend to speak to her class. I don’t want to compare the two totally different situations, but I am amazed.


I am right now in a bus traveling to Tehran. It will take us only 4 hours from Arak. This is the only time T are together alone. It feels good. I am not made for life here. I think for myself too much. In the last 18 days I had 2100 cups of tea, 74 kilos of chicken, 500 kebabs, a ton of bread and cheese, 118 kilos of fresh fruit, 93 kilos of ice cream, and 415 liters of the Iranian version of Coca Cola, yet I have only gained 243 kilos.