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.

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