Thursday, October 28, 2004

Are you crazy?

When I go visit friends and family in America, they ask me if I am out of my mind to live here in Iran. Sometimes Iranians ask me the same question, but for reasons that may or may not surprise my family and friends. Iranians ask me because they think I am crazy to live somewhere where my freedoms are not respected. Americans ask me because I am an American and because I am not a Muslim.

I have many observant Islamic friends now. Not one of them would dream of enforcing his or her brand of Islam on me or anyone else. "I have never forced my daughter to pray or wear hijab or practice any part of Islam," one of our friends tells me. "She has come to the practice herself, by her own choice." This view is the prevalent one among our friends and family.

This attitude does not seem to be limited to our friends and family. Taxi drivers express similar sentiments without any prompting. Total strangers do the same. A group of young people approached me to practice their English and said something similar to me. I am not a pollster, but I presume that this view is prevalent among Iranians. We'll have to find out.

That said, I get the sense that they would all be thrilled if I converted. That sentiment is not confined to Muslims by any stretch of the imagination. When you practice a minority religion, you notice how often people of a variety of faiths try to convert you.

We were in Isfahan on a recent Friday and could not help hearing the Friday prayers. They are broadcast all over the place. The mullah's Friday sermon contained the obligatory anti-American, anti-European sentiment. This time, the mullah said that Americans and Europeans were actively trying to change Iranian culture through clothing and music. "If Americans were influencing the clothing of Iranian youth," I told our friends, "they would be wearing loose jeans and sweatshirts." Our friends laughed.

I asked Iranians we met if they felt Americans were unfairly influencing their culture. The Iranians laughed and said, "Bring it on!" or "Not enough."

"But Iranians are so materialistic," a European friend commented. "They are so brand conscious – don't you think that is our fault?"

"I heard it was even worse in the time of the Shah," I responded. "I think Iranians come by this naturally."

Iran has a strong culture and a strong sense of history. Somehow they seem to assimilate assaults on their culture. Fast food places here seem, somehow, Iranian. Pop music seems Iranian. Dire Straits sound Iranian when their music is played here. So does Metallica. So does Sheena Easton. I don't know how to describe it. They just seem to be part of Iranian culture instead of an attack on it. Maybe that is because they do not displace Shajarian or Mansour. Even satellite television does not displace the homegrown Iranian serial/soap opera.

We Americans have done such a bad job of communicating with this region of the world. Why then, do you ask, is the view Iranians have of Americans so different from the view their neighbors have? Partly, I think it is because of the sheer number of Iranian expatriates living all over the world. These emigrants are great PR people. Everywhere I go, I meet people with relatives living outside of Iran. This is as true of the wealthy as the poor. I have even met a Nomadic family with a brother living in Germany. We need to learn from the way they represent our world to their families and friends.

When I read about terrorist acts all over the world, I do not see them as attacks against America. I don't even see them as attacks against what America represents. The facts just do not support this view. Synagogues, Mosques, Temples, and Churches have all been attacked. Cinemas, dancehalls, restaurants, and buses have been attacked. People all over the world have been the victims of terrorism. The majority of those victims have not been Americans. These attacks are attacks against diversity, pluralism, tolerance, faith, and modernism. I do not see them as calls for help or acts of desperation, but as acts of intolerance and blinding fear. Our language of fear is contributing to this. When we respond with fear, we use the same language as the people who would seek to terrorize us. When we respond with absolutes, we let them set the tone of the debate. Suffice to say, I think that we are fucking up.

BTW, I read William Safire's article about the vote in Afghanistan. It is really optimistic, but it jibes with what we unofficially hear in Iran. Iranians are extremely optimistic about Afghanistan. (They are also optimistic about Iraq. So you decide how much weight you want to put on their optimism) Iran is crawling with ballot workers who worked collecting the votes of Afghans living here. Here is what one friend told me: "People lined up for hours. They were so thrilled to be able to vote. I could not help but be thrilled for them. There were men and women in their 70s and 80s who had never voted and who could barely contain their excitement. It was so moving for me."

We don't have to be cynical about everything, do we?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Death of a Bagel Man

Sam Lender is dead…

When my great aunt was coming to visit us from Chicago, she asked us what we wanted. My mother said, "Just bring bagels." We lived in a bagel-deprived community and always got bagels from relatives living in St. Louis, Chicago, or New York.

My great aunt arrived with a long story about how she spent hours searching for just the right bagel. Needless to say, we were thrilled. She reached into the bag to hand us our prize: a dozen Lender's bagels.

Your gas guzzler…

…is funding the Shahab Missile project. Think about that next time you get behind the wheel.

I am not excusing the Iranian government for making the decision to extend the range of the Shahab missile: no, not that. I am just telling you that you are funding it.

Iran could use the excess money from oil sales to put emergency preparedness procedures in place in the event of the inevitable earthquakes. Japan has monthly drills. Everyone in the US has practiced getting out of their school or workplace. What about Iran? If I go into a building and ask people where all of the stairways are, they look at me with disbelief. Why would I want to know that?

Oh, and by the way, the mullahs support Bush.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Garden of Heaven

…at the Garden of heaven. For a long time now, I confused the word for "Garden" (Bagh-eh) with the word for Dad (Babba). So when people told me that they were going to the cemetery (literally for Muslims: Garden of Heaven), I knew where they were going, but I heard "Jeanette's Father" (Farsi speakers will understand my meaning).

I still cannot get over a Thursday visit to the graveyard. It is absolutely packed with visitors. On a recent visit, we were surrounded by a huge group of people commemorating the 40th day after their relative's death. People were everywhere: they were standing on graves, drinking punch and eating dates, and introducing wives and husbands. We arrived late: after the requisite, tear-your-hair-out mourning. It seemed to me that we had stumbled on an engagement party. The smiles were broad. Children were jumping and playing. There was plenty of laughter to go around.

At first I thought that either the person whose death they were commemorating was despised or very old. I think the second was true. There were too many people present for a despised person.

I enjoyed watching. It did, I notice, anger the regular mourners just a bit. They have been visiting the graves of their loved ones every Thursday since they died. I am thinking particularly of the mothers of sons who tragically died in car accidents. There are too many of these mothers at the graveyard and too many of their sons buried below the ground.

K was appalled by the state of the graveyard. Kids practice their aim by throwing rocks through the windows of the mausoleums. Garbage was strewn everywhere. The pavilion that hosts funerals is just an empty metal structure: "And Iran calls itself the center of handicrafts...? Why don't they have some on display here?"

K has a constant running commentary on the state of Iran. He is disgusted with the poor craftsmanship, the lack of will, the corruption, religion, politics, news, football, street decorations, earthquake preparedness. Almost every time we get in a taxi he starts with his complaints. By the end of the ride, he usually has the entire car in stitches. When he is really on a roll, he has his entire audience joining in. It might sound like all he does is whine, but it is a particularly funny and astringent whiner. I see a future for him as a stand-up comic.

I am more like a temp. Once I worked as a temp at a failing company. It was fantastic. I learned a lot. I did not get emotionally involved. I didn't care about the bad management, the bad policies, or the failure of the company. I just cared about getting my work done and learning as much as I could while I was there. That's what it's like for me here. I am a temp in Iran.

Armenian is synonymous with Christian in Iran. They have a special place in Iranian society. The Iranian majority thinks that the Armenian minority is more honest and direct than they are. This of course means that the slightest deviation from those expectations is met with extreme disappointment and even prejudice.

All of the Armenians I meet want to talk to me about America. They want to know about Irvine, Pasadena. Orange County, Beverly Hills, Boston, New York, and Chicago. They plan to meet family in America. They are all waiting for green cards or planning to ask for refugee status in Vienna. "Every Iranian has a plan to leave," K's nephew told me.

I sometimes envy the deep roots of people who stay put. Lately, however, I have been so pleased with my rootlessness. I do not envy the Armenian or Jewish populations of Iran with their deep roots in the country and in the history of Iran/Persia/…. I do not envy the sense of history, the memory of oppression and terror, the memory and reality of fear. I am so happy my family made the decision to move to America and cut their ties with a certain type of past. The gift they gave me was the gift of fearlessness, and I thank them for that.

I am happy with my American sense of history: as something that can be overcome. There will always have to be an America: a place where people can go to reinvent themselves and their histories. I get a sense that history remembered is history doomed to be repeated.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Mullah Factory

1.6 million…
…Mullahs. 70 million people. You do the math.

Iran is a mullah factory.

I made our cab driver laugh…
When I quoted this figure to him. It makes every Iranian I know laugh. I bet it makes the mullahs laugh too.

The cab driver eventually dropped us off at Derakeh which is a small area in the mountains filled with restaurants and tea houses. While we were eating dinner with K's nephew, A's mother called. She had found him a wife: a medical student, something of a beauty, with good prospects. The last time I spoke with her about arranged marriages she told me how much her daughters hated the idea of a young man they hardly know coming around to ask for their hands in marriage. "One time I let a young man and his mother come over to see if E would marry him. E was so angry!" I asked, "What kind of a young man gets his mother to arrange his dates?" A's mother said, "Exactly my thoughts."

This is exactly why we all thought she was joking when she called A to see if he wanted to meet this woman. K got on the phone and told her that all marriages had to be arranged through him first. I told her that A was definitely ready for a wife. "But he wants one with an American or EU passport," I told his mother.

At a certain point, the conversation turned serious. A got agitated. He called his mother all sorts of sweet names, a sure sign of agitation. This was even more humorous to watch than when we thought it was a joke. "Are you serious, my heart's delight?" he asked his mother. "No, no, no." A found all sorts of sweet ways to say no.

A is exactly the kind of young man who does not want his mother to make dates for him.

But at a certain point, most mothers want to see their sons settled down with a nice wife, don't they?

When I asked A about the phone call he said, "It was scary. My mom thinks I am going to leave Iran. She doesn't want me to go. That's why she is trying to find me a wife."

Sunday, October 10, 2004

SMS tricks

…20 years of Intelligence operations…

That was the text message sent to Iranian mobile phone users today from the Intelligence Ministry.

That guy and his 50 planes
A few nights ago Iranian television showed a couple of hours of extracts from the satellite program of the guy who promised to bring freedom to Iran in the guise of 50 airplanes filled with government opponents. It was all designed to make him look bad.

Khomeini did not hate America?
Can it be true that Khomeini did not really hate America? Apparently new writings are being published that show that he opposed the infamous "Death to America" rallies.

Prozac Nation…not quite yet…
I often fantasize about owning the Prozac contract for Iran. The whole nation suffers from depression. There is such a pervasive aura of helplessness here. "No one takes care of themselves," K's nephew told me. "No one takes responsibility. No one takes action."

"The will of the country is so broken," K told me after a week of traveling. "Everywhere I go people are so indecisive and corrupt. It's like everything is broken."

Unlike Iranians living outside of Iran, resident Iranians have an inferiority complex. Nothing Iranian is good enough unless it was made hundreds of years ago. They do not trust themselves. They do not like themselves very much. They are so confident of their inferiority, in fact, that they believe themselves to be the center of the world. They exaggerate everything they do wrong. They claim that they live in the worst country in the world with the worst government. They all say they want to move to America. And then, and then, dig a little deeper and they are proud of Iran and proud to be Iranian. As a culture, Iranians display the symptoms of individual depression. They can be listless, apathetic, and negative with flashes of energy and pride.

Iranians are caught in a blip of history. They cannot see their way out of it alone, but I am convinced that only they can succeed in bringing about change and reform. Everyone asks me, "When will America come?" (which surprises me given the daily news about Iraq… but then, they do not see themselves as analogous to Iraq) I usually answer, "America is not coming."

Iranians imagine a surgical operation that could simply remove their problem for them and leave them happy and healthy. "They think that America has a bomb that just kills mullahs," a non-resident Iranian tells me.

Resident Iranians blame themselves for the revolution. They blame the mullahs for the regime. Iranians in exile take the moral high ground: after all, many were the opposition. That said, a friend of ours recently told us that it was a good thing the communists lost. "At least the mullahs are practical," he says. "I have a friend who says that if we had won, Iran would be Cambodia."

Monday, October 04, 2004


We were coming back from a friend's house last week when we turned onto a street flooded by bright green neon lights and strewn with multi-colored Christmas (well not Christmas…) lights. It was all done to celebrate the birth of Mehdi, the hidden Imam. In the coming week chartreuse and pink flags line the streets of Tehran along with a poster showing a flower-filled soldier who is supposed to represent Mehdi.

Iranians have been laughing at me all week as I struggle to learn how to say hidden in Farsi. I try the Imam who got lost, the Imam you cannot see, the Imam you are looking for. I, myself, got a lot of entertainment from watching them laugh at me.

The lights for Mehdi are an addition to the already light-strewn cities. Every city in Iran has light sculptures. For my American readers, imagine that the neighbor (every neighborhood has one) who feels compelled to do an elaborate, but not too well-done, light show for every single holiday were given an entire country to decorate. Tehran has peacocks and horses and flowers made of lights. Ahwaz has palm trees and butterflies. Many cities by the Caspian Sea have giant roosters (why roosters?) and flower-filled vases. Small towns have more modest tulips. One place, I cannot remember where right now, had gnomes.

Once in a taxi I asked a fellow traveler if Iran was light-crazy before the revolution. "I was just a small boy then," he answered. "I don't remember." He asked the driver if he remembered. "Vwhy Babba," (this is the way I hear it. Iranians say this when they mean the California style "Dude" or the NY style "Yo". In this sense the term was inflected in a way that meant: "Dude: pay attention") "These lights showed up just 5 years ago."