Sunday, September 30, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episode 5

Habib is one of 3 Iranian men studying philosophy in Paris. One is sympathetic, a nice guy, and a good friend. The other is the son of an intelligence official, pro-Nazi, and very nosey.

Habib takes a job at the embassy in order to pay his tuition. It turns out that Mr. Jahangir is the ambassador (did not quite get that from earlier episodes). You will remember him as the husband of the former fiance of the detective and the recipient of a letter from Habib's brother-in-law. His wife approaches Habib at the embassy and tells him that she has a message for the detective: "Tell him the house sitter is dependable," she says. (You might remember that her house was being used by the Jewish conspirators who murdered the Tehrani rabbi.)

Mr. J is pleased about the coming war.

After work, Habib delivers his third letter: the one from the rabbi. He arrives at the home of a Jewish man who opens the letter to discover the news of his murdered friend.

As he is discussing the letter, Sarah (the Jewish student who Habib has been sparring with in philosophy class) enters. "My niece," the man introduces. She is short with Habib. "Forgive me, I do not know your Europe," Habib says. Sarah leaves the room.

Her uncle explains that Sarah's father was killed on Kristallnacht (The night of knives is what they say in Persian, but I think Kristallnacht was meant. Anyone have any ideas?).

In his new role as embassy staff member, Habib finds himself at a party thrown by the German ambassador. Mr. J wonders what he is doing there. Mrs. J tells him that she invited him. She walks over to Habib. "I wish the politicians would talk to women before starting wars, then there would be none." Habib respectfully disagrees.

He sees two classmates at the party: a German boy and a French girl who are dating. It turns out that his uncle works for the Germany embassy.

Off to philosophy class where Sarah and Habib are officially reconciled: "I thought all Iranians took Hitler's side," Sarah explains to Habib. They chat, flirt... Habib teaches her an Iranian children's game. The other students laugh at them. "You should be ashamed of yourself," the pro-Nazi Iranian says.

At home, Sarah urges her mother to eat. "Night is the worst time," her mother says. "It's then that I miss your father the most." Her uncle is disturbed. He tells her that Russia and Germany signed a treaty and that Poland has been invaded. "I worry about the Jews in occupied countries," he tells his niece.

In the embassy, the German ambassador meets with Mr. J. "Iran is not taking sides: why not?"

At the university, we learn from the German classmate that Germans must leave France. They are now considered enemies. He urges his French girlfriend to leave with him. She refuses. They break up. In class, they are confronted by the terminally optimistic Habib who makees a speech that brings them back together to the joy of the class.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stayin' Alive

If you don't know the story of Stanislav Petrov, then this is the day to read it and thank him that we are not all living in a post-nuclear holocaust world.

Thanks to this story at Wired (The Man Who Saved the World by Doing ... Nothing) for reminding me of this amazing man.

Mr Ahmadinejad; Practice what you preach

It's time for Mr. Ahmadinejad to stop preaching. He may think that his military buddies in Iran love to listen to his religious rantings, but the rest of the world is not. If he is serious about love and peace and beauty, he could start at home. Since he has been president of Iran, attacks on universities, other thinkers, students, and workers have increased. Instead of increasing the love, he is increasing the angst. Even people from his own gang disagree with his economic policies.

He promised yesterday to invite professors and students at Columbia to Iran to say whatever they want to say. Why doesn't he make that same offer to Iranian professors and students? Hearing him talking about lack of democracy and human rights in the west is just another way of avoiding the realities in Iran. Mr. President, Iranians are dying for basic human rights and for basic democracy: to say what they want to say; to do what they want to do: even within the confines of Islamic law. For the past 2 years in Iran, I saw bright people leave Iran because they just could not take it Iran. Crime is not going down even with all the executions. People have given up hope for the future because they see that the government is now a military government that acts like a 1970s military junta. You said it yourself: this kind of pressure cannot be maintained forever.

If he is really for peace and love he should start that at home. Since he became a President with his military buddies, the number of ngos dropped and human rights activists have been harassed. Ahmadinejad talks about women in parliament; what about women in prison.

This government has created a situation where millions of Iranians who love the country and want to help build a nation do not even dare to step foot into the embassies, let alone the country.

I am really mad because he dares to think that the world stage is a place to lecture the rest of the world about utopian ideals that he cannot even put into place in Iran.

I will leave the political analysis of the speech to the political analysts.

Tori adds: And saying that calamities will befall God's enemies when you are from a country that is the most earthquake prone in the world seems like the ultimate in chutzpah.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episodes 3 & 4

Continuing series of summaries of the Iranian mini series about a young Iranian man's experiences in Paris during World War 2. For episodes 1 & 2, click here.

At the start of episode 3, the colonel gives the detective just 48 hours to solve the mystery of the house where the conspirators were found. As soon as the detective is out the door to get started, he receives a phone call from the foreign ministry directing him to keep the investigation open.

Pro-German son-in-law is back from his business trip, which means that daughter Parsa (Saeedeh) will be returning home to her husband. Mother Parsa tries to hint at her son-in-law’s inability to have children. She asks her daughter if she has ever considered the possibility of adopting. “I really want a child of my own flesh and blood,” the daughter answers dismissively.

Boy Parsa (Habib) still does not know that he has not received an exit visa. There are so many secrets in the family.

Cut to the synagogue where the rabbi is quoting Einstein’s reservations about the creation of a Jewish state. Here is the English quote: "Oppressive nationalism must be conquered ... I can see a future for Palestine only on the basis of peaceful cooperation between the two peoples who are at home in the country ... come together they must in spite of all." (John J. Simon, "Albert Einstein, Radical: A Political Profile," Monthly Review May 2005, Questia, 25 Sept. 2007 )

Dr. Parsa finally lets his son know that the exit visas for him and his friend have not been approved. Of course Habib is very disappointed.

Following up on the mystery of the conspirators, the detective follows a group of conspirators identified by a witness. A bout of diarrhea prevents his new, temporary partner from accompanying him on the chase, so he is alone.

He follows them to a secret meeting and overhears a discussion of how the murder has increased the Iranian Jewish emigration to Palestine. One of the men is the escaped thug from the first bloody encounter with the conspirators at the house of the detective’s former fiancé.

The detective foolishly presents himself to the conspirators and has them line up against the wall. The thug smugly says, “You cannot change anything.” We see him raise his finger and then masked men leap out with guns raised and pointed at the detective. A shot rings out. Is the detective dead? No! It’s the thug.

The masked men usher the detective into a car, drive him to a wooded area, and beat him a bit. In a car already parked in the wooded area is -- you guessed it -- the colonel!

“I’m happy to see you,” the colonel says.

The detective accuses him of the murder of both the thug and the imprisoned conspirator. “They knew too much,” the colonel responds.

The colonel tells him of unseen forces that control events. “So what if some Jewish anarchists unintentionally do their work?” The colonel hints that secrets are kept even from the shah. “People in the background are more powerful than we are.”

The colonel wants to involve the detective. In return for his cooperation, he will allow Habib Parsa to study in France.

Cut to the hospital. Wails, mourning, the partner of the detective is dead. The detective wanders aimlessly, beaten and bloody. Mother Parsa, who we have learned is Palestinian, tells him, “We did everything we could.” He says, “Tell Dr. Parsa not to worry about his son’s exit visa.”

Episode 4

Happy Habib learns that he can go. Some in the family attribute it to the work of the son-in-law who has a lot of connections in government, of course. The rabbi comes to say goodbye as does the pitiful friend who will stay behind.

The rabbi gives Habib a letter to take. The son-in-law also hands him a letter. Habib leans into his sister and beseeches her to be nicer to her husband. We wonder, is she really in love with the “pitiful friend”?

His father hands Habib a letter to deliver in Paris. “He went through a lot to get you your visa,” he says. At the station, the detective shows up to see the young Parsa off.

And now we are in Paris with Habib and the others who are hoping to gain acceptance to the University. They spend the summer visiting tourist spots. Only three of them pass the language course and are accepted into the University. Habib is one of the three.

We see them in philosophy class where earnest Habib finds himself in a kind of debate with the Jewish student Sarah.

An Iranian attaché lets Habib know that there will be no scholarship for him because of the actions of his father.

Later in the episode, Habib delivers two of the letters. The one from his brother-in-law is for Homoyun Jahangir who is busy entertaining diplomats while his wife plays the piano. Where did we see his wife before? In the memory of the detective! She is the detective’s former fiancé.

Habib delivers the letter to HJ. The wife comes in. They are introduced. His assistant comes in, “The German ambassador has just arrived.” HJ excuses himself and returns to the party. The wife turns to leave as well. “Actually, I have a letter for you as well.” It’s from the detective. “Do not tell anyone about this letter,” the wife says.

At home, in a corner, she reads the letter. “I cannot trust anyone,” the detective writes. “We had love and passion, but because of your betrayal, I lost it all.” His ring is in the envelope.

Wife & husband fight. She tells him that she put up with everything: even boring diplomatic parties, but there is no way that she will have a child.

Back to philosophy class…where Sarah and Habib seem to be flirting a bit through a discussion of Islam and the kabala. Habib challenges the primacy of Greek philosophy, GASP.

There is some argument, not sure what… “If it were not for Cyrus the Great, there would be no Jews in the world,” one of the Iranian students says.

“Don’t worry, your fascist associates will take care of the rest,” Sarah responds.

There is bit of racist arguing and Sarah excuses herself from the class.

Back to the wife of HJ who is looking at the torn photograph of her and the detective during happier days,

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why are the questions for President Ahmadinejad so simplistic?

(Image by Newsha Tavakolian)

Listening to Ahmadinejad talk at Columbia University a couple of hours ago made me wonder why they don't have an Iranian ask him questions? The president of Columbia University promised to blast hard questions at the Iranian president. But the questions asked, like those asked by many others, were a bit soft. The answers were predictable. An Iranian cab driver would know how to ask questions that would make Ahmadinejad squirm.

Ahmadinejad, like many Iranians, is a master at speaking in an indirect way. His most direct response was about homosexuals: there are none in Iran! If Mr. Ahmadinejad promises not to execute me or my friends, I would introduce him to wonderful gay Iranians.

It was so obvious what the answer to a question about women's rights or support of terrorism or even the question about the holocaust would be. There were too many ways for him to manipulate his response. When Mr. Ahmadinejad questions the holocaust, he denies the direct experience of many holocaust survivors. Why not make it very personal for him? Why always have such abstract questions? His response that the holocaust should have nothing to do with Palestinians was not a response to the question at all. In order to get him to talk, the questions need to be really specific. "Do you deny that approximately 6 million Jews died as a result of Hitler's policies just because they were Jews?" That is the question.

So the secret of Iran is that there is no AIDS, no bird flu, no torture, no baseless arrests in the name of national security, no nuclear weapons ambitions, no hate, and no homosexuals.

Iran is heaven on earth.

Did you know that there are no homosexuals in Iran...?

Hey, you may laugh, (I did) but I have met people in Iran who believe this to be true. So it should come as no surprise that Ahmadinejad believes this as well.

His answer to a question about the execution of homosexuals in Iran was that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

Know Thine Enemy

"The mollahs rule because we're too proud," Hosein continued. "When I visited my family in Turkey before the revolution, I felt pity for them. They'd been Iranian. When I go to Turkey now, I know my family pities me. I pity myself."

"Most Iranians never leave Iran. What do they care what others think?"

"We all feel it. We all know we've ruined the revolution. There's not an Iranian alive who doesn't know it. We were supposed to lead the Muslim world."

(Edward Shirley, Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998)

Just finished Know Thine Enemy, which is the work of a former CIA agent, Reuel Gerecht, writing under the name of Edward Shirley. I’m a little late, I know. The book was published in 1998.

Despite all of the bad reviews on Amazon, I loved the book. Gerecht clearly understands what it means to fall in love with Iran. He writes: “Iran seduces through contradiction, through her ugliness as much as her beauty. Heaven is married to Hell. Isfahan and Tehran. Rumi and Khomeini.”

Reading the book, I could not help thinking that Gerecht would be awfully jealous of me and my 4 years in Iran, where I had many conversations similar to those he had: conversations that surprised me with their candor and their blasphemy. And where I traveled freely without fear, speaking to anyone and everyone. Ha.

I, on the other hand, am jealous of his knowledge of Iran. Why oh why didn’t I study the country and its history more before I lived there? Why did everything have to come as such a surprise to me? I was an Iran-ignoramus when I first step foot in Iran. It’s only been since returning that I have started to read about the country and its history.

If you are interested in Iran, the book is really interesting and easy to read. And while I’ve read that some find his memory for conversation suspect, I would counter by saying that the conversations he reported were incredibly similar to those that I heard during my four years in Iran. If you are interested in the way that the CIA works, you are in for more of a treat. Unless the book is a clever bit of disinformation designed to make the CIA look less formidable than it is, it really de-mystifies the workings of the agency… As if the intelligence blunders surrounding the events of 9-11 were not enough to convince us all that something had gone desperately wrong... His book makes me wonder if there was ever a time when the CIA played a valuable role in gathering intelligence?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episodes 1 & 2

Kamran and I started watching Zero Degree Turn yesterday. For those of you interested in plot summaries here goes. There will be no editorializing in our summaries, just summaries. I don’t have the names down yet… so descriptions will have to do:

Episode 1:

A rabbi is killed on the streets of Tehran. The detectives speculate that the Germans may have been involved.

We are introduced to the Parsa family: a tolerant, Muslim family with political ties. The son-in-law is pro-Nazi, but gets a firm talking to from his father-in-law. The mother is a nurse. The daughter is a voracious reader of foreign literature. The son has just passed his exams for study overseas. Parsa, the elder, meets with another rabbi to discuss the murder. He is told that it is possible that a rival Jewish group assassinated the rabbi so that Iranian Jews will feel unsafe and leave for Palestine.

By the end of Episode 1, the detectives have followed the only witness to the murder as he is forced into a car and brought to an empty house for questioning by a group of masked men spouting pro-Nazi propoganda. The detectives burst-in, a fight ensues. The masked men are de-masked at which point the witness recognizes a fellow Jewish boarder and the murderer. The third man is anonymous. During the fight, the murderer, the nameless man, and one of the detectives are shot. The murderer and the nameless man are killed.

Meanwhile, the son has met a fellow-test taker at a photo studio and has struck up a friendship. Father Parsa, who was somehow influential in the promotion of the lead detective, is approached by said detective and told that because of an indiscretion in his own past, his son will not be allowed to study overseas. The indiscretion: the organization of an Islamic congress without permission while the father was a diplomat in Egypt. The conference was against British and Zionist policy in Palestine. The friend also has a family indiscretion: a brother, who is also the caretaker of the family, in prison because he is a member of the communist party.

Episode 2:

We meet a colonel with suspect motives who is subtly undermining the lead detective’s investigation of the Rabbi’s murder. The wounded detective is being treated by Mother Parsa, a nurse, who is not altogether optimistic of his chances for survival. The one remaining conspirator refuses to talk. Someone slips a gun into his cell that the conspirator uses to take a hostage and attempt escape. The detective attempts to negotiate, but the colonel kills the conspirator. “You just killed our only witness!” The detective admonishes. “The life of my personnel is more important than the life of the conspirator,” The colonel calmly responds. Still, the colonel promises to follow-up personally.

Meanwhile, the pro-Nazi, nationalist son-in-law is told by Father Parsa, who is now a doctor, that he cannot have children. The son-in-law worries that his wife will want a divorce, but Father Parsa recommends adoption instead.

As yet, neither the son nor his friend knows that family indiscretions will prevent them from studying. Everyone else knows, which causes some awkward moments.

The detective discovers that the deed to the house used by the conspirators is missing from his office. After searching for it he questions the role of the colonel and rushes to his office where he finds the colonel looking at the document. In this last scene, the colonel tells the detective that his former fiancé married another and now lives in Germany. It was her house, he reveal, given to her by her husband, which was used by the rabbi-murdering conspirators. They are faced with a conundrum: how to deal with this without creating an international incident?


NPR's story

Episodes available for download: Persian Hub (Thanks to commenter Azadeh for sending us to Persian Hub)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Political Paralysis

"We love Americans; we just don't love your government," Iranians everywhere told me over and over and over again. "We have the same problem: bad governments," many added. When they did, I invariably responded: "The American government represents the people: you should hold us responsible for the actions of our government." It was kind of a mini civics lesson.

The fact is that most Americans do not know the extent and effect of American foreign policy. We are mostly concerned with domestic issues. And now, on top of that, most are *not* represented by the current government.

What I found most distressing during my recent stay in The US was the extent to which Americans had become more "Iranian." In Iran I met people frustrated with the system who had given up affecting it. I encountered a lack of will, a kind of political exhaustian in Iran. What I did not expect was to encounter this same phenomena in America. I have never ever ever experienced an America so at odds with its government and at such a loss about what to do about it.

Even though I met a couple of Bush supporters, most of the people I met in America were just paralyzed by mistrust and disgust. People are afraid there will be a war with Iran, they are sick of the war in Iraq, they are tired to the bone from lies.

What's next from this seemingly unstoppable administration?

More Links:

Peggy Noonan

Michael Winship

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dirty, cheating, lying democracy...

“Our generation has lost,” Kamran said to a dear Iranian friend.

“Yes, we have.”

Our friend has lived in Iran all these years, trying to make a life for himself, terminally optimistic about the future of post-revolutionary Iran. Kamran, on the other hand, left during the early 80s when internal purges began and the war with Iraq was just getting under way. “I felt so bad for my friends and family,” Kamran said to our friend. “It got to the point that I could not read their letters anymore. When they wrote me about the war, how could I respond with my adventures at a café? Or the beautiful girl I met the night before? I could never be free from feeling that somehow I did not deserve this life.”

Funny that despite all of Iran’s problems they are currently engaged in the very messy act of building a democracy. What we all tend to forget is that it is indeed a messy process. Democracy/free speech are not neat little products as compact and clean as iPods or toasters. It does not come wrapped up like a gift. It is easy to dismiss the democratic process in Iran because of the religious element, candidate elimination, vote tampering, corruption, and our disapproval of the results. This does not mean that it should be dismissed. I keep pointing people to the last city council elections in Iran and how voters sent a clear message to the current government or Iran. That was democracy in action. It’s not a nice process. It’s just the best of the worst as Churchill would say.


Podcast of Vali Nasr’s talk to the Commonwealth Club (listen to it!)

My post on Tehran’s city council elections

More on the city council elections:

From Open Democracy

From Payvand

From CBC

From Kamangir

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zero Degree Turn

Kamran keeps sending me articles about Zero Degree Turn: the new Iranian serial about a world war 2 era love affair between an Iranian man and a French Jewish woman and how he helps her escape the Nazis with the help of Iranian diplomats. It's on YouTube now, so we can all watch it.

If you are interested, we are summarizing episodes as we watch them. Click here for the first two episodes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

L'Shana Tova

Last year, I was in Tehran for Rosh HaShana where I was feted by a dear, dear family who took me under their wing and protected me from loneliness on many a Jewish holiday. My heartfelt thanks to them. After their traditional ceremony, one of the (Jewish) women attending said, "We have the best new year. What could be better than the Spring Equinox? You know who has the worst? The Christians. Who wants to celebrate the new year freezing to death in the middle of winter?" She had a point.

While I love this time of year, we Jews do have a kind of joyless New Year. It's more of a meditative process than anything else: one that I find useful despite my secular ways.

I count myself incredibly lucky to celebrate 3 new years. Each one has a bit of a different focus. So to those of you who care, Happy New Year.

I know that I will spend another year working for peace. Wish us all luck.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Liberal Islam...

Last night I spoke at the Champaign Public Library where a member of the audience told me that in Champaign Shia and Sunni pray side by side. "Well that's really American," I replied. "We forget our pasts quickly here. We don't hold centuries-long grudges."

Once again, I spoke to a really attentive and curious, albeit small, group. I am amazed by the way many Americans are trying to understand Iran.

Today, I read this great article from Borzou Daragahi, An American Muslim in Cairo. The article reinforces what the anonymous man told us last night. Here's an excerpt:

"In college we're all one big group," he said. "In the mosque we're all together. Where I come from, there's no, 'that's the black mosque and that's the Pakistani mosque.' "

Often under the tutelage of liberal-minded clerics, he was also encouraged to question the Koran and its teachings. He found himself leery of the ways of coreligionists with roots abroad, especially the older generation. Often, he said, they tried to impose their own cultural habits as religion.

"They say a tattoo is haram," or sinful, he said. "Why? Where is that in the Koran? They say, 'Well, the prophet never had tattoos.' I say, 'Oh, do you drive a car? Did the prophet drive a car? I don't see you riding around on no camel.' "

Btw... L'shana Tova and Successful fast to my readers who celebrate Rosh HaShana or Ramadan...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Questions 9,10,11 & Beyond: What flavor of ice cream do Iranians like?

Update below

"The best ice cream has a little rosewater in it with pistachios, and you can get it at Bijan Bakery in San Jose," I told the class of 6th, 7th, & 8th graders at Christa McAuliffe School.

My niece's middle school invited me to talk to their 60 students. As they entered the room, the students greeted me with a handshake and their names. Wow. It was just so polite and welcoming.

"What do you know about Iran?" I asked.

War, children living in misery because of war, how the war in Iraq sometimes spills over into Iran, mud brick buildings, nuclear weapons... came the replies.

"How did you get these ideas?"

The news media...

"What do you know about California from the news?"

Celebrities, surfer dudes, forest fires, expensive....

"Is that what your life is like?"

A resounding NO.

We looked at some of the photographs Kamran and I took in Iran. (Slide shows here) There were questions about the photos and about Iran. Here are some of the questions that were asked:

Are there video games in Iran?

How much are video games?

How old are women when they have to start covering up?

What is free speech?

What is an embassy?

Do non-Muslims have to cover themselves?

Can men wear whatever they want?

So if Iranian women have to cover up, that means they don't wear tight dresses right?

If Tehran is like Los Angeles, does it also have a lot of smog?

How much is a dollar in Iranian money?

How do you keep track of all your rials?

How much does 900,000 rials buy?

Do they all have like five wives and twenty children?

Do women do everything that their husbands tell them to do?

Do bald women have to wear scarves?

How old are they when they can get a driver's license?

When can they vote?

What is the major religion?

What is a mosque?

Why do I only see men praying?

(Maybe I'll actually tell you how I responded to the questions in a coming post...)

This is the fourth time I have spoken to a group since coming to America. I have to say that I am so impressed with the questions people are asking. There is a lot of genuine curiosity. "Americans aren't afraid to ask even the most basic questions," Kamran says, and he is right. The curiosity I have encountered is just fearless. It's a pleasure.

I want to thank the classes at Christa McAuliffe school. Give yourselves a round of applause! Oh, and as promised, slide shows here and here's a little clip about young men and their hair in Iran. Make sure to read the update about this clip:

UPDATE:In preparing to view this video, you and your children should be aware that it contains anti-semitic, homophobic, and xenophobic material. I linked to the video in order to show young Iranian men struggling to exert their individuality, despite external pressure. It also highlights the dichotomy between what these men are doing and the racist message imparted by Iranian State tv. The video is included in the hopes that it will encourage open and frank discussion of all of these issues between you and your children.

As I explained to the class, the Iranian press is neither free nor fair. The Iranians I met in Iran are accustomed to reading messages from the government and in the media in a layered and complex way. They do not accept information unquestioningly. It would be a mistake to assume that negative messages in the clip are blindly accepted by viewers in Iran.

During the past few months, the morals police have been stopping young men with less than conservative hairdos, men wearing ties, and women pushing the limits of the dress code. This clip has several layers to it: 1) it shows the way that young men find to push the limits and 2) it shows the way that the state-controlled Iranian media tries to spin that using homophobia, anti-Americanism, and antisemitism. If you choose to watch this clip, remember that! Here is another link from Current TV that some might find interesting: Culture Cops.

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