Thursday, July 16, 2009

Parting Words: Battling Lions

Right from the beginning of my trip, when I visited Persepolis, I knew what my last entry would be titled. I saw a metaphor carved into the stone, so I took pictures to share--of kings fighting lions barehanded, of lions sinking their teeth into hind-flanks of bulls.

(Building of Persepolis began in 518 B.C.E. and continued for about 150 years.)

In Shiraz, I saw even more images of lions. These are from the Bagh-e Narenjestan:

(Built between 1879 and 1886)

At the Azerbaijan Museum in Tabriz, the lion motif was everywhere. Here are three of the many:

(Achaemenids: 550-330 B.C.E.)

(Sassanians: 224-642 C.E.)

I even found the lions on modern, every-day items, like in the two pictures from Maragheh below:

(On a large truck)

(On a couch at my uncle's store)

I've been working on this last entry for five days now (not counting the time I spent taking pictures, of course), editing and re-editing as is my habit to get this metaphor of lion-sized problems to fit. I spent sentences and paragraphs lamenting the lionesque problems of Iran--poverty, gender inequality, religious fanaticism, media censorship, corruption--a pride's worth. Reflecting on what I learned during this trip, I've never felt the differences so deeply nor felt so lucky to have grown up as I did. I thought about how much the country needs a lion-tamer, a gladiator, someone who unlike me doesn't cringe at the thought of these massive teeth and claws, who knows that these lions are definitively and completely their battle and their cause.

It's a good metaphor, but it leaves something out of the comparison. The more I've edited, the clearer it has become that my first hunch at Persepolis wasn't quite right. It's not the problems of Iran that are the lions. It's not even the former rulers, who have used the fierce and proud animal as their symbol for centuries. It's Iranians themselves.

Look at the first picture in reverse. There is the high and mighty ruler fighting the lion with a sword. Look again at the lions kept on chains and pierced with bullet holes. Can you feel the caged power of the people, their natural ferocity and pride kept in check with violence and fear? Do you feel their hope and kindness hardening from constant battle? Do you understand how their endless losing stops the progress that we take for granted?

Maybe one day, the world will see the lions holding the sword in more than old pictures.

(Current flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran)

(Flag under the Pahlavi Shahs before the revolution; the lion, sun, and sword emblem was also used by previous dynasties of shahs.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Politics: "Marg Bar (Enemy's Name Here)"

When I watched Ayatollah Khamenei's first Friday prayer service after the election, I was embarassed. Whereas here in America, it's annoying to watch a president's speech because of all the pauses for claps, in Iran there are pauses for the following chant:

Marg bar Engelise!
Marg bar Amrika!
Marg bar Sihoneest!

Last night on Bill Maher's TV program, author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," Hooman Majd, tried to explain that "death to" is probably too harsh a translation, that contrary to what people think it's closer to "down with." Mr. Majd gave an example of a pre-election chant, Marg bar seeb zameeni! (death to potatoes!), after Ahmadinejad handed them out to get votes. Clearly they didn't want to kill potatoes, so it doesn't necessarily mean that they want to kill England, America, and Zionists.

After Ahmadinejad was elected, I listened to my most religious cousin tearfully joke that she and another cousin should go on an assassination mission. I was very uncomfortable (to put this in context, though, the killing in the movie "Pineapple Express" also made me very uncomfortable--I disapprove of murder in every instance), but mostly surprised that she would even jokingly suggest that as a solution because it clearly wouldn't shake the oppressive system. Later, talking with that same cousin, I explained how the killing in their favorite TV series, "Jumung" (about a Korean warrior trying to unite his country through battle) made me dislike watching it. She asked about Saddam Hussein, and was wide-eyed when I told her I didn't agree with his execution, despite the fact that it was justified by his countless murders. This innocent seventeen-year-old, who isn't even allowed to go out to buy milk from the neighborhood store by herself, condoned all of this killing, or at least took it for granted.

When people interrupt Allahou akbar! (God is great!) at night to shout chants of Marg bar diktator!, I think they mean it. After all, they live in a country where their government sees their lives as expendable, and their police officers shoot at them during protests instead of keeping them safe. So many times throughout my trip, I felt like I was standing at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, looking down from 'self-actualization' and 'morality' to see my whole family struggling with the second step of 'security.' Even if the people chanting, whether death to America or death to their own dictator, don't literally wish death upon those people, isn't it saying something that the words for 'down with' and 'death to' are the same?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Perspective: How Peacemakers Calculate America's Next Steps

From the last segment of PRI's American Influence podcast from 7/10/09:

"Before the [American] elections, there was a hope that a different U.S. approach, namely a more concilliatory approach from the Obama administration, may beget a more concilliatory, less hostile approach from Iran.

But I think what we've seen over the last two weeks is that Iran's policies are not a reaction to hostile U.S. policies. The hardliners in Tehran are driven by an immutable revolutionary ideology which was born in 1979, and even a more concilliatory approach from the Obama administration--preaching mutual respect and sending Nowrooz [New Year's] greetings--has not had any effect on the hardliners in Tehran. On the contrary, I think it's even unsettled them more, because the Obama administration is trying to steal them of an enemy. So I do fear that engagement is going to be very difficult given that... "it takes two to tango" and we the United States have made great efforts since President Obama's innuaguration in January to show the Iranians we're interested in setting a new tone and context to the relationship, but there's been no indication from Tehran that they're interested in reciprocating... I fear we could be looking at a policy which focuses mostly on punitive measures and possibly even military action looking 6-8 months down the road."


"I think a legitimate concern that the Obama administation has is that hardliners in Tehran may well welcome military confrontation with the United States thinking that it could help them consolidate their power and silence any opposition. This was the effect that Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion had on Iran. At that time, the 1979 Revoution was still in its infancy, and there were many factional battles still being fought. But when Saddam attacked, people kind of united on the grounds of nationalism and national security and they united behind Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts. And I think similarly, the hardliners in Tehran may well be calculating that they reperesent a very narrow swath of not only Iranian society but also of Iran's politcal elite and it's going to be very difficult for them to govern without sustained repression--the type of repression we're seeing now--and were there to be military attacks... from the United States... that actually may help their cause rather than hurt it."

-Karim Sadjadpour, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Listen to the entire interview from PRI's The World's American Influence podcast at:

I transcribed this interview myself, and therefore apologize for any typographical errors. I do not take credit for any of the above ideas, although I do very much agree with them.

Part Four: Tehran

Stay or Leave

As soon as I got back from Maragheh, I knew I was ready to leave Iran. My family had a falling out of epic proportions, and I didn’t want to deal with the aftershocks too close to the fault line. At first, the feeling that I had made a promise to everyone in Maragheh that I would come back to see them, that I had said I would go to Tabriz and stay with people in Tehran, held me back. Eventually, I convinced myself that, since nobody else took event planning seriously here (trips and plans were easily brought up and forgotten several times throughout the trip), I didn’t have to put myself through another month if I didn’t actually want to. The biggest reason I didn’t want to leave, actually really wanted to stay, was this blog and the thrilling and humbling attention it got. In the end, though, I had to remind myself that covering the election was not my battle, that my blog was only a means to document my trip and as such shouldn't affect my plans. I changed my flight to the first available day, July 4th (a properly auspicious date).

Many Iranians are similarly facing the “stay or leave” dilemma. According to my Lonely Planet guide book, Iran suffers from one of the worst brain drains in the world, losing over 150,000 young educated minds per year. My cousin Afshin (35) was one of those statistics two years ago. He left a job of 10 years, his friends, and his family to be a struggling student in Toronto—and doesn’t regret it for a minute. His brother Arash (33) had always felt like he owed something to his homeland; like me he didn’t think he could break his promise. Although he lived through the Iran-Iraq War and countless other little brutalities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was not until seeing the violence of the post-election protests that Arash knew he wanted to leave as well. Will he have the strength to cut his own roots, the patience to start over, the determination to keep applying for visas though many western countries don't welcome Iranian immigrants?

In fact, just about all of my cousins think they would like to leave if they had the chance, despite the difficulties. And what happens when one of them, plus 149,999 other people, succeed in leaving? Who will fill the jobs the educated are leaving behind? Who will keep free-thinking under the radar, teaching their children to look outside the regime for answers? Who is going to stay because they feel like changing that country is their battle?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Politics: The Politics of Fear

With the passing of Michael Jackson, Iran was finally moved to a backseat in international news. With fewer and fewer official protests (one of which involved freeing green balloons--not exactly a game changer) and foreign media still banned from reporting, I don't find this surprising. The nightly screaming of Allahou akbar! doesn't make for much of a news story, and life in Tehran is generally going on as usual.

But that doesn't mean that the election is forgotten by any means. Every taxi driver I encountered shared his complaints. Ahmadinejad jokes abounded. And so did police officers.

If, in fact, the leadership of the regime thought that its people were satisfied with the election, would there be so many officers in shoulouq (rowdy, chaotic) areas? It's clear they're scared that their citizens will continue to make a scene, and according to the news I've heard recently, they are using the anniversary of violence at the University of Tehran to do just that.

But, by the same token, the people of Iran continue to be too scared to really take a stand. I heard so many complaints of government inefficiency, of corruption and lying--but not a single story of what my family did or even thought they could do to combat it.