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.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Part Two: Esfahan to Shiraz [Late Post]


We drove four hours from Tehran to Esfahan, past dusty mountains and green farmland (and a nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz) to the city known as nesf-e jahan, or half of the world. A single sight here made me believe that this is true--the beautiful Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, or Naqsh-e Jahan Square (since the Revolution, it's officially Imam Square). I was dumbfounded, amazed, stunned--I really can't explain how beautiful the Naqsh-e Jahan Mosque was. The deep blue tiling, bright yellow accents, graceful domes and minarets all took my breath away. My little brother's favorite part was a small stone in a huge domed room, which sent seven echoes into space when stood on and shouted from.

(Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, facing the mosque)

It just had to happen, of course, that the respectful silence would be broken, by several rowdy boys playing in the fountain to be exact. They were shouting at me, "Khareji! Very much! Khareji! Very much!" Had they noticed my Lonely Planet Guide to Iran from so far away, the same book two blonde female travellers had been holding while roaming the square? Had they heard my little brother or sister speaking English? And why was I so bothered by the fact that they could tell I was in fact a khareji, a foreigner, with so many other tourists around?

Even at the Abbassi, a renowned Qajar caravanserai-turned-top-end-hotel, the waiters in the beautiful garden restaurant and concierge at the front desk immediately spoke to me in English. This is a hot-spot for world travellers, and in the evenings we spotted several German tourists (all of whom my cousin Arash gleefully pointed out to me as fellow kharejis)--once even an Iranian teenage girl strolling around with a tall blonde American boy. I was suprised that comparatively I was still so easily perceived as a foreigner.

(Me and my little brother in the lobby of the Abbasi Hotel. The pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei above the front desk are also on display in just about every ticket booth, store, and otherwise publicly accessed building.)

It's very easy to feel foreign in such an exotic place, when midday azan wails over loudspeakers in dusty, trash-strewn streets. I admittedly felt like Jackie O. turned archaeologist when climbing over hills to look at ruins and Cyrus the Great's grave just outside of Shiraz in white linen pants, a khaki manteau, colorful scarf and big bug-eye sunglasses--like a strange pairing concocted for the silver screen.

I've puzzled over the question of my national identity for a while (see Poetry: on being who i am posted two months ago), and was hoping to claim more of my Iranian heritage by seeing more of my motherland. I've come to the conclusion, though, that it doesn't much matter. In Iran, I'm seen as an American. In America, I'm seen as an Iranian. Seeing more of Iran has given me a better perspective to accept that I'll probably be a little bit khareji wherever I go.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pictures: Pre-Election Fun

After Ayatollah Khamenei used the impressive voter turnout (he quoted it as 85% of the elligible population) to argue that citizens of the Islamic Republic were in favor of the system, had voted because they felt confident and comfortable being represented by the current government, many citizens felt duped. They should have known all the freedom to demonstrate in the streets had an ulterior motive.

At the time though, the youthful Tehrani population, lacking bars and nightclubs, took full advantage of the fun. Here is a video of a group of boys who make fun of both Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Here is another video of young people enjoying themselves. Normally playing music loudly on the street and especially that sort of dancing wouldn't be allowed.

I guess since a monthly gas stipend is provided for free from the government, people felt fine about sitting in traffic to make a point!

If you're interested in a transcript of the videos, or would like to see more videos (I have a ton!) please comment and let me know.

Pictures: A Rose by Any Other Name

When people ask me what my name means, I go into a well-rehearsed jumble of an answer: in Turkish, if you split it into two parts (pronounced San oz) it means 'few of you,' or 'unique.' But in Farsi I think it's the name of some flower.

During my trip, I found out about that flower. Here is a picture of a miniature rose, also known as a sanaz. I took these pictures from my aunt's balcony in Tehran.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Politics: Calm in Tehran, Continued

Here is the video I wanted to post in my Politcs: Calm in Tehran post. The Fourth of July firecrackers reminded me of this night. At the time I was sure the noises in the background were guns, but now I tend to think they were more likely just noisemakers or at the most bullets/blanks shot into the air.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Perspective: What the Other Side Sees

My cousin and my mom warned me before I came to this house--"They're very religious..." "Their father is very much a part of the regime..." and "Are you sure you'll be comfortable?" With my American bravado I promised to grin and bear it. They're family, after all.

When asked who I voted for, I answered honestly that I voted for Moussavi, and did my best not to answer when asked why I didn't (and don't) like Ahmadinejad. Things started heating up when, in response to my hesitation, the oldest daughter answered for me that I didn't like him because others told me not to. (Fine. Still keeping my cool.) I listened to her mother tell me that there was no cheating in the election, that because Ahmadinejad really reached out to the poorer areas (i.e. handed out chickens and potatoes, I thought) he had legitimately won. I didn't bring up the findings of the Guardian Council, that in their partial review 50 cities had more than 100% of the population vote.

The real blow came after a little discussion of my disapproval of Ahmadinejad's foreign actions. I was absolutely floored when the lady of the house started badmouthing President Obama. I am in love with President Obama. I value his idealistic and innovative leadership, and I told her so. Although I could understand her suspiscion towards politicians, I tried to tell her that corruption here doesn't necessarily mean that every politician in the world is corrupt. I was annoyed by her warnings that after 10 years word would come out about all of Obama's shady dealings. What sent me over the edge, and unfortunatly and embarassingly made me raise my voice, was her accusation that Zionist lobbyists brought Obama to power!

I was furious. What made her think that? Did she read it somewhere? Was there a study published? No. She got her information from none other than the Iranian state media. This is where my volume went up. The state controls your media, I told her. They're creating a common enemy so that you're too scared to confront their dictatorial control.

I shouldn't have said it. She knew to let matters cool down after that, saying that my view was one way to look at it, sure. I listened politely as her older daughter then calmly told me of Moussavi's frailities, of his political spin and his revolution-era Islamic zeal. That's fine, and I don't doubt for a moment that Moussavi and even his wife got caught up as was explained. What I cared about when I voted was a new face for Iran, the hope that brought young people out into the streets because they thought their vote could make a difference, could change their country into something livable, something at least a tiny bit better than it is now.

Since I'm here until tomorrow morning, when I prepare for my flight home, I'm just grinning and bearing it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Perspective: Kenya and Iran

In December of 2007, I went to Kenya with a group of twenty other students from the College of Charleston to build a health clinic for a wonderful group of children who had lost their parents to AIDS. Even before we reached Nairobi or the remote East Kenyan town of Kitui, election campaigning had started, with promises left and right to end corruption and bring economic stability to the country. As we were leaving just before Christmas, votes were cast.

Then, from what I heard from a Kenyan friend who stayed longer, government controlled television and radio were cut off just hours into the counting, and the winner was announced to be the incumbent president by however many millions of votes. The candidate with the second most number of votes then claimed election fraud.

Sound familiar?

Although I had just returned from the country and tried to keep up-to-date with the goings on, I didn’t come across as much coverage as I do here in Iran. Perhaps Kenya wasn’t as big a story in the world, or perhaps I wasn’t checking the right sources. At any rate, what I did read was that the post election violence concentrated mostly on the ethnic groups to which the incumbent and challenging presidents (and vice presidents, even) belonged. A high profile Kenyan who tried to stop the violence was assassinated; houses and cars were burned, and people who were not necessarily even involved in the politics were killed. With neighboring countries as mediators, the two sides were able to reach an agreement for a coalition government, which has sporadically made headlines for its ineffectiveness.

Clearly, this isn’t a direct parallel. It doesn’t have neighbors who are necessarily in a position to get involved (think: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq), and considering the backing of the Supreme Leader for Ahmadinejad, it seems doubtful that power-sharing could ever happen. Iran hasn’t experienced ethnic violence between its citizens, just violence between the government forces and its citizens. I’m beginning to wonder if the fact that the Kenyan government had to bend to accommodate its people is going to end up being another difference between the two.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Politics: Women Post-Election

On Saturday the 20th, the first day of violent protests, one of my cousins took me to the south of town to see what was going on. We didn’t get closer than the market before miraculously receiving a call (since cell phones were being disconnected in the busy areas) from his bruised friend, warning us of beatings with cables and batons. He mentioned that there were more women out in the streets than men, and that they were being braver in the face of the violence. It made sense, he said, since they are undoubtedly more repressed and have more to fight for (or maybe less to lose?).

Around the same time, one of my aunt’s neighbors came by to say that she was planning on going out to protest and suggested that we all go together if we decided to go. I thought this was a very brave thing for her to do; my aunt, however, gossiped to several different people about how inappropriate it was that this neighbor was doing so with a young child at home.

With the gruesome, heartbreaking, and widely-viewed death of Neda, the face of the casualties of this pseudo-revolution has become a female. Another video which is played and replayed on the news stations here shows a woman dressed in black trying to protect a police officer from the beatings of the protesters. Although most people cheer on the crowd, urging them to punch and kick harder, I respect this woman for her “two wrongs don’t make a right” philosophy—even if it means that the regime has more material to work with. These two videos aside, however, I’m not sure I’ve seen the women to men ratio my cousin’s friend described on that first day. I hope the young women of Iran are not staying home, listening to worried mothers and tending to whiny children. I certainly hear their voices loud and clear from the rooftops at night.

Likewise, the number of women making headlines in politics is rather low—not surprising, considering how politics are dominated by men in Iran as just about everything else in this society. The first big news I heard was the one-day detainment of Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s daughter, who like her father is a Moussavi supporter. According to the regime’s news sources, it was “for her safety.” Moussavi’s wife, Ms. Zahra Rahnavard, has also made occasional news, updating her Facebook page to ensure supporters that rallies were still to be held and posting on her husband’s website that he was safe and still standing by the people (I have a secret fantasy that Rahnavard will overtake her husband as the fiery leader with no ties to the Islamic Revolution who can lead the revote movement to a bigger, stronger revolution, but it’s founded on little other than conjecture). Today on TV, I saw Ms. Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Iranian human rights lawyer, calling on the world to find out the truth behind the voting and those jailed for protesting. I wonder if one or all of these women, all sheerzanan (literally: lion-women, meaning women of bravery and strength) in their own right, will continue to grab more headlines and be a powerhouse for Iranian women to follow to the front.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Politics: Calm in Tehran

For those of you who are worried about my safety of the safety of my family, rest assured that we are all too much of scaredy cats to do anything risky (with the exception of this blog, I guess). In Maragheh, there is no sign of unrest; there hasn't been any commotion since the election results besides a group of proud and rowdy Ahmadinejad supporters on motorbikes. And in Tehran, much of the action is taking place in the south, rather far from my aunt's apartment. Even going by that area by bus, I didn't notice much commotion--although another passenger said that I missed the plainclothed Basij who are trying to keep people from gathering. The state TV isn't lying completely when it says the streets of Tehran are calm.

Although Moussavi had hoped for today to be a national strike, everything seems to be business as usual. The tourguides and ticket collectors at the Shah's palace were all in place, as were the people in the grocery stores and stands. Although a well-executed (for lack of a better word) strike would certainly hit the inflation- and unemployment-wrought regime where it hurts, it seems that the financial trouble (and ensuing loss of a job, as ordered by the government) such a strike would cause is also too much for most citizens to bear.

So instead, they're calling out in the night, saying Allahou akbar (God is great), Marg bar dictator (death to the dictator), and Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein (in reference to the Imam Hossein and Mir Hossein Moussavi--see Poetry: Election Chants for more). To protect their houses from being shot into, people are going to the rooftops. I recorded video from Saturday night after the first day of protests, but am still as of yet unable to upload it. There were explosive noises in the background at irregular intervals, which may have been gunshots or firecrackers, I'm not sure.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Politics: Puppet Media

The state media reported on Saturday (the first day of protests after the stern warning from Khamenei at Friday prayers) that some rioters had received training by Englishmen and Iraqis. There were young men of blurred out faces, admitting that they had been in touch at least once a month with people instructing them to burn busses and cause mayhem. England was chosen probably because Khamenei called the country out specifically in his speech, and I can only assume that Iraq was thrown in to further the animosity between Persians and their traditional Arab enemies (who, interestingly, brought Islam with them in their conquests). If I understood the Farsi correctly, they’ve also been playing and replaying a female voice explaining these instructions. To go along with this report, Ahmadinejad has publicly told the U.S. and U.K. to stop meddling in Iranian internal affairs, to which England promptly replied that it is doing no such thing.

Another more amusing report featured young men whose faces had not been blurred out, saying that they hadn’t even voted, they didn’t know why they went out in the street, and one even admitting to having hashish in his pocket at the time of his arrest.

On BBC Persia last night (which has had to move to a new satellite frequency because of government parasites that keep it from broadcasting), if I understood the Farsi correctly, it was reported that 23 webloggers have been arrested.

Prose: A Face

Yesterday was a day like many others in Maragheh. I sat around all day, and went to a dinner party at night. I was feeling disheartened, wanting (as I still do) to go back home. It’s not a consequence of boredom, but the coalescence of a growing annoyance with the personalities of people seen to often, a fear for my safety, and frustration with my inability to make my own decisions, even down to whether or not I will eat what and when I want.

And so, in the car on our way home, I gritted my teeth in a smile while my aunt told me over and over not to let myself get bored. I practiced a speech in Farsi that I’ll never give in order to keep myself quiet. Translated into English, it was:

I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but the thing I most want to do is go home. I came to Iran to see its beautiful side, but the country and even my family have shown their ugliest faces. Their ugliest faces.

Continuing on our way after dropping off a close friend of my aunt’s family, we came to a stoplight. “Don’t look,” my cousin driving told me. “But I already saw,” I replied. My other cousin, next to me in the back seat, tried to distract me by saying, “Look over here. Look at me.”

I ignored him to look out the window and smile. The man I saw begging there had a deformed face that has been reassembled in my memory as something out of Hollywood, and I can’t pull together enough of the recollection to give him eyes. He had them, but he didn’t make eye contact with me. What made me uncomfortable, more than the man’s appearance or his destitution, was the fact that nobody even looked at him, that they were scared and disgusted and completely inconsiderate of his living being asking them in the name of God to please help him.

“You looked at him anyway,” my cousin in the back seat said as our car drove away. “Poor man,” I replied. “Just think how hard it is to never see anyone smiling at you.”

I thought about him the entire way home. What gave this brave man the jor’at, the chutzpah to wake up every day and keep living? True to Maslow, I could only imagine that his first aim was just to survive, and until he did that he couldn’t ponder existence or things less concrete than bread and water. Did he cry into a makeshift pillow at night and hate himself for his appearance, like I’ve stupidly done so many times before? Does he lash out violently against cruel people in a hateful world? Did his mother love him anyway? Had he always looked the way he did now? Maybe he was a victim of the Iran-Iraq War, suffering from Saddam’s chemical burns?

Each time I tried to escape into a warm fairytale, he followed me. If I was on the beach, he was sitting next to me. Slow dancing, he was my partner. And each time I saw him, he looked back without seeing me, black spaces for eyes the way I’m sure so many people driving past ignored him.

I jolted out of sleep all night, and woke up with a headache.

This morning, I’ve expected him to be everywhere with me. I felt uncomfortable getting dressed, feeling him lecherously staying in the room to take in a sight he may not ever have seen. I saw his face before I saw mine in the mirror, and in his reflection I realized that his missing hand was probably not a war wound or deformity but a harsh sentence from Islamic law against a thief.

I can’t shut him out because I’ve taken him in as a sign. The world in its funny way knew what I was thinking, brought this man so that I could turn my life into a literary work and analyze its plot. I’m underlining the themes of ‘their ugliest faces’ and a mirror’s reflection, and assuming that the moral is to remember to smile.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Politics: The Politics of Martyrdom

Driving down the streets of any Iranian city or town, you will likely see at least one poster featuring several young male faces. These boys, as I have found out, are called shahids, or martyrs, and are posthumously honored by these public displays.

The concept of martyrdom in the Shi’a religion is a particularly resonant one. Because of what political scientists have termed the “Karbala Complex,” there is a feeling within Shi’a communities that they will be unfairly persecuted and will have to lay down their lives as did Imam Hossein at Karbala. When my father was young, he participated in the public mourning for such martyrs, in which Iranians still beat their chests, cry, and even self-flagellate or mutilate. On a less zealous note, a very commonplace phrase among Iranians (both Fars and Turkish, I’ve found) is quorbanat beram or simply quorbanat, which roughly translated means “may I sacrifice myself for you.” This phrase is used to show affection, endearment, or often just a thank-you or filler phrase as part of the custom of tarof, or excessive politeness.

That is why I wasn’t necessarily surprised to hear last night that Moussavi had broadcast his voice on VOA (Voice of America, a fairly reliable source of nonetheless propagandized news)* saying that he had performed the ritual preparations for martyrdom and would not back down despite the incredible violence on the part of the government militia. He also encouraged his supporters to take to the streets in the case that he is arrested or killed.

What I did question, however, is what Moussavi’s endgame is. In my mind, I had run over the information I knew about each player in the election struggle, brainstormed how outside mediation or negotiation between groups could solve the problem peacefully. But I had jumped the gun, so to speak, because I was too quick to define the problem as electoral fraud. I had been asking myself what good it would do for Moussavi to be martyred if the point was for him to become president; a few days ago Alireza Ronaghi, Al Jazeera International’s correspondent in Tehran, had stated that protesters were not seeking an overthrow of the regime, just their rightful vote. But after talking to my cousin, I’m beginning to think that the vote is just a temporary vent for the pressure constantly being placed on the Iranian population.

As he said, the protesters are following Moussavi’s appeal to make their point peacefully and within the bounds of the constitution, for although the Supreme Leader declared the protest illegal the actual constitution allows for peaceful gatherings as long as the people are not trying to change the government or rules. In this case, therefore, they are only demanding that the rules be properly carried out. Whether or not the protesters are successful, however, the Islamic regime has proven to be as violent a repressor as the Shahs before it, and pressures on the citizens of Iran will certainly continue. A Middle East analyst on TV mentioned that Moussavi is a child of the revolution, that he was Prime Minister under Khomeini and therefore wouldn’t want to bring the whole system down. But just maybe Moussavi, who had before this election retired from political life to pursue his artistic endeavors, is disappointed with the regime and willing to be the catalyst for something new by laying down his life.

*The story was also later reported by Al Jazeera International.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Poetry: Election Chants


Yek hafte, doe hafteh, Mahmood hamoum narafte!
(One week, two weeks, Mahmood hasn't showered!)

Chiz nemeekhaym, chiz nemeekhaym, doelat-e chiz-chiz nemeekhaym!

(The word chiz translates roughly into "the thing," an um-like space-filler. The people were making fun of Ahmadinejad's poor speaking skills during the debates by saying: We don't want "the thing," we don't want "the thing," we don't want a country of "things!")

Be estelah, chiz koneem! Be estelah, chiz koneem!
(So to speak, let's do "the thing!" Moussavi's poor speaking skills were turned into a chant in his favor in this case.)

(He's a cheeseburger! Referring again to either candidate's use of the word chiz.)


Mikosheem, mikosheem, on ke baradaram kosht!
(We will kill, we will kill, those who killed our brothers!)

Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!
(The first part is in reference to the Imam Hossein, an important Shi'a figure.)

Natarseen, natarseen, ma hameh ba ham hasteem!
(Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, we are all together!)

Marg bar Taliban, Che Kabul, Che Tehran!
(Death the to Taliban, whether in Kabul or in Tehran! Chanted from the streets of Paris as broadcast by Al Jazeera International.)

Politics: The Supreme Leader Has Spoken

My father didn't vote in the elections, because he has never been involved in the politics of the Islamic Republic and never hopes to show support for the system of the Islamic Republic. This was the rhetoric used by Ayatollah Khamenei in his address to the nation and the world in yesterday's Friday prayers. He said that since 40 million people, or 85% of the elligible popuation, voted, they must feel confident in the system and free to participate.

Theoretically, my father is correct. It's better not to buy into the system.

But to Mr. Khamenei, I wish I could ask this: If the 40 million votes show support for the system, what to the millions of protesters show?

Last night on our way to the airport, anti-protest guards were already lining the streets and pulling people over in anticipation of today's protest. Although the Supreme Leader forbade the protests by calling them illegal and promising consequences, I know they will continue as planned.

Everyone seems to think that blood has to be spilled in order to change anything. Although the protests are properly peaceful, the Basij police are not.

A relative of my mother's who is a doctor told me that although she supported Moussavi, his outright win may have allowed the IRR to coast along with no pressure for another 30, 60, 100 years. This way, the pressure that has been building on university campuses for the past year can be channelled to possibly create change. It seems clear, since Ayatollah Khamenei scheduled a rather unprecedented Friday prayer in which he sought to appease the public by chastising Ahmadinejad (although supporting him fully as the legitimate president), that he sees the continuance of the regime at stake.

Blood has been spilled, and I am sure more will be spilled today. The question is how big a change it will make.

Part Three: Maragheh


In terms of historic events, it was a shame to spend the days just before the election and just after the election in the small town of Maragheh. Everything I heard—first, protests in Tehran; then, several religious leaders backing a revote; 350 arrested; 7 killed—I heard from my family members or from illegally obtained satellite TV (legal and offiial Islamic Republic of Iran News Network broadcast three ticker stories about the perilous Zionists in the five minutes I watched it).

I was amazed over and over again at the power of talk in a small town. Everyone knew the news because they heard it from someone else, but that didn't just apply to the elections. It seemed that every person who came up in conversation was somehow in the orbit of my family, and everyone knew everybody else. As my aunt explained, that makes it fairly easy to compel government compliance by fear. She told me that she stills wears a black chador even though she wants to wear a manteau because the neighbors would notice and talk. When her family gets dressed up to go to a party, neighbors notice; when they don't go to Qur'an readings, neighbors notice. And when, for example, my cousin got a job in the major city of Tabriz about an hour from Maragheh, the prospective employers went to my aunt's neighbors to make sure that she is a "good girl," (i.e. dresses appropriately and is a good Muslim).

Unfortunately, this suzbazlik (Turkish for gossip) also has its roots deep in my family. I won't repeat the shocking and disappointing things that I saw and heard, but the gossip has me feeling deflated and ready to leave. I'm missing my immediate family and thinking about shortening my trip.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Politics: Green Revolution (?)

About a week ago, I wrote a blog entry that I was unfortunately unable to post entitled "Politics: Green Revolution" about the waves and waves of support for Moussavi in Tehran. I alluded to it briefly in my last post, and though I'm unfortunately still unable to upload videos and pictures it deserves a lot more discussion according to recent events.

This morning at 7:30 when my mom woke me up, my first mumbled sentences was: "Who won?" The reply: "Ahmadinejad." I spent breakfast listening to my cousing lament and quote the outcomes (what I've heard reported here is 64% Ahmadinejad, 32% Moussavi, 2% Rezai, and less than 1% Karroubi) and the afternoon listening to the rest of my family lament the "democracy" in Iran and get angry about the obvious taqqalob, or cheating. What I've heard most often is that the Rahbar (Supreme Leader) hand-picked Ahmadinejad anyway, that it was obvious that they would cheat and that they themselves would have to suffer for four more years.

In the teeny little town of Maragheh, in northwestern Iran, Ahmadinejad supporters are out in the street. But in Tehran and other bigger towns, it's chaos. BBC Persia was showing beatings in the street and huge protests (like a river, my cousin said, they kept flowing). What I found interesting is that unlike the campaigning I wanted to post about earlier, these protests are taking place on foot. People are not hiding behind their steering wheels or zooming around on motorcycles. Instead of the "Ahmadi bye-bye!" chants (and many, many more clever ones that I'll remember to post soon), the young crowd was shouting:

Moussavi, Moussavi, ray-e ma ra pass bedee!
(Moussavi, Moussavi, return our votes!)

BBC Persia was sharing cell-phone videos of the violence and numverous angry emails asking where Moussavi is to lead his supporters against the regime. The latest news from BBC was that the vote is to be re-done. My family, at least, is not hopeful that this will happen or necessarily change anything, since after all the hope they had for a runoff between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad was crushed. But since even the government censored newspapers had been reporting numbers more like 47% Ahmadinejad and 40% Moussavi (I'll cite my dad here since my reading in Farsi isn't developed enough for me to have read the newspaper myself), it seems unlikely that the powers that be will be able to get away with such bold-faced lie.

Unfortuntely and unusually, the (illegally) satellite-broadcast BBC Persia is not coming through. Could the government have a hand in it? Possibly--they seem to have a handle on everything else. I can't wait to get back to Tehran and have more of a hand in it than dipping my finger in blue ink to cast my vote.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Politics: Election Day

Hopefully my green tank top will bring good luck to Mir Hossein Mousavi today as Iran heads to the polls. I wish I could post the videos I had of all of the demonstrations and campaigning in Tehran, Shiraz, and Esfahan, but unfortunately my laptop is broken.

The general trend seems to be that Moussavi is the best of the bad choices (which reminds me of Bush vs. Kerry), especially in large cities. Because Ahmadinejad has been handing out chickens and potatoes in the rural areas, though, his backing is still fairly strong. The outcome depends mostly on whether the population of youth (about 70%) or the population of poorer Iranians makes a stronger showing at the polls. The thing that I've noticed the most, however, is that nobody has any hope that the election will turn out the way they hope (i.e. Moussavi supporters are sure Ahmadinejad will cheat and win, and Ahmadinejad supporters are dismayed by the fanfare surrounding Moussavi's campaign), nor any hope that this election will really change anything.

Either way, my Iranian birth certificate is in my purse and I'm ready to cast my vote. As they were singing on the streets of Tehran, "Ahmadi bye-bye!"

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Poetry: dust

this country is covered in dust.

and each time I slump through its
sunshine and car horn streets,
mouth agape,

the grit creeps up to airbrush my red toenails
and sandaled feet,
a natural hejab for my
discreetly exposed parts;

and as I’m stupefied by the
perfect erosion of the
breadcrumb boulder mountains
and the broom-swept deserts

I remember how I read somewhere that
dust is made
at least 15 percent, I think
of human skin,

and I wonder
is it the worn down people
of this land
on my feet and hands?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Part One: Tehran to Amol and Back

Islam in the Islamic Republic

This arrival in Iran was in stark contrast to the last (read about it in Prose: Tehran International Airport). I didn't smell cigarette smoke, only three members of my family came to greet me, and people were mildly less rude trying to get their luggage. The major change was that this was a completely different airport: Imam Khomeini International.

His picture wasn't glaring at me when I arrived, but under a constantly slipping and uncomfortable headscarf it was hard not to remember whose idea these legally-enforced coverings were, anyway. As my little sister struggled, my dad and I joked about the manipulated meaning of Islam, telling her laughingly that these coverings were the burden of being too sexy for our own good.

My cousins are quick to point out the Tehrooni "type" (pronounced teep), which honestly looks to me like prostitutes in the winter time. Of course, I can completely understand why Iranian women would want to bleach and crimp their hair, wear thick eyeliner and mascara, and tight-fitting manteaus and loose headscarves. It's easy to assume that they're rebelling against religion, but I realized quickly that that's not necessarily the case. Although it's true that many of the people who dress that way are anti-Islam, finding it to be hypocritical and corrupt because of the Islamic Republic, it could also be that many of the people who dress this way do so because they are actually religious, but don't believe that the Islamic Republic is the true arbiter of their religion.

And, even though Tehran is full of these overly made-up types, there are so many images in my head that show that people do believe in modest dress (regardless of the governmental requirements)--the most striking being the woman in the full black chador (literally, tent) on the opposite side of the phonebooth from a young male soldier.

Driving to the Caspian, I noticed several mosques. In fact, when we stopped for (not at all appetizing) fast food along the way in a foggy, chillingly verdant mountain town, there was a mosque right next door. Although it was beautiful outside, when we went inside we saw nothing but a woman dressed in trendy modern style and (what was much more fascinating to my little brother) a dead bug on the floor. I couldn't help but think of this emptiness in metaphorical terms.

In shomal (the north), we had a breath of fresh air as we played BS (cards are illegal in the Islamic Republic because gambling is frowned upon in Islam), drank (also illegal), and smoked qualyoon (hookahs are a-okay). All of this while sitting outside with no headscarf on. In the little gated community, my cousins were free to berate religion both with these actions and with many jokes and comments, but we couldn't keep the Islam out completely.

On the way home, we passed a troupe of young men following a truck covered with banners in beautiful caligraphy. My aunt read that these boys were walking all the way from Amol to Tehran (it's a winding, mountainous three-or-so hour drive, by the way) to commemorate Imam Khomeini's death. My mom speculated that they were probably being paid by the government.

I guess it all goes back to Imam Khomeini in the end. I still hear snippets of conversations about the enqelab (revolution) on 1979, but it's clear that the goals of Islam have not yet been completely accomplished. People are still drinking, dancing, playing cards, viewing blocked websites, showing hair, wearing makeup, and not believing in Islam despite (or because of?) the best efforts of the government. And the government is finding that, to keep its secular power, it's best to relax enforcements of supposed religious basics; for example, young couples are out in public all over the place, and enforcement of female covering is lax in light of the upcoming election.

It's my opinion that a government based on Islamic principles could work, but only if the most progressive and equitable interpretation of the Quran is taken. If you're interested in learning more, check out Reza Aslan's No God But God.

Please note: I've come to the sad conclusion that I can't possibly share all of the beautiful intricacies and incongruencies of my trip. As much as I try to keep track of every charming and surprising detail, I've decided that it's best that I take in all that I can and not stress about catching it on my camera. And so, from now on each (sadly underdeveloped) post discussing a part of my itinerary will focus on a singular aspect to the best of my abilities. If you have suggestions or things you'd like me to focus on, please let me know! So far, entries about food, fashion, advertising and the political campaign, and several others are in the works.

Pictures: My New Look

(In front of my aunt's villa in northern Iran, near the town of Amol. I'm wearing my gladiators, black Gap jeans, beige manteau (tunic or overcoat) and my aunt's more fashionable and lightweight scarf.)

(Pictured here with the addition of my mother and my diva shades.)

Perspective: The View from Tehran

Monday, May 25, 2009

Politics: Facebook Blocked

When I arrived yesterday, my cousins told me about what they considered very back luck--Facebook had been blocked just the day before (not to worry, though, according to my cousin Arash; he has a filter breaker). For some reason, I thought it had been blocked all along, but according to the Financial Times a main reason is the electronic support for the reformist candidate Mousavi. My relatives agree that Ahmadinejad will probably win, but say that there has been a lot of mobilization for Mousavi.

Here's the message I got when trying to access it this morning:

مشترک گرامي
دسترسي به اين سايت امکان پذير نمي باشد
در صورتي که اين سايت به اشتباه فيلتر شده است با پست الکترونيکي
با درج نام دامنه مورد نظر در موضوع نامه و ارايه توضيحات لازم
مکاتبه فرماييد

For those of you who, like me, are a little slow reading Farsi, the message basically says that access to this site is not allowed and to email the adress listed if this is a mistake.

You can read the Financial Times article here:

I'm off to take a walk around Tehran with my mom and cousins. Tomorrow, we'll head to Shomal (the north of Iran) for about a week, so it might take a while for me to get pictures and videos up. So far, though, I'm here safe and sound and having a lovely time. Thanks for checking in with me--more to come!

Politics: Women in the Campaign

I saw this article in the Financial Times en route to Frankfurt and thought it was encouraging. When my mom brought it up at dinner, my cousins were somewhat familiar, stating that Ms. Rahnavard had been a mini-jupe (French for mini-skirt) during the Shah's time, as she admits in this article about her Western past.

Iran candidate’s wife challenges convention
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

There are four candidates in Iran’s presidential election, all male, but the person who is emerging as the most intriguing on the campaign trail is a woman: the wife of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the reformist candidate.
The concept of first lady has not existed in Iran since the 1979 revolution put an end to the ceremonial role occupied by the last Queen, Farah. Iran’s presidents have since largely avoided public appearances with their wives.
But Zahra Rahnavard is determined to change that, should her husband be elected after the June 12 poll. She has already set aside years of tradition to campaign and accompany Mr Moussavi, prime minister between 1981 and 1989, at election rallies.
So far, she has not run foul of the conservative clerical establishment whose traditions she is ignoring. But then analysts point out that unofficial opinion polls still put Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the fundamentalist president, on course to win a second term. If Mr Moussavi’s ratings were to rise, the mother-of-three could find her role more closely scrutinised.
Mr Moussavi shocked a lot of people – including other reformist candidates – when he decided to challenge Mr Ahmadi-Nejad for the presidency.
Joining Mr Moussavi on the campaign trail in Tehran and other cities – sometimes hand-in-hand – Ms Rahnavard, 58, is increasingly seen, even by some rival camps, as a real asset to the candidate.
At a recent political meeting she was greeted with the same acclaim as her husband and Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president. Ms Rahnavard says her husband’s decision to campaign for the presidency was driven by a shared “commitment for the prosperity of the people”.
“Moussavi and I address all the Iranian nation and, in particular, women, the youth and students,” she says. “Our messages to Iranians during election rallies are ‘freedom of thoughts, opening up the [political] environment, establishing a sound economy, increasing public participation . . . eliminating discrimination against women, creating job opportunities . . . and helping the youth to think freely.”
After his stint as prime minister in the 1980s he disappeared from politics and became a painter, only emerging this year to challenge the government’s heavily criticised economic record and to campaign for greater social justice. That self-imposed political exile means that Mr Moussavi is a virtual unknown to the young people who make up the majority of Iran’s population of 70m. His wife, a writer and sculptor, however, is a potential role model for young and female voters.
Should she become Iran’s first lady, Ms Rahnavard says she would be more able to help eliminate discrimination against women, solve family legal problems and protect housewives, especially those who are the main breadwinners in a family. It sounds remarkably like a political wish-list from someone who is not standing herself.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s wife runs a high school in Tehran but is rarely, if ever, seen with her husband in public. But Ms Rahnavard believes that her own involvement in the campaign has had a significant impact on attitudes with other candidates, including Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who are now beginning to involve their wives.
Wearing a black top-to-toe chador, which she keeps open in front letting out her floral scarf and light blue jeans jacket, Ms Rahnavard is frank about her past before the revolution, when she did not wear hijab or Islamic covering but dressed in a more western style.
Some fear this could be used against Mr Moussavi’s campaign if dirty tricks were employed. But so far it has not.
Ms Rahnavard insists that, as with her art where she has blended modernism with more traditional elements to produce hundreds of expressionist and abstract paintings and sculptures made of stone, glass, wood, iron and bronze, she should not be pigeon-holed.
“I am not a cliché type of person and would not fit categories,” she says.
But if her husband becomes president Ms Rahnavard accepts that the life the family has lived for the past 20 years will be transformed.
“What I am experiencing now is hectic, [and it] contradicts my artistic life which needs delicacy and beauty,” she says. But “Mr Moussavi and I have come to the scene to remove [political and economic] shortfalls.”


Friday, May 22, 2009

Preparation: What Ifs

Today is my last day in Johns Creek, Georgia, before I fly to Iran.

My floor is covered with neat little piles (casual dresses, formal attire, jeans, shirts and tanktops, chargers and other electrical cords, pills and contacts, and so on). My suitcase is still completely empty. These past few days, I haven't wanted to wake up and face the packing--even though I've been up relatively early (about 7:30-8:00) and have had plenty of time for it.

What should I take with me? I haven't come up with a failproof system yet for going from house to house--Should I put my coverings on over my dresses and skirts or should I change each time I arrive? I am still on the lookout for a pair of linen pants that I can wear comfortably outside, and plan on buying the absolute lightest-weight manteau sold in Iran as soon as I can (of course, I'll have to cover up on the airplane as it descends, so I have a "starter manteau" to use until then).

More nagging than the thought of what to pack (after all, I can always buy or borrow clothes once I get there) are the questions of what to expect.

What will it be like to live in Iran for two months? I can't get past a image of me hugging the impressionist, transparent versions of my family at the airport and calling each person by name. After that point, I have no expectations, no clues really what this trip will be like. Past trips come back to me in bits and pieces. I have memories of cars honking outside my aunt's apartment in Tehran all hours of the night; of furtively taking off my manteau and scarf to play in the Caspian Sea in jeans and a shirt (only to cover my soggy clothes again in the few minutes it took for me to get scared of arrest); of opening snapdragons and picking cherries out of the tree in my aunt's garden in Maragheh; of driving hours to see a scraggly field of poppies and singing the Turkish song Laalah-laar about the beautiful red flowers; of driving past my father's high school, now whitewashed over with an Islamicized name. Will I be able to see more, learn more, ask more, retain more this time around?

What will I miss most when I'm gone? Although I hope I'll stay busy, I'm sure I'll have enough down-time to think back to the States, wonder what my friends are doing, daydream about walking around in flip-flops and shorts, speaking in a language over which I have full control. I'll miss homogenized, pasturized, hormone-laden fat free milk, being able to pull my clothes out of drawers instead of suitcases, having a cell phone, and sit-down toilets.

What will happen when I get back? I hope I can just slide back into my place in Charleston without feeling like I've missed too many honied summer memories to fit in again. At the same time, I don't want to come back as the same Sanaz who left.

Right now, though, as I'm writing this post, I'm wondering most of all why I'm typing. What if nobody even reads this blog? With my last blog, I could console myself with the fact that it was terse, a school project and something I entered skeptically. Now, though, I have embraced the blogosphere, and I'm jumping into this with the assumption that I have something important and interesting to share. I hope you agree, and continue to check back here over the next two months.

See y'all on the other side,

سانا ز

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Prose: Reading Lolita in Tehran

"How can I create this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal once again to your imagination. Let’s imagine one of the girls, say Sanaz, leaving my house and let us follow her from there to her final destination. She says her good-byes and puts on her black robe and scarf over her orange shirt and jeans, coiling her scarf around her neck to cover her huge gold earrings. She directs wayward strands of hair under the scarf, puts her notes into her large bag, straps it on over her shoulder and walks out into the hall. She pauses a moment on top of the stairs to put on thin lacy black gloves to hide her nail polish.

We follow Sanaz down the stairs, out the door and into the street. You might notice that her gait and her gestures have changed. It is in her best interest not to be seen, not to be heard or noticed. She doesn’t walk upright, but bends her head towards the ground and doesn’t look at passerby. She walks quickly and with a sense of determination. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands. She will pass slogans on the walls, quotations from Khomeini and a group called the Pary of God: MEN WHO WEAR TIES ARE U.S. LACKEYS. VEILING IS A WOMAN’S PROTECTION. Beside the slogan is a charcoal drawing of her woman: her face is featureless and framed by a dark chador. MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL. MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES.

If she gets on a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women. Yet in taxis, which accept as many as five passengers, men and women are squeezed together like sardines, as the saying goes, and the same goes with minibuses, where so many of my students complain of being harassed by bearded and God-fearing men.

You might well ask, What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? How much does this experience affect her? Most probably, she tries to distance her mind as much as possible from her surroundings. Perhaps she is thinking of her brother, or of her distant boyfriend and the time when she will meet him in Turkey. Does she compare her own situation with her mother’s when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother’s generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?

In the course of nearly two decades, the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets and humiliated, and as soon as they leave, they go back and do the same thing. Is she aware, Sanaz, of her own power? Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for over eighteen years have patrolled the streets of Tehran and have had to endure young women like herself, and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?

We have reached Sanaz’s house, where we will leave her on her doorstep, perhaps to confront her brother on the other side and to think in her heart of her boyfriend."

-from Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Part One: Lolita, Section 8, pp. 26-7.

Please note that the name Sanaz also belongs to one of the characters in Nafisi's book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Progression: Counting By Fives

I have been to Iran three times:

Once, when I was five.

(Pictured here with my cousin, Afshin, at his mother's/my father's sister's apartment in Tehran. All other pictures are in my parents' hometown of Maragheh unless otherwise specified. I wore that Barbie nightgown often.)

(Pictured here with my cousin, Parmeda, my mother's half-sister's daughter.)

Once, when I was ten.

(Pictured here with my mother's family, including her half-sister Sonya, her mother Eqhbal, and her uncle Taqhoob.)

(Pictured here on the back of my uncle Reza's/dad's brother's motorcycle. That's my little sister in front. I was small for my age so I didn't cover myself even though I was supposed to begin doing so at age 9

Once, when I was fifteen.

(Pictured with my uncle Reza's wife, Sohaila, my mother, and my father's sisters Mehri and Rouhan, in the neighborhood of my aunt Hajiyeh's (not pictured) villa by the Caspian Sea in northern Iran. As you can see, I had to start covering my hair, but not all of it.)

(Pictured here with my cousin's daughter, Mahsa, on the night of our big dinner party. We had all gotten our hair done for the occaision so I was feeling extra special besides being one of the guests of honor. Only women attended.)

And now I am twenty.

This means that after this summer, I will have spent time with my cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other extended family members four times in my entire life. Now that I'm older I appreciate the pull of family, that incandescent and innate love you feel for them no matter how often you see them. I can't wait to get to know them again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Phrasing: Persian, Iranian, or Farsi?

When people ask me where I'm from, I usually say that I was born in Florida but grew up in Georgia, even if I know my new acquaintance wants to know where my name came from.

Most usually, I have to clarify by saying, "Both of my parents are from Iran." And when I say "Iran," I don't pronounce it "I-ran," but "Ee-ron," as Iranians (read: Ee-ronians) would.

(Saturday Night Live Digital Short, I Ran So Far)

Although it's incorrect in Farsi (the national language of Iran), I know it shouldn't bother me to hear people say I-ran. After all, nobody says La France when talking about France in English, or España when talking about Spain. I once was very lightly chastised by another Iranian-American for not introducing myself as SAA-naaz (the "a" here sounds like the "o" in "opera"), but opting for the English friendly pronounciation Sun-OZ. But just as names of countries necessarily sound different in different languages, so too do names of people.

Even the distinctions of "Persian" and "Farsi" are mixed up in histories of other languages. The title "Persian" comes from the Greek Persis (then the Latin Persianus), from the ancient Iranian name for the country, Parsa. Sometime after the Arab invasions of the seventh century, this was changed to "Farsi" because there is no "p" sound in the Arabic language. For this reason, I'm fairly certain that "Persian" or "Parsi" is the technically correct term for the language (although I and most other Iranians I know designate it as Farsi).

If people ask me where my name is from directly, I usually respond that it's Persian. I don't know why I would necessarily expect anyone to know what that means. The first time I heard that someone was Guamanian I had to ask for her to repeat it (well, it's less obvious when spoken quickly--written it's more direct), so it would stand to reason that some people wouldn't necessarily know to connect Persian with Iran. Usually, I'm impressed when I tell people that my parents are from Iran and they respond with, "Oh, so you're Persian."

A lot of people ask me if Farsi is "like" Arabic. Although several words in Farsi are borrowed from Arabic, and the language is written with the Arabic alphabet, the languages are actually very different; unlike arabic, Farsi is an Indo-European language (basic words like mother--maadar in Farsi--and father, or pedar in Farsi, are indicators). Similarly, Persians and Arabs are ethnically different, a point many Iranians (who are in general a people very proud of their ancient culture and bitter about the still relatively recent Iran-Iraq war) would likely be quick to point out. Iranians are ethnically Aryan, and didn't share the same nomadic herding lifetsyle attributed to early Arabs.

(Comedian Maz Jobrani, from the "Axis of Evil" Comedy Tour)

The linguistic overlap and entymological changes aren't exceptional by any means. The language of American English also has borrowed many words and phrases from other languages, and is misprounounced in other countries (as EEN-glee-see in Farsi, for example).