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).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Politics: The Presidential Election

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to vote in the past presidential election in the United States (yes we can!), and amost unbelievably lucky to have stood on the National Mall on a frigid January morning to see Barack H. Obama sworn into office. I respect him tremendously, and believe he is doing an excellent job particularly with reference to Middle Eastern relations.
Part of the reason why I'm so excited about this upcoming trip is that I will be in Iran for its equally momentous presidential elections. While I'm not sure whether or not I'll be able to vote (my parents seem to think I will be able to register when I get there. As my father put it, "Why not? They haven't even started campaigning yet."), I feel like I will again at least be able to witness another unique moment in history on June 12.

To get ready for this opportunity, a friend of mine recommended a rather lengthly article in April 13th New Yorker magazine, called "Letter from Tehran: Can Iran Change?" by Jon Lee Anderson. I have posted the link below, and invite you to read the article and follow along with my (heavily abridged) additions and reactions to it below. The page and paragraph numbers listed below correspond with those in the online version.

What conclusion have I come to about the elections? Most Iranians, when asked, do not take direct issue with the American people, but with the governance (check out poll results from about a year ago here: With an American president who is open to direct talks, who has made commitments to decrease the United States nuclear arsenal and attempt to work toward general and complete disarmament, and who is attempting to decrease United States military involvement in the region, Iranians should have fewer reasons to elect a leader who takes a hard stance against America. Will voter apathy among more educated classes, who would be a boon for reformists, decrease? Possibly. Forced Islam is taking its toll on society, which from what I've heard from friends and relatives is taking a turn away from morals of chastity, faithfulness, and modesty among youth. All in all, therefore, the election results will probably have a larger impact on social and domestic issues in Iran than on Iranian-American relations considering the current American move toward a détente.

Page 1, Paragraph one: Ahmadinejad is a blogger, too! Here's a link to his blog: It's interesting to browse, especially the responses from people in different countries.

Page 1, Paragraph six: Interesting that the other major candidate is named Mir-Hossein Mousavi. That's my mother's maiden name. When I brought this up with my mom she couldn't say either way.

Page 1, Paragraph twelve: Lots of my parents' friends and my friends, too, were buzzing about this video. Here it is from youtube: His Farsi at the end wasn't very good, but what a wonderful gesture to reach out to the Iranian community, both as a diaspora in the United States and in Iran. I can't tell you how comforting a message this is compared to the rhetoric of the past eight years.

Page 2, Paragraph two: Especially since researching for USIP, I've found that diplomacy has an incredible number of shifting parts. When I went to an American's for Informed Democracy conference on Iran last summer, the presenters explained how a renewed bout of sanctions would prove Ahmadinejad right in his stand against America, thereby strengthening him politically. It seems like moving too far in either direction presents a great risk.

Page 3, Paragraph one: The fatwa against nuclear weapons is an interesting political ruling that isn't brought up very often. I'm not sure why that is; it seems that diplomats and analysts think religion will be circumnavigated for reasons of national security or aggrandizement. Another point of interest that is not often brought up is that, according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), non-nuclear weapons states are allowed to build nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes given that these are subject to the same inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency as are the facilities of nuclear weapons states. Although I personally don't think Iran will develop weapons, it wouldn't be the first nation in the Middle East to have them, as Israel is generally assumed to without being party to the NPT. You can see the full text and list of signatories here, by clicking on NPT on the left-hand bar:

Page 5, Paragraph eight: I was given an interesting article by Mike at USIP about previous professions of politicians, and although I couldn't find the entire article online, here is a bit of it from The Economist online: Normally I wouldn't expect that the mysticism of religion would be so solidly defined in an engineer's mind, but Ahmadijnejad has clearly reconciled the two.

Page 7, Paragraph two: You can see Sara Dowlatabadi's work at her website, here: I quite like the title, a reference I'm sure to the song "Strange Fruit." Unlike the song, however, I personally find the work to be inadequately emotive considering the horrifying nature of the subject.

Page 7, Paragraph seven: I remember giving speeches on my hearth at age nine about the equality of men and women, and how unfair it was that men should be able to show their hair in public. A funny line from Persepolis echoes this sentiment: "If hair is as stimulating as you say, you should shave your moustache!" (said by Satrapi's father to her teacher after she had gotten in trouble for discrediting a statement about political prisoners). Because I'm small for my age, I didn't wear the veil when I visited at age ten, and I was terrified each time I saw a police officer. The age of nine was chosen because this was the age of Muhammad's youngest wife; in his book No God But God Reza Aslan explains that this was a marriage of convenience to cement her clan's tie to Islam, and the marriage was not consummated until she reached puberty.

If you have comments about something I didn't have room to mention, or reactions to the things I did mention, I'd love for you to post them!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Perspective: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Today a family friend called to recommend a tour of Persepolis for our upcoming trip. I really look forward to seeing the actual ruins of Persepolis (from the Greek Perses polis, or Persian city; referred to as Takht-e Jamshid in Farsi) when I visit the city of Shiraz. It dates back to the 500s BCE, a prosperous time for the Persians that modern Iranians often look to with pride when they claim to inherit a grand civilization and an "exceptional" history.

(image from

(My family in front of the winery Persepolis in Napa Valley last summer)

Also today, I finished reading the English translation of Marjane Satrapi's book Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.

If you have not yet read the graphic novels or seen the movie, I highly recommend both. The story is upsetting, beautiful, and at times humorous besides being insightful and educational. When I saw Persepolis in theatres, I was moved to tears and filled with questions. It opened up a path to my recent history, because Satrapi's childhood coincided with my mother's young adulthood.

The background of both of their stories line up to some degree. Like Satrapi, my mother came from a wealthy family. Although little remains of the Mousavi prestige and wealth today, my great great grandfather had a thriving business exporting the delicious little grapes grown in Maragheh (in the province of East Azerbaijan, Iran) to Russia. Like Satrapi's family, my mother's family was involved in the uprisings for secession in Azerbaijan. My mom's family was also well educated. Besides being a famous merchant, my great great grandfather was also an atheist who sent his daughter (my great grandmother) to receive an education which included physical training as an acrobat.

The closer similarities come in their personal histories. After the revolution, schools were closed indefinitely. My mother, after having just finished high school, went to Tehran (where Satrapi and her family were living) to study German so that she could one day emigrate (Satrapi went to a French school). When my mom went back to school in Tabriz from 1982-1984, she too was uncomfortable in the newly-required veil. It was during this time that she saw blood ooze out onto the street from a little red car after it had been crumpled with bullets from Iranian guards like aluminum foil in a fist. She too had to hide from Iraqi fighter planes on multiple occaisions, once with only the cover of bushes in the orchard with her grandmother as two brown jets zoomed just overhead. Although she was married to my father in 1985, she was not able to leave Iran until 1987, just one year before the Iran-Iraq war ended. My mother, like Satrapi, survived a revolution and a war, and took refuge in another country. All this at about my age.

It's almost incredible to think how many others share a similar story. One million people demonstrated against the Shah in 1979, and not all of them in support of the Islamic government that was to come. About the same number of Iranians died in the gruesome eight-year war that took advantage of post-revolution weaknesses. Although more and more people feel constricted and endangered by the current regime, it is clear that many Iranians have suffered too much revolution and war to feel strong enough to undertake any more. As for myself, I can hardly tell that I'm living through war, and two at that.

Because of the intricate structure of the Iranian government, a complete turnaround of the Islamic Republic is unlikely, but perhaps a small political change could revolutionize Iran and bring it once again close to the West? I'll save the exploration of politics for another entry.