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