Tuesday, April 10, 2007

O Camelia, Camelia, Camelia

O, churl, drunk all, and left me no friendly drop to help me after?

Camelia is part of the next wave of disillusioned Iranian men and women who are coming here for their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Yes, I’m warning you all, that’s all you get! Just “fifteen minutes” of fame. (Ah, Azar Nafisi, where are you now?) And when they arrive they will find that she has drunk it all. She has used all the “selling” commodities and nothing is left for them to sell for a green card, university scholarship, book contract etc.

I read Camelia, by the journalist Camelia Entekhabifard. It was my fastest read, less than twenty hours. I’m a very slow reader, but there were two reasons for such a record-breaking achievement. The first one was my unwillingness to pay $23.95 for 225 pages of delusional stories called a memoir, so I borrowed it and I had to return it before leaving for Iran. The other is, of course, its lack of content—there is nothing to read. A self absorbed, yet ambitious young woman who thinks she can make a fool of everyone all the time is writing a self-congratulating memoir. What else is new? Every couple of years we have one of them. I hope hers is the last.

I should admit that she is very a smart, spirited young lady. I met her in her first book reading in Labyrinth in New York on Friday night. The most attractive part of her was not her hands (as she repeatedly claims in every chapter) but her shoes, a very high heeled, bight red velvet with embroidery, completely out of place with her very conservative two pieces suits and old fashioned neck scarf. It reminded me more of Shahrezad, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out she meant it that way. The contradiction did not end there, it only just started.

She started her talk by apologizing for her English. She explained it was her first public reading and she was very nervous. To tell the truth, it has nothing to do with her nerves; it was her grammar. I was quite disappointed at both NYU and Columbia whose graduates with a Masters Degree in any field spoke the language so poorly. She did not utter even one single correct sentence. I was wondering what her rush was to write a memoir and not waiting for her language facility to improve so that she could enjoy writing it. However, she managed to talk straight for one hour and twenty minutes and to relay her ideas and thoughts to her audience very well. No, she did not use her hands.

Going back to her book, well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the book will probably sell very well in the United States. It contains everything that the American public loves. There is a Lil Orphan Annie-Camelia who is innocently trapped in the hands of an abusive Islamic Republic and an interrogator. Even worse, she is in prison for a period of three months. Wow! Then she frees herself simply by using her hands and her voice. Wow again! There is no defense lawyer, no Shirin Ebadi, no Mousavi Kho’eini, no Fa’eze Hashemi to help; nobody from the Bar Association either, and no other journalist. She is there by herself, alone.

She is the victim. Another box office point! Americans love victims. I recall when Jewish Iranian memoirist Roya Hakakian wrote her memoir, the Jewish magazines pushed hard to portray her as victim and Roya, to her credit, shunned the offer. As we noticed, the book did not make it in the market so well, but Camelia’s will, you bet! She has not done anything and is charged for everything, poor girl!

Cleverness? Yes she is clever and Americans love clever people. On her first day in jail she decided that she had to do it herself, and by the second day she went into action. She is smart, she is pretty, but no one can see her, she is a good actress, she must perform the best performance of her life, and she has pretty hands and she is determined to use them. And her voice? Of course! Oh, the power of love! She gathered all the energy she had and channeled it in her hands, the only visible part of her body. She frees herself from the Islamic Republic’s prison in three months just by using her hands and her voice! Wow! And bravo! And one big bravo on behalf of her first boyfriend, the soccer player Ali Da’i, too. I think he is sorry that he did not marry her and exploit all her cunning in some of his crucial games.

The bad news is for the next wave of fame and freedom seekers. They will find nothing to impress these Americans with, Camelia did it all. (My advice to the future wave of parents is to think about it in advance, read the memoirs of survivors of Nazi Germany; you may find some secret Auschwitz somewhere in Iran which could become handy! No, Camelia did not use that.)

To be honest, two chapters of the book are worth reading, i.e., “Daisies in Autumn,” and “Zan.” The rest of the book is devoid of any sort of information or a worthwhile narrative. The author is very observant. Her poetic style coupled with her detail-oriented mind have helped her to depict the situation and scene vividly. However, she is not writing a fiction, but a memoir. As a distinct genre, memoir literature either requires a distinguished personality or someone with a bundle of wisdom and experience. Camelia lacks both. The book is just the recounting of the life of some self-absorbed young women who happens to have been in the public arena. She had a job which was both glamorous and culturally esteemed. She happened to have been in a unique part of the world where a peddler who sells newspapers is a head and shoulders above a peddler who sells tee-shirts, just by the virtue of his commodities. Nowhere in the book, is the reader presented with this distinguished aspect of Iranian life. In fact, nowhere in the book does she emerge out of her cocoon to lead her reader to some facts or truth about the country, culture, or Iranian politics. It is only in “Zan,” where she comes close to depicting some slim portion of what a memoir should do; and in “Daisies in Autumn,” where she talks about the high school girls and their relationships. (I wished she had not written four pages about her name.)

Even as a personal, and in fact a very personal, narrative, one never gets to the truth or matters of fact, let alone motivations or causes. I came across so many instances in which the author used the word “confusion” as verb or as a adjective or noun to describe her state of mind when she lies, cheats, or otherwise does wrong or makes a bad decision. I do not imagine what Persian word she used in her original text to be translated as such, but I can assure the reader with certainty that we do not have any word in our language which means “confusion” in the sense it is used in the English language. The widespread use of this world to justify some good amount of her misdeeds and bad judgment seems to be translated from a different language and culture. Iranian do not lie, cheat, and do wrong out of confusion, they do so for various other practical and pragmatic reasons. Camelia, almost in every few pages, does wrong because she is confused. She even mislead me to think that there might be a new phenomena of post-revolutionary Iran, and with much relief I found out it was just the terminology she adopted to justify what she was doing, probably coached by her editor.

Blaming others, an old device, is used frequently, and so is the manipulation of events by moving back and forth to confuse the reader. After finishing the book, one does not even know on what charges she is arrested. She gives a fuzzy narrative of an incident with quite an bit of manipulation. On one page, she writes all of them including some seventy men whom she had to admit she slept with. However there are no charges against her for being in Prague working with Radio Azadi. (This particular station is very different than all Iranian stations in Europe, and is different from Voice of America.) There, she broadcasted a program under the pseudonym Camelia Nakha’i. How strange that the interrogator, who knew everything about her, ignored this part of her life. The same with her relationship with FBI. However, she makes her short visit with Farah Pahlavi or even Reza Pahlavi (who are now private citizens and many Iranian abroad come to meet them on various occasions which never cause them any sort of problem) so important for no apparent reason.

It requires some mastery to portray oneself as both a dangerous subversive and an innocent at the same time. And she thinks she’s pulled it off. Well, not so well. No matter how unaccountable the Iranian judiciary is, if they feel someone is truly a danger, they will not let her go after three months, even if she had one hundred pairs of pretty hands. We are all too familiar with Iran judiciary system to know that three months in jail could not be enough for a serious charge. For a simple demonstration one can stay in jail for a much longer period. (Mohammadi is dead now and Batebi is still in jail just for showing his bloody shirt.) And believe me, if a prison in the Islamic Republic brings in an special interrogator for one prisoner (as she claimed regarding her interrogator) she would have been hanged by now. Camelia can delude herself as much as she wants, but I am worried about the young innocents who, God forbid, might believe her nonsense and put their life in danger.

It is interesting that with all her self absorbedness, she is not even concerns about the way she portrays herself. Indecisive, confused, irresponsible, delusional, being flirtatious to obtain what she needs, provocative, boasting, extremely manipulative, and empty of compassion. (She is the only woman prisoner whose memoirs I read who not only has no compassion and regard for any of the women working in the prison, but she does not hesitate to arouse their jealousy.) I’m sure Camelia does not like to be describes in these terms, but after reading this book, I do not feel I have any other choice. I think she has relied too much on her cleverness or our shallowness. But she is not as clever as she thinks, nor are we so shallow.

Indeed, Miss Camelia, with your pretty face and hands and name, after reading your book, I did not find anything else pretty in you. Your story is wrapped in fictions and the truths, if there are any, are so distorted that one wonders what you gained by writing them. Please do not get me wrong. I wished you would have written only the truth. Or better, I wish you would have written the book as fiction, it would make a very nice story. I am a big believer in writing, of all kinds. I think we Iranians have been quiet enough and that we have to write, to give information about ourselves, to introduce our culture, to bring our imagination and our inspiration to the world and become part of it, but we have to make sure that whatever we are doing is done responsibly. Then it makes no difference if it is fact or fiction.

With your book not only do you betray yourself, but you betray those you claim you love. You betray Fa’eze, who is not a woman to sit idle when one of her staff is in prison innocently; on the contrary, she would have raised hell. Woman activists would make some noise. They do this quite regularly. Shirin Ebadi would not have missed the occasion to help. Other journalist would have written something about it. Abtahi is a very brave man, and Khatami, had enough power to take an innocent one out of prison, and it has been done so. I’m sorry to tell you that the lonely women in prison who channels her energy into her hands to seduce her interrogator, if she grows her hand, it won’t (in the words of the poet) grow green. They might grow, but not green. No leaves would sprout, not even a bud. It would get yellow and it would dry out and fall off. Do not count on your hands and your looks and your charm; they all fade away, and you will remain lonely again, and when those days come, even the Pulitzer prize you dream about won’t help. If you get a chance read the book Everyman by Philip Roth. It will help.


Camelia, why did you pray five times a day? Iranian Shiites go to prayers only three times a day; they recite the noon and afternoon together, and evening and night together. You mean no one corrected you on that issue? I’m just curious.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Bam-e Tehran

My second trip to Iran was two weeks prior to the Iranian presidential elections. I had intended to be there for that political event, and also to participate in the pilgrimage to the Pir-e-Sabz shrine which was taking place during that period. Tehran was in a very unusual situation. Eight candidates running for the presidency had ornamented the city with their banners and messages. Interestingly enough, there was not a single word of Islam in any of them. Instead there were plenty of Iranian three color flags. Also, you could park your car anywhere you wanted, roll up you shirt sleeves a little higher, and pull back your head scarf a little more and no one would bother you!

Akbar Ganji had been let out of prison for a short while by the authorities supposedly for medical reasons but actually to reveal things about one of the front runners, Rafsanjani, and so discredit him. Instead, not even checking in with a single doctor, he issued a manifesto and condemned the entire establishment and the ruling clerics. As a result was taken back to the prison. He then went on hunger strike just a week before the elections. Reformists, supporting him while boycotting the election, gathered every night and day in front of Evin prison

Mobilization in Iran for Akbar Ganji

but my brother objected. He was afraid I might get into trouble, that being American citizen and marring to a Jew could cause me a real headache if arrested in the wrong place. With Mansoureh and Farah, another old friend, we left, promising not to go to Evin.

We went for dinner to an Indian restaurant. As expected, it was the best Indian food I ever had, and then we drove further

Mansoureh Shojai

north. Tehran had changed drastically from what I remembered; and so it was Mansoureh who knew where she was going and occasionally asking Farah if she should go this way or that way and Farah would say it does not matter. (That was her general attitude, nothing mattered to her ever.) We finally decided that we were lost. (In Tehran using the road map is not that popular yet. That is why the taxi drivers need to have a very high IQ, which they all seem to have, in addition to their Masters Degrees and being such a good companions.) After passing through various narrow mountain roads, we finally came in front of a walled complex with some two hundred people standing there in groups eating fresh walnuts, fresh almonds, and barbequed corn cobs, customary Iranian snacks. I looked at Mansoureh, who had promised my brother not to go to the prison, and she shrugged, saying “I did not promise not to get lost!”

Everybody was there: Noushins, Shirins, Azadehs, Royas, Farhads, Alis, and Payams. We talked about the elections, about the reformist candidates, about the uselessness of voting, about the usefulness of boycotting, about how the government’s legitimacy would shatter if the people did not vote, about whether or not the this government’s legitimacy indeed had come from the people’s vote, about the reformists’ ineptitude which was being used by the reformists voters like a hammer to bang on the heads of the reformists’ candidate. Behind the wall of that complex, Ganji was ill, on hunger strike; the crowed outside the wall was to support and help him. I think those daily gatherings helped. Thanks to the Iranian journalists who kept him on the front page, he is out and alive.

It was almost 2 am. We got back to our car. Farah was very tired, but not us. I just wanted to tell Mansoureh about the death of Mercutio, the little dog I had for fourteen years. She suffered two heart failures and finally died of low blood pressure. I still miss her and wanted to tell my friend exactly what happened. I wanted to tell her story to Mansoureh under the moonlight, and it was her idea that we should walk with the moon behind us while I narrate the story so that when we return, the moon would be in our face so that we could see Mercutio’s face reflected in it. We drove to the nearby parking spot under some steps leading to a flat area called “Bam-e Tehran” (“Roof of Tehran”) on the mountain overlooking the city. Farah

Bam-e Tehran

decided to sleep in the car and we left. We walked up to the observatory terrace overlooking the city, which was shining under our feet like a giant piece of jewelry. And behind us was a the rocky body of the Alborz Mountains. The moon was above us like a majestic deity; my beloved dog is housed in it until we all join her in heaven.

I told Mansoureh all about the dog’s suffering and the pain she went through; and the care and all the nourishment I gave her, and the last few days, and finally the painful loss. I cried and she cried with me. When we returned, the moon was in our face, shining. I heard a barking, and then again, I thought I am imagining. I was not. A little further on, a few people where walking and a little dog was running around and barking. This is not a usual scene in Iran. People do not take their dogs to public places. And here at 3 am in an isolated area a little dog, from distance like Mercutio, sounded like magic. We went to them I picked up the dog and gave it a kiss and hug, and returned to our car. We woke Farah and drove back. It was only then that I noticed how fortunate I am to have friends like Mansoureh and Farah to be with me, listening to the trivial tale of my dog’s death with such sensitivity while each one of them was fighting for such vital matters in their life, one with the political upheavals and the other with a life-threatening disease. It was then that I noticed that under no condition would I have dared to walk in Central Park, in New York City, unarmed, at 3am.

Next week I’m going to Tehran for my third trip. With deep sorrow I have to face certain pains for which I am not prepared. My dear friend Farah died last month due to an illness she was suffering from. She was old friend and very exceptional. I’ll miss her.

In addition, after some 25 years, I think it is finally time that I face the loss of my mother, something that I could not bring myself to face on my last two trips back home. This time it is unavoidable. April 27 is her anniversary and is the last day of my stay in Iran.

It is now that I realize that that night on “Bam-e Tehran” under the moonlight it was my mother who was shining on my face and smiling and welcoming me back home and with her usual warmth and love, and forgave me for not accepting her untimely departure, as if it was her choice.

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An Iranian Passover

This Passover was quite a monumental time for us. My husband’s parents did not feel like celebrating the holiday and one of our friends with whom we would usually spent one of the first two nights had moved out town. We decided to spend the first night with one of our Iranian Jewish friends in Long Island.

Ilana and Hamid are from Hamedan, an old historical city “Hekmataneh,” in western Iran near another old historical city, “Susa,” apparently the original hometown of Jews in the world (according to Hamid and Gore Vidal). Queen Esther was from there, and so was Mordechai, and their tombs are located in

"Queen Esther and King Xerxes"

Hamadan, and are a source of pride to the Iranians of all religions, who make pilgrimages to them. While driving home from the train station, Hamid and Evan, my husband, decided that there were many Iranian Jews who are direct descents from Aaron (Cohanim, or Priests), versus the Ashkenazi’s who have many descendants of their aides (Levi’im). I have no idea if these matters are decided in this fashion, but who am I to say?

It was the loveliest time I ever had on Passover. The lengthy ritual of reading a text whose language I do not know and the assigned repetitive questions raised by the children and the uncomfortable chairs that one has to sit on for almost four hours (there is no comfortable chair in the world) leaves me with nothing but exhaustion on Passover nights. However, not this time.

Ilana and Hamid are both very political, unlike most minorities in Iran, who believe politics have nothing to do with them, even though they both are mellowed down a bit. They do not pretend to be just guests in this world. I hope this partial withdrawal is the side effect of the life in the Diaspora rather than a philosophical one. In any case, we always have very engaging discussions with them which adds more grace to their Iranian hospitality.

Their two daughters, Sarvin and Nasim, have grown to such admirable gracious ladies. It was so delightful to see them participating in the ritual, so graciously carrying the pitchers of water and basins in which only men wash their hands, without the slightest sign of resentment or embarrassment. In their young age they seemed to be wise enough not to expect modern social agreements from a five thousand old religion. They seemed to grasp and appreciate the essence of the faith which has been good enough to survive this far.

In addition to us, Hamid’s mother, Bahiyeh Khanom, and his brother, Homayoun, were there to form a Seder of three generations. Casual as everything was, still one would not miss that within this family there was a natural order and hierarchy. Each person has his/her place and duty, which they filled so nicely. There was no clash, no rivalry, and no tension. The tone was nothing but balanced, peaceful and harmonious, but light and happy.

If I have to label Ilana and Hamid's sader, I would call it highly secular. There was quite a bit of negotiation taking place as to how to perform the service, read the text, rushing through certain parts or eliminating others. Ilana announced right at the beginning to cut everything short since she had worked hard and seemed hungry; Hamid very politely tried to keep up with my husband and did his best to show that he is Jewish too; Hamid’s brother, Homayoun, who seemed more knowledgeable than Hamid and at least had stepped into a synagogue a few times, did not need to go through that pretense, and gave a nice humorous reading of text and added his witty, clever remarks. Hamid’s mother asked repeatedly that the section of the plagues and the curses be eliminated, even though the Iranian text in this section is somehow different than the Ashkenazi’s, and the entire table and food and drinks are covered so that the curses won’t enter the edibles. Her insistence on eliminating the section was remarkable and I took it not only as an aspect of her very compassionate motherly personality, but as indicative of the humane culture she is from. When all was said and done, the service took place, everything was read, questions were asked, answers were given, and all the symbolism was mentioned, but no horseradish and no gefilte fish was served. These are not included in Iranian tradition. The food was excellent as always in Ilana and Hamid’s, their indoor and outdoor Iranian kitchen is nothing to be missed.

The whole service was of course the men’s show and nobody minded. It was held mainly in Persian with a very little Hebrew sprinkled in here and there. The text was read by Hamid, Homayoun, and Evan, who stumbled when reading in Hebrew just to be a good sport. Homayoun did really good job; he was really funny and added his humorous commentary to the text and, being the youngest male child, read all four children’s questions and answered them all as well. Evan said he wished he would have recorded it.

Those four women did not seem to have any less presence than men, if not more. Their arbitrary place in the service had nothing to do with their real positions in life and they all seemed very assured of it. No, there was no orange* on the Seder plate, and Ilana, a veterinarian and sonographer and a champion horseback rider, was perfectly and graciously happy to provide all those wonderful meals.

As for the Iranian tradition of beating each other with scallions? You bet, it was the most fun. We all participated fully and vigorously in it. I did not make the mistake I made in my first Iranian Seder some thirty three years ago, and picked up few big scallions instead of one tiny one! Oddly enough, in spite of all the fun and laughter we had, all the discussions, all the political talks, and all the disagreements over various issues, the religious aspect of the Seder was still not lost. Not even a moment past without feeling the grace and the blessing which one ought to feel on these holidays. Their acceptance of faith, their peacefulness, their order, their love, their humanity was all that was written on the tablets brought down by the prophet some five thousand years ago. With all their avowed secularism, it seems they always live in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, with no alteration. In this family religion works perfectly well in its secular form, whatever this means.

In the Haggadah it is related how the five great rabbis gathered on Passover night to discuss the Exodus from Egypt. They were only roused from their discussions by a student rushing in to tell them it was time to recite the morning prayers. Just like these ancient sages, we did not notice how time passed by, it was one thirty and we should have gone home long ago. Our dog was waiting for us to have his nightly walk, and it would take us at least two to three hours to get back. We arrived at four in the morning. Those who know us can imagine what it meant for us and how much we could have enjoyed the night.

* When Jewish feminists complained to grand rabbis about their exclusion from the services, one of the rabbis responded: "the place of women in the services is like having an orange on the Seder plate." Jewish feminists, to prove their point, placed an orange on Seder plate afterward.

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