Friday, May 11, 2007

My Seventeen Day Trip to Iran

My seventeen day trip to Iran ended peacefully and nicely. Those of my friends and families who were nervous can breathe now. No nuke was dropped, mini or otherwise, no air strikes of any sorts whatsoever. People were happy, life was going on, and it was business as usual.

It was after some thirty-five years that I saw Tehran in the Spring. I think it is one of the most beautiful cities now. A network of highways, trimmed with amazingly colorful landscaping, has wrapped the city like a handsome basket of flowers. I hope the metro project expands quicker and some part of current traffic would move underground so one can enjoy the surrounding better.

There was not any sign of anxiety on the people’s part over the various US threats against Iran. It seems that people are getting used to this kind of rhetoric and do not take it seriously. I think the Islamic Republic in general, and the government of Ahmadinejad in particular, has desensitized the people to the point that even taxi drivers, who are always ready to comment on political and social issues, were quieter.

All over the city every quarter of a mile big, well-designed banners were hung, with a simple message: “ Ettehad-e-Melli, Ensejam-e-Eslami”—National Unity, Strengthening of Islam. It is the first time ever since the Islamic Republic was in power that the ruling authorities so openly appealed to Iranian national identity prior to its Islamic identity. Something like this had been done previously on a number of occasions; even Imam Khomeini appealed to Iran’s 2500 years of history to encourage people during the Iran – Iraq war, and every so often the clerics conveniently remembered that we have a history prior to Islam, but there had never before been such a campaign for Iranian national unity.

I did not hear even one word about the enrichment of uranium or atomic energy. It was as if such things did not exist. Instead I heard almost everywhere about Dehnamaki’s Movie Ekhrajiha (The Outcasts). Some thought it was very funny. Others did not see it because they considered Dehnamaki himself to have been a thug who was trying to reinvent himself. Some thought that making a big box office hit does not mean anything. Some thought Iranian movies are very derivative and that even its humorous aspect is not creative but is taken from other comedies.

However, there was another big hit movie, not funny at all, Khoon bazi (Blood Sport) by Rakhshan Bani Etemad with brilliant acting of her daughter Baran. The film was about the drug problem and what made it more interesting was that Bani Etemad had discussed drug abuse among the upper-middle and upper classes, unlike the customary idea which considered it as a poor and lower-class problem.

Of course the subject of Islamic veil in the month of May is always the top issue and this year it was there in its full display. It was the headline of newspapers, under the various titles of “bad hejabi” or “shol hejabi” (bad or slovenly veiling). The difference this time was that the head of the police department took it upon himself to deal with this issue as a kind of crime. It was on his top agenda to curb bad hejabi. The police had arrested one hundred and sixty thousand offenders in the first two days, and finished processing only forty thousand of them. The government was under attack from various sides, including clerics. The most popular argument was based on two premises. One was that those who are considered as bad hejabis are the legitimate children of Islamic Republic, i.e. the Islamic Republic had been incapable of instilling into its own people the mode of behavior it wanted to enforce and therefore said it would not work and to give it up. The second argument was a matter of priorities. Did the government deal with other more pressing issues? Did it bring the oil money to the people’s table? Did the government fulfill its promises? Is the hejab the most important issue at this time? However important as all these arguments are, no one expected to receive an answer to any of them. People just hope that they would be heard.

Noushin Ahmadi

While we are at it, I should say luckily the last two woman activists (related to the campaign for one million signatures) were released. However Noushin Ahmadi and Parvin Ardalan, who had been freed on bail, got jail sentences.

Parvin Ardalan

My two trips to my favorite place, book shops, were wonderful. I bought a lot of books. I do not want to make you eat your heart out, but I bought a whole bag of books for less than one hundred dollars, lots of fiction and non-fiction. Have you ever bought any book for less than one dollar? I do not mean to be wicked!

I would like to mention one important issue to the publishers. There is no clear indication on most, indeed practically any, of the books that they are fiction or non-fiction. I noticed Amin Maalouf’s Garden of Lights was translated as The Life and the Philosophies of Mani, the Iranian Prophet. This book is fiction and it is a great injustice to the Prophet of Manichaeism and the author if the reader takes it as a historical work. There were so many books of these kinds. Another important issue is the customary short biography of the author and the blurb which are totally missing. I hope some one pays attention to that.

Food was great as usual. However, I wish people would eat less meat. I do not understand how such political people would consume that much meat. Just consider that eight pounds of grain should be used to produce one pound of meat. Please, please, please people of Iran, vegetables are wonderful. Eat them!

Also regarding food, the bad news is that cooking, which was considered a pride of the Iranian household, is now passé. No one cooks any more. “Take outs,” “orders,” and “reservations” are in.

This was my third trip to Iran. Whatever I saw was so accented with love and tenderness that it was difficult to find something to nag about. Even when the government’s off and on gaffs cause such uproars, one is more impressed by those energetic and courageous protests than the government’s foolishness. I for one cannot stop myself from choosing the best. I notice the uproars.

With all my naïve optimism I came across two defects that I could not ignore. One is Iran’s tile works. The country which is one of the oldest ceramic and tile art centers and has produced the magical monuments in Isfahan, is doing so poorly now. Even in the expensive houses of north Tehran, one gets very disappointed when walks into the bathrooms. Should we blame it all on Afghan’s refugees [pdf] who are the major body of construction workers?

And the final defect I find was the Almond. Yes, the Almond! My generation can remember very well that one table spoon of its bitter oil was used to clean our systems every so often and even sometimes as a threat and deterrent. Yes the same nut which for centuries was used to describe the most beautiful eyes is not such an Iranian commodity any more. In the nut shop there were three piles of almonds. Two of them are very attractive, all the same color, large and elegant shaped almonds, the third was of mixed sizes and colors and none looked like almonds. I asked the shop keeper what was the difference. He pointed to the two attractive ones and said they were American almonds and that the crooked mixed ones were Iranian and tastier. Well guess what, they were all bitter or tasteless as hell. If you go to Iran, even if you want to patronize Iranian products, avoid almonds.

Everything aside, the Alborz Mountain, covered with snow, still stands there majestically.