Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ahmadinejad in New York City: A Lost Opportunity

Once more a golden opportunity was lost while we looked on with disbelieve and dismay. Mahmud Ahmadinejad was back to our beloved city, the capital of money, politics and noise. He was received with a blast of the harshest insults and rudeness and bowed to all of them with his tough skin and dazed look and semi-vicious smile. He gave a lengthy speech with zero content in the Iranian gathering at the Hilton Hotel on September 23. He gave a much more blown out of proportion talk in Columbia University the next day and the United Nation the day after that. He was on Charley Rose and Sixty Minutes. He was not permitted to pay his respects to the victim of 9/11, but was given an ample platform to repeat the typical diatribes of the conservative Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the Hilton Hotel’s iftar party some two thousand Iranian gathered. His talk was more or less a repetition of his last year’s speech—how good we were, how good we are, and how good we always will be, we the Iranian people. It is striking that in the whole speech there was not a word of the Islamic Republic or the Iranian government, as if there were no such animals; instead, we the nation of Iran and the Iranian people were present from seven thousand ears ago till now in our full majesty. We all like it though we all knew that our seven thousand years of majestic life would be diminished as soon as he got into his airplane and headed for Tehran.

Things were more chaotic in Columbia University. Thousand of students had rallied against his presence there and criticized the president of the Columbia University for inviting him. The placards bore all sorts of messages, calling him evil, a dictator, Hitler, a criminal, and a terrorist.

It seems that President Bollinger had given in to the conservative students, and I believe, to the trustees as well, and did something quite uncommon for a president of an Ivy League university; he was rude and arrogant and insulting. But Ahmadinejad took all the insults and went up onto the stage with same vapid smile and glazed expression and repeated the same rhetoric and laughed and made some of the people laugh along with him.

Attaollah Mohajerani wrote an article in his blog which was published in Rooz on Line and quoted the Israeli daily Haaretz to the effect that the real loser in all this was the Israel. He also noted that Bollinger did not gain anything by insulting Ahmadinejad with his unconventional insolence and ranged him second among the losers, following Israel, since he gave Ahmadinejad some sympathy for being the underdog.

I was invited to the NY1 cable television news program “Inside the City Hall” on September 24, following the Columbia University president’s speech. My reaction to it was one of dismay and bewilderment. I recalled Ronald Reagan when he called the Iranians a barbaric nation over the hostage crisis. Well, I was not sure that it was appropriated to use the word on television, I suffice to express my disbelief in what I had just heard and how unbecoming if was of the President of Columbia to talk that way, regardless who the guest speaker was. I wondered why they invited him at all; they could have cancelled his invitation and then called him whatever they wanted. But how on earth does one invite someone and tell him to his face that he is stupid, illiterate, a dictator and small?

However, what bothered me the most was the fact that another opportunity had been lost to confront this insolent people for whom nothing penetrates. The Islamic Republic is left there alone and the international community, if there is such thing at all, is somehow silent regarding their treatment of their citizens. Human rights are totally ignored, women’s rights are ignored, minorities are ignored and they are as harshly discriminated against as can be. The laws of the sharia, which are incompatible with the standards of human rights, are imposed where ever possible. Luckily Iranians in many cases follow their own traditions and culture and continue to tailor their conduct accordingly to avoid further confrontation. However, social life requires some sort of lawfulness, which is totally missing. The Islamic Republic, in spite of its democratic structure and the appearance of checks and balances, by excluding the majority of Iranians, i.e., those who are not considered Islamic enough, does not have the legitimacy of a representative government.

The advent of the internet and satellite communications has made it impossible for the government to keep the public from access to information to a great extent and that is another factor which gives a false appearance of some sort of freedom of expression, other wise the regime would be as totalitarian as the Baghdad caliphs. However, the socio-economic facts of life, along with the geopolitical situation of the country has rendered it immune from many compromises that other neighboring country are asked to make.

Once a year when an Iranian delegation comes to the United Nation, an opportunity arises for all of us to meet these people out of their safe cocoons. We all have a hope that while the whole world is watching they would appear to give an account of what they are doing. We all are hopeful they would be asked questions that they had ignored while they were back home. It is with this hope we wait for September in New York every year. Alas, from the time the Iranian Delegation was led by Princess Ashraf, the Shah of Iran’s sister, to this September with our president Ahmadinejad as the head of the delegation, our hopes have been dashed.

Mohajerani is just deluding himself to think that the losers are the Israel and Columbia University. The real loser is us, the Iranian people whose name was use at least fifty times during Ahmadinejad’s speeches on every occasion. We Iranian people are waiting for a miracle of justice everywhere, but all we received so far has been nothing but watching and waiting. We lost our chances one more time when the President of Columbia University acted unwisely and got lost in the traffic of insults and the competition of rudeness. I wished he would have remind as worthy as the head of the institution of such caliber and would not have given him such an opportunity to answer a question with question, not to have given him a chance to play victim, not to have given him a chance to lie and not to have given him a chance to dodge every question. There are the clips of films of the bloody demonstrations in which women in the streets were beaten and abused by police either for peaceful gathering or so-called bad hejabs. There are photographs of the prisoners who are tortured badly. The famous photograph of the young student whose back is carves by knife reading “Tir 18” is such a convincing document and the photographs of Daryoush and Parvaneh Forouhar’s bodies cut to the pieces are more convincing than any other verbal accusation. The students could have covered the walls with all these undeniable documents and instead of all these insults we could have invited him to explain. Just explain. For three days, instead of all the sensationalizing propaganda about why he wants to wipe Israel from the world map, we could have asked him in what position and capacity he wants to do so, and if he has any, what is his time frame. I do recall last year when President Khatami came to the United States and very clearly said in various interviews as the former president of Iran that the foreign policy of Iran is not solely in the hand of the president, indeed his weight in these matters is very insignificant. He could have been asked if he is up to his claims. A few credible dissidents could have confronted him with the fact that he does not even have any constituency in Iran and, with only one year left of his presidency, was in no position to make good on his threats. Instead of calling him Hitler we should have let him show himself a Don Quixote.

President Bollinger saved his position and did what the conservative students and the board of trustees wanted him to do. The American media was happy for a few days; they were hosting evil and his ensemble and it sold well. The students had a little excitement for a change and experienced something which is alien in this country, street talk over politics. Ahmadijnjad found a chance to sing his songs, Comedy Central comedians found good bits for their sketches. And we, the Iranian people, are left with a pang of pain in our heart. We, the Iranian people, here or at home, were the real losers.

And lastly Kian Tajbakhsh (a Columbia University alumnus) got out of prison just the day Ahmadinejad came here, but women, students, activists and journalists are rotting in jail.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Columbus Dispatch Cartoon

One more cartoon, one more insult, one more humiliation, and a million more protests. I hope this time we learn what we must learn, what we should have learned long time ago and did not. It is hard to believe but true that we live in a biased and fanatic country. We live somewhere that racism and sexism and fanaticism is as widespread as anywhere else in the world with the difference that we the immigrants do not want to believe it. A young Iranian journalist, Gelareh Asayesh, in her memoir very eloquently showed that in the process of immigrating to the US

one endures so much that it is hard to return even if one wants to. This is true on all account. We come here, either by choice or by forces beyond our control, the process of adjustment takes so much from us that we have to close our eyes and become callous towards many things that the pain becomes unbearable we protest only for the wrong reasons.

We rely so much on what we call objectivity and fairness and we assume that Americans, being so modern and sophisticated, are infallible in those regards that when we see those cartoons we become “saddened.” To tell you the truth, I don’t feel saddened. Not that I don’t feel bad that some idiot portrays us as cockroaches, but because it happens so often and almost everyday, one way or the other, that it loses its effect.

Did not we protest against the movie 300? Did not we protest against the Pope’s speech? And the Danish cartoon? We did. Though we did nothing or said nothing when we ourselves did no better, portraying ourselves as mean or handicapped. Did you not read Reading Lolita in Tehran? Did you not hear of Camelia? The authors were not American or Danish, they were one of us indeed.

The other issue closely connected to this constant disappointment is this artificial line that we have drawn between ourselves. We artificially separated ourselves from some seventy million other Iranians. In a way it is true we live differently and are different from those ruling in Iran. It is true we constantly become embarrassed by the government which does not represent us. However, not everybody knows these tiny, thin differences. Why should they? We need to draw this line because we need it for our survival, but that division is totally immaterial to the cartoonist who has to compete with a thousand others and won’t get to the front pages of newspaper unless he sensationalizes.

What is the use even if we mange to force the Columbus Dispatch to apologize? Would it be the end? Unfortunately, we are the cause of it ourselves. As long as we identify ourselves as Iranians we are one with whatever is Iranian, Ahmadinejad and Khameneii included. Don’t you hear Ahmadinejad’s speeches everyday? Don’t you get angry and disgusted? Do you think he portrays us much better than those cartoons? I don’t think any of us wants to admit he is one of us, an Iranian. But he is, and the whole world sees it that way, no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from him. For sure, these Americans won’t see us differently, and they don’t have to. If we need to be respected collectively, we should be respectable collectively and need to act respectfully, all us Iranians. It is time to learn that either we are Iranians or not. If we are, we share that with a whole nation. Not such a happy face, right?

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Other Farrukhzad

Some fourteen years after the untimely dead of the famous Iranian poet Forugh Farrukhzad, the country still passionately keeps her memory alive. Few books written by Iranian or foreign writers which do not refer to her as an Iranian icon. Younger poets and the young generation keep her in mind by using the images she pioneered, growing their hands in gardens, wearing twin cherries as earrings, and so on. While we remember her with all our hearts, we have almost forgotten another Farrukhzad who emerged in the Iranian artistic arena for a very short while, though he had a stunning effect on our modern culture.

Fereydoun Farrukhzad was Forough Farrukhzad's younger brother. He studied in Germany and returned to Iran few years after his sister’s death, appearing on television as a showman of a weekly program called The Silver Carnation. The whole concept of the show was very new to Iranian audience, since similar programs from foreign countries would never be broadcast in Iran.

It is said that he was given time on television out of respect for the relationship with one of the directors of Iranian Television to his sister. However, he very soon became more popular by his own merits. I did not see the first show, though I remember that the next day there was nothing more important to talk about at work than Farrukhzad. Had the prime minister been assassinated there would not have been more discussion.

Very soon Iran divided into two camps, for and against Farrukhzad. However, the division was rather chaotic. Unlike similar cases, it was not divided by gender or generation or class. What made it more difficult to classify his fan base was the fact that many people found it difficult to admit liking him. Even those who declared that they did not like him would never miss his show.

It took me quite a while to see his show due to my schedule, but I finally managed to watch him. That night a few of our friends, who were soccer players, would be on his show as guests. He asked one of them, the captain of the famous Shaheen team, to tell the most memorable event of his life. The guy very shyly said that was the day he met the Shah. “Well,” he asked, “Could you tell us your next most memorable event?” “The day I met the Crown Prince,” he replied. Farrukhzad laughed his beautiful childish laugh and said, “Come on, we all feel proud and excited to meet a celebrity and see leaders and heads of state, but it has nothing to do with our lives. These are not part of our lives and are hardly personal. There are many events happening in our lives that we never forget, like our wedding night, like our first kiss, like the birth of our children, like falling in love.” I very vividly recall the man’s face, the despair in his eyes, the nervousness in his face and hands. He was sweating, turning right and left and I think he was praying for a miracle to cut the electrical cord and end the program. He was so anxious to escape from the show and run away to the soccer court and kick the ball to relieve himself from all the nervous anxiety he was suffering. I do not remember if he finally told him of any memorable event in his life, but I do recall how deadly the question was to him, and how he preferred to do whatever in his power as not to answer the question.

Indeed, it was highly unusual in those days in Iran for anybody to talk about what was considered personal and private. It was very uncomfortable to talk about our feelings, our likes and dislikes, in addition to the political pressure placed on celebrities such as actors, actresses and athletes not to rise above what was supposed to be the most important person in the country, the Shadow of God, the monarch.

It is to his credit that Farrukhzad broke that taboo. He asked that question from every single guest again and again. I’m not sure if he received any answer, but eventually the question lost its horror. A few nights ago when I watched his later shows on Youtube, which I had never seen, I notices how easily his guests became accustomed talk and laugh on screen without being worried that the monarch was watching.

Part of the reason I like Farrukhzad was my mother, may she rest in peace. She was in her fifties, a tribal women, semi-religious, a loving mother and a completely devoted wife to my father. Like many Iranian mothers, she had no life but her family. But there were two nights that we had to struggle to get her attention: if there was any play on TV and on Farrukhzad nights. She loved him (my Iranian reader may not believe me) just for his dancing. He danced while singing in a very rhythmic and humorous way. In spite of what she said, I thought she liked him for his cheerful, gentle, and kind disposition resembled one of my brothers whom my mother adored.

With him something happened in Iranian pop culture. For the first time a man appeared who was exclusively appealed to women and was loved by them. He had the reputation of being gay, though he was married and had a son. That might have helped his popularity among the women, being safe and also touching a paradigm border. I do not think it was only my mother who loved him for his dancing and gentleness, I think other women saw in him a delicate child-son as well. But above all he became an image, all unreal, fantastic, like no one else, not a man and not a woman, something just like himself that men did not like and so left him alone for the women to love.

His fans were not limited to women. He was very popular among children and young teenagers as well. He had a talent to relate to ordinary people of any class so easily through the simple lyrics of his songs. Once in the streets of south Tehran, young kids recognized him and gathered around him and one of them screamed and called the attention of others and said, “Hey everybody, he is the one who if the moon came down from the sky and knocked on his door, he wouldn’t open it because he was busy with his guest!” That was a line taken from one of his popular songs which, like all his songs, was saturated with his character and his life. In spite of his well-groomed appearance, his tailored black ties and ruffled shirts, and his trimmed Omar Sharif mustache, and in spite of his sometimes off-color remarks on some neighboring countries, in spite of his carelessness, bordering on arrogance, towards politically correctness and his lack of concern for appearing khalqi (common, popular), he was truly a man of the people.

He invited actors and actresses and singers to his show. Most of them were young and, as a result, were generally better-educated than the older generation of their profession. He would make a point of bringing up the subject of their education even if it was at a simple professional school, like flower arranging or decorating. He would always introduce them by saying “X or Y, artist, beautiful and educated.” This become like his trademark. Though we all made fun of him calling someone educated for only attending six months’ classes somewhere or other, even at that time we thought he was taking the early steps of change in a traditional society which was looking differently at women pop singer or movie actress.

I liked him, though I watched him only a few times, for all the happiness he brought once a week to the people. His laughter was his best feature, and his memory is always mingled with joy, though I heard he was not a happy person.

A few nights ago, a friend and I stumbled upon various clips of his show on Youtube. The old ones from Iran were indeed very nostalgic, but the later ones in England were very daring.

He was murdered in Germany in his apartment in the same fashion as Shapur Bakhtiar and Daryoush and Parvaneh Forouhar were murdered, more likely by the same group of people and for the same reasons. Years to come, we might remember him differently.
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