Saturday, March 28, 2009

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years Of Love And Danger In Iran

I keep reading to catch a glimpse of romance, or honeymoon! Oh, cruel Azadeh! Not even a line? But I keep reading. Then, I give up. Forget about the title, lets get to the subtitle “Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran.” Lets look for love first, modern love, it is nice, I'm sure it is somewhere in the Islamic republic. Islamic love?

No there is no trace of love there either, though there is an encounter with a young man, Arash, in Laleh Seddigh's stable. The author is there to “spend some time with” (not to interview!) the “race-car- driver.” Her friend, Nasrine, had invited Arash to meet the author. Well, one might think reading a tabloid about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears; but, no, it is about an experienced journalist from Time and a “race-car- driver” over a guy name Arash. The journalist, Azadeh is not even a columnist!
In her first step to this love story we find Laleh, an airheaded, superficial, spoiled rich, selfish, delinquent, self-centered, and ignorant woman who “thinks Nepal is a mountain”, in her way. But our journalist who is, as opposed to the “race-car-driver”, intelligent, deep, sincere, and not at all self-absorbed, manages to win him over. When Laleh appears on the scene in her “silver BMW with her pouty, collagen-enhanced lips and a nose job, better than the most, wearing a velvety hunting manteau,” it is easy to guess who is the winner in this rivalry.

Later on, based on the information from Wikipedia, I found that Laleh Seddigh, at the age of 28, is the 2006 champion of 1600 GT car racing, she has been awarded an International drivers license to qualify her to race on any circuit in the world. She is qualified for competing in 1800 GT for the coming year, and has a reputation for selecting very sophisticated and complex strategies. At the time of the interview, she was a Ph. D. student and is now a teacher at the Tehran Technical College.) I wonder why our young journalist insists on portraying her so differently? Professionalism aside, she makes the error of trivializing her opponent. What is such a big deal about winning a competition against an air-head?

Going back to the love that is promised in the title, it seems she has sent us on a wild goose chase. If there was any love affair in her real life, there is no trace of it in the book, no, no love, no honeymoon, and no romance. But Tehran is there and Iran too. And danger? Ah, no danger either. But there is something, lets call it fake danger, induced fear, and artificial suspense. Well, at least she does something in this book beyond making a collection of her articles written for Time from 2005 to 2007. Yes, really the book is a collection of previously-written and published articles. I do not intend to get involved in copyright issues, however the reader needs to know that this is not a romance book, and not a memoir per se. And those who review the book should take the trouble at least to check what they read.

In the Author's Note she writes, “I benefited tremendously from knowing in advance that these two years of my life would be transformed into story. I have reconstructed most of the dialogue and events from notes, some more detailed than others. To fill the lacunae in my journal, I have relied on the help and memory of those who shared the experiences with me.” Nowhere in the book is there any reference to the articles written by the author in Time, nor is there any mentioned of this in the bibliography.

Am I the first to notice how scattered this memoir is? Am I the only one to notice that almost all the articles, written for, and published by Time are glued together by some half gossip, and chit chat stories just to created a fake, pale imitation, and Iranian version of Murphy Brown?

Our young journalist employs whatever she can to create excitement, though she fails to arouse genuine curiosity or interest. The pregnancy out of wedlock, living together, and hassles over officiating her marriage, all seem artificial, and all equally without rhyme or reason, purpose or justification. If she wanted to get married, why didn't she do so six months earlier? Or if she wanted to get pregnant, why didn't she do so six months later? Do we know why she should get pregnant in such rush before getting married? Were there any obstacles? Did she not know how to prevent it? Did she not know that she is living in the Islamic Republic? Could she not read the Islamic penal code first to learn that stoning is not applicable in her situation? Or did she just want to do something exciting? More likely the latter, though the whole scheme does not even impress her minder, Mr. X.

The character Mr. X, if real, does not help either. It might excite a few teenagers in California who might think Iran is a month in the Islamic lunar calendar, but those who know Iran a little beyond the articles Azadeh sends to Time or writes in her book, know that there are plenty of Mr Xs in the Islamic Republic. Our dear journalist would not have been that much excited if she would have been in contact with any of the women activists to tell her it is merely routine to receive those intimidating calls and summonses from one of those minders summoning them to one of those spooky places at odd times like ten at night every so often. They would have advised her that she should simply ask for a rescheduling or tell them she should not go by herself.

There are a few other scattered stories, like two chapters on how to find an obstetrician, in the country which has the most sophisticated women-related medicals facilities in the Middle East; another chapter on how to find a pediatrician qualified to vaccinate her son; and another chapter devoted to vaccination, and the advantages of German vaccines over the Iranian ones, and how she brought vaccine from Germany to Iran so her son won't be affected with fever after vaccination. One chapter concerns the inadequacy of the hospitals with talkative nurses and wailing women in labor pain. And of course the repetitive subject of finding contradictions and paradoxes in Iran, which really becomes deadly boring.

Nagging is also extended to other hassles she has to go through. There is her mother's pressure to invite all her friends and family for the wedding reception, to which she responds by first eating ice cream for three consecutive nights at three a.m. and finally ends up with visiting a councelor. Finding someone to make a dress for her without referring to her five months' big belly is a hard chore, to which she finds a good convenient solution by flying to Europe to get one. Choosing the caterer takes another chapter. School programs - private as well as public-are a disaster and takes another chapter. Youth are not spared either. They are not rebellious enough. They are only “concerned with freedom in their immediate ten-foot radius.” However, women are spared; not even a single word about them except in connection to plastic surgery and their vanity in preferring C-Section to normal delivery. And journalists? None of the thousands of people in that field are even mentioned.

But this book is not even about any of these either. This book is about Azadeh Moaveni's view of life, her taste, her liking, her disliking, and her standards only in a short part of Azadeh Moaveni's chronicles. It seems that for every two years of her life she is determined to write a book.

I personally do not have anything against those who think too much of themselves and take their whims and likes and dislikes so seriously, particularly if they are women. Honestly if it were not for them, their obsessions and their self involvement, Edith Wharthon, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and many others would not created those fascinating masterpieces. But I'm not reading a novel and she is not a character in fiction. She is like a rowdy child who is spinning around herself, splashing everything, and getting out of control. And I'm like a mother who does not know what else to do and, knowing that eventually she would fall, prays for a safe landing.

She is at the airport, I'm holding my breath, what if something happens, what if she finds out that she is barred from leaving the country. I pray to God for Mr. X not to appear all of a sudden with the Revolutionary Guard to arrest her. I really wish her a good luck in leaving the country and take her dear son to a civilized country, somewhere that she can walk into a drugstore and buy any brand of dipper, shampoo, lotion and baby formula for him, otherwise in two years there will be another book tilted “Kids and Toiletry in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

It seems God heard my prayer and answered it. She left the country without any surprises. Her book has been published by a no-nonsense publisher, Random House, she was interviewed on NPR for a full forty-five minutes. She talks here and there in her book reading, and she lectures on various aspects of her observations; however, I have no idea why she has to be so clueless and tone-deaf.

To read the rest, click here.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sign the petition against the medieval persecution of the Bahais

There is really very little to say about this. Either you believe in freedom of conscience and the right to worship the Deity in accordance with your beliefs, or you're not. Sign here!

Here are some articles to educate yourself:
And, for those with the stomach for it, the Islamic Republic's view:

To read the rest, click here.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free

If I would not have known the world Saïd described in his book with plenty of Mahmouds and Marthas and plenty of Saïds emerging from their unions, all awaiting a promised land that would follow a golden revolution, I would have thought this book was pure fiction and in fact a masterpiece of fiction. I would have thought another Antoine de Saint Exupery had written a modern version of The Little Prince.

However knowing what I know, I should say that the book is like nothing on earth, simply a breathtaking epic written brilliantly by a genius.

A young couple on a nice sunny day, strolling along the streets of their town, stumble across a flier promising as paradise of justice and equality. They pick up the flier, subscribe to its publication, and then become members of the party which published them. Very soon they are foot soldiers of an army, marching to spread justice and equality all over. Enchanted by the mission they bear, the young couple become immersed in it; and in full excitement, they forget about everything else, including their children. Their three children slip out their hands and roll into the unprotected wilderness that the parents see the need of its turning into a paradise.

The youngest one, Saïd, only nine months old, abandoned by his father, clings to his mother, who herself in turn, abandoned by her husband, detached from whatever tradition she has been familiar with, cleaves to an illusory hope that someday the world would turn into a paradise. It is in the process of his adulthood and maturity that Saïd realizes that not only would the “inevitable revolution” never come, but the hope of its advent is an iron sheet to protect his parents, both of them, from perceiving the painful realities of life, as well as reacting to them. The idea of “when the revolution comes, there won't be any pain” relieves them of all parental responsibilities. But, “When will it come mother, the revolution?” he asks. “It will take a little longer,” she replies. “When I become six? or eight? or eleven? or eighteen?” He asks. “Yes eighteen,” she answers, without even recognizing the impatient cry echoed in this inquiry.

Dragged behind his altruistic, self-sacrificing mother, who not only voluntarily denies life from herself, but also from her own son, and longing for a self-assuring heroic father who, like a grand emperor, is constantly away, fighting to bring on the revolution which never arrives, Saïd tries to make sense of the incongruity, incomprehensibility, brutality, abuses, unkindness, and prejudices existing in the world around him all by himself.

Soon he becomes a little soldier himself to help the mother in her crusade, just by wishing for one more copy of The Militant to be sold, one more subscription, one more by-passer to stop by and ask a question, if not give a favorable response. However, he fails to stifle his increasing craving for boycotted grapes or overcome his sleepiness in the back of the room when his mother is talking politics with her comrades.

His absent father, fighting for a noble cause, becomes identified with the cause, and is gradually infused into a more familiar persona associated with the same cause, Che Guevara, has presence in his life in the form of a fading, yellowing photos pinned to the wall above his bed.

In his naive and innocent quest, he is waiting for all to appear in his life, the father, revolution, justice, equality, and a home with functioning toilets. None arrives except the functioning toilets, and even they come fairly late, when he is almost fourteen.

Strange world is the adult life, when a comrade who wants to bring about paradise on earth indulges in child molestation, when a mother who should take care of her child entrusted him to a total stranger so she could be free to protect other victims, when the institution, which is supposed to save the world, sanctions the crime with the excuse that, “Everyone has a problem in capitalism.” And the world is unbearably cruel when the child feels that his father “would judge the same.”

Saïd innocently accepts his father's absence and follows his mother, continues his life, and reaches his destiny. Sometimes he obeys, sometimes he defies, sometimes he avoids, sometimes he circumvents, sometimes he ignores; nevertheless, he never evades trying to make a sense of it all, if not then, sometime in the future. And surely, he does it so well.

I have rarely come across anyone who could explain the inexplicable so well, one who sees so deeply the nature of this kind of blind devotion and steadfast zeal towards a promise, just a promise, better than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. And I have never come across anyone who had come to that realization so patiently and so compassionately as he does. Recalling his memories so vividly, he takes us with an immense generosity to the dark parts of his life, without shame, without guilt, without bitterness, without rage or anger. There is no sense of blame or regret in any of those tales, since he has learned the futility of it in adults deceiving themselves by placing all the responsibility on a “sad missing” point in the history, on a thin line decision, or “if only it had been otherwise.”

His story is the celebration of life, a walk towards liberation with open eyes, embracing freedom, and untangling himself from the vacuous balloons of the false promises tied to him to prevent him from landing safely on the ground, all grand, giant and majestic. The father is a god-like figure above all. It is only in the course of few meetings and one letter he received from him that he turns gradually into a mere bullying brat, best illustrated in the Persian restaurant in the Garment District. He is trying to tell Saïd about the garment industry's history, of which he is ignorant, and when he orders Chardonnay, he does not know it from Red or Rose wine. Yet he knows how to thoroughly maltreat the waitress. And the mother, who has a saint-like self-sacrificing nature, desperately quits her job, Party, and life, all at once, admitting she has failed them all.

And finally, ideas, and the reflections of the giants, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Castro, that are so faithfully collected into heavy volumes and sacredly placed on bookshelves? He finds out, when he opens them, that they had never been read. Much later, he notices that if there were anything to be learned from them, it was only what was written on their covers!

Free from all the bubbles, our little prince lands safely on the ground. The landscape may not be as green as he had imagined as a child, and skateboards are not free at all, but there is enough beauty to be enjoyed. With exceptional wisdom, he simply lives in the reality of life and looks out for real happiness where he can find it. And he finds it, right in the office of Martha Stewart's Living, where he designs labels for potted plants, and on the rooftop of his apartment building, observing Manhattan skyline.
It is a book that should be read by all, Iranian, non-Iranian, young or old, left or right. Just make sure to read it on a weekend when you have no appointments; it is impossible to put down.

And yes, the author is Iranian. Well, in reality, only half, but so what, let's claim him fully. He is generous enough to let us to have him all. Am I right Saïd?

P.S.: Reading this book, and knowing Saïd's father—I met him only once at our home, but have heard about him a lot—and knowing his generation well enough, I am sure that his ideal writer should be Maxim Gorky and his favorite selected book should be the Gorky's Mother. It is such an irony that his son turned into such a brilliant writer, amazingly brilliant indeed, and writes a book which is a reversing mirror reflection to that of that work. Given that they are only one century apart, I 'm wondering if Gorky was that wrong, or are we the misguided ones, or if the world has changed so much.

To read the rest, click here.