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Welcome to my blog! True to my name, Shiva the Spy, I will be your eyes and ears in Iran, bringing you detailed accounts of everyday life from my perspective. You'll have a window into the social, cultural, political, and historical aspects of the country. I will bring you the stuff that American media can't...or won't. So, check back regularly for stories, photos, commentary, and anything else your curiosity calls for.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Arash Hamidi

Meet Arash Hamidi, a university graduate holding a bachelor's degree in Persian rug handicrafts, who works in international business for a Tehran firm specializing in trade and commerce. In his free time, Arash attends to his hobby of producing photographic masterpieces, such as this picture of Damavand Mountain's peak:
(click on image to enlarge)

Most would agree that being able to capture this kind of splendor comes from years of training and experience that only the most seasoned photographer can possess. But Arash is only 23-years-old, and a newcomer to the photography community, dabbling in the art for about two years. He uses a method that encompasses his interests of “recording memorable moments, and seeing ordinary things from a novel perspective.”

Birjand City’s ancient main citadel:
(click on image to enlarge)

“My main goal is to combine these three elements in my work:
Delight + Art + Aestheticism.”

Arash doesn’t refer to himself as an artist, but rather as a student, even admitting, “I used to think my pictures weren’t any good; I was never satisfied with the outcome.”

But this supposed novice has a background that tells another tale, beginning at the tender age of eight, when Arash’s drawings would win first-place in school-wide contests, a trend that continued throughout his elementary education. The young artist expanded into sketching caricatures, later becoming one of the founding members of the Free Society of Iranian Cartoonists; he was nine.

“It was during this time that I began to display my artwork on a range of subjects, both within private and collective exhibitions.”

His creative capacity knew no limits when, at age 12, he began sculpting statues and face masks, eventually adding modeling and artistic molding to his growing repertoire. Arash’s range of talent extended even further when he started writing articles and film reviews for a number of magazines.

“I watched movies frequently, and formulated lengthy critiques on the newest ones. I would then send the critiques to the magazines, where they were promptly published. Never did I disclose my age, because no magazine would have published the article of a 14 to 15-year-old boy.”

During this time, Arash became proficient in computerized graphic design, using his skills to design and print posters, labels, logos, and other paraphernalia for a series of products. After this stint, he was accepted into his high school’s cinema program, but after one term, switched his course of study to literature and humanities. The change didn’t stop Arash from helping his friends create numerous short films, or providing them with additional support in scriptwriting and sound recording. He had done all this by age 15.

“At 17, I took up theatre directing and playwriting. Upon entering university, I chose Persian rug design as my major; later, when I was 20, I began designing web sites and creating software for artists. The next year, I taught both art and computer science at my university.”

Night shot of metropolitan Tehran:
(click on image to enlarge)

"I don’t see myself as an artist. My entire life, I’ve tried to remain a student of art. Anything I learn, I strive to teach to others because the day I don’t have any topic to present to others, will be the day I won’t have learned a new subject."

Even as an art student, it's obvious from Arash's history, and the material on his website (www.hamidi.ir) that this young virtuoso is a natural-born overachiever. I was not only impressed with his works, but also with his vast amount of experience in the arts.

For more of Arash Hamidi's work, check out the following links:
Arash Hamidi's main site

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bizhe (Long Live) Kordistan

There’s a plane carrying a Turk, Fars, American, Baluchi, and Kurd. The plane’s about to crash, so the Turk tells everyone to jump. Everybody dies, except for the Kurd. Why? Because the wind caught inside his billowing pants, allowing him to float to safety.

This is a Kurdish joke, told to me by a resident of Bonneh, a town located in Kordistan, one of Iran’s many provinces. Iranian Kurds exist in Kordistan, Kermanshah, and in regions of Azerbaijan. Kordistan Kurds are Sunni Muslims, while Kermanshahi ones are predominantly Shi’a. Even though these Kurdish populations neighbor each other along Iran’s western border, their dialects are quite different. Kermanshahi Kurdish contains about 50% Farsi, while Kordistani Kurdish embodies only 10%.

My friend Sarieh took me on a tour of Bonneh, her hometown, during a short break from her architecture studies in Tehran. Unlike Kordistan's capital, Sanandaj, Bonneh does not have a single historic building within its bounds. As Sarieh explains, Bonneh was a land over which ancient rulers frequently battled. Every time infrastructure was built, a war would break, and the opposing forces would torch the entire area. As a result of constant destruction and reconstruction, Bonneh's houses and buildings reflect only recent history.

This is Sarieh munching on rivas, a springtime plant that grows in the mountains of the region. The plant resembles a fusion between celery, bananas, broccoli, and unripe plums. Celery, because it looks like one, and makes the same crunch noise when bitten; bananas, because you need to peel off the sturdy outer layer; broccoli, because of the flower formation at the top; and unripe plum because the inside tastes cool and sour. Practically everyone here would snack on these, consuming at least five per sitting.

One aspect that immediately stands out in Bonneh is the fashion. At every corner, men and boys don their traditional dress—puffed out pants tapered at the ankles and tied securely at the waist, often coupled with a buttoned-up, collared shirt, and a fabric wrap-around belt. Some opt for the full suit, which entails a special jumpsuit-styled ensemble that incorporates the parachute pants and fabric belt. The jumpsuit opens at the chest to reveal a collared shirt, and may be complemented with a turban-type head wrap and handmade wool shoes.

In this society, males have more pressure to dress in these customary garments. Those who sport the latest trends from Tehran are viewed as sell-outs, or perhaps “Farsis,” the name given to ethnic Iranians.

Young women reserve their traditional attire for the home, visiting family and friends in the evening, or parties. Here’s an example of an outfit worn to a wedding:

Another aspect of this town was the picturesque scenery. Rolling hills decked with multi-shaded greenery, clusters of goldenrod flowers mottling the rustic countryside, herds of sheep munching on lush pastures, oceans of wheat rippling in waves caused by the wind; these details provide only a taste of Bonneh's natural landscape.

My friend’s father was the headmaster of a junior high school in a rural area, located on the outskirts of Bonneh. He took us to visit the school on his last day, prior to retirement. After 30 years of teaching, he must retire, in order to open up positions for younger educators.

According to him, the income of retirees is determined by the salary of the last two years of employment. Most in the teaching profession, including him, relocate to rural schools for the last two years because the pay is higher. I think it’s a win-win situation—pensions get a boost, and kids from rural areas get to experience a “transfer of technology” from the surrounding towns and cities.

This rural school was different than its counterparts in the city for a number of reasons. First, the population of students was significantly lower. Even though this school serves three different villages, the amount of pupils present was mediocre, with the majority hailing from the poorest and farthest away community. The headmaster said it was difficult convincing parents to send their kids to school everyday. Many saw their children as farm hands, crucial for tilling the land and maintaining the laborious country life. But the kids from the poorest and most remote village, surprisingly, held the record for the most frequent attendance, neatest grooming, highest level of self-discipline, and greatest affinity for learning.

Another difference was that male and female students shared the same classroom, albeit with boys on one side, and girls on the other. In the city, the sexes are separated from first grade through high school, until uniting once again, in college. However, in this rural school where turnout is meager, co-ed classrooms are essential.

A third aspect that differed was the disproportionate girl to boy ratio. For every two boys, there was less than one girl. This is unusual in a country where 63% of university students are female. The headmaster said that country fathers were less likely to allow their daughters to continue their education past the fifth grade. Girls, he added, yield twice the amount of work than boys. They not only assist in cultivation of land, but create milk, butter and cheese, tend to the animals, keep house, and feed the family. The headmaster has even made special trips to the homes of a few of his female students who displayed potential for academic stardom, in hopes of convincing their fathers to allow continuation of studies into high school and college. But he says the father usually remains firmly planted in his decision, while the daughter, who avidly takes pleasure from school, is left crestfallen, as her future encompasses nothing beyond the realm of her father’s land.

One last distinction was the students’ dress code. Boys wore the traditional Kurdish parachute pants to school, while girls donned the typical monto (coat-like covering) and maghna’ay (a fabric with a hole in it that’s slipped over the face; this head covering doesn’t slip off, and is usually worn in more formal settings, such as school and work). Unlike in the city, girls’ clothing exhibited a variety of colors. City students must wear color-specific clothing, a trend that continues into high school.

Since Kurdish kids learn to speak Kurdish first, in their homes, prior to entering the school system where Farsi is taught, some find it difficult to adjust. Teaching core subjects in different languages is not permitted in Iran's public schools. This rule applies to the Turks, Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, and other ethnicities that make up the diverse nation of Iran. However, some teachers in Bonneh try to incorporate the spoken Kurdish language in elementary studies, in order to help students slowly overcome the language barrier between Farsi and Kurdish. But all educational materials, such as books and worksheets, are in Farsi.

While class was in session, my friend and I roamed around the village, searching for people to talk to. Women who were busy working would invite us in, and insist on feeding us. This wasn’t the ordinary tarrof I’ve encountered in most Iranians. Rather, they were forceful about hosting us, as we were obviously guests in their village.

This woman, captured with her four children, is the wife of a mullah. She, her youngest daughter, and her son are dressed in traditional Kordi (Kurdish) attire. Her home was roomy, and stocked with electronic appliances characteristic of any Tehrani household—washing machine, television, electronic churner, and others. My friend exclaimed at how clean and neat the home was. Perhaps she thought the interior would be as rustic as the exterior.

As we continued to meander through the village, we realized that these boys were following us in their wheelbarrow. Something I noticed about many of the kids in this region was their lightly-colored eyes. Also, they giggled a lot, and behaved in a bashful manner. Furthermore, they possessed some of the most gorgeous Iranian names, many of which I haven’t heard in ages, such as Asal (honey), Dariush (King Darius), Rozheen (brilliance), Golnoosh (flower drink), Roya (dream), Siavash (character in “Shahnameh”—Persian folktales), Milad (Christmas), and the list continues.

The names surprised me because I had expected Kurdish nationalism to supersede Iranian culture, in at least the area where names are concerned. I asked my friend if Kurds were allowed to assign Kurdish names to their children, and she said, “Yes, but we cannot officially use the names of a few famous Kurdish independence leaders. Those names, if given, are not recorded on birth certificates, but rather used only among family and friends.”

We made a stop at another family’s home, where the mother had forced us to submit to her hospitality. With a serious expression, she would firmly assert, “By God, you will stay for another cup of tea,” every time we started to rise from the floor. She had obviously been arduously tilling land that day, for she was wearing a pair of her husband’s parachute pants. Rural women switch from colorful dress to men’s pants when they plan to work the fields (as exhibited in the picture with the fabric salesman).

Our hostess was definitely over 60 years-old, but she had the ferocity of a grizzly bear. Her daughter had just completed high school, with an emphasis on graphic arts. The father had consented to continuing her education at a university. Clearly, he was open-minded enough to let her get a diploma. Unfortunately, she didn’t take the standardized tests for college because her two brothers had not permitted it. The girl seemed a bit forlorn about the situation, but was resolute about taking the tests next year, and going after her university degree, anyway.

One of the good things about Iran is that government universities are free, as long as you make it in. So, if you live on a farm, and your father refuses to pay for your university education, you don’t need to remain hopeless. Instead, you study vigorously for the standardized tests, and hope you score high within your region.

This particular home not only had all of the essential appliances, but also satellite television! Even though satellite dishes are illegal to own in Iran, the law is not enforced. Practically every single household in Tehran possesses a dish, an observable fact of high-rise apartment buildings—rows of balconies dotted with dishes can be seen from the street. But I hadn’t expected such technology to exist even in the most rural areas, especially since dishes cost around $250 a piece.

In a home where the ceilings were (fashionably) made of tree trunks, and where the furnace used oil, instead of gas, one would not expect to find a satellite dish.

Among the many highlights of my short trip to Bonneh, most of which are documented in the Culture & Art album under the Photos section, was the subtle courtship that took place between my friend’s family and me. See, my friend’s older brother, also a university student in Tehran, is around my age, the perfect age for marriage, in Iran. Apparently, I made the mistake of commenting on how her brother was good-looking, as I flipped through family photos. But I hadn’t meant anything by it.

Anyway, after that fatal slip of the tongue, I sensed plenty of whispers around me throughout the extent of my stay, but pretended not to notice. My friend, while suddenly deciding to call her brother in Tehran, tried to hand me the receiver to talk to him; but I’m not a phone person, so I waved my hands frantically in front of my face, while shaking my head and silently mouthing, in Farsi, “No, I can’t; it’s embarrassing.” After she continued to insist, as her bro waited on the other end of the line—probably equally as helpless in the situation—I ran away and hid in a corner. I also was videotaped a lot, while wearing my friend’s fancy Kurdish dresses (which I wanted to capture on my own camera, seeing as how I don’t own any such cultural garments). Her extremely kind-hearted mother asked me to spin around, and show off my pretty dress; flip my hair around; smile and wink at the camera; and carry out other “dainty-flower-girl-tea-party-I-like-dollies-and-pink”-type acts. Of course, I respectfully declined.

I should write a book on all the awkward marriage moments I’ve endured in Iran.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Crooked Bus

It's a lengthy journey from the town of Bonneh, located in the Kordistan province, to the bustling streets of metropolitan Tehran. A 12-hour drive, to be exact. So, my Iranian-Kurdish friend and I booked our return on the "red-eye" bus, so that we could sleep the whole trip, and wake up fully charged the next morning. These cross-country buses are a comfortable alternative to full flights because they've got the snacks, movies, air conditioner, leg room, reclining seats, and other stuff that make 12-hour road trips bearable.

A young attendant, maybe 18 or 19, handed each passenger a pack of cookies, and a cup of orange soda. Now, at 7 p.m., nobody's eaten dinner, because we're all expecting to make a quick stop at the restaurant located en route, around 11 p.m. To ensure I don’t die of starvation, I scarf down both my friend's and my packs of cookies, before we leave the terminal.

Finally, our behemoth of a bus rolls out of the terminal. It's still light outside, as we drive past layers of mountains blanketed in lush greenery. I'm clutching my USC hooded sweatshirt and a pair of thick winter socks that I plan to use if the bus becomes too cold, like it did on the ride to Bonneh.

The evening movie begins. I'm thrilled; we're about to watch an Iranian comedy that I hadn't seen, yet, but had been highly rated. Then, like a sudden slap in the face, the attendant hurries up to the front of the bus, and changes the movie to the most god-awful Iranian production I've ever seen. It was this action film, circa 1980s, about dangerous smuggler gangs, who turn on each other. It was lame, yet would later prove ironic.

My friend explains how the buses that travel from Bonneh to Tehran were notorious for their smuggling of goods.

"It had gotten so bad, that the bus driver wouldn't even make any rest stops. Women with their children, elderly people—it didn't matter; nobody could eat, go to the restroom, or do anything else for 12 hours. The bus would only stop for transferring its contraband.

"Finally, enough people complained, so the police took control of the situation, and the smuggling stopped."

Apparently, since consumer goods cost less in Bonneh, some greedy Tehrani men partnered up with their equally avaricious Bonneh counterparts, and devised a scheme to smuggle products from Bonneh to Tehran, all via these buses. Cheaply priced goods from neighboring Iraq trafficked across the border, and through the nearby town of Bonneh, also enter the illicit trade.

In fact, my friend's little brother, who currently carries out his required two-year military service, says the black bus trade is so lucrative that some soldiers try to get their military service extended, so that they can continue to receive bribes at vehicle check points. He cites an incident where television sets were being trafficked from Iraq to Bonneh, and finally to Tehran. If anybody--i.e., soldiers, toll collectors, and other people who monitor vehicles--were to give any trouble for the hundred televisions being transported, the traffickers would pay them off with a whole set. One television set for each individual that casts a suspicious glance at the contraband! Obviously, the profits must be immense for that kind of gifting.

Fortunately, that's all over, now. The police have caught on to these black-market bandits, allowing us to rest assured that our bus ride home will be squeaky clean.

Wrong. Less than an hour into the trip, the bus slows to a stop in the middle of nowhere—no more fertile hills and valleys; the night has closed in; we're surrounded by vast, desolate plains. Our attendant and the second-shift driver hop out of the bus, and hustle around to the right side to open the compartment. From my window, I observe three Kurdish men, standing next to three massive, flat wooden carts--the kind that have huge wheels and are used to haul around cargo—hoisting huge bundles into the compartment, which spans the length of the bus.

The contents of the bundles were hidden, and each load required the strength of two men. The Kurdish men making the drop-off were dressed in traditional attire—parachute pants coalescing into a jumpsuit, held closed with a fabric belt wrapped several times around the waist; white-and-black scarf encircling the head, similar to a turban, but with the end hanging down the side of the face, onto the chest, like an '80s-style ponytail; and ivory-colored, hand-woven slip-on shoes.

About 10-15 minutes later, we’re back on the road.

The second driver lights up a cigarette, and the smoke begins to pollute the air. Above his head, the scrolling marquee, in both Farsi and English, reads: "Smoking is prohibited. Please respect all passengers...etc." I don’t object because I don’t speak Kurdish, and I’ll probably appear snobby if I speak in Farsi.

Then the jackass lights up another cigarette. No windows are rolled down, and for some reason, the air conditioner is functioning for about five minutes per hour. This bus is spankin' new, so I know nothing's broken. To make matters worse, the main driver lights up a cigarette, too.

I ask my friend to complain, in Kurdish, to the attendant. She does this, and he responds to me in Farsi, "They're smoking by the window; you can't even detect the smell." And I replied, "Actually, those tiny windows aren't keeping the smoke from wafting back here; for God's sake, they're breaking the bus's own rules!" I gesture towards the marquee, which coincidentally is displaying the "no smoking" message at that precise moment.

The attendant gets the drivers to finish, not extinguish, their cigarettes. Then, about 15 minutes later, the main driver lights another.

The two drivers are constantly talking on their mobile phones. They're speaking Kurdish, so I can't understand what they're saying. The conversations are brief. The main driver smokes another five cigarettes. I suspect he's doing this just to slight me. We stop in two more vacant locations to load more bundled up packages. When we arrive at a check point, where other buses await clearance, nobody checks our side compartments. Driver 1 switches with Driver 2, and the bus rolls on. It's hot; I'm loosening my headscarf and unbuttoning my monto (coat); I can feel beads of sweat forming on my face. It's also late, about 12 a.m.; we were supposed to be at the restaurant an hour ago.

I'm boiling with silent rage, but know there's nothing I can do about the situation. Nobody in the bus appears nervous, or worried; nobody shows anger about our bus being controlled by a bunch of smuggling hooligans, who decided to use our 12-hour ride to carry out their illicit trade. Nobody complains. Other than the three friends in front of us joking with each other the entire trip, all passengers wear a distinct expression of stifled distress, as if they abhor the circumstances, but must endure passively, as they always do. Perhaps it's fear that creates this tepid attitude; after all, Bonneh is a small town, and people know each other. It's also a town where the occasional malefactor conveys his message by chopping off a head, or two.

Fortunately, I'm the "Fars," as the Kurds call me, so I decide to act on the rude outsider stereotype. I also stand up straight, extending my posture as far as possible, so that I can use my height to intimidate the attendant. After moving to the front, I tower over him, gripping his headrest with one hand, and the seat in front of him with the other, so that I was looking him square in the face. This was by accident; it's actually inappropriate to get so close to a stranger, especially of the opposite sex. I was knocked off balance momentarily by the lurching of the bus, and had to brace myself this way to avoid falling right into him. Anyway, this "embrace" did intimidate him, as I saw his eyes widen with terror, before I could even utter the words, "Excuse me; it's hot back there. Would you please turn on the cooler?"

Finally, at 1 a.m., we steered the crooked bus to a stop, in front of a souvenir shop in Zanjan. Zanjan is famous for making knives; I truly contemplated buying one, so that I could stab the insolent, chain-smoking driver who kept breaking the bus's rules, as dictated by the electronic marquee!!! Anyway, everybody filed out of the bus, and directly towards the bathrooms. Surprisingly, another bus pulled up alongside ours.

This souvenir place didn't have tables and chairs; what about all these people who haven't eaten dinner? The only food here was cheese puffs and tea. My friend, who visits her family in Bonneh, during university breaks, says she's never experienced this before. "We always stop at that restaurant."

In these hours a few things become crystal clear. First, I figure out why they're not running the air conditioner—the sound makes it difficult to hear and speak on their cellular phones. Second, they're not having conversations on their phones; they are in contact with other members of this smuggling operation who are traveling ahead of them, in regular cars, warning them of possible obstacles, i.e., the police. Third, these up-to-the-minute reports have resulted in the bus driver altering our route to evade police, which is why we haven't arrived at the usual restaurant.

When our bus prepares to leave, a suspicious exchange occurs. We give up one of our drivers (unfortunately, not the chain-smoking one), and receive both a driver and a couple of assistants from the other bus. In other words, this was a regular cartel of bus smuggling!

My friend tells me the three guys in front of us were joking in Kurdish, "Wow, those knives were delicious," as knives seemed to be the spotlight of this stop.

About an hour into leaving the souvenir shop, I drift into a light sleep. I’m startled awake because some young guy is stretched across my lap, reaching underneath my friend’s legs. What the heck is going on?!? He is one of the new assistants recruited to our miniature mafia.

He's digging around underneath our seats, pulling out deftly wrapped packages, each slightly larger than a shoebox. From our seat, he yanks out about 10, then sprawls his lanky torso across the aisle to our neighbors' seats, a married couple, and proceeds to violate their privacy as well. Now this, for sure, is a punishable offense in Iran; touching the legs of two young single girls, then doing the same with somebody's wife?

Out comes another 10 packages, or so, a trend that continues rapidly down the aisle. Obviously, these parcels were planted back at the bus terminal in Bonneh, unbeknownst to the passengers. Meaning, this whole shibang is part of a widespread, sophisticated network of smugglers. It must be lucrative enough for so many people to be willing to risk exposure, by "Farsis" like me, for example.

The bus rolls to a stop at the side of the highway; only a handful of vehicles speed by. From my window, I see a Tehrani man (revealed through his accent), jump out from his Paykan, and with the help of our mafia, quickly loads the packages retrieved from beneath our seats into his trunk and backseat, filling these spaces to the brim. They move fast, and the Tehrani guy, glancing around nervously the whole time, finally hops back into his car, and speeds off.

Bus steers onto the road, again, and continues merrily on its way. The two drivers engage in communication via their mobile phones, in both Farsi and Kurdish, gathering reports on locations of highway patrol officers. Then, the bus abruptly pulls off the highway, onto a vast, flat terrain about 100 feet into the distance. The lights are shut off; the attendant flips the switch on the bus's sign; even the miniscule blue lights that dot the window frames were turned out. It was pitch black, and the bus could not be seen by anybody on the highway.

Through the driver's side-view mirror, I witnessed five members of our miniature mafia standing in a line, alongside the outer compartment of the left side of the bus, passing the massive white bundles to each other, factory belt style. After about 20 minutes, the bus, in its luminous splendor, forged towards Tehran, at a deadly pace.

It was just like the movie "Speed." The warning alarm that beeps if the bus’s speed surpasses the safety limit sounded loudly, for a good hour-and-a-half. Sleep was out of the question, and I'm sure passengers feared for their lives, at some point.

The icing on the cake was when our bus made its last stop, only about three minutes from the terminal, on a side street. That's where the last of the humongous bundles jammed within the bus's right outer compartment, were loaded onto a pickup truck. We reached the bus depot around 4:30 a.m., almost three hours ahead of schedule.

An interesting aspect to me was that, aside from the attendant and the assistant who violated passengers, the entire operation was carried out by men who appeared to be in their mid-to-late 40s. Although they all likely have wives and children, they seemed unconcerned with the risks involved in getting caught.

Stay tuned for the next post about my experience in Kordistan (Kurdistan).

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bush's Response

Bush's response: "Mahmoud, dear, I read your letter; don't forget to wake me up for morning prayers tomorrow." (Mahmoud jon, nomat ro khoondam. Yodet boshe mano baraye namoze sobh beedar koneed.)

Ever since President Bush announced that the U.S. would not issue an official written response to President Ahmadinejad's letter, young Iranians have been text-messaging each other Bush's various unofficial replies to his buddy.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Iranians' Views on Nuclear Issue

Here’s what many of you have been waiting for—the Iranian perspective on the nuclear issue. Although schoolwork consumes a significant chunk of my time, I managed to scrape up a bunch of comments from about 20 people ranging in age, economic status, religious beliefs, political stance, and life experience. I apologize, in advance, for awkward translations.

Does Iran have the right to produce nuclear energy?

Mahta, female, age 43, married, mother, occupation: elementary school teacher
It is definitely Iran's right to have nuclear energy. Those applying international pressure to stop our program are doing so because they want to keep us dependent, they don't want us to advance in industry. What about other countries using nuclear energy? Nobody tells them anything.

What are your thoughts on international pressure put on Iran to freeze its program? How should Iran react to such pressure?

Fakhri, female, age 57, widowed, mother, occupation: homemaker
They want us to need them; they want to have everything, and we remain impoverished, underdeveloped, and reliant on them. Nuclear energy is like a razor-sharp knife-it can be used for both good and bad. This knife can save several lives through surgery, or can end a single life through murder. The U.S. is saying that if Iran has this sharp knife, it will use it for murder; but if America has it, it will be used for good. They cannot think of Iran using the knife as a doctor, but instead as a murderer. We don't want nuclear energy for war, we want to use it for positive results.

Iran must stand firm, demanding why the U.S. and others can have nuclear energy, but we can't. It's as if they're saying, "I can have this, but you cannot. If you ever need this, come to us, and we may or may not give it you. But most likely, we won't give it to you."

Now that Iran’s case has been referred to the UN Security Council, the possibility of economic sanctions has come up. What are your thoughts on sanctions?

Reza, male, age 31, single, occupation: businessman
We've been under American sanctions for years, an action that resulted in major losses for the U.S., especially its wheat industry. Iran was a significant importer of American wheat, but since 1979, the U.S. has been forced to sell off its excess supply at much lower rates. In any case, we can bear sanctions; the strings haven't snapped, yet. As Iran's leading trade partner, Germany will suffer most, considering it exports a significant amount of products to Iran, and imports plenty of dry goods. Germany would lose billions of dollars in profits, which is why it's interested in striking a deal in this issue.

Should Iran consider halting its program, in order to avoid economic sanctions?

Nabby, male, age 22, single, university student, major: civil engineering
We should not—in any way—stop, divert, or slightly change our nuclear program just for temporary gains because it is our absolute right to advance in science and technology. It’s a cause worth dying for in war, rather than becoming slaves.

What benefits do you see in nuclear energy? Can Iran go without?

Elaheh, female, age 38, married, mother, occupation: homemaker
When Edison invented electricity, could we have said you cannot use your discovery? That you must go back to lighting candles?

What about confidence-building measures involving activities outside of Iran, such as the Russia’s proposal to enrich uranium on its soil?

Flor, female, age 45, married, mother, occupation: retired high school teacher,
petrochemical engineer
This isn't even a resolution. You're still dependent. All that's needed is for Iran to say something Russia doesn't like, then Russia will cut off the enrichment. This is like cutting off water. It would virtually paralyze us, and impoverish us further. Meaning, they can do whatever they want. We enriched uranium only up to our necessary levels for research, not higher.

Are you concerned that Iran may be at risk of attack by another nation?

Morteza, male, age 50, married, father, war vet, occupation: electrical engineer
No, because attacking Iran will make things harder for them, not for us. An attack will make no difference for us.

What is your opinion on the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

Khaleh Shaffi, female, age 70, occupation: everyone's auntie
We are Muslim, it is haram (prohibited) to kill in masses-we don't have this, we don't want this, and we oppose all who have it.

What are your political views, in general? Who did you vote for in the last presidential election?

Alireza, male, age 18, university student, major: civil engineering
If I hear logical ideas, then I'll agree. For instance, Ahmadinejad's claim that America should build confidence, rather than Iran, since America is the one with nuclear weapons, makes sense.

I voted for Rafsanjani because I wasn't familiar with the other candidates. I didn't want to risk a worse situation than what we went through with him. At first, I didn't like Ahmadinejad, but now I do, and regret not voting for him. So far, he's accomplished at least 50-percent of his promises. The administration now is much better to be up against a force like America; I think we can make a 180-degree improvement because of this.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

25-Day Briefing (Part 2)

Today, Muslims all over the world engage in spirited festivity to commemorate the birth of their prophet, Hazrat-e Mohammad. It's also the birth anniversary of Emam Jafar Al-Sadeq, an added bonus for Shi'a Muslims. So, in observance of this joyous occasion, most Iranians are afforded a holiday, on this second day of the work week.

It's also National "Vahdat" (Unity) Week, in which the sameness of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims is emphasized. Iranians come in a variety of ethnicities and religions, but prior to the revolution, Sunnis were often used as the butt of jokes, in miscellaneous television programs. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, had always tried to shift focus away from lines drawn between Shi'a and Sunnis, encouraging Muslims to recognize the solidarity of their 'Muslim-ness'. Much of the television programs and official ceremonies this week have featured cultural performances or practices from Kurdish and Arabic Iranians, who are predominantly Sunni.

How does all this tie in to the 25-day Briefing (Part 2), the sequel to Part 1?

Well, during my 25-day break, it dawned on me that for the nearly eight months I've been here, Iran has been in perpetual mourning. Even exuberant holidays, such as Persian New Year, were downplayed because they coincided with a series of solemn events.

This is just a short list of events that come to mind. The overt display of mourning may not be practiced by every household, yet grievous expressions and a dismal mood clearly dominate the public arena.

There seems to be a certain pleasure derived from all this melancholy; it elicits a sense of comfort and humility that allows people to share massive doses of emotional distress. I've never seen anything like it.

During the last seven months, weddings have been scarce, as newlyweds try to synchronize their grand parties with the quick breaks between mourning cycles. Most engaged couples simply wait until after the period passes. After all, nobody wants their blissful celebration associated with a depressing event; besides, bad timing equates to bad luck in the future.

My favorite aspect of the mourning season is the generous act of food preparation and distribution, known as Nazri. If the whole world practiced Nazr, nobody would ever die of hunger. It's the most charitable gesture, without feeling like charity, probably because no distinction exists among the beneficiaries. As a huge fan of Iranian cuisine, I particularly enjoy the fact that people go 'all out' to prepare the most high-quality dishes possible.

So, throughout Norouz, and into the week after, public lamentation has persisted, and I've been stuffing my beast of a belly. I also participated in some Nazri activities involving Shol-e Zard (sweet rice pudding made with saffron and rose water) and Ash-e Reshte (traditional chunky noodle soup with a bunch of beans, greens, and other veggies). Meaning, I stirred the pots a few rounds (I don't know why some relatives don't trust me with more pivotal tasks; my younger cousins act like scooping stuff into bowls, then sprinkling decorative spices on top, takes special training).

As of several days ago, however, the mourning spell has ended, and the observance of deaths has been replaced by the celebration of births. In addition, the spring has arrived, with its blossoming flowers, brilliant greenery, and cool breeze that thwarts the hazardous effects of pollution. In other words, it's happy time, summoning forth all the weddings that have been holding back. Everyday, I spot a few cars lavishly decked with floral arrays, flying through the streets, practically screaming, "Woo-hoo! We're finally married!"

Fortunately, I got to witness my first Iranian wedding. The bride—a distant relative—and the groom opted for a traditional wedding, in which the guests split up into two salons, separating the men from the women. Each side parties hard, laughing and dancing along to jubilant tunes.

Here's the bride, donning an ornately painted face and labyrinthine hairstyle; her gold jewelry was likely a gift from her mother-in-law to be:

One aspect that stood out was how the groom had to make an appearance in the women's salon, sitting beside his bride for a good hour or so, bashfully acknowledging all the females doting upon him, as some sort of rite of passage. Then, bride and groom take the stage in a money dance, where the bride's female in-laws begin showering the couple with money—literally, tossing bills into the air, over their heads. Soon, everybody's throwing cash at the newlyweds, who must quickly grab the notes, while skillfully maintaining their groove. After the money dance, the groom heads for the men's salon, and the women rejoice in merriment and dance, once again. Guests take advantage of this prime photo op with the blushing bride. Although, I do believe the groom was the blusher of the two.

The gala continues on to about midnight, when the salons must close. Guests pile into their vehicles to follow the newlyweds to the bride's father's house. The newlyweds themselves sit in the backseat of their brand-new automobile that's been decorated with flowers, awaiting the traditional drive home. Unbeknownst to me, I sit in the car of the Iranian Evil Knievel.

As mentioned before, this was my first Iranian wedding. Even though I've watched the adroitly edited videos of other family members' marital celebrations, nothing prepared me for what I encountered on this hellish drive. Apparently, it's customary for all the guests to surround the newlyweds' vehicle en route to the bride's father's house, while honking ecstatically the whole way. But, it's also not uncommon to race the couple's car as well as those of the guests, to the destination, even if it means steering erratically, speeding through heavily congested streets, running red lights, swerving purposely to and fro in order to cut off other racers, and a myriad of other potentially fatal maneuvers. Moreover, it's not unusual to crash into the newlyweds' car, while attempting all these stunts; in the end, such anticipated accidents wouldn't disrupt the jolly predisposition of the occasion.

Well, Evil Knievel had nothing on our driver, who was bent on winning the race, no matter what the cost. Usually, I like fast-moving, blood-pumping action; it's fun. But when our speed demon decides to zoom ahead of the others, past the red light, barely evading about three lanes of oncoming traffic, then proceeding to zig-zag through a crowded street, as motorcyclists skim by, cheering and egging our daredevil on, all whilst perched behind the wheel of a Paykan (i.e., tin can on tires), I suddenly felt the obligation to scream until I was hoarse. But my scream was understood as a high-five, encouraging him to further amaze us with his road tricks. So, I shrieked, "Stop!,” causing him to smoothly pull over to the curb.

Never, in my entire life, have I ever sensed danger to the point of utter fright. All it would've taken was a rock on the street to set a whole series of events into action that may have ended in one or more deaths. Sure, I felt like an old lady, in a group of a bunch of my peers, but damn. My fear was so intense that even after I exited the vehicle, my lower jaw was trembling rapidly, another first for me. Even a half-hour after switching vehicles, the vibrating jaw kept going, just like the Energizer Bunny. Oddly, I felt guilty afterwards for being the reason our driver lost the race.

Anyway, the wedding’s after-party went on for about two hours at the bride’s father’s house, where both men and women danced around the newlyweds. Mostly, the younger crowd rocked the dance floor, without their headscarves, while the more seasoned guests stood on the sidelines clapping with the music, and smiling cheerfully. Afterwards, the bride and groom jumped into their vehicle again, along with most of the other guests, to continue to the final phase of the event, another party taking place at the newlyweds’ new home. Some old folks, such as myself, called it a night right there.

Here’s a photo of the newlyweds prepping to lead the caravan to their house. The bride put on her white cloak prior to exiting the salon, where the original wedding party took place. This custom is followed among moderately-to-highly religious families, who want to observe Islamic dress in public. Otherwise, I’ve spotted brides with heads uncovered, out in public. Perhaps it’s part of an unwritten carte blanche that’s afforded to uncovered women (especially brides) and reckless drivers, on wedding days.

Well, that concludes my 25-Day Briefing. I had more to tell, but this is becoming exhausting, so I'll spare you the tedium. Besides, I need to move on with my life.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Iranians Celebrate

In a grand ceremony televised live, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has joined the world's nuclear club. He went on to laud the achievement of enriching uranium to the degree necessary for the production of nuclear energy. The head of the country's atomic energy program, Mr. Aghazadeh, described Iran as the 8th country in the world to possess nuclear technology. In addition, its latest nuclear facility is the most advanced in the world. Now that uranium enrichment has been accomplished successfully, Iran's goal of obtaining nuclear energy is not far off.

Radio stations in Iran had been promoting tonight's telecast to its listeners for two days, divulging only that the president will be delivering good news. Iran's first nuclear product, UF-6, was dedicated to the head caretaker of the Emam Reza Shrine.

Monday, April 10, 2006

25-Day Briefing (Part 1)

I'd like to sum up the events of the past 25 days because they have provided me with a wealth of experience and insight. Incidentally, I had no clue 25 days had gone by since my last post; I thought two weeks, tops. I must be losing it. Anyway, we'll call this entry Part 1.

Happy New Year! (Farvardin 1-13, a.k.a. March 21-April 2)
The year 1385 officially began on March 20th, 9:55 p.m., Iran time. Iranians all over the country spent 13 days celebrating the new year, which falls on the first day of spring. (More on the Iranian Calendar). This festive holiday involves a variety of rituals, the first being khooneh tekooni, or "house shaking." In the weeks leading up to the new year, most—I assure you, this is no exaggeration—Iranian households embark on an almost obsessive spring cleaning binge. Aside from dusting every nook and cranny, people clean their walls, ceilings, and worst of all, their Persian rugs.

Do you know how arduous a task it is to clean a Persian rug?

I'm not referring to the 'ole vacuuming in the direction of the grain. I'm talking about water and soap deep-clean treatments carried out in driveways of (mainly) apartment buildings, followed by a labor-intensive combing of the carpet to extract excess water, and ending with a drip-dry process, where, depending on the rug's size, the heavy mass hangs from the side of your building for multiple days. In Tehran, where most people live in small to large apartments, wall-to-wall carpeting consists of piecing together handmade Persian rugs of different sizes and shapes across almost every inch of floor space. With an average rug spanning about 9ft x 6ft, and a typical home possessing anywhere from five to 50 rugs of varying dimensions, khooneh tekooni can easily become backbreaking work. Luckily, my quasi-guest status operates as a "get out of jail free" card in these types of questionable situations.

In addition to spring cleaning, Iranians arrange the Haft-seen, a symbolic display centering around seven ("haft") items beginning with "seen" (the letter for "s" in Farsi). So, sekkeh (coin), seeb (apple), sonbol (Hyacinth flower), and a number of other "seens" may be included in the layout. This ceremonial decor used to be called Haft-sheen (sheen is the Farsi letter for "sh"), where in place of serkeh (vinegar), there was sharab (wine). But when Islam came to Iran, the customs were altered to fit the nonalcoholic aspect of religion. The Haft-seen decoration remains in place from the start of the new year to the final day, on the 13th of Farvardin.

Norouz, another name for Iranian New Year, is the only holiday welcomed with a party, Chaharshanbeh Soori, and sent off with one (13-Bedar). Most Iranians use their two-week vacation to visit family and friends, throw parties, and squeeze in some well-deserved rest and relaxation. It's customary to be in a crowded setting at all times, eat plenty of sweets, hand out Eidies (newly printed money) to younger kin, throw parties, and observe other fun-filled traditions.

I think my version of the holiday was atypical, however, for a number of reasons.

First of all, I hung out with a bunch of exhausted, wealthy, middle-aged/ elderly folk on the Caspian seaboard. It was quite boring for my cousins and me, considering swimming was out of the question, due to slightly frigid temperatures, leaving shopping in the town as our only alternative outdoor activity.

This Caspian Sea visit was different from others we've taken throughout the years because, for one thing, the whole region has become far more touristy. I hate it when that happens because then all those hand-woven baskets and wooden handicrafts characteristic of the seashore towns of the north become ridiculously overpriced (compared to Tehran rates!) and much less creative. Moreover, I'd begun to suspect that many of the shops were promoting goods imported from Turkey as being homemade; falsely claiming that a Turkish-made item was produced in Iran appears to be a growing trend, so be forewarned! From my experience, souvenirs imported from Turkey have been low in quality, compared to their Iranian-made counterparts.

Another manner in which the Caspian Sea region has changed regards the styles of villas being built. Rather than invest in a cozy villa nestled within a lush landscape, many residents have taken it upon themselves to build seaside castles, or excessively ornate buildings that swallow up the majority of the property they inhabit. These gaudy designs indicate to me two things: 1. Napoleonic complex, a common feature of modern architecture in Iran (why does everybody want to be a king?), and 2. Rejection of nature (it's as if people try to construct up to the last penny they've got, even if the result resembles a concrete jungle, rather than a house). I will try to post pictures of this widespread embrace of structural pretentiousness, which has been romanticized as a high-class phenomenon.

On a side note, here's a funny-looking bush, located in the front yard of a normal-sized beach house:

Upon my early return to Tehran, I encountered another uncommon situation—Eid-e Aval (the first new year). Eid-e Aval is the first New Year’s after the death of a family member. My uncle's wife had lost her 90-year-old uncle only a day before New Year's Eve. Therefore, instead of approaching the holiday season with a jovial attitude, my uncle's family, and anyone else related to the deceased, exhibited a grief-stricken demeanor.

According to Iranian death rites, the first 40 days after the passing of a loved one makes up the most solemn mourning period. And since New Year’s falls within these 40 days, hence constituting Eid-e Aval, any friends of my uncle or his wife must pay the proper respects by visiting them sometime within these two weeks. In addition, my uncle, his wife, and the kids spent much of Eid-e Aval attending various gatherings and ceremonies related to death. Furthermore, nobody will be attending any social events that feature dancing or music, such as weddings or birthday parties, at least for the duration of the 40-day mourning cycle. Of course, this last clause doesn't apply to friends of my uncle's wife, or distant relatives to the deceased, such as me.

One major aspect of Norouz that I wholly neglected was my family obligations, which—at the minimum—comprised of visiting the homes of family members who are older than me, i.e., practically all my relatives with their own residence. This tradition of dropping by is called "Deedani" (or seeing), and carries with it a burdensome load of expectations and respect. As if shirking my Eid Deedani responsibilities weren't enough, I was supposed to call every single family household on the first of Farvardin to communicate warm wishes for the new year, but decided to watch Iranian movies on my laptop instead. Fortunately, my cultural ineptitude was slightly redeemed by a telephone failure story and a few belated deedanis, one of which I was able to slide in right at Norouz's close, Seezdeh (13) Bedar.

On the 13th and final day of New Year’s, Iranians must spend the day outdoors, amidst nature and greenery. Most pack up their picnic gear and head out to a grassy knoll somewhere, usually in a park, where they eat, drink, and play. Sometime during the day, the Haft-seen comes down, and the sabze (bright green sprouts that resemble an uprooted lawn sample) must be tossed into a river.

Outside, at the extremely crowded neighborhood park, we saw a sabze thrown onto a patch of grass. Kneeling down, we proceeded to tie knots into the blades, which my cousin explained was for good luck in the coming year. While I absentmindedly followed her cue in this ritual, wondering why I hadn't heard of it before, she casually mentioned that it was practiced by single people, causing me to drop the blades and recoil with disgust. Then, my eyes instinctively darted around, quickly surveying the scene to make sure no one saw me tying anything. Why does everything have to relate back to marriage here?!? That's another topic, for another day.

Anyway, during our outing, I spotted Saeid Pirdoost, also known as Sardar Khan from Shabhaye Barareh (Barareh Nights), or the Dad on Noghte Chin (Dot), strolling about with his wife and kid. I was surprised that nobody else ran up to him asking for his picture, except my cousin and me.

Fortunately, he was extremely patient and human-like, and I totally used my "foreigner" credentials to request a photo, as justification for any potential rudeness I might have unintentionally displayed, as dictated by Iranian social norms. I always feel obligated to gauge stuff like that because Iranians seem to have a significantly low threshold for boldness.

By the way, I bleeped out my face so the psychos out there don't recognize me. Stay tuned for Part 2, which I plan to add tomorrow.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Chahar Shanbeh Soori

The night before last, Iranians everywhere gathered around bonfires with family and friends to celebrate the eve of Chahar Shanbeh Soori, or Fiery Wednesday. Traditionally, this ancient holiday is practiced by jumping over flames, and chanting phrases like, "Sorkhiye toh az man, zardiye man az toh." Meaning, your (the fire's) glow/ruddiness in exchange for my (the jumper's) fatigue/pallor. This was my first Chahar Shanbeh Soori in Iran as well as my first dangerous encounter with fireworks.

Beginning three weeks ago, NAJA officers were on high alert to monitor fireworks activities because, for many of Tehran's youth, Chahar Shanbeh Soori starts about a month early, when firecrackers can be bought from street vendors. Aside from the legal variety, teens and kids in their 20s manage to get their hands on Molotov cocktails, grenade-type concoctions that discharge a bunch of stones upon explosion, and other injurious items that are illegal. These fireworks are also thrown at pedestrians, windshields of moving cars, high school teachers within campus buildings, and other inappropriate targets. Some of these amateur pyrotechnists also spit gasoline from their mouths into a lit match, creating a fireball effect.

Also beginning three weeks ago, one Iranian T.V. station (out of the whopping seven, or so) had aired a number of hour-long primetime specials on Iran’s Chahar Shanbeh Sooris of recent years. These cautionary documentaries show the chilling effects of recklessly setting off fireworks, such as the third-degree burns on kids' faces, the charred stubs of people whose limbs were blown off, young men who'd gone blind after a firecracker burst too close to their faces, the boy missing his eyeball because he was hit by a random explosive, hospital burn units overcrowded with maimed patients, and other incidents reflecting the gory aftermath of pyrotechnics gone awry.

Tehran's police force has tried to contain this wildly unsafe way of celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Soori. Outlawing the holiday, at least in public streets where passersby can be targeted, simply doesn't work; instead, officers set out to guard the streets weeks ahead, hoping to arrest individuals with illegal firecrackers, while also collaborating with the news station to inform the public about the consequences of unrestrained fire play. Most people refuse to leave their homes from Tuesday morning, with students voluntarily taking the day off from school, in a bid to avoid accidents.

On our street, the neighbors came out at sunset, set a few bonfires, and allowed their kids to throw around fireworks that sound the way a car tire does when it bursts. These neighbors were family people, among them doctors and engineers, including a few foreigners under diplomatic status. But still, when my cousin and I stepped out to observe the festivities, a little 5-year-old brat launched his firecracker directly at our stomachs, causing us to jolt back, away from the potential eyeball exploding catastrophe. The brat just giggled, and went about throwing around more. Nobody thought this was wrong.

Growing up, my parents taught me never to point a gun at anyone, throw sharp (or flaming) objects at people, or to purposely startle or shock anyone, just for personal amusement. And if I dared do these things to elders, I would be reprimanded without mercy. So, I'm surprised that despite me and my cousin's expressions of utter alarm, nobody told the kid, "Hey, aim the other way."

Anyway, the family fun began to die down when a bunch of college-aged kids pulled up in a black hatchback, opened their trunk to reveal a highly sophisticated sound system, and let loose bass-heavy Iranian dance music, turning the street into their own personal nightclub. Not long after, another hatchback, this time white, rolled up, parking face-to-face with the black one, and popped its trunk to blast a different Iranian mix, simultaneously. The scene looked like a competition between discos, with about 40 players on each team, and a bunch of spectators on the sidelines.

In no time, the party duel dominated the Chahar Shanbeh Soori ceremonies on my street. Young people flocked from unknown places to take part in the revelry. Almost all of the girls were rocking to the music, headscarves hanging around necks, with their punk hairdos fully exposed. The guys would tear up the asphalt, boogeying down with various girls, sometimes embracing them, and introducing some skilled Iranian dancing, while also throwing in some raver moves. I'm fairly certain that at least a couple of guys were drunk from alcohol, or high off of X.

As I tried snapping pictures, some members of the crowd would turn their backs to the lens subtly, or headscarves would magically appear atop exposed manes, or bodies would slow to a still, or other sly maneuvers would occur to make my pictures look less unruly. I think they thought I might use these pictures against them somehow, either by turning them in to their schoolmasters, showing them to their parents, or taking them to the police. For a bunch of rebellious adults, they still made it a point to appear 'kosher'.

I’ve encountered this paranoia before, which seems a bit unwarranted, yet widespread, among youth. They want to be visible and flashy, yet at the same time, they want to operate covertly.(I’ll post about the countless contradictions of Iranian society, later.)

Besides the dancers, crowds of spectators too shy to partake lined both sides of the street, while others continued to light fireworks. One thing that irked me was that people setting firecrackers kept tossing them at the dancers. Although I wasn’t grooving with these partiers, many of whom had migrated from one block over, I got burned with flying shrapnel several times, the intense pain of which I could feel through my jeans! Soon, this scenario was becoming repetitive, as the constant firecracker-throwing of friends at friends starting causing people to quickly lose interest in the festivities.

After withstanding the boredom a bit longer, my cousin and I doubled back to our place around 11 p.m. We were disappointed that this crowd of kids our age never actually started a decent bonfire, in line with the actual point of the event.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Les Justes" = Le Mockery

Last night, I watched director Ghotbedin Sadeghi’s interpretation of Albert Camus’s play, “Les Justes,” at Tehran’s grand City Theater. We got in free, through the efforts of another director belonging to the International Theater for College Students. Although we arrived a bit late, the story had just begun to crystallize.

Les Justes (The Just) is set in Moscow, early 1900s, at a time when Russia was struggling under a centralized system of tyrannical rule. The play’s main characters—four socialist revolutionaries, one of them a woman—represent a group disgruntled with the Grand Duke’s oppressive treatment of the lower classes as well as political and social dissidents. They carry out an attack on the Duke’s carriage, blowing the ruler’s head off with a homemade explosive.

Overall, the characters of the drama seem engaged in a constant struggle over conflicting ideas, such as fighting for justice vs. committing acts of terror, collective vs. individual interests, religious belief vs. socialist ideology, and others. At the story’s close, the four insurgents renounce their terrorist ways, and surrender themselves to the glory of the Catholic faith.

At several instances throughout the performance, I had to draw on every ounce of strength to keep from bursting into uproarious laughter. First of all, what was up with Dora, the female bomb expert? Her overemotional portrayal of a socialist revolutionary was inherently disingenuous—especially since her natural voice assumed a fluctuating soprano tone, dripping with exaggerated sentiment, much like a hysterical mother that dotes on her spoiled son who’s heading off to the army, or who's stubbed his toe.

The woman ran to and fro onstage in an amateurishly dainty style, convincing me less that she was a Russian rebel whose physical agility is essential for a swift escape, and more of her life as a middle-aged soccer mom of three, who sings like a lark, organizes neighborhood block parties, and hosts the annual ladies’ luncheon. Furthermore, she approached the dialogue between her and Kaliayev, which involved the topic of love, in a gushingly romantic and dreamy, damsel-in-distress-type manner that made me want to hurl all over the stage.

Then there’s the Chief of Police, a gangly fellow who visits Kaliayev, the rebel responsible for the bombing of the Grand Duke, in prison for the purpose of striking a deal with him, in a futile attempt at capturing the rest of his entourage. Undoubtedly, the actor’s motivation for this character—who sways erratically between the complementary roles of ‘good cop’/‘bad cop’—was the typical imbecilic British official, whose frivolous antics and blissfully haughty air make him an indispensable prop to any political satire. He expertly carried out the 'bumbling Brit' technique—lurching back and forth like a drunkard, constantly twirling around the prisoner, dropping to his knees, and delivering his lines in a relentlessly facetious style that seemed to mock the intended mood of the scene.

Also, the guy was far too extravagant, and often irrelevant, in his body language, jumping abruptly into a fencing stance, pretending to lean on a cane, holding his hands up in feigned surrender at Kaliayev’s angry outburst—the kind of behavior that seemed inconsistent with his character's purpose, which I think was to appear to be an intimidating, yet patronizing, high-ranking officer, rather than a loony court jester.

But the most amusing parts of the play were when 1) Kaliayev professed his love to Dora, while rolling across the stage, outstretched, and screaming “Yea-yea-yea!” and 2) at the start of the last act, a gigantic wooden cross depicting the crucified Jesus, and spanning about 11ft x 3ft, descended from the sky, landing gently onto the dinner table, between two ornate candelabras; suspended center stage, in all its glory, for the remainder of the performance, as the characters contemplated their faith. Firstly, Jesus’s legs looked disturbingly girly and stout, and second, what kind of crude symbolism was this maneuver? Moreover, no rebel group would use sleek and slender candelabras on an average-sized dinner table, especially ones without candles, probably because elegant decor does not constitute a priority.

Undoubtedly, the director was obsessed with this sort of lavishly meaningless symbolism. Strewn across the entire stage floor—i.e., the rebels’ headquarters—were worn out shoes and handbags that had been smashed to look as flat as possible. Also perplexing were the overemphasized body gestures that often didn't correspond with the actors' lines. For instance, is it necessary to continuously drop to the ground and flap your arms frantically, while grappling with the question of love, and other concepts arising in the script? Or for Stepan, the hate-filled rebel of the pack, to throw himself at Dora's feet, bawling and ripping open his shirt to show the scars resulting from the torture he endured while in the Tsar's custody?

Finally, in a predictably melodramatic display, the insurgents, having come to the conclusion that they were indeed a bunch of terrorists, remove their black leather trench coats, holding them straight out in front of their bodies, and with a shared sense of impassioned resolve, simulataneously release their grip on the coats, allowing them to fall gracefully to the floor.

What’s even more bizarre is that the audience responded to the play with a standing ovation, to which I was loathe to conform, but eventually folded under the pressure of social norms. During the undeserved applause, as if to further the mockery, herds of people dashed up to the foot of the stage with massive, multicolored bouquets of exotic flowers, wrapped artfully in brightly hued paper; there had to be at least 50 of these expensive arrays, all of which surely came from the director’s sychophantic students and family members.

Anyway, I met Dr. Sadeghi, the director, who appeared quite content with what he’d probably deem “art”. I lied and said, “Thanks for allowing us to watch such a wonderful play.” I meant to say, “Please leave this industry, you fool.” The man was extremely enamored with himself, appearing smug, and trying to dazzle us with his fluency in French. How about dazzling us with some well-researched insight into the thought processes and behavior of socialist revolutionaries? How about not turning what could’ve been subtle symbolism into a frightfully gigantic crucified Jesus, dangling smack-dab, center stage? But no, Iranians do not tolerate criticism. Everything is personal, so let's plaster an artificial smile on our faces, and shower people with vacuous compliments and feigned deference. Then, after they've left the vicinity, let's talk about what we really think. Yes, that is the Iranian way. And this may have just been my first rant...the first of many, I'm sure.

Lesson learned? There exists a thin line between creativity and outright absurdity.

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