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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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, Dun-Chtz, ...

Imagine rapidly thumping, bass-heavy techno beats permeating the afternoon air like volts of electricity, with the rhythmic consistency of beatboxing at volume levels fit for a house club. Now picture the charged sounds emanating from an indigo booth, similar to those seen at the county fair, adorned with elegant strokes of Persian calligraphy, smack-dab in the center of one of the busiest squares of Tehran.

Stretch the confines of your creativity even further. Try to envisage the pulsing techno beats as supplementary to an even more compelling sound--the solemn recitation of Qur'anic verses.

Streets of Islamic Republic of Iran + House Techno Music + Qur'anic verses = Intricately Woven Quilt of Irony...?

This raging anomaly left me stunned and confused. I had no idea techno was so compatible with the Qur'an.

The temporary booth stands erect this whole week, making up one of many attractions held in commemoration of Hazrat Ali, the first Muslim man (as mentioned in another post, Hazrat Khadija was the first Muslim woman). Today, the 21st day of Ramadan, represents the day he died, thus qualifying as a holiday, meaning no work and no school!

Hazrat Ali was known for his piousness and his generosity toward orphans. Every single night, he would visit orphanages, and leave bundles of food at the doorstep. He kept his identity secret by using the darkness as his cloak as well as by knocking on doors and fleeing before they were opened. It wasn't until the orphans became worried for their mysterious benefactor, after he failed to visit two nights in a row, that the public learned his identity.

Ali was gone for two days because he was in a coma. People discovered that Ibn al-Moljam Moradi, who was loathe to the spread of Islam, had attacked Ali (the leader of the expansion) by heaving his sword and bringing it down on the benefactor's cranium.

In remembrance of Hazrat Ali's generous behavior, the day he died is also celebrated as a day for orphans, in which people focus their charitable efforts specifically towards orphanages. In Iran, all day long, crowds of citizens have been visiting special centers set up to receive gifts for the country's parentless children.

Side note: I just realized there are many celebrations in Islam, with almost all of them rooted in a tragic and appalling death.

Doth Mine Eyes Deceive Me?

This has got to be a knock-off... American companies were kicked out of Iran, long ago, in accordance with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While foreign investment flourishes in the country, with names such as LG, Daewoo, Mercedes Benz, Sony, Nokia, and other recognizable brands enticing Iranian consumers, American businesses have remained out of the loop (except for a handful, such as Halliburton, of course).

Nevertheless, many Iranian business people have capitalized off American brands...by creating imitations that are convincing enough to rake in the profits from eager buyers willing to spend more for American-ish goods. Take the picture below, for example:

As you may have guessed, SFC is a hybrid between KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Carl's Jr. (if not for the mutated point, the smiling stars would be identical), two fairly reprehensible--yet popular--fast food chains in the U.S. SFC, which stands for Star Fried Chicken, is packed nightly with the young, hip, chic crowds of Tehran, who do not mind doling out a bit more for the (artificially) foreign appeal.

In fact, anything sporting the English language is often enough to spur sales. Even if a T-shirt that's made in Iran reads, "Babee luv soft," or a similar misspelled and nonsensical phrase, it'll likely sell more than one without.

What's even more perplexing is that many buyers are privy to the imposter brands, and don't really care if these products unabashedly massacre the English language. Forget about correct grammar and spelling, some kind of coherent meaning, and proper sentence structure--all is overlooked and forgiven by the patron.

I plan to dedicate another post to the "Iranization" of the English language some time in the future.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Creepy Taxi Man

Everyday, I take two different taxis to school, and two more back. This longer, and more labor-intensive route (lots of walking) costs me 400% less than ordering a private taxi to drive me from point A to point B. More importantly, the "public" route allows me to interact with everyday people, which provides me with lots of interesting learning experiences.

Today, for instance, I learned about creepy taxi drivers.

Usually, while waiting at my 2nd taxi stop, I look for official taxis that don the blazing orange stripe across the body; or the new cornbread colored ones (OK, now I crave cornbread) that the government subsidizes for owners with the oldest vehicles on the street--those Peykan that can only be described as tin cans on wheels.

When none of the official taxis are offering rides to my destination street, I have no choice but to turn to private taxi drivers. Normally, I'll only board one of these cars if others jump on, too; they must be heading in the same direction, of course.

But for some reason, I wasn't paying attention today, as I summoned the only taxi out of at least 30 that was willing to drive to Tajreesh. I guess it was enough for me to see that another girl and a grown man also joined me. Big mistake.

Below is a script of the creepy encounter, after the two other passengers were dropped off only a block up the road. Bear in mind, this trip takes at least another 30 minutes.

Shiva chills out in the backseat as the 2nd passenger exits the vehicle. After about 5 minutes of driving in silence, Creepy Taxi Man (CTM) surveys his sole remaining victim through his rearview mirror.


Creepy Taxi Man: So, are you fasting?

Shiva: (startled out of her usual morning daze) Huh? No.

CTM: Yea, at least you don't lie about it. That's good. I got so angry this morning; I went to a Sahar (the hearty meal before sunrise/start of daily fasting), and the guy yelled at me and said I didn't fast. I said, at least I didn't lie about it... (continues to ramble on and on about his drama)

Shiva: (disinterested, tries to shorten conversation) That's not right, to lie.

A few moments of silence pass. Shiva notices the taxi man purposely steering away from the proper exit.

CTM: I'm just gonna take the Seoul route, it's much better in terms of traffic.

Shiva: (muscles stiffen, becomes ultra-alert) Uh, I'm sorry, what time is it?

CTM: It's about 9:10. Why?

Shiva: (Lying) I think I'm late for class.

CTM: Where do you go to school?

Shiva: (careful not to name specifics) This place on Vali-e-Asr.

Even though CTM pulled the "I know a shortcut" act, and got stuck in deeper, bumper-to-bumper traffic, far away from the closest route to Shiva's school, Shiva knew if she needed to, she can punch him in the face, and jump out of the car. Then, she'll make a scene, and a bunch of Iranians will give the guy trouble, right there in the freeway. No such thing as passive bystanders, here.

CTM: So you're a student?

Shiva nods.

CTM: (not-so-subtle attempt to guess my age) How many years have you been in school?

Shiva: (lying) I'm an undergrad.

CTM: (hopeful) So you're almost done?

Shiva: (lying) No, just started.

CTM: You should've come sit up front.

Shiva: No, there's no difference. Backseat's fine.

CTM: (using formal words) Are you single or married?

Shiva: (unsure of exact meaning of formal words, but good guess. Pulls stupid foreigner act) I don't know what those words mean. I am not from here. I'm studying Farsi right now.

CTM: Where are you from?

Shiva: Abroad.

CTM: What country abroad?

Shiva: They're all the same.

CTM seems to be joyriding around town, as Shiva's patience wears thin.

CTM: (using informal words) Are you married? (asking a bold question, in a society where it's not appropriate for a strange man to rudely prod a female with inquiries when she clearly doesn't want to engage in chit-chat; hence the creepiness.)

Shiva: (fumbles, then saves with a lie) No...uh, I have a fiance. (should be cue to end convo)

CTM: You're engaged? Oh.

(few moments of silence)

CTM: Is he in Iran with you? (Shiva nods.) Oh. How long are you staying here?

Shiva: One year.

CTM: Oh. You really should come sit up front--

Shiva: Backseat's fine. I really need to get to class.

Shiva notices CTM has returned to the same spot on the freeway, where he deliberately passed the best exit for Vali-e-Asr. He takes it this time, perhaps because I've burst his spontaneous bubble of marrying me (for no apparent reason...except that I was alone in the backseat).

CTM: (feigned naivete) Oh, here's Vali-e-Asr. I didn't realize it started here. (yea, right.)

Shiva: (relieved) Yea, just go straight, past Saffron Street (which is several blocks uphill).

CTM: (slowing down his speed, allowing chunks of space between him and other drivers) So, which is good, Iran or where you're from?

Shiva: (impatient) Both are good.

CTM: (trying to be coy) Noooo, only one can be good (fake laugh), which one?

Shiva: Neither.

CTM drives about 20 feet into Vali-e-Asr Street, before smoothly, and almost hesitantly, steering his car two lanes to the right, and parking at the curb. Shiva's destination is about five blocks higher up.

CTM: (speaking in a slow, monotone voice, as he stared blankly at Shiva through rearview mirror; almost a whisper) ...Come up front.

Shiva: (hastily exits, while thrusting money in cab guy's face) Uh, I'll get off right here, thanks.

CTM: But Saffron is still a ways up--

Shiva: No, it's fine. (slides out, slams the door, then walks as fast as possible away from Creepy Taxi Man, while watching from the corner of her eye to make sure he isn't lurking behind her. As expected, Shiva arrived late to class.)

Yes, this description was long, and maybe not as traumatizing in hindsight. But this experience is nothing compared to those of my classmates, who've come face-to-face with even bigger taxi perverts. Or the stories of armed robberies committed by (unofficial) taxi drivers towards some of my family members and their close friends (all alone during the attack). More on that later. From now on, I'll remember to take my family's advice, and WRITE DOWN THE LICENSE PLATE NUMBER!!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hey, Where'd the Funny Go?

So, at exactly 9 0'clock this evening, I routinely plopped myself in front of the T.V., and waited in excitement for my favorite Iranian sitcom to begin. That's what I love about Iranian shows--they air every night of the week, at the same time (one hour later on weekends), spanning 150+ new episodes total. No more waiting a whole week for the saga to unfold!

Well, tonight my expectations came crashing down when "Barareh" (an imaginary village) failed to dazzle our senses. This show is so funny, that when I went to visit a family member in the hospital around 9 p.m., I watched in amazement as patients, nurses, visitors, and staff dragged their chairs out into the hallway, arranged them neatly in a multi-level semi-circle around a 20-inch TV, and together escaped into the comical world of talented director, writer, actor-comedian and singer Mehran Modiri. For a whole hour, it seemed as if everybody forgot they were in a bright white hospital that smelled of sickness, loss, and of course, embalming fluid. So, given the universal success of this sitcom, maybe you can understand my aching disappointment.

Anyway, one theory for this unusual lapse in programming (espoused by my cousin, who couldn't make sense of this beguiling predicament) is that today is the death anniversary of Hazrat Khadija, the very first Muslim woman, and Mohammad's wife. She was about 30 years older than the Muslim prophet, and was exceptionally rich--a capitalist who owned the biggest trade caravan in the Arabian desert. Her business smarts and generosity helped in funding the spreading and institutionlizing of Islam in many ways. Since she was a pious woman, her death must be mourned, hence the temporary replacement of our uplifting, humorous village satire with a melodramatic tear-jerker...or so this is our standing theory. If anyone knows where the funny went, please let me know!

Iran's War on Terror

Earlier today two bombs exploded in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, killing two four civilians and wounding 40 70 104 (as of the most recent TV reports). Although the country battles its own terrorists (the most prominent being the group Mujahideen al-Khalq), Iranian authorities suspect the British are behind this attack because of recent tensions associated with the nuclear energy talks, in which Britain has vociferously denounced Iran for moving ahead with its program. In addition, the recent controversy surrounding British involvement in (and implementation of) bombings in Iraq, in an apparent attempt to create friction between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as the fact that British troops currently line Iran's border with Iraq, create a security threat for Iran.

What makes the British connection even more plausible is that the Ahvaz region is home to a mixture of Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites, the perfect layout for the 'ole "divide and conquer" strategy that has throughtout history spawned just the right measure of internal civil conflict that has made mice into men.

Oh, and there was that one series of bombings about five months ago in which foreign agents were deemed responsible...politics is a dirrrrrty game (insert high-pitched villainous cackle here).

Friday, October 14, 2005

Happiest Couple in Iran Contest

I read in the paper (Iran News) that it's the first of its kind, to be held in December 2005.

Festival organizer Mohammad-Reza Taghvaie: "The aim of this festival is to encourage and promote marriage and family. We anticipate 100,000 Iranian married couples to attend this festival.

"Foreign guests have also been invited to this festival in order to see the warm Iranian culture on marriage-related customs and traditions. We have arranged for couples from all Iranian provinces to come to this celebration and introduce their unique customs and traditions as relates to marriage."

This contest seems a bit of a stretch for it to be more of an educational opportunity. Prizes include one billion rials (about $111,000), an apartment, Mercedes Benz automobiles, and more. That's a lot of money in Iran, where the median household income is about $600/month.

Eight couples will win from the following categories: happiest 'sacrificing' couple; happiest 'laborer' couple; happiest 'working' couple; happiest 'farmer' couple; happiest 'stunt' couple; happiest 'artist' couple; happiest 'retired' couple; and happiest 'oldest' couple.

I find the categories amusing, as well as the overall premise of the contest. But then I've heard lately from friends and family members who are in college that the divorce rate is extremely high in Iran. Even more unusual is that an increasing number of university students are marrying and divorcing each other before graduation! Apparently, this trend has significantly contributed to the near 50% divorce rate among married couples.

Maybe this festival is an attempt to reinforce the tenants of marriage, and instill greater responsibility among citizens. It doesn't make any sense that in this culture, where marriage, if pursued, comes after graduation, displays statistics like these. The customs associated with marriage are so complex here (especially with the exchange of dowries), and families so deeply involved on both sides, that divorce so quickly after marriage (and at such alarming rates) is a big deal.

I plan to talk to more people and find out why a) college-aged kids are jumping so fast into marriage, only to jump right out, and b) why kids, which tend to be the center of the Iranian household, are nonexistent in these haphazard unions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Black Gold

One of the major issues floating around concerns fuel prices in Iran. The government currently purchases gas from other countries at 400 tomans/liter and sells it to the public at only 80 tomans/liter. The heavy subsidization makes up for the country's limited refining capabilities, which has cost the government billions of dollars, annually.

According to local papers, economists believe a gas price increase is absolutely necessary for Iran's economic health, and it can also relieve some of the traffic congestion that more than 7 million drivers cause on a daily basis. Gas is so cheap, that a liter of water sells for over 300% more than a liter of fuel. Another problem with this is that carmakers are less likely to produce fuel efficient vehicles, which creates even more consumption and pollution (the air is difficult to breathe as it is).

The government is hesitant to raise the cost of fuel, despite the prognosis of economic experts. Besides the obvious problem of eliciting a negative reaction from the public, officials worry that such a move may create a sudden boost in inflation rates, making transportation and overall purchasing of goods less affordable for average citizens. A few years ago, 800 tomans = US$1; now the figure has grown to about 900 tomans/dollar. A sudden increase, even if small, could send the toman into serious devaluation--maybe over 1,000 to a dollar.

There are many risks involved. On one hand, an increase may create an atmosphere of responsibility, where citizens make fewer unnecessary road trips; public transportation (with over 1 million vehicles offering service) would continue to be subsidized, and may experience an increase in business. On the other hand, inflation may affect food prices, creating problems for middle and lower classes, while also encouraging capital flight.

The fuel pricing dilemma is definitely a hot issue here. Clearly, any move would have to be approached with the utmost caution, particularly because the risks can be crippling on Iran's economy. When I asked a young taxi driver about his views on the issue, he thought a price hike was a good idea, and mentioned that he'd pay up to 250 tomans/liter. His idea was that people would take greater responsibility in driving, which would alleviate the traffic jams occurring around the clock.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pedar Bozorg's One-Year

"Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came..."

The theme song from that old show "Cheers" kept playing over and over in my head as my family and I commemorated the one year anniversary of my Pedar Bozorg's (Grand Father's) passing this weekend (i.e. Thursday & Friday). Everybody in his village of Ourreh, nestled in the town of Natanz, seemed to know me well. Apparently my grandparents were popular folks, and spoke about us often. Although I'd never met any of these 100+ people who came out to pay their respects, I felt at home.

The ceremony was held at Chahar Bozorg burial ground, where four imamzadehs (ancestors of imams) rest in peace. These grounds are reserved for prominent people, such as my grandfather (and grandmother, who's buried at another imamzadeh site), and their kin.

In villages, where people tend to be friendlier, more generous and more religious than in cities like Tehran, most women and girls wear black or floral print chadors (sheets draped around the head and body, and held closed beneath the chin). So, when I showed up (late) in my sparkly grey monto (coat) and floral print headscarf to meet my parents at the ceremony, I felt a pang of guilt for at least not wearing black. Nobody seemed to mind, of course, but I hate appearing so ignorant. Fortunately, I wasn't alone; my mom's fire-engine red monto screamed, "HELLO, HERE I AM, RIGHT AT THE CENTER OF THIS WHOLE SHIBANG!" When I went and sat down next to her on my grandfather's grave, she reassured me that our clothes were fine, and that we weren't required to wear dark colors.

We sat on my grandfather's tombstone (below) as the religious service proceeded. The "ahkhond" (holy dude who leads prayer services) recited several passages from the Qur'an, philosophized a bit, led the prayers, then initiated the public mourning.

Now, public mourning occurs when the ahkhond begins to tell heartwrenching stories of people of the book, in a voice full of sorrow and anguish, almost as if he was wailing. It's a very passionate display of emotions that--regardless of your faith--will force you to cry, or sob uncontrollably. Even though I didn't understand most of what he was saying, his description of the suffering of others, matched with the weeping of the men and women around me, and the thought of my grandfather's lifeless body wrapped up and buried beneath me kept me desperately choking back tears. I only succeeded because I diverted my attention to grass. Cold, crisp, green, boring grass. I'm not used to death, maybe because I was born and raised in southern California, with virtually no extended family around, and never having to share any grief.

After the ceremony, we walked to the local mosque to host the Eftar (break-fast dinner) for about 200 people. Travelers are not supposed to fast (and neither are people who are sick, pregnant, menstruating, and more), but healthy people who don't eat/drink anything after sunrise and before sunset look forward to Eftar.

To accommodate what appeared to be the entire village, chicken and rice were cooked in massive black iron pots (think of the kind witches use that hang over the hearth) that had to be lugged back-and-forth from the campfire to the kitchen by three or four men; a vinyl green sheet was draped from one end of the mosque to the other to divide the room into the men's and women's sides (I imagine for reasons of comfort, while dining); sofres (plastic mats laid out on the floor and set up like a dining room table) running lengthwise between two rows of people were stacked with traditional food--dates, bread, feta cheese, and sabzi (green vegetables); and drink--tea.

After dinner, the same ahkhond (who later sped off on his motorcycle after Eftar came to a close) led both sides in evening prayers. Ramadan becomes the ahkhond-bazaar (to paraphrase my cousin) because it is during this month that ahkhonds gain the most business, as the demand for religious services is the highest of the year. I will post pictures of this trip under "Family" in the photos section.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ramadan: Time For Contemplation

That was the main heading from today's Iran Daily, followed with:

"Oh you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those who came before you that you may keep your duty to your Lord." (Holy Qur'an, 2:185)

Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar during which Muslims fast. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims abstain from a number of things, particularly eating, from dawn till dusk.
Ramadan offers an opportunity to gauge one's adherence to religious principles and contemplate over one's goals and conduct.
We wish our Muslim readers an enlightening and empowering Ramadan.

I've never been in a Muslim country during Ramadan, but I heard it's fun. In the U.S., all restaurants remain open and the daily grind continues at the same pace. So, I'm excited to observe the differences here, during the month of fasting, where the population is predominantly Muslim.

Iranian Police Convention

Also happening this week is the exhibition of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a highly trained police force that provides general security for the country. N.A.J.A. deals with drug trafficking, assault, murder, counterfeit, and other criminal offenses.

The first room features the shahids (martyrs) of the Iran-Iraq war that served in the force. Folded up blood-splattered uniforms, I.D. tags, and photos were preserved within glass cases. We saw footage of soldiers fighting--one minute shooting, the next moment dead from the explosion of the enemy's bombs--as well as recreated scenes of the battle at the front, using mannequins, props, and special effects. (Side note: all of last week was dedicated to remembering the many Iranians whose lives were sacrificed during what has been dubbed the Ten Years War. iPouya's blog does a great job capturing the raw emotions and national pride conjured up by memories of the war.)

When we entered the next phase of the exhibit, we were greeted by two mannequins dressed in full gear as well as a life-size police robot moving around the room. Later the robot proved to be an officer with impeccable body-joint-muscle isolation skills. We were invited to take pictures on motorcyles, aim and shoot rifles and handguns, learn about the various equipment used to contain crowds of protestors who get out of hand and disturb the peace (such as ink guns to mark certain individuals/vehicles or tear gas launchers), and watch officers spar with each other. We even saw special gooseneck cameras/telescopes used to find people in homes, drag victims out of rubble caused by natural disasters (e.g., Bam earthquake), and more (these cameras were made in the U.S., by the way).

The final section was the most exciting. Iran's Central Investigation Department (CID) is where all the action's at. Here we saw counterfeit I.D.s, official stamps, money, license plates, passports and more. The forensics sections displayed models of shot victims, dead embryos, and other relevant stuff to show how science and technology are used to gather evidence. Pictures will certainly be posted soon, under the "human interest" heading, in the photos section. Also, the smuggling in of drugs and illegal goods (such as non-taxed cigarettes, alcohol, etc.) and the smuggling out of national treasures (some up to 4,000 years old) made up a significant part of the exhibit.

Below is a sample of what law enforcement has confiscated from drug transporters trafficking drugs from Afghanistan to Europe. Within the last year, $600 million worth of drugs have been confiscated and burned (aside from the exhibit, drugs are usually laid out flat on a table and torched to ashes), and 3,000 officers have died.

CID also handles terrorists in the country. We got to see bombs found in suitcases, books, jars of face cream, and even those little paper lamps that you see in Japanese restaurants. Outside was a collection of high-end stolen or illegally obtained vehicles that were recovered, as well as a tank and some miniature canons for kids to play with.

Overall, the officers were extremely patient--even though the place was packed--and answered our questions in great detail. There was, however, a minor incident in which I was asked not to take a picture of a special handgun that was created in Iran. The officer that made the request said, "We don't want you taking this over to the other side."

This was the most intriguing exhibition I've ever seen in my entire life. I will definitely post more pictures soon.

International Industrial Trade Fair

Yesterday I went to the International Industrial Trade Fair where about 500 Iranian and Foreign companies set up exhibits to show off and sell their products. Industrial equipment makers from Germany, Romania, Turkey, Czech Republic, Malaysia, Spain, England, Italy, Sweden, China, and many more countries set up booths with both foreign and Iranian sales representatives.

India was also one of the many nations participating in the week-long event at Tehran's main convention center. Although India has good diplomatic ties with Iran, those ties were questioned when the country voted in support of the EU3 resolution, which would have required Iran to suspend all fuel cycle activities, among other demands. The vote against Iran's legal right to continue its nuclear program came as a major surprise, since India and Iran have many trade pacts. India, by the way, is not a signatory of the NPT and has a nuclear weapons program dating back decades.

The Iranian companies at the trade show displayed many mechanical demonstrations of their products, both on a smaller scale, like the Iran Khodro car company's indoor exhibit shown below, and on a larger one. Outdoors there were many demonstrations taking place with machinery that could cut through steel 25cm thick and more. I will post more pictures of the trade show soon. Look for them under "human interest" in the photos section.

Tehran's massive convention center hosts international trade shows on a regular basis. What's interesting is that many of the Iranian salesmen wore neckties, which is an unusual accessory in Iran. The necktie has come to symbolize Imam Khomeini's "Westoxification", and many do not associate it with professionalism on a domestic level.

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