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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.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

I Saw Santa Claus

Today, as I strolled up Vali-e-Asr Street towards Tajreesh Square to catch a taxi home, I passed by the usual gas station, banks, fastfood hangouts, and boutiques...and then I saw him, Santi Claus, a bright bundle of Christmas spirit hunched over in his chair behind the display window of an upscale Iranian men's clothing shop. His jolly fire-engine red, authentic velvet coat and pants, oversized and trimmed with ivory fluff, and held in place with a massive charcoal belt and chunky gold buckle made for a convincingly merry image. But under the floppy hat and disingenuous coffee-stained locks, and behind the snow frosted beard and thinly rimmed glasses, was the expression of a desperate Iranian man. He appeared to be in his 20s, bored to tears, unamused by the silent animated attempts of overly eager passersby to communicate from the other side, and seemingly exhausted, even though the entire month of December has bustled by with nary a glimpse of Old Saint Nick.

Why, then, would this boutique suddenly feature this half-baked impressionist, whose Christmas cheer was clearly crumpled up and tossed out with the rest of the used wrapping paper? Why, when many other stores planted a brilliantly decorated Christmas tree (which Agha Havayi alluded to as originally belonging to Zoroastrians--I just learned that--and picked up by Europeans long ago) in their windows for the past 30+ days, did this men's boutique miss the boat?

Perhaps because this shop hasn't a clue what role Santa plays in the highly publicized spectical known as the holiday season. Santa, like the Christmas tree, was likely associated with the West, and by extension, the foreigner, which may imply consumerism, and finally, translate to humongous sales for said shop. I'm fairly certain commerce is the goal of these props. Overall, the Christian community in Iran is quite religious, and based on what I've witnessed, not big on the whole Christmas-goes-commercial ordeal.

It's interesting how younger, usually college-aged Iranians will exchange gifts with their significant others, in what one university student dismissed as a lame attempt to imitate traditions of the West.

Usually, I'm all about "When in Rome..," but since a bunch of my friends at school are quite religious Christians (many of them spend their leisure time cuddled up on the sofa reading the Bible), I did a little gift-exchange doo-dad, hence breaking away from my "...do as the Romans do," mentality. But since I couldn't find the appropriate seasonal giftwrap, I settled for a shiny, metallic red and silver cellophane that hinted at Christmas, but had scrawled across, "May God Bless Your Marriage." By the way, I want to extend these warm wishes to all of you, too.

Besides spotting Santa Claus (known in Farsi as Baba [Father] Noelle), another unusual occurrence took place. Throughout the day, I found myself trapped in the same conversation, but with different friends, at different times. Here's how it went:
Friend: So, what are you doing tonight?
Me: Uh...nothing. What are you doing?
Friend: Nothing.

On that note, Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Night of Yalda

Last night was Shab e Yalda, the longest and darkest night of the year, also known as Winter Solstice. Iranians spent the last two days preparing for festivities--yesterday, the streets were packed with people either leaving early from work, shopping for the night's traditional foods, or on their way to a party.

This ancient holiday dates back to Zoroastrian times, and is celebrated through rejoicing with family and friends. Every Yalda party will likely have plenty of watermelon and pomegranate in stock, with the latter symbolizing liveliness and joy, and the former is thought to keep people healthy during the winter season.

When I got home last night, I heard our neighbors' music and clapping continue on until at least 2:30 a.m. That has got to be the latest partying I've ever encountered in Iran.

Iran Daily (Dec. 21) reports that Yalda represents the birth of the Zoroastrian goddess Mitra as well as of Jesus Christ:
...the Europeans used to celebrate Yalda, but, after Christianity replaced Mehr customs, Christian leaders found out that it was impossible to ignore Mehr as its memory lived on among the people. So they decided to replace the celebration of birthday of Mehr (sun) by celebrating the brith of Jesus Christ (PBUH) on December 25. There is a slight gap between Yalda festivity and Christ's birthday owning to miscalculation in the calendar. In fact the birthday of Jesus Christ (PBUH) is on the same day as followers of Mehr customs celebrate Yalda festivity....

According to Iranian mythology, Yalda festivity is the culmination of conflict between light and dark (Ahura and Ahriman). Ahriman enjoys the longest night and the darkness of the night in the conflict, but, the light came out victorious in the struggle and the Sun was born. After the birth of the Sun, the day (light) gradually became longer from the minimum at the time of the conflict.

The article went on to show the universality of the theme light vs. darkness, as it traverses both Christian and Islamic cultures.

Happy Yalda, and the real Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Villa Street

Yesterday, my friends and I took a couple of taxis down to Villa Street, the one-stop shop for souvenirs. We were on the prowl for a special gift, one that was distinctly Iranian as well as fashionable. One of our friends, a 100% Italian girl with a Bachelor's degree in Farsi, was leaving Iran for good. We had a day to find the perfect memento, before attending her goodbye dinner that evening.

The first prospective vendor greeted us with heavy bronze metal doors shaped like an entrance to a castle, and arched windows splashed with a colorful array of Oriental-ish themes (ones that come to mind when you think of the Middle East). To top it off, the outer walls were designed to resemble mud brick buildings, giving the boutique an rustic and ancient feel. Crammed inside were piles of vibrantly hued handmade rugs with geometric patterns; walls decked with paintings of traditional people and scenes; and a glass counter stretching across the rear displaying hand-crafted gold and silver jewelry complemented by black pearls, turquoise, and different shades of agate.

We decided jewelry was the best type of gift for our friend because we figured she probably wouldn't have much room left in her suitcase for large or heavy items. Although the selection was admirable, we thought it better to look at some other places on Villa Street, before making up our minds.

The next boutique was enclosed by a glass window outlined by sparkly gold images of soldiers from the Persian Empire. Inside were intricately painted metal plates, boxes and frames adorned in the traditional Khatam design (the most common geometric pattern applied to ornamental gifts), and a plethora of other artistic delights. There were also Opium and Cannabis-scented incense sticks from India for sale.

We visited several of these shops that were elegantly decorated and fully stocked with carefully dusted, shiny, overpriced souvenirs. Every single store was set up to entice a particular type of consumer--the foreigner. Not only did the fancy schmancy doors reveal this, but so did the fancy schmancy prices.

Living in Tehran has awakened the Esfahani half of me. People from Esfahan are reputed to be frugal spenders, and shrewd at anything related to commerce and trade. In my case, I'm not particularly fond of being ripped off, and all the shops lining Villa Street were clearly in the business of bamboozling foreigners. Luckily, I'm a bit familiar with the rates of many of these goods because of my experience with Esfahan's bazaars (the hotbed for souvenir items). But many foreigners (and even Iranians who haven't been to Esfahan) don't realize when they're paying two to 10 times more than the normal retail price. During our trip down Villa Street, I found that jewelry made with turquoise cost around 2500 tomans/gram; yet only 20 minutes away, in Tehran's Grand Bazaar, the base was at 900 per gram.

Tehran's Grand Bazaar, like every bazaar, resembles a mangled web of alleyways and compartments with merchants selling every necessity imaginable. There's the rug quarters, the fabric district, the nuts and fruits section, and the jewelry hub, among others.

Since my two friends stuck out like sore thumbs--one a New Zealander, the other, an Oregonian of 1/2 Iranian, 1/2 American descent--haggling would be a bit more difficult. Bazaar merchants will usually inflate their rates for everyone, especially foreigners, but are simultaneously always open to aggressive bargaining.

As a test, Leila (the 1/2 Iranian), in broken Farsi, asked the price of a cigarette case made of silver, and bearing a vivid mosaic design. The vendor replied, "400 tomans", meaning 400,000 tomans. So, if 900 tomans equal one dollar, then we're talking $400+ for a measley case! After a couple of hours meandering through the maze of shops, we returned to the same stand. This time, the vendor was different, and I had asked Leila and Greg to linger behind, somewhere in the crowd, so I wouldn't look like a host to foreigners ripe for ripping off.

In this round, sans foreigners, the same cigarette case was quoted at 270 tomans (270,000). I'm betting that if my uncle, an Esfahani working in Tehran, had played the role of the prospective buyer, the case would've cost as low as 80,000 tomans--before any bargaining attempts.

Anyway, we found the gift we were looking for at another jewelry shop within the bazaar. Fortunately, Greg and Leila kept a low profile, as I dealt with the merchant, allowing us to snag this chic necklace and earrings set made with silver and Nashabouri turquoise:

Sunday, December 18, 2005

President Drag Queen?

Currently, I'm reading Iran Erupts: Independence, News and Analysis of the Iranian National Movement [Iran-America Documentation Group: Dec. 1978], a compilation of various articles written by famous Iranian experts as well as exclusive interviews with Ayatollah Khomeini, all produced during the period leading up to the revolution. I found this jewel, while rummaging through my mom's old college books back in the States. It's interesting how views from 27 years ago can be strikingly different, today.

For instance, the works in this read champion the Islamic Revolution, with the editor, Ali Reza Nobari, stating in the acknowledgements:
We felt it our duty to try to demystify the treatment of the anti-Shah movement in the Western media, which claimed the upheaval was the work of a band of "religious extremists" opposed to the "modernization drive" of the Shah, who appears in most accounts as a "well intentioned" monarch who wanted to go "too far, too fast." We hope this collection will bear witness to the contrary.

And in the preface, he writes:
The intent of this collection is to help explain the economic, political, social and cultural roots of the Iranian revolutionary movement. The long stifled anger of a nation crushed for centuries by foreign invaders and internal tyranny has finally burst into the open. The shouts of Allah-o-Akbar, God is Great, which have echoed in the streets for over a year now, have crumbled the palaces of the pitiless tyrants who presumed to act as earthly gods. The sheer strength of human will revealed by the clashes of barehands with machine guns and tanks have been grounded in a new found faith in the unity fo the Iranian people. The walls of fear--fear of the police, of prison and torture, of neighbors, parents and friends--have disintegrated. Iranians have rid themselves of the SAVAK informer mentality, the psychological legacy of decades of violent and arbitrary rule....
(Does the name "Nobari" sound familiar to any of you Iranian-Americans out there??)

A man, in his mid-40s, who was a teenager during the movement to overthrow the Shah, and went on to fight in the Iran-Iraq War, saw me reading this book, and asked me who some of the authors of the articles were. When I mentioned Abol-Hassan Banisadr, I got the most fascinating bio.

Apparently, Mr. Banisadr was the first elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A doctor of economics, and former professor at a French university, he sailed into Iran during the height of the revolution, at Khomeini's side. Since the Ayatollah had explicitly rejected the idea of a holy man as president, he supported Banisadr's ambitions to take the position. Since the economics expert was well-spoken, smart, and charismatic, the people voted him into office. But all was not peachy, especially on that fateful day when Iraq sent 100 planes into Iran to shower the country with bombs. The next day, Ayatollah Khomeini returned the gesture with 170 planes, all of which came back. That night, the war began.

As the story goes, Imam Khomeini had wanted to give Banisadr the full authority to act as Commander in Chief, to lead Iran in its national defense. However, Khomeini began to realize Banisadr threatened Iran's security because of his failure to meet force with force. Khomeini, and Iranians alike, were becoming impatient with Banisadr's attempts to forge diplomatic responses to Iraq's invasion--words, instead of guns. In the meantime, the enemy was quickly advancing.

Ayatollah Khomeini saw Abol-Hassan Banisadr as an intellectual trying to fight a war against Saddam Hussein, an uneducated gangster; the supreme leader believed that Iraq, by coming in with force, would only leave with force, because that's the only language it could understand. Furthermore, the majlis, at the time, wanted to impeach Banisadr because of his inability to order force against an invader. As a result, Khomeini never gave Banisadr the authority to conduct Iran's role in the war.

When the president caught wind of his unpopularity among the majlis, supreme leader, and a growing majority of Iranians, he fled the country a day before his impeachment was scheduled.

Here's the kicker: Abol-Hassan Banisadr snuck out of Iran, undetected, because of a brilliant disguise--he dressed up in women's clothes, threaded his face, plucked his eyebrows, and painted his eyes and lips with makeup, posing as a female Iranian journalist.... What a way to go!

Also, he escaped to France with his buddy, Massoud Rajavi, who was the head of Mujahideen e Khalq (MKO), an organization that still remains on Iran, UK, and America's list of terrorists. MKO was to Iran what the Soviets were to the U.S. Moreover, Banisadr marries off his daughter to his country's greatest enemy, but is humiliated further when Rajavi divorces his daughter, in order to marry the head of MKO's women's division--a political union, at best.

The ignominy!

Meanwhile, Dr. Banisadr, Abol-Hassan's brother, is a highly respected cardiologist in Iran who maintains no discernable affection for his runaway sibling.

True story, one which came to me by accident, all because I happened to be reading an old book. This is exactly what I like about Iran. I may never have learned about President Drag Queen and his terrorist son-in-law without getting the untold tale from the mouth of someone who watched the whole drama unfold.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Spies, all Spies

My friend and I think our school is brimming with spies. After all, don't spies usually pose as students, journalists, employees of an international NGO or business? Of course, we are making this assumption based on information we've gathered from various students. It's all speculative, but the whole premise is quite entertaining for us.

First off, we've got people ranging from their mid-to-late 20s, up to their 50s. They come for a variety of reasons--business, university, diplomatic engagements, to learn Farsi, development efforts, and more. Students from S. Korea, Vietnam, China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, U.S., U.K., Brazil, Spain, Italy, France, Amsterdam, Poland, Germany, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukbekistan, India, and many more countries attend Farsi lessons here.

There's that group of kids, one of which says he's an anthropologist, who're in Iran on a grant from their government--they all happen to speak Farsi quite well, and are enrolled in the advanced/literature courses; then there's that older mysterious man dressed in a suit everyday, and always carrying a suitcase, who speaks all the critical languages--English, French, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi--enrolled in the institute's art and literature courses; and what about that trio of men, all with families back home, who first claimed they were here to learn Farsi for the purpose of working in their country's embassy, but now insist they came mainly out of appreciation for the language and the historical sites of Iran? These guys also happen to hold high military ranks, which they accidentally told me during a class discussion.

And finally, there are those two men attempting to learn Farsi, after returning from missions sponsored by their government's sports ministry to help form soccer teams in the Farsi-speaking states of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Yea, I'm sure that's what Afghanistan and Tajikistan really need right now, soccer. Why are these soccer players here learning Farsi? Because they plan to head over to Bam (site of the massive earthquake two years ago) to aid in the reconstruction efforts. Well, they may not be able to do this, considering an Iranian official announced this week that the international NGOs stationed in Bam have been found to be engaged in missionary activities and espionage, rather than in reconstruction efforts, and will be kicked out, accordingly.

Of course, it's to be expected that spies from all over the world would be here trying to gather intelligence. But as my teacher said, "The Ministry of Intelligence is so strong, that if a foreigner takes a sip of water, they'll know about it." I think spies in Iran would be ineffective, anyway, because it's perplexing enough to get information for Iranians themselves, let alone foreigners. Bureaucracy owns about 70% of the economy, so inefficiency is a major issue, hence the difficulty of getting answers to your questions.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A few days ago, 108 people died in a plane crash near Tehran's Mehrabad Airport. 68 of the 97 passengers aboard were journalists and news crew members from various newspapers and broadcasting services. The news team was en route to Bandar Abbas to cover a series of military exercises, according to reports. As their colleagues reported the deaths on the nightly news, they could barely choke back tears; nor could they contain their bitterness as they questioned the 2nd-in-command leader of the Iranian army on the military C-130 aircraft that has crashed several times before due to a specific malfunction. These planes were bought from the U.S. decades ago, prior to the Islamic Revolution. Sanctions have made it impossible for Iran to purchase the parts needed to fix the planes' major gliche: the tendency for the motor to shut off, in flight.

The crash took place after the pilot had attempted to slowly land the plane at the center of four 10-story apartment buildings; perhaps his goal was to avoid as much collateral damage as possible. While his landing attempt proved successful, the wing of the craft had hit the first floor of one of the buildings, causing the plane to explode, and send a rapidly spreading fire up to the 9th level.

Only moments after this story was reported in the evening newscast, it was announced that the next two days (Wednesday and Thursday) were officially declared holidays for all schools and universities as well as private and public offices. The reason? Because "air remains in pollution alert status." Undoubtedly, the fire caused by the crash heightened this problem.

In Iran, people go to school or work six days a week (Saturday through Thursday). So, while children and elderly enjoyed three days off from the work week, the rest of us took the last two days off. All because of dirty air.

What's worse, Wednesday was College Student Day, which typically is a prime time for scheduling protests. Tehran University had planned to use the day to show their opposition for President Ahmadinejad's recent appointment of an akhond (prayer leader) as the university's chancellor. Apparently, a religious leader--one who holds a PhD--as head of a university is unheard of among many (young & old); I'm not sure about the exact conflict of interest presented by this appointment, but it does represent a break from tradition. Usually, professors are given the opportunity to vote for whom they want to serve as their university's leader; after determining the winner, the nominee is referred to the Minister of Education, who typically acts in accordance with the faculty's top choice candidate. This time, however, the minister announced TU's new chancellor after a direct order from Ahmadinejad, snubbing the customary elections, entirely.

So, the recent days have been struck by a series of unfortunate events. Smoke-filled skies, tons of deaths, derailed protests, and too many days off. Today, massive amounts of Iranians poured into the streets to mourn the victims of the plane crash. To keep with the somber mood, my favorite comedy show, "Barareh Nights", has not aired since Tuesday night, and will likely stay out of the limelight for another couple of days, along with any other funny programs.

Just so it's clear, the pollution is at such high levels, that you can see the air take on a grayish-yellow tint. I went to a trade fair today expecting to spend the afternoon browsing the various demonstrations, but had to leave after only two hours because suddenly my blood pressure dropped, my breathing became shorter and more rapid, my head experienced sharp pains and dizziness, my face turned a sickly whitish-yellow hue, and my entire body was drenched by a flashflood of sweat. Later, my uncle and I agreed that it was probably the polluted weather that caused this unexplainable and sudden reaction. I denied this at first because I hadn't smelled any smog, but then again, I'd never been through an episode like that before. As a result of this invisible threat, I'm seriously considering purchasing a gas mask--the kind that resemble the faces of houseflies, and are typically used to protect soldiers from chemical warfare.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Bright Side :0)

I’ve heard of schools shutting down due to blizzards, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena, but before today, I hadn’t considered air pollution as a reason to take the day off.

On those fateful days when the pollution is considered particularly hazardous to Iranians’ wellbeing, the health advisory sends out notice to children, the elderly, and people with heart or respiratory problems to stay home. Kids, for instance, get the next two days off from school because of the high alert pollution levels. In the U.S., it’d be like getting Thursday and Friday off. Lucky kids.

During the fall season, as the weather changes and winds die down a bit, the canopy of smog hovering over the metropolitan capital of Tehran begins to thicken and settle closer to the ground. The sharply pungent fumes of exhaust and second-hand cigarette smoke plague—and probably paralyze—the olfactory nerves; the mélange of toxic chemicals travel straight up to the brain, producing a dizzying effect that borders on nausea, often resulting in an unwarranted state of lethargy that sticks with you for the rest of the day. Then there’s that blackened ring of soot that trims the collar of your crisp, freshly washed white t-shirt that serves as a cut-off point for the subtle film of grime settling on your face and neck throughout the day; that same translucent layer of gunk that blackens the inside of your nails when you scratch your skin.

It is at this time, during which there are few winds to move the pollution around—at least to circulate the air—and no snow or rain to absorb these chemical clouds, that Iranians may begin to don the bright white surgical masks that people made popular in Hong Kong and China during the SARS outbreak.

SARS masks, apparently, provide some with an effective filter through which to breathe. However, I’m sure even these medically sanctioned guards don’t protect from the most harmful chemicals in the air, the ones we cannot detect.

One way I’ve dealt with the toxic air is by stuffing my face into my headscarf; but this rarely works because the garment usually smells ten times worse, catching all the muck that would otherwise have soaked into my hair. I’ve also tried breathing differently, which takes a lot of focus and mind-over-matter-type motivation because of the fewer and shorter breaths I force my body to live off of. Still, I may be moving towards the SARS mask soon enough.

The papers blame the problem on the capital city’s overcrowded streets. On a daily basis, 3.5 million vehicles traverse Tehran, which is way over the designated—but not enforced—limited capacity of 1 million cars. As a result of this excess, there is a lot more concentrated emission of poisonous gases in the city.

Fortunately, if you can function as your normally breathing self in Tehran’s polluted streets, without the waves of occasional, smoke-induced nausea washing over you and depleting you of energy needed for the most productive part of your day, then you’ll probably survive a carbon monoxide poisoning attempt on your life. Call this “the bright side.”

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