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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.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mellow Yellow

Iranians say saffron makes you laugh...that's probably because it acts as a potent drug, from which one can overdose and die, if too much is consumed. Saffron is one of Iran's top non-oil exports, next to pistachios, rugs, and caviar. The spice is considered the most precious in the world, rich not only in color and flavor, but also in price.

Each saffron flower contains three stigmas that are handpicked; imagine how labor-intensive this process can be. From March 2004-05, saffron farmers exported 172 tons of these dark burgundy saffron threads, bringing in about $94.9 million. Despite Iran contributing to 80% of global production, Spain dominates the saffron market. The European country only produces 12% of world supply, yet it holds the title for one of largest exporters of the spice. It's more appropriate, however, to refer to Spain as the largest re-exporter of saffron, considering it imports nearly half of Iran's total output, then repackages the spice under its own brand names and sells it to the world.

The biggest losers in the game are saffron farmers, with 600,000 quitting the trade and moving to more urbanized settings in search of work. Saffron profits continue to dwindle, as producers try to compete with re-exporters, minimal state assistance, outdated technology, surplus in supply, higher production costs, and other environmental factors. Inadequate packaging and weak international marketing have also served as obstacles to promoting Iranian saffron in the global arena.

The agricultural sector has plenty of potential in Iran, but it has often been neglected, in terms of production capacity and diversification. Many Iranians blame the government for paying insufficient attention to cost-cutting measures, such as new technology and expertise, while simultaneously trying to promote exports of non-oil goods.

Monday, January 23, 2006

American University of Hawaii, Exposed

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Public Affairs declared that Iran would not recognize any degrees obtained from the American University of Hawaii. This self-purported "global university" has been granting fake academic credentials to Iranians wishing to enter the private and public sectors, without having to actually go to school and earn the necessary qualifications.

The scandal has been going on for about seven years, now, with officials turning a blind eye. This is probably because a significant number (which hasn't yet been specified) of public servants have purchased these undergraduate, graduate, and/or post-graduate titles in order to satisfy the higher education minimum requirement for their positions. People from lower government positions all the way up to the status of deputy ministers have ordered the forged scholarly records. All they had to do was pay about $10,000 to the American University of Hawaii, pick a major, and wait with gleeful anticipation for their graduation ceremony--err, I mean, for their "diploma" to come in the mail.

Of course, these crackerjack degrees were also bought by spoiled rich kids who cannot cut it in any university course, but want to flaunt an education from "abroad". They also needed that appearance of credibility to be able to work in their father's mega construction firm; nepotism disguised as internationally seasoned civil engineer graduate.

Check out the "university's" Iranian office; if this website serves as any indication of the organization's reach and performance, then we can gather that this charade was a complex, tightly structured entity that operated with the efficiency and effectiveness of a multinational corporation. These people are pros!

And the language surrounding AUH's objectives and philosophy are romanticized to what some of us raised in various cultures would scoff at, while pointing out the melodramatic appeal to pity. Here's a sample I couldn't resist:
At this University we have no students; we are here to help learners, regardless of age, origin, color, belief, or creed, achieve a life-long goal toward self-reliance and for serving humanity at large. We have no Main Campus with parklands, marble halls, security guards, playing fields or football and hockey teams with a group of coaches that cost the students millions of dollars a year. The American University of Hawaii’s parklands are the rainforests of the world that have to be preserved from ignorant and greedy destruction. Our playing fields are the back streets of cosmopolitan slums, where we try to replace the syringes of death drugs with life-giving microscopes. Our security guards are our mentors, who bring years of education and experience at a meager charge to help the next generation of guardians of human moral and cultural values in the villages of Africa, Asia and South America.

(Cue tears and violin).

The Ahmadinejad administration has declared this institution of degree peddling illegal, cutting off its successful seven-year stint as a pseudo-scholarly organization. This is another example of the president's continuous efforts to weed out corruption and undue advantage within the government, piece by piece. In relation, the state of Hawaii has pursued its own legal action against smooth criminal Hassan Safavi, the leader of this scam (and an Iranian from the U.S.).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I'm Cold.

Born and raised in southern California, I've never had to face snow. In fact, before Iran, I hadn't ever witnessed real snowflakes falling from the sky. Likewise, my wardrobe never included overly chunky winter coats, impenetrable gloves, and sheepskin boots with deeply grooved soles. And now, I'm paying for this lack of preparedness.

Anyway, Tehran looks so clean and cheerful in the wintertime. Below are a few pictures taken within the past week.

The lengthy, slippery, muscle-aching trek down my street every morning:

Our neighbor's frozen pool:

Vali-e-Asr, the longest street in Tehran, and in my opinion, the busiest. The view is from the steps of my school; the snow started pouring down, suddenly, during class...I, for one, was not in the mood:

Monday, January 16, 2006

CNN Kicked Out of Iran

The Cable News Network has been banned from Iran after being accused of violating the 'professional ethics' of journalism. A CNN journalist mistranslated President Ahmadinejad's words in his recent public address; rather than quoting the leader as saying, "Every country has the right to peaceful nuclear technology," the translator conveyed the message as, "Every country has the right to nuclear weapons." Now, anybody skilled in Farsi, as I imagine a professional Iranian translator would be, could not easily confuse "weapons" with "peaceful technology" because the Farsi counterparts of these terms sound nothing alike. Also, Ahmadinejad frequently stressed that in this day and age, no country should be seeking nuclear weapons, and no rich civilization, such as Iran, would condone such an act.

So, the real question is, did this reporter purposely botch the truth, in order to manipulate public perception of the issue? Or was it really just a careless mistake, on an extremely sensitive matter? And why was the speech translated separately by CNN's people, despite C-Span airing a copy of the original taping, which contained the corresponding English translation that was presented simultaneously to the non-Farsi-speaking attendees, during the press conference?

Either way, CNN offered a formal apology, today, which Iran has accepted. However, the country will continue to enforce the ban, until the agency can show, through future reports on Iran, that it remains committed to journalistic integrity.

UPDATE: President Ahmadinejad removed the ban on Tuesday (a day after I wrote this) because of CNN's public apology and correction of the error.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ahmadinejad's Questions

This evening, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the public via a press conference covering a range of topics, from the price of fruit to Iran's nuclear developments. Both foreign and domestic reporters were given the opportunity to ask him questions on anything that tickled their fancies. The President answered each inquiry directly, patiently, and completely--truthfully, it was much different than the political speak I've become accustomed to back in the U.S.

One journalist brought up the topic of Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust. Now, as a side note, I hadn't posted about this event because it was difficult to distinguish fact from fiction amidst the media frenzy in the west. I also thought it irrational that a man who holds a PhD in civil engineering, and whose wife is a doctor of sociology, would actually claim the Holocaust was a hoax. From my vantage point, the myth was in the accusations made by some western media sources.

Anyway, below is a paraphrased version of how the President responded:

What has become overblown and inaccurately reported in the international media is mere rhetoric. I had posed two questions to the international arena. The first one wondered where the history of these migrants, or Israelis, can be found? Where did their forefathers come from, and what gives these migrants the authority to make decisions regarding the nation of Palestine? Why don't Palestinians, who have thousands of years of history on their land, and who are comprised of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, have any decision-making power at all?

The second question addresses the Holocaust. If those who perpetrated the murder of Jews are European, then why are Palestinians paying the consequences? Why are they now being killed, their houses mowed down, their public spaces burned to a crisp; why are Palestinians being denied the right to make decisions regarding their land? And if those perpetrators believe they did not murder the Jews, then why have they forced them all out of their countries, and into the small region of Palestine? Why do they not allow these Jews, whose roots are not in Palestine, but in various European countries, to go back to their homes? And why would they continue to propagate the Holocaust if they do not believe they are guilty of this atrocious event? Why would they silent their own scholars that hold any views contrary to those propagated?

I have posed these two questions to the Europeans, to the West, and have still received no response. Instead, my words have been twisted and made complex, in order to disseminate their own message, the same repetitive rhetoric that is being used for political gain. If there is discussion to be made on why Palestinians must carry the burden of Europeans' actions, then it should be initiated. It should not be silenced, it should not be full of rhetoric, it should not involve shutting down the different voices and opinions of a country's scholars....

President Ahmadinejad's entire speech was full of insight, and reiterated the need to debate and discuss the issue of Palestine and Israel. Hopefully, his next public address, which is scheduled within the next few days, will be just as informative, eloquent, and straightforward.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Sugar, Spice, & Everything Nice

A couple of nights ago, my friends and I visited a sofre khaneh (the name for a traditional Iranian cafe) on Tajreesh. It was an old mansion that had been converted into a dimly lit, rustic-styled lounge that served as a hangout for a mainly young, hip crowd. The interior gave the impression of a mudbrick dwelling, with pregnant lanterns vividly splashed with teal, cherry, goldenrod and electric blue hanging from arched door frames and ceilings; thick wooden tables and benches lined the walls, while in the corners were takhtes--wide, raised wooden planks draped in Persian rugs and adorned with heavy pillows that provide seating for an entire family. Takhtes make up the customary dining furniture at sofre khanehs and chai khanehs (tea houses).

Before we ordered our ghalyoon (the Iranian name for the hookah), I spotted a sign on the wall that read, "Attention: Women and youth under 18 are strictly forbidden to smoke." Meaning, neither women, nor minors, were allowed to smoke. Apparently, this law was only enacted this summer. I wondered why women would be restricted from smoking the ghalyoon, when outside, in public, they can be seen waving around their stinky cigarettes. My American friend, Leila, took a stab at an explanation and exclaimed, "Haven't you ever gotten high off hookah?" Um, no. But I can see how the possibility of women getting light-headed after a few deep inhalations, and starting to behave flirtatiously and out-of-control, could be a reason to ban them from smoking, altogether. No, just kidding. I still don't know why women, grouped with kids under 18, cannot smoke hookah.

Of course, young men and women were all smoking ghalyoon in the cafe, in spite of the notice, chatting and laughing, watching movies on their phones, and whispering sweet nothings to their dates. In other words, patrons did what they wanted, paying no attention to the signs. It became obvious that this notice was posted as a mere formality, a rule not meant to be enforced.

So, Leila and I, the only girls at our table, went ahead and smoked up a coconut-flavored storm. It was fun.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ahmadinejad's Assets

Here's what President Ahmadinejad is worth:
  • A 40-year-old house of 127 sq.m. situated on a 175 sq.m. lot in Tehran's Narmak area
  • A current bank account containing his salary as a university professor
  • An empty bank account for the time he served as governor general of Ardebil
  • A 1977 Peugeot-504 automobile
  • Two fixed telephone lines

According to Iran's constitution, all members of the executive cabinet must prior to, and after, their tenure submit a detailed list of all assets to the judiciary. This process serves to ensure the legitimacy of assets accumulated throughout the terms of elected and appointed officials.

However, President Ahmadinejad, in an unprecedented move, has turned over his list to both the media and the judiciary, in hopes of promoting economic transparency among government officials. Furthermore, the Majlis (parliament) is considering approving a bill that will oblige all authorities to follow suit.

One of Ahmadinejad's campaign promises was to confront economic corruption. Not long ago, the president had announced on IRIB that he possessed a list of government officials who have engaged in embezzlement of public funds. Before these names could be revealed, the head of Iran's judiciary denied any such list existed. Shortly thereafter, while Ahmadinejad was on a trip to the Sistan-Baluchistan province to examine the problems of this oft-neglected region, an assassination attempt was made on his life. A driver and a bodyguard were killed.

Despite news reports attributing the murders to general insecurity in the region, some speculation exists among Iranians that the incident may have been premeditated; perhaps an effort by the undisclosed embezzlers to keep the president's nose out of their affairs.

In today's Iran Daily, Government Spokesman Gholamhossein Elham is quoted as saying, "Judicial officials are dutybound to announce this list and this has nothing to do with executive officials."

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