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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, February 28, 2006

Coach Ahmadinejad

Today, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered Iran's national football (soccer) team some expertise, as it gears up for the 2006 World Cup. After kicking around the ball a bit, in a friendly match, Ahmadinejad sat down with the players, who huddled cross-legged around him, listening intently. He told them that they had extraordinary football skills, individually, yet they must each try to mobilize this talent into a more united team effort. Additionally, the president, clad in his black and white athletic gear--cleats and all--centered his advice on running with the ball.

"Instead of increasing your running speed, focus on increasing the speed of the ball. You guys, at most, can cover about 9 meters per second; the ball, however, can be kicked at a speed of 20 meters per second. Therefore, your aim should be to move the ball, rather than your body." (to paraphrase the president).

With that, the players all rose and began to scrimmage across the field with Ahmadinejad, who, despite his age, made for a formidable opponent. All it took was a lightening swift kick that sent the ball flying past the outstretched goalie, barely scraping the side of his hand, straight into a corner shot that skidded in only five centimeters from the rim. It was the type of GOAL that fans would've erupted in wild cheer about.

Later, I found out from my uncle that approximately eight years ago, when Ahmadinejad worked as a civil engineer for Atisaz, a prominent construction firm, he spent his breaks and after-hours playing football in the parking lot with his coworkers, or the kids from surrounding neighborhoods. Furthermore, my cousin, a former student of the president, relayed to me that these football matches extended to university grounds as well, usually after class, when students and professor were free to play.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Quick Note

Hello, everybody!

Lately, I've been moving from place-to-place, whether between cities or family members' homes, making it somewhat difficult for me to haul around my laptop. So, I had this bright idea to record my posts by hand in this lightweight, easy to carry contraption that's full of this white stuff called paper, then put them all up on the Internet later. After this backbreaking experience, I've decided never to do this again. Moreover, after looking over the finished series of posts, I've come to the conclusion that reading a bunch at once may become quite tedious, so I apologize for the sudden deluge of entries.

Also, I have about a gabillion exciting pictures that have been prepared for upload for several months now. Unfortunately, my FTP account isn't working, and Bravenet, my web hosting service, has been ignoring my inquiries. So, until I get that problem fixed, my pictures will continue to rot in my computer. By the way, if anybody knows Dave over at Bravenet, have him send me an e-mail. Thanks.

Speaking of e-mails, thank you all for expressing your thoughts and relaying your concerns regarding my site. I appreciate everybody taking time to write me up a 'lil something, and I want you to know that I intend to write back, eventually, so don't give up me...please!

Anyway, this lengthy note was mainly a way to send out my deepest regrets, in one fell swoop, about what seemed like a huge chunk of vacation from my site.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Super Size Me

I am currently watching the documentary "Super Size Me" on Iranian T.V. It's about a young, athletic man of ideal health who goes on a month-long suicide mission/research project in which he consumes breakfast, lunch, and dinner from McDonald’s for a period of 30 days. I had a friend back in USC who carried out a similar experiment with a local Mexican food stand called Chanos. But I digress.

Anyway, my Iranian family members always find it hard to believe that lots of people in America suffer from obesity. When they saw the occasional shot of a bouncing behind walking down a crowded street, they thought it was joke; surely nobody actually carries 300lbs. of blubber.... Well, the fast food craze hasn't become as regular here as it has in the States, but I'm sure it just needs time.

Already, burger joints have become widespread and plentiful. They are all homegrown businesses, designed to look as cartoony and attractive as their western counterparts (who cannot do business in Iran). The coolest kids chill out at "Boof" or "Bonnie Chow" (it's a Kurdish phrase, not a kanine food brand), and of course, "Star Fried Chicken".

In an attempt to slow the pace towards a health crisis, specifically, overweight youngsters, laws have been put in place to restrict certain types of culinary experimentation, in the name of commercialism. For instance, fast food places in Iran must sell bottled water, along with their fountain drinks, so that customers have a healthier alternative. Furthermore, cups used for soda cannot surpass more than eight ounces, or so. Finally, a recent bill that was passed requires the use of vegetable oil for cooking fast food, rather than animal oil.

Although I doubt Iranian fast food restaurants will ever reach American heights, it seems wise to clamp down on possible recipe manipulation, XXL portions, and other scams introduced in the documentary. If it was up to me, however, I'd eradicate fast food, altogether (except In 'N' Out).

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day

Well, Happy Sappy V-Day. College kids in Tehran are probably giving their friends or significant others lame-o gifts, just to be cool. I heard it’s become trendy to buy your girlfriend or boyfriend Valentine’s Day cards with English written on them; it’s even more fashionable to compose your own personal message in English. And even though both the purchased card and the scrawled greetings may falter in proper sentence construction and grammar, and present an incoherent communication all together, it doesn’t matter because English is cool, and Valentine’s Day is a chic concept.

By the way, I completely forgot it was Valentine’s Day, until my cousin text-messaged me a greeting. He became privy to the holiday because of the giddy atmosphere in some circles of his university. Anyway, Valentine’s Day celebrations among college kids have become more popular as laws between the sexes have become more lax. A few years ago, a law was passed prohibiting officers and Baseejis (volunteer forces) from interrogating the relationship status of girls and boys that hold hands. In Iran, you must be engaged, at the least, to touch unrelated members of the opposite sex, in public. Now, however, it’s quite common to see couples strolling down the street, hand-in-hand, and sometimes even with a whole arm around each other. But you still won’t catch a public kiss, even among married couples, perhaps partly because it’s also considered culturally tacky, in general.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

22 Bahman

Today is the 27th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. From my vantage point in Esfahan, there seems to be far less hoopla than I imagined. There was a massive protest nationwide against the hassling of Iran’s nuclear rights by western countries, which turned out millions of Iranians all over the country. Strangely, BBC reported the rallies as attracting thousands of citizens—this error was promptly pointed out by Iranian news stations, complete with BBC video clips tightly zoomed onto a banner or two, rather than wide shots showing the actual protests, i.e. the focus of the report. It appears that the famous news station intended to reduce the importance or magnitude of the event, which implies dubious deeds; or there’s the other possible conclusion—ineptitude in news coverage.

Friday, February 10, 2006


I just woke up, nobody’s home, and everybody ate the kaleh-pache. Last night, I was up until 6:30a.m. taking turns to help stir a cauldron of samanou. Samanou is a naturally sweet, chestnut-colored, pasty substance that’s full of energy, and takes 24-48 hours to prepare. You start by grinding up fresh wheat sprouts into a pulpy consistency. Then, you take the pulpy mass and squeeze it in the palm of your hand, clump by clump, until all the excess liquid drains out. This is the most arduous part of the process. I missed the steps in between, but came back when the stirring began. Since we have four cauldrons worth of samanou to simmer, several people at a time must stand watch, for an uninterrupted period of 36 hours.

When the stirring comes to an end, the samanou will be spooned out into about 1,000 bowls, and distributed to family, friends, neighbors, and anybody else.

This is the Iranian Muslim tradition of Nazr. Nazr occurs when you ask something of God, and promise to make and distribute some kind of food to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, in return. Families may carry out 3 or more Nazris per year, depending on how many of their wants were fulfilled. In this long weekend alone, we’ve gotten kaleh-pache (sheep head and feet), ghormeh sabzi (a stew with rice), sholeh zard (sweet rice pudding made with rose water and saffron), and more. My cousin’s Nazri consisted of kabob and rice for 1,000 people, the preparation and distribution of which they contracted to an outside kitchen; many people nowadays pay others to do the work if the dish is difficult, or reaching near 1,000 portions or more. My aunt, a do-it-yourself type, slaughtered sheep in her backyard, and received help in properly cleaning, chopping, and packaging them for Nazri giving.

The good thing about Nazr is that the majority of Iranians carry it out multiple times per year. Around major religious holidays, a household can go an entire week without cooking a single meal. On a related note, most here would likely agree that nobody in Iran dies of hunger. Perhaps it’s because of all the religious obligations tied to the impartial giving of food that citizens readily assume.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Ashura, the 10th day of Mahe Moharram, marks the Battle of Karbala, when Emam Hossein, along with the male children, adolescents, and adults of his entourage became martyrs at the hands of Yazid’s evil and irreverent army. (Get the Skinny Right Here). About 72 lives, including that of Emam Hossein’s 6-month-old son, facing an elite force of thousands, were eliminated. Today represents the most intense and widely shared mourning period for Iranian Shi’a, when the most illustrious, laborious, and baroque services take place.

Beneath all the pomp and circumstance put forth by the masses, a scattered minority of Iranians practice an alternative rite, one that is outlawed by Iran’s government, and vehemently disdained by the vast majority of Iranian Shi’a.
Ghame-zani, or Shamshir-zani is a ritual in which males—adults, adolescents, and sometimes boys 9-10 years of age—shed their own blood as sacred testament to the blood spilt by Emam Hossein and his followers, over 1400 years ago, in the Battle of Karbala.

We had to wake up at 4:30 a.m., before the crack of dawn, or morning prayers, to make it to the event on time. Driving straight through red lights, the streets deserted and blanketed in the stillness of night, we had little concern about arriving late. But as we neared Hosseini Bazaar, we noticed cars turning back; police had been stationed all around the vicinity, up to a mile in every direction, blocking all major routes for would-be spectators. After being denied means of access to a few streets, we pummeled through side alleys, instead, parking about two blocks away from the bazaar.

When we approached the bazaar’s surroundings, we saw crowds of people—mostly men—with photography and video equipment to capture the affair. After a public service of morning prayers, the roughly 200 spectators headed for the bazaar.

Prior to the start of the ritual, men stood around in their brilliantly white robes, some smoking cigarettes, others lost in contemplation or grieving for the loss of the Emam. Smoking cigarettes supposedly increases the blood’s viscosity, so that one doesn’t turn into a gushing geyser. A man handed out folded white robes to men just arriving, or to those suddenly swept up in emotion, impulsively deciding to participate in the march. Many brought their own machetes, swords, or other lengthy blades, lustrous and sharp, so as not to create painful slips of wrist.

In Ghame-zani, the sharp edge of the sword is brought down with a quick and precise tap to the center frontal region of the cranium. Since the strike must be delivered with caution, delivered only firmly enough to break the skin, a person familiar with the task carries it out for those who are not.

Some people will agitate the center of the frontal region of their skulls by smacking it a bit prior to the event. The idea is to cause the area to swell, so that the skin breaks easier, and blood flows faster. Others, after receiving their swift tap, will try to rub the laceration aggressively, so that it stimulates more blood flow. There are even a few participants who, with each step, deliver a fierce thwack to the same spot, but with the flat side of the blade, which would result in hemorrhaging.

Overall, the participants themselves appeared to be in meditation, as their bloodied faces remained focused straight ahead, the ruddy quality gradually changing to a pallid glow. Whether old men, college-aged guys, wheelchair bound veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, or even adolescents, the fiery with which they forged ahead was compelling. Even when a man, drenched in his own blood (OK, just thought of a line from “Dodge Ball”—Nobody makes me bleed my own blood.), passes out in mid-step, the procession doesn’t flinch. Instead, without hesitation, the fallen man is promptly picked up by whichever four marchers are nearest, and lugged off to one of the nearest ambulances stationed around.

During the event, it’s obvious the participants do not sense pain from their wound. The area of the head that makes contact with the blade allows for painless bleeding, an adequate amount of blood flow, and quicker healing than other spots, if all is carried out properly. But the recovery time is another story. Those with foresight try to pack mud on their heads after bleeding a bit, in order to close the gash.

Overall, the whole idea of Ghame-zani is to show empathy and compassion for Emam Hossein and his company by bleeding. But the vast majority of Iranians believe this behavior is blasphemous because the Quran wholly forbids self-mutilation.

Furthermore, even though this sacrificial practice is illegal, Iranian authorities try to contain it, rather than immobilize it completely. One way to do this is to block main routes to the event, so that fewer people can attend. Another tactic is to restrict the festivities to a fixed time frame, preferably an unfavorable hour, such as the break of dawn, to limit the influx of spectators. Finally, besides attempting to make the event difficult to attend, thus curbing the potential for a large audience, these measures allow for the state to better protect both the marchers, and the spectators. Ambulances wait on hand to provide immediate healthcare to men who’ve lost too much blood, or to onlookers who suddenly fall ill. Also, containment allows for a certain degree of standards to be applied, so that participants don’t accidentally kill themselves. If authorities decided to halt the whole experience, they might inadvertently push it underground, where anything goes.

Incidentally, the bloody scene lasted about an hour, and as we all shuffled out at around 7a.m., stopped at the free sugar and tea tents, picked up some breakfast packs (religious holidays bring plenty of edible freebies), and piled into the electric lime BMW, circa 1975, of my cousin’s friend, my buddy Leila and I chatted about the whole experience. Then, Leila noticed a drop of blood under her pinky nail. Immediately after, I found a speck splattered onto the inner thigh of my jeans, an area hidden beneath my coat. Just so it's clear, despite the virtual bloodbath we had just witnessed, it wasn’t until the discovery of someone else’s blood on me that I began to feel grossed out.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Various parts of Iran may often attract tourists because of the unique way in which the locals celebrate nationwide events. For Tahsu’a, the ninth day of Mahe Moharram, we traveled from Esfahan to Abianeh, a district situated about an hour out of Natanz. The mourning festivities there revealed many of the symbols I had seen elsewhere, such as massive, ornately decorated standards settled heavily onto a single man’s shoulders; parades of men openly wailing, while others watched; huge tents set up to serve people tea and cake; and much more.

But Abianeh celebrations had meshed local characteristics as well. For instance, the dress code of men and women here differed greatly from that in Esfahan. Women in Abianeh donned bright, flower-printed skirts and dresses that hovered just below the knees; their oversized head scarves, sometimes splashed with a gold and cherry plaid pattern, framed freshly beautified faces. The men, fully clad in black, sported wide-legged pants that were reminiscent both of the garb featured in martial arts films as well as those mega expansive jeans that were so popular among the Skaw kids sometime back.

Another distinguishing factor was the colossal sarcophagus representing the tomb of Emam Hossein that required the might of at least 20 men to haul it through Abianeh’s winding streets. Finally, the entire district, which is comprised of rustic surroundings and multi-storied, reddish-brown mud-brick homes flanking narrow cobblestone paths, was festooned with multihued banners, lights, images, and more. Also, I witnessed about three sheep slaughtered in front of private homes, which will later be cleaned and prepared for public distribution.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mahe Moharram

Mahe Moharram, the first month of the Muslim/Hijra calendar, is one of four months in the lunar cycle where bloodshed, belligerence, or any kind of act that inflicts physical injury or harm to another, without consent, is religiously prohibited. Those who violate this tenet in the Koran must pay double the penalty for their disregard.
During this period, Sunni Muslims celebrate with jovial feasts and high-spirited revelry; after all, it represents the start of a new year. But for Shi’a (Shiite) Muslims, observance of Mahe Moharram sustains a far more dismal mood, as countless mourning ceremonies help to preserve a sweeping sense of grief-stricken melancholy. For within this month, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, along with about 72 pious fellow Muslims, sacrificed their lives to protect Islam’s sanctity in the face of corruption. In remembrance of the ultimate activist, who fought the archetypal battle of good versus evil, Imam Hossein (Hussein) will always be revered as the “lord among martyrs”.

Although the entire month compels an atmosphere of solemnity, the first 10 days hold particular importance to Iranians, and other Shi’a. From the outskirts of Kufe (Kufa) to Karbala (Kerbela), Imam Hossein and his entourage suffered 10 days of devastating trials and tribulations—marked with bloodiness, betrayal, and dehydration—before the men, children, and the Imam’s infant were brutally slain at the hands of the gluttonous tyrant, Yazid.

Click Here for the Riveting Tale

For the past eight days of Mahe Moharram, I’ve witnessed lively, animated scenes in both Tehran and Esfahan—mourning ceremonies steeped in a flurry of vibrant colors and emblematic props; winding processions of trumpeters, drummers, and standard bearers; men of all ages dressed in black garb, fervently pounding their chests, slamming chains across their backs, and chanting “Yah! Hossein!” or “Yah! Abol Fazl!”; flamboyant costumes and curbside tented theaters retelling the epic account of the Battle of Karbala, the courage of Imam Hossein, the loyalty of his half-brother Abbas (or Abol Fazl), and the overriding theme of losing the battle, but winning the campaign; and, above all, the echoing from loudspeakers of the song written expressly for the Imam, and sang in a tear-choked voice reminiscent of the smooth wail of setar.

Today, in Esfahan, I was able to bear witness to the well-known caravan that embarks on a four-hour trip through the city’s main streets, conveying the details of the Battle of Karbala through an elaborately staged set of image and sound. Hopefully, the pictures in this post have helped to show how popular this ceremony is. The audience ranged in age, and stood hanging off of trees, lampposts, empty surrounding buildings, and anywhere else that offered the slightest view of the parade. I’m sure at least a couple thousand Esfahani citizens packed this bend of a street, illustrating the continuous public support for such ceremonies.

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