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

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Chahar Shanbeh Soori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Les Justes" = Le Mockery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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