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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.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

25-Day Briefing (Part 2)

Today, Muslims all over the world engage in spirited festivity to commemorate the birth of their prophet, Hazrat-e Mohammad. It's also the birth anniversary of Emam Jafar Al-Sadeq, an added bonus for Shi'a Muslims. So, in observance of this joyous occasion, most Iranians are afforded a holiday, on this second day of the work week.

It's also National "Vahdat" (Unity) Week, in which the sameness of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims is emphasized. Iranians come in a variety of ethnicities and religions, but prior to the revolution, Sunnis were often used as the butt of jokes, in miscellaneous television programs. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, had always tried to shift focus away from lines drawn between Shi'a and Sunnis, encouraging Muslims to recognize the solidarity of their 'Muslim-ness'. Much of the television programs and official ceremonies this week have featured cultural performances or practices from Kurdish and Arabic Iranians, who are predominantly Sunni.

How does all this tie in to the 25-day Briefing (Part 2), the sequel to Part 1?

Well, during my 25-day break, it dawned on me that for the nearly eight months I've been here, Iran has been in perpetual mourning. Even exuberant holidays, such as Persian New Year, were downplayed because they coincided with a series of solemn events.

This is just a short list of events that come to mind. The overt display of mourning may not be practiced by every household, yet grievous expressions and a dismal mood clearly dominate the public arena.

There seems to be a certain pleasure derived from all this melancholy; it elicits a sense of comfort and humility that allows people to share massive doses of emotional distress. I've never seen anything like it.

During the last seven months, weddings have been scarce, as newlyweds try to synchronize their grand parties with the quick breaks between mourning cycles. Most engaged couples simply wait until after the period passes. After all, nobody wants their blissful celebration associated with a depressing event; besides, bad timing equates to bad luck in the future.

My favorite aspect of the mourning season is the generous act of food preparation and distribution, known as Nazri. If the whole world practiced Nazr, nobody would ever die of hunger. It's the most charitable gesture, without feeling like charity, probably because no distinction exists among the beneficiaries. As a huge fan of Iranian cuisine, I particularly enjoy the fact that people go 'all out' to prepare the most high-quality dishes possible.

So, throughout Norouz, and into the week after, public lamentation has persisted, and I've been stuffing my beast of a belly. I also participated in some Nazri activities involving Shol-e Zard (sweet rice pudding made with saffron and rose water) and Ash-e Reshte (traditional chunky noodle soup with a bunch of beans, greens, and other veggies). Meaning, I stirred the pots a few rounds (I don't know why some relatives don't trust me with more pivotal tasks; my younger cousins act like scooping stuff into bowls, then sprinkling decorative spices on top, takes special training).

As of several days ago, however, the mourning spell has ended, and the observance of deaths has been replaced by the celebration of births. In addition, the spring has arrived, with its blossoming flowers, brilliant greenery, and cool breeze that thwarts the hazardous effects of pollution. In other words, it's happy time, summoning forth all the weddings that have been holding back. Everyday, I spot a few cars lavishly decked with floral arrays, flying through the streets, practically screaming, "Woo-hoo! We're finally married!"

Fortunately, I got to witness my first Iranian wedding. The bride—a distant relative—and the groom opted for a traditional wedding, in which the guests split up into two salons, separating the men from the women. Each side parties hard, laughing and dancing along to jubilant tunes.

Here's the bride, donning an ornately painted face and labyrinthine hairstyle; her gold jewelry was likely a gift from her mother-in-law to be:

One aspect that stood out was how the groom had to make an appearance in the women's salon, sitting beside his bride for a good hour or so, bashfully acknowledging all the females doting upon him, as some sort of rite of passage. Then, bride and groom take the stage in a money dance, where the bride's female in-laws begin showering the couple with money—literally, tossing bills into the air, over their heads. Soon, everybody's throwing cash at the newlyweds, who must quickly grab the notes, while skillfully maintaining their groove. After the money dance, the groom heads for the men's salon, and the women rejoice in merriment and dance, once again. Guests take advantage of this prime photo op with the blushing bride. Although, I do believe the groom was the blusher of the two.

The gala continues on to about midnight, when the salons must close. Guests pile into their vehicles to follow the newlyweds to the bride's father's house. The newlyweds themselves sit in the backseat of their brand-new automobile that's been decorated with flowers, awaiting the traditional drive home. Unbeknownst to me, I sit in the car of the Iranian Evil Knievel.

As mentioned before, this was my first Iranian wedding. Even though I've watched the adroitly edited videos of other family members' marital celebrations, nothing prepared me for what I encountered on this hellish drive. Apparently, it's customary for all the guests to surround the newlyweds' vehicle en route to the bride's father's house, while honking ecstatically the whole way. But, it's also not uncommon to race the couple's car as well as those of the guests, to the destination, even if it means steering erratically, speeding through heavily congested streets, running red lights, swerving purposely to and fro in order to cut off other racers, and a myriad of other potentially fatal maneuvers. Moreover, it's not unusual to crash into the newlyweds' car, while attempting all these stunts; in the end, such anticipated accidents wouldn't disrupt the jolly predisposition of the occasion.

Well, Evil Knievel had nothing on our driver, who was bent on winning the race, no matter what the cost. Usually, I like fast-moving, blood-pumping action; it's fun. But when our speed demon decides to zoom ahead of the others, past the red light, barely evading about three lanes of oncoming traffic, then proceeding to zig-zag through a crowded street, as motorcyclists skim by, cheering and egging our daredevil on, all whilst perched behind the wheel of a Paykan (i.e., tin can on tires), I suddenly felt the obligation to scream until I was hoarse. But my scream was understood as a high-five, encouraging him to further amaze us with his road tricks. So, I shrieked, "Stop!,” causing him to smoothly pull over to the curb.

Never, in my entire life, have I ever sensed danger to the point of utter fright. All it would've taken was a rock on the street to set a whole series of events into action that may have ended in one or more deaths. Sure, I felt like an old lady, in a group of a bunch of my peers, but damn. My fear was so intense that even after I exited the vehicle, my lower jaw was trembling rapidly, another first for me. Even a half-hour after switching vehicles, the vibrating jaw kept going, just like the Energizer Bunny. Oddly, I felt guilty afterwards for being the reason our driver lost the race.

Anyway, the wedding’s after-party went on for about two hours at the bride’s father’s house, where both men and women danced around the newlyweds. Mostly, the younger crowd rocked the dance floor, without their headscarves, while the more seasoned guests stood on the sidelines clapping with the music, and smiling cheerfully. Afterwards, the bride and groom jumped into their vehicle again, along with most of the other guests, to continue to the final phase of the event, another party taking place at the newlyweds’ new home. Some old folks, such as myself, called it a night right there.

Here’s a photo of the newlyweds prepping to lead the caravan to their house. The bride put on her white cloak prior to exiting the salon, where the original wedding party took place. This custom is followed among moderately-to-highly religious families, who want to observe Islamic dress in public. Otherwise, I’ve spotted brides with heads uncovered, out in public. Perhaps it’s part of an unwritten carte blanche that’s afforded to uncovered women (especially brides) and reckless drivers, on wedding days.

Well, that concludes my 25-Day Briefing. I had more to tell, but this is becoming exhausting, so I'll spare you the tedium. Besides, I need to move on with my life.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Iranians Celebrate

In a grand ceremony televised live, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has joined the world's nuclear club. He went on to laud the achievement of enriching uranium to the degree necessary for the production of nuclear energy. The head of the country's atomic energy program, Mr. Aghazadeh, described Iran as the 8th country in the world to possess nuclear technology. In addition, its latest nuclear facility is the most advanced in the world. Now that uranium enrichment has been accomplished successfully, Iran's goal of obtaining nuclear energy is not far off.

Radio stations in Iran had been promoting tonight's telecast to its listeners for two days, divulging only that the president will be delivering good news. Iran's first nuclear product, UF-6, was dedicated to the head caretaker of the Emam Reza Shrine.

Monday, April 10, 2006

25-Day Briefing (Part 1)

I'd like to sum up the events of the past 25 days because they have provided me with a wealth of experience and insight. Incidentally, I had no clue 25 days had gone by since my last post; I thought two weeks, tops. I must be losing it. Anyway, we'll call this entry Part 1.

Happy New Year! (Farvardin 1-13, a.k.a. March 21-April 2)
The year 1385 officially began on March 20th, 9:55 p.m., Iran time. Iranians all over the country spent 13 days celebrating the new year, which falls on the first day of spring. (More on the Iranian Calendar). This festive holiday involves a variety of rituals, the first being khooneh tekooni, or "house shaking." In the weeks leading up to the new year, most—I assure you, this is no exaggeration—Iranian households embark on an almost obsessive spring cleaning binge. Aside from dusting every nook and cranny, people clean their walls, ceilings, and worst of all, their Persian rugs.

Do you know how arduous a task it is to clean a Persian rug?

I'm not referring to the 'ole vacuuming in the direction of the grain. I'm talking about water and soap deep-clean treatments carried out in driveways of (mainly) apartment buildings, followed by a labor-intensive combing of the carpet to extract excess water, and ending with a drip-dry process, where, depending on the rug's size, the heavy mass hangs from the side of your building for multiple days. In Tehran, where most people live in small to large apartments, wall-to-wall carpeting consists of piecing together handmade Persian rugs of different sizes and shapes across almost every inch of floor space. With an average rug spanning about 9ft x 6ft, and a typical home possessing anywhere from five to 50 rugs of varying dimensions, khooneh tekooni can easily become backbreaking work. Luckily, my quasi-guest status operates as a "get out of jail free" card in these types of questionable situations.

In addition to spring cleaning, Iranians arrange the Haft-seen, a symbolic display centering around seven ("haft") items beginning with "seen" (the letter for "s" in Farsi). So, sekkeh (coin), seeb (apple), sonbol (Hyacinth flower), and a number of other "seens" may be included in the layout. This ceremonial decor used to be called Haft-sheen (sheen is the Farsi letter for "sh"), where in place of serkeh (vinegar), there was sharab (wine). But when Islam came to Iran, the customs were altered to fit the nonalcoholic aspect of religion. The Haft-seen decoration remains in place from the start of the new year to the final day, on the 13th of Farvardin.

Norouz, another name for Iranian New Year, is the only holiday welcomed with a party, Chaharshanbeh Soori, and sent off with one (13-Bedar). Most Iranians use their two-week vacation to visit family and friends, throw parties, and squeeze in some well-deserved rest and relaxation. It's customary to be in a crowded setting at all times, eat plenty of sweets, hand out Eidies (newly printed money) to younger kin, throw parties, and observe other fun-filled traditions.

I think my version of the holiday was atypical, however, for a number of reasons.

First of all, I hung out with a bunch of exhausted, wealthy, middle-aged/ elderly folk on the Caspian seaboard. It was quite boring for my cousins and me, considering swimming was out of the question, due to slightly frigid temperatures, leaving shopping in the town as our only alternative outdoor activity.

This Caspian Sea visit was different from others we've taken throughout the years because, for one thing, the whole region has become far more touristy. I hate it when that happens because then all those hand-woven baskets and wooden handicrafts characteristic of the seashore towns of the north become ridiculously overpriced (compared to Tehran rates!) and much less creative. Moreover, I'd begun to suspect that many of the shops were promoting goods imported from Turkey as being homemade; falsely claiming that a Turkish-made item was produced in Iran appears to be a growing trend, so be forewarned! From my experience, souvenirs imported from Turkey have been low in quality, compared to their Iranian-made counterparts.

Another manner in which the Caspian Sea region has changed regards the styles of villas being built. Rather than invest in a cozy villa nestled within a lush landscape, many residents have taken it upon themselves to build seaside castles, or excessively ornate buildings that swallow up the majority of the property they inhabit. These gaudy designs indicate to me two things: 1. Napoleonic complex, a common feature of modern architecture in Iran (why does everybody want to be a king?), and 2. Rejection of nature (it's as if people try to construct up to the last penny they've got, even if the result resembles a concrete jungle, rather than a house). I will try to post pictures of this widespread embrace of structural pretentiousness, which has been romanticized as a high-class phenomenon.

On a side note, here's a funny-looking bush, located in the front yard of a normal-sized beach house:

Upon my early return to Tehran, I encountered another uncommon situation—Eid-e Aval (the first new year). Eid-e Aval is the first New Year’s after the death of a family member. My uncle's wife had lost her 90-year-old uncle only a day before New Year's Eve. Therefore, instead of approaching the holiday season with a jovial attitude, my uncle's family, and anyone else related to the deceased, exhibited a grief-stricken demeanor.

According to Iranian death rites, the first 40 days after the passing of a loved one makes up the most solemn mourning period. And since New Year’s falls within these 40 days, hence constituting Eid-e Aval, any friends of my uncle or his wife must pay the proper respects by visiting them sometime within these two weeks. In addition, my uncle, his wife, and the kids spent much of Eid-e Aval attending various gatherings and ceremonies related to death. Furthermore, nobody will be attending any social events that feature dancing or music, such as weddings or birthday parties, at least for the duration of the 40-day mourning cycle. Of course, this last clause doesn't apply to friends of my uncle's wife, or distant relatives to the deceased, such as me.

One major aspect of Norouz that I wholly neglected was my family obligations, which—at the minimum—comprised of visiting the homes of family members who are older than me, i.e., practically all my relatives with their own residence. This tradition of dropping by is called "Deedani" (or seeing), and carries with it a burdensome load of expectations and respect. As if shirking my Eid Deedani responsibilities weren't enough, I was supposed to call every single family household on the first of Farvardin to communicate warm wishes for the new year, but decided to watch Iranian movies on my laptop instead. Fortunately, my cultural ineptitude was slightly redeemed by a telephone failure story and a few belated deedanis, one of which I was able to slide in right at Norouz's close, Seezdeh (13) Bedar.

On the 13th and final day of New Year’s, Iranians must spend the day outdoors, amidst nature and greenery. Most pack up their picnic gear and head out to a grassy knoll somewhere, usually in a park, where they eat, drink, and play. Sometime during the day, the Haft-seen comes down, and the sabze (bright green sprouts that resemble an uprooted lawn sample) must be tossed into a river.

Outside, at the extremely crowded neighborhood park, we saw a sabze thrown onto a patch of grass. Kneeling down, we proceeded to tie knots into the blades, which my cousin explained was for good luck in the coming year. While I absentmindedly followed her cue in this ritual, wondering why I hadn't heard of it before, she casually mentioned that it was practiced by single people, causing me to drop the blades and recoil with disgust. Then, my eyes instinctively darted around, quickly surveying the scene to make sure no one saw me tying anything. Why does everything have to relate back to marriage here?!? That's another topic, for another day.

Anyway, during our outing, I spotted Saeid Pirdoost, also known as Sardar Khan from Shabhaye Barareh (Barareh Nights), or the Dad on Noghte Chin (Dot), strolling about with his wife and kid. I was surprised that nobody else ran up to him asking for his picture, except my cousin and me.

Fortunately, he was extremely patient and human-like, and I totally used my "foreigner" credentials to request a photo, as justification for any potential rudeness I might have unintentionally displayed, as dictated by Iranian social norms. I always feel obligated to gauge stuff like that because Iranians seem to have a significantly low threshold for boldness.

By the way, I bleeped out my face so the psychos out there don't recognize me. Stay tuned for Part 2, which I plan to add tomorrow.

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