Tuesday, March 28, 2006

why i'm here

in all my entries thus far i’ve barely mentioned the reason that i’m here, so allow me a moment to expound. my primary purpose in coming to iran was to offer my services as a volunteer for the Family Planning Association of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the country’s most effective NGOs working in the areas of reproductive health, adolescent health, and HIV/AIDS. led by a progressive and intelligent director, FPA (for short) has been able to make progress in areas never before dreamed of (like lobbying for the successful amendment of the abortion law to expand eligibility and make the decision solely the woman’s). an organization of barely 10 fulltime employees manages nearly 2,000 volunteers working all across the country and they work their magic under one of the most bureaucratically complex government systems. kudos.

my role been one of a jack of all trades. within my first week at work, i revised their annual budget, edited a grant proposal, assisted on a project for a post-positive HIV/AIDS club, and advised on the development of a premarital reproductive health curriculum. currently, i’m drafting a pamphlet on unsafe abortion (the first of its kind in the country) that will be distributed to both private and government-run hospitals throughout tehran and neighboring towns. they’re even gonna give me author credits!

while the work itself has been challenging, it’s the atmosphere that’s been of most interest. seeing the amount of good work that such a small organization in a “developing country” setting can accomplish has been both inspiring and motivating. the employees, working on meager salaries, exhibit an awesome level of dedication, treating each issue with as much care as they would were the recipients their own friends and relatives. over the weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve also developed relationships with the five main staff members (all women within a few years of my own age).

we sit around in the afternoons and compare notes on our lives, both professional and personal. they tell me about the difficulties they face in their careers, a combination of both a lack of general upward mobility within the country and a specific barrier to professional growth for women. they explain the intricacies of familial obligations and bemoan their premature stunting at the hands of forced marriages. they look at me with wide eyes as I insist that not everyone in the states sleeps around and some people actually do get married. they worry that everyone in the west sees their homeland and as nothing more than a dumping ground for backwards terrorists and haters of all things western.

tell them we’re not like that, they implore. tell them we want to work with them, we want to learn from each other, we’re not like they say we are. as I listen to them complain of the hardships, I can’t help but feel sad for all the promise being stifled. and I can’t help but think that were it not for circumstance, it would have been me sitting on the other side of the table sighing and wishing I had the same opportunities as this eager visitor from the west.

Friday, March 24, 2006

happy belated new year

welcome to 1385, everybody! sorry for the belated greetings (it was last monday), but i’ve been busy partaking in new year activities. in the states, ringing in the upcoming year consists mainly of throwing a giant party during which you have two main goals: stay coherent enough to be able to count backwards from 10 and find someone cute to kiss at midnight. once the party’s over, so the new year celebration.

not so in iran. as i mentioned in my previous post, the festivities last the duration of several weeks and there are many traditions to uphold. on the actual eve of the new year, everyone wears brand new outfits from head to toe (including socks and underwear). they sit around a special table spread called a haft-seen that contains seven items, each starting with the letter “s” (like vinegar, sumac, and coins), and each representing some aspect of fortune and well being for the year to come. every family stays in its own home as the new year turns and eats a dinner of white fish and rice with noodles.

once the countdown is over, there are 13 days to do what’s called eid-deedani, where people visit the houses of all their friends and relatives one-by-one. and the ritual is the same in each house. wear the new outfit, sit around in the parlor and get fed nuts and pastries, hand out crisp new money to the kids, and eat a virtual feast of every special dish the host can manage to prepare. imagine thanksgiving happening every day for two weeks straight. the ceremony is so ubiquitous that pastry shops around town are cleaned out and all the banks run out of cash. the streets are filled with masses of families, dressed to the nines, on their way to and from their loved ones’ homes. i myself have been shuttling back and forth from place to place each evening, smiling politely and giving my requisite well-wishes as the tea is poured and the pistachios shoved in my face.

back home, the iranian new year is barely a blip on my americanized radar, but here the whole country stops to herald the coming of spring. it’s been fun, but tiring and hard on the hips (after my fifth straight night of feasting my pants have started to plead for mercy). i still have a few more houses to go, but i hope to make it to the other side soon, sanity and figure intact.

Friday, March 17, 2006

let the festivities begin

for iranians, the vernal equinox signals the coming of the new year and the beginning of a long holiday period that starts on the last tuesday night of the old year (that was this past tuesday). they call the night chaharshambeh soori and it is replete with traditional events, both exciting and bizarre. probably the most prominent of all the rituals is bonfire jumping, which dates back to zoroastrian times and signifies the cleansing of the body and mind. as a child growing up in the states, our small band of iranian expats would gather together, light some sticks on fire, and leap over the sad little flames a few times before the fire department would show up and threaten fines. I’ve now seen the way real iranians do it in the homeland and i only WISH the fire department would come.

instead of setting a small pile of wood aflame here and there, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the whole city spills out into the streets lighting everything and anything on fire (ex: my aunt torched an old armchair while her neighbors burned some old cabinets, pieces of a downed telephone pole, and a flat truck tire). as if four-alarm bonfires weren’t enough, people set the night ablaze with a torrent of firecrackers and homemade grenades (made with a special blend of tnt, gunpowder, and shrapnel, and usually tossed into the fire). and instead of following the carefully calculated safety directions on the firecracker box they toss the explosives directly at one another. it’s a sight to be seen. of course, for me, it is a sight seen mostly from behind my aunt, where i cower for most of the night. my cousins poke fun and exclaim that america has turned me into a sissy, but i say the threat of permanent bodily damage is something only someone born and raised here can appreciate. amidst the explosions the youth blast their favorite persian pop songs and dance in the streets, some being even so bold as to thrust their hejab aside. my family says this is the first year such daring has been displayed and my younger cousins hope it is a sign of more to come.

when the we run out of firecrackers and the ruckus subsides, everyone heads back up to my aunt’s apartment where we carry on with the remainder of the night’s customs:
we eat rice pudding followed by reshteh poloh (rice with noodles) with white fish, we mark the palms of our hands with a dot of hennah, we read fortunes from ferdowsi’s hafez (the book of iran’s best-known poet) and we consume a special blend of nuts and dried fruits from a try with a burning candle and mirror in it.

when I ask what the meaning of these rituals are, few have the complete answer. it all relates to good fortune for the new year they say, but to me it speaks of something far greater than that. this is the one time of year when everyone in the country, regardless of faith, class, and education comes together to celebrate traditions thousands of years old. the new year celebration is the ultimate expression of one’s “iranianness” and despite the regime’s attempts to dampen these “pagan” rituals by threatening arrest and issuing official mourning periods, the party rages on.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

life at the back of the bus

of all the adjustments i’ve had to make since being here, nothing has been more difficult for me than having to wear the mandatory hejab (covering of the hair and body). it is not only a nuisance to have to put a scarf on my head and wear a coat over everything, but hejab has for me become a symbol of iran’s lop-sided gender roles. every time i step out of the house i am, as a matter of law and culture, at an extreme disadvantage as compared to my male counterparts.

women are treated with less regard, have lower salaries, are harrassed mercilessly, sit at the back of the bus, and are the equivalent of 50% of a man under the regime’s interpretation of islamic law. for instance, say you need two witnesses for the signing of a contract. there is only one man available to help you that day, so in place of the second individual you have to find two women. similarly, if i got in a motor vehicle accident and was in the right, my insurance company would “reward” me $1,000 but only pay me $500. what does half a person need with the full payout?

in some ways, the women of iran are extremely progressive. over half of all college graduates are female, and iranian women have long been known for their involvement in feminist movements and human rights causes. but on the other hand, every battle is a bloody one and the fruits of their efforts are at times hard to see. though many women are highly educated, their unemployment rate is double that of men (almost 23%), and as in many other societies their primary value is thought to be as a child-bearer and home-maker. some things, such as attending stadium sports events, are strictly forbidden to women and at the beach women have only a small separate area of the shore to enjoy (even then, in the water, they have to maintain full hejab).

when speaking to women i’ve met here about their views on life under such restrictions, many seem unruffled. it’s been this way for almost 30 years and most people have adjusted. some women even see advantages to the status quo: when wearing the hejab, one person told me, the man has only your ideas to deal with. i see that point, and respect anyone who makes the decision to observe hejab according to their own beliefs, but many of us who do not share those beliefs are forced to comply regardless of our will. and no matter how complacent women might seem, there are rumblings of discontent. the youth have become especially vocal and find unique ways to rebel (some hejab has become so risque it’s almost worse than wearing no hejab and recently non-married couples have begun to display affection in public).

when frustrations do bubble up, as they did outside a soccer game last week, women organize themselves and state their claims in peaceful protest. while the uprisings are often quashed with extreme force (according to some reports, dozens of women were arrested and possibly beaten the night of the game), they never cease.

at least it’s good to know there’s always someone fighting for something better than life at the back of the bus.

Friday, March 10, 2006

whether i love it or hate it, you shut up

some of you have been asking me to pen entries on topics of interest, such as the political climate here or the perception that iranians have of americans. i beg your patience, as i slowly and carefully gather details with which to present as fair and full a picture as I can. in the meantime, i have gotten a good sense of the people’s relationship to their own situation and i trust you’ll find it fascinating.

bear in mind, that a lot of the input i receive is from my family, but with my nascent work relationships, the sphere is expanding and i’m finding echoes of the same issues throughout. maybe it’s a culture thing, or a coping thing, but the only way to describe how an iranian feels about iran is love-hate. let’s start with the hate.

life in iran is not easy, by any means. you constantly have to scramble just to eek out a meager existence, all the while having your freedom and sensibilities under siege by a forceful and oppressive (to put it mildly) regime. years of struggle in such an environment have hardened most people, and despair seems to be the prevailing sentiment on the future of the country. everyone is out for themselves in a way that would put american individualists to shame, money is below even the bottom line, and you never know which of a person’s many faces you’re dealing with. inevitably something will go wrong, and when it does you always hear “it’s iran, what do you expect?" to be fair, there are some individuals who believe that with time and persistence, things will change. for eight years, under khatami’s rule, small victories were won and it seemed like something might finally give. but with the new regime and new rhetoric, the future has never been so uncertain. even those who work for change are being stifled with a zeal reminiscent of the early days of the regime. so to recap: freedom is minimal, opportunity even more scarce, and life generally sucks. iran? HATE IT.

simultaneous to the above: iranians love iran. no, i’m serious, they really do. there is a certain culture, a common history, that binds the people together in a way you would never see in the states. you can relate to just about anyone who passes you on the street and wherever you go, you have 3,000 years of a glorious history following behind you. everyone talks to one another like friends, and living life is the most important thing. you go to work at 8 in the morning, get a break from 12-4 (when you eat the most delicious food and nap alongside your loving family), and return to your easy-going job for just a few more hours before calling it a day. when friends and family gather, laughter punctuates the conversation and in a matter of minutes half the crowd is up and dancing. the food is plentiful, the warmth is palpable, and there’s a unique enthusiasm about every experience. the women are beautiful, the men are hard-working and no nation in the world can ever be compared. iran? LOVE IT.

now don’t get confused, because it’s not confusing. it’s just the way things are. iranians hate iran and love iran, hate their fellow iranians and love their fellow iranians, would rather escape to any corner of the world but only feel at home on iranian soil. does it seem like a bi-polar disorder? it probably is. but you better watch yourself. bad-mouth iran to an iranian and she’ll stare you down with her laser eyes til you’re a whimpering puddle of your former self. because no matter how an iranian feels about her country or her people, no matter how much she complains and condemns it, in her heart of hearts there’s an inexplicable love, so it’s best you just shut up about it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

pardon my farsi

anyone who knows me will tell you that speechlessness is a problem i rarely face. whether opinionated, gregarious, loquacious, or simply long-winded, the words have always been there.

until now.

here in iran, i find myself trapped in a language limbo where i understand 90% of what i’m told, formulate a 100% response in my mind, and can conjure only 75% of the words i need to convey my thoughts. i laugh at jokes only when other people start laughing, i nod my head and smile to circumvent any direct comment i’ve misunderstood and for the most part my once happy flapper remains shut.

to call it frustrating would grossly underestimate my feelings on the matter.

“but ghazaleh,” you say, “i thought you spoke fluent farsi.”
well, i do. kind of.

from the moment i learned to speak the language, right here on native soil, it has been the primary mode of communication between myself and my parents. buuut, being a small unit, far from a core of iranian speakers needed for good practice, and diluted by years of life abroad, my family’s persian tongue has lost its edge. even the farsi my parents use to speak with their expat counterparts in the US is generously sprinkled with english words. so much so that I am at times confused as to which don’t actually belong (some words like “kite” “hot dog” and “online” have been adopted by in-country iranians).

besides that, farsi has two distinct modes of speech as far as an outsider can tell: the casual and the formal. ask me how to say “clean your room!” “leave me alone!” or “i’m starving, where’s dinner?” (common phrases used in my childhood) and i’ll sing like a parakeet for you. but should you need me to translate the news, read a line from a romance novel, or politely ask for someone over the phone, you’ll mostly get muffled mutterings. sure, all languages have formal phrases and advanced vocabulary, but in farsi the difference is particularly acute. so until my tongue “opens up” (as they say here) my main coping mechanism has become to insert the word “thing” at the weak spots in each of my sentences.


“i went to the office building for some files and the director said they didn’t have enough publications to distribute”


“i went to the thing for some thingies and the thing said they didn’t have enough things to thing.”

hey, it works for me. in fact, i can’t help but chuckle at the sound of myself, barely able to keep pace with a five-year-old.
oddly, my lingual deficiency has also yielded some unexpected enlightenment. i finally understand what the millions of non-native english speakers in the US must feel as they conduct their everyday business. no matter that i’ve had years of formal education, that i succeed at a job that requires some degree of intelligence and adept communication, and i am the biggest bookworm this side of the library sciences; when my words fall short and my accent reveals itself, people automatically discount my capabilities as a whole. how do i know? from looks i’ve gotten, from comments i’ve overheard, and from interacting with my cousins who, albeit in jest, never let me forget that my farsi just doesn’t measure up.

it’s been tough, but don’t worry about me…as soon as I start thinging, you better believe that my thing's gonna thing the thingies!

or something like that.

Friday, March 03, 2006

slumber party, persian style

in iran, the weekend begins on thursday night and lasts through friday. you've got approximately 24-hours to make the best of it and for me and the cousins this weekend it meant a slumber party, persian style.

all of us have gathered, at one point or another, with our little friends and had our sweet little sleep-overs replete with rented movies, board games, pranks phone calls, and the junkiest of junk food. but they were only whispers of a slumber party compared to how it's done over here.

first of all, no need to invite any friends, they already come built-in as cousins (in my case there are 6 of them, ranging from 15-30). and where else would we all crash but at auntie's house? done.

next, comes the entertainment. sure, people in iran love dvds (they usually have the same bootlegs of current hollywood blockbusters that you would find on the streets of new york, plus a VAST collection of bollywood favorites), and we could sit around and gossip all night (no one does it quite like persians do), but oh, my dear readers, there is SO much more to be done!

for us it began with an improptu dance party, though not the kind you're thinking of. in this case, someone throws on a cd (usually some persian pop) and the bravest takes the floor, rolling his hips and twisting his hands in the air, as the rest of us, in a circle around the room, clap and hoot to the beat. the most savory part is when someone grabs hold of the shyest of the bunch and mercilessly drags them into the center to dance (this is usually me).

we transition with improv comedy courtesy of the most rascaly cousins, who, with unbelievable precision, imitate our ridiculous distant relatives, sending us all into a tizzy of laughter.

as the night drags on, a deck of cards (which are “illegal”, by the way) eventually materializes and we once again circle up to play one or all of three games: 21, the animal game (heyvoon bahzee), or bonjour madam (salaam bibi). 21 is pretty much blackjack infused with smack-talking, alliances, and cheating. the other two are a bit more complicated, so I’ll cover only my favorite, the animal game.

players select an animal sound that for the rest of the game is associated only with them. for instance: i am out-muscled by my cousin to be the donkey of the bunch, I have to settle for being a sheep, so my sound is “baaaaaah.” The deck is distributed evenly and one-by-one we flip cards over in front of us. at some point, your card will match another’s in the circle and the goal is to imitate the other player’s animal before they get yours. a simple “baaah” or “meow,” in our desperate haste to be first, winds up a frenzied barrage of noises that no earthly animal would ever produce. in other words, it’s hilarious. for my family, it’s a full-body-contact sport as each person flails wildly and lunges across the floor at her opponent in an attempt to, if not conjure the appropriate animal sound, then at least to shock the other player into forgetfulness. man, i love the animal game.

aside from the fun-making, food also features prominently in the night. forget pizza and popcorn. we have tokhmeh (sunflower seeds), shirini (persian pastries), pohfak (cheese puffs), dried sour cherries, and lots and LOTS of tea.

at the end of it all, we lay out blankets and huddle together on the floor (boys and girls in separate rooms, of course) talking and giggling into the early morning hours and as we drift to sleep we are sound in the knowledge that we have made the best of our one weekend night, slumber partying like persian rock stars. ;)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

that's miss millionaire to you

my mother is following the blog and, while she enjoys it, she wants my next entry to be about something i really like about iran. i've thought long and hard about it and realize that so far i've loved nothing more than the FABULOUS exchange rate. perhaps it's not exactly what she meant, but if there were ever a good reason to visit (aside from the thousands of years of history, rich culture, and hospitable people) the chance to live like a queen is it! $1 USD is the equivalent of approximately 910 toman (iranian currency) and that probably means absolutely nothing to you so let's go over the cost of a few everyday items:

1 Kilo of Oranges = 800 toman ($0.88)

1 bus ticket = 20 toman ($0.02)

1 nice dinner for 2 = 10,000 toman ($11)

1 month's rent for a spacious 2-bedroom apartment in the city = 300,000 toman ($330)

and, most importantly,

1 gallon of gas = 350 toman ($0.38)

that means a person like me, who makes a decent monthly US wage of around $2,000 USD, brings in almost

$2,000,000 a month in iranian money. hooray! i'm finally a millionaire!

but, while American Ghazaleh can wave a few bucks around and gain access to just about anything she likes, the rate of items as compared to local wages reveals a bleaker picture. in this regard, unfortunately, achieving millionaire status for Iranian Ghazaleh is much more difficult. the average wage of a city dweller in Tehran can range from 100,000 - 200,000 toman a month. a quick calculation of some above items and you can see that it is no easy feat for the locals to survive. in fact, getting by in iran, according to people i've spoken to here, seems only to get harder and harder. not just because of global inflation rates and continued trade sanctions, but also because there are simply too many people and not nearly enough of anything to go around.

of course, as in any nation, there is an upper class with plenty of disposable income (and plenty to dispose of it on...you're never seen so many cell phones, shopping centers, and cars), but for the vast majority, scraping by is a way of life.

hmm...i guess this blog isn't very cheerful after all. sorry, mom, i'll try harder next time. i promise.