Sunday, April 16, 2006

"atomic energy is our undeniable right!"

in the past six weeks I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for any information regarding recent developments between iran and the us. on the one hand I keep myself updated with western news media through nytimes and the economist headlines, and on the other hand I do my best to catch local news briefs and pick up on general sentiment among the people here.

the other night I had a chance to watch as president ahmadinejad presented the latest development in atomic energy to his parliament and his country. the session started with some chanting (“down with america, down with england, down with people who oppose religious rule”) and continued with a brief performance by a group of men dressed in all manner of traditional garb and chanting prayers as they lifted a mock rod of enriched urnaium up to the heavens. very cheesy, but very effective. later, during his speech, ahmadinejad touted iran’s recent developments as a means of keeping peace in the region and vowed that “the powers” would not be able to stop what is the right of every sovereign nation to produce atomic energy for peaceful use. he sounded very convincing and in a way I was happy to see someone, anyone, stand up against global bullying, but what do the people of iran think of the government, atomic energy, and conflict with the US??

that is a question as complex and varied as the people themselves.

the majority of those I’ve met absolutely abhor the government and everything it does. as one person described it to me: “it’s a matter of black and white. if the government says black, we say white.” after years of blatant corruption and ever-increasing economic woes, few have any faith left in the powers that be. in fact, I’ve yet to get into a taxi and not have the foul distaste for the government at least garnish the conversation (if not be the main dish). officials are seen as rotten, one worse than the other, and as a rule people distrust and dismiss anything they say.

now, for atomic energy. from what I understand, the enrichment program has been under way for almost 20 years and has only now (in the wake of current world climate) grabbed global attention. since all eyes are on iran, they are taking the opportunity to enlarge their status and stir up more of a ruckus than might otherwise have existed. the government has spun the issue in such a way so to appeal to iranians’ already feverish nationalism. governement-sponsored rallies, television shows and radio programs have all been dedicated to rousing support and the slogan “atomic energy is our undeniable right” is spray-painted across town and peppers every discussion on the topic. the problem is, because no one cares much for the government, it’s all become a big joke. people mock the government by evoking their right to atomic energy every chance they get, in jest among friends, while bargaining for lower prices in the bazaar or any number of other places. believe me, I’ve heard it with my own ears.

as for the conflict with the US, there have been rumblings among people here that a war is possible, but no one really believes it. the US is overwhelmed on multiple fronts and iranians don’t believe themselves to be as vulnerable as their neighbors to the left and right. on top of that, tightly-monitored papers only report iran’s benevolent intentions in developing nuclear technology and play down the possibility of an attack by either expressing their surprise at such a notion or implying that their military might is not one to be tested lightly. either way, the people of this bruised and battered country are no strangers to conflict, particularly the violent bloody kind, so when you dangle the premise of foreign invasion in their face, most just shrug and say, maybe at least then we’ll get something to work right.

Monday, April 10, 2006

a funeral

it is with regret that i report on a death.
i am sitting in the FPA office on a monday morning when our director hurries out of her office, shaking her head and wiping tears from her eyes, and runs out the front door. within minutes we are informed that her father has passed away and she will not be returning to the office that day or any soon thereafter.
we are all stunned and saddened by the news, not having known the deceased but feeling the palpable sorrow of our director. by the afternoon we are updated on the funeral ceremonies to follow and we arrange our attendance with one another.

as with everything else, funeral ceremonies in iran differ vastly from those traditionally held in the states (by traditional i mean the open-casket, funeral home scene i’ve seen in the movies). firstly, there is not one, but five separate ceremonies held the day of or right after the death, on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after the death, and again on the one-year anniversary. the day of/after is the burial ceremony. though it is largely for close family and friends, a few of my coworkers decide to attend and because my director as been so good to me since my arrival, i feel my presence will be a small way in which to return the kindness.

we arrive at the hospital where the body is collected by the family and everyone is driven to the nearby home of the lost loved one. we wait inside the apartment, shoes off, heads down, women in one room men in another. when the ambulance hearse arrives, a group of pallbearers carry the deceased’s body, in a simple metal gurney, bound tightly in a white sheet and covered with a traditional paisley shroud (known as a termeh), up the stairs of the apartment building and into the middle of the living room where we are all standing. they place the body on the ground and our director, the first child and only daughter of the dead, falls to her knees next to the body. lost in agony, she wails and tears at her face, beats her head and chest with her hands. she places her hands on the body and cries out, desperately explaining between heavy sobs what a good and decent man has been lost, what a tragedy has befallen the family. all the women, upon seeing this raw display, begin to sway and howl in unison, weeping openly to exhibit their sadness. the bold show of emotion is so overwhelming that I too begin to cry.

after a few minutes, the pallbearers return to remove the body and place it back in the hearse, ready to be taken to the cemetery where it will be washed, blessed, and wrapped in sheets for the final time. we stay behind for a while and are served dates and halva, traditional funeral food. some women read prayers from the Q’uran and blow into a jar of water that will later be sprinkled on the body as it lays in the grave. when word reaches us that the family is heading to the gravesite with the prepared deceased, we board a rented tour bus and head an hour outside of tehran.

the cemetery is a large and well-kept space, lush with grass and weeping willows. it is the cemetery of iran’s most prominent artists and while we await the arrival of the body, i tour the grounds looking for the grave marker of the great poet, shamlou. unsuccessful on my own, I request the help of a groundskeeper, who takes me to a square plot with no stone or any identifiable markings. “no matter how many times we replace the gravestone, they always come and steal it,” he shrugs.

by now the family is heading through the cemetery gates, and we all gather near the entrance. the hearse backs in to the driveway and the deceased is once more lifted up by prayer and pall bearer, to be carried around the mosque in the center of the cemetery before being taken to the plot. the men holding the gurney lead the procession, repeating a single prayer to god as they circle the grounds. as per iranian tradition, they rest the body on the ground three times before taking it to its grave so that the dead are not afraid when they are finally placed beneath the earth. the women follow behind, grieving openly and murmuring their own personal prayer for the dead.

at the plot there are more prayers and as the body is lowered into the ground, the entire assembly bursts into tears. gravediggers quickly seal the hole and the men and women take turns kneeling at the site, placing their hands in the dirt and whispering their final goodbyes.

when this first of many ceremonies is through, we head to a local restaurant where the family provides lunch as a way of showing their gratitude for all those present. we offer our condolences to the family and promise to continue the support by attending the ritual on the 3rd day of death, a much tamer service held in a mosque three days later.

at the end of the day i am worn from all i have seen and can only imagine the sorrow that will continue to shroud the family as they put their grief on display over and over in the year to come.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

pics pics pics

here are some more pictures i've taken along the way. most of them (with the exception of the picnic) were taken in ardabil, a region in the northwest near the border with azerbeijan, from which my mom's side of the family originates.

  • sheikh safi castle entrance

  • sheikh safi door

    leftover new year's goldfish

  • ancient bathhouse

  • the elborz mountains of ardabil

  • family picnic in the forest of light (near the caspian sea)

  • my great uncle avaz

    Saturday, April 01, 2006

    caspian sea? more like crapsian sea

    what was supposed to be an edifying 4-day tour of the historic cities of Esfahan and Shiraz turned into a nightmare express trip to the caspian sea.

    the night before our excursion, my mother (who’s visiting) and I pack all our necessities and swear that no matter what happens (i.e., no matter which of our other family members stalled or complained) we will be on the road by no later than 11am.

    alas, that’s just not the way my family works.

    the morning of the trip we grab our bags and head over to my uncle’s house, where several other of my relatives are staying during the holidays. the intention is to either pick them up and take them along or bid them farewell and be on our way. instead, we wind up sitting pitifully beside our luggage for the following NINE HOURS while this or that person hums and haws about where to go and what to bring and etc. etc. after about the 7th hour, i tune out completely and so don’t realize that at some point it is decided that instead of Esfahan/Shiraz, we will go north to the caspian sea. heartbroken and despondent, with no power over the elder council that has made the choice, I shove my things into one of the four cars in the caravan and go, with 22 of my cousins, uncles, aunts and other familial bits and pieces, to the caspian sea.

    if only the change in plans were the beginning and end of my sorrows. when we finally arrive, close to 1am after numerous tea stops, we still have to resolve the matter of where to sleep. no problem, my uncle assures me, in Shomal (“the north”) you can drive down the street at any time of day or night and find roadside peddlers of upscale villa rentals. sure enough, even at the late hour of our arrival there are dozens of young men (of questionable repute) lining the streets holding tattered signs with the word “villa” scribbled on them. one by one, we take turns loading strangers into the lead car and winding up and down the desolate alleys, looking for an empty villa. I have the best in town, top quality, right by the ocean, one of them promises. upon delivery we find nothing more than a dilapidated two room shack swarming with flies and covered in mysterious stains. on and on we go like this, stranger after stranger until at 3:30 am we can no longer stand our own sleepiness and settle on a passable little villa a few steps from the sea. there aren’t enough beds or blankets to go around so we sleep in rows, all on one sheet with our own jackets as pillows.

    sounds like the worst trip ever, huh?

    well guess what: by the following night we’re all dancing and laughing and feeling like we’re in the most prized location in the world. in celebration of my aunt’s birthday we buy an enormous cake and I do a belly dance in front of the whole crew before we head out onto the beach to build a bonfire. all up and down the shore are groups of young people, free of hejab, warm with moonshine and dancing to the music blaring from their cars. we party til 4am and for the next two days we eat and dance and laugh and eat, never minding that the villa is covered in ants and our necks ache each morning from the lack of bedding. and as we head back towards tehran i add one to the plus column for my relatives who are able turn the most horrible circumstances into a memorable experience.