Monday, January 12, 2004

Hillary,Tarot, Britney and Strauss

There is an eerie silence in Tehran. It has been like this for a few days. Traffic is lighter, the restaurants less crowded and the folks less bumptious. The joke is, people are either busy planning to buy property elsewhere in case there is a quake in Tehran, or most have headed out to Semnan or Isfahan to scout for opportunities to profit just in case the authorities are serious about moving the capital.

Yup, for a spiritual Islamic Republic, we the citizens are sure some of the most mean-spirited and greedy you will ever encounter—short term outpouring of concern and empathy notwithstanding. So, it has been an interesting experience bookstore hopping lately. Books are, as you might expect, in bondage here. Not that the Government might have something to do with that, I suppose, with the censorship and all. But the crucial factor, I think, is the overpriced real state market in Tehran.

The books are kept mostly out of reach and stacked on top of each other in small spaces and you will have to ask to see them. So you can’t just really walk in to enjoy the experience of picking them one by one, sifting through the pages and having the musty, old smell make you oblivious of the problems of pollution and the general nastiness in the city.

There are, of course, some trendy ones with enough space and accessible books in the northern, more affluent part of the city. But most of the really good ones are closer to the University of Tehran. And they can be terribly crowded.

You can find just about everything here, a lot in translation. Most of the classics are present. The Indians, the Chinese, and especially the Americans and the Post-Modernists-- the latest craze, are here in force. Hell, even Hillary is here, displayed prominently in some bookstores. And of course my all time favorite, the translation of the immortal, timeless and profound lyrics of the lovely Britney Spears—her “Collected Work,” if you will. Marx, Lenin, Lewis (Bernard and Carol), Strauss (Leo and Levi), you name it, we have it. Before I forget lots of novels, as well as gzillion titles on dream interpretation, tarot cards, palm readings, astrology, role of the sexes, illnesses, child rearing, and how to manuals even about conversing with the ghosts.

Iranians are a fashion conscious lot—even in reading. Not too different from readers elsewhere, I suppose. But terribly audacious. It is not rare to see some men or women walk in, buy an introductory English text book, a dictionary and then ask for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth—in English that is. They might be in a class learning to become an actor. But I think it might have something to do with the university setup here and the central curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education. Did you know you can go through 4 years of College never having to read a single primary text here? Well, perhaps only the poets who are a class of their own.

The process emphasizes exams and short term memorization, and the reliance on the secondary literature and the ever present text books has habituated people into not being satisfied with anything less than a grand, complete and total “knowledge,” in just one sitting of an hour or less. No real exposure to the joys of the creative process here. Naturally, of course, everyone is an expert on almost everything and that which we have not encountered before or we do not understand, we almost always immediately ridicule.

If you grew up reading Will Durant and had him spoon-feed you the highlights of the Enlightenment, for example, in one short, concise and oh so comprehensive synopsis, would you ever be satisfied confronted with the prosaic task of working out a problem on your own, or figuring out how an arguments unfolds in a text, or thinking through a stand, or allowing a position to touch your outlook in a nuanced way, or affecting how you grapple with the ethics of the decisions and the choices you are forced to make in your daily life.

Nah, Hamlet we are not here in Iran. Neither hesitation nor self doubt !None, zilch, zero, sefr! Why people don’t converse with their books is beyond me. The intriguing, obvious fact about our reading habits is that the only group of people who engage with their books in the old fashion way are the mullahs who rule us. That to me says a lot about us, the mullahs, and the way books should be read!

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