Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Young Woman and a Raincoat

I was planning a rant about the sit-ins today. It has been thirteen days and I figured it might be as a good a time as any. But then, on my way home there was a majestic sight to behold: a young lady, with a child and oodles of groceries in tow, looking in passing at a raincoat. Neither the women nor the raincoat, would strike you initially as out of the ordinary or odd. What caught my attention, though, was the astonishing nature of her gaze. There was a dreamy, longing quality about the way she just glanced at that raincoat—with an indescribable awe and an enchanted smile—the sort that melts your heart away. It was as if for one fleeting moment she lived out a lifetime of sublimated desires.

To understand why I react with amazement, you should visit this place for a week. There is something surreal about life in Tehran. Think fever to get a small opening into our universe. Try to recall how fever amplifies, rather negatively, all of one’s sensory perception--disconcerting blurred vision, maddening sound of one’s own rapid heartbeat, flustering colors and contours, and a miasmic atmosphere. Add to these a sense of nausea and a feel of suffocation that come from breathing the horrendously polluted air. Then you get a sense for life in Tehran.

The impulses and trends dominant in our society are not different from those in the lives of others you might encounter in cities your travel to. But there is a certain grotesqueness about life here. There is intensity about the way these impulses animate people into action and the way we come to perceive other people’s conducts. A lot of women, for example, might dress modestly elsewhere, but in Iran, we have an ocean of blackness—waves and waves of chador clad women in movement. Conversely, multitude of women might choose to liven up a bit with a touch of makeup. But not here. We have a throng with exaggerated foundations and colorful shadows—the kind adorning an old harlot planning seduction of a horde of drunken sailors on a desolate island.

Men in other places might put a bit of gel in their hair. But here, the hair simply gushes goop. You either have people who don’t play music in their cars, or play it very loudly as they pass you by. People are nasty, rude and brutish or feel the need to prostrate submissively before others. And so it goes on and on. A subset of our much vaunted “burnt generation” has got to have its mobile phones at a million Toomans a piece, no matter that they are unemployed and their parents at the end of their ropes. And then there are chat-rooms with obscenity galore, and jewelry-- gold, rubies and diamonds, and clothing, and furniture, rugs, drugs, alcohol and food-- lots and lots of food.

Again, no different from other places, mind you, but our expressions betray our unique frenzy. You never know why we so immediately want everything we see. Most kids cry for them, majority of men deceive and lie for them, and some women marry or prostitute for them. What is so urgent, I always wonder, about having the latest colorful manteaux, a cell phone or a shoe that would justify loss of our dignity, and the inevitable threat to our long term family stability, or to our sanity?!

And our glances-- they are the lascivious sort, or the dispassionate, aloof sort, the kind that would help communicate a sense of false disinterest just so we can haggle successfully over the price. The paradox, of course, is that most of us have no real immediate, unmediated relation with the objects of our passions. We quickly get bored with them, for we really wanted them in the first place since they were either the latest fad, or that, our neighbors or friends hadn’t yet managed to acquire them. And so here we are, the unique one beating the rest of the herd.

And so, this woman with her dreamy eyes stood out to me because her gaze revealed a unique undisguised affection-- she genuinely adored that raincoat and simply wanted it, for its own sake. She seemed resigned to the fact that having this raincoat was just not a priority in her life and so she embodied restraint and discipline-- she courageously just marched past without so much as a pause—something most of us can’t fathom. To me she epitomized all that is decent about this nation, and the enigma of its future.

Here is my funny feeling of the day: there are those here who carry such burden as no one should have to bear in a civilized society. They do so quietly, invisibly, stoically, with dignity and self-restraint. And then there is the loud, boisterous crowd, with a sense of entitlement, and a long list of the multiple ways they are being victimized daily. The latter group is living it up, mired in its delusion of grandeur, in its sense of superiority, with false hopes, obscene avarice, and silly expectations. Most are timid though, and paralyzed due to a lack of appetite for real risk and hard work.

I would watch out though for the pivotal moment this young woman decides she has had enough of merely dreaming about that raincoat and all it symbolizes. The fire of her desires will burn this rotten scaffolding to the ground long before the rest of us could settle on what to do.

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