Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Hustle

What you might not have heard about Iranians in the past few days, since the news has dealt mostly with the election and the endless speculations about its aftermath, is that a lot of us have gone mad. In case you are wondering why it is that the Mullahs continue to dominate this country after 25 years of their brutal and incompetent rule, this madness might offer you a working hypothesis.

For you see, tens of thousands have been lining up for hours everywhere you go in order to sign up for mobile phones. Everyone is getting in on the action. Entire industries have sprung up over night to cater to the crowd. Photo shops are making copies of the application forms and of the checks. Street vendors are selling stuff to those who wait in lines for hours. There are scuffles, arguments, and mutual banter.

Here is the deal: you fill out the registration form and hand over about half a million Toomans, and in a few months, you will be the proud owner of a mobile phone, or several dozens, or in the case of one prominent merchant, 5000. Our intrepid, entrepreneurial citizens have so far collectively coughed up about 300,000,000,000 (no joke, each $ is roughly 836 Toomans: do the math).

Authorities have been on T.V. for hours each night reassuring the citizens that in about two months or so, the price of phones will be around 150,000 T. But the crowd gets bigger. In addition, a Turkish Company has just won a bid to build Iran’s first privately owned network. The Turks plan on offering 3 million phones in the next 11 months. It isn’t as if this item is being censored. It is everywhere, and anyone curious enough will have access to it. But the crowd is not deterred. We come, line up, pay up and leave. So the obvious question: What’s the rush?

I have no answers. Neither do some others I speak with! We are all dumbfounded. Though I am willing to share a hunch of mine with you at no cost.

It hurts to admit it, but this is the Iranian Character in action: The frenzy before us is that perennial hustle in progress. Every one is looking for that unique opportunity-- the one he shouldn’t have missed the last time around-- that wave which carries those who catch it to the riches. That one, singular courageous gamble which permits some to get off the wheel. The rare opportunity which allows people to make a killing and then to retire. It is called doing the work of a life time in a single day. This is the mother of all hustles, and the not so secret longing of most Iranians.

So I ask some, what makes you think you can do this? Why? Whence the expectation?
Some tell me, look around you. Look at the Iranians in California. How did they get to be so rich? Has our aspiring monarch Reza II worked a single day in his life? They are the winners. What about Rafsanjani and sons? What about all those others who have struck gold? They too are the winners! Why should we miss the boat? If the rulers and their cronies can do it, why can’t I?

But all the signs are there that this is going to be a bust. And who will get the blame in a few months when the price of the mobile phones is at an all time low? Of course, we all know the answer: that omnipresent and vast conspiracy involving the British, the Europeans and America, who are in a secret collusion with the Regime to rob Iranians blind! The Powers that be are adamant about holding Iranians down! Now can’t you see the logic?

This mentality, this plague, I am beginning to think, is what lies at the root of our present predicament. This is what Oil and what Central Planning do to people’s minds. It distorts and deforms expectations. Everyone wants the easy way out. We all expect a direct line from the oil fields to our houses: our fair share, if you will.

We are entitled. They are cheating us! Everything should come about the moment we will it. And if it doesn’t, it has nothing to do with us! We are never responsible. That we have been complacent, incompetent, and unwilling to make the right decisions, unwilling to organize, to plan, to study the strategies and the tactics of our opponents, to do our homework, to do the legwork, to do the dirty work….these have, of course, nothing to do with why we ended up where we are. It is just our bad luck and it is just that certain conspiracy I tell you…The CONSPIRACY!

So, welcome my friends, to my beautiful Iran. The land of the midgets with the roar of the lion and the heart of a mouse.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Expatriates & Bush

Our spirited lady in Baghdad weighs in on this NYT article about the emerging Arab-American support for Mr. Bush Jr. The problem, of course, is that two of the poster boys named in the Leslie Wayne’s article happen to be of Iranian descent. (For some background on one Mr. Mori Hosseini, see here, here, here, and here.)

Admittedly, as Jack Shafer effectively point out in Slate, Leslie appears a bit too confused about the composition of our Mid- Eastern societies ; but again, who wouldn’t be, really? What we have here is a rich mosaic of complexions, religions, and political dispositions. Naturally, the expatriate community reflects this diversity as well.

While I believe it not unfair to expect journalist not to be sloppy, I do think we should have some prospective on these matters. After all, life is about learning. The moment we harass, insult, demonize or otherwise make people feel atrocious about not having exhibited authoritative knowledge when thinking or writing about matters important to all of us, we make human interactions needlessly arduous. We all lose.

There is nothing wrong with getting things wrong. Ignorance is not a sin. Familiarity, awareness, and knowledge-- these are all partial and deepen with time. The problem really lies in our tendency to expect authoritative voices, and our love of shortcuts, and easy answers and our tendency to fear nuances.

But the sense of anxiety I feel comes with the realization that Leslie, her friends, mentors and classmates are sitting on top of one of the most lethal arsenals ever. Even a most generous reading would leave me unsettled about the prospect of a bunch of us ending up as charcoaled meat as our self appointed saviors insist on continuing their crusade to re-make us in their own image.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

To not vote or Not to vote

Election Day is upon us and I find myself agonizing about the split infinitives. I wonder if those in power ever wonder about such mundane matters. For you see, our friendly split infinitives, just like life, work in mysterious ways.

There are no Supreme Leaders having the final word about how they may (or may not) be employed. There are no Guardian Councils anywhere attempting to (dis)qualify anyone before s/he has had a chance to form an incorrect construct. No one is going to be beaten, tortured, imprisoned, mutilated or dismembered for having employed an inappropriate syntax.

Yet somehow, millions have agonized over the split infinitives. People have freely associated, cooperated, learned from one another and instructed each other. Lives have been transformed because of these interactions and because of mutual learning. Rules have been debated, scrutinized, internalized, and often memorized. The matter has never been settled once and for all, and this, probably has been for the best.

Consequently, the language we use is dynamic, vibrant and perpetually changing in order to keep up with our ever changing material circumstances. Thus, the language that helps us comprehend, organize, present and disclose this immense set of interrelatedness which constitute our experience of life itself serves as a source of immense joy and enchanting creativity.

So, we rush to find the best teachers, find the most intelligent, dedicated, eloquent companions to help us understand proper usage. Sure, we make mistakes all the time, but there are no shortcuts in life. Can you imagine a world in which mistakes were officially forbidden? Or a world in which a vast infrastructure existed to excise all traces of the split infinitives, because someone, in his infinite wisdom, had decided to shield the rest of us mere mortals from the affects of ambiguities of life?

The result as you might suspect is a depressing, bizarre world where nothing is what it appears to be. The land of the cynics who believe in nothing, care for nothing and respect nothing. Perhaps that ever-present deity, Mammon, should be excepted of course. This is no longer about ideology. It is about power and privilege pure and simple.

There are those here who have it and are scared to let go. And then there are those who are excluded and want it. For now, those in power would have a lot more to lose by letting go than what those outsiders have to gain by violently contesting the formers hegemony. Hence the stalemate. So the game goes on and we are all expected to play our parts.

The key to stability in this country lies--I kid you not-- in two simple reforms. Above and foremost, a restructuring of the banking system that would allow our citizens access to credit cards with unlimited funds. And second, a relaxation of what is left of social rules in a manner that would facilitate open fraternization between the sexes without fear, and a re-opening of bars, cabarets and discothèques. Anyone who can bring these two about will have the majority’s begrudging acceptance for a long time to come.

There is always hope though. Hope that we will once again discover our moral compass. We Iranians have a tendency to surprise ourselves and others. I thank my cantankerous instructor from years ago everyday for having had us memorize a simple phrase: “NŌlī timōrī cēdere.” Because at the end of the day, “Vita mihi sine spē est mors.”
As for tomorrow, who was it that made the simple observation that “every negation” is ultimately “an affirmation?”

Monday, February 16, 2004


“Postcards from Iran” is the title for a series of writings about contemporary life in Iran. Check out these fascinating pieces put together by Abbas Azimi who writes about the net; Pooneh Goddoosi who gives you a sense of what a party might look like around here and Maria Sarsalari who gives you a glimpse into the lives of our nouveau riche, as well as this piece about the red tape. All together interesting collages.

I couldn’t ignore the not so well hidden disdain lurking behind the words. I am not dismissing disdain , mind you, as a viable reaction to what goes on around here. There is so much nastiness in this country—utterly disheartening. It is one thing to play the victim card to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, and quite another to admit that folks mirror their abusers in a pathetic way.

For you see, something doesn’t add up. There is way too much money around here. Avarice and gluttony too pronounced. Too little empathy. Too many self absorbed people walking around. Poverty and callousness are infuriating. Abuse is omnipresent. Here is a regime that tries to impose homogeneity on the population with little success, but the result is not a defense of heterogeneity, but a replication of a limiting commonality of measurement in alternative modes. People criticize government efforts and then rush to create their own Procrustean bed to lie on. A hard nut to crack.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But why does life take this particular form. Why do people who want to leave en masse to enjoy a better living standard at the expense of the European or American tax payers (at least initially, as four million Iranians do), don’t see the need to speak up in defense of the Afghan children denied access to schools? Why is it that people whose relatives are living it up by participating in the civic life of other societies are so venomous in attacking Arabs who live here and participate in Iran’s social life?

Why is it that of all music available, heavy metal is so fashionable? Why are people so judgmental and fashion conscious? Why is there so much bigotry? Why is there so little effort to feed and care for so many abandoned children and the vagabonds? Why such limited variety of forms of cooperation? Why so many hustlers? Why…

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Loving Cross-Eyed Serendipity

St. Valentine’s Day is up on us yet again and I find myself brooding about Love. What is it about that fleeting moment when two lives come together which suddenly and so magically transforms a dreary, bleak, and comfortless shadow of existence into one animated by hope, tenderness and beauty. It is almost as if in a curious sort of way Love engenders that instant flash of lightening that allows for the differentiation of a world enveloped by the darkness of night.

Our experiences of the erotic dimension of life in Iran, as you probably suspect, are rather odd. Think Old Testament. Recall that the Almighty’s invisible presence becomes visible to us only through various ways he issues threats and alters and mutilates our bodies for our supposed transgressions. Then, out of nowhere, so and so gets to “know” such and such and they beget this and that. Yahweh’s partner Allah and his acolytes around here have left their indelible mark on our existence.

Rarely is there a reference to the ecstasy of touching a flower, a fabric or for that matter the delight of touching a lover’s hair, or the bliss of feeling the warmth of another’s body. There is a long list of “thou shall not or else,” and then suddenly one day there is a lavish wedding. A brat is born shortly afterwards. And no, I don’t think the less than open interaction between the sexes is the determining factor in the way this absurdity is being perpetuated.

Even a closed society could allow for the enchanting possibilities of the erotic experience. Think a universe in which one becomes aware of the presence of others through one’s senses--the perfumed body, the graceful walk, and the coquettish movement of the arms, the flirtatious signals of expressive brows and the suggestive glances of amorous eyes—eyes that astound. Think the enchanting sounds of a recited poem.

Think a universe in which, given the mediated presence of others, the erotic moment may be conceived in terms of the creative act of thinking a story through which these various disjointed elements of sense data are integrated into a unified whole, thus allowing for a permanent incorporation of another into one’s universe. Consider the following narrative to get a better sense for what I mean.

Suppose two people come to interact with one another over a long period of time in a setting that does not immediately avail itself to the development of amorous intentions. For our purposes, each might be very much unaware of the other as possible subject of desire. Now one of these--let us say, Serendipity--is charming and intelligent, though harboring a dislike for her own mildly crossed eyes, which in her more fragile moments, she considers to be ugly. Suppose that at some point in time, for whatever reason, the initial aloofness withers away and one becomes smitten with Serendipity precisely because of the beauty of those eyes. Suppose that the gentility of her spirit and the grace of her presence send one scrambling to find words that may do justice to the splendor of her being. Then one day by accident one encounters the story of Adelgunda:

Many hundreds of years ago there lived a young maiden who was famous in several kingdoms. Adelgunda was indeed a remarkable young woman. She was slight, delicate and pale as a lily, but it was not so much her beauty that people spoke of. Nor was it her good sense, though one and all could see intelligence shining on her brow. No, what Adelgunda was renowned for were her two wonderful eyes, which could speak much more plainly than her lips. Her eyes could also see better than anyone else's; they saw what people were thinking and things that lay hidden deep in their souls. Yet no one was afraid of Adelgunda's eyes which saw and expressed so much; rather, anyone who looked at them was glad. Adelgunda's gaze rested long on good and beautiful things, and when her eyes saw something ugly and evil, they said so, not with hatred and contempt but with sorrow and compassion. Adelgunda's eyes spoke a language that everyone understood

Serendipity’s eyes are now Adelgunda’s. Adelgunda’s eyes now become inseparable from those of Serendipity. Here is when erotic creation becomes artistic. We may get a better sense for this creative process by delineating three distinct moments. First, one has become slightly more than he was by tapping into the emotions one did not suspect existed in order to appropriate a narrative that allows him to incorporate Serendipity into his cosmos. One thus grows to find adorable precisely that which is considered by many to be Serendipity’s “weakness.” It is exactly those eyes themselves that can now be regarded as the incomparable attribute of our beloved Serendipity.

In doing so, one suddenly becomes aware of the beauty that surrounds him simply by virtue of having become open to perceiving the (hidden) beauty of Serendipity’s eyes. But from this moment on, despite the fact that one might very well encounter an infinite number of other awe-inspiringly beautiful eyes, none will have the radiance of Serendipity’s because one is unwilling to think stories about them. One, through the moment of connection with Serendipity, has become more whole than when he started.

Second: Serendipity, if she were to have any sense at all, would find herself slightly more attuned to the nature of her gift and its possible transformational affect on the lives of others. By encountering a reflection of herself in the gaze and the story of her admirer, Serendipity becomes slightly more than she had been when she felt awkward about her eyes. Third, both our characters, through their bond via the story--and by having become part of each other’s lives-- experience an endearing expansion of being.

But of course, we know that in the less than ideal universe --that is, any where outside of the pages of some fine fairy tale--Serendipity will move on with a new sense of confidence to fall for some reputed Prince Charming who ends up being a cold-hearted insensitive jack ass and all three will live miserably ever after. Or, alternately, our would be lover becomes so enamored of his new found appreciation for beauty that he will lose all sense of proportion and moves on to create many new stories thus losing his chance of finding true happiness.

This incidentally, I suspect, is how our planet became populated by so many infuriatingly desperate and lonely people obsessing about making such a dreadful production out of a silly day that remains like any other. We thus continue with our nauseating, meaningless ritualized gestures, our relentless, ostentatious shopping, and our gluttonous consumption of dead, charcoaled flesh and alcohol

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The Anniversary

No, in case you are wondering. I don’t live on Alpha Century. But the election brouhaha managed to resolve itself without me having to utter a single word. Isn’t it amazing how things simply work out? I am back home after a long, rejuvenating sojourn in an ancient city, and yesterday I found myself meandering for hours among the huge crowd that showed up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the revolution in the Freedom Square. Now, I must admit, I really do hate crowds. Can’t stand them in the stadiums, in concerts, in theatres and I normally do try my best to avoid them in the streets and in the market places. Terribly hard to breath.

But yesterday was fun, in a goofy sort of way. The fieriness that characterizes government sanctioned gatherings was simply not there. Not much yelling and certainly not too many clenched fists. The whole thing had the jovial atmosphere of a carnival sans alcohol, sort of like a family day out. There were military bands playing, with assorted street vendors selling clothing, supplies, souvenirs, balloons, and yummy snacks. There were many touching scenes of family interactions, and much tenderness. There were even some young men and a few disabled veterans distributing political tracts.

But judged solely on the basis of the participants’ outfits, the crowd was monolithic. It disappeared almost as quickly as it came together and I was absolutely impressed by the efficiency with which our city workers cleaned up after such a large gathering using nothing but brooms. For a society that has a hard time forming lines in front of a bank teller, it was quite an accomplishment, I thought.

Has it been worth it? The revolution I mean. I do think it has been too terribly costly. Much promised, and little accomplished. Too much bloodshed. Too many rights trampled on. But such is life. Live and learn. We are, however, a belligerent nation and we don’t give up that easily. You only need to look at the terrific to get a sense for the indomitable spirit of this ancient nation. Sure, we can be full of hot air at times. But even hot air has its virtues.

No one can be expected to win all the time. We win some, and we lose some. The important thing is that we have perfected the art of the guerilla warfare. It does often disrupt our normal lives increasing our aggravations, but so too does it wreak havoc on the plans of the other side. And so, in this 25th anniversary of one of the greatest popular revolutions of the twentieth century, I remind myself that so far, I haven’t heard a beep out of the proverbial fat lady, have you?