Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Sailors, summer dresses, coffee shops

The capture of the British sailors has not been given much publicity here in Iran. But as usual, the politically minded conspiracy buffs have been at it. The usual suspects abroad too have had their own interesting takes on the episode. Here is Mr. Ledeen for one with his usual. Juan Cole’s version here.

I am beginning to be disappointed with our potential Gauleiter in Tehran. (Pity though, he prefers Positano. So collectively heartbroken we are!) I mean, he is such a sharp fellow, educated, witty and likable. Surley he must by now have developed a measure of familiarity with some features of the dominant Iranian psyche.

The fault must lie with the company he is said to be keeping. Our Monarchists aren’t known to be amongst the most luminous chandeliers in the house, or the most illuminating. And as we all know, no American hack is ever to be faulted for his shortcomings or mistakes. God forbid anyone acknowledging error and assuming responsibility in this day and age! So unbecoming! Those damn foreigners who are perpetually manipulating and deceiving our hapless, trusting, good natured souls toiling so unappreciated to direct the affairs of the planet.

To his credit though, Ledeen does try to place Iranian citizens at the center of his exegeses every now and then. Sometimes, I get a feeling that 70 million people are simply invisible when the analysts discuss Iran. Every detail of the discussions always focuses on various factions within the government, their plans, all the plots they hatch, as well as the potential consequences for the life of the global community.

That there are millions here with desires, expectations, wants and needs is hardly ever an issue. That there are competing social forces, impulses and passions--human, understandable and predictable--also irrelevant. That the factions might be responding to some form of domestic pressure is again mostly ignored, unless of course, it is some hard line, fanatical constituency that is deemed responsible for the policy under scrutiny.

Take this BBC exposĂ© on the impending crackdown on summer dresses and this Al-Jazeera report on the bleak future of our coffee shops. Certainly, a part of the problem does originate with the more traditionalist faction’s new found confidence about the Regime’s abilities/ options thanks to the turmoil in Iraq. Law and order is the business of day. More patrols on the street on daily basis than all you would have encountered in months this past year.

And, yes, I always worry about my female relatives and fellow citizens during the summer. They are (and look) miserable. And I think people should have every right to dress as they see fit without interference from the authorities and other busybody members of the community. (Of which there are plenty) But let us also pause to examine the meaning of summer dresses and coffee shops in Iran.

Iranians are some of the most image conscious people you’ll ever encounter.

It is not simply a summer dress, you see. It is the entire package. Women love their hair and bodies here. They toy with them for sports. First, consider this background info: a factory worker earns about 80,000 tomans per month. ($90) A teacher 60-100,000. A driver, 12 hour shifts in nasty traffic and pollution, about 100-150,000. A retired high ranking military officer 180-300,000! Now armed with this random sampling, consider a woman walking the streets with a fancy summer dress.

Start at the head: It has to be either highlighted or dyed blond. Price: 50,000 and up!
Eyebrows tattooed at roughly 25,000, done on the cheap. A head scarf, usually transparent and colorful, anywhere 5,000 and up! Foreign makeup, to include tons of whiteners as foundation, bright lipsticks, eye shadow, etc, (in the thousands) Strong perfume (in the thousands) The obligatory nose job and/or all the injected collagen (lips, eyes, cheekbones) in the millions! And the colored lenses too for the eyes.

Diamonds, rubies and Safire adorning the fingers, in the millions; long nails with polish usually in the color some of you might recognize as teenage bright --regardless of the age. Manteau anywhere from 14,000 to 100,000 and up.

And don’t you dare forget the feet. Iranian women love their feet, some of the cleanest, and most decorated anywhere on the planet. Usually open toe sandals (again a few thousands and up) plus long toe nails, polished and pedicured: Minimum 10,000 a session. Let us throw in the cost of the mobile phones (hundreds of thousands) and the little dog too! We did forget the summer dress itself, didn’t we? Use your imagination and calculate the price tag for any number of possible combinations in any given day.

Lest you think I am caving into that baser instinct of envy, just consider that regardless of how we define our party affiliations and political philosophies here, there is a consensus that ours is a highly corrupt society with nepotism, and official contacts determining the state of our economic well being. Or so goes the dominant discourse.

So while, in my humble opinion, the money and power are a lot more diffused today than anytime in the modern history of Iran, there are always those lingering question about where and how the slew of women might have come up with the sort of money they are the walking advertisements for!

Add in the car and use your deductive abilities to fill in the shape of the house satisfying to the expectations of our princesses along with all the furniture, appliances, trips and the summer resorts…well, now you might get a sense for what must go through the minds of the poor souls walking around in plain black chador with oodles of groceries in tow on their way to the butcher shop for some red meat at 4,500 tomans a kilo!

Now remember that this revolution was always about justice and more equitable access to resources. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Others are forced to tolerate authoritarianism and bullying. Tens of thousands are either physically disabled or suffering gravely due to chemical poisoning by the Ba’athists and their Western allies. Tens of thousands were also butchered by the Regime as it consolidated its hold on power. Family members have been pit against their kin.

Factor in the poverty, inflation, and unemployment, and the fact that even the more right of center opposition groups are attacking economic measures the regime employs to realign itself with the competitive global life today in anticipation of entry to the WTO, i.e., factory closures, employing temporary contractors, lay offs, etc,. O.K., you’ll get a sense for the confusing mess everyone has to deal with.

There was a time, people believed in something here, however crude or misguided. No one believes in much of anything nowadays really—except money and silly ostentations. And I don’t mean to sound old fashioned. Wouldn’t you want to go to a coffee shop, for instance, simply because you might find the taste of good coffee just delicious as you chat or read a book? Well not here. As many coffee shops as we have, there is not a decent, hot cup of coffee to be found in kilometers. Why? Because it is not about coffee! It is hardly ever about the thing or the pursuit in and of itself.

There is no immediacy about life here. People just want things for the heck of it, or because neighbors or relatives have them. We demand things and feel entitled. Not much long term planning about anything. It has become a highly improvised existence for most. Everyone just wings it, dealing with the consequences tomorrow. This is the cultural background to what goes on around here. Now, you can factor in the ruling clergy.

I don’t want to make it sound as if our rulers have no plans. They wouldn’t be ruling us if they didn’t have a finger on the pulse of this nation and all the myriad fears and aspirations that animate us. Let’s face it, they run an occupation authority and they have managed to sustain it despite long odds for more than 25 years. No simple feat as Americans are discovering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But if I know my Iranians, chances are, the navy guys happened to chance upon the Brits and decided to get them and see what happens. From here on, they are going to play it by the ear. My hunch is the authorities will be releasing the British soon, unless of course, the omnipresent Iranian chaos gets the better of everyone. It has been known to happen before.

And just in case you might be tempted to dismiss everything I just wrote as biased( and no kidding, I am biased), think about a simple question. There are musical instruments in Iran. No Islamic edicts against music nowadays, several hundred music schools and thousand of students and countless musicians. Additionally, as I’ve argued, this a society highly adept at improvisations. So, when was the last time you heard of any outstanding Iranian jazzers?

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