Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A look back on Couchsurfing Iran

My favorite picture from my trip: a young woman who ran an Internet cafe
It's been almost four years since I visited Iran. In that time, much has changed politically. In 2009-2010, the Green Movement made international headlines as a mass movement of protesters challenged the legitimacy of the election. In 2011 the 'Day of Rage' protest kicked off an ongoing series of protests. Discussions of dealing with a potentially nuclear armed Ahmadinejad regime continue in the US and Europe.

At the time of writing, the US 2012 presidential election hangs in the balance. During the 3rd debate, which focused on foreign policy, President Obama discussed harsh economic sanctions as his primary means of 'crippling' Iran. They appear to be working. According to the Daily Beast, hyperinflation--being driven by the sanctions--is making the average Iranian "twice as poor every 40 days."
Friends of Arshiya, goofing before the camera on campus in Esfahan

The standard logic of such an economic sanction is that it will increase pressure on the regime to expressly give up any notion of acquiring nuclear arms capacity, or that the suffering it causes will drive average citizens to rise up and topple the regime. But under a totalitarian, iron-fisted regime such as the current one, how likely is this tactic to be successful? As the same Daily Beast article points out, it sure didn't work in Iraq, where 12 years of humanitarian misery did not prevent an eventual costly and disastrous war.

I got this guy to hold Ohmee while he crouched in a giant vessel (Kashan)

Meanwhile, I think about those being hurt most by these sanctions. Not the regime's leaders themselves, but the country's 75 million citizens, some of whom I had the chance to stay with and get to know during my travels. I think of Ahmad, the man I sat next to on the plane and who invited me to his house for a dinner feast in which he specially invited an English-speaking friend, just so I'd have someone to chat with. Of Taymaz, the easygoing drummer I wandered through the streets of Tehran with. Of Arshiya, the hyper-articulate college student who I shadowed around his campus in Esfahan, who told me he wakes up each morning thanking God that nuclear holocaust has not occurred. And of Babak, the freedom fighter in Mashad. And the dozens of other folks who helped out a foreign backpacker and made my time in their home country so meaningful and memorable.

A metalworker in central Esfahan

A family in Esfahan picnicking--a popular weekend pastime

Here in America, we hear about Iran in the news with the same geo-political narrative of danger and evil. But these narratives lack context. They fail to give voice to the way that our foreign policy has such dramatic negative impact upon the lives of good, hard-working people who want nothing more than to live lives similar to our own, who oppose the regime and risk serious harm if (and when) they challenge it. I hope that readers who stumble across this blog may have their perspective on Iran and its people broadened, if only by learning a little about some of its regular citizens.
At a park in Tehran with Shadi, a young woman who drove in from way out of town to take me around

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Recommended books before you go

Here are some books I found very useful for reading up and learning more about Iran before (and after!) I visited Iran:

The Soul of Iran, by Afshin Molavi: I read this book in China before going and finished it in India, but almost wish I had kept it with me whilst in Iran, so as to re-read some of the many elegant, insightful passages about certain parts of the country while actually there. Molavi brings a great understanding of both American and Iranian culture to this work, and maintains an engaging balance of national history and personal anecdote. I recommend this to anybody going or simply interested in Iran.

Persian Mirrors, by Elaine Sciolino: Written by a NY Times journalist who has spent some 20 years reporting from Iran, this book presents a unique insider's perspective. One point in which it may differ from Molavi's "The Soul of Iran" is in Sciolino's access to female voices more difficult for a man to hear. I'm not yet through it myself, but have found it thoroughly entertaining to date.

We Are Iran: A fellow backpacker was reading this while we were traveling together and recommended it. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but from flicking through, found it to be an excellent collection of translated native voices from the Iranian blogosphere.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Babak: Freedom of speech, freedom of software | Mashad

Babak reading his own campus newspaper before class

Babak is tall and thin, and when he opens the front gate of his house, eyes narrowed by sleep, he looks younger than his 21 years. I had just arrived from the overnight bus from Yazd, filled with pilgrims on their way to Imam Reza shrine, the holiest shrine in Shi'a Islam. Before setting off, we were lead in group prayer, and along the way, had made stops at roadside mosques for passengers to perform their evening and morning prayer.

His house is in a quiet, posh outlying suburb of Mashad, with a coffeehouse on the corner, just off a highway leading into town. In his room, posters championing Firefox web browser and Ubuntu open source software lie around, and an acoustic guitar sits in the corner.

"You've heard of open source?" he asked me. "Oh good! Open source is my life."

Babak is a man of many interests. Other than being a city ambassador for open source, he is the editor of one of his university's daily papers, pulls some part-time IT troubleshooting work, is learning French and reads voraciously, both online and off. He proudly points out the thousands of blog posts he's contributed to several web forums where young members of Iran's blogosphere sound off on social issues, one that he moderates himself. His English, compared to most Iranians, is exceptional.

I ask if his interest in open source is political at all.

"Extremely political," he affirms, without hesitation. "Open source software is connected to freedom. I am interested in freedom: political freedom, freedom of speech...they are all related."

He attributes his political interests to his family. After a feast lunch of mixed kebabs, pizza, eggplant and other Iranian culinary staples, his father, a small, quiet-spoken manager, told me about his own youth.

At Babak's home entertaining on the guitar

"Before the revolution, I was interested in the ideas of Karl Marx and other writers," he explains, gently. "But now, I think history has shown that these systems do not work. We prefer the American democratic system." His wife cares not to wear the headscarf in front of me, and his children are all as secular as he.

I visit Babak's university, a private institution where he is clearly a popular guy around campus. Witty and quirky, he chats with a dozen others within the space of five minutes, pointing out to me how relations between the opposite sex are more open than one would find at a public university. As if to point out the difference, in an empty classroom, he and his girlfriend embrace briefly, flirting indiscreetly as they study a French audio CD on his laptop. Sitting a small distance from them, I avert my eyes in an odd mix of fear and embarrassment, at behavior that I wouldn't even notice in other countries.

Mural commemorating martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war (Mashad)

But that evening, returning home late, Babak is less upbeat, lips tightly pursed. In their French class, a conservative student, known in Iran as the "Hezbollahi," saw Babak and his girlfriend make physical contact. They had been joking around, and Babak had playfully jabbed her in the ribs. The student had reported the incident to the teacher, and at the end of the class, the teacher had told them of the expulsion. The school returned them the payment for the class, upon which Babak and his girlfriend signed up for an alternative French class.

Over dinner, he explained his situation to his parents, who were understanding and, though angry, ultimately resigned. He said it was less the teacher's own will, as the school's fear that some of the more conservative enrolled students, seeing that such behaviour went unpunished, might withdraw from the school, or tarnish its name.

I ask him if he's going to write about the incident in his newspaper.

"There's no point," he sighs. "This sort of thing happens every day in Iran, so it's not worth writing about."

A modern home in Babak's neighborhood

I was surprised at how quickly it seemed Babak had resigned himself to his fate, ridiculous as everyone agreed that it was. Earlier in the day, when talking of my reservations in blogging about political affairs in Iran, Babak told me to write what I wanted.

"We complain about the government all the time in the newspapers," he said. "It's only if you criticise certain people in the government that you get into trouble."

But as we discussed just how free Iranians are to dissent and criticise, he sounded decreasingly sure of himself. Then, later in the evening, surfing online, he read his girlfriend's anonymous blog. I asked what sort of things she writes about.

"She's venting about things in society she disagrees with," he answered. "Things you can't say in public. These sort of blogs are very common in Iran."

At Imam Reza shrine, which an estimated 20 million pilgrims visit each year

This line, between what is and is not acceptable within public discourse, seems to have blurred considerably in Iran. Farsi is apparently the fourth most blogged language in the world, and young, urban Iranians are as wired and as hungry consumers of international media as their Western counterparts. But whether accessible knowledge and online communities, blossoming despite the government's occasional efforts to slow it, will be enough to challenge the old-fashioned strong arm of the regime, remains to be seen.

My host family, educated, Westernized, secular and progressive, living somewhat ironically at the heart of Shi'ite Islam and annual host to millions of conservative pilgrims, speak of timelines for change. They see it as inevitable, citing how the Islamic Republic continues to lose ever more hold over its populace.

Almost every person I spoke with in Iran was of a similar persuasion, but this might be expected, as the people I met were of a particular demographic. Less wealthy, urbanized, tech-savvy Iranians tend to align more with the conservative mullahs. But even among former adherents, according to Babak's family, the regime's support is drying up.

Devotees at Imam Reza shrine

I quiz them about how long such changes will take.

Democracy? Soon, maybe within their generation.

The head scarf? Longer perhaps, maybe 30 years.

But whatever the length necessary, they made one thing clear. If Iran is going to change, and I've never seen a society so bursting at the seams to do so, it's going to happen on their own terms. No foreign intervention, and no violence, was what Iranians reiterated to me repeatedly. After the legacy of the British and consternation regarding America's war in countries bordering their west and east, foreign invasion, locals feared, would only turn people back to the regime in a nationalist backlash.

Arshiya: Maverick, Cynic, Persian

 Arshiya on campus

I met Arshiya through another couch surfer, one of his classmates studying English literature at the prestigious Esfahan University, on the steps of the Si-o-seh (33 Arches) bridge, which spans the Zeyandeh River. Iranians describe Esfahan, known as the City of Art, as being the most beautiful city in the country. I found both descriptions apt, as I wandered Imam Square, the winding labyrinth of its bazaar and its charming riverbank parks.

He is 18, though he looks about 13, making his offer to host me at his home feel somewhat like having a middle school student invite you to his marriage.

"I have four homes," Arshiya explained to me, "so don't worry about a place to stay!"

Esfahan is in mine (and popular) opinion, the most beautiful city in Iran
They include his father and stepmother's home, where he normally stays, his mother's apartment, and two grandparents' homes. In busy rush-hour traffic, we opted for one of the latter, where we spent the night with his two aunts and 11 year-old cousin, Fatima.

They chose not to join us for dinner, for religious reasons, leaving Arshiya and I to discuss Iran's education system, which is quite distinct from that in the West. From primary through to high school, they attend classes from around 7:30 to noon, finishing before lunch. They also begin streaming from tenth grade, receiving a diploma by eleventh in their chosen specialization. Arshiya specialized in humanities, and it showed. Though only beginning college, he is already well read in classical Persian poetry, reciting (in translation) stanzas from Khayyam's Rubaiyat by heart and making casual reference to Plato, Nietzsche and dialectics.

Shah Mosque at Imam Square, Esfahan

He also, with a puff of his chest, provided me with his exact academic ranking. Of the two million or so Iranian youth competing for a place in university, he knows where he ranked nationally, out of his division*, and then for English literature positions in his institution (17th out of 50). Coming from the West, where people tighten up at the notion of ranking people explicitly, it reminded me of my Singaporean cousins' culture of "Childhood as Academic Coliseum." But for a prodigious young man like Arshiya, who claims to be "married to the English language" and has already been teaching the language for two years, he basked in the placement of his ranking.

He wears a gold Farshallah medallion around his neck, the symbol of Persian people, and like almost every Iranian I've met, he detests Arabs and their influence on his country's language and culture. When a Polish backpacker had mentioned his plan to head to "the Gulf," Arshiya immediately interjected: "You mean the Persian Gulf."

One of his aunts is a theology teacher at a high school, and I had the opportunity to speak with her later in the evening, as Arshiya translated a series of questions we posed one another. Described by her non-believing nephew as "extremely conservative," she maintained the full-length chador, compared to my host in Tehran, who dressed openly in shorts and t-shirts within the home. We spoke of wahabism (falsified and power-driven), nuclear energy and weapons (the first a national right, the second undesirable), Israel and Judaism (no problem with Israelis and Jews, problems with the Israeli government), Iranian women's rights (they are completely free) and why I came to Iran (to have these very discussions).
Arshiya's aunt and family (the theologian is the one on the right)

It was amusing watching Arshiya's expression as he translated his aunt's answers. He makes no qualms about voicing his dislike of religion, Islam included, though he goes through the motions of prayer and other rituals sometimes in order to satisfy his aunts and society.

"All Muslim women, in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and so on are completely free," he translated, before turning to me, eyebrows raised, to add: "She claims!", leaving no doubt to his own opinion.

But just as things were getting interested, his aunt left quickly, apologizing as she left the room. Had I offended her? My one chance to talk to an actual supporter of the regime, and she had run off!

"Her favorite serial is starting," Arshiya explained, "and it’s the final episode of the season."

Later, an interview between Ahmadinejad and Larry King was being broadcast, and Arshiya's aunt called us in to watch. He translated ably for me, having just explained his rather grim belief that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who he thought engineered his election are intent on attaining a nuclear weapon and attacking Israel, whether or not it also leads to the destruction of their own country.

"Everyday I wake up I thank God that there's still peace," he confided.

With a friend of his after a fancy dinner

Walking around town, and whilst visiting his campus, it felt clear that I was being talked “at,” and not “to.” He and his fellow English majors would often make fun of each other if they made a minor grammatical slip, asking me for feedback and to correct their English. Studying English connects them to the outside world, and more directly: to prized Western backpackers like myself, whose attention they could be quite catty over.

Whilst outside a bookstore, a young girl asked me if I needed any help. Arshiya suddenly reappeared.

“No, he’s with me. He doesn’t need your help!” he declared, aggressively, and she left, taken aback by his attitude, and Arshiya continued to shoot death glares at her long after she had left.

“Some people want to just use you to practice their English, but they just talk shit,” he told me.


*Major cities make up Division A, whereas small towns and villages take up a different position, similar to affirmative-action quotas

A young couple enjoying a biryani lunch off the main commercial thoroughfare (Esfahan)

Debate and Discussion: An English translation class in Esfahan

In class at Najaf Abad University (Esfahan)
I sat down on the stage, legs akimbo, before a class of English translation students at Najaf Abad University in Esfahan. The class was split dramatically, like foreign language classes tend to be, in favor of females; in this case, about 20 women to three men. The men sat on one side, the girls on the other, and the dynamic was split into two separate spheres.

Earlier, the class had been debating when and how often to meet. This was their first time back, and I sat in the corner, observing them debate how to run their class. There were no set times, nor teacher: the entire group was self-governing. The previously established leader of the class, one of the guys, was arguing with the female students over whether lectures should be given, and how topics should be chosen.

With a host in Kashan (who I met off the street)

"But in my experience, last summer, none of the students chose to give a lecture," he lectured, rather dismissively.

One of the male students explained to me that this isn't the case in the elite universities, where attendance is compulsory. But here, most upper level students did not attend their classes, instead studying independently before showing up to take the final exam.

I gave them a little spiel about myself and why I'm in Iran, before we began to exchange questions about each other.

Emboldened after a while, the questions, asked mostly by the girls, became increasingly personal and controversial. They ranged from the commonplace and obvious: “Are Iranians like what you thought they would be before you arrived?”, to the religious: “What do you think of Hossein Ali?”, to dating preferences: “What do you look for in a woman?”

Faloodeh - vermicelli served with cardamom icecream: an absolutely delicious traditional Iranian dessert

When I asked them in return: “What do you look for in a man?”, nobody answered. I had crossed an invisible line, into the private sphere in which they weren’t willing or able to discuss, particularly in front of their male peers.

But we spoke plainly about inflation, of the difficulty involved in finding a job for college graduates, and I made references to “increasing global understanding” and “breaking down borders.”

A few days later, Ahmad, who had invited me to speak when we’d met at Fin Gardens in the city of Kashan, asked me to return.

“They want to have another class, just for you,” he gushed. “They felt, how do you say, ‘blown off’, by you!”

“Blown off?” I thought, now feeling somehow guilty.

“I mean ‘blown away!’” he laughed, before adding: “I like to use idioms! Can you teach me more American idioms?”

Retirees chat inside the calm walls of a mosque in Esfahan

Monday, October 13, 2008

Finding the Disco in Shiraz

My host in Shiraz, Arash, playing an Iranian folk song for me

With discotheques being banned in Iran, young people have to get creative about socializing with one another.

At first, I wasn't sure why Hassan, the cousin of my host in Shiraz, Arash, was driving around in circles in his mother's orange hatchback. I thought that maybe he was simply being indecisive, and kept changing his mind about where to go. It was only after about the fourth U turn that I decided to end the suspense.

“Why are we driving around in circles?!”

Only then did Arash, whose communication method tends toward do, rather than explain, reveal to me that we were not simply driving around recklessly in circles, pumping Iranian rap music (being what we in Australia refer to as “bogans”): we were, in fact, at a disco. But not any ordinary kind of disco, such as those involving nightclubs and overpriced drinks and circles of hungry single men eying self-conscious young women...

This was a Car Disco, Islamic Republic of Iran style!

“This is how young people meet each other in Shiraz,” he told me.

“When something is banned, you have to be creative.”

Arash's massive, elegant, walled-off home
I didn't really get it until we found ourselves driving next to a friend of Hassan. With windows down, they turned to greet each other cordially--somewhat hair raising for me in the back, given the speed and manner in which we were traveling (Iran has the highest death toll rate in the world, backpackers love to quote). They made yet another straight-into-oncoming-traffic U turn then quickly pulled to the side of the road. There, the two disembarked from their cars, chatted for a few minutes, exchanging myriad Iranian pleasantries, before re-entering the fray.

It was just as one might do in a club, only we were on a crowded two-lane street, filled almost exclusively with cars driven by teenage and 20-something revelers, each pumping their own brand of high-volume Farsi pop power into the humid Shirazian air. In a city known for its poets and its wine, pleasant, charming Shiraz now also hosts a far cruder, more contemporary “The Fast and The Furious”-meets-”Lipstick Jihad” scene.

A Car Disco, once you get used to the idea, works much like a regular one. Arash assures me that girls can and do indeed get picked up at such events. The road is the dance floor, the car an extension of your body. Every time a set of cars U turn, some five at a time, they do so at dramatic pace, weaving and accelerating to get in front of each other, the sort of confident entry that the lone Central American guy gets to make at Wednesday salsa night before a floor of half-drunken stiffs. To hit on a girl, one approaches by speeding up beside them, motioning for them to wind down their windows. If the sweet-talker is lucky, he might just get her to agree to pull over for a more “intimate” chat.

At the tomb of Sadi, a revered poet, with Audrey, a French backpacker friend I made through CS

Police presence was minimal. Apparently they pull cars over if they're speeding, but short bouts of manic acceleration seemed permitted. The only real action I saw was when a traffic officer—Iran apparently has three kinds of police, ones for traffic, ones who handle “social' law, and more-serious criminal types—was filling forms following a minor traffic accident.

And is there a cover charge?

Well, not explicitly. But you're not likely to see many “lemon” Paykans on these elite roads. All the cars taking part in the disco, Arash tells me, are new, preferably fast, and largely foreign. So unsurprisingly, just like the discos we have in other countries, Iranian car discos are also self-selecting, popular amongst wealthier, upper-middle class youth, those with cousins in Los Angeles who prefer to lug Benetton, not copies of the Quran.

After several more rounds on the dance-road, we turned off into Arash and his cousins' preferred culinary destination: the American-themed fast food joint. The way Americans turn to Chinese food for something cheap and greasy, so the Iranians head for the American. There, we dined on “kentaki” chicken strips, mushroom cheeseburgers and “fried potato” (french fries), scoping out the heavily made-up, bright blonde girls in their headscarves sitting at the next table.

Before the Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

The Towers of Silence, Yazd: plus, George Michael, Lars Von Trier and Iranian youth's Western pop culture diet

According to Mansour, my host in Yazd, the ‘Towers of Silence’ that lie just outside the city are a few thousand years old. We took a cab out there after I had spent the night at his classmates’ place, sleeping on a mattress in their couch-less, bed-less one-room apartment. Their walls were bare but for Persian poems and images of Ali and Hossein, two of the twelve Shi’a imams.

Mansour has dubbed one of them Clint, as in Eastwood.

“You know ‘Dirty Harry?,’” Mansour explained to me. “He looks just like him from that famous scene!”

Clint is Baluchi, one of the handful of ethnic minorities in Iran, but speaks Farsi at home. Apart from Baluchistan, in the southeast, Baluchis also live in Pakistan, to Iran’s east, and share similar loose, flowing garb and Sunni Islam with the people from that nation. They are often linked to the lawless drug trade that takes place along the Pakistan-Iran border. Clint however, could not have come across as more clean-cut: shy and ruggedly handsome, having his roommate translate for him while explaining Iranian card games to me.

Clint lives with Alef, who is from Bam, also in the southeast. It was once one of Iran’s most famous tourist destinations, because of its fairy-tale mud castle, but which was badly ruined along with much of the city by a 2003 earthquake . Alef wants to go back and work in tourism in Bam after his studies. All three of them are doing a BS in tourism management at Yazd University.

My CS buddy Mansour, at ease at a restaurant in town.

They have, like college students throughout the world, a solid collection of downloaded movies and music on their PC. Iranians have an unfortunate, if understandable enthusiasm for soft rock, which only seems to grow over time from a song’s original release. George Michael's "Careless Whisper" must surely be the country's English-language pop anthem, it's grip on the nation's psyche even rivals that which Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” continues to have over China's. Kenny G and Michael Bolton feature from car stereos and restaurant muzak playlists. A techno remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way” was pumping at a hip fast-food joint in Shiraz. Most of the time, however, the Iranian youth I’ve met seem to prefer Farsi pop, whether it takes the shape of electronica, hip-hop or otherwise.

So I was impressed to find a far more current movie collection on Alef and Clint’s PC. “Snatch,” “Crash” and one of my favorite documentaries, “Baraka,” were all there, as was the Korean cult-classic “Old Boy.” “The Piano” and Lars Von Trier's “Europa” were also neatly stored away, alongside a curious Indian-English animated musical. Iran's DVD stores seem filled only with “Die Hard”-aping action films and cheesy Hollywood romantic comedies, but these two college guys seemed to have acquired a more high-brow taste. No Iranian films however.

Away from European films, the two Towers of Silence and some well-preserved Zoroatrian buildings stand in the suburbs, next to a mine, not far from the university. Like Yazd's famous old city, the buildings are crafted from mud and thatch, and whose smooth, multi-domed roofs recall sand castles and children's paintings.

The garden courtyards of Iran have a most classic beauty (Yazd)

Mansour and I climbed to the top of one tower, taking breaks for his smoker’s lungs and my general lack of fitness. At the top, we stared into the circular hole where the Zoroastrians (whose prophet, Zoroastria, is also known as “Zarathustra”, of Nietzschean fame) would leave the bodies of their dead for vultures to pick clean. According to their religious beliefs, the elements are sacred, and so burying or cremating corpses is considered impure. Tibetans have a similar practice known as sky burial. However, due to hygiene concerns, the practice has been banned in Iran since the 1960s, and there’s now a Zoroastrian cemetery nearby.

Interestingly enough, the Zoroastrian symbol, “Faravahar", has been adopted as a symbol of Persian people, in direct opposition to the Arab influence upon the country, since the original Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Many Iranians make no qualms about displaying their resentment towards Arabs, generally separating the Arab people from Islam, the faith that they brought to the Persians. It features the profile of a male figure, with long wings and a tail/skirt below his torso. My host in Shiraz, Arshiya, wears it with pride, telling me he appreciates the simplicity of Zoroastrian doctrine: “You simply have to think, speak and do good.”