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