Thursday, January 17, 2008

Marooned In Iraq: Real Life Considered

I've been in a movie-mood lately.

I just watched Marooned In Iraq, by Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, for the second time with a friend who watched it for the first time. After an hour, my friend says "Am I not getting something?" Although he'd been enjoying the humor and the characters, he looked bored. I can't blame him. The story of an Iranian Kurdish father and his sons walking across country into Iraqi Kurdistan to find the father's lost love moves at exactly the same pace as it would to walk across the country. And that's the beauty of it. It bores you just as real life bores you, but the day after you've watched it, you recall the wrinkled faces and quirky mannerisms of the main characters, the vast natural landscapes and changing skies, the villagers-turned-nomads warming their hands on makeshift fires, airplanes symbolizing war and freedom simultaneously through the destruction of lives and the hope of children as they watch them soar.

Although the film takes 97 minutes to watch, the real affect comes over you in the days after. There's a lot to consider as this film's message unfolds slowly - just like life.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Persepolis in SF: Window of Understanding

This evening I saw the film Persepolis, (also a book) by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, with a full crowd at the Embarcadero theatre in San Francisco. An important film that offers a simple and humorous method for delivering a complex and emotional message - as I walked out of the theatre, I had a sense of relief that possibly this film will help more of the masses understand (or care to understand) about the details of Iranian history, Iranians themselves, and reassess their own opinions about the current political situation.

That hope was fractured however by the time I reached the theatre lobby. Overhearing film-goers commenting to each other on their first impressions, I heard assessments that notated the entertainment value but not the content of the film. "The animation was incredible", and "it was long, wasn't it?", but not a lot of vocal comments about the story. In their defense, maybe it was too much to digest into a meaningful comment so quickly.

I hope those who see this precious film will not measure it only by its entertainment value, but also by the unique window of vicarious experience it offers. This is not just entertainment - it really happened, and it's still happening. It's more of a documentary than it is an animated film and hopefully will be categorized as such. Although there are so many scenes that had me roaring in laughter, the one that stays with me is the vision of Marjane's horror when she realizes she is seeing her dead neighbor's body in the rubble. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are a little boy or girl again - coming home after school only to find the familiar hand of your neighbor peeking out from under piles of stone and dust. No, this is not just a movie for your Friday night entertainment.

My friend once told me in all seriousness that he thought Edvard Munch's The Scream summed up the overall life experience in Iran. Apparently, he's not alone.

I'm also concerned about right-wingers using this film to strengthen opposition against the Islamic Republic in the name of war. I can hear it already: "See how they treat their people? They need to be saved from that evil government."

And indeed they do, but while there are few who stand up for how the theocratic IR has hijacked the people of Iran in their own country, the answer is not going to be found in dropping bombs.

Actually I think we can all learn more from modar e bozorg's use of jasmine flowers...

Here's another perspective on Persepolis, from

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Shuffling Through Tehran & Esfahan

I like to get away with things. Nothing serious - just little devilish acts. So when I loaded my iPod Shuffle for the trip to Iran I purposely selected songs that would set a stark contrast to the Islamic Republic street surroundings.

And what a rebel I am. It’s an eerie feeling to stand on a busy street corner in Tehran under the watchful eyes of the nearest Khomeini & Khameini billboard while grooving to DePeche Mode’s “My Own Personal Jesus”. When the next song shuffled to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" however, my skin overloaded with nervous tingles. Stares coming at me, bodies brushing by me, but no one knew the devil that lurked between my ears as the background singers moaned full blast. It felt illegal.

And later in the trip I was told that it IS illegal, which accounts for why I was the only one walking around Tehran with cords from my ears. Still, after a few days of carefully wearing the mandated hejab over my head, it felt to me like a healthy rebellion - not to mention the fact that wearing a scarf on your head is the perfect concealer for a strategically placed iPod.

That little iPod gave me another wonderful memory - in Esfahan.

Strolling the Si-o-Se Pol mid-day, I crossed paths with some young boys hanging out in the sun while playing around with a volleyball. When my Farsi ran out, I looked around for something to continue the conversation - my iPod shuffle. Setting the song to something by Lenny Kravitz, I passed it first to the oldest boy who winced at the sound of it and pressed every button to find something new - not the reaction I expected - especially since his shirt displayed "Eminem". So I reset the track to play a poetry recital of Omar Khayyam's "The Rubaiyat" and handed it back to him. Labkhand bozorgtarin bood (He had the biggest smile) then his eyes stared into space and his demeanor changed into a tranquil zone far away. This was cultural exchange at it best.

THOUGHT: Taking an iPod for a walk through San Francisco downtown, I’m just blending with the crowd, but in Southern Tehran iPods are a cultural anomaly. Now suppose there were 10 or 20 others like me in Tehran, grooving down the street, braving crosswalks at the speed of U-2 or Madonna. I wonder how that would affect the street culture over the span of a couple months.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Young Iranian Men - Bush Supporters

Not to suggest that all young Iranian men support George Bush, but I heard praise for George more than once, twice, or three times as we journeyed across four Iranian cities. I heard it often when we were in the major cities of Tehran and Esfahan and it came from the same demographic of lower to middle-class, 15- to 30-year-old men with a thirst for more out of life than what the Islamic Republic government is willing or able to offer them.

The first time I heard it, I was confused. The 20ish year-old sat on a bench in Tehran's Parque Melat also perplexed that I didn't support my President. When I asked him whether he was nervous about Bush's track record of pre-emptive strikes, or the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered under Bush policies, he was not well-informed except to say that he admired Bush because he relentlessly stands up for his beliefs. From my perspective, here was a young man living in a country that requires him to bend at the whim of the Islamic Republic, rather than act on his own volition living by his own beliefs. In this twisted way, it makes sense that the cowboy is his hero.

The second time I heard it, I tried to make sense of it by assessing the commonalities between the people who were saying it. Having tea amongst the carpets in Tehran's Bazaar Bozorg, the passionate 30-year-old carpet vendor spoke with a fervor wanting to see governmental change at any cost, but felt stymied by a lack of organization by leftists. He appreciated Bush's take-no-prisoners style and welcomed an attack by the U.S. How else would he see change in his lifetime? From what I was hearing, the spirit of young men wanting to realize their life's potential was being quashed by the current Islamic Republic and this 30-year-old was hearing the clock tick loudly against him.

The third time, it seemed that Iranians have something in common with Americans - either by choice, apathy, or force, they're only partially informed and they make decisions based on that limited information. Sitting with the young guys at the river in Esfahan, I heard them forming strong opinions based on sound bytes from satellite television and controlled internet sites. Although they were eager to learn more about the current state of worldwide politics, their opinions were easily swayed by the theatrics of a dynamic speech coming from a commanding voice behind a well-cut suit. In reality, when it came to politics, these young men were more focused on friends, family, and obtaining the best education possible in order to make the most of their personal lives - revolution was not on their list of things to do. Still, with a limited number of well-paying jobs in Iran, I wondered if even an advanced degree could satisfy their life's expectations.

In addition, I never heard any women praising Bush, further justifying the idea that Iranian men are in need of a male role model. It seems that Bush taps into the essential masculine traits that young Iranian men value - straight-forward, unrelenting, decisive. Since young Iranian men are rarely able to express these traits, they admire those who do. Even Bush.


Friday, June 30, 2006

Late Night at the River

Sometimes it's good to give yourself a reality check.

It's midnight in Esfahan at the Zayandeh Rood (Life-Giving River) and I'm sitting on the ledge of the Si-O-Se Pol (33 Bridge, named for its number of arches) listening to ten young Iranian men telling me their opinions on everything from G.W. Bush to Googoosh. I would say I was alone, but within minutes I felt like one of the boys.

I need a reality check, don't I? What's a single American woman doing unaccompanied in Iran, strolling the bridge at midnight (with a limp and a cane), then ending up shooting the breeze with a bunch of hungry Iranian boys?

Not that I suggest every tourist should head to the bridge alone after dark - it's not encouraged by Iranian authorities - but before you discount me as a fool, let me offer my reality. If this had occurred at the beginning of the trip, I would have called on my British mum's upbringing and politely excused myself from their company, but by now the ingratiating hospitality of Iranians has seeped into my sensibilities. After having so many open conversations with locals from Tehran, to Yazd, to Shiraz, and now Esfahan, every Iranian city I've experienced has made me feel welcome and safe to roam the streets, approach strangers, and sometimes even go into their homes for a cup of tea. Hospitality and respect is the modus operandi, and I couldn't have felt safer, even on the dark bridge at midnight with a crew of curious young men.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Mullahs in Shiraz

Last week I watched a mullah walk down the street in Tehran. The bottom of his skirt just touched the sidewalk as he glided through the people with a body language that whispered calm and superior. I made a snap decision that mullahs aren't in touch with the people.

Then I got a lesson in mullah behavior at the Theological University in Shiraz. I am now enlightened.

As our group learned about the history of the mosque and the university, a plain-clothed cleric-in-training approached and shook down some mulberries from the tree for myself and another American. A sweet gesture, we chatted in sparse English as he produced a little-black-book from his pocket. The page I saw had English-Farsi translations for: "Are you married?" and "How long will you be here?" So, mullahs can marry. I am enlightened.

We also had the fortunate circumstance to ask some questions of a revered rouhani (aka mullah or cleric), Agha Ansari.Born in the south of Iran and coming from a long line of mullahs, this good-natured 30 year-old man stood tall and relaxed as he spoke. Given that we were spontaneous guests, we did not cross-examine nor dig into any complicated issues.

Q: Since all women are mandated to wear hejab (head and body coverage), religious women cannot express their devotion to Islam and differentiate themselves from the crowd. Why isn't there a choice in deciding to wear hejab?

A: Women have a choice. Some women wear full chador expressing their dedication to Islam, other women wear shorter scarves of any color and design expressing their individuality. We see our religion as a social connection that protects our culture, bringing us all together as Iranians, making our nation stronger. Hejab is part of our religion. It is an obligation to Islam.

Q: What is your opinion of the current situation between U.S. and Iran?

A: The levels of uranium being enriched are only a small percentage of what is needed to create a nuclear bomb. The U.S. knows that Iranian bombs cannot reach the states, therefore they are using Iran's minimal nuclear involvement to create fear so they can change our way of life with force.

The age of force has left us. Force is from the middle-ages when we had slaves. We now must use logic and intellect, not weapons of war. No country will go on with force as their agent.

The current U.S. leaders aren't able to see this logic. Our goal as clerics is to bring more intellectuals and academics to the table so we can work on our communication with the U.S. and other countries. It's your job to go back to the U.S. and tell of our intentions for discussion and peace.

Watching his unassuming body language and hearing his logic, I felt guilty for having that earlier prejudicial opinion of mullahs. I'm sure it takes all kinds, and mullahs are no exception, but I wish I could've found a way to tell him in Farsi that because of him I was enlightened.

As the conversation wrapped up, he announced his email as - it's not often you hear the voice of an Islamic cleric speaking in capitalist terms!

As it turns out, "Yahoo!" is actually a way that Suffi mystics call on God. So maybe there is an existing link between our two cultures after all.

Well, Yahoo!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Paris Is Burning In Iran

It’s difficult to keep up with current events when you’re on vacation. Thank goodness for satellite television. How else would I know that the anti-talented Paris Hilton is now a (post-produced) singer with a salacious black and white music video that screams sex.

Sitting on the sofa watching this with three well-educated young Iranian women, I was pretty embarrassed when they asked me what American women think of her. I don’t mind the Barbies of this world – they fill a basic need – but I don’t want this Barbie representing American culture to Iranian women. She has empty eyes and such an aura of selfishness. Why can’t this ditz belong to some other country?

It bothers me to think of women in other cultures assuming that this half-wit is what Americans idealize. Her empty-headed beauty is so yesterday and not a worthy representation of sexy women in American culture today.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

They Might Be Smarter Than You

I take it all back. You should be afraid of Iranians - especially if you're an engineer.

Walking through a small park near Vale Asr Street (back in Tehran last week), we passed groups of young men and women studying in circles on the grass or sitting on park benches - books open and pen in hand. There was an aire of total concentration about them - even a crew of 12 Americans walking past didn't phase them. Eyes to the sky, a young man was committing a page to memory. Under a tree, a group of girls were deep in discussion. The Concoor exams are about to be taken; a chance to be granted a subsidized university education for those who test in the upper percentile.

Engineering is the hot ticket with Sanatee Sharif University's worldwide reputation for turning out top-level engineers.

So, what's to be afraid of? These engineers are leaving Iran en masse - it's called the Brain Drain - and they could be coming to a town near you. Well-educated and passionate about knowledge, you'd better buck up if you're in competition with an Iranian. Movaffagh bashid (good luck).

The Welder of Yazd

I have a friend named Wolf who is a metal sculptor and fine appreciator of life, so when I saw the welding spark glowing inside the dark neighborhood shop last night, I felt compelled to snap a pic of his Iranian fellow artisans. Barely taking a step in the door, the welder instantly turned up the flourescent lights to verify that this strange-looking lady was actually in his workshop. The ambiance of the moment ruined, I wondered if a worthy picture was even possible now.

I ended up getting a lot more than a picture.

Within minutes I'm sitting on a Persian rug in the backyard of their home surrounded by their entire family of ten or more. Smiling face after smiling face kept emerging out of the house - I lost count. The proud pedar (father) introduced me to everyone with such care. He wanted to be sure I understood exactly who everyone was and we pronounced each name in detail together. One daughter took my hand so tightly and kissing me on each cheek let me know how happy she was that I was there. "Amrikari," (American) she kept saying in disbelief. They served me fresh cantaloupe juice and homemade bread while everyone rolled around on the rug laughing at my attempts at Farsi. Who needs the Comedy Channel?

So thanks, Wolf. If it weren't for you I wouldn't have met this incredible Iranian family nor thought to take the pictures... which by the way, you're going to love.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ashk e Khoshal - Happy Tears

Inside Tehran we received long stares and the occasional smile, but outside Tehran is another story - welcome to Yazd. My heart hurts watching the locals wave at our bus as we drive by, as if we were someone important - I'm so ashamed. They are the royal ones with their open hearts. Walking through the bazaar last night, we couldn't get very far without an exchange of smiles, handshakes, and people saying "hello" in English. These people couldn't be more elated to see Westerners, but they're even more delighted to find out we are Americans.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bizarre Bozorg

Oh, what a day this was. If only I could upload pics from my outdated electronica you could hear, taste, see what I mean. Mota'assefam (sorry), it will have to wait until I return. Here are the pictures - and some pictures I wish I had taken - for you to envision in the meantime:

Aks #1: Back of the bus chock full of chadored women in black - and one 6' tall American woman dressed in white. I accidentally pointed my cane at one of them on my way out. Let's just say, a huge smile makes up for a lot. Bebaksheed, you know? (excuse me)

Aks #2: A pink ice cream cone held by a woman in full chador standing at the curtain of the woman's entrance to Masjede-Shah Mosque in Bazaar Bozorg. Khoshhal (happiness) comes in many flavors around here, but I didn't expect it in the mosque! Hey, maybe it was Baskin Robbins' "Pink Bubble Gum" flavor.

Aks #3: Young smiling man in the Bazaar Bozorg with scabs and scrapes on his face and arms. After we talked I found out he had a motorcycle accident too! I can relate.

Aks #4: Having chaee with the young hip carpet vendors, Ali and Mehrbad, at their wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Persian carpeted office. There's an interesting backstory on this picture to come.

The list goes on, but there's a line forming for this computer so I must say khoda hafez (goodbye). Off to discover the beauty of Yazd, Shiraz, and Esfahan...