10 Aug 2009 10:32
By GHAZZAL DABIRI in Shiraz | 9 Aug 2009
Everyone in my family who said they would not, went to vote. Unfortunately, I could not vote since I had left my national identification booklet back home in New York. My twenty something year old cousins banded together to find relatives standing in line, whom they knew were leaning toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent president, to coerce them into voting for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Reformist Party's more moderate candidate.
Later that afternoon, we gathered around the living room to watch the news and discuss the election as it was unfolding. My elder relatives laughed as they claimed that my cousins' persuasion tactics worked. They voted for Mousavi, "the youth vote," as they called it and they extended their situation onto all Iranian parents. They believed that many of the votes for Ahmadinejad would turn into votes for Mousavi in support of Iran's youth. Meanwhile, they also believed and confirmed one other's assertions that there was no real difference in the policies of the two candidates. One of my aunts said that her time was over, she and her generation had made their decisions. She now just wanted to do right by Iran's youth and sincerely hoped that for their sake the change Mousavi was promising them would come to fruition, but she doubted it.
The anticipation of change was palpable among the younger generations. For the five nights preceding the election, people between the ages of thirteen to thirty-something had spilled out into the streets of Isfahan and Shiraz rallying for their favorite candidates. It was light-hearted and fun. Ahmadinejad supporters hurled witty and often hilariously ridiculous slogans at Mousavi supporters. Not to be outdone, Mousavi supporters gave as good as they got. The debates provided more than enough fodder and both sides seemed to enjoy the competition.
People decorated their cars with the colors and posters of their chosen candidate and circled the city honking, whistling, and trilling, imitating the way in which cars are decorated with a bridal parties' colors and the spiritedness with which brides and grooms are transported to and from their weddings. Traffic was unbearable in the evenings in both cities, especially in the city centers. Like clockwork, the streets of Shiraz were unnavigable after 7:30 p.m., as young men and women poured into the streets singing, dancing, holding up and waving tree branches (the green leaves symbolized support for Mousavi), and waving the Iranian flag (which symbolized support for Ahmadinejad as the incumbent president). They would boldly come out into the middle of traffic and demand that people honk for their candidate, put fliers under wind shield wipers, and quickly tell jokes that ridiculed the opposing candidate, before cars could veer off. The mood was festive. Some had come out to honestly show support for their candidates, others had come to party in the streets using the rallies (and I use the term loosely here) as a pretext for enjoying the opportunity to express themselves so openly. There can be little doubt that these young men and women, who were likened to pressure cookers by older onlookers, were letting off steam. Venting in the most jubilant way, they seemed effervescent to me.
One night I asked a handful of Mousavi supporters why they liked him so much. Nearly all of them said that he cared about the concerns and grievances of the younger generations and would work to improve their lives. What this meant to them in realistic terms was the freedom to congregate in their coffee shops without the threat of those restaurants being closed down. I knew how they felt. It was only seven months ago that I had voted for Obama and felt the birth pangs of hope being reborn. I, along with most of New York, yelled out in the streets with unadulterated joy when McCain conceded. Maybe it was not coincidental that I felt that way. Mousavi had borrowed Obama's "Yes, We Can" slogan and brilliantly made his wife a major part of his campaign strategy. To all the educated women in Iran with no job prospects, she had become a symbol of hope as well. They likened her to Michelle Obama and perhaps believed their personal predicaments and that of the grass-roots campaigns for women's rights would improve with her.
Later on election day, we got the call from my cousin. My aunt's television had stopped showing the Iranian channels and we could no longer watch IRNA for the outcome of the election (the family was in agreement that the government was blocking the satellites again, though everyone else's televisions were showing those channels. She called to tell us that Ahmadinejad had won. Almost everyone in the house was shocked. A stunned silence fell over the family. They could not believe that the results would be announced so quickly and more surprising that Ahmadinejad had won. I could. After all it was in 2000, 2004, and even 2008 in the States that the outcomes were announced by news stations and their "exit polls" (I for one have never been polled and I vote quite frequently) hours before the West Coast had closed their voting stations. I could because for almost every Mousavi supporter there was an Ahmadinejad supporter out on the streets. (Although every time I pointed this out to my family and friends, they all either made excuses or refused to acknowledge what they saw). I could because I believe what others have pointed out -- that only history will be able to tell us how much or how little the election was faulty and rigged. I could, because it was not the first nor will it be the last time an election in this world is rigged.
It had been four years since my last trip to Iran. It was not even a proper visit. It lasted a week. Enough time to see my sister married and then I was back to work again. So really, it had been five years since I visited last. In the past whenever I entered Tehran's Mehrabad Airport a mixture of fear, adrenaline, and joy would make me quiver. I would be visually inspected by angry keen-eyed men in green uniforms who were stationed at the foot of each plane to make sure men and women coming from abroad were appropriately attired. Then at passport control, I would be greeted by surly looking men and women who barely deigned to speak to you. The women at customs were the worst. It was their sole task to unearth whatever "ungodly" items could be found (this included music, movies, books, magazines, make-up, and other "contraband") in one's luggage.
Every passenger was suspect. The entire contents of your life would be carelessly tossed around and left for you to repack on the floor of customs as they glanced at you impatiently. Once, I was exasperated. I looked up at the customs officials pleading with my eyes for some patience to put my suitcase together again. The look they gave in return could be described at best as apathetic. At every stage in this two-hour long process I always feared I would be taken aside and the adrenaline would course through my veins as my head spun trying to come up with a plan of escape.
Once past customs, overwhelming joy would wash the fear and adrenaline away as I walked toward the waiting area. The whole family would be there standing behind the plexiglass waiting with flowers in hand. The dizzying sea of kisses, hugs, and half-hearted recriminations of why it had taken me so long to come back to Iran usually leaves me with the strange sensation that this is what stardom must feel like. When I walk outside and breathe in the cool silent desert air at 2 a.m., I know that I have arrived at my other home; a world that is far from the over commercialized world that I come from.
This time I came in through Shiraz. Shiraz has always been different, more relaxed about women's veiling and people's demeanor in the streets. It sits in the southwestern region of Iran. It is famous for its grapes (and wine), poetry, and lush gardens. Its streets are lined with royal palm trees which provide a cooling contrast to the desert yellow mountains in the distance. Its people are known for their overbearing sense of hospitality and generosity, their lackadaisical approach to life, and their gaiety. Even the post-election demonstrations were different from Tehran's. Life during the day continued as normal with not even a peep of anger and discontentment to be heard. People shopped, went to their offices and places of business, visited one another, and went for walks in the parks and public gardens. At night, the city exploded with the sounds of angry demonstrators, wailing mothers, hailing rocks, burning gas stations, chanting unveiled college girls standing at dorm room balconies, and the roaring engines of the Basijis' motorbikes as they took to the city to wreak their vengeance on demonstrators and observers alike. Shirazians are infamously known for being night owls.
Even as easygoing as Shiraz is (the exception of course being the post election demonstrations), I still had not expected all the changes I encountered. With the exception of the loving embrace of my family and that cool desert air, every other experience at the airport and in the city was different from before. I had not expected Shiraz airport officials to be as casual as I found them. My manteau was beige and short sleeved. My heart was pounding -- had I risked too much? I tried to calm myself down by remembering that four years ago, women in Shiraz wore capris and mid-thigh length linen shirts, which passed for "veiling" in place of the full-length thick cotton manteaus of the past, and wore make-up to the nines. "But the airports are so much stricter about veiling," I thought to myself. The guards speaking to one another barely noticed me and the other passengers as we deplaned. They even managed to miss the guy wearing bright red Bermuda shorts. I almost tripped from the shock of it.
At passport control, the female agent actually welcomed me back to Iran. There was hardly a customs inspection; our luggage was sent through an x-ray machine, which thus ended the "inspection" in less than thirty seconds. Once out, no one in the streets cared if I wore my brand name sneakers, which used to be what marked me as an American. The younger generations are all wearing Addidas, Converse, Nike, and Puma and carrying Prada, Gucci, and Channel accessories (most of the latter, however, are the fakes imported from Thailand, Malaysia, and China). No one cared that my head scarf never stayed on right and that I was always fidgeting under it. No mean-looking old woman stopped me to demand that I adjust my head scarf or manteau while looking at me sideways and disapprovingly (something which often used to happen to me despite how conservatively I would dress). This is not the same Iran of four years ago and it is certainly not the Iran of eighteen years ago, when I made my first trip to Iran as a young adult.
Nearly everyone with whom I came into contact complained that the sanctions have made life difficult. When I asked about life four, ten, twenty years ago under the sanctions, I was usually brushed off and told simply that it is worse now. Yet, foreign goods flood the markets. I have already mentioned the sneakers and handbags. When once I had to go to certain specialty shops and pay the equivalent of $20 USD for my brand of $3 shampoo, now every major American and European brand of cosmetics, apparels, and accessories are to be found in almost every boutique and shop and sold for much cheaper than I had anticipated. I used to have to bring suitcases full of everyday toiletries as practical gifts for each household that I would visit. People used to be desperate for Western goods (which they usually assume is better than Iranian products). Not so anymore. Market shelves are filled with American brand toiletries. Grocery shelves are half-filled with food stuffs produced in Iran, which are marginally cheaper than the rivaling foreign ones that sit next to them. The newest pharmaceuticals and state-of-the-art medical equipment are to be found in Iran shipped in from China and Europe.
Only a few specialty shops now carry traditional Iranian goods. Rugs are mostly machine made and decorative fabrics are imported from India. Chinese made viscose clothing now passes for cotton or silk. I had a difficult time explaining to the owner of a shop in Tehran's bazaar that I wanted a head scarf made of pure cotton materials. He kept trying to convince me that viscose was the same thing, if not better. He was quite annoyed with me when I would not take his word for it. He was not the only one to try and convince me that the imports are better.
The streets, parks, and restaurants are filled with twenty-something year olds. I remember thinking initially that they had turned the city-scape into something more vibrant, youthful, and fun. Gone is the severity of the authorities and the nosy old women. Gone are the raids that would take place on a regular basis to prevent young single men and women from mingling too long with one another in public and open spaces. I notice that it is now ok to laugh out loud and freely in the streets. I notice that people do not just walk with a very direct purpose their stance and demeanor stand-offish to ward off attention. Dilly-dallying and lollygagging were not to be seen in the streets in the past under any circumstances. People now openly take leisurely strolls with friends of both sexes. Men and women openly enjoy romantic moments with each other. Once I made this observation out loud, I was told that "they" (i.e. the government) was allowing this because it was pre-election time. I doubted the conspiracy theory and the extent to which this timely acquiescence implied Ahmadinejad's attempt to win the votes of the younger generations. (Iranians by nature are conspiracy theorists. As one scholar puts it, it is a given that they would be because their last few governments have risen and fallen by conspiracies).
I wondered amusedly and almost asked out loud if the government had announced the new freedoms to the people or was everyone just on the same telepathic wavelength? However, I kept the thought to myself. I knew that the comment, even as a joke, would not be appreciated from me, "the American" who is, as they believe, Free. I have tried to explain, on several occasions, that Free is relative. I explain that in the States we are not Free, but rather that we have a prescribed set of freedoms codified into law and more or less upheld by our public servants and adhered to by the public in general. That those very freedoms more often come under attack from internal rather than external sources. That we are a democracy. We vote and the majority decides what we can and can not do at the personal, local, state, and federal levels. My rants, however, mainly fall on deaf ears. As far as they are concerned, corruption, manipulation, greed, and the lack of guaranteed personal freedoms in the constitution are traits particular only to the Iranian political machine.
I soon realize, however, that the vibrancy of the city streets brought about by the youth's pervasive presence and the enjoyment of outdoor spaces is a thin veneer. Five years ago, my cousins and their friends spent every day all day and nearly all night in interior spaces -- coffee shops, garden-restaurants, and house parties -- traveling from one to another to avoid possible raids. When they would tire of the city they would spend a few days to "get away from it all" in villas on the outskirts of town with plenty of vodka and kababs to while away the time.
A few couples were quietly insistent that I, "the American," notice that they were physically intimate with each other (it used to be a taboo for unmarried couples to be open about their intimate relationships). Then the week of coffee-shop hopping would start all over again. It was nauseating and I was judgmental. This time, however, I understood or rather it slowly dawned on me that I had judged unfairly back then. Even though I had been fully aware of the statistics, I had forgotten that there were not (and there still are not) enough jobs for the growing number of college graduates. As I understand it, despite the fact that a healthy percentage of Iran's upper to middle class youth have graduated from college, most live at home with their parents. Of the majority who do marry, wives are slowly becoming the primary bread winners. Of the men with jobs, many are employed "keeping shop" in family businesses.
In my family, I have four female cousins who are approximately the same age. They all graduated several years ago. Two tried to find work in their respective fields. One studied economic theory and the other microbiology. They now both do nails and make-up in their own homes or in the homes of other women. The one who studied economics makes more money doing nails than her husband makes doing cabinetry (she begs me not to let him find out that she confided this to me). When I ask them how they got into this, they tell me their other college-educated girlfriends (some with master's degrees) got them into it and they have been busy recruiting their own girlfriends who need income and something to do with their time. The third one left the country to pursue a master's degree in her field, because as her parents put it, she needs a viable future that Iran can not provide. The fourth is running her own insurance agency in Iran. I am told that taken together their experiences are not limited to my family alone.
The upper and middle class twenty something year olds are just as nauseated by their own lives as I was of driving from coffee shop to coffee shop five years ago. They are frustrated that their lives lack direction and purpose. Several of my younger cousins' friends would find opportunities to come talk to me in private. They seemed to have an urgent need to explain to me how miserable they are in Iran, though they made sure that I understood how much they love their country. I noticed that each person, who came to speak to me, would suddenly drop the carefree "let's just hang out and party" veneer that they had so carefully constructed, shake their head as if to get their thoughts straight, sigh once they have, and tell me how they wished there was a future for them in Iran. They want to live in Iran, but the only way they can see their lives advancing in any meaningful way is to leave.
One of my girlfriends with whom I had been out of touch, a beautiful woman with high cheekbones, high-arched eyebrows and a natural elegance that belies her young age, came to a dinner party my aunt threw. She pulled me aside and asked if there was any way I could help her finish her studies abroad. I asked why she wanted to leave. She said that her husband, who had no job, had become angry and belligerent with her while she was finishing up her degree. He involved his mother who in-turn harassed her to stay at home and have children. Once in anger, she asked her mother-in-law who would support them if neither of them had a job or an education. The mother-in-law imperiously responded that the same person who had been supporting them while my friend was in school, namely the father-in-law. His parents wanted them to leave their small apartment to come live with them and fill their large house with grandchildren. Her husband, apparently, had already agreed to this without consulting my friend. She then asked for and got a divorce.
Unable to swallow her pride and return home to live with her parents, she rented an apartment in Tehran. In order not to receive unwanted attention as a divorcee living by herself, she lied to the owners of the apartment and her neighbors by telling them that she lives with her sickly aunt who can not leave the apartment too often. I think to myself, if this had been ten or so years ago she would not have been able to easily dupe her nosy neighbors and most certainly the owners would have checked up on her as they would have had a "social and moral responsibility" to do so.
I think of the others as well, who spoke to me about being irate when their one outlet, the coffee shops and restaurants, are closed down by the authorities or how they fume when they are taken in for sporting faux-hawks, a glamorous colored lipgloss, or for having their ankles showing and are made to pay an equivalent of $100 USD to be released (an extravagant amount by their means), and I remember how much worse it was for their elder siblings and cousins. I remember that five or so years ago the price exacted was to be arrested for an indeterminate amount of time by the menacing "moral police" and they were considered fortunate if released physically unharmed.
When I sat down to really think about these changes that seemed so drastic to me, but crawling forward at a snail's pace for them, I could finally sense the tension and the almost indescribable current coursing through the city. While there was a sense of great hope, there was also an energy of pent up anger and frustration that had been building up and it was palpable. In physics, an object at rest builds up potential energy. When that object is set in motion the object builds up kinetic energy -- the energy of movement. If I had to describe the twenty something year olds, pre-election, I would have said that they are a generation "in waiting" and the potential energy that was generated while waiting was unleashed into the energy of movement during the pre and post election rallies and protests. They are waiting for jobs, they are waiting for their lives to take direction, they are waiting for their music to be heard, their art to be noticed (as a colleague of mine states), they are waiting for their years of studying to mean something, they are waiting for the decrepit facade that remains of the old social mores and morals to die out. They are waiting for the freedom to express their sexuality as they renegotiate the terms of their love lives and marriages. They are waiting (and fighting quite bravely) for Shi'i Islam to update its views on women's rights. They are waiting for immediate and tangible change.
This generation, as it rises up in defense of democracy as it comes into its own, has made me and, it is safe to assume, the world question what Iran is and imagine what it can become. They have also made me question the "Iranian" in my sense of myself as an Iranian-American. Every time I went to Iran in the past, a part of me would remain there and I would take back a greater sense of the Iranian in Iranian-American back with me. This time I came back feeling almost Blank-American. Before this trip, I had neither felt completely American nor had I ever felt completely Iranian. I had always quite happily lived in that alternate third world of "hyphen American." My closest friends, whether I have chosen them coincidentally or not, have lived in that alternate place as "hyphen Americans" and we have understood one another's experiences living in and out of that world. It is a place that makes sense to me linguistically and culturally and I was at home in it.
For me, as I imagine it is for many of us born to transplanted parents, Iran/Iranian has been what it means to my parents. Growing up, our home in South Florida was Little Iran. It was a mausoleum of memories, socio-cultural mores, and of a romanticized Iran which could do no wrong whether under the Shah or the Islamic Republic (and if it did, it was discounted or the news source discredited). It was a lovingly well-cared for mausoleum that was never allowed to gather dust or to fall in disrepair. We lived and were expected to act as if we were in a two-dimensional snapshot of Iran in the 60s and early 70s. This, from what I can gather from my parents, was a time when it seemed that the gap between tradition and modernity was quickly closing in and the two could co-exist harmoniously in Iran. A time which seemed to have cooled off from the anger of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the 1953 CIA-lead coup d'etat.
By the early 70s when they left, their lives and the lives of their friends and families seemed stable to them. My father was to finish his education in the States and they were to return to live out their lives in Iran. They could not nor did they anticipate the revolution that occurred seven years after they left. It was not their revolution nor were its consequences their issues, just as the Constitutional Revolution was not their struggle, just as the upheaval caused by Mossadeq's fall was not theirs either. Through them and their fellow ex-pat friends, Iran for me has always meant stability, permanence, and Shi'ism. Iranian-ness, in the simplest of terms, has meant an exaggerated sense of generosity and openness, an impossible set of rules of hospitality, daughters being treasured and sons being infallible. It has meant feigned ignorance of intimacy between men and women, unmitigated respect for elders, and an uncompromising sense of family and of love for family and friends. It has meant being culturally Shi'ite, having unconditional pride in the history of and present day Iran, and being a doctor or lawyer in order to secure a steady job (though I suspect the latter two may have more to do with immigrant sensibilities).
Even more surprising than these questions of identity was the dizzying sensation that I had not really been to Iran, that I did not understand what these younger generations intend for themselves, their country, and their future (and neither did the government). It is not the Iran of five years ago, it is not the Iran of eighteen years ago, and it is certainly not the Iran of my parents. And it has less to do with goods, coffee shops, and rhetoric and everything to do with these twenty-something year olds and how they interpret such concepts and how they understand each other and the different factions that make up Iran. This generation does not remember the grievances that lead to the Islamic revolution as those grievances were not theirs. They do not idealize Iran's ancient past as do so many of the older generations who romanticize pre-Islamic Iran. They do not smart over the disappoints and failings of the Constitutional Revolution or the coup d'etat. They instead grew up with the martyr-filled rhetoric of Shi'ite Islam, but more importantly of the rhetoric of revolution. Whatever issues the older generations may have with this rhetoric, the younger generations do not for the most part take issue; it is absorbed into the daily language, it is blended into the cityscape, and is visible on every street corner.
The ubiquitous image of the revolutionary martyr, so startling for me each time I encounter it, is commonplace for them. The rhetoric they can not and will not swallow is the empty and forced Iran/Shi'ite Islam vs. the West rhetoric that the governments (Iran and those of the West) try to forcibly feed them and us. Is it surprising then that they, who did grow up in the cultural linguistic atmosphere of revolution but having no real experience of revolution, would spill out into the streets unorganized with no clear cut goals except that their votes be accounted for? Is it surprising that the call for Mousavi and the lost votes should be transmuted into the ceaseless and haunting midnight wailings of the ubiquitous Allah Akbar (God is Great) on rooftops by those who grew up under the rhetoric of not just any revolution, but of Islamic revolution, as a message that they would not be intimated by the vicious Basijis who had taken to their motor bikes in plain clothes to deliver the wrath of the Supreme Leader with batons and guns? Is it surprising that they would have immediately interpreted Neda and her tragic death as the martyr for their cause and that on the fortieth day of her death they should make a pilgrimage to her burial site? While jarring, it is not surprising at all.
It is not especially surprising either that they would have expected Mousavi and his campaign of hope and change, that was a play on and imitation of Obama's historic and successful campaign for change, to win when the latter had meant change for Americans and by extension the world and the former could have meant change for them and the world's perception of them. Even though I believe that this younger generation does not yet know how they will understand and define themselves, I do believe that this election is just the catalyst they needed to begin to figure it out. It is for Iran's youth to determine and outline in detail their cause and the direction their country should take (and it is their country as they outnumber any other generation in Iran) and not be manipulated by others vying for power. It is for them to retain that drive that lead them to vote instead of to apathy when the next round of elections come. It is for them to remain engaged in the democratic process and it is my sincerest hope that they do so and not be disheartened.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau