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We Are Our Dogs

by RAHA NAMY

02 Feb 2010 18:5617 Comments
boysdog.jpg The paradoxes of the Islamic Republic.

"I wish I were one of your dogs," a friend once said as she sat at the table waiting for me to cut pieces of kabob and mix it with rice to prepare a meal for my three pets. Our own lunch would not begin until I had completed the job. I looked at the three of them, sitting at our feet, looking the innocent look of dogs when they want to charm you into giving them what they want, and smiled.

The oldest, Luci, was the mother of the other two. My father had bought her when my first dog, a gift from my boyfriend when I was seventeen, had run away while I was away on a trip. The two of them, my dad and my boyfriend, had gone twice to the animal black market, an underground exchange where stolen or stray dogs and other animals can be found. My own dog was never found, which led to a couple of weeks of tears and grief and fights with dad when I got back from the trip, but the search led to another dog being liberated from that market. A mixed Pekingese, her eyes infected and her black coat ashen and sticky, she had stood on her hind legs and begged my dad to rescue her. She had been sharing a little cage with several other dogs whose only source of food was a tin container filled with throw-away vegetables soaked in water.

In the beginning, she hated me because she felt insecure around anyone but my dad and I hated her because she had replaced my other dog. But, two or three years old when she was rescued, she stayed with us until the end of her days. She gradually grew stronger and healthier, and after a while fell in love with the neighbor's dog whom she had met behind the window. She became pregnant, and gave birth to three puppies, two of which stayed with us, also till the end of their days. When, years later, Luci died, I felt for the first time the shock of life's brutality, worse than when my grandfather had died because I had held her stiff body in my arms, her soul departed from the flesh and blood I touched.

My friend's comment that day was sarcastic, but I knew what she meant. I too sometimes thought about it, about how I was one of the luckier girls in Tehran, having it all easy, about how my animals were also among the lucky ones. Every time a sense of guilt stung me. In a city where inflation, sanctions, unemployment, and a generally weak economy had made meat a luxury for most people, where many struggled to keep a roof over their heads, my dogs were having kabob and rice for lunch in a large villa with a pleasant garden in one of Tehran's calm and affluent quarters. I had my boyfriend and my pets, I went on trips, while such pleasures were denied to many others. But then again, we
have been brought up with senses of guilt all throughout our lives and our dogs were just one more sign of the various economical, social, cultural, and religious classes that define the city and its paradoxes. The lives and the status of our pets in Iran, in Tehran specifically, have changed hand in hand with the changes in our own lives.

According to the Islamic Sharia, dogs are unclean, impure animals. Under Iran's Sharia-based law, keeping dogs is considered illegal. However, this legal restriction, like many others in Iran, is a vague matter, the parameters of which shift constantly depending on the political situation, the inclinations of those in power in city hall, in the health ministry, in the police force, in the relationship between these offices and the amount of pressure that they wish to be bring to bear upon the residents of the city.

Despite the legal concerns, dogs have grown more popular with Tehran's more well-to-do families in the past couple of years. Some are true animal lovers enjoying the looser restrictions that developed in many areas of life under President Khatami, as well as the accessibility of better services. Others just see the animals as cool, as they might see a new car or clothing brand -- the stories my dogs' veterinarian told me of these people maltreating their pets were not uncommon. The number of veterinarian clinics has accordingly increased. Veterinarians now advertise their services with pictures of beautiful dogs and cats, not in newspapers or magazines, but in the advertising pamphlets of local businesses distributed door to door.

There are still no pet shops for the purchase of toys or food or medical needs, but many veterinarians have set up tiny commissaries in their clinics. Until recently, dog and cat food were not found in stores, so one either had to cook special food for the pets, share one's own, or treat them with pet food brought in from other countries. Little by little, foreign brands of pet food started to appear in the clinics and fancier supermarkets. Today, locally produced dog and cat food is sold widely. I remember when Iranian dog food first came into the market, we wondered how, if the animals were banned, a factory had been given permission to produce food for them. Rumor had it that police and rescue dogs needed food, so a company affiliated with the police or the Revolutionary Guard had started a production line. This only raised more questions. How many police and rescue dogs existed in Iran? How come we had never seen them in action?

Even with these new developments, animals in general and dogs in particular continue to be barred from parks in Tehran. That's totally understandable. Iran is a religious country for the most part and many people because of their beliefs do not want to be around the animals. But why not have a separate section for the animal lovers? Why not have specific parks for them? If there are people living in the country who love to share their lives with the animals, why not provide them with facilities? The answers to these questions cut to the heart of Iranian society's current situation.

I remember the day my boyfriend brought me my first dog, my childhood nanny was irritated. A religious woman who had stayed on with us as a housemaid, virtually a part of the family, she did not want anything to do with the dog. We understood. But it wasn't us who changed her feelings toward the animal. It was the dog herself. Later on, the three dogs were her companions when no one was home, and I would sometimes find her secretly spoiling them with treats while cooking in the kitchen. She still closed the door of her room because she did not want the animals on the same carpet she threw her prayer rug on, but she sat with me every time one of the animals fell sick and got angry with me every time one of them peed in the house. One day I even found one of the dogs jumping on her lap as she caressed him.

But not all the dogs of Tehran are given the chance to win people's hearts with their pure love. Consider the case of having a pet and living in an apartment building. Certainly to have buildings where no pets are allowed is understandable. People have a right to live in pet-free buildings -- some are allergic, some are religious, and some simply don't like animals. But in Tehran the story is different. When my parents sold the family house and were looking for an apartment, finding a pet-friendly place presented a special challenge. Few of the buildings had clearly defined pet rules, so they had to sit and talk with the building managers to find out about how things worked, to learn if dogs could be walked in the building garden, for instance. Even if they were assured by the manager that dogs were no problem, they had to keep their instincts sharp about what they could expect from the neighbors and service staff. They could all cause problems for animals that had been used to living in a villa with a large garden and whom we considered part of the family.

Issues with neighbors are a result of the new developments within Iranian society, its introduction to more modern ways of life before it is necessarily prepared for them. New money and old money are now mingled in the same quarters, in the same buildings, and people who are sometimes at opposing poles of the religious spectrum are obliged to share common spaces. This can be a source of many problems because many rules favor one group at the expense of the other. Even when this is not the case, the vagueness of the rules allows for people to threaten each other with whatever means of power they have. The simple act of throwing a party presents a very familiar set of problems for many younger Iranians. If you are hosting an event involving music and alcohol, the odds of you and your guests enjoying it depends a lot on who your neighbors are. If they object to your idea of entertainment or simply dislike you, they can cause serious trouble for you by calling the moral police forces.

Similar problems attend to dogs. Because the law is against your animal, even if the building is not, if your neighbor is of the religious type and cannot tolerate your animal, or simply does not want to because they do not like you personally, they can call the police and denounce your animal. You may have to beg for mercy for your dog's life, or pay a bribe, and from then on you have to keep your animal quiet, secretly take it through the public spaces, keep it as low profile as possible. You might even think of moving, or you might be forced to let the dog go.

The same problem occurs in the larger context of the animals' public life in the city. You can't have them on any public transport and even when you call a private cab, you had better make sure that the driver doesn't mind the animal. I pass no judgment here, because they are in the right. Any given cab driver might hold religious beliefs that don't allow him to have an impure animal in his car. Another might be fearful of having his vehicle, his source of income, confiscated if an animal is found riding in it. And you understand because your veterinarian has already informed you that you need to buy dog crates, because the police have announced that if you are found with a dog even in your own car, you are going to be stopped, your car will be confiscated, and your animal taken away.

Walking your dog poses similar problems. The outcome of each promenade depends on which quarter of the city you are walking your dog in, on whether you use a major thoroughfare or a secluded alley, on the hour of the day, on what police officer you cross paths with, and even on what mood that officer is at that particular moment. Sometimes a police car will pass by and nothing will happen, sometimes the officers will even stop and say some nice words to the animal, other times you might have to beg and bribe to save both yourself and your pet.

One day your veterinarian tells you that you better not take the dogs to the clinic for their vaccination check-up and that for reasons of safety he will come to you. Another day he informs you that the health ministry has initiated an "ownership chips" program to assist in finding stolen or lost dogs and help with medical conditions. One day you read the news of the first animal shelter center being set up by a group of animal lovers, or the opening of the city's first 24/7 animal hospital. Another day you read about the brutal way municipal workers are killing harmless stray dogs in the city mountains, or about police entering the house of an old woman who took care of a dozen cats because of complaints by neighbors concerned with health matters... and then brutally killing all the animals right there in front of the woman's eyes.

When the law is unclear, nothing and yet everything is allowed. As long as the system does not honestly accept the existence of pets and does not produce laws that improve that existence, their lives will always remain in the shadows. As long as city officials do not let the animals' love touch their hearts, as long as they do not want to let their views be changed, nothing will improve and we will be left with an endless game of push and pull. The paradoxes and the dissatisfactions will not go away, and real hope for people to live peacefully and happily alongside each other and with their animals, if they choose, does not seem strong.

So long as the definition and regulation of public and private and the set of personal freedoms in each arena are left unclear in Iranian society, the contest over them will remain at the center of the struggles for change. What to wear, what not to wear, what to watch, what not to watch, what to listen to, what not to listen to, what to read, what not to read, what to study, what not to study -- these are the questions at the heart of the competing ideologies of the government and the people. And it is exactly because answers to these questions have not been agreed upon but are unilaterally enforced that there is a grave divide between the public and private spheres.

Today all my three dogs are gone. They died one after another over the course of three successive years. When Luci died, we still had our garden. We buried her along with her favorite toy and blanket under a mulberry tree, next to a patch of lilies of the valley. Her first baby, by then a twelve-year-old, died in my arms, because I agreed to put her to sleep in the animal hospital and put an end to the severe blood problems that had ruined her in two weeks. At that point, the old family house had been sold and my parents had just moved into an apartment building. There was no longer a garden to bury our dog in. Holding her in my arms, the nurse informed me, "You can leave her here or take her with you." I took her and asked a friend for a favor: to bury her in the little backyard of his apartment, secretly so that the neighbors would not prevent it. Why didn't I leave her with the hospital? Well, this was what the nurse explained to me: Until a while ago, the hospital handed the corpses over to a municipal service for burial, but lately they did not bury the dogs anymore, and so the hospital had no choice but to dump them in trash bags to be collected and disposed of as garbage. There was no way I would leave my dog to a garbage dump. But what if I did not have a friend to ask a favor from, what if I did not have a small piece of earth to dig a grave in? The conditions sometimes do not leave one with any tolerable choices.

When the third and last member of our small pet family died, I was already out of the country, attending school in the States. I got the news over the phone after I sensed something in my mother's voice and insisted on knowing what had happened. Our last dog too had to be put to sleep, as he suffered from a similar blood problem, perhaps a genetic disease that resulted from Luci conceiving with a totally different mixed breed. At the time of his death, a couple of months had passed since their move into a new apartment building. They had already resolved most of the issues raised by a few of their neighbors and had joined forces with couple of other dog owners. Now they were part of a community who shared the love of animals. When, devastated, my mother brought the corpse back in her arms, the management graciously allowed our last dog to be buried in a beautiful corner of the building's garden close to a water fountain.

Today, as I think of these three different burials in the span of only three years and follow the events in Iran through online news and videos, I see a final, dark parallel. Those were our dogs and we were devastated by their loss. We were also deeply pained at the thought of how so many similarly cherished animals are mistreated in death. And now, the parents of the brave young men and women of my country who have lost their lives in the past couple of months need to fight a similar fight: a fight to keep the integrity of their children in death, for a small piece of land for their children to be peacefully buried in. In the past couple of months, many corpses were held in food refrigerators for days and even weeks before being turned over to families. Many others were secretly buried in unidentified graves without their families ever being informed. Even when the children of freedom are buried by their families, parents are not allowed to mourn the loss of their children in the traditional manner and have friends and family and supporters mourn along with them. The graves are watched by police forces, the gravestones are defaced and broken. Even in death, the youth of the country are not left alone. Even in death, the children of freedom are treated as if they are as unclean and impure as their dogs.

Today, one year after my last dog died and was buried in Tehran, many things have changed, for me and for my people and for my country. Now I am living far far away from the only city in the world that will forever remain home. I am sitting in a small gathering of Iranian expats listening to them talking as usual of politics, providing comments and arguments and solutions, sometimes angry, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes thoughtful, and sometimes ignorant to the point of foolishness, when someone who has been living here for more than two decades says, in response to one piece of news or another, "Forget about human rights. There are no dog rights in that country. The only solution is to bomb them."

Agitated, I stand up to leave the gathering, before I say something to this guy who I am sure just skims the surface of the news, who has remade his life here and will forever remain no matter what happens in Iran. I stand up to leave before I start a heated argument and offend him. But on my way out I think to myself that perhaps he is correct after all about the rights of the human and the dog. In many cases, the rights of a dog in the States are far better established and protected than those of a person living in my country at this time. I see his point. It all depends on where the dog is born, where the person is born, West or East, in the States or in Europe, in Africa or in Asia. Our rights, and those of our animals, depend in part on the beliefs and traditions of the cultures into which we are born, but they depend as well on something both more fundamental and more transcendent: respect or lack of respect for the life endowed by a greater force to human and animal alike.

As I close the door behind me, I think, "We are our dogs." Their lives mirror our lives. Iranian dogs, like the Iranian people, have been robbed of their right to a peaceful life. But we must never forget that we are different from our beloved animals in a very significant way: We, the people, have the power to fight for our rights and for the rights of our dogs.

Raha Namy, who is using a pen name, is writing a novella about the June election.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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17 Comments

I loved this piece. Thanks for such a heartwarming and thoughtful perspective, not only on dogs and their owners, but Iranian life as it is, was and could be.
Sincerely,
Travis A Brooks

Travis A Brooks / February 2, 2010 9:10 PM

Great article and a very interesting perspective I thought.

Good job Raha.

Ashkan / February 2, 2010 9:16 PM

Our wire haired fox terrier accompanied us when we lived in Tehran. We didn't have any problems whatsoever.

The only time I've encountered prejudice against dogs was at college. A Saudi Arabian fraternity brother just couldn't understand why I would have a Doberman as any kind of pet.

Are there as many "jube dogs" these days in Tehran, as there were back in the day? I've fond memories of those hardy rascals.

Pirouz / February 2, 2010 10:24 PM

Just to correct a mistake: today you can buy pet related stuff from the many pet stores around the university of Tehran.

didaar / February 2, 2010 10:34 PM

I'm from the South and it has been a tradition to have dogs. The ashayer [nomadic tribes] of Iran also live with their dogs. And not just as herd dogs, the dogs are often treated as part of the family. In fact, the "colonization/Islamization" of the tribes is a very interesting/unfortunate area to look into sometime.

But yes, dog keeping is one of the new must-haves with Tehran's "it" community along with Gucci sunglasses and Calvin Klein underwear. The author's description of "Others just see the animals as cool, as they might see a new car or clothing brand" is all too familiar for me too.

Pedestrian / February 2, 2010 10:40 PM

Beautiful piece, excellent ability to convey emotions, well done Raha. Looking forward to your novella.

The different ways us, the recent migrants, and those who have not seen the country for 2-3 decades, look at our own country fascinate me. More than that, they scare me. I feel they are so out of touch, but I know I will be joining their ignorance soon, in a few years.

Tears rolled down my eyes reading your piece. I don't know whether they were sad tears, or they were happy ones, that we have gifted, talented young writers like you who can express themselves, and others who share their feeling, like this.

LeKing / February 3, 2010 3:02 AM

Whilst pigs & dogs are regarded as ritually impure. An impurity that can be easily removed by use of water or other approved cleansing agent. I have not read in any of the books of jurisprudence by the various leading Ayatollahs that dog ownership is illegal. The attitudes prevalent in many Muslim societies towards dogs & pigs is mostly born out of ignorance or local customs & attitudes. The good thing is human attitudes can be reformed & as others say above Tehran has many pet stores a sign perhaps of changing attitudes to pet welfare hopefully followed by better human welfare too & a more spiritual rather than legalistic approach to Islam. God help relieve the current pain & suffering of Iran & help hearts to be reconciled and healed.

rezvan / February 3, 2010 3:08 AM

This piece brought the old friendly tears to my eyes. The tears that has been visiting my eyes on and off for many many years when I read or think about our life in Iran. These tears are not of sadness or anger but of the faith that I have in every single soul who lives there or lives to be there who I believe are bringing change one small step at a time to our land. May we understant one day that the pureness is about inside and not about the cover. Thanks Rahaa

Rend / February 3, 2010 7:48 PM

Wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Mr. Taxpayer / February 4, 2010 1:28 AM

Wonderful article, clumsy ending if i may say. You did your best to portrait why dogs are treated differently by different group of people. However you forget that may be Iranian society is divided over dogs, its beliefs and rituals regarding dead men and women are very well established and widely accepted. I think there you confuse your parallel...of course it is easy when one cares about one's pet so much, but again that division of beliefs might play against your point here.

Ali / February 4, 2010 7:07 AM

VAERY INTRESTING POINT OF VIEW RAHA..

ELI / February 5, 2010 6:18 AM

You are a very talented write. Keep writing.

yeki / February 8, 2010 10:01 AM

Very beautiful piece. It does such a great job of zooming out from the cut-throat, sometimes overwhelmingly dry political lens and gives the spirit of the movement a human side. I look forward to reading your novella...

Mana / February 22, 2010 2:32 AM

Hi, great article. I come in from New Delhi, India. I am looking forward to working in Teheran and was scanning the net to check if dogs are allowed in Teheran (I have two dogs). Can someone advise me if I can bring these dogs from India into Teheran legally and if will be proper to keep dogs there?

Prakash / April 14, 2010 3:12 PM

Fascinating point of view... captivating from start to finish. I loved it. I felt like I could relate to every single point you made, question you had,...! Present-day Iranian culture is beyond ridiculous when you really break it down. For me it has often turned into a bizarre/embarrassing sort of experience trying to explain virtually any part of our 2010 "culture" to a non-Iranian... and it is simple topics like >pets One week we are shown pictures of some hot Iranian girl in barely-there hejab & impeccable make-up holding a pooch under one arm while talking on her cell phone with the other. The Iranian counter-part to Paris H. if you will. She is a race-car driver, independent, lesbian... all that good western stuff.
The following week we are shocked to the core to see video footage of 5 women being STONED TO DEATH for alleged adultery charges(2009)!!! WHO on earth can explain that disconnect real quickly? NOBODY!

Your response will be even further complicated if you in any shape or form feel a connection to Iran, your origin- BUT you are simply utterly disgusted with the way things have been playing out in our recent history.
Frustration vs (that inherent) Persian Pride!
This is such a peculiar topic & incredibly difficult to explain. Job WELL DONE! I can hardly wait for your novella.

Capitol Yasa / May 17, 2010 5:03 PM

Its easier to leave than to decide whether to stand up and fight or to run away to the land of the free. I'm a single woman in Iran. If I even go out at nights with my boyfriend, I always have to be aware of guards. My dog has hardly ever left our building. Her world in limited to 2 big apartments and a little garden. No matter what you do here, you are always guilty. Its easy for me to leave but its really difficult to accept that "I cant save my home but I can save myself." Feel selfish, specially when I look at others who are not in my shoes. People who don't know the language and culture which will help them survive. People who cant even afford the thought of leaving their country behind. Until what extent can we fight for the freedom of our country? Should we destroy our lives for it? Will we achieve what we our living for? what we are dreaming for? Don't know what is right and what is wrong anymore. As a woman in this country I almost have no rights, but this is and will for ever be "HOME".

Anonymous / August 23, 2010 11:47 AM

Hello Raha! I really enjoyed your story, it was nice to know more about dogs in Tehran. I'm moving to Tehran in the coming days with my husband, he goes to work. Yorkshire has a very small dog and would like to know more about dogs in Tehran, has pet shops ... hotel for dogs ... is a good idea if I carry it with me, I am passionate about my dog. Please tell me more about the lives of dogs in Tehran. Now, thank you very much your attention! Silvia

Sil / January 4, 2011 5:01 AM