We Are Our Dogs
by RAHA NAMY
02 Feb 2010 18:56
"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.
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