Swimming in a Bubble
by TINA GHARAVI in Tehran and South Shields
28 May 2010 20:33
It is almost one year after the Green Revolution in Tehran. Why has the change it seemed to promise been so slow in coming? During my journey to Iran last summer, amid all the turmoil, I encountered some of the reasons.
I had decided to escape and retreat to the East, to the bosom of my family and reliable sunshine for a few weeks. I also planned to shoot some scenes for my forthcoming film, which revolves around the story of two teenage refugees from Iran who come to live in Great Britain.
My life was bound up with a revolution some 30 years ago. Coming as it did soon after my parents' divorce, I left Iran, aged six, to live in England with my father, then a Ph.D. student. Three decades later, he still hasn't returned, fearful that the changes in his land will have destroyed what he loved.
But I have returned. Eight years ago I traveled to Iran to make Mother/Country, a documentary for Channel 4 about my first return to the home of my mother, who stayed and remarried. I discovered a place full of contradictions, a place greatly misunderstood. For the past eight years, I have been returning, rekindling my love affair with this magical, contradictory land -- its marvels and ironies, its smells, tastes, sounds, and murderous traffic.
This past June, while I was hard at work filming the first part of my feature, I would catch glimpses of the country erupting. I was concerned for my family during the post-election protests but I also knew I had to be part of this new movement -- the Green Revolution. Friends advised me against it, but I felt compelled to return.
What draws me back? Under the veil of Islam, you find the strength, beauty, and passion of a centuries-old civilization. Iran takes credit for the first bill of human rights, the discovery of alcohol, the invention of poker and polo, the world's first monotheistic faith. Iranians are immensely prideful. We like to talk ourselves up. It's a sweet arrogance. We like to remind people we are not Arabs, distancing ourselves from a culture that we have long resisted and yet which has in many ways subsumed our own.
August 23. One month after the election. Some sources report four hundred opposition supporters dead. Many thousands more face torture in jails across the country, including Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where my own grandfather, an officer under the Shah, was a political prisoner for five years in the early 1980s.
I have decided to take the risk. Is the magnet of Iran that strong? Perhaps I am going because my life in England has become so mundane and meaningless. As I wait in Dubai's airport for the second leg of my flight to Tehran, I start to spot Iranian-style chadors. I'm feeling slightly anxious. Supporters of the opposition, including the internationally renowned filmmaker Maziar Bahari, have recently been arrested at the airport.
I arrive at the new Imam Khomeini Airport, attracting no attention. I wait in line at passport control, my face twitching with unease. They wave me through as I wait for something monumental to happen. The officers shake their heads and laugh, as I am an Iranian who doesn't speak fluent Farsi -- a strange creature. I return to the warmth of family, a joyous reunion. Driving through the Tehran streets at 4 a.m., can I tell that something new is happening? Possibly not, but the talk is different. My mother is cautious, but says optimistically, "Many things have changed since you were last here."
We pass the innumerable wall paintings of martyrs from the Iraq War, Khomeini, "Death to America" slogans, and the new leaders of the Islamic Republic. Could this all suddenly disappear? In the late hour, I see only car lights and another Iranian night.
The next morning begins with a swim in the pool at my mother's upscale, north Tehran apartment complex. She is lucky to live here, as she is not particularly rich. Until two in the afternoon, the pool is reserved for women. The rules are clear: T-shirts and leggings must go on over our bathing suits and a cloth cap is donned to cover the hair. It's instantly sodden and levitates in the water as we dive in. Nonetheless, amid the August heat, the water is fantastic and I almost forget where I am. Almost.
The women of the complex congregate poolside. Discussion of politics is minimal -- every Iranian knows well that the walls have ears. Here, surrounded by open windows, they speak of their children, the struggles of family life, and the meals they will soon prepare. There is no talk of revolution. I wonder if they are especially cautious because of the stranger in their midst.
Young girls, six or eight years old, splash in the pool. They show me a cat they have been tending to whose two back legs are immobile. It drags itself on its front paws. The sight makes me terribly sad, but the children have sprung into action. Baskets for the cat have been arranged. There is a daily food collection and even talk of enlisting the aid of a veterinarian. There is a meaningful goal for these young Iranians to pour themselves into. I wonder what they know of the revolution. Later, a five-year-old tells me that Ahmadinajad killed Neda. The young are evidently absorbing it all.
There are two striking figures by the pool. One is a teenager, perhaps 16, who looks almost radical in boy's trunks. Her manly manner makes me curious. She's too shy to engage, but from the corner of her eye she watches me. The other resembles the manic Eddie from Grey Gardens. She wears thick black stockings, a ballet leotard, black gloves, and claims to be allergic to the sun. Perhaps she admires the pale skin of Westerners. I watch her tiptoe around the pool, a curious, mad creature captive to a reality that perhaps in the West might result in a diagnosis of OCD.
The conditions that these modern women live under -- the false reality -- is comfortable and easy to maintain. With little outside influence, little to disturb the illusion, there is nothing that is to be feared or desired. Everything is slightly distorted, as if their perceptions of themselves and the situation are frozen in another time. Indeed every year I go back, I feel I step further into the past. I am worried that Iran is in danger of slipping deeper into a dark age.
The women swim politely without affecting their bleached and colored hair. It is only me and my mom who dive in head first, annoying everyone. Eventually, one of the mothers of the young girls arrives. Her name translates as "Shadow." She's highly educated and feisty. Until her arrival, most of the women I had been swimming with were typical of Iran's middle class: the middle-aged elite who simply get on with the current regime. For them the only inconvenience is the hejab. Most would rather show off their hair, perhaps even wear clothes that display their pretty slender calves. Maybe they're annoyed by the dress code enforcement, but it's hardly something to put your life on the line for. Like my mother, these women have come to accept the corruption of the system because it caters to them. They become a part of it, keeping their eyes closed to what happens elsewhere.
However, Shadow is angry. Her voice ripples over the water and the women turn away as if from a bad smell. She talks proudly of the Green Revolution, the strength of the people, the range of their ages and backgrounds. There are those who are hungry for change, she says, and don't fear putting their lives on the line. No one is sure who is attending the rallies and it has been surprising to see the black flag of the Islamic Revolution, the chador, ever present. Mullahs have even been spotted in the crowds. It is not just the young and those under the spell of the West who participate, but what of my mother's class and generation?
Shadow informs me of the next protest march. It will be held on Friday. Positively fuming that her neighbor has let the cat out of the bag, my mother clearly wants me to stay away. I tell her that I am ready to put my life on the line for a better Iran.
The middle class that dominates this pool scene is the lost generation. Thirty years living within the current system, they know nothing else. They have developed a form of Stockholm Syndrome that has allowed them to reach a modus vivendi with their oppressors. They mildly criticize the regime, the way they might criticize a son who doesn't marry or study hard enough. They can't see another Iran because their entire adult lives are consumed by the present one. Cheated, they'd rather not admit how much has been stolen from them.
However, their children have had enough. They have seen what their parents -- brainwashed, broken, fearful -- have accepted and long to break the cycle. It's the revolution of Shadow's generation, and some even succeed in dragging their mothers along to the protests. The older ones seem both impressed by and scared of the attitude of the young. They lived through the last revolution and feel that further destabilization is not worth the risk. I ask my mother if she attended the protests. She shrugs, "What can I do, I am old. What can I change? If they arrest me..." Her voice trails off.
Indeed, the Green Revolution is miraculous -- no one could have imagined in March that things would turn so suddenly. I meet with many people from the film industry. Most believe that, politically, there is now no turning back. "Blood has been spilt," says one. Most are shell-shocked. The media, long closely monitored and censored, are uncertain of what change is possible. For the moment, most work has ground to a halt. The department of film permissions is awaiting a new minister, so much is in limbo.
On the other hand, people feel freer to talk. The customary paranoia has eased and even in the shared taxis of the city, tongues run nonstop. "On the streets, people now know that the majority of people don't support the regime. This country was stolen for 30 years," one taxi driver tells me in English as he weaves through the chaotic, smog-choked traffic. He is educated, in his late 40s or early 50s -- a broken man himself. How can the regime stop this desire for change, I wonder.
Facebook and Twitter, along with all the other social networking sites, have been banned since the beginning of the protests. Even SMS messages, used to spread news of the latest demonstrations, are blocked or interrupted. Emails can't be suppressed so easily, however, else business suffers. So for now, emails are employed to organize the newest expressions of protest -- for instance, everyone is to wear black on certain days.
Various companies are boycotted because of their support for the government. Nokia is targeted for supplying the state with equipment it uses to monitor and control mobile communications. Indeed, to be a "Nokia" is slang for being a spy or snitch. The Iranian diaspora plays a role here: In Los Angeles -- known by some as "Tehrangeles" for its sizeable Iranian population -- Nokia reportedly loses a big contract with the city. The Iranian voice is strong in protest in the West, but is it strong enough at home?
The mild middle classes mind their manners. Life for them is OK. My mother's life resembles that of a 14-year-old. She wakes, meets friends, has breakfast, followed by a swim, lunches, perhaps a nap, and then several chores till evening when her husband returns. Like her, few of my mother's friends and neighbors have attended the protests -- too much risk.
If you ask whether the situation will change, everyone says yes but as the conversation continues the doubts emerge. "Iran has the government it deserves," says a friend who lived in the West for several years. "We are a patient people, a stupid people. It will take a lot for this to change and those in power understand it. As long as the majority of people have what they want, this will continue." As long as the noose is loose enough, then Iranians will accept the oppression and corruption. After all, what materially has changed in the last 30 years?
It's 10 p.m. and around my mother's apartment complex, people shout from their windows "Allah-o Akbar," "God is great," the nightly ritual chant taken up by the anti-government protesters. It starts with one voice and grows. A thrilling call and response echoes from window to window. You can hear the rumble of discontent, like a swarm of locusts across the city. My mother instructs me not to call out as the police may come. I remind her we are in a gated apartment, but she is still frightened. I press my forehead against the window screen and long to let in the locusts. My mother has been obedient for so many years. I comply, as this is her house. Her country, too. I haven't lived here for 30 years, am barely a legitimate Iranian. I wonder why I think this is my cause. Yet the sound of desperate Iranians shouting across the Tehran night electrifies me. I will always remember that cry in the dark for freedom, a courageous plea to God. I will remember how every cell in my body urged me to call out and the treason of my silence. Instead, I spend plenty of time with the family, mostly eating -- all that the revolutionary regime will readily allow.
Tehran in August is an uncomfortable place, especially for the chador-clad women who sweep through the streets. I can't imagine what politics they harbor under their black tents. At least now, no one assumes the chador signals support for the government. Family and mom's friends come and go. Everyone is hopeful, but I sense that 30 years of isolation has warped people's outlooks. Several times, I catch my mother saying things difficult to imagine elsewhere -- she declares that a woman is asking for sexual advances if she wears anything other than the most modest of coverings.
My mother is one of the few with Internet access, but its dial-up speed renders it almost impossible to use. As long as the information that comes into the country is controlled by the government, it controls how the people view the world and their own lives. The young, who make use of Internet cafes with higher-speed connections or watch satellite television, have access to different perspectives. But the percentage of these is low. Mostly, Iranians live in a bubble. One of mom's friends reads Love Among the Haystacks, by D. H. Lawrence. She tells me that it is an edited version sanctioned by the government, without the "kisses and cuddles." I almost choke on the cherry pip in my mouth, imagining Lawrence with all the sexuality removed. What's left, and what's the point? Later, she tells me she has trouble sleeping. She seems anxious, like the women we met at the pool. I suggest to her that the unedited version would help her sleep.
It's Thursday evening and we drive to Darbansar, one hour north of Tehran. We bend and curve away from the city, the car winding up treacherous roads. Horns beep as cars pass each other, arms jut out windows signalling the V sign, "Peace." There is a common acknowledgment: We want change! Pedestrians, less likely to risk someone spotting them, keep their hands down but the grins on their faces betray their elation as we pass.
In the mountains, the air is agreeable. The eyes of the law are far away, as well. Far enough that my grandmother often gardens without a scarf. She says, "What do they want with a woman of 84?" Quite unlike my mother, she is strong and brusque. I adore her. Her father was born into the Baktiari, a nomadic tribe. Their tradition holds that a strong women can be a leader and take a place among the men as a sheerzan, or "lion woman." One of Westerners' deepest misconceptions of Iranian culture is that the country's people are similar to Arabs in their attitudes concerning the role of women and the influence they can attain. Even in the rough world of the nomads, gender prejudices could be overcome. The rigorous separation between men and women enforced by the current regime is an imposition on the society's traditions.
The second night in Darbansar, we attend the birthday party of a seven-year-old whose father died not long before in a traffic accident. All the women of the village attend. Some older than my grandmother, others newly born. Only the birthday boy is allowed to attend in the company of women. Fresh fruit, small cucumbers, and cheese puffs are served with tea and sweet drinks. What can only be described as Iranian-style acid house blasts from a set of speakers. For the first time, I see that the women of the village have hair coiffed as elegantly as a Parisian's.
Clothes tight, the women dance in couples or small groups. Their steps are seductive. The women are happy -- they gossip, exchange news, and share jokes. I am surprised that the more modern girls I have seen in the village and those that wear the chador are indistinguishable. Both are perfectly turned out and joyful -- old and young, religious and contemporary. In this world, I see friendship and a rewarding life.
I see the young boy sulk off to play with the chickens in his backyard, leaving the women to enjoy the celebration. There is little that is more tragic than a fatherless seven-year-old on his birthday. More so that the death seems entirely avoidable.
The Green Revolution may have cost up to 400 lives, but each year approximately 28,000 Iranians die in traffic accidents. My own grandfather was killed several years ago, crossing the street in front of his apartment. The accident rate is almost 21 times that in the developed world. It is one thing to control Iranians, entirely another to control Iranian drivers. The people are almost as angry about Ahmadinejad's failure to deliver on traffic reform as anything else. After all, his Ph.D. studies were in traffic management, but a much-touted safer roads policy has made no discernible impact. Tehran remains clouded in pollution, crowded with out-of-date cars, dangerous for driver and pedestrian alike.
The party continues, and I watch the women peel the cucumbers. I can only wonder if the segregation of men and women is not something that they too prefer. Admittedly, the company of women in Iran is my preference. In this mountain retreat, I realize that change is too far away. People are accustomed to the status quo. It has infiltrated their identities.
September 16. I depart for England, footage for my next film smuggled in my hand luggage. The revolutionary fervor seems to have abated. As the plane rises into the air, I slip off my headscarf and look back at Tehran one last time. I don't know if I will ever be able to return under this administration, particularly considering the film I am about to make. The show trials of 200 protesters, including Maziar Bahari, have started and an uncertain future looms. I leave with the knowledge that if the government's power remains largely intact, so does the kindness and bravery of the Iranian people. I dream of a free Iran and a time when I can return without fear, where I can film and say what I want and take the company of men should I choose.
Tina Gharavi is a Lecturer in Digital Media at Newcastle University and a filmmaker and screenwriter. Her first feature film, Ali In Wonderland, is due for release in late 2010.
Copyright © 2010 Tina Gharavi