Kafka Would Love It!
by CONTRIBUTOR in Tehran
01 Aug 2010 02:27
This question falls from the lips of everyone I meet, following the typical social pleasantries, once tea has been served and they discover that I live outside Iran. Strangely, anxiety does not strain their voices, nor does the pressure of worry furl their brows. It is more like a planning question: I would like to know if they will hit Iran so that I can plan on being away up north....
Iran is now a land of mediocre people accepting less-than-mediocre results. This is not just the vanishing middle class. It is almost at every level. I know that we all want to blame the government for our predicament, and it does deserve our condemnation. But that is ruminated over enough in cyberspace and amongst the intellectuals and on sites like Tehran Bureau. The real blame should also fall on us as Iranians who accept mediocrity as the legitimate status quo.
Tehran streets still are paralyzed by traffic jams, and bazaars flooded with goods and shoppers. But the faces -- hollowed eyes and angry scowls -- tell of the burdens beyond that of pure economics, although the poverty is overwhelming. The eyes here are piercing and unforgiving, reflecting the suspicion and fear Iranians cannot articulate from dread of repercussions. So they harbor it internally, unexpressed, but it seeps from their faces, from the corners of their mouths.
The kindness of the grandmother's eyes that I remember as a child is growing extinct. People appear like automatons with a predefined purpose; just get it over with (which seems the real precursor to mediocre doing), whatever task you have at hand, and return home as quickly as possible. In the evening they venture out to see who is doing what. This is the fun part of the day. The appearance of activity, that social aspect that creates the appearance that life proceeds as normal, when beneath the veneer people are busy with being busy and nothing more. Living life, rather than contributing to a meaningful purpose, serves instead as a distraction.
Politics and culture in Iran have taken a disastrous turn at the crossroads of destiny, and although we all sense inescapable doom on the horizon, we trudge mindlessly along. What an existentialist state this creates whereby all values and norms are defined by the regime and accepted on the pretext of survival, and all passions are subject to the dictates of the moment. Kafka would love it. From the point of view of an indoctrinated outsider, I am constantly surprised at the paradoxes of life in Iran.
Iranians seem to subsist on conundrums that serve to absorb their mental energy. Here are a few:
They drive at insane speeds in poorly made cars that likely would not withstand a blown tire or fender bender, yet complain about the air pollution slowly killing them. The drivers won't give way to anyone, especially pedestrians, and then they all despair about how rude everyone has become.
Tehran's police chief claims they will not register any new car that does not have airbags and special ABS breaks. The car manufacturers claim that this is still at least a year from coming, and in the meanwhile more than 1,500 unregisterable cars are sold in Tehran each day (more than one million cars were sold in Iran in 2009).
The government shuts down many provinces due to heat and in order to manage the electricity use, but then people leave the big cities in large numbers creating traffic jams full of cars without AC, causing an overrun on hospital facilities for heat-stricken travelers.
The religious leaders call for tightening of the enforcement of hejab rules, and the president comes out in a TV interview and says it's not the role of the government to enforce dress. He then asks another audience why the government should be concerned about the hair or appearances of young people, since Islam is a compassionate faith that accepts all regardless.
The parliament has passed laws and regulations which the President is refusing to sign and enforce, one of these specifically orders the government to give the Tehran metro system US$2 billion from the foreign currency reserves for their international procurements. The President says this cannot be done. Simple as that, no reason given and no excuses provided.
One of the most recent debates was over the ownership and governance of a university which has over one million students (Azad University). The fight went all the way up to parliament, the Showra Negahban, and then was ordered dropped by the Supreme Leader.
The paradox here is to let everything run its normal course of debate and discourse, and then shut it down with a simple order from the Supreme Leader. The merry-go-around effect furthers the existential motif, for if the author Andre Malraux were still alive, he and Kafka could share tea together and ruminate over the fate of Iran. In Malraux's universe, the struggle for a cause all equates to a big nothing in the end. Like adding up a string of numbers (for value), then multiplying it all by zero, so that is always what rests at the other side of the equal sign. In Iran, this has become a familiar equation.
I guess the only rationale is that the government prefers to provide people at least the illusion that there is a democratic, just process at work, for we see its machinations, but in the end someone pulls the plug. This is so-called eastern democracy at its quintessence: Let them think they are doing something meaningful, because the mind is a wonderful thing if uselessly engaged.
In my humble opinion the days of the Islamic Republic are numbered, but God help us with what could come after. As long as in Iran mediocrity is the highest possible standard of life, then less than mediocre governments and rulers will rule it as they have for centuries. The old adage comes to mind, "A country gets the government it deserves." Islam has clearly found a paradigm to showcase for the world in the coming centuries. Leave them faithless, but make sure they loudly proclaim their faith. If Kafka were born today, he would be Iranian.
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