Society | Encounters at Dusk
by HOUMAN HAROUNI
07 Nov 2011 01:32
I remember how, as recently as five years ago, at every sundown a few neighbors would find their way to the building entrance. No excuses were necessary. One or two men would linger before climbing the stairs to their units, and women would climb down to chat and take the air. Certain activities were reserved for this part of the day: washing the cars, sharing good news, watching the children play. As other neighbors arrived from work or shopping, they too would linger for a while, exchanging news or small talk. It was during these times that petty conflicts found resolutions. The encounters also served the purpose of feeding the detailed, informal database that neighbors kept on each other's activities. The ones who regularly refused to participate in these conversations were suspect, or at best regarded as eccentrics.
These outside gatherings have entirely disappeared from my building. The same can be said for the other buildings in the neighborhood, and in other similar neighborhoods of the city as well. Once even the bitter cold of Hamedan winters could not put an end to these encounters. Now it seems as if a different sort of cold, a much more cutting one, drives the neighbors into the confines of their houses and apartments. The very idea of neighborhoods is disappearing.
My neighborhood in Hamedan is not unique in this aspect. It lags behind most neighborhoods in Tehran and the larger cities. Nor is the phenomenon unique to Iran. By the first decade of the 20th century, the deterioration of the neighborhood culture and the withdrawal of people into their home environments was noticed by those who observed the European metropolis. The curtness and coldness of encounters appears an unavoidable aspect of city life. Here, for example, Pier Paolo Pasolini on Rome:
Stupendous and miserable city...
that taught me
to defend myself, to offend.
To have the world before my eyes
and not just in my heart.
To understand that few have the passions
which I have lived through:
they are not brothers to me.
And yet, they are true brothers...
But why should this happen in Iran now, and why at such a rapid rate? The processes of urbanization have been placed in high gear. One can hear about some of the reasons in ordinary conversation. An increased sense of insecurity is palpable in the country: both real and perceived lack of safety, caused by the expansion of the city and the income gap, and by the instantaneous transfer of information about crime, large and small. And although saying it might inspire some smirks, both production and bureaucracy in Iran have become more efficient. Efficiency is experienced by workers as more labor during the work day, and therefore more fatigue. Commensurate with greater fatigue is the greater availability of couch entertainment. The TV commands the power of its multiple new channels, DVD players, and satellite.
Other reasons are not so readily observable. They manifest themselves in conversation as tension and conflict. One such reason is the increased cultural dislocation of the city away from small towns and villages. A large section of the urban population still retains its roots in the countryside, having only recently migrated. But these ties are severing quickly as the villages deteriorate, and as every cultural medium of the city, particularly the strengthening arm of publicity and advertisement, encourages a rejection of rural appearance and values. As rural and small-town connections fade, so fade the habits that were developed there -- namely the habit of slow conversation, of repeated interaction. The city is the place of brief and singular encounters, and the daily deluge of interactions is so overwhelming on the nerves that the mind tends to look for respite. Part of that respite is to minimize one's emotional responses to other people -- and the types of encounters I have described cannot take place without an emotional reserve. The fatigue of the body is peripheral to the fatigue of the mind is peripheral to the fatigue of the heart. This latter concept is not hidden from the popular consciousness: ku dele khosh (where's a carefree heart?) is a common expression. It is the expression of this fatigue that sets countries like Iran apart from the Western nations in which the generations that experienced this transition have long passed. In Iran, the individual remembers a different life; he still retains a frame of reference. This frame of reference engenders a sense of nostalgia.
It would be an easy relief for me, too, to sink into nostalgia in this essay. Nostalgia, however, underestimates the liberating element of the burgeoning metropolis. If my neighbors no longer gather on the street corner, they also do not crack open their doors to check on all groups of larger than two who dare make a peep as they climb the stairs. They no longer call to inform me of the exact male to female ratio of my own guests. The binds imposed by the outdated structures of society are also weakening.
Nostalgia is also dangerous because it colors our vision with inevitability. It implies that what is happening has already happened and nothing can mediate the change. Meaningful connections between people of the city are not doomed. They are formed in light of meaningful social actions. The failure of many social actions in recent times, and even worse the suspicion that the actions taken lacked meaning, is at the core of the withdrawal of individuals from their communities.
Why should I find this disconcerting? My own social position should welcome the new social freedoms, like the freedom from the constant scrutiny of my neighbors.
The disconcerting element has to do with the fabric of neighborhoods like mine. Until recently, educated and uneducated wage earners in Iran were not isolated from one another. The process of separation has begun only recently. The sunset encounters are the last meeting place between these two groups. Wage earners, those who live by selling their time, whether educated (like teachers, nurses, bureaucrats) or uneducated (like most factory workers and servicemen), share a great deal of interests. But the less the educated and uneducated working classes interact, the more they separate from one another. Unchecked, the end result will be very similar to what has happened in America: the educated wage earners, even if they make less money than blue-collar families, see themselves as "middle class" -- that is, as not working class. They are never sure where their interests lie: with those who employ them, or with what they see as the "unwashed masses."
The weight of traditions and social norms in Iran are such that the educated class longs simply to be left alone. For the youth, in particular, this need trumps even the very urgent economic problems. To be educated also means to be educated in regard to the Western way of life; and to be young means that one's life seems like a thing that can be reinvented. In the smaller educated families, it is possible for the young members to remain at home, if jobless, and dream of a new life, a life set apart from the ordinariness of others.
Blue-collar families, on the other hand, cannot ignore economic necessities (they have more children, they enter the workforce earlier, they are rarely supported by pensions or loans). They demand the opposite of being left alone: they demand solidarity. They look, shocked, at the way the appearances and behaviors of their neighbors are changing and wonder why someone would want to set himself or herself apart. Because there is no conversation, their gaze turns into judgment. And the more they judge, the more uncomfortable their neighbors become. They retreat further into the privacy of their homes, and eventually move altogether to newer, suburban or gentrified parts of the city.
The two classes need one another, but each wanders alone into its own preferred niche. If one can stand outside these divisions, and if one can gain a sense of one's own freedom without withdrawing away from the street, then one has a chance to work to reestablish the conversation that has been disrupted. And this work of bringing together, of facilitating conversations, is needed. In the city, daylight is taken away by work, and night by family and fatigue. If the encounters are to happen at all, dusk is still the proper time, the window of opportunity.
Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. His "Bīstoon Chronicles" appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Ehsan Barati.
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