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Dispatch | The Open Secrets of Ramadan


04 Aug 2012 22:28Comments
13910431114236755_PhotoL.jpg "I don't like to go outside anymore. It's not my country."

[ essay ] I arrived in Iran during Ramadan, when it falls on the hottest month of the year. Today the temperature in the city has already risen to a scorching 35 degrees Centigrade and yet according to Islamic law, no adult has been able to eat or drink since 4:30 this morning and won't be able to until 8:30 tonight. The only get-out is a doctor's note for the sick, elderly, or pregnant. I've heard that traffic accidents rise during the Holy Month as hunger makes for frayed tempers and desperate driving, but according to my cousins, very little changes in Iran because so few people are actually fasting.

"Ninety percent of people who say they are fasting are lying," cousin A. tells me. Twenty-four years old and about to be qualified as a doctor, she's taking advanced English language classes while she waits to defend her thesis. According to her, the purpose of Ramazan, as it's called here, is to become a better person. Lying is banned, as is gossip, and all good Muslims should pray more, study the Qur'an, and converse with their God. She tells me the rules are in a book that everyone gets from their mullah.

"You each have a mullah?" I ask.

The answer comes back: "Ninety percent of people who tell you they visit their mullah are lying." She laughs, then explains that when children reach maturity (nine years old for girls, 15 for boys, according to Islamic law) they should be assigned one to assist them with matters of religious observance. More commonly, they're given a book to consult. Why isn't she fasting? "Its toooooo difficult!" she says. She did it once and lost some weight. "Losing weight is the only good thing."

Another cousin, middle-aged S., reckons that at least 50 percent of the country will be fasting; most of the observers, she says, live in the countryside and small towns. City dwellers are the ones likely to be breaking the rules, their religious traditions overwhelmed by busy urban lives.

H. agrees, but thinks there's another reason for the rule breaking. She has returned home from a painting class, where she says no one was fasting. When they discussed why, they all agreed that the regime itself has turned people against their own religion. She grins and produces a half-empty bag of cheese balls, the absent half devoured with her classmates, as if to prove the point.

But this hasn't always been her way; she used to fast. One evening, when we're driving home at dusk, she tunes the radio to the call to prayer. It reminds her of when this time of day felt truly spiritual. She tells me that fasting is all about empathizing with the poor and practicing self-discipline. But now she can't do it, she says, because she's addicted to tea and gets a headache if she doesn't drink it.

I wonder about the punishment for violating the fast. D. and her mom think that it's a whipping, maybe 60 or 80 lashes, with shirt on or off according to the judge's discretion. I ask if such cases are written up in the newspapers. Apparently not. And I'm guessing such punishments are rare. L., who works for a state oil and gas company, tells me that everyone at her office is snacking under their desks and in the bathrooms. They just turn a blind eye to each other. I'm not observing Ramazan, although I probably should try it for a day. No one I've met is either, not my cousins or their friends or my elderly and rather religious uncle or his nurses.

So far for me, Ramazan means watching a lot of TV, which is good because my Persian is very basic. Children's TV is good. Toy Story 3 dubbed into Persian has given me the useful phrases "Bebinim ki injaast!" (look who we have here) and "Hich kasi seda-to nemishnavad" (no one can hear your voice), the latter delivered menacingly by Mr. Potato Head. The cousins find this boring, as apparently the film is repeated so often. Their satellite dish was removed from their apartment block's roof a year ago -- helicopter spotter teams scour the area even as we watch -- and they can't afford to buy another one, so they are stuck, like most people, with just the state-approved TV channels. During Ramazan, they broadcast an endless stream of moral dramas, two- and three-parters by some of Iran's most popular directors that are watched by millions of Iranians during the afternoon and as they breakfast at dusk.

Today we watch three: Goodbye Baby, Hidden Secrets, and Maybe It Happens to You Too. The first is an emotional two-parter about a woman who has a miscarriage, her fourth. As she recovers in her hospital bed wearing a multitoned pink habit known as a maghnaeh (imagine Barbie as a nun), her husband speaks with the doctor in an unlikely gilded waiting room with white satin chairs. He learns that it would endanger her life to conceive again. Distraught, he books an appointment at an adoption clinic. When the couple return home, the husband goes to work and his traumatized wife begins to put the clothes he wore to the hospital in the washing machine. Of course, she discovers the appointment card. Unaware that she can't have children, she calls the clinic and the receptionist helpfully confirms an appointment has been made in her husband's name. The cliffhanger comes when she suggests that maybe the husband has booked the appointment for another woman.

Hidden Secrets also hinges on the dramatic potential of complicated marriages. It features a man with accident-induced amnesia unable to recognize his family. His wife, separated from him before the accident, discovers that he has two other wives. Any sane woman would use his memory loss as a chance to escape, but as polygamy is legal in Iran and does not constitute grounds for divorce, no doubt the drama took another turn. We didn't stick it out.

Our favorite serial by far was Maybe It Happens To You Too. This was about two educated young men looking for work, one with sleepy blue eyes, the other more typically Iranian looking with a neat goatee and glasses. It begins with a montage of Blue Eyes returning home empty-handed day after day over the course of a month. My cousin O. said this was realistic: not only is unemployment high, but all the unemployed are overqualified with bachelor's and master's degrees. O. himself, a recently accredited engineer, has only just found a job after months of looking.

Eventually, the two friends decide to set up a stall selling nutritious stew and soup to Ramazan fasters. But Blue Eyes is on the make. He buys donkey meat instead of mutton, drops a huge rock of salt into their competitor's tureen, and greedily triples their profit margin. Goatee, who has a beautiful and moral girlfriend, Narges Khanom, finds out. Narges makes him return his share of the profits. Blue Eyes departs, riding off into the sunset to sell his stew elsewhere. As he sits on the back of a pickup with his tureens, the driver brakes suddenly to avoid hitting another vehicle. Donkey meat splatters everywhere, and Blue Eyes has to dispense with all his ill-gotten gains to pay off the angry drivers. He returns to his friend's house, lesson learned.

After watching several hours of this morally edifying stuff, I ask A. if she'd like to go for a stroll. I know not to ask my aunt, despite the fact that she too has been watching TV all day. She doesn't like to go outside, preferring to stay home and take care of her family. I'll never forget her simple reply the time I asked her why: "I don't like to go outside anymore. It's not my country. I don't like it."

I knew instantly that "anymore" meant since the Revolution.

It's nearly sunset and the temperature has fallen. Donning our headscarves, A. and I head out. There are just a few people walking on the street. We pass two teenage girls in canary yellow and electric blue scarves chattering on their smartphones. We pass a group of middle-aged ladies sitting for a gossip. We are on the Ekhbatan Estate, a miniature city of repetitive concrete apartment blocks on the western edge of Tehran. As I look up at the windows, I wonder how many women of my aunt's generation, like her, prefer to stay inside -- women who were in their early 20s, their lives just beginning, when the Revolution changed them forever, clinging onto whatever agency they can by staying in the private realm of their homes.

As we turn back toward home, we see a stew and soup stand, just like on the television. As yet, there are no people lined up. The seller is not blue-eyed and looks rather forlorn, no doubt from hunger. I ask if I can take a photo. He says yes, but won't muster a smile. Then my cousin whispers into my ear, "We better not try it, it might be donkey meat!" And we walk off laughing.

Photos: Traditional iftar treats: Ash stew (homepage), a tray of zoolbabamieh (above).

Copyright © 2012

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