Monday, November 5, 2012

Being Social

Tonight the friend of dad's who had offered to have me over for breakfast, lunch and dinner came by for a visit with his wife and 20 year old son. Dad's apartment is ill-equipped for such visits. The normal spread for visitors is a huge platter of fruit, also chocolate, candy, tea, cake, and cookies. Dad managed to rummage through his bachelor kitchen and come up some walnuts (easy since he has an endless supply from the trees in his garden), dried cherries and grapes (our leftover road food from Esfahan) and a box of chocolates that someone had gifted me. That's the other part of the visit; no-one ever shows up empty handed. So far, I've received 4 boxes of chocolates as gifts. These folks showed up with a huge plant that I suspect may have come from the flower store next to our building. I was feeling a little tired of the whole farsi show (head scarf, pleasantries, etc) and luckily these folks were very down-to-earth and chill. The wife took off her headscarf almost immediately and the son was lounging all over the couch, shouting to Dad from the other room. He is 4 months into his required 21 months of military service, and said he didn't like it because they give you a hard time.

They asked if I had any pictures, so I ended up showing them pictures of Woodfolk House, Oakstock Pink Floyd dancers, and Richmond's Festival of Five Fires. The latter is a yearly art/fire spinning festival, complete with halloween themed burlesque. It felt quite rebellious to show those pictures, and even Dad commented “You can't look at those, this is an Islamic Republic!” I played them some of the new Persian Pop that I got from Farshad and Benefsheh, and by the end we were all lounging on the floor (except dad). They basically demanded that they take me to the Tajrish Bazaar tomorrow and even that we come to dinner, though we're not able as other relatives will be over here visiting us.   


Today was a hard one. I woke up to find out that my grandmother is still the in the hospital; they'd taken her in last night for an MRI; she's been very anxious and agitated. I had seen dad right before heading out to the show and asked after Maman. “She's fine” is all he had said. And now I understand that he was following another cultural norm here; shielding family from bad news and being secretive about sickness. Benafsheh had just been telling me that her dad had been unwell, and they didn't tell her til afterward, “because we don't want to worry you”. And they are keeping Farshad's health issues a secret from Ame Pari (his mother) for the same reasons. And now I was having the same experience.

They had decided to take her in just for the test, but the hospital wanted to keep her for a couple of days to run some more tests. Ame Pari had been up with her there all night, and Dad had gone over the morning. After a late breakfast, I braved the taxi system and made my way over there. There are 4 kinds of taxis; mini busses that have a set route, group taxis that pick up multiple people going in the same direction, private taxis, and people with cars who will charge you a little and give you a ride where their going. To catch one, you stand on the side of the road and when a car slows down slightly, shout your destination. A nod up means nope, a nod down means yes.
I found one that seemed to be nodding in the appropriate way, and got in. There was one other woman in the front seat, and we soon picked up 2 more. Dad's instructions were complicated and lengthy, so thank goodness for the every-woman-is-your-mother syndrome here; the front-seat lady in the taxi helped me figure out where to get dropped off. I just kept repeating the word for hospital, Shohadoh, and in the end was delivered to the front gate. I found my way to the building (translates as 8th floor building), and to the 4th floor, room 5. Dad had said they didn't want him in there because it was a women's room. There were 6 beds in there, and I have to say the place looked pretty terrible.

But each patient had a family member with them who was caring for them—no-one was left alone. This was pretty much the case in the various rooms I peeked into. And soon I realized that this is how the system works. The family is there doing the main care-giving. The hospital staff is helping too, but the family is the bottom line. This jives with something that Farshad said last night. This country has survived everything that has been thrown at it because of the intensely strong social network it has. The family structure here is phenomenal. He said, there's no homelessness that isn't by choice, because the family would never let that happen. And I know exactly what he means. The family networks here are invincible. The various care people in the same room also interact a lot with each other, offering up their own medical advice to each other and helping each other out.

Farzin Farzid and Pirou Pirou

Tonight I had the most amazing experience I have had here yet. My cousin and his wife got me a ticket to an Iranian pop concert. The two of them and myself and and Benafsheh's brother and his wife all went together. Its the first time since I've been here that I've gone out with and/or spent a good chunk of time with young folks. The scene was intense; everyone dressed up, excited, pushing and filling up the large venue.  

We were there for the 6pm show, and there would be another at 9pm. Benafsheh told me that both shows were sold out. After the initial rush, the room continued to fill slowly. They got a late start and at the slightest sign of activity from the stage area (testing lights, someone walking by, smoke machines) hoots and hollers would rise from the crowd. Benafsheh said “They're here to have a good time. They don't care what's happening, they're going to have it!” I didn't really know what to expect, and had mostly came for the anthropological/culture experience. And. I never could have predicted what I was about to see.

First, a short video to get us hyped for the show. Then, the lights hit stage right to reveal a 10 piece string section being directed by a white-wigged conductor in short tails. Then, lights pan out, revealing one acoustic, one electric guitar, a bass player, 2 people playing two separate sets of key boards, a guy on a drum kit, a guy on hand percussion, and 3 back up singers. The conductor finishes conducting his mini-orchestra, then strides to the middle of the stage, alights the 3 stairs in the middle that lead to the drum-kit platform, and dramatically removes his grey wig to reveal short, black hair, and the fact that he's the singer we've all come to see! Crowd goes wild.

He starts belting/crooning...the lights flash. The smoke rises. The Orchestra plays. The song's title traced itself in English letters on the screen behind. This was a full-on multi-media experience; lights, music, visuals. Theatrics. The next song began with two minstrels with horns perched above the stage in small alcoves, trumpeting back and forth. The third song was about snow and the screen displayed a shifting montage of snowing scenes.

Everyone sat in their seats, clapping their hands over head on the funkier songs, a few dancing in their chairs, singing along often, hooting and whistling and shouting. In the middle the singer announced he'd be taking a break, but that the rest of the musicians would entertain us meanwhile. The band broke into a funk-funk-funky breakdown and rocked it for 10 minutes. Benafsheh told me that this was the song of a singer who is banned in Iran and can only perform abroad, but they were playing it anyway. The singer came back, having transformed from an all-black out fit to a gleaming white one. More crooning, more funky breakdowns, more hooting and hollering.

Afterward, we all went to a pizza place; this is where the young folks hang out. I asked more about the youth culture; do people date? Sahar (Benafsheh's brother's wife) sighed and rolled her eyes, which Benafsheh translated as “boy do they ever!” I asked Farshad if they just hang out, or....and he said yes, both. It sounds like the heaviest restrictions come from people's families, and Benafsheh said that even some families are more ok with this now. 

Sahar, choosing dvds from a street seller
Then they told me about the parties young people throw, and showed me some video of them getting down on the dance floor from a recent wedding. And it clicked for me. Public life here is so heavily restricted that much of the social scene is relegated to private spaces; people's homes, where no-one needs to wear a scarf or manteau and you can dance and drink (maybe...) openly. I said, “I haven't gotten to connect with very many young people here” and Benafsheh's brother said “that's because you're always with your dad!” and he's so right. Then Sahar and Ahmad (Benafsheh's brother) started planning a party so that I could meet some more young people.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Palaces in Tehran and Night Life in Darband

Today dad played hooky from work and we walked to a nearby park that
houses a couple of the Shah's smaller palaces.  We got tickets and
wandered around (it was impromptu so I didn't have my camera).  There
was one amazing large open hall lavishly decorated with intricate
mosaics of tiny mirrors.  The effect was stunning; the room glinted
and shimmered from all sides.  The colors were garish and loud, and
the rooms were filled with gifts from various other countries.  It was
all very extravagent and at some point a little nauseating, witnessing
again how for ages  the wealthy few live off the backs of the
impoverished masses all the world over.  Still, some of the older
works of art were interesting, like some large panels made from
tanning pieces of leather different colors and arranging them into a

Our next stop was a little sandwich place across from the park.  It
was small but bustling, the 4 or 5 tables filled with young folks
talking and laughing.  We got a kabob and a chicken sandwich and
shared them.  While we were eating out front, a bus drove up and a
young Malaysian soccer team disembarked.  They were a lively, friendly
bunch and mobbed the dried fruit and nut shop next to the sandwich
place.  Some young boys walked by and got very excited, asking them if
they played soccer and calling to their friends.

Night life in DarbandLast night we all went to Darband, a street/area that is built right
into the mountain on the edge of town.  The path winds up and up,
getting narrower and narrower.  The street is flanked by people
selling piles of brightly colored olives and other undefinable treats,
and is frequently mobbed by donkey riders and propane delivery.  The
propane is for the restaurants at the very top who aren't connected to
the city gas line.   There were people selling charred corn on the
cob, roasted fava beans, fresh walnuts and I even got my Hafiz fortune
drawn by a bird.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The North

This morning we left early, packed ourselves into the car, 3 thick in the back with stuff filling all the backseat foot space; my favorite way to travel! We drove north, through mountains and around extreme hairpin turns.  We made a pit stop halfway for soup. Eventually the mountains started to show greenery and glimpses of the Caspian peeked through the trees. And finally we arrived in Motelghu and my dad's apartment here. It's on the 7the floor, overlooking the Caspian “Sea” (its actually the largest lake in the world) and the mountains; its two blocks from the sea. The apartment is filled with light and is calm and peaceful. I can feel the lines in my face relaxing, away from the endless traffic, noise, and pollution of Tehran. 

The town has several names: Motelghu is the most common. It was a very small village with just a cluster of houses until during the time of the Shah, they built a casino here. The Casino was called Motelghu, and the town grew and adopted this name. It is a very popular vacation spot during the high season, and the only road north is 100 years old and very narrow, so the traffic can be intense. 

We took a stroll through town the first evening. The beach is dotted w/small structures that have a small open floor with a carpet and a plastic roof. Couples and friends sit in these and smoke hookah or drink tea while looking out on the ocean. There was also a little shack area for the fisherman. We bought some fruit and vegetables, and visited the chicken man. His shop was open on all sides and had a small desk, freezer, and chopping table in the side. When we arrived, was busy having tea with his previous customer who put town his tea glass and collected his chicken when Ame Pari requested her order. The chicken man grabbed a bagged whole chicken out of a small freezer, and using the small side table he alternated between using a long, flat blade and a curved, sycle blade to quickly and deftly chop up the chicken into small pieces, removing the unsavory bits to a separate bowl. He bagged it up for us, hosed down the table and we were on our way.

Traveling home

The journey home was quite epic. After packing up the kitchen and everything else we'd brought, we stuffed ourselves in the car again and dad parked somewhere and ran inside on an errand. Which is when Ame Pari realized that she'd lost her wallet somewhere the night before when we were strolling around. We'd been to the bakery, the vegetable store, the chicken man and the olive store that night. Unfortunately it was now Saturday, which is like Sunday in the west; everything is closed. Still we made a good faith attempt. The bakery was open but they hadn't seen the wallet. The olive store was closed but the real estate agent next door told us that the olive woman's father in law works at the post office, so we went there and were able to call her. She hadn't seen it. Finally we gave up and hit the road. We made one pit stop along the way at the Hotel Nazia, where Maman used the bathroom (and then we all snuck in to use it).  Our next stop is the small port town Anzali. It is the main port for Russian freighters, and there was one heading out as we arrived.  Maman rested on a bench while we strolled on the boardwalk, passing small boat rentals and many small cats. 

Then we went on to Rasht, another city in the north where my dad had had his first job after finishing school. They brought us flatbread, chunks of raw onion, walnuts, fava beans, strained yogurt, olives in a walnut/pomegranate sauce and female caviar. Whatever that means.  We ordered a kabob and chicken, (which came with rice of course) and dug in. Then another epic 6 hours in the car we finally arrived back in Tehran.

Around town and back home

Dad says that he thinks 90% of Iranians don't like the government here, 80% in rural areas and villages. He said that he speaks against it every chance he can get, and that people tell him he's crazy to talk like that. He says, unless his life is in danger he'll say what he thinks. Like father, like daughter....

Riding the subway is also fascinating. The first two “wagons” are women only, and the rest are ostenisbly for men but women can ride there too. We rode during rush hour today and people packed in so tightly you couldn't move! The signs are also quite delightful. Look closely at the one in the middle; it cautions women against getting their chador or manteau caught in the escalator. We were in the mixed-gender car during a particularly jam-packed time and the other woman next to me took it upon her self to keep me steady as the car rocked as there was no where for me to hold on. I also spotted two men holding hands, very loosely, on the escalator. When they got off they continued this way, gently clasping fingers. I can't imagine what it must be like to be gay here; doubtless incredibly stressful. Dad says this is very common for men and they are probably not gay.  

We walked to Dad's music school where he takes Tar lessons to see about getting a violin lesson while I'm here, and we walked around the neighborhood where Dad did his last year of High School. He grew up in Kermanshah, a small rural village a few hours from Tehran. He never thought he would leave Kermanshah, but that last year his sister Ame Pari was in Tehran in school and possibly going to get divorced. So Maman, Dad, and Amu Said came to set up house with her and dad did his last year of High School in Tehran. He told me that right away he realized that he hadn't learned anything in the last 3 years, and that if he was going to be able to go to University he would need to study hard and pass the test. He'd never been a good student but now he worked hard and managed to pass the test! We also walked by Amu Bagher's school, which is a historic site.

Dad's school

Bagher's school

Amubagher's school

My cousin Farshad (Ame Pari's son) and his wife Benafsheh arrived today. They live in LA, and the last time I saw them was over 20 years ago. They are both so sweet and also fluent in English! After dinner tonight, everyone sat around telling funny stories over the customary dessert, fruit and tea. One story had them all nearly doubled over in stitches and Benafsheh took pity on me to explain that when Persian women fly internationally, they always choose to use the wheelchair because then they don't have to know their gate, etc., they are just delivered to where they need to go by an airport attendant. Even though they are totally able-bodied, most of them choose this option for the ease of not having to deal with the chaotic airport traffic, finding the gate, etc.. Dad says that at the gate, there are often 40 women lined up in their wheelchairs.

And, it turns out, Ame Pari, my spunky 73 year old climbing-trees-in-high-heels super aunt....
Your Ame Pari when she came to visit us 20 years ago, she arrived in a wheelchair!” and Ame Pari looked over at us from the sink with that impish grin and twinkle in her eye, and in her delightfully thick Persian accent exhuberantly exclaimed “Free ride!”

Dad also recounted many of the stories that my Agha (grandfather) would always tell. He died about 4 years ago and I feel a little devasted to not have gotten to spend more time with him before that. But I can see that here, the way to keep those who have died alive is by telling their stories and laughing as you would if he were here telling it.


Many women here wear the full chador: A large, flowy black garment that is floor length, covers the head, has arms for the hands, and is open in front. It is held closed under the chin. I even saw someone today who wore gloves with her chador “so that no one will see her hands” Ame Pari told me. Here in the cutting edge northern part of Tehran, there are also many women who push every fashion limit placed on them by the government. And so we have the opposite extreme: loose, brightly covered wraps with a small belt, sexy shoes w/open toes, and my favorite; the hair. There is an acceptable amount of hair that can show in the front of the scarf. But the edge is to make a big bun and put a big flower or something underneath it so that the hair is very big, and then delicately perch the scarf over the bun, as far back as possible, so that the entire front part is uncovered. TONS of makeup is absolutely the norm. In the grocery store this evening, I found this sign reminding women to wear the head scarf, and this woman who is pushing every restriction to the limit.

Today I spent a bunch of time walking around the city with dad. I started doing some street photography, taking pictures with the camera hanging around my neck while walking around. I am still endlessly fascinated by the variations on the dress code. There is the full chador and the special head scarf that provides maximum coverage (often required at places of employment or for student uniforms). Then there is the slightly pushed back scarf. Dad says that in the old days, women were supposed to wear black or dark colors, and many still do. Then there are those who push this limitation, as well. And then there is of course the ubiquitous post-op nosejob. 

Full chador

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Garden

[Note: from here on I will refer to my aunt as “Ame (Aunt) Pari”]

Today was a day of big adventures. Dad and I had talked last night about going to his “garden”, a small plot that he has outside of town. I wanted Ame Pari and Maman to come of course, and he said of course they would. When I came over for lunch today, Ame Pari said she couldn't because she needed to go grocery shopping. I said I'd come with her, and we could go to the garden after. When dad arrived later in the afternoon, they began the complex negotiations that go with every event. The relative merits of going shopping outside town near the garden or inside town, whether or not to bring Maman, etc. of course all in Farsi. I kept my head down and studied a particularly pernicious Farsi letter (that has 4 iterations, depending on its placement in a word!) and when I came up for air it had all been settled.

Except of course that Maman immediately erupted in loud moans of complaint. “Mordam! Mordam!” (I'm dying!) and even more; “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” (I'm falling! I'm falling!) as she sat demurely on the coach behind her walker. Further negotiations ensued in Farsi, and eventually I figured I should play my grandaughter card. “Be-ah!” I said (come!) She froze for a moment. And then continued yelling “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” I asked for the translation of “It's ok, you can fall and still come!” Which, when delivered, was totally ineffective and possibly increased the level of wailing. Eventually between the 4 of us (me, dad, Ame Pari, and Teibah, the woman who they've hired to help out) we managed to bustle her out the door and into the elevator.  It was a bit claustrophobic, with the 5 of us plus walker, but down we went. 

Until. The elevator inexplicably halted near our floor. And wouldn't open. Sensing a great photo opportunity, I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures while dad yelled our predicament into the intercom.   Maman even perked up for one picture.

Soon, the outer door was pried open by a maintenance guy on the other side, and then the inner door. Which presented another predicament; turns out that the elevator had decided to freeze between floors and about 2 feet above the ground floor. Which wasn't a problem for us able bodied folk, but Maman can barely shuffle to the dinner table with her walker. There ensued more chaotic shouting and gesturing. I (brilliantly) said “We can just lift her down!” I had to repeat it a few times until I was heard over the din, but then Dad immediately saw that this was indeed the thing to do. I jumped down and just in time whipped out the camera again sensing another fabulous photo op. And then oh did the wailing begin in earnest “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” and I could no longer control the peels of laughter because now it was actually true. The look on Dad's face as the still wailing Maman was loaded onto his back was too much and I had to duck around the corner and just howl for a moment before returning to the scene. We got her down, and all loaded into the car as the wailings subsided. I have been bursting into spontaneous laughter since then just remembering this moment.  The pictures are a little dark but check out those facial expressions....Dad accused me of staging the whole thing just so i could have a good photo op.  

We drove out of town about a half hour and up into the mountains north of town, stopping on the way to get gas. The garden is a small fenced in area with walled terraces and about 40 fruit trees; mostly apple, also walnut, quince, plum... We set maman up at the top and then Ame Pari and I gathered up apples and walnuts from beneath the trees. I must say she is one bad-ass Aunt; she is 73, doesn't look a day over 50, is full of energy, charm, love and compassion AND climbed up one of the apple trees to pick a few out of reach ones in her high heels!! It felt so good to get out of the city and breath fresh, clean(er) air. Dad told me all about the various additions he'd built, walls here and there, and the various trees. He even has a plot where he's growing saffron flowers. Each purple flower that each has 2 stamens. The stamens are the saffron; if you grow 150 flowers you have enough for a gram of saffron. Eventually we all loaded back up to head home; stopping at a bakery on the way.

'And this is the toilet...'

Internet, Visitors, Time

I never thought too much about internet control as a form of cultural/societal oppression. And I didn't really realize the extent to which I rely on it to stay connected and in communication. Now it is an ever-present reality. I knew that Facebook was blocked here, but I promised everyone before leaving that I'd be blogging regularly. A friend had said “your blog is probably banned too” and I had laughed if off incredulously. Well, turns out....

So there's this code that appears in the URL box when you enter facebook, youtube, my blog's address....and I imagine many other websites that connect you to the world beyond Iran. It is this: F1-IPM. At home, Dad has an internet card that uses a dial-up connection. It often simply won't connect, and when it does, it frequently drops the connection and/or simply won't load a page. When a page does miraculoulsy load, it takes 45-60 seconds, sometimes more. Dad has a hard line as well as a filter blocker on his computer at work—tunrs out that's how you access facebook here. I went down to his office today for the supposed fast and easy internet access. Facebook tried to work, but then asked for verification via a code it sent to my cell phone which of course doesn't work here. It also offered the option of identifying friends but when I selected this option it said that I'd tried this option too many times for the hour. I also cockily imagining that I'd just throw up the many blogposts that I have been writing offline since I arrived. After discovering that my blog is also blocked, I tried it again on his computer with the filter blocker, switching the hardline back and forth between the two computers. I finally got the blog loaded, but every time each page loaded it was in a different language. Including cyrillic. I managed to make enough guesses to get signed in, but the computer wouldn't read any of my text or pic files. SO, I'll be sending the text and pics to my remote agent who will post on the blog. I'll also continue sending out the text and some pics via email when I have access to a hard line.

This all reinforces the cultural norm here—the main context for life are the immediate concerns of family and relationships. Meals are lengthy, visits common and do not require calling or even necessarily giving a specific time. For instance, on Saturday Pari told me that her friend was coming over the next day to meet me. “I don't know when she'll come, so I can't walk you to Dad's office” she told me. Today some random friend of Dad's wanted to talk to me on the phone. “Welcome to Iran! Welcome home!” he exclaimed over the phone. “I want to invite you to my house for dinner! And breakfast! And lunch!” “Good thing I'm very hungry” I told him. 

Another crazy thing is that I have not yet been able to determine what time it is here! And this is totally emblematic of life here. There is a certain fuzzyness to reality outside of the most immediate concerns. As far as I can tell, we are 7.5 hours ahead of Eastern time. But all clocks are different. In Pari's apartment, the clock is a half hour faster than that. When I try re-setting the time on my computer, there is no option for 7.5 hours. So it is possible that I am consistantly a half hour early or late; and it matters not at all. Time is measured in days, or chunks of the day; morning, afternoon. My friend is coming to visit “tomorrow”. I can't walk you to the office because she's coming in the “afternoon”.

Coming soon: portraits of Iranians. I am going to do a series of portraits, talking the people that I meet and asking them a series of questions, then taking their picture and posting.