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.