Reading Tehran

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tehran is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The streets feel surreal; I feel as if I’m walking around an extremely detailed and life-like movie set, replete with extras in chadors and Louis Vuitton scarves, terrifying traffic, and a foreign script on seemingly every surface. It’s the Farsi that leads me to believe I’m in an illusion, and that nothing is real. Perhaps because I’ve only ever visited countries that use the same script that I do (Phoenician), but I will seemingly never tire of seeing that lazy, tailed lettering on storefronts, street signs, graffitied walls, on the sides of fences where old Qoranic verses greet passersby with the question “With Gods will, what else do you need?” on the neon signs indicating “harooj” or “exit”, even on the side of Coke bottles and Pepsi cans–all the daily intrusions of text onto image leave me exclaiming with wonder at the beauty of it all. It’s like being on sensory overload. It’s almost too much to take in. The people don’t even seem to make sense visually in the public space. It’s as if they’re simply moveable dots, punctuating the epic poem written across Tehran’s flat surfaces, half of which is deftly authored by the government–proclaiming everything from the names of martyrs to a calligraphied “May God Protect You” on the side of the highway–while the other half is a composite of the verses of seven million tehroonis, each contributing to their own lines to the national Persian epic.

Of course, there is more to Iran than just Farsi–even though so far it is my favorite part! Perhaps adding to the movie-set quality, I feel as if I get to play dress-up every time I walk out of my hotel room. “Wearing hijab” or abiding my appropriate Islamic dress has been the quickest transition I’ve ever made. I finally figured out how to wear my roosari (“headscarf” in Farsi) without having to fidget with it every few minutes, and I’m quickly getting used to seeing my face framed in black silk instead of my wavy brown hair–the effect of the scarf is instant and completely transformative. I feel at once anonymous and seen on the streets, almost as if we’re all in on the same secret–all the women, that is–and we give each other encouraging smiles when a scarf slips, or when we catch each other adjusting our scarves in mirrors and store windows. It helps one feel less American and more and more “native”, as if we can share in the same, shared public experience. Speaking of wearing hijab, the best part of the day came at the end, after in-depth tours of Golestan Palace and the State’s Crown Jewels collection, our guide, Bahman (my new favorite Persian) took all of us women–Patty, Rebecca, Amanda and I, and the men (Tom, Chuck, and Gabriel)–to a true Iranian department store to shop for manteaus. Yaas was almost like a Persian “Target”, identical to “El Corte Ingles” in Zaz (Zaragoza, Spain), boasting a grocery store on the first level, home appliances on level two, and finally women’s wear on level three. There we searched through racks and racks of varying manteaus, which resemble a shirt-dress that can be anything from just below hip level to mid-thigh or down to the knee, with long sleeves and usually some form of belt–but nothing that would be tight enough to show too much figure. So, of course, the four of us walk away with almost identical manteaus, all in shades of tan, camel or light beige. Now we even blend on the streets of Tehran, perhaps adding our own punctuation to the enormous textual landscape.

The sights we saw today were, in a word, glittering. We first visited Golestan Palace, used by the Qajar kings (shah, in Farsi) and the succeeding Pahlavis. Rulers from both these dynasties had a fascination with travel and visiting foreign royals in addition to fierce pride for their country, leading to a palace that is neither eastern nor western, but an experience entirely unique. The interior of the palace was almost fully covered in small tiles of mirrored glass. The effect is alarming–it’s kind of like stepping into the interior of a diamond, or a disco ball. After that we ate lunch (oh my god, Persian food is the best) and hurried off to the State’s Crown Jewels collection, housing the largest pink diamond in existence (182 carats, called “The Sea of Light”) the crowns of famed royals, a useable, life-sized globe made entirely of precious stones (emeralds, rubies and diamonds) and gold, with Iran set in diamonds. We saw gifts of foreign dignitaries, entire swords encrusted with diamonds and rubies–it was magical. As we make our way through this Persian epic, winding our way between history and the present with incredible ease, I feel beyond thankful that I have the chance to visit this place. The distance between dream and reality is still vast–Iranian reality feels like an illusion, a movie, just surreal–but the more I’m here, I have the feeling I’ll be able to sound out the words of a national identity, and maybe one day really understand it.

Advertisements

Stone-Cold Truths

June 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I wonder if all travel isn’t some variation of escape. An escape from somewhere or to something I’m not sure, but a deliberate action of leaving what is known to surround one’s self in the unknown. We had our conference call last week, where the seven of us met each other, over the phone, for the first time. Allow me to explain–our trip is organized by an NGO based out of San Francisco, Global Exchange, and I am one of seven delegates of this tour to Iran. Everyone spoke of their preparation–Patty, a fund-raiser from Columbia, Maryland, joked about the difficulty of finding a loose-fitting top that would be conservative enough for Iran yet tolerant enough for the heat (highs of 102ºF, lows of 80ºF next week); Rebecca, a freelance writer from Washington DC, talked about the voracious reading she had undertaken, ranging from ancient Persian history to the poetry of the greats–Hafez, Rumi, Ferdowsi–while Tom, a retired attorney from Houston, spoke not of the intellectual preparation he had done, but rather how he was waiting to take it all in once we got there. I spoke of my studies, my scant knowledge of Farsi, and my excitement. We were all urged to catalogue our preconceptions; write down a few questions we were hoping this trip would answer, or a few hypotheses we would confirm or disprove through the empirical evidence we were sure to gather on this fact-finding mission. This trip, though veiled in the same cloth as a true tourist venture–complete with bilingual native tour guide, bright orange tour bus (or so I hear), and of course us, the American tourists equipped with our guide books, cameras and useless currency–was also supposed to serve as a first-hand educational field guide, footnote to our intellectual conclusions and perceptions. I get the feeling that in two weeks, upon our return to the US, we are expected to bring back not just souvenirs but true gems of knowledge, which will illuminate our world views, focus our political inclinations and refine our identities.

But I don’t know what my preconceptions are, what I’m hoping this trip will answer, and I’m not quite sure that I’m going to Iran entirely to discover the Iranians and their country. You see, I’m truly hoping to discover more of myself through them. I want to know these people, see this country, connect our worlds, of course–but I’ve invested so much of myself in the study of Iran, what if all my columns of curiosity come crashing down? Truth be told, I’m a little terrified of disappointment; not in Iran, but in myself. The most common question I get leading up to my departure is the incredulous “Why? Why would you go to Iran?” And I can’t ever seem to give a coherent answer. I suppose the easiest reason I cite is the default one: oh, its what I’m studying, I’ve been interested in the region for years, I have a few close friends from the Middle East. But I know there must be more to it than that. No one commits them self to studying the foreign if the familiar is truly… Familiar. Here, in the West, I’m lost. There are so many possibilities–these days, the pressure to be something, to fulfill a professional aspiration, is waning in favor of the pressure to be someone, an intellectual-philosophical-socio-existential aspiration to find yourself and follow your dreams to personal fulfillment. And the prospects are terrifying. There are too many options, too little guidance, too much space, not enough time… We make it far too hard on ourselves, us twenty-somethings on the verge of completing our schooling and venturing into the real world. So, when I started school I did  what I thought was best–I picked something so foreign, so different, I must be defined within it. Studying the Middle East was a way to find myself, to see which truths could be translated across the map and still come back pure. But what if it was all in vain? What if my romantic notions of a country that I already identify with, that I am already enamored with, reveals itself to be like the gems it is famous for (turquoise, in particular is quite prolific in Iran)–beautiful, but impenetrable? There is an element of safety in studying the dissimilar. In conversations with well-intentioned relatives and inquiring friends, the conversation always turns to restrictions, to all the stone-cold realities of Iran today. But I feel protective of the image I’ve built of this place in my head, of what I’ve imagined from books and films–I suppose my perceptions are those of someone who, already committed, begs and pleads that reality confirm her dreams–because if not, she not only loses her knowledge of a place, but of herself.

Excited and Expectant

June 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

It’s comic how fast fear and anxiety dissipate entirely once routine and order is introduced. Yesterday our itinerary arrived, bringing with it descriptions of the sites we will see (Persepolis, The Friday Mosque, ect.), promises of the smells and tastes we will experience (shay under a 4,000 year old cypress tree, fesenjoon and bademjan in the bazaar) and the alluring dreams of people we might meet. I can’t tell you just how anxious I was in the weeks between the time I mailed off my passport and yesterday. I had no time to be excited and expectant, instead I pragmatically researched  what it might mean for an American to visit Iran. The preparation for this trip really started a year or so ago, when my newfound interest of the region was strengthened with history books, pop music, a class aptly titled History of Iran—all of this information was gathered sporadically, from a myriad of sources, to help me understand Iran. And so it happened that I fell in love with a country I’d never seen.

But here’s the thing about those conventional courtships, where snippets of information are devoured with the utmost excitement—as the eventual meeting date grows closer, one begins to question just what exactly their enthusiasm has gotten them into. About a month and a half ago I bought my ticket, and started to focus not on understanding my elusive paramour, but rather to prepare myself to meet it. I scanned the paper, researched the realities of the legal system, mulled over blogs and travel websites, and began to realize that even the most well-intentioned of tourists don’t always follow the rules of the Islamic Republic. I began obsessing, wondering just how much of me–my past, my thoughts, my opinions, my body–was now a public entity. I’ve travelled far and wide, but I’ve always maintained the luxury of practically complete independence and autonomy, just as I do at home. I felt pathetic, like I was playing into the stereotypical fears of an ignorant, unaware tourist who assumed and generalized without a care in the world. I know better than this—after all, I had already proclaimed my infatuation with this remarkable place! How could I be wavering on the eve of my trip?

The truth is, I’ve never had to reconcile my somewhat romantic dreams of this country with the concrete realities of travelling there. I never thought I’d have to, so I tucked away my illusions of turquoise tiles, the soft, pleasing sounds of Farsi and mouthwatering kabob, along with my knowledge of the dress code, the awareness that the social is the political and the political is the social, and that the privilege of finally meeting that which I’ve fantasized will make reality better than dreams.

Family, Iranian Style

June 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Somehow, when an American is embarking on a trip to Iran, every single Iranian-American knows about it, and promptly calls their family back in the motherland to prepare a true, Iranian welcome. My father happens to work in the construction business, the least likely place to find any Persians (all of which are doctors, lawyers, or engineers). Yet, he happens to work with a man named Ahmad, who, upon learning that his colleague’s daughter was visiting his home country, insisted that his cousin in Shiraz meet me to show me around and offer me a home-cooked meal. The next morning, my aunt ran into me and told me that her new Persian clients had already called their parents in Tehran and we must meet up. It’s astounding. It’s like I have a whole family waiting for my homecoming, and I don’t even know these people!

I saw Woody Allen’s new movie this afternoon, Midnight in Paris. The main character (played by a Allen-esque Owen Wilson) is accused of having Golden Age Syndrome. As he walks the streets of Paris at night, he dreams of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, his literary idols, and the splendor of their lives in a time so much more meaningful than his present. This syndrome, an awfully “pedantic” side character elucidates, befalls those who are perpetually dissatisfied with life in the present moment, and wistfully worship another time. I instantly thought of the country I am about to visit, and how all of its people (in my amateur diagnosis) are plagued with Golden Age Syndrome. For you see, Iranians don’t just idealize another time in the past, they can actually call upon the era when Persia, the Empire, ruled the world. These are not just illusions of a better time, but the painful and tragic knowledge that the best time has come and is now long, long gone. And so maybe it makes sense, when a foreigner departs for Iran, the locals wish to show the splendor of their past, a wish to make their reality known. This must be family, Iranian style.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for June, 2011 at Where West Meets East.