Taxation Without Representation

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can’t believe that I’m here. Writing, I mean. It doesn’t come so easily anymore, at work, at home, on my phone, there seem to be so may obstacles to taking the time. Thinking the thoughts. Being back in the state of mind where it’s not a chore to feel, but rather an outlet–a cleanse, even–a necessary shed to move onto the next stage. Writing used to be the phoenix rising from the leftover ashes of whatever emotional flame I had felt–be it an inferno or nothing more than a spark. I miss the feeling of letting go and I can’t help conflating it with my life in Spain. It was another summer just like this one that I was mourning the end of a nine-month adventure in the North of Spain, and it seems that this summer in Washington is a similar eulogy for adventure come and gone. It doesn’t help that I can’t seem to find a good soundtrack for anything–I used to get so into my music, I’d get lost in it and swear to anyone who’d listen that it must have been written just for me. Could that be?

Anyways, I suppose I really must explain myself. Not even to you, dear reader, but rather to myself. Where have I been for the last six months? Running in and out of class, rallies and protests, spending fruitless nights in the library’s purple hall under flourescent lights, playing Research Assistant in the NY Times 1851-1980 Archives, impressively sticking to a short-lived gym routine and planning, planning, planning. I’m joining thousands of other twenty-one year olds in Washington DC for a chance to intern at thousands of organizations all pledged to the greater good. A lesson I’ve been having a hard time learning this semester has been discretion, and in the effort to apply my education I thought I’d not say precisely where I’m working, but I’ll describe it to you as such: it’s a tiny little organization, no more than five staff and four interns. We’re almost one-to-one Experts to Young Things, and our office is littered with eighteenth century maps, framed leaflets from the Qu’ran and old Palestinian dresses (let me just take a moment to inform you that I was strokes away from typing “garb,” that all-too-often relied upon word to describe clothes, or more precisely swaths and swaths of black fabric covering a woman to the point of unrecognition). I work at an admittedly small NGO that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and advocates for the end to said conflict through a negotiated two-state solution.

I could tell you that a semester in Jordan sparked my interest in the Cause, or maybe the weeks of travel to Israel and Palestine that I did after that semester, or that perhaps it was my intense study of the Middle East that brought me to delve further into the tightly-wound knot that is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. But I would be lying, because really the thing that pulled me into a situation which has become highly academic, polemical and esoteric was its most essential element: a person. Namely, my second-year Arabic teacher Suhad. She told us about her family’s home in Gaza, about her experiences during the Second Intifada at Birzeit University, about the fifty-two days she spent between the Israeli and Jordanian borders as a stateless person, about coming to the US and re-doing her entire college education, and about the uphill battle she’s been fighting since birth. Her eyes pulled me in, right back to the center of this thing–the people whose lives will never be entirely their own, but rather a part of the intractable conflict in the Holy Land.

The dynamics of the conflict don’t touch the office on a day-in-day-out basis, rather I feel like I have ample time to be lost in my own thoughts. Recently, those turn to my future more than ever. Who will I be, what will I do, where will I live, what will I need to get there, how will I pay for it, how will I compare to the other 1,313 people in my class, how will I justify the choices I’m making now to myself in ten years, how will I stop worrying and just do it–there are streams and streams of questions that are never ending. And I hate being in this city trying to figure myself out. DC is a beautiful little town, exceptionally clean and with sprawling boulevards that lead up to a plethora of impressive monuments–it is a city with an image. The people who live in the District are always on the move–moving in, moving out, moving up, moving around until they can achieve what they want. Most of the people I’ve met are fiercely qualified, naturally competitive people who know exactly what they want, what they believe and who they are; after all in a place like this, how could you lose time questioning the essentials?

I’m not sure where I’m going, and right now I feel a little bit like the District itself–pretty, well-polished, but without a voice. Filled with countless experiences but not necessarily all the wiser for it. I don’t know what I want, and the scary thing is that after three years of throwing myself into a new language, a new place and so many ideas and people that have challenged the very core of my beliefs, I don’t know if I want to be a Middle East expert. Or policy worker. Or intelligence analyst. Or translator. Or diplomat. I know my bougie complaints (oh that’s a new one I just learned, apparently one can be sheltered from restaurants just as easily as one can be sheltered from their own upbringing) are not worth indulging, but for lack of graduating even more clueless about myself than when I entered Tufts, I feel like some serious introspection is necessary. But on the plus side, guess what I’ve decided to take next semester? Elementary Farsi (at Harvard, coincidentally, because Tufts hasn’t yet come to the realization that a solid Farsi program is really the only way to become competitive in the second-tier Ivy category)–and who knows? Perhaps I’ll be writing my next post another six months from now from Iran–inshallah!


The Headless Body Politic

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I fahima (understand) quite how best to “take advantage of opportunities.” Perhaps it’s my own fault, or perhaps the fault of many others, but I feel like I’ve been given opportunities all my life, and I don’t really know what it’s like to be without them. The whole world is illuminated before me, never in fear of darkness. I’ll never be the prisoner, glimpsing but shadows on a cave wall and confusing the silhouettes for reality. I’ve been given so much, and I don’t often stop to ponder how I’ll arrange my impression of the world, but rather how I’ll arrange the impression of myself to present to the world. As if I were just waiting to figure out how to best exhibit myself.

I learned the word domestic today. It was quite exciting, for I often joke that I’m in a domestic mizaja (mood) as I try to impose order upon our little apartment, but it’s often hopeless. Oh! Speaking of which, about a month ago we moved into our new apartment, and the place is beautiful, and up until today, there were no sketchy incidents–until, early this morning, a random man (who did not live in the building) walked into one of the girls’ unlocked apartments and offered them travel-size lotion. Though in general we are most likely safer in this apartment than the last, it still feels temporary. Like we just moved and we’re about to move again. I’m not quite sure what to cling to here–and as I sit here, in my bed with my left foot propped up on a pillow (there’s a story there), I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just stop trying to forge bonds with the outer world and just give up. Like this guy I know. There’s this guy on our program, and he’s such a conundrum to me. Perhaps because he’s one of the only people I’ve met that didn’t seem to be instantly taken with me–and as positively self-centered as that is, it’s also pathetically true. But he’s not the hard-to-get type of uninterested, he’s just simply concerned with other things. And he has many friends and is generally well-liked, but he doesn’t seem to need any of it. I asked him once about himself, with my standard ready-to-go line for most people, “I don’t know anything about you. Meen anta? A3n jad, I want to know something no one else knows.” And he talked about his summer, which sounded like the epitome of independence to me–a grant to study Arabic in Jordan, a solo journey to Morocco, and then back to Jordan with Middlebury. He was only in Morocco for ten days, but it pushed him to declare that it was the first and the last time he will ever travel alone for that amount of time. As I was sitting there, next to the campfire in the middle of Dana Nature Reserve, I couldn’t help but look at him and search for the answer to why? Was there a problem, I asked–no, he said, no problems, and all in all it was a great trip. He just didn’t want to do it again. Did he trade in comfort, in all aspects, for a fluency in Arabic? When was it that Arabic become a defining factor in his self-presentation, rather than in his impression of the world around him? And so I wonder, what’s the lesson there? Is being sociable, loved and in a constant stream of dates appointments and meet-ups mutually exclusive from being uncomfortable? From exploring and growing? It sure feels like it. And as I look back on the last seven weeks, and forward to the next eight (and as I post this, we’re actually closer to three), I can’t help but wonder if I’ll actively stop being passive. Or if I’ll just act in a routine way, passively–what do I want to get? To give? Is one more important than the other? Is detaching from comfort a guarantee for those precious treasures (like fluency) only obtainable through struggle? I came here with zero expectations, a whole bunch of white pants and a yearning for peace–to learn Arabic better and, quite truthfully, to make it out without more health issues. And I have definitely learned more Arabic, I know that, but I can’t say that I feel confident in either my health (I have a sprained ankle!) or my Arabic. Most of the time I feel lazy and tired, and as one friend said today, English is like a drug–you use it a little and all of a sudden you want more. And it’s not so much the inability to communicate, but the ease of communicating without trying. Do I want to try? Or do I just want the ease of action without thought? But that can’t be worth it, can it?

I just got back (whoops, now that was two weeks ago and I still haven’t washed the dust of Cairo off my white–now beige–pants) from a ten-day trip to Misr (Egypt) during Eid Al-Adha. We began our journey in Cairo and after three days hopped onto a tour headed South, where we rambled through temples in Aswan and Abu Simbel, slept on a felucca (a sailboat about the size of a large dining room table) up to Kom Ombo, Edfu and Luxor before finally returning to Cairo (Alqahira in Arabic, meaning “the victorious”). And that she is–my usual travels expectations have never been quite so defeated as they were in Egypt. Firstly, the country is comically divided–within Cairo itself, just walking around the city I saw leftovers from the French, monuments to the British, and of course plenty of sky risers from what I can only guess to be the seventies. A city of twenty million, Cairo could be construed as bustling, congested, or even stuffed to the point of bursting, but I never felt that way–for Cairo without it’s bloated population would be empty, the people were necessary to carrying it’s identity along from periods of foreign rule to periods of intense nationalism. Our hostel, Meramees (amazing, by the way–if you’re ever in Cairo, you must stay with these five men who run the place and who will make sure you’re stay is unforgettable), was a three-minute walk from Tahrir Square, and so of course we explored the place (which is actually not a square, but a massive circle). Everyone we spoke with had a different opinion of the Revolution–one of the hostel managers had no problem telling us just how much business he had before last January, while our guide at Kom Ombo informed us that the crowds we had to weave through were a mere 2% of the numbers the year before, and that we were incredibly lucky to not have to wait half an hour to enter the temple. And as we climbed over ten-thousand year old temples, through Great pyramids and all throughout ancient Egyptian history, I couldn’t help but wonder how this country was going to remake itself. Excuse me if I generalize, but if we look back over the recent-ish history of Egypt it goes something like this: Egypt was under Ottoman rule starting in the sixteenth century, then subject to French invasion at the end of the eighteenth, after which power flipped from Mohammad Ali Pasha to the British, whom eventually garnered control over Egypt in 1882, holding onto it until the (first) Egyptian Revolution in 1952. Over the next six decades, just three men would rule the country: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who as we all know was deposed from power just a mere nine months ago.

So my question is this: how do a people, a nation, create an identity when the nation-state is under foreign control? How much does one’s environment, in that case, interfere–or help?–with the formation of identity? Really I think my questions boil down to this–which is more effective to know one’s self, as either an individual or a collective–“free” choice, meaning choice made free of pressure, or “forced” choice, or those choices made in response to external factors? Because my gut reaction is that free choice isn’t really meaningful at all–how can anything mean anything if the options are equal?–and that those choices made under pressure, with a struggle for survival, are the ones that expose the most about the chooser, because there is no time for deliberation, for i3tabaar (consideration, literally in Arabic, “to repeatedly express to one’s self”). And so I look to a country whose systems of government have grown out of reactions to other systems of government–revolutions against foreign occupation, colonialism, and finally against native rulers who have fallen prey to corruption–doesn’t it make sense that that national identity has to be strong, cohesive, deep, because of all the challenges that have chipped away at the outlying hypocrisies and inconsistencies, leaving a much more–I shudder as I think the word “pure,” but–well-formed identity? And then I look back on myself, on us, this group of expats in Jordan, and it all seems so arbitrary to me. I don’t know how much of my own intents to trust, and as I sit here, once again in a Western-style café (the bakery downstairs boasts “Gluten-free bread,” which is all but un-findable in Jordan, a country where bread can sometimes serve as the utensil, placemat and napkin to hummus and fattah laden meal) on Rainbow Street, I know that I’m so thankful that our crazy program, with all its flaws and rough starts, is doing the one thing it promised us: to put us in an environment of all Arabic all the time. Our Pledge may not hold up in Skype calls to our parents or negotiations with the Emergency Room Doctor at Al-Khalidi, or sometimes in quiet moments of mental exhaustion, but in general it persists–and the incredible thing is not so much our Arabic, which for all it’s improvement and speed and impressive sounding vocabulary has stared to disintegrate into a lazier form of the language that only we understand, but I find that I stop thinking so much. Stop deliberating. Get out of my head and not worry so much about whether or not I’m making the best of my time here, or what it means for my identity that I’m a twenty (almost twenty-one!) year old spending time in the Middle East–because maybe I can finally abandon the semi-arrogant notion that one’s actions are valid only for one’s own identity, and adopt the idea that the most important is the action itself, and whatever that means for the identity will follow.


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But What I Mean to Say Is…

October 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve come to realize that perhaps there is no meaning to anything, no overarching theme or grand plan or easily digestible take-home  message. I’ve leared a shitload in the past few weeks, but have I learned how to successfully communicate with Arabs? Not exactly–But right now I coudn’t tell you exactly what I want. I’ve given up the romanticized “fluency” in Arabic–that will take months more of practice. Do I even want to discover the true, “authentic,” Jordanian culture? Is there even such a thing? This week, in our birnamij-wide bi-weekly meeting, one of our mudeers (directors) got down on us for frequenting arguably the best café in Amman, Turtle Green Tea, because yujid kteer min al-arabize (there is a lot of Arabeze, or Arabic-English spoken), and apparently that’s really not the best enviroment for improving our Arabic. Jordanians our age aren’t “purely” Arabic speakers, most of them are fluent in Arabeezee, and that’s the language they speak between each other, with their family, with their habeebs–and they, like me, listen to English music, watch English tv shows, and pepper their speech with English-isms. With my American friends here I speak an Arabic that is mostly direct translation from English, and we all understand each other mostly because we all know the exact same vocabulary. Sometimes, on a rare occasion, I can respond faster in context solely because the conversation is familiar. I can predict when a question’s coming, when a face is poised for a response; I am a master of knowing what’s supposed to come next. But that doesn’t always mean I can deliver. Sometimes I really don’t know what I’m doing here.

Did you know?! Our building, Zein lilsakan al-Talibat, houses prostitutes who work in the maqha, or prostitution-ring-posing-as-a-coffee-house-next-door? Ugh, right now I just want to close my eyes. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen. We’re moving out of the brothel and possibly into independence (apartments!)–but honestly I couldn’t tell you which is better or worse for my arabee or mental health. The whole point of our program is for us to make Arab friends, speak Arabic, and trade our American identities in for (perhaps slightly ill-fitting) Arab ones as soon as possible. But seriously, I can’t imagine an “immersion” environment free of ingleezee. A3n jad, the Jordanians our age don’t live in a world of Arabic-only-all-the-time. And I know the idea is we should for our own sakes, but to be quite honest I speak English words all the time. Sometimes to be funny (Heyya kanat shway condescending. Kaifa na’ul “oh no she didn’t” belarabiyye?), sometimes for clarification (“lam u’asid,”  yani, “I didn’t mean to”?) but mostly to just get across the main idea of a sentence when I don’t have the time to describe the word in my limited Arabic vocabulary (“Ah! Ah! Aiwa! Heya kanat shway fowda leila imbarah, yani shitshow kteer). And here we are, five weeks into it and I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m obviously not going to become fluent in Arabic, discover the hidden secrets of what exactly makes Jordanians precisely Jordanian and different from any other Arab, nor am I here to probe academic theories. I can’t communicate all that well with Arabs or Americans, so any truly meaningful connections are definitely out of reach. And we’re about to move, away from the brothel and “auntie Samira” into something totally different–and while the idea may sound intoxicating–no curfew! no obligations to check in with anyone! complete and utter autonomy!–I’m a little haifa of what will become of us, Americans left to ourselves in the land of sand and, apparently, sex. Will I try harder to make friends with Jordanians? Perhaps not at all? There was a safety and comfort within the walls of zein, and to a certain extent it leveled the playing field between us Americans–if we’re all restricted to the same time schedule and location, then I really can’t blame myself for not finding the perfect Jordanian boyfriend, or not falling in with the Gossip Girl set of Amman, or not befriending Queen Rania. Because I have a curfew, and a few set rules, and therefore I can subsist within the walls of expatriate comfort. Thank God we have each other, us twenty-two Americans in Amman, because without them I might have succumbed to existential quicksand weeks ago. But what will befall us in these shukuk jadeeda? How will I justify to myself a substandard communication ability if I can’t blame my living situation? Basically, behind all this existential questioning and misused jargon, I’m really just scared. I feel like I’m getting by here, in all respects of the word. I know my Arabic is getting better, mostly because I used to be too intimidated to speak to my roommate about anything other than the weather, how much ma bidee sufoof bukra, or whether or not I should buy milk next or she should, but now we can talk about all sorts of fun things, ranging from men to the tajawar (yani  “juxtaposition”–she’s from Vermont, listens to blue grass and wears Chacos) between us, the emotional complexity of the Language Pledge or our anxiety over the whole we-live-in-a-brothel thing. Wa hela, ana shway mahwoosa biha (just a little obsessed). And I’m known as the keeper of kalimat mufeeda, or any useful word–I pioneered communal knowledge of the words “gossip,” “scandal,” “lazy,” “fork,” “knife,”  “link,” “I have a crush on you,” “creepy,” “twins,” and “the best thing in the world.” But I still feel like I get by on luck and on an undeniable charm. Will a new apartment propel me to explore the outside world more, or retreat into a shelter from the constant work of foreignness? I don’t seem to know anything concrete, though I’m learning incredible amounts. It’s funny–here my roommate (and everyone else) has nicknamed me Barbie, a3shan ana shway high maintenance. And apparently I have Barbie’s wardrobe, personality (Wayn Ken?) high heels included (not a common thing among the girls in our program). It’s been suggested that in the future, I work in production, event planning, or possibly the State Department. It seems that, unable to communicate nuanced ideas in Arabic, everything is exaggerated, especially myself: “Oh! I love that restaurant,” “Falafel? Best I’ve ever had,” “Oh, no, Iran is the opposite of Jordan. The culture, the history, everything’s different.” “Oh, I know, I’m very crazy.” There’s just not the linguistic space to communicate subtleties, slights of emotion or even just plain, normal, non-amazing things. At least, not yet. And who knows who I’ll be then! Perhaps my identity won’t sprint between extremes, and I might just rest in the trivialities that, right now, I crave.

It seems we’re on the brink of some new, bright shiny beginning after a month’s worth of knowledge. Perhaps that’s the best thing, and perhaps instead of trying to probe everything–the people, the culture, the language, myself–for meaning, I should just do it. Roll with the punches, dive in, “take advantage”–because it seems that that’s all there is left to do. I make a fool out of myself with every word here, and I really don’t have that much left to lose. Bas mumkin everything to gain. Fa…Ashoofikum baadayn, wa mab’a3rf shoo rah yseer–kul shay mumkin fil Urdun! (So, I’ll see you later, and I don’t know what’ll happen–anything’s possible in Jordan!)

The Pledge

September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

It’s amazing to me how much a decision–specifically a decision to act–can become the touchstone of one’s identity. I think back to freshman year registration, when I signed myself up for Arabic One along with hundreds of other first-years. That one choice stuck fast to my academic career, and is now defining me as a person, and not just me as a student. And it was Arabic, in a roundabout way, that brought me to study Iran–and sometimes it feels false. Should you be able to choose your future like that? If I had known then, on that bright Friay morning when I was registering for classes at Tufts for the first time, that Arabic would end up being not only my concentration but a large part of who I am today–would I still have chosen it? There’s an emptiness to choices between equal options–Arabic? Mandarin? French?–and I sometimes wonder if I bargained too much in a seemingly random selection.

I promised myself I wouldn’t do too much of this, but here I go blogging in English, my first defiant act against the famous Middlebury Language Pledge, where each of us Americans pledge our identities, friendships and personalities away in exchange for linguistic ability. I make it sound a little more dramatic than it actually is, but to tell you the truth, the first day or so felt just like that–as if each one of us were reduced to standard vocabulary from a book to try and communicate the extremely complicated answer to why we’re here, who we are and what we want. Luckily, I always find that we know more than we think we do. And, while forced into a state of semi-communication and plenty of long silences during lunchtime conversations, we pick up a lot of new words, fast. I now know the most useful of phrases for day-to-day living in Jordan: trash can, computer charger, bed bugs, how much, on your left, sexy, shame on you, wait up, skim milk, please put on the meter and no, but inshallah I will find a husband soon.

Yesterday was our seventh day in Jordan, and also the first day of classes. The twenty-five of us, all American university students (it seems we’re pretty evenly split between Tufts and Middlebury, with the odd Brown or Stanford kid thrown into the mix) made this decision, and for the present it will define everything. Amman, the capital city, is the quintessential site of West meets East–there is West Amman and East Amman, and the two halves share a thin border. The West inspires little imagination, mostly replicating corners of European sister cities. The women are almost never muhajriba (“covered,” or they don’t wear the veil), the whole place reeks of wealth and Western shops and restaurants litter each corner. However Eastern Amman is entirely different, teeming with people in all kinds of dress, while souqs (“markets”) spill over the sidewalk and suddenly everyone is a participant. The entire city is covered in the same beige-color limestone, which blends into the dusty hills perfectly. Amman was originally built like Rome, on seven hills, but now covers twenty. So walking the city is all but impossible, but taxis cover every inch of concrete this place has to offer. And the taxis are amazing. It’s all of 1 ½ JD (Jordanian Dinar) to get almost anywhere, and split between four of us, we can get anywhere for 25 irsh (cents). And within that time, we learn everything about the taxi driver and him about us–one started telling us how essential green tea is for your health during Ramadan, another started giving us Fusha lessons, and yet another proposed marriage. It’s a funny thing–in almost every other country I’ve been to, if I speak the language to a native they will respond in their language, and sometimes even mistake me for a local. However that is impossible here–perhaps because of my accent, but more likely because of my look. I was buying a two liter bottle of water–a bi-daily occurrence in the desert–and without even opening my mouth, I set the water on the counter and before I could chirp ad-deish (how much), the shop owner smiles and says, “thirty cents,” in English.

And even when you do get locals to respond to you in Arabic, my responses can still be fatally discouraging. All of us have taken at least two years of Modern Standard Arabic in college, which is called Fusha in Arabic, coming from the root word for “eloquent.” And truly, Fusha is seen as a highly sophisticated, structured and elegant language . . . That no one speaks. Instead, each region of the Arab world opts for a much easier, and truly prettier form of Arabic called amiyya, or “dialect” Arabic. Tunisia has it’s own Amiyya, as does Morocco, Iraq, the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine), as well as the Sudan and others–suffice it to say, in order to speak Arabic you must specify where you’re going to speak it. And the difference between these two languages, Fusha and Amiyya, is striking. So, though I “know” Arabic, in the sense that I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying it, I have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge of a three-year old. But it’s interesting–when you’re forced to speak another language, with everyone around you, the outside world becomes comforting. All of a sudden, sitting in your room alone and writing back home bel-arabiyya (in Arabic) is anything but fun–in fact it can be quite isolating–and getting in a taxi to wast al-balad (literally “middle of the town,” or “downtown”) feels much more encouraging; almost like if you’re forced into another language, the only way you can exist is to communicate yourself through that other language. It’s funny, but I’m much less anxious about the semester than I thought I would be. Our program directors have already made it clear that it’s more or less up to us to make this a success, and that passively going to class and doing our homework won’t cut it. But already passivity is not an option–our decision to act predicated a million more actions in the coming months, all of which promise more identity shifts than I can imagine. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying the constant motion and seeing who this decision will make me.

Out of the Blue

July 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

We had been going for hours. It was after dinner at Hotel Abbasi, Isfahan, on the night of Amanda’s thirty-sixth birthday, and upon request Bahman had taken us back to the Imam Square’s Imperial Bazaar to find the perfect blue enamel bowls. Rebecca and I had seen the small bowls the day before, at Vank Cathedral in New Julfa, but disregarding the “If you love it, buy it,” travel motto, we assured ourselves we could find them later–the city was filled with enamel workshops, after all. So that night we were back at Imam Square, along with the rest of the Isfahanis. Families were picnicking on the large lawn in the middle of the square, while women lifted by five-inch designer heels and men stuffed into faded denim pants pushed past us to the bastani shop (we’re not the only ones with the ice cream obsession), as we pushed through the dark and the heat to any enamel shop we could find. “How about these?” Bahman would ask, holding up blue, turquoise, and light pink soup bowls. The artist nodded slightly, firing off something in Farsi. “They’ve been fired three times, at 150º C, you can’t find any with this quality!” Bahman translated the artist’s persuasion, his eyebrows raising and his forehead giving up small beads of sweat. No, we told him, these are too big. So onto the next shop, we pushed our own way through the crowds swarming under the arches of the well-lit bazaar to find those bowls.

There’s something about intuition. I will be the first to pledge myself to science, philosophy and reason before all superstition, but something else seems to be at work lately that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s all the feel-good movies I’ve inundated myself with since returning to the US from Iran two weeks ago, but I feel confident in saying I know what I want. For the first time in my life, things are perfectly clear and I have no more questions, doubts, pro-con lists cluttering my mind–I just know that I want to keep studying Iran. My beautiful adopted parents, Chuck and Rebecca, had such dreams for me. As the youngest on the trip, we would often sit around the breakfast table at the hotel in Shiraz or in Tehran, everyone making fun of the fact that I don’t understand certain cultural references (“That was before my time,” I’d say, sullenly), and everyone would bank on my future for me. CIA agent, Ambassador, Cultural Attaché, Photojournalist–the titles were never-ending and exhilarating. But it was Chuck and Rebecca, Georgetown natives, who held the biggest of dreams for me.

We had just entered our fourth shop, upon the suggestion of our tireless guide (“I have a friend who works in this one!” Bahman told us, enthusiastic til the end), when Chuck was tempting me with dreams of a career at the State Department. “Think it over,” he prodded. “You know, they can pay for grad school–you have to ace your GREs and have a solid GPA, but you can go for free.” “Really?” I said, fingering a little blue vase. “Oh of course! JD, PhD, MA, whatever.” “But doesn’t it make more sense to get your MS in Foreign Service or something?” “It doesn’t matter what you study, just so long as they have you after graduation.”

The words were intoxicating. My parents, in all their generosity and support, told me that they’d finance my undergraduate career but any advanced degree was on me. So, being the relatively frugal person I am (when it comes to my own funds–I have no problem spending their money!) the question of being in debt at 24 was not even a consideration. I’d only go for my Master’s if it was a pre-professional degree,” I told my dad on the way to the airport on my last trip back east, “Because otherwise, the cost is too high.” But as I stood in that little shop, still exhausted from looking for those perfect bowls, I saw a world of possibility open up beyond the stone arches of the bazaar. I’ve always loved to collect, to take advantage of opportunities and feel like I’ve gotten some great deal or made the most out of something, and I knew that if I truly had the chance to barter two more years of study for a three year contract with the State, I would jump to keep studying Iran. It’s pathetic, really it is–people think I’m irresponsible, a little crazy and probably too enthusiastic to seriously conclude anything about anything, especially Iran. My, a-hum, Doctor, while shoving a metal contraption somewhere metal should never be, asked me about my summer plans and then said, “Oh honey. Why Iran? You’re an American.” But as Chuck sat on that dirty plastic chair, in a sea of turquoise, aqua, cerulean and the deepest of all blues covering vases, plates and bowls that were either too big or too small or too not right, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d already found what I’d been looking for; or rather it found me: the knowledge of exactly what I want. For so long I’ve been quite adept at intuiting others’ wants and needs–but my own were so elusive, always hiding out of sight. But that’s the thing about Iran. Nothing is as it seems and even the most inconvenient of truths are right there in plain sight.

And there, six shops later, the perfect bowls were waiting for us. They were the precise size–for, say, olives during book club (as Rebecca was planning on using them for), or jewelry on the nightstand (as Amanda was planning on using them for), or gifts, as mine will be. I was only going to buy one, maybe two, but on a gut instinct I got three, and ended up with a discount. It was somewhere in Iran, between the hyperactive nights in Isfahan to the lazy afternoons of Yazd, that I stopped hearing everything else and I didn’t figure outwhat I want, per se, but I came to know it. As if it had been waiting all along. I don’t know where I’ll end up for grad school–Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service? Harvard Grad’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies? London’s School of Oriental and African Studies?–but I’m not done with Iran. It’s what I want, and I’m not afraid to pursue it. As Rumi once said, “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

The bastani shop in Imam Square, Isfahan, at night

Out of the Oven

July 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Eid mobarak!”

“Kheyli mamnoon, eid mobarak…”

We were standing in a seven hundred year old mosque on the morning of Eid Mabas, or the day the Prophet Mohammad received the revelation from God telling him that he was to be the Prophet. It was quiet in the blue-stoned mosque on that particular morning, only a lone woman knelt at the mihrab (an arched centerpiece of the mosque that faces towards Mecca; the mihrab is lowered into the ground so as to show humility before God; also to protect the devout–several imams were assassinated while in prayer at the mihrab) of the Jumeh Mosque in Yazd. It was the first structure of its kind we’d entered in Iran, and the effect was awesome. Standing before intricate and perfect patterned walls that tower multiple stories high, one can’t help feeling both their incredible smallness and the infinite complexity of living. The entire building was covered in little blue tiled mosaics, dutifully placed in exquisite patterns of stars and flowers, interweaving corners of hexagons all in shades of the finest turquoise, cerulean and aqua blue. “It has a cooling effect” Bahman tells us, “to enter a place that is all blue.” It was outstandingly hot that day in Yazd, with highs of 52C or 120F. But oddly enough, I didn’t feel it–the heat in Iran is ever-present, but the air is thin and there is no humidity, leaving my skin porcelain-smooth and my hair–though a sight yet unseen by most in my group–silky and soft, a similar effect to winters in Boston. We were in the city of Yazd, and with its heat, eternal flame and famed yellow bricks, it seemed to be the oven of Iran. Most of the old city is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is entirely constructed out of dust-colored yellow bricks formed into arches, low walls and careful entryways. Yazd is known for the religious minority it houses: the Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was, according to most, the world’s first monotheistic religion, and was practiced by many kings of Persia until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century CE. The Zoroastrians worship fire, and have kept the same eternal flame burning in Yazd for over 1515 years. They believe in good thoughts, good deeds, and good speech to aid in the triumph of good (embodied in Ahura Mazda) over evil (Ahriman). The Zoroastrian women can be identified by their dress; though they often wear the chador, it is usually dark blue or black in color, and covered with a pattern of small bright-colored flowers. But today was a Muslim holiday and there was more to the celebrations.

This night, we visited a real, Iranian gym, that had been built inside of a water cistern. Water cisterns were a common site in Yazd, they rise out of the ground in a beehive-like fashion, standing a story and a half or so tall, and allowing for deep recesses into the earth where yazdis used to keep their water supply. But on ground level, there was a gym fashioned into this circular building, with the same humility built into the architecture: the main gym floor was lowered a few (five or so) feet into the ground. We toured it once in he morning, seeing the equipment used for calisthenics that the men would do later that day, including oar-like bats, at least half a foot in diameter along the bottom, that evened out into a small handle at the other end. These were like elaborate weights that the men would hold over their shoulders and rotate in large circles, almost mimicking a forward stroke in swimming. When we returned at 6pm that night, the show had already begun. A group of twenty or so men–ranging in age from 15 to 75–were spread across the inner circle, doing coordinated push-ups. The leader in the middle was probably about 70, and was once the national champion in wrestling. But the men weren’t the stunning part, rather the sounds emanating from the front of the circular room where a man was chanting prayers, to the beat of a drummer who sat beside him. Bahman explained that this particular form of exercise was developed during the Iran-Iraq war, when prayer was often used as a motivator for the troops. It felt almost too intimate, like we were watching the men engaging in some sort of Iranian-style exercise dance class, but the mood was extremely serious and, even proud. At one point a little boy–maybe five–walked into the gym, picked up the smallest set or oar-like bats, and started following the ex-champion’s lead. I could imagine men kissing their wives and mothers goodbye after the afternoon siesta (everything in Yazd is closed, at least in the summertime between 2 and 5pm to avoid the heat), grabbing their gym clothes (and what clothes they were! Elaborately embroidered paisley pants and tight exercise shirts in white and green) and setting off for the old water cistern.

It reminded me, of what I have observed to be, the most incredible trait of Iranians throughout history: the ability to adapt without losing their identity. As we walk through varying museums and old homes, learning about the ridiculously chaotic history of this nation, I can’t help but stand in awe of Iranians today. To be Persian means so much–you can see the pride in people’s faces when they tell us about their country. Even Bahman, the true essence of a respectful guide, who aims to educate not to convince, is fierce when differentiating the Persians from those people around him, and even from the rest of the world. As a twenty-something year old at the halfway mark of her undergraduate career, I have regular identity crises which all end the same way: who am I, where do I come from, and who will I be? All undergraduates should visit Iran. Hell, all people should visit Iran. Regardless of age I look to everything around me for definition, including what I study, where I live, what I do with my free time, what I read and who I admire–but in Iran everything seems, from what I can tell, to run so much deeper. It’s not external, as the exterior is not the space for autonomous identity-formation. Rather it is the personal, the relationships with extensive family, people, and one’s own self that is the driving force behind Iranian identity. Looking out of the windows of our little bus, the streets are lined with pictures of martyrs from the war; Khomeini and Khameini peer down from store windows, billboards and even the rials we exchange for dollars; Imam Ali can be found everywhere from the mosque to the back window of a Shirazi taxi. But it is not this space, outside, which provides personal identity. It’s the interior, one’s relationships, one’s views–even though we espouse the American dream as the ultimate testament to our individuality, I constantly feel plagued by the burdon of showing, expressing, and defending my own self, whatever that is supposed to differentiate myself so much from anyone else off the street, in every public portal: from Facebook, to what I wear, to the thoughts in my head–it’s all a public entity. We may have the freedom of expression, but I feel it as a weight of personal defense. I envy the Iranians, their pride and seemingly inherent knowledge of who they are. I don’t mean to make black-and-white comparisons, but I do mean to highlight the potential for personal strength in a place where one’s public identity is already defined, already distinguished.

A gym made from a water cistern

"...including oar-like bats, at least half a foot in diameter along the bottom, that evened out into a small handle at the other end. These were like elaborate weights that the men would hold over their shoulders and rotate in large circles, almost mimicking a forward stroke in swimming."

And we returned that night to find the men exercising

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.

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