Limitedness

October 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Three weeks is really the maximum amount of time one can cling to the title “visitor” before becoming a “resident,” however temporary that residency may be. As I contemplate the relative permanency of my stay in Jordan, I realize that the thing I’ve learned most is, likely, restraint. I am sitting smack in the middle of a fakhir (posh) outdoor restaurant, and while all the Arabs around me drink, smoke arghileh and laugh ostentatiously I am conspicuously typing on my computer with Al-Kitaab open in my lap, feeling more and more like a foreigner. It’s a funny thing, in the States I often go out alone–to cafés, shopping, on a walk–and I delight in the feeling of anonymity and escape. Because for me, too often the burden of simply being is remedied best by not being–and outside in the world, I can be anyone. That possibility of reinvention (a strictly American pastime, if you ask me) is always present, constant, and more than anything else–accessible. I’m finding that here it’s quite the opposite–the public space is not for escape, nor reinvention nor slipping into any individual identity, rather the public space is where individuals undertake the burden of public identity and its ensuing consequences. Here, the place for escape is where one is out of public sight: inside, in the home, and away from the mutually reinforcing public code of expression.

I have never found this to be the case in America. Go to the grocery store in your pajama pats, treat the world as you wish–I think it has to do with the internet or development of something. It seems to me that American private lives play out across stages, devoid of wings or curtain call or intermission, and each interaction takes place between a performer and an audience. The only way to exit stage left is to stop interacting; escape into the public sphere where anyone can be anything. But the Middle East is a horse of a different color: the public sphere is interpersonal, and requires constant interactions in which roles are already prescribed, and successful connection prohibits ad-libbing. Once intimacy is established indoors, or in a place off-stage, behind loosely closed doors, the scripts are burned and suddenly people are free.

Western culture demands public, genuine expressions of some inner identity, but our country has become a consumer machine and the only logical explanation must be that we’re empty. I, as an American, have freedom of speech, of dress of thought of action of expression, but I wonder if sometimes we don’t need a little structure. If one has nothing to push against, is there any possibility of true expression? The idea is yes; an expression is literally the conveyance of either an emotion or a thought, both things that are individually sensed before they can be communally shared. But sometimes the barrier between “individually sensed” and “communally expressed” crumbles, and I wonder how much of  interaction is expression, and how much is just reaction to outside stimulus. How genuine can one be if one if constantly performing? To be a full person, one must be both fully internally developed, such that there is an essence of a person that is indistinguishable, unchanging and translatable across any medium, and be able to express this self across a thousand different mediums–starting with the personal–emotions, facial expressions, mannerism and dress, and spanning to the abstract: can you tweet yourself well enough to express who you really are? can you post it on a wall? can you blog intuitively, effortlessly translating this fully developed self to the rest of the world? Of course not. You need some sort of mutually understandable code for everyone to agree upon. In the West, this isn’t defined. It’s up to you to find a way to express the infinite in a finite way. Here, it’s very defined. There is not the same freedom of expression, of thought, of dress. Instead in outer world the methods of communicating are limited.

It’s a funny thing, men in the Middle East. In our amiyya class, we spent an entire hour and a half class discussing harassment and how to combat it like a native. Most of the phrases are the standard, “Let go of me,” “Get away from me,” “I’m going to call the police,” but then there are others: “I am a guest of yours in Jordan,” “Don’t you have sisters?” and “May God curse your fathers.” As Tawfiq, our professor said, “You need to appeal to a man’s morality, his sense of self.” So there I am, sitting in class and growing more and more suspicious of all Arab men, the day before our big trip to Aqaba. The next day, we all get up at five a.m., unwillingly witness shorouq al shams (the sun rise), and head off towards Al-Aqaba, one of the touristy-ist spots in Jordan where I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am really just a visitor who is quite dependent on sporadic help from men. At one point we walked past the shatra a3ma (public beach), where men seemed to prowl while covered women (some in burkinis and others just in full coverage on the shore) dotted the seascape. In desperate need of a good tourist experience, Ayane, Rabab, Rena and I searched high and low for Aqaba’s best snorkeling. After a few phone calls and a little sleuthing, we figure out that we actually need to be at the Japanese Gardens, a strip of beach about 10 minutes away by taxi, where Arab families congregate in small groups allowing for relative privacy. We figure out that to snorkel, we need to rent the equipment and then leave our bags with a man named Waseem, who runs the snack shop. As I handed my all-purpose brown leather hobo bag to a very over-eager looking man, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would see my camera again. Can I trust him? And even more importantly, how important is it for me to snorkel–maybe I could just go back to the hotel and not take the risk? But, in the end I donned my mask, fins and snorkel and handed over the bag. As we’re trying to find the best place to enter the water (sans burkini and with webbed contraptions strapped to our feet) a man who approached us earlier, trying to offer us another deal on kamama, tries to tell us that we’re entering the Red Sea incorrectly and come, come with him now, and he will show us the right way. Growing more and more annoyed by this man’s seemingly profit-intentioned offer, I tell him no, thank you, we are just fine and we’ll not be in need of his services. And just as I say this, my rubber-capped heel slips on a rock, and I plunge my hand into the water to balance myself–getting stung b a kunfuth al-bahar (sea urchin) in the process. So, of course, the man comes running with even more offers of lighting a cigarette to get out the stingers, or going to the Clinic or perhaps just swimming with it anyways, and as I’m standing in the shallow coast of the Red Sea in my black bikini, full snorkeling gear and with an acute pain emanating from my fingers, I look around at the growing crowd of Arabs and this man who, for all his possible annoyance is possibly just trying to help. So I give him my hand, decide to trust for a moment and waddle (for that’s really the only movement you can do in flippers) in the direction he’s pointing to.

And the snorkeling was phenomenal. We swam through schools of fish, saw more sea urchins (from a distance, thank god) and basked in the freedom of the Sea. After a slightly embarrassing and attention-yielding walk back from the dock to the snack shop, I got my bag back, with all of its contents safe and sound inside. I was feeling so good about things that I didn’t object to the idea of hitch-hiking back to the city center, which we did be-belash (for free) in a nice Aqabian man’s car. The rest of the trip was even more stunning–we drove from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, a desert valley that houses incredible rock formations and a thousand great spots to watch the ghoroub al-shams (sunset). It’s an interesting thing, being a young foreign woman in Jordan. It seems that simultaneously some public activities–like walking to the gym at dusk–is much harder, replete with stares, unwanted attention and the knowledge that just by being out in public in a certain time and place renders you conspicuous, a public entity ripe for the consequences of public interaction. Yet at the same time, to be a foreign woman is to be in the constant clutches of Arab hospitality (not quite comparable to that of Iran, but still!), and to always be the recipient of local generosity and general good will. All the cat-calls, whistles and impaling stares I’ve gotten on the streets of Amman are equalled only by the number of times I’ve been helped by a relentless taxi driver who will not give up until I’ve reached my destination, or offered discounts from shop keepers and been given extra hummus at Sefeen. And perhaps that’s just a consequence of being undeniably foreign, but sometimes I wonder if that’s not a consequence of living in a place where the public sphere is not for individual advancement but for communal advancement, where each member is subjected to the human emotions of its components. Bi shakl a3m (in general), the idea of this social arrangement scared me at first–I’ve been taught to be cautious of widely-accepted truths–but I’m beginning to see that perhaps there’s a sort of communal protection, a safety in being known.

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

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.

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.

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