Friday, December 23, 2005

In the House of Strength

A uniquely Iranian institution is the Zoor Khane (zoorkhane), or, House of Strength. This is a place where various kinds of exercises are performed, including body weight pushups on a plank and whirling dervish spinning (about 10x faster than you see the Mevelevi Sufis doing it), heavy club swinging, light club throwing, heavy shield lifting (similar to a bench press), and the pressing and swinging of a heavy iron bow over head. These are all derivative of military training dating back thousands of years over the rich Persian history. All are done to the accompaniment of a drummer who bangs out a loud, rhythmic beat along with verses from Persia’s beautiful poets and wisemen—Hafez, Saadi, Firdowsi, and others.

I had been longing to visit and participate in the zoorkhane for years now. Some of the exercises have entered American wrestling (not *professional wrestling* mind you) and other combat sports—especially through the “Hindu” pushups and squats of Matt Furey and the Clubbells of Scott Sonnon. Sadly, during my first two visits to the zoorkhane here in Qom I learned that the traditional form of wrestling, or Koshti Pahlevani is basically extinct in Iran, even though the Varzesh-e Pahlevani, or traditional exercises of the zoorkhane are still practiced.

In any case, the men of the zoorkhane welcomed me warmly and after watching one session last week I did my first exercise session today. Beginners train in a room off to the side of the main section of the zoorkhane itself, which is where the more experienced members gather to perform the exercises together, in unison. After getting my first taste of training I was much better able to appreciate the efforts going on in the training pit.

Most amazing is that many of the participants are older men, at least in their 50’s and several, including the main teacher appear to be in their 60’s. Yet they are in there chucking around the clubs, jumping and spinning in the air, and dropping into and out of the pushup position from standing! There’s something to be said for staying active.

These older men also epitomize the essence of the zoorkhane—humility, strength, courage, and guidance. Far from the pumped, mirror-ogling types in bodybuilding gyms, or the other cocky, self-centered professional athletes of football (both kinds), basketball, and so on, the men of the zoorkhane cultivate their morals and ethics along with their bodies. When people know you are a pahlevan or “strongman” it is also assumed you are just and righteous and they will come to you for help, mediation, protection, or whatever else they need. It’s no surprise then that the pahlevans have a long tradition of generosity and help for the poor.

No real pictures to post yet, but hopefully some will come in the near future. In the meantime, you can look at the gravestone of a pahlevan that I stumbled across in Tehran during the ceremony for the passing of Dr. Elahi’s uncle. Clearly visible are the two clubs, iron bow, and pushup plank.

You can read more about the sport here:

~Irfan Ali/Robert

Check the Archives!

Sara, in her effort to chronicle (seemingly) every moment of our trip here has started to upload diary-like blog entries. To make it confusing for you all though, she has been back-dating them to the actual days they happened.

So just go back and take a peak in the archives for some of our happenings here.

Alibob and Sara

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

B-Day time again, this time it's the Other White Meat!

Happy Winter Solstice!
Also, Happy Birthday to my darling aged hubby, Great White. He’s like cheese or wine… he improves with age. At least I like to think (or hope) so.

We didn’t do much. Sadly, I didn’t do anything too special for him, as I mentioned, I had tried last week to go buy him a present and a card. I had no luck on either, but managed to find a tiny tiny card in really bad English that I bought for comic purposes and to mark his birthday abroad. I also found cute funny cheesy wrapping paper. That will just have to wait until l find something to wrap.

I went to teach my conversation class and I learned that the winter solstice (called "Yaldah") is an important night. Families try to get together and spend quality time together just laughing and talking and bonding over fruit and nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and other roasted salted stuff. One of the students ran to her apartment and brought back a long black sword-shaped seed so we cracked those and ate the seeds inside and talked. I don't know what they were, but they were delish. On this night, people also try and stay up late, if possible.

So I went back home to my precious family for a double celebration. I had also tried cooking something special for his birthday. My mom makes this awesome baked chicken dish so I made something similar (let’s hope I remembered correctly) except I have no oven so I just cooked it. So it’s cooked baked chicken. I also made green beans and potatoes (a curry type thing, for lack of a better English word), which turned out very well. I also made some khichri (lentil rice?) and raita. A veritable feast. I am pleased to announce that it was all edible.

We had already finished off the cake this morning.
Anyway, AliBob took this picture of our “spread”, excited by my efforts. That’s the tiny card propped up against the bottle.

Then, because there was nothing else to do and only a couple of hours remained before his birthday was over, we took some self photos, to commemorate his birthday:

My sister also called to wish him a happy birthday, which was very cool. The rest of my family was at work, but my parents had tried calling a few days ago to wish him a happy birthday. They ended up emailing. I think some of my cousins also remembered and emailed him, which was a very pleasant surprise.

I was thinking of ode'ing to AliBob, but it would get way too mushy and personal and most likely inappropriate, so let's just leave it at he's the best and I'm the luckiest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Let them Eat Cake!

Today turned out to be interesting. About an hour before my class, we got a phone call and it turns out that the Tehran correspondent for the big French newspaper Le Figaro was in Qom for a couple of days and found out that some Americans were here and so she wanted to interview us to see what we were doing here.

The interview ended up being light and fun and she brought along an Iranian photographer. The photographer, Niusha, is only 24 but has been working professionally since she was 17. That’s the advantage of starting careers in these countries; you don’t really need to have the degrees and advanced degrees and portfolios and stuff. So anyway, her photograph is on the cover of the book Lipstick Jihad (look it up on Amazon). She was born and raised in Tehran and is married to a Dutch reporter who came to Tehran for some assignment, met her, they fell in love and happily ever after. So cute.

The reporter, Delphine, is actually a French woman whose father is Iranian. He moved to France as a child and was raised there and married a French woman. So Delphine didn’t really grow up knowing Persian. She has been in Iran for 4 years now and her Persian sounds awesome to me. She is married to the Baghdad correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who’s an Iranian raised in the US.

Anyway, the girls were very nice and invited me to Tehran for some fun parties. They found Qom to be boring and dull. In Qom’s defense, it’s not all bad but it’s just not a big city. People who are interested in religion come here. Pilgrims come here (temporarily). For everything else, there’s the rest of Iran.

Anyway, I am more than excited to go party with them but I have no idea when I’ll go and I have a feeling they might find me quite dull, since I won’t end up drinking and I don’t own any really hoochie party outfits. Ah well.

Then they came up to our apartment and took pictures of us “relaxing” at home and after that, the Khanum Elahi, who had stayed throughout, took them back to the University, where they were going to interview Dr. Elahi (it was like 9 at this time).

AliBob and I had dinner and I made us tea and we were just getting online when our bell rang so he ran downstairs to answer the door.

Turns out, it was the Elahis, having remembered it was AliBob’s birthday around this time and they brought with them a fantastic cake from an awesome bakery. (I’d tasted some heavenly cream rolls from there last week when the Khanum took me grocery shopping and she picked up some rolls because her son Mohammad would be home from college and it had been his birthday. This was also the same day we went shopping for birthday presents and they got really nice shoes for Mohammad but I didn’t see much for AliBob. Anyway, I had asked the Khanum about their cakes so I could try and get one for AliBob, but I had no idea how to get to that bakery and I don’t have a car either.)

What makes this surprise cake visit even more touching is that here in Iran, they don’t really celebrate birthdays for adults, just for children, and they don’t do cakes for birthdays that commonly either. Also, Dr. Elahi has a very very long day tomorrow, from 6am until late late at night, and he had just come home from Mofid at 10:00 tonight, and they came straight to our place with the cake.
So here we are, cutting cake and making merry:

Here is the cake, in all her chocolatey and creamy goodness:

Today was a good day, then.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lunch at the Mirmoosavi's

Today, we went to Dr. Mirmoosavi and Ms. N’s house for lunch. We took some hazelnut toffee that looked good in its packaging and went on over. The lunch was delicious (what is it with all these Iranians who are amazing cooks??). We had chicken and rice and salad and potatoes and a sour pickle (like picked vegetables?) called “torshi”. We also had non-alcoholic beer, which I’ve seen quite a bit in the markets here.

Not a fan of even the smell of beer, I’ve never had the inclination to try non-alcoholic beer either. I tried one and it was pretty good, citrusy. Turns out it was the lemon-flavored one. I had the malt-flavored one and couldn’t get past the first sip, so I let AliBob finish it for me. He thought it was weak.

Dr. Mirmoosavi (ayatollah garb alert!) is the head of the political science department at Mofid and he and Ms. N will be going away for a month for Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). He changed out of his ayatollah garb and just wore a regular pant-shirt outfit when we were there. He’s as great as his wife and we had a fun time chatting and looking at photos of him when he went to London for 2 months to study English with some other Mofid faculty members.

They had a woman teacher named Lucy. It was odd enough for them to be instructed by a woman, since things are gender segregated here. He said she was very nice and a very good teacher and once, when they were taking a photo of the class and Lucy together, another more conservative faculty member asked her to please cover up for the photo.

Apparently, he asked very nicely as it would be difficult to develop or show the photos to people if she stayed in the sleeveless top she was wearing. Lucy was a great sport about it and was more than happy to go put on a cardigan over her shirt.

There was even a picture of the inside of a pub, with people drinking and happy-hour-ing. The pictures reminded me of us Pakistanis, or international students, when they go to a foreign place and take pictures and are smiling and having a grand old time but they still look out of place.

Like one time shortly after I moved to the US, a bunch of my family was together during summer and we decided to go for a picnic for 4th of July. So we got there and many of us were wearing Pakistani clothing and we had strong smelling Pakistani food and we spoke in an Urdu-English hybrid and at sunset, we all got up for prayer and had everything cleaned up and done in time to enjoy the fireworks (which we LOVED).

And it all seemed so weird to the white people around us with their shorts and baseballs and barbecued pork ribs and beer cans, but many of them also smiled and raised their beer cans to us, probably proud and happy that even we came out to celebrate Independence day (although honestly, we were there mostly for the fireworks). And in some ways, it was weird to me too, that we were doing this, but in a good way. It’s things like that that make America great, I suppose.
Anyway. Sorry, I was off reminiscing again. So we had a good time, and we stayed for a few hours and had fruit and tea and then Dr. MirMoosavi changed back into his ayatollah garb because he had to go to a thesis defense and we left.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

White Man's B-day (yes, we mean Shamlan)

Happy Birthday to my biggest and bestest and Ali's little and bestest brother Shamlan!! I called him today and that was the highlight of my day. I think we talked for almost 40 minutes. It was good, but not enough because back in VA, Shamlan and I talked on the phone everyday, several times a day (he’d get bored at work and then call me up and pester me... I know, he needs to get a life. :) )

He is 29 today. I looked for cards in English to mail to him, but I didn't find any. Apparently, I also didn't look hard enough.

Great White (my brother’s nickname, among others, for AliBob) talked to him too for a little bit. They had a ‘white-to-white connection’, another term coined by my brother. And yes, the inside jokes really are as silly as they sound, but we all get a kick out of it anyway.

Anyway, I should take this time to say that my brother really is awesome. He gave me an ipod mini for my last birthday and, not having ever thought of buying one, I now wonder how I got along without it. Seriously, it makes me *want* to do housework. I have spent hours just going from one chore to the next and enjoying myself the whole time. In fact, when AliBob wasn't around and I couldn't get online, it was my other whitey (the mini) that got me through a long, lonely, boring and internetless day full of crappy chores.

The moral of this story is: give your little sisters material gifts, such as expensive electronic devices, and they'll write you lame odes.

But really, for example even in high school, when I had to be driven all over Virginia for college interviews, it was my brother who would leave work early for me and drive me there through rush hour traffic and wait for me in the car for an hour or two while I did my thing and would drive me back.

Years later, one weeknight when we were in Charlottesville, we realized at 7 or 8 pm that AliBob needed a tie for some interview (and had left some stuff at my parents' place) and so my brother actually drove down (it's a 2 hour drive each way) from Northern VA to bring all available ties so AliBob could pick a tie and be set, and then he turned around and drove right back home and went to work the next day.

He is his parents' son. My parents have done weird and extreme things like that for us too, so I guess I know where he gets it.

He's also ready to give me his credit card at the slightest hint of my desire to buy something. And he takes us out to the coolest places for dinner. He makes awesome fried eggs, brit/paki style french toast and doodh patti (a milky tea drink). That's all he makes. Oh, and toast too.

He's also been one of my biggest fans and supporters and he's also brutally honest with me when I least want to hear it. He also worries like a mom. Really, he freaks out. Haha.

He also makes really lame jokes that still manage to make us laugh... but is it out of pity? Oh, and he lets the entire family (extended included) make fun of him to no end and just laughs along with the rest of us. We can be quite cruel.

He speaks awesome Spanish, and when he doesn't know something, he still speaks it anyway like it's correct and doesn't care if he makes mistakes.

He and I gang up on our little sister Ayesha and tease her in Spanish because she doesn't speak it. They're sports aficionados and watch sports together and gang up on me and make fun of me for my nerdy bookish ways and for my love of libraries (what's wrong with loving libraries, I ask you??). I'll watch sports games but I'll always bring a book, which I end up reading instead. My sister and I gang up and use our girl power to provoke his delicate temper and then laugh at him for losing it.

AliBob is a mercenary and takes sides as he sees fit and laughs at us for being such idiots. They always side with him against me and it's never a fair fight.

I miss my family.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Rapunzel Rapunzel let down your, wait, where's the hair?

Got a haircut! It wasn’t what I wanted, despite trying my best to either ask them just for a straight trim (they insisted I do something different) or then trying to explain the simple style I wanted. I wanted to keep my hair long because I’ve been trying to grow it out forever (at least since this past January) so I can chop it all off later and donate it. I need 10-12 inches and my hair just doesn’t grow quickly.

I tried insisting on a trim, but then finally just pointed at a picture (surely it was a magazine pic right out of the 80's) and said I wanted angles in the front and layers in the back. But LONG. Please cut no more than a centimeter or two off of most of my hair and maybe just angles in front (like the picture). My neighbor translated, they had a picture to look at.

Then the main lady (I'll tell you about her in a bit) came, grabbed the front of my hair, and lopped off most of my hair. I thought okay, maybe this will be the bangs and she'll leave the rest of my hair intact. As she worked around my head, she basically cut 6 inches off of everywhere, except one rat tail type thing in the back. So basically, I have a mullet. As AliBob describes it, business in the front and party in the back.

At first I was in shock after seeing all that hair fall into my lap and on the floor and I tried not to cry. I told them I liked it and thank you but maybe my shock was clear on my face, because the lady then pointed to a tiny section of cut hair on the floor (which was, indeed, only a centimeter or so long) and said "see? I didn't cut more than you wanted". I just nodded wondering how stupid she thought I was. Is that supposed to make me feel better? When all the rest of my hair is gone? Or maybe she really did think that's what I wanted and was just exercising creative license.

Anyway, as I sat later on and waited for her to finish with Ms. N, I actually realized I really liked the cut and feel. It’s much shorter than I’ve had in a while (last time it was short was when I cut off my own hair up to my ears, with the help of my dear sister, 4 years ago, and then again 3 years ago). So I suppose the cut's growing on me, just not literally.

The parlor was deep underground and all the ladies were dressed as modernly as any American girl, with tight clothing and stylish hair and makeup. We waited for the main lady who runs the place to arrive. The girls prepared me for her by prewetting and precombing my hair in the desired way ready for cutting and they continued to wet it until she got to the parlor 15 minutes later.

She spent less than 5 minutes on my hair, razored and trimmed it quickly, and handed the scissors to another girl and walked away. They hurriedly finished me off.

When she began working on another lady’s eyebrows, she simply plucked enough to shape them properly for a minute or two, and handed the tweezers off to someone else and left the rest of the residual plucking and threading to her minions.

She then sat down and started chatting away and when the phone rang, even though she was the only person without a customer, she did not answer it and eventually, one of the other girls had to leave her customer and go answer the phone.

Ah to be a person of power in these places. I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the salon (I really wanted to get the magazine pics they have up) because of her brother owning the place or something. She wasn’t sure if he would approve, although I had fully intended, on my part, to exclude any ladies from the picture to be on the safe side. According to Ms. N (who didn’t get the prohibition either), the lady in charge didn’t care so much about the ladies covering up part, it really was just the fact that her brother might have a problem with it. Whatever. Their loss. When this blog is famous (hah!), they’ll just lose publicity. :)

Anyway, on the walk home after the taxi dropped us off, I took a picture of the little garden areas in our neighborhood. This first one is at the intersection of our street and the main street. It was really bright out so everything seems overexposed (fine, it could be my less than fantastic photography skills):

This next one is of the view of the long road (Khiyabaan-e-Mutaharri) that leads us to the university apartments. The buildings are the last thing before the mountains, as you already know from the picture of my “backyard”.

And finally, here’s a cool little neighborhood park that’s just to the left side of the previous picture. Notice the mountains in the back. What never ceases to amaze me is that Qom is still a desert and this all this greenery is cultivated here. This is probably normal to people living in similar climes but it still always gets me.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Qur'anic Fair

Grammar class wasn’t so great, as usual. People still have varying levels of skill. And teaching adults is definitely not the same as teaching kids, and yet I do have 3 kids in the class. Should I go slower? Faster? Follow the book only and not try and help with supplementary information?

Anyway, after the class, Dr. and Mrs. Elahi took us to a Quran Fair. It was great. 28 countries (16 Muslim countries, 12 Non-Muslim countries) had participated, including some joint efforts like between the UAE and Germany. We got to see a genuine copy (that term always cracks me up) from Turkey of Prophet Muhammad’s seal. The original is in a museum in Turkey. There was hand etched glass in the form of vases and bowls and paperweights and prisms and even a glass hand etched Quran sitting open in its stand.

I tried taking some pictures but too much glass and plastic cause glare and reflection.

Irfan Ali was a hit there and people, once again, were straining their necks to get a look at him. Giggling ladies and curious old women and men. The guy in charge of the fair (dressed in the ayatollah garb) gave us a personal tour of the main exhibition and we had someone talking to us and explaining each artifact to us. The artisanship there was just amazing.

We got there at around 8pm, and the exhibit was closing at 9, so he told us at around 8:40 to go upstairs and check out the stalls there because there was good stuff there too. We first stopped at a carpet stall and finally got our first glimpse of a Qomi silk carpet. I must say, it is quite gorgeous, incredibly soft, and somewhat different than the Persian carpets we’re used to seeing. It was also smaller and these tend to be for wall hanging, not for floor covering. It cost 350,000 Toman, which is 3.5 million Iranian Rials, which is about $350, which isn’t bad at all.

Again, I wasn’t able to get a good picture. The stalls weren’t too well lit.

We went upstairs and the art there was more Ahlul Bayt (Shia) devotional work than the mainstream Allah/Mohammad/Quranic stuff downstairs. There were also quite a bit of Iranian cultural handicrafts. Both were amazing. Beautiful scenes recreating Kerbala and Ashura were painted on velvet or inlaid in wood or cut out and formed into dioramas, and there were also wood carvers (mostly women artisans, which was very good to see), and there was one calligraphy stall where the girl did stunning work and she wrote our names for us. The director of the fair also gifted us (mostly gifted Ali) with a really cool coffee table book with pictures and elevations of all the mosques in Iran, which is definitely an awesome souvenir. It’ll have to be mailed back because it’s heavy.

Then in another stall, the Mrs. Mir Mohammadi (who came with us to the fair and is in my grammar class) told the lady to make me something quickly. Since the stalls were mostly closing down, the vendor quickly found a heart-shaped wood cutout and found a cutout of “Muhammad” in a darker wood and glued it onto the heart. I’m most excited with my keepsakes.

(Mrs. Mir Mohammadi, Sara, Mrs. Elahi)

As we walked on, we realized we were the only ones left there and turns out that for their special American studying Islam in Qom, they had kept the building open for us. *Very* cool. Definitely don’t see that happening in the US for anyone. Because we are guests, we are treated with so much deference and honor. Well… Ali is the honored guest, and I’m his Pakistani wife. Pakistanis aren’t unusual here. Haha.. I think my secret (I’m not Shia!) is out, but no one has really changed their behavior toward me, which makes me feel even worse about the way Sunnis talk about Shias.

After we were done with our tour, with our tiny entourage of security and admin people following us, they asked us to write a remembrance on some paper. I wrote in decent handwriting and Ali wrote in chicken scratch. Muahaha. Except he kept his writing straight, and mine was all sloping uphill and downhill. I never quite mastered that whole writing straight without lines thing.

Then we went downstairs and waited for the Director of the Fair to finish his speech or lecture to all the vendors and stall people in the fair, and we met the PR head for the Fair. We relaxed and took a few pictures and then some news agency people came to interview Irfan Ali. There was a camera and a tape recorder and everything. In fact, there were 3 cameras. Two personal digital cameras and one big video camera.

So with Dr. Elahi as translator, the reporter asked Irfan Ali questions on his opinion of the fair, Iran and Iranians, Islam in America, Iranians in America, doing da’wah (proselytizing) in America. For a few of them, I felt the need (as usual) to butt in and put in my 2 cents but I felt kind of embarrassed because the interview is for Irfan Ali. But then when I stopped interjecting, he would ask me my opinion and then I would have no idea what to say.

I must say I learned something new about Dr. Elahi last night. The man has a photographic memory. He would memorize our answers in English, and then almost verbatim repeat them to the reporter. Keep in mind, our responses were quite wordy. I know I don’t understand Farsi, but I could tell by the words that I did get and the order in which they came that he really was relaying everything. Irfan Ali confirmed my suspicion. *Very* impressive. We really got lucky with Dr. Elahi and his “Elahi’s Army”.

Here we are with the reporter/interviewer (right of us) and videographers:

We got home at 11:15pm and were hungry for dinner. We’d already had dinner at 5:45 though and there was nothing else to eat. I’m still working on that whole cooking lots of stuff and having lots of leftovers thing.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hanging with Ms. Nouri

Ali woke up early (6 or 7 something??) this morning to go change more money. I was supposed to go with him, but it was just too windy and chilly and ‘morningy’ for me. He is my hero. We had breakfast together and I went back to bed. No haircut for me because of Ms. N’s schedule. She asked me to come over anyway. I’m not sure if all these visits to her place are actual conversation sessions or social visits. I feel bad going over there so much, especially since she feeds me every time I go over but declined food/drink offers when she came over here for conversation sessions.

I asked about salons and what to do for our hair, which has been shedding horribly since we got here. I also have developed a nasty dandruff problem and am desperate to resolve this soon. She said it’s the water of Qom that’s very bad for hair. Is that why I’m going gray and balding and dandruffing??

Anyway she insisted I take this L’Oreal conditioner she has but doesn’t use and try it. I don’t know how I feel about having people give me their stuff just because I mentioned I have an issue. If I ask “where do I buy x” or “what do I do about y” or “do you (Iranians in general) have z”, it doesn’t mean I want them to get it for me or give me their stuff. Does it sound like I’m making a request of them? I hope not.

I don’t know what to do with all this generosity. We haven’t had people over yet, and even if we did, how would I honor them with a fantastically honorific meal? I couldn’t. I would give them starchy, clumpy, stuck together yet still raw on the inside rice and a reasonably decent veggie dish. I think not serving/having meat here is considered stingy, according to our guidebook. I only have Robert to thank for not ever wanting or allowing meat or fish or any derivative thereof into the house for me to practice cooking it. Yes, it’s easier to just blame him at the moment.

I had my conversation course, which went fine, I suppose. I took some American money to show them. They think Iranian money is prettier, and they’re probably right about that. I went in ready to talk about our cultures (which is what we decided last time) but apparently no one was prepared, so I talked about American culture. Random things, really… and we also talked about the civil war and Abraham Lincoln. But my dates are quite awful and my American geography is horrid, so it was quite pathetic, me trying to teach them American history and geography. All I know is that Thomas Jefferson was the 2nd(?) president, and the emancipation proclamation was signed in 1864 and I think the civil war ended in 1865. I don’t remember when it started. Oh… and Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president. I tried to explain a little about the raw materials and slaves in the south vs. the industry and money in the north, but who knows how much made sense.

Then, I made sure to tune in to that Pakistani cooking show I’ve been catching glimpses of the past few Saturdays. I usually catch the last 10 minutes. This time the guest made some kind of chicken dish. I couldn’t read the Urdu because the graphics were too blurry. Murgh something.
We had daal (a staple in our diets) and channa masala. This channa masala was different than the last time I made it. I think it was better.

Why one should pay attention in history class

Ali woke up early (6 or 7 something??) this morning to go change more money. I was supposed to go with him, but it was just too windy and chilly and ‘morningy’ for me. He is my hero. We had breakfast together and I went back to bed. No haircut for me because of Ms. N’s schedule. She asked me to come over anyway. I’m not sure if all these visits to her place are actual conversation sessions or social visits. I feel bad going over there so much, especially since she feeds me every time I go over but declined food/drink offers when she came over here for conversation sessions.

I asked about salons and what to do for our hair, which has been shedding horribly since we got here. I'm desperate to resolve this soon. She said it’s the water of Qom that’s very bad for hair. Is that why I’m going gray and balding and dandruffing??

Anyway she insisted I take this L’Oreal conditioner she has but doesn’t use and try it. I don’t know how I feel about having people give me their stuff just because I mentioned I have an issue. If I ask “where do I buy x” or “what do I do about y” or “do you (Iranians in general) have z”, it doesn’t mean I want them to get it for me or give me their stuff. Does it sound like I’m making a request of them? I hope not.

I don’t know what to do with all this generosity. We haven’t had people over yet, and even if we did, how would I honor them with a fantastically honorific meal? I couldn’t. I would give them starchy, clumpy, stuck together yet still raw on the inside rice and a reasonably decent veggie dish. I think not serving/having meat here is considered stingy, according to our guidebook. I only have Robert to thank for not ever wanting or allowing meat or fish or any derivative thereof into the house for me to practice cooking it. Yes, it’s easier to just blame him at the moment than to admit that even if I'd been cooking meat all along, I'd still be a pathetic cook.

I had my conversation course, which went fine, I suppose. I took some American money to show them. They think Iranian money is prettier (more colorful, flowers and birds in the designs), and they’re probably right about that. I went in ready to talk about our cultures (which is what we decided last time) but apparently no one was prepared, so I talked about American culture. Random things, really… and we also talked about the civil war and Abraham Lincoln. But my dates are quite awful and my American geography is horrid, so it was quite pathetic, me trying to teach them American history and geography. All (I think) I know is that Thomas Jefferson was the 2nd(?) president, and the emancipation proclamation was signed in 1864 and I think the civil war ended in 1865, right? I don’t remember when it started. Oh… and Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president. I tried to explain a little about the raw materials and slaves in the south vs. the industry and money in the north, but who knows how much made sense... which is probably better since it was probably all wrong.

Then, back home, I made sure to tune in to that Pakistani cooking show I’ve been catching glimpses of the past few Saturdays. I usually catch the last 10 minutes. This time the guest made some kind of chicken dish. I couldn’t read the Urdu because the graphics were too blurry. Murgh something.
We had daal (a staple in our diets) and channa masala. This channa masala was different than the last time I made it. I think it was better.

Can you believe it? I'm tuning into cooking shows not just for the entertainment (come on, you know you love Food Network) but to actually try and learn something. Scary.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Field Day

Our day off!! It looks like no fesenjan lessons today because the Khanum is busy preparing a speech. Which is just as well, really, since there is a lot to be done around the house and Ali and I both feel like bumming together. I haven’t seen enough of him this past week because of days at the office and evenings at Dr. Sachedina’s lectures.

We tried out our new washing machine. It was a battle of brains, but Ali prevailed, with no help from our manual that’s all in Farsi. Her maiden voyage went quite well and we learned that the cotton cycle is 2 hours long. The synthetics cycle is 45 minutes long. But it did a good job, and the spin is excellent for getting most of the moisture out. I have decided that an automatic washer is a must have. I’m not crazy about the detergent scent but I’ll deal. Clean is good. Here is Ali hard at work staring the machine down and showing it who’s master:

I also very excitedly cleaned the kitchen floor. Ali swept with the sorry excuse for the broom, and then I made a bleach/water mix and dumped it all over the floor. I squeegeed it all toward the drain in the middle of the floor. I did this 4 or 5 times until the water on the floor wasn’t too visibly disgusting anymore and then did a final dry mop on it. I’m pleased to announce that it’s gleaming. See Ali sweep:

I cooked daal and the last of my veggies because we’re out of vegetables and money. I tried to be creative with the vegetables and cooked something I remember loving in Pakistan. I don’t know how close this was to the original, but it ended up tasting pretty darn good. It’s amazing how willing you become to eat (and even enjoy!) your own hand-cooked food when there’s no other choice. I’m glad I overcame that hump.

It was a potato, carrot and tomato curry. I tossed in onion seed and cumin and sautéed those with onions. The carrots ended up being not completely soft at the end of it, but I actually didn’t mind that. Neither did Ali.

We’ve gotten hooked on having fresh fruit after dinner. We had pomegranate and “yaffa”, which is like a clementine, but smaller. Then we snacked on roasted peanuts.

Ali also cleaned out the shower room, which was even more disgusting than the kitchen. There were what looked like bird droppings on the door and walls and it always smells of sewage but that’s just because of the years of ick down in the drain where he can’t reach it. He still did reach in as far as he could and cleaned it out. If I write more on the whole drain thing I’m likely to throw up on the computer and short it out, so in conclusion, after an hour of cleaning, the walls and floor were sparkling clean.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Sara Goes Shopping

Went shopping with the Khanum (Elahi) to get house stuff (squeegee, mop, toilet bowl cleaner, grater, mixing bowls, clothespins, food storage containers, clothesline, hamper, hangers, serving spoon for rice, cooking spoons-- because so far I’ve been doing all my cooking with silverware-- chopping board et. al.). It’s quite interesting. It’s a big place (warehouse-y looking) with different “rooms” or areas, distinguished by counters behind which men stand and take orders for what people want. There are no lines, so everyone crowds around said counters calling to him and waving their list in the air until he notices them and takes the list to make a receipt.

There is a lot of waiting involved, and also a good amount of shoving and pushing, despite the ubiquitous “bebakhsheed” (excuse me), which is the uber-polite utterance used for everything (if I step in front of you and you have to see my back, bebakhsheed; if I need your attention, bebakhsheed; if I am leaving your store/house/presence, bebakhsheed). Annoying. If you must shove and push and poke and prod, don’t bother saying anything at all. Apparently Islam and the etiquettes for the good character it tries to impart don’t apply in stores (neither the customers nor the vendors are all that polite), traffic or when there are young women walking around alone who would rather not be gawked at, kissy-faced at, honked at, or chatted up.
Anyway, once the man behind the counter writes out your receipt, you take it back to a central hub of cash registers where they put it into the computer and you pay. They pop out a printed receipt and stamp it and hand it to you to take back to the man at the counter (more waiting) and he gets you the stuff. You do this for all the different “rooms”. So we did one for the plastics, one for pots/pans/silverware, one for fabric (I got my chador fabric today!!), and one for soap/detergent/shampoo/lotion. My total including chador and home goods was USD 33. 327,400 Iranian Rials. Ouch. That cleaned us out. My chador fabric was USD12. I think.

Anyway, we decided we would leave all the house stuff with them and go get food before they closed for the noon prayer (Dhuhr)

Downstairs is the food market, but mostly for prepackaged stuff like cheese, jam, bottled stuff, snacks. I didn’t see any produce, but at the end of the room there are ‘fresh’ fish, chickens and eggs. They were out of chickens. The fish are a little smelly and glassy eyed. I can’t remember how to look for fresh fish, but I don’t know if I would get the ones there. Mostly because I have no idea how to gut it, de-spine it, de-scale it etc., despite having watched a BBC show on it. I think I was more entertained than educated. But anyway, if the Khanum is getting it there, maybe it’s good fish. She knows her stuff.

We came back up just as things were settling out and people clearing out and I waited with our foodstuffs while she went and picked up the plastics. It ended up taking forever because they lost the receipt. Apparently they looked and looked, and finally went to their computers and looked it up and got her the stuff. I felt bad because it was our stuff.

We left and went looking for a store that would have wooden spoons for my Teflon pot and pan. That wasn’t fruitful, so we kept going and she showed me where her law office will be. Very cool! It’s not big, but it’s nice and in a fantastic location. We also picked up some yogurt from the yogurt/milk/butter store. That’s all they sell. Yogurt, milk and butter. They were out of milk. That’s the other weird thing, being out of something basic like milk or meat before lunch.

When we got home, she realized they hadn’t given her my bag with the grater, silverware and mixing bowls from the pots/pans room. So we decided we’d go back at 4pm. When we went back, it was all still closed and she realized then that it was Thursday and on Thursdays after the noon prayer, most of the stores are closed through the weekend and reopen on Saturday. Bummer. On the upside, she did send over a pair of her potholders that her mom (who lives in Kerman) made.

Traffic was awful (we spent 10 minutes stuck at one roundabout because the lights weren’t working). We went to the bazaar near the Holy Shrine to get a pot and 2 wooden cooking spoons. We also bought a whole chicken for her to teach me how to cook fesenjan. I ran out of Iranian currency. Then we went to the vegetable market.
We still need a vacuum cleaner that works, drinking glasses (we have 3 right now, which is fine for us but not if we end up having people over), and rags and sponges for random cleaning jobs.

What was fun at the market was seeing people from all over. I saw some *very* East Asian looking people. Not even Tajik with some Asiatic features, but completely totally Chinese. (They looked more Chinese to me than Japanese or Korean or Southeast Asian.) What’s funny is that they may still be Iranians (I think because they spoke Farsi) from the north (where Mongols invaded, I think?). The lady was in her chador and the man was actually a cleric. That was very cool, seeing a Mongol-featured man wearing the “ayatollah” garb. Who knows, it could always be people from other countries who came here to do traditional studies and became clerics.

I also saw one black woman. She was definitely of African descent. She was tall and stood out in the crowd despite her chador. I know AliBob saw lots of Asian and Black men at the Imam Khomeini Institute where he went for that first lecture on cloning, but I hadn’t really seen much of anything until today.

I also actually saw several women in burqah (where the face is covered and you only see their eyes), which is less common among Iranian women. Pakistani/Indian maybe? Or Arab.

I also saw the 3rd ranking official of the Iranian government, Ayatollah something-or-other (can’t remember). He’s the head of the judicial system of Iran. Actually, I lie; I saw his caravan of tinted Mercedes Benz escorts and Mercedes Benz police cars. He comes to Qom on the weekends from Tehran to answer people’s gripes and grievances.

What a busy and eventful and mostly productive day.
Oh! And the Khanum said that Fatemeh had gone home last night and raved about Sara Khanum’s most delicious lentils and eggplants. Score!


Hello All--I'm putting up Sara's ruminations, since I don't think she's had time to do so thus far. If there are any problems, I'm sure I'll hear about it and then will fix them up. In the meantime, accept the following as the gospel truth...Bob-Ali

Qom is a city about 2 hours’ drive south of Tehran in central Iran. Its population is approximately 800,000 and it’s known for being a center of religious learning and having the shrine of Hazrat Masoumeh (Innocent) Fatimah, the sister of Shiite Islam’s 8th Imam, Imam Reza. She was on her way to see her brother, who was held captive in Mashhad, but she became ill and died here in Qom. He died in Mashhad. It’s all very depressing. But it did give Qom importance as a shrine city. The shrine itself is in the city center, which is where all the cool bazaars with vaulted barrel ceilings are too.

Qom is also known in all of Iran for its gorgeous silk carpets that are actually meant to be wall hangings, not floor coverings. They’re smaller in size than a traditional 9x12 or 8x10 carpet, and are handmade. They’re extremely expensive.

Qom is also known for its two large salt lakes. The water here is quite brackish and though safe to drink, too salty to be drunk (unless you like the taste of it, I suppose). So, the tap water is used for washing and bathing, but big plastic jugs of water are used for drinking and cooking.

Interestingly enough, unlike other Asian/Middle Eastern cultures, Iranians tend to be punctual (give or take a few minutes, based on my experience thus far).

Ode to My Parents:
Everyone hears me whining about getting in trouble with my parents about something or other, but now I must give credit where credit is due. I have to ‘standingly ovate’ (why does that sound so dirty?) my parents for the amazing job they did in all the different countries we lived in. I never felt a break in the continuity of my home life. All the foods I’d grown up with accompanied us everywhere. I don’t know how hard it was to come by spices or whatever else my mom needed to recreate a little Pakistan in our home, but she and my dad did it repeatedly. I know how hard it was to find halal meat, so they would go scope out farms and find good healthy animals and my dad would go out to inspect them in person (sometimes it was *quite* a long drive to get from the city to wherever the cows and chickens were) and then he would slaughter them himself.

I know in Colombia, we were thousands of feet above sea level and that affects cooking times. Maybe my mom struggled with getting it all right, but when the food was at the table, it was perfect. And it happened every single night, 7 days a week.

We all know parents do for their kids. I know mine did for my siblings and me. But with every new experience, I realize just how much they did. How many sacrifices they made (never in my life have I had a babysitter, which means my parents were skipping out on a lot of socials and parties to be with us) and how hard they worked to make things right for us.

And they did right up until the end. My mom helped me pack and sort because I was being a slacker scatterbrain. AliBobert is a grown up so he did his own packing. The day before we left, one of our suitcases broke as we tried to weight it. When we tried lifting it a different way, something else broke. We were almost all packed in all 4 suitcases and didn’t want this happening again, so my parents ran out right then while we continued packing and sorting and bought us 4 brand new fantastic suitcases within the hour. My mom made and fried me my favorite rolls to take on the trip and my dad gave us extra wads of cash (in addition to the cash the day before, and the checks before that) for this that and the other incidentals on our trip. He also gave us what British pounds he could find so we wouldn’t have to worry about changing right away during our 11 hour layover in London. Anyway, there are so many other little things that they did for us that we can probably never recall, and much of which we may not even realize.

I know I’m starting to sound gooey, but we both owe my parents so much. All we have to give is our thanks and our love. So we thank you and we love you.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Let Them Eat Khana

I went to Ms. N’s house and we went for a walk to the University and back while we conversed. Her son had made me a drawing and she gave me his old Farsi book from level 1 (beginner’s Farsi). After that, I had my English conversation class tonight. It was interesting and not quite structured, and I seemed to do most of the talking because they wanted to know all about me and my life and America/Pakistan/South America. I hope I can get them to talk more themselves.

Fatemeh came over and helped me with some Persian out of the children’s book Ms. N gave me, and we worked on an article she had for school.

Irfan Ali went to Dr. Sachedina’s 3rd lecture on with Dr. Elahi and he said he understood a good amount of it, which is fantastic. Dr. Sachedina speaks Persian fluently and flawlessly, as he does most things, but since he enunciates well, it is easier to understand what he is saying.

I worked up the courage to have Fatemeh try some food I had cooked earlier today. I made khatti daal as usual (lentils with lemon juice and tamarind), which happened to turn out quite well, and I also made my version of baigan ka bhurta (a mashed eggplant curry type dish) because well, I just couldn’t remember how it’s really made. The bhurta actually tasted pretty good too, so that was pleasing.
Oh, and I had some leftover eggplant from the time I made my eggplant and potato curry (it was a different kind of eggplant) and so I had roasted that half on the stove and cut it into slices and salted it and then I breaded it in the breadcrumbs I made. I just spiced the breadcrumbs and they were ready to go! They ended up tasting pretty good too, especially for my first time ever. AliBob really loved them. Yay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any pans left to heat the food up in and so I gave it to her cold. She wanted to just taste it. She ended up really liking it, even cold, so that was a nice feeling. She said if your food is this good, I’m very enthusiastic to try your mother’s food. As well she should be. I am enthusiastic too. Just 6 more months.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Plane Crash

Hi All,

Yes, there was a big plane crash in Tehran, and yes, we are ok. We were actually a bit worried because Ali's advisor, Dr. Sachedina is giving a series of lectures in Qom this week and his family were due to fly out of Tehran today. As far as we know though the casualities were limited to the military jet (though with about 70 journalists aboard) and the residents of the apartment that the plane hit.



110 killed in Iran plane crash

Tuesday, December 6, 2005; Posted: 12:59 p.m. EST (17:59 GMT)

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- An Iranian military transport plane has crashed near Tehran after hitting a 10-story apartment building, killing at least 110 people -- most of them aboard the plane -- Iranian officials and state-run media reported.

The air force C-130 -- carrying more than 90 people -- crashed at about 2 p.m. (1030 GMT) on Tuesday, sparking fires in the apartment building that houses military personnel and their families.

Everyone on board the plane was killed, including 47 journalists who planned to witness the Iranian navy's maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, officials said.

A health ministry spokesman said 110 bodies had been taken to hospitals near the crash site in the town of Towid, south of the capital.

"Both the main and reserve fuel tanks were full which is why the plane went up in flames as soon as it hit the building," Ahmad Ziaie, the head of Iran's fire brigade told state television, Reuters reported.

The building that was hit and others around it were immediately evacuated after the crash.
An Interior Ministry spokesman told Reuters that several people had been killed on the ground. The spokesman added that many of them had been in their cars at the time of the crash.
The plane was heading for the port city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran when the pilot reported technical difficulties and was returning to base, according to Abdul Rahimi with Iran's civil aviation authority.

It crashed near Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport, which handles domestic, international and military flights.

The plane struck the building as it went down, Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. A short time later, an explosion went off on the fourth floor of the building, which had filled with gas.

Video from the scene showed emergency personnel rushing towards the building which had smoke and flames pouring from its windows.

"I can see flames licking out of the windows of the fourth floor of the building," said a Reuters journalist at the scene.

Shahram Alamdari, a Red Crescent official, told Reuters by telephone from the scene: "It is awful down here. I am suffocating."

In Iran's last major military air disaster, an Iranian Ilyushin-76 troop carrier crashed in the southeast of the country on February 19, 2003, killing all 276 Revolutionary Guard soldiers and crew aboard.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Hi All,

If you haven't had a chance to browse the links to the right yet, you may have missed my friend Brian's great blog "In The Axis", where he reflects on life in Syria.

He had a great post a few weeks back about a Syrian journalist's rather miserable trip to the US, courtesy of the State Department. I am posting the entry in its entirety as it gives a glimpse of the sort of fundamental lack of finesse or even understanding our government exhibits about the rest of the world.



I met my former student, Siham, over coffee the other day, so eager to hear what she thought about her journeys through my homeland. She had just been to the US on a State Department program to bring Arab journalists around for a tour of our country. Along with a dozen or so other journalists from a host of Middle Eastern countries, she had the chance to visit Washington, DC, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Seattle, and Houston.

While she was attending my classes in English journalism, she often talked about her hopes for getting accepted into the program. She had to apply with the US Embassy in Damascus, go for a series of interviews, and then work through the visa process. I encouraged her at every step. "It's gonna be wonderful!" I assured her. "You'll get a different perspective of the US. You'll love it so much, see some of the great things about America." I am always telling my students that there is much more to America than superficial pop culture. Siham bubbled with anticipation, and said how much she wanted to meet real Americans, rather than the stereotypical rich blond-haired blue-eyed uebermenschen that are standard TV and film fare in the rest of the world. In addition to her professional mission, she was particularly thrilled about the shopping prospects.

Siham was still upbeat in the first days of her trip. She phoned me at my parents' home in Wyomissing while I was on vacation. But that mood has since evaporated. "I don't want to disappoint you," she said gazing down into her cup of Nescafe, "but it was awful." The State Department scheduled a set program of tours and talks with key government people and business leaders. "We were lectured everywhere we went. I mean, they talked down to us like we were little children, like we were born yesterday or something." She said that the purport of most of the talks was a glossy-eyed missionary-style tour through the most hated features of American foreign policy. "They didn't know anything about us or about where we came from. And they didn't care." The 'terrorism' label was applied generously to the region, in a move clearly aimed at making friends and influencing people. The dialogue, she observed bitterly, was a one-way conversation.

Siham said that the officials were quick to point out the miniscule sums the US spends to take care of refugees and to promote democracy in the region, while ignoring the vastly larger amount spent to promote conflict and violence, in the Occupied Territories and Iraq for instance. Every month in Iraq alone, the US spends about one-third of the entire Syrian GDP. "This is our life; we know this," she pleaded. Syrians live side by side with over 2 million Palestinian refugees, a by-product of America's multi-billion dollar annual support of Israel. They have also opened their doors to several hundred thousand refugees from America's Iraq misadventure. These policies do not have anything like a positive impact on the lives of Syrians, and nor do the threats of sanctions and even war against their country. "They couldn't understand why our mouths didn't fall open in amazement," she commented dryly.

Siham complained that the US Embassy in Damascus has phoned her several times to ask why she has not published any articles praising America since she came back. I advised her to publish copiously, to tell exactly what happened, just to dispel the delusions on both sides.
The whole program seemed hinged on a flawed and widespread myth: that the people of the Middle East simply don't know what happens outside their countries. They are kept in the dark by their evil and tyrannical governments about all the wonderful features of America and its policies. But the reality is that the orange trader on the donkey-cart down the street here in Damascus knows far more about American foreign policy than the average middle-class American. Arabs hate American foreign policy not because they don't understand it, rather because they understand it perfectly; they live it.

Fashion in Qom

(Caption: A cleric from Qom stands with his eight-year-old son, who is wearing a cleric's robe like his father's, during their visit to Isfahan some 430km south of Tehran, August 12, 2004. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)

Salaam and Hello Everyone,

Besides Sara's fascination with chador (though she's only tried one on so far, not purchased her own), there are other fashionistas in Qom, perhaps, much to your surprise. Interesting article below.


Clerical chic

For Muslims, looking good has a religious seal of approval. And no one reflects this more than the stylish mullahs of Iran. Niloofar Haeri visits the city of Qom, home to the Muslim clergy's top tailors - and some of the best-dressed men in the Islamic world

Wednesday January 5, 2005
The Guardian

Women's dress in the Muslim world is endlessly debated and written about. But when it comes to what the men are wearing, we hear relatively little. And yet here in Iran it is clear to see that quite a few clerics are no stanger to chic. The graceful draping of good cloth, the layering of colours, the yellow slippers and silver rings with large agate stones, add up in many cases to nothing short of elegance.

Article continues

If there is one major point of agreement among clerics, it lies in the importance Islam attaches - thanks to the many stories about how well the Prophet Muhammad dressed, and his love of perfumes - to looking and smelling good. Making an effort to be well turned out is not just allowed by Islam, it is positively encouraged.

In the middle-class salons of Tehran these days, one of the lighter topics of conversation is President Khatami's wardrobe. He is seen as very elegant; in fact, a bit of a dandy. Every new outfit he dons as the seasons change unleashes a fresh round of comment about the colours, textures and shapes of the robes, high-collared shirts and mantles that he wears. After the president appeared on TV during the summer in an elegant cream-coloured robe, other prominent members of the government followed suit.

For anyone who wants to learn more about Iranian clerical fashion, the place to visit is Qom. Besides its claim to fame as the spiritual heart of the Iranian revolution (Ayatollah Khomeini chose this traditionally religious city as his residence after returning to Iran in 1979 following the fall of the shah), it also boasts the best tailors to the Muslim clergy in the country, and possibly in all the Middle East.

On a childhood trip to the city, I remember thinking that the clerics in their flowing robes and layered outfits were so much more elegant than the women hidden in black veils - the "black crows" as some Iranians still call them. In my pre-feminist, five-year-old mind, I wanted women to be the elegant ones, showing off their clothes.

Over the past 25 years the Islamic government has successfully promoted Qom as a centre of Shi'ite Muslim learning to rival Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. Students and mullahs from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan frequent its seminaries. Pilgrims from the Shi'ite diaspora in Africa, America and Europe visit the shrine.

As a result, Qom now boasts more foreign residents and tourists than Tehran. Pizzerias have sprung up all over the city, and restaurants have added Arab dishes to their fare. Hotels, hostels, travel agents and souvenir shops cater to the hordes of pilgrims, religious tourists and seminarians from overseas. You can also check your email at the many "coffee net" places around town (although none of them actually serves coffee).

Qom has changed in other ways too. Everyone in Tehran told me that in Qom I should wear the full female get-up, including the all-covering black chador. I was worried that I was not wearing socks and that my fingernails betrayed bits of nail polish I had not had a chance to wipe off. In the event I did not have to wear the chador at all (a scarf was enough), and the Qomis seemed too busy to worry about bare toes or the state of my nails.

After getting directions from a mullah crossing the street, I headed towards a "passage" (pronounced in the French way) that was one of several shopping arcades made up almost entirely of tailors' workshops specialising in clerical clothes.

On the upper floor of the arcade I found a man who specialised in various kinds of cloth imported from Thailand, India, Korea, Iraq, Italy and England. This tailor turned out to be an Iraqi, the uncle of another tailor I had spoken to briefly downstairs.

Many of the tailors in Qom, it emerged, are Iraqi Shia. This particular family of tailors, the Asgari Najafis, had been deported by Saddam Hussein about 24 years ago at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, along with thousands of other Iraqis of Iranian ancestry. A younger brother of the family, Ali Asgari Najafi, who had spent most of his life in Qom and spoke fluent Persian, showed me the clothes and offered to model them himself. "I am very handsome, so these clothes look really good on me," he explained with a big smile.

"The main piece of clothing, apart from the turban," said Asgari Najafi, "is the long robe. Those who want to be chic and contemporary wear the labbaadeh, but those who are more traditional and want to avoid looking wealthy or fashionable wear the qabaa. You may have noticed President Khatami always wears the labbaadeh but the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamanei] prefers the qabaa."

Both the labbaadeh and the qabaa are long and come down to the top of the slippers (this is the case for traditional clerics who do not wear trousers; for those who do, the robe comes down to the middle of the legs). But whereas the qabaa has a V-neck and one side crosses the other at the waist, the more expensive labbaadeh has a high, round collar, tighter sleeves and stiff panelling in the chest area so that it looks very tailored. Many believe that the high-collared version is directly influenced by the robes of the Orthodox and Catholic priests in Lebanon, where large Christian and Muslim communities coexist.

Both robes can have numerous inside pockets, as many as eight for pens, books, prayer beads, watches and mobile phones. A frequent sight on the streets of Qom is of mullahs reaching inside their coats for their mobiles as they ring in various global tones. Many mullahs come for several fittings and can be quite picky, says Asgari Najafi: "The Lebanese ones would rather spend less on their food and pay for better clothes."

The star tailor of Qom is a snowy-haired 74-year-old with a bright smile. Abolfazl Arabpour sews clothes for the president and many important members of the government, and used to make clothes for Ayatollah Khomeini. "I started out in Tehran making clothes for army officers in the days of the monarchy," he says. "I hated that job, but I must say that the detailed work of army uniforms has served me well in making fine clerical outfits." Arabpour's logbook is inches thick. Altogether he has four workshops in Qom. His sons have also become tailors and many other tailors name him as their master.

Clerical dress has become political in Iran. In earlier days, according to Arabpour, clerical clothes were shapeless and too loose. Over time, and particularly since the revolution, they have become far more tailored, varied and formal. Because the new order gives some members of the clergy power and prominence, these politicians want to look their best, especially on television. But political power has also exposed the clergy to intense public scrutiny - so for those mullahs who want to avoid politics or close association with the government, there is a real temptation not to wear their clerical garb except when it is required by their religious activity.
"On the street, if I wear clerical clothes, some people will greet me because of it, and others will insult me for the same reason," says one Tehran mullah. "But when I don't wear it, I get neither reaction. And I prefer that." This mullah has stopped wearing clerical clothes except on very special occasions. When you wear clerical clothes, he continues, "you are advertising for your religion and implicitly calling people to it. But I don't believe that this is my duty as a cleric."

Another cleric that I speak to, who is wearing a light grey-blue qabaa of exquisite cotton with short open seams on both sides of the waist and a white shirt with grey stripes to match the qabaa, insists that interest in clerical fashion is not confined to Islam: "In all religions, the only principle has to do with being covered, for men and for women. Even in Europe until about 100 years ago, it was considered impolite not to wear a hat or some kind of head covering in public."

One of the hottest topics for mullahs now is how to respect the dignity of the clothes while responding to the necessities of modern life. One long-standing controversy is whether they should ride motorcyles in clerical dress. "If it was up to me," says one, "I would ban it; it just looks so undignified, especially when they also have their wife and child riding with them and they have to tuck the ends of their mantle into their trouser pockets."

In Iran's hit film of 2004, Marmulak (The Lizard) - banned after a month in the cinemas, apparently because it was felt to be too mocking of the clergy - a thief dons clerical clothes to escape from prison. But he soon finds out how many things he cannot do in these clothes without catching attention - such as running fast when he thinks the police are after him.

Arabpour echoes the lesson of the film, pointing to the racks of half-finished clerical robes hanging at the back of his shop: "There is only air in these clothes. What really matters is the character of the man who wears them."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I am a Domestic Goddess...almost

Made breadcrumbs! I’m *SO* satisfied with the way they turned out, especially after all that work. In a fit of creativity and innovation, I had toasted the bread slices, hand picked them into crumbs, and finally I crushed the crumbs in a plastic bag with a metal pipe.
Here’s a picture of my most precious breadcrumbs and “rolling pin”:

Here are last night’s chickpeas:

I am taking pictures of my cooking when I can remember so people can see my plight and send me tips, advice and recipes. I’m obsessed with becoming a reasonably decent cook so I can feed guests food without hanging my head in shame.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

So-so Chick Peas

So the chickpeas weren’t so fantastic, despite the 3 hour boil and the overnight soak. I made them into a dish and though they might cook down then, but no. They tasted *alright* but nothing special. Perhaps it was too much tomato paste.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Ah, to be domestic!

Today is our day off. Well, mostly his day off, since I’m “off” every day. After dishes, I decided to tackle laundry since AliBobba is out of shirts and his work week starts back up again tomorrow. I also put the kidney beans back on the stove for an hour or so... to make sure they were well and cooked. I’m sure they could be cooked even more, but 5 hours is quite enough. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.

I thought the washing wouldn’t take long, since I seemed to be in a good flow. I started a little before 12pm, and was done by 2pm. It turns out that the soaping didn’t take long, but the rinsing did. And since I’m anal, the rinsing took extra long. I don’t want to have residual detergent and sulfides on his or my clothing. I used too much detergent once before, which resulted in an itchy rash.

I’ve decided to reward myself with breakfast/lunch. I’m having kidney beans and sangak, heated up on the gas burner (yay, I really can’t get over the fact that that’s how it’s heated, much like I can’t get over seeing all the ‘ayatollahs’ running around this town.) It makes sense. I remember wondering how people mustered the energy to go buy bread 3 times a day. I’m glad I asked Fatemeh, because she’s the one who told me they get a bunch and refrigerate it and then just heat it up in the microwave or on the heater.

The only pity is that the sangak dries out SO quickly. It’s so delicious. And I’m slow. Not a good combination, but it does make a good case for adding preservatives to everything. Mmmm, preservatives.

Anyway, the kidney beans aren’t half bad, despite the vague taste of burn. I prefer to think of it as smoked or charred or roasted. Think euphemistically. Anyway, good thing kidney beans have a fantastic taste all their own, otherwise I’m not sure what I’d do with all this beanage. Tossing it seems so wasteful. They do, in fact, taste more caramelized and similar to baked beans or maybe even chili-esque.

Here’re the fruits of my labors, including the sangak heating, the laundry, and the kidney beans.

Learning from my bean mishap, I soaked the dried garbanzos last night in lots of water and salt, and now I’ve put them on to boil at a very low heat. Let’s see how that works out.

I think it worked out alright. It took about 3 hours. I’m not sure if that sounds right or not to more experienced people, but that what it seems to be. They could be cooked even longer, but I’m thinking since I want to use them in different dishes, they’ll be cooked then also, so this is enough for now. They’re edible.

Albert (Khanum Elahi called Robert 'Albert' by mistake and the name stuck so we call him Albert sometimes) did some groceries for us tonight and I will try and make a Pakistani dessert called shahi tukra. It’s made from sliced bread. I don’t have *every* single thing I need, but what I have will do. I’ve been craving this dessert. Also, Ms. Z, with whom I conversed yesterday, sent over a bowl of candied sour cherries for us. Now I have two bowls from people, and I can’t send them back empty! I think I’ll do candy for Ms. Z’s bowl, as we haven’t given her candy yet, and I’ll have to think of something good for the Khanum’s bowl. Oh, the reason I mentioned the bowls in the first place was because I was thinking if the dessert turns out well enough, I might just send that over in the bowl.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sara Ostaz

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Today started off well, being my first “conversation class” with Ms. N from 10-11. This one went from 10:10-11:40am. The other English class isn’t suitable for her because she’s actually an English teacher herself and has an excellent grasp of English grammar. It’s more the speaking/pronunciation part she has issues with. In her school, she can’t really speak in English to her girls, and so even the English class is conducted in Farsi (unless they’re reading something or learning grammar.) So, despite having been an English teacher for 10 years, she feels her English has atrophied due to lack of use.

We read a page-long piece on Mozart’s life. It was interesting. Her pronunciation was mostly good. She had trouble with some of the German and Italian terms (Salzburg, concerto, Don Giovanni).

Then, I asked her to summarize what she’d read and she had a little more trouble conveying to me what the piece was about. She understood the basics, but said that in order to tell me about it, she would have to go home and prepare.
I told her that would be fine for now, but eventually, I would like her to be able to do a quick summary of a factual/historical read such as that one. It’s basically relating facts back.
I broke it up for her into two types of reading-related feedback. One is an immediate ability to synthesize major facts (perhaps a few supporting details) and be able to explain it in broad terms to someone else. The other would be what she wants to do, which is to go home and read it critically and analyze it and come back and discuss it in further depth. I’m sure there’s a lot more than this, but I’m no teacher or scholar, so I was struggling to compartmentalize the skills I feel would be crucial to the improvement of her English.

I told her certain types of texts are better for the analysis. Although we could take this Mozart piece and do some sort of critical analysis of it (Treatment of the poor? How do you define genius? Financial problems despite commercial success? Explain the irony of dying while writing a requiem that was never completed, having perhaps anticipated his own death? What can you infer about European attitudes towards music during his time, etc.), I think it’s better in this case to just be able to understand and talk about what we learned about Mozart’s life.

Anyway, she is an interesting lady. She wanted to be able to trade skills. She could teach me Farsi and I could help her with English. We both agreed we need to find good approaches to that end, but I actually told her I’d rather she help me with navigating Iranian culture than teaching me Farsi. I’m picking it up being immersed here, I’m going to try and do AliBobba’s software, and there are lots and lots of people who can supply me with tidbits. At this point, it’s more important for me to know how to clean our bathrooms and carpeting and rugs, where to buy precut chicken, how to cook Iranian dishes, where to find certain ingredients.

We talked about health insurance and epilepsy too. 20 years ago, she was diagnosed with epilepsy but has been on pretty strong drugs since then. While she hasn’t had any seizures since back then, the drug has taken a toll on her memory and on her bones. I’m assuming it means perhaps calcium is being leached from them? (Later on, she mentioned that her nephew has sent her calcium pills from the US and those are very good.) She feels her ability to retain stuff in English has also been greatly affected by the medication. She’s probably right, especially since her husband’s English has only improved with time as he picks up new things from CNN or BBC, and she hasn’t progressed as much.

Anyway, with that done, I decided to try and check email (mostly unsuccessful because the modem was too slow to actually connect with more than one page at a time, and then the time ran out and the University connection was even worse.)

Then, it was time to cook, so I took out the pot of kidney beans I had soaked yesterday, thinking they were ready to be cooked. BIG mistake. I sautéed onions and put in tomatoes and spices and fried it all up (I skipped the garlic/ginger this time) and dumped in the beans. I put in some extra water for them to cook and let it simmer. An hour later, they were still raw and hard. 2 hours later, they were still raw and hard. 1 hour after that, they were slightly softer, but the skins were still hard. Finally, at 6:30, I decided to check on them and they had burned and still were not completely squishy soft. This is after 4 hours of cooking and adding cups and cups of water. They were edible. It’s sad, because the spice in them actually turned out be just right and would have tasted pretty good except for the burn and the hardness.

It was annoying. Thank goodness we had some leftover rice and chicken and the eggplant and potato dish, which was just yummy!

I got online and it says you soak and then you BOIL the beans. A ha. Maybe most people know this and are laughing at my stupidity, but I clearly didn’t. I either use canned beans in the US, or I use beans that my dear mother has so kindly prepared for cooking beforehand and that I just pull out of the freezer and thaw and cook.