Thursday, June 22, 2006

We're Back!

***This was originally written on May 3rd, 2006, but somehow never got posted. I just found it still languishing as a draft, so I'm posting it as is... captures my frustration.. I think I still need to work on the rage bit.***

Hey all,

I know I haven't written in a LONG time. I know you all have been dying to hear from me, and about our trip. With bated breath, of course. Right.

We will be leaving in another day or two to go off to Mashhad for a quick trip before I come back to the US. Yes folks, I'm coming back in 12 days. It's heartbreaking to leave AliBauble here all lonesome and wifeless for 3 months, but whatever, it's not like I cook so much or clean so much that my absence will be felt. Basically, he won't starve to death or die in a pit of filth, so that's good news.

I have a lot to say about our 2 week trip through Iran. We both do. I have several rants that, though inspired by Iran, are also a reaction to general worldviews and perceptions. Some of you have already heard me ranting via e-mail.

Let me give you some of the highlights, but first, let me preface this with the following. We've met many wonderful people here in the past 6 months. We know awesome Iranians back home as well. Even through our trip, we met a few very good people. Unfortunately, here goes the rant:

The vast majority of people we have encountered otherwise have been absolutely horrible. For a culture that is so "taarof" oriented (like takalluf in Urdu... formality in English is the closest thing I can think of), people are downright rude. I can't quite understand this bipolarness. If we are guests in someone's home, we're like a blessing sent down from god himself, but apparently if we're strangers on the street, we're not worthy of any respect.

Now the US has its problems, no doubt, and in many small white bread cities, I've heard of people having problems if they're ethnic minorities. But here, it was the big touristy cities that were the worst, particularly Esfahan.

We got stared at relentlessly. No, not a passing glance of curiosity, not even a subtle stare where just the eyes follow you. It was a full on, head swivelling, body turning stare as you walk past. There was hostility in the stares, there was disapproval, there was judgement. We got scammed, ripped off, touted, and even as a Muslim, my dear idealistic convert of a hubby was basically insulted.

I was stared at a lot, being an "Iranian" looking woman holding a white man's hand. I was covered from head to toe, better than many Iranian half-head hijabis, but I still felt as though I was walking around naked.

I was kicked out of an Esfahan teahouse for being a woman. That's okay though, because they let me in long enough to take our orders and let us eat a little bit before they came out to tell us there was a time limit, especially if the "family" (read "women") members were there. Apparently people complained that if I was allowed in, why weren't other women. Of course, let them in because he's a rich foreigner and kick them out because she's an Iranian woman, but make sure they buy something first.

They weren't too sure on their laws either. First it was "women are banned from all teahouses in Iran". Then, when we said we had no problems in Tehran or Shiraz, it became just Esfahan. I was in a rage. In some ways, I still am.

This leads me to another annoying thing. This happened a while ago, during the 9th of Muharram festivities at the Holy Shrine. First, I was wearing the following: Baggy black pants, a long sleeved black shirt, a long black abaya/jilbab (overgarment), a big black Arab style hijab that falls past my chest and down my elbows. On top of all this, wrapping me up was also a big black chador that drags on the ground. It was 9:45 pm at night, and I was also cornered into the TINY space behind a column where there were ONLY women, while men got the choice viewing space as well as room to walk around and maneuver in the rest of the courtyard.

As I raised my hand to take a picture of the scene, my unhampered animal sexuality conspired with gravity and my sleeves fell a few inches, revealing some quite tantalizing, if a bit broad and mannish, wrists. As I snapped a picture, a big rainbow duster was smacked down on my wrist from above and behind me and everyone looked. I turned around to see an old man and my first thought was that maybe pictures weren't allowed (although odd, since I'd been snapping away for a good 15 or 20 minutes). He said something and I didn't catch it through the drums and cymbals and screams and chants. He also refused to look at me the whole time. Finally, sweet Fatemeh, standing a few people away, reached over people and in a hurry yanked up my sleeve and showed me how to clutch it up to my palm with my thumb.

I was humiliated. I felt like I had shown up naked. I felt like I was filthy and improper. These 3 inches of wrist, showing in a women's section, had almost led to the breakdown of all that is moral and proper. But why was this man looking at me?!?!

No problem, I rolled my eyes and kept going. I got up on my tiptoes, being careful to clutch my chador against my chest with one hand and holding my sleeve up AND snapping pictures with my other hand. Eventually, hand number one had to go help hand number two to keep steady as I peered up at the screen, and again, gravity and my innate desire to be naked caused my chador to slip off my head onto my shoulders. I don't think I thought anything of it, because well, it was all black, it was night time, and I was in the women's section. I felt another smack, this time on my head, and I was so confused. It had to have been a joke. Even most of my forehead was covered, so what was I getting in trouble for now?

So I turned around again (as did everyone in a 15 foot radius because people LOVE looking here) and again, he refused to look at me... looked above and past me and muttered something. Quickly, two ladies who had been making conversation with me reached over together and lifted my chador back up over my head and gave it to me to clutch tightly under my chin.

My Persian is limited, but I said loudly enough for people to hear that chador is NOT Islamic, it's Iranian culture and I'm wearing Islamic hijab, and why is he looking at me anyway?! One of the ladies said apologetically "Iran is hard, especially Qom. Qom is bad."

Okay. This is disjointed and not smooth. I just can't seem to put this all in a nice and flowing way because all this negativity is obstructing the flow. The shrine incident was annoying and eventually that night, I laughed it off. Why? Because, thank the Fates and the Good Lord, I don't have to live in this Godforsaken place permanently. Okay. Godforsaken is harsh. But I've just about had it with being held responsible for the accident of being born with a vagina and breasts. The last few months, and especially the last 2 weeks, have really taken a toll. It's one thing after another.

I have a lot of simmering resentment from the past 6 months, but I feel that in a way, it goes way beyond just the past 6 months into a whole lifetime of how Islam has been interpreted and implemented, particularly for women.

In Shiraz, I couldn't go into another shrine without a chador. Fine, I rented a used icky one and went in. In another sightseeing only mosque, I saw a European woman tourist come out with a half hijab and a long-ish button down shirt and pants. As AliBauble and I paid for our tickets to go in, the man told me chador was compulsory, so he handed me one he had sitting in there. Okay, I JUST saw a woman NOT wearing a chador come out of the mosque so clearly it's not compulsory. I just kept quiet and took it.

This whole time, I had my head, neck and entire body covered with fabric, and only my hands and face were showing, as is the requirement. Don't worry though, because although I must abide by Iranian law (though I'm a foreigner with an American passport), we still payed "khaariji" or foreigner prices for everything.

Okay. More to follow eventually. For now, here are pictures from the 9th of Muharram, on February 8th, 2006:

Above, notice where our barricade begins and how much space is behind the men. They could have moved it up a little more without causing the breakdown of society's moral fabric. I think though, women being as persistent as they are, eventually they started trying to creep forward. Kudos to the women here, many tend to argue and find little ways of defying annoying rules.

Flags, people.

Red Crescent volunteers; a few men passed out in the "mosh pit" area from heat exhaustion or emotion or.. something and had to be carried out. This "stage" (under the black banner) is also where all the groups from the different countries and organizations rotated in and paused to perform/chant/mosh.

One of many standards that people carried, several were lit with fire but it was hard to get good pictures.

The Iranian flag featured prominently along with all the other religious paraphernalia.

I got a bunch of videos too... those were especially good to give a feel for the "festive" atmosphere... chaotic and frenzied and passionate with loud pounding drums and cymbals. I can understand why people look forward to these 10 days every year.


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