Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Muharram Day 1

Hello and Salaam Everyone,

The Islamic month of Muharram has begun today and some of our readers have mentioned that they would like to know what Muharram is like in Iran.

Why is Muharram important? Because back in 680 CE the Prophet Muhammad's beloved grandson Hussein, and a small band of Hussein's family and close associates were massacred in the desert of Karbala (in Iraq) by the troops of Yazid, the claimant to leadership of the Muslim community. Thus Shia Muslims mourn this event every year (as do/did many Sunni Muslims), starting with the first of Muharram and culminating on the 10th, when Hussein was killed (though there are certain commerations and events related to these events that occur after the 10 days are over).

Here are some good links about Muharram in general:

A variety of articles on the events of Karbla, including some very interesting acticles by Western academics, like Annemarie Schimmel (

Another common practice during this time is to listen to religious lectures which also include lessons about the day's events in the history of Karbala. My favorite site for these is found below, where the speakers tend to be intellectuals and academics. This year's speaker, Dr. Ali Shomali is from Qom and looks very interesting (

Personally, I am not very fond of the ritualized mourning. I think it is vital to recount the events of Karbala and to mourn, but the standardized, group mourning isn't necessarily my thing. Some of my thinking about this comes from the works of the late Dr. Ali Shariati (incidently, the teacher of my teacher):

Red Shi`ism, Black Shi`ism (
After Shahadat (

As for specifics about Muharram in Iran, so far not much seems to have changed. Unlike, say, Pakistan, where the drama of identity politics plays out on a grand scale between Shi`is and Sunnis in things like dress--with Shi`is buying and wearing new, all black outfits for Muharram--Shi`is in Iran do wear black, or bits of black, but people here don't buy new or special clothes, just whatever they have that's black. And it's not head-to-toe black, but more a theme of black to indicate mourning. Who's not wearing black? Mullahs, who are wearing whatever robes they normally do; manual laborers; various students at the university; and ladies under their (everyday black) chadors, seem to be wearing whatever colored clothes they normally wear.

Other signs that it's Muharram include some black banners hung along the streets or outside of some shops. Below is a shot of Mofid Square looking towards the direction of our apartment. You'll see that the large flags that normally fly the color green (the color of the Prophet and his family) are black , and there are some other black flags spaced out down the road.

Below is an interesting bit of religious-political art. You'll note the traditional painting of the women of Hussein's camp mourning over the return of his horse (Zuljinah) from the battlefield, without Imam Hussein. Glommed on to the picture is Ayatollah Khomeini and the current leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. It's even more intriguing if you've read UT Austin professor's Kamran Scot Aghaie's "The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi`i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran" (

More details to come over the days as we find things of interest!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Religion and Politics, Never Gets Old

The two "taboo" topics are two of my favorites, so here we go with another round. Much more "politics" than "religion" this time. Once again, "In The Axis" gets is right. A worthwhile and brief read for all.

And BTW, the hot spot when I was in Cairo was the Pizza Hut across the street from the AUC. And yes, it was about as nice as Brian's description of the McDonalds--more of a sit down atmosphere than fast food. Of course, nothing in Egypt is better than a big bowl of koshari with hot sauce, lemon sauce, and water from the communal pitcher on the table (bring your own Immodium).


Political Tremor

The McDonald's in Cairo's upscale Mohandiseen area (upscale for Cairo anyway) attracted the rich, the Westernized, the youth. This fast-food outlet was complete with a uniformed doorman who would rush to light cigarettes dangling from customers' lips. It was the place to be seen.

I visited there during my stay in Egypt a few years ago with my friend and roommate Muhammed Heiko Moss, a tall and thoroughly aryan-looking fellow, who had a Tunisian step-father and a German mother who loved all things Japanese. He had a charisma that enabled him to strike up a chat with anyone, and I met such interesting people when he was around. One afternoon we came across eight Palestinian guys who were enjoying coffee while being seen at McDonald's. They were students at a Cairo technical school, and in the course of the conversation we spoke about life back in the Occupied Territories. After listening to their litany of complaints, I asked if any of them had lost any family members in the conflict.

They laughed and shrugged their shoulders. Every one of them had at least one family member killed in gunfights, bombings, prison 'accidents' and other forms of Israeli-Palestinian violence. During my time in the Middle East, I have met countless Palestinians in nearly every country I have visited and heard story after story of unmitigated violence and humiliation. Syria hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing -- there is no other way to put it than that.

(read the rest here:

Thursday, January 26, 2006


So we've been here about 2.5 months and there seem to be no signs of interest in AliBob's presence dying down.

A few days back, Dr. Elahi came over while I was teaching my class and apparently, someone from the BBC had been doing something at Mofid and wanted to interview AliBob.

The reporter is an Iran News Analyst (not just a regular journalist) for BBC World Service and is doing a story on Islam and Modernity, particularly in Qom. So he came over, along with Mr. Fazl and Dashti (AliBob's tutor... his name is AliG but we call him Dashti) and I, as usual made lame tea and we served them fruit.

Then Mr. Saba, the reporter, went with AliBob into another room and interviewed him privately with a big old microphone. It's for a radio program. AliBob said the interview seemed very professional and he asked interesting questions.

Meanwhile, I hung out in the living room with Mr. Fazl and Dashti and they asked me things like the difference between "work" and "job", "state" and "government", "statesman" and "government man". I answered as best I could...based on how I feel the words tend to be used. I'm wondering if, in the past 2 months, I have managed to recreate English incorrectly for the people here... explaining things that I really should leave up to the experts and textbooks.

Anyway, Mr. Saba had an awesome voice, deep and compelling... perfect for radio. I got a picture of them all.. AliBob and his boys.. from left to right it's Mr. Saba, AliBob, Mr. Fazl, Dashti:

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Birthday Celebration

So today is my baby sister's 19th birthday. Happy Birthday Ayesha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We miss her tons and she's like our adoptive child... really.. she is... we rented a hotel room in Washington D.C. 2 New Years ago for a few nights and she was right there with us... on our romantic getaway for 3. She makes everything more fun and she and AliBob always gang up on me and make fun of me.. but that's okay, because then AliBob and I gang up on her.. and of course, she and I gang up on him. It's a perfect symbiosis.

We were there for all her big days... being born (well I was, not AliBob), moving her into college, the boring court thing for her driver's license, her high school graduation, her college orientation for "parents".. although we cheated and left the lectures to go eat. I remember doing her homework when she was little, mostly because I was such a nerd that I enjoyed it, going to her basketball games, watching her first steps, changing diapers, having her be an obnoxious copy cat when I was trying to assert my independence as a 13 year old and I had this "tail" attached to me everywhere I went that also tattle taled to our mom about everything I said or did.

But.. we made it through that unsavory time when she was a brat and no one knew it but me (because she played the goody goody innocent child around everyone else) and now, I'm proud to say that she's my partner in the following crimes: listening to horrible music that we'd never admit we love but we love it and know all the words and even have some choreographed dances to said music; watching horrible trashy tv shows while we both add our quite colorful commentary and turn a trashy show into a work of comic genius; watching and making fun of Indian movies.. we're willing to put the hours in to actually sit through a whole film just so we can hate it; have ugly cheesy dances that are known to make people gag and turn away in horror and disgust; staying in our ratty pajamas all day long for days on end and not understanding why people think we should change into something else; going to the mall (we *detest* going to the mall) and actually managing to have fun while we go through our list of mall chores; eating chocolate tall cakes from Ruby Tuesday (except I get fat and she gets skinnier); and other unmentionable crimes; having her be more like the big sister and me be more like the little sister; spending many a boring lonely New Year not being allowed to do anything fun but knowing that at least we'd be bitter and resentful together (as our brother went out to such cool things like a U2 concert).

Anyway. Somehow she wormed her way into our heart.. like a hagfish burrows into fish corpses and she's there for good.

To celebrate her birthday, AliBob and I decided to go run errands. Yes, the excitement is truly overwhelming.

We took pictures of a bunch of random stuff, which I will try and post on here.
As we walked down towards the bazaars at the city center, we got a pic of the shrine:

So anyway, I did meet someone today who does not like Sunnis, and he said so. He was actually a kind and talkative young man, a helpful shopkeeper as well, and he asked if AliBob was a Shia so we both nodded yes and I suppose maybe he assumed we both were Shia. So then he went on about how Qom has no Sunnis and that's good and that if someone is Shia he likes them, but if someone is Sunni he doesn't like them. I smiled politely and nodded and went along because I just hoped he wouldn't find out I was Sunni because that would just be awkward for us all.

I didn't much mind. He hears of Shias being killed, so of course he might harbor some dislike of Sunnis. It was more uncomfortable than anything... but AliBob apologized to me for it later on and he said.. "now you know how it feels when I sit at dinner parties and have random men talk negatively about Shias (because most people back home don't really know AliBob is a Shia Muslim) and I just smile and nod politely." True.

The shopkeeper also said America is horrible and "we Iranians don't like America" (although the more I talk to people, the more I see a variety of opinions, from negative to positive to not knowing either way) and he said that he hopes one day America is destroyed. To this, I told him that America is a good country, and we love America and our family is there and Americans are very good people and just the government is bad. He agreed that yes, the American people are good. He still hopes that America's government is destroyed.

Despite my dislike of American foreign policy and even some domestic policy, I still can't hope for the destruction of its government because, well, good does come out of it and I love my constitution with its lovely bill of rights. I suppose that after moving around all over the world, I've finally found a place that I can really call home.

So as we went on in the bazaar, we went to the back end and it opened into a little alley that reminisces much more of an old bazaar street in a middle eastern country. There were lots of Iraqis here... there's one walking away!

I saw a disturbing number of sheep heads and other organs displayed nicely and it's times like these that the case for vegetarianism makes itself for me... and, at the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, sheep are so cute! The lamb meat here is also very fatty and chewy so that, of course, makes me less inclined to eat it, not being a big fan of fat and gristle and slimy stuff. Anyway, it always makes me sad to actually see what I eat... I, like most people, prefer not to know where my food came from, lest I have an inevitable attack of conscience.

We got much needed spices and red lentils (masoor daal) which are my lifeline, along with some other foodstuffs I've been needing since we got here and didn't have (garlic powder, baking soda, chapatti flour). We got a picture of where we usually get our IndoPak goods, along with the Afghan shopkeeper and his son. They are good people.

We had a falafel sandwich and curried potato sambusas (dripping in oil and absolutely delicious) at a stall and learned that the shopkeepers are Iraqi cousins who have been living in Iran for almost 20 years. They are fluent in both Arabic and Persian. When asked where we were from, we told them America and one of them said something along the lines of "the ones who are taking our country". It was joking but we still made sure they knew that one is all our government and not us and we apologized. We had a good conversation and they seemed to be honest people so that was good.

There are a lot of Iraqis in Iran. Shias were persecuted by Saddam so many of them fled to Iran where they're welcomed because, while Iraqis and Arabs are still mistrusted from the Iran-Iraq war, these are linked by their Shiism and their siding against Saddam and with Iran.

AliBob and I realized how horrible our Arabic has become, and, with our Persian learning, our Arabic is that much worse because we seem to be unable to distinguish between the two when we talk so we have a perfect mix of Persiabic. On the bright side, the shopkeeper said that for being here 2 months, our Persian was great, so that's nice.

Some entertaining things along the way:

"Ayatollahs" going into a mosque, can it get any more stereotypical than this? Oh yes, if maybe they were burning an American flag, chanting and holding big containers that said "Enriched Uranium for Weapons Making". They're so cute, these little mullahs.

Roadside weighing-- for those times when you are walking along and suddenly realize you have a compelling need to know your weight then and there.. jump on a scale for a small fee and find out so you can have peace of mind for the rest of your day. Bring your friends and make it an impromptu weighing party.

This must be their version of graffiti. Or entertainment. There were several of these murals along this wall, all pseudo-Disney themed (Tom and Jerry, Pluto, Goofy, Mickey and Minnie). Interesting and colorful

I saved the best for last. This is funny, if nothing else. So there are three flags painted on this road, it's a very heavily travelled square as it's at the city center. They are the British, American and Israeli flags and I only noticed them today, when AliBob pointed them out to me. I suppose that's the Iranian version of scoffing in the West's general direction... driving aggressively over the flags, and anyone else who gets in your way, for that matter.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Calling Cards

Hi Everyone,

Just a quick public service announcement. Many of our friends and family, especially those not used to calling overseas, have been asking about calling cards to Iran.

There are lots of options out there, and probably any international calling card (usually available at markets/stores with immigrant clientele) will work. But I did see this link at the top of an online Persian dictionary I sometimes use:

I looked at the card info and it seems quite good. In general, don't just look for the cheapest per minute rate, but make sure there are no extra fees (connection fees, maintenance fees) and look for rounding to the minute or less, rather than for rounding that will eat up your minutes.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Middle East Bloggers, Unite!

Hi All,

We've posted about my friend Brian's blog before ("In the Axis"--about his time in Syria) and again I'm going to crosspost something he wrote there. His analysis of Iran is spot on and I'd been meaning to write something similar for awhile now, but he beat me to it.

Since we've got Iran and Syria covered, we just need to find an American blogging in Iraq and we'll have fully reconstituted the "Axis of Evil" on the 'net. If we can get someone in Lebanon too, then we will have created the virtual "Shia Crescent" that some "leaders" in the region are worried about.


January 15, 2006

Middle East Bloggers, Unite!

I first started posting to this blog with the idea that I could share day to day experiences in Syria with people back home. The people of Berks County and the people of the broader United States get a healthy dose of the Middle East on the TV and in the newspaper, for sure. But the countries we read about in the news are not made of terrorists, bombings, and other unsavory news events. They are made of ordinary people, people who share most of our needs, expectations, joys, and fears. It sells newspapers, boosts television ratings, and makes self-serving politicians happy for us to believe otherwise, but such commercial and political interests do not change basic human realities.

One country that has been demonized in our media to the point of caricature is Iran. The scowling and heavy-browed countenance of Ruhollah Khomeini has been conflated with the entire Iranian nation, and Iran now embodies the very essence of evil in our peculiar American comic-book style pandaemonium. Yet Iran, as I have written, is one of the most sophisticated countries in the Middle East, and the antidote to the virulent forms of Islamism we see today may in fact lie in the very Iranian clerical classes that we now demonize.

Iran is a cultural, political, and scientific powerhouse in the region, and it would behoove us to kiss and make up once and for all. Israel, to a great extent, is yesterday, but Iran is tomorrow, and it is time American policy makers adjust our 'special relationship' accordingly. We have a choice between a resource-poor pseudo-democracy of five million who spend over two billion unaccounted dollars of our tax money annually to make much of the world hate us, and a rising oil-wealthy juggernaut of 70 million who we have made mortal enemies mainly because they dared crawl from underneath our boot.

The Iranians make darned good kebabs as well, I should mention.

Enough about what I think. The purpose of this entry is to direct your attention to the site of my friends and fellow American Mideast bloggers Robert and Sara, who are staying in the very heart of the Axis of Evil, in the holy city of Qom, Iran. Robert is doing doctoral research there, Sara is exploring like mad, and they are keeping an excellent and descriptive blog of their experiences in this fascinating country.

Check it out!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Celebrate Good Times... come on.

Eid-e-Ghadir Mubarak to everyone! The tradition is to buy sweets the night before (which is actually a common tradition for most holidays, to go buy sweets on the eve of the holiday), and on the day of, we’re supposed to go visit Sayyeds, people who are descendants of the Prophet and they give you money. It's also a day to do good works and all that.

These are the sweets AliBob brought home yesterday afternoon… I had the last one for breakfast today. By the time I took this picture, 10 minutes after he brought them home, I had already eaten a roll. I think I have found my hidden talent… the ability to find junk food anywhere in the world and fatten myself up on it.

I went to teach my class as usual last night, and while I was gone, AliBob said there were fireworks and he tried to get a few pictures of those. I thought I''d heard weird booms all day and I just assumed it was construction or something. Fireworks make more sense. I think there may have been some fireworks for last week's Eid too, now that I think about it. Anyway, I’m putting up the most decent one. We liked the shape of it, and it looks much like Islamic calligraphy, with long parallel staffs shooting out of a cloud of loops and curls that could be script. The two parallel squigglies at the top look like they could be almost spelling out "Muhammad" in Arabic. They're not, but they look like it anyway.

After class, the girls and I decided that we would go visit my student Sedigheh’s place this afternoon, since her mother is a Sayyed, which makes her a Sayyed. Interestingly, Sedigheh said she’s only a half Sayyed, since it is her mother and not her father who is the Sayyed. So while she is a Sayyed, her children will not be, unless their father is a Sayyed.

I found it very odd since, especially in this case, lineage and blood should be passed on through the mother as much as the father and also the Shia tradition holds the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah to be in an extremely revered position in Islam. I told AliBob this and he said that although Islam traces lineage through the father, the case of the descendants of Muhammad is very interesting as they are traced through the daughter, since he had no sons that survived infancy.

My student, Sedigheh, stayed up late last night wrapping up coins in little decorative paper and folding currency into accordions and wrapping those up with ribbon. It’s not a lot of money, just a token gesture. They give those to all their visitors and, from what her father told AliBob as he visited with the men, some people keep the money for a whole year because it gives you “barakat” or blessings.

So we went to visit today with Fatemeh. They had sweets and snacks and tea waiting, as they had been having visitors since 11am. We had arranged to go at 3pm. Sedigheh also told me her younger brother had been practicing the few words of English he knows all morning so he could say them to AliBob. Cute. They also had the prettily wrapped money on a tray and they offered it to us, along with all the other snacks.

Fatemeh said you try not to spend this money, but if you do, it’s usually on something for a good cause. That this token money brings you blessings seems to be a unanimous conclusion, since it comes from the descendants of the Prophet.

I told Mrs. H and Sedigheh that they must feel so special, being Sayyeds, but Mrs. H, humble and gracious as all the others have been so far, said that it means nothing if her own actions aren’t good. She may have had good forefathers, but she doesn’t benefit from it... it's up to her to do good herself and to be a better person. Her father has their family tree, which traces them all the way back to Imam Moosa Kazim, the 7th Imam. That's over a thousand years of geneology. Impressive.

I know I’ve said it before, but it's amazing how these people have such good character and humility and they really don’t rest on their laurels at all, be they academic, social, ancestral, or spiritual. Their husbands tend to be clerics, having achieved at least the lowest rank, Hojjat-ul-Islam, before going off to pursue their secular education. They all accept their humble lifestyles with joy and gratitude for the blessings they have in their lives. I've seen it reflected in all the ladies here, in the way they speak and carry themselves. I hope something of it all rubs off on me... some patience and contentment and humility and simplicity.

Anyway, here’s the picture of the money AliBob and I got, a coin and a bill. It was a special day today and I was glad to be able to be a part of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Man Kuntu Mawlahu fa `Aliyyun Mawlahu

"For whomever I am his leader, Ali is his leader" ~The Prophet Muhammad.

Today is `Eid al Ghadeer, the day the above Hadith (Prophetic narration) was revealed after Muhammad's last pilgrimage during his life. This narration is recorded widely in both Shi`i and Sunni books, but it's understanding varies tremendously, as do its implications for both groups.

Needless to say, it is a holiday here in Iran, with banners and signs up all around town.

I'm not much for proselytizing. Perhaps that's due to the incessant stream of Jehovah's Witnesses that kept ringing the doorbell of my childhood home or the hilarious/frightening Jack Chick tracts people used to hand out. But in the interest of discussion and exploration, I am posting a few links, for the intersted and intellectually curious, about this important topic.

The first gives a detailed overview of the event from the Shi`i perspective. I wish more people who criticize Shi`is would at least get to this part, where they learn about their reasons, beliefs, and arguments for this stance (or any other points of difference) before they try to write everything off as "innovation", "error", and other even less savory things. One should at least know accurately the perspective of the other before offering a critique...

Even more interesting, from my view anyway, is the next link. Written by the great Shi`i scholar Ayatullah Morteza al Mutaharri (who our street is named after, by the way), it is an exploration as to how the event of Ghadeer can actually aid in Sunni-Shi`i unity and understanding. Anything that leads to that end ought to be required reading for the believers...

Finally, anybody that wants to gain a deeper understanding of Islamic history and the claims and support for the view that Muhammad designated Ali as his successor must read Wilfred Madelung's book below. Though his conclusion as to why Ali was unsuccessful in making his claim (and in retaining his Caliphate) will not satisfy any believer, the historical evidence he provides about the succession to Muhammad (and culled mostly from Sunni sourcess) needs to be considered by all Muslims. Not to say it will necessarily convince a Sunni of the Shi`i case, but it points out a number of historical "pious fictions" that must be addressed and accounted for somehow.

~Irfan Ali

Once you go black...

So there is so much to talk about... not one particular event, but so many little things that would make long rants. I'm already a "wordy b----", as my friend so aptly put it, and so what to do?

Let me make this a blog post of random things. First of all, as you all have noticed, it is equally a blog about Iran as it is about my domestic ineptitude, particularly in the kitchen. In that spirit, let me sort of quote something funny I saw on a britcom a few days ago: "Not being able to cook has its compensations. You can't become a bored housewife until you actually become a housewife." How true. So there goes my desperate housewife scenario.

Also, last month sometime, AliBob didn't tell you, but I will, he was interviewed by Mofid University's student run newsletter...or literary magazine...or something. This is significant not only because people are that interested and he's that special, but also because this particular publication won an award for being the best student run publication in Iran. I'm sure I should have capitalized something in that sentence, but I couldn't figure out what. Anyway, that's pretty cool.

They asked him questions like... "in one word, what is Islam? what is Iran? what is life?" and other meaning of life type questions. They also, as usual, asked him about his conversion to Islam. It's funny how people expect him to have profound answers to difficult questions right off the top of his head because he's the white foreigner. I think he did alright because this white foreigner *is* in fact smart and thoughtful.

A few weeks after that, we were interviewed by Mofid's public affairs magazine. They came to our place, 2 (female) student journalists and 1 (male) student photographer, along with Robertali's tutor, friend and translator, Ali G. We had tea and snacks (I'm pretty sure, no I know for a fact, that I made the Iranian tea incorrectly...because I learned later that night how to make it from the 11 year old Hanieh.)

They asked questions about his conversion, our opinions on Iran, America, Islam, society, etc. The girls were excited to hear about AliBob's and my "love story" as it were and then they said I'm very happy. It was kind of random, but I guess because I smile/laugh a lot when I'm nervous... and they took it to mean I'm just inordinately happy all the time.

The girls actually also asked me, interestingly enough, why I was wearing black. I wasn't sure what to answer. I had read somewhere that muted colors are better here, and that red is especially inappropriate, and we've all seen the Western media's portrayal of black chador-clad Iranian women. If I asked you what color comes to mind when you think of Iran, I'm sure black would be up there in your list of choices.
I happen to love black and find it practical for everything, especially since I didn't bring a lot of clothing and figured I should bring durable stuff that doesn't show signs of wear and dirt easily.

Turns out, other ladies would ask me this too as time went by. They all seemed to notice that I wear quite a bit of black. (I only have 2 pairs of pants here, both black, and black warmup pants and 1 black skirt. That's it.) I was genuinely surprised. They all seem to dislike black, think it's a sad deathly color that shouldn't be worn except for in chador. I pointed out to the ladies, as I had to the girls, that the chador is black. They all had similar responses. Chador is just something you throw on on top when you go out, but that doesn't matter, your clothes should have happy light colors.

So yeah, the ladies here really don't dig black as much as I would have thought. Of course they wear it, especially since black pants and coats are considered professional here too, but they don't really have that affinity for black that I do. I also have no sense of style, so black is foolproof.

Oh, also, I finally took pictures of our little grocery store, called Supermarket Valiasr. Here are the man who works there (Muhammad, left) and the man who owns it (also Muhammad, right). The other guy, Mortaza, who also runs it, wasn't there then. They love AliBob and in fact Mortaza introduced AliBob to his mother and wife, and we got a dinner invite from him too. The pic is blurred because we were in a rush and I have another one that's in focus, but not with both the men.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Amazing Women but Forlorn Sheep

So CNN recently mistranslated an Iranian speech that said that Iran should have the right to pursue "nuclear technology" or something similar as "nuclear weapons". Now, CNN reporters and journalists have been banned out of Iran. CNN apologized and all, but come on, that's an egregious error. When the whole crux of the debate and point of contention is just that, weapons vs. peaceful technology, and you translate it as weapons, that's just irresponsible.

I like BBC better anyway. More balanced, and you actually see real world news, the stuff that American media outlets, no matter how liberal or conservative, will never show you. It's just one of a myriad of examples of that air of arrogance that pervades America's self-inflated position in the world. Not that it's not important; it is very much so, but sorry if the rest of the world isn't falling at its feet in awe and reverence... you have to play nice.

Not sure how I feel about banning in general though. Not a big fan of censorship. It *is* funny that troublemaking Iran banned big ole' CNN though. I must say, I also can't stand how websites are banned here. Makes me livid. Especially when I'm surfing and hunting for random pieces of information and then that stupid page comes up and says something in Persian (I refuse to figure out what it says, I just recognize it as the stupid "prohibited page".)

Things that have been prohibited include: Dr. Weil's website,, several different sites with recipes for cooking TVP (textured vegetable protein), the CNN news story about the teenaged boy shot in Florida (because of the word "teen"), the Naked Chef website (even though it's cookery..), any site or pages (including the Google search results page) with the word "tattoo", and though not for us, but for someone else, University of Virginia's website was banned because "virgin" is in it. Lame.

We were invited to dinner tonight at Ali G's place, AliBob's tutor and friend. I met his wife at Mr. Fazl's place a few weeks back. She was all covered up and I barely got a look at her face last time. Tonight AliBob went to the formal living room which was cleverly separated from the ladies' section, where I was. We could still hear them talking clearly but we just couldn't see each other.

In addition to Mrs. G, also present were her mother, sister Yasaman (17 years old), and cousin Maryam (15 years old) there. Mrs. G, who is only 27 and very pretty, already has 2 kids, a master's degree in Fiqh (Religious Jurisprudence), and a job. Mrs. G started cooking at the age of 10. Her mother is only 50 and was married at 14, and had 8 kids. 4 of them died. I was horrified but they laughed at my horror and said it's normal for all the kids not to make it.

Mrs. G's sister won a competition in her hometown of Mashhad and got a chance to come to Qom to compete in the Olympiad. What's interesting is that though she was competing in English, that's actually not her area of study... she just happens to be good at it. She was very curious to know about America and our activities there. She herself is into sports, takes Tae Kwon Do, plays badminton, handball and a bunch of other stuff I forget. She also has a webcam and is really into chatting and techie stuff. I don't know why I'm surprised, I hardly think of Iranian women as oppressed and disadvantaged, but still... even I am always refreshingly surprised when I see these women with a chador tightly wound around them let loose and show their talents and accomplishments. Maybe I too, at some deeper level, equate covering up with some kind of lack of opportunity. I don't know.

Mrs. G's cousin, who is 15, is already married legally and doesn't look 15 at all. She's not living with her husband. What they do in Iran is that, to prevent illicit relations between men and women, they perform the marriage contract, which allows the girl and guy to go out and get to know each other without worrying about being inappropriate. If they like each other and are game, they then have a wedding party/reception to make it official and seal the deal. If not, they break it off so they can pursue other options. It's interesting and really works in this culture... and also, a broken 'contract' isn't looked down up on the way a divorce would be after the two have been living together as man and wife. This way, guys and girls still spend some time alone together and the girl's virtue and honor are preserved.

Maryam's engagement will last another 2 years before she marries. They all feel 15 is too young for marriage, but the bride and groom still need to know each other well before they marry... so 17 it is.

The food was amazing, as usual. There was talk of my having babies.. and I gave my usual answer.. "maybe in 10 years". Mrs. G's mother said that I should have a daughter so they can marry Mrs. G's 4.5 year old son to her. I was flattered that they'd want to marry their boy to our unborn halfbreed girl.

Their kids are gorgeous, a son, Mohammad who's 4.5 years old, and a daughter, Fatemeh, who's 2.5. Mohammad is a brilliant little boy who has amazingly clear diction and speaks *very* grammatically correct Persian. He also has read enough books (or memorized them from his parents reading to him) and enough poetry, that he now goes through his own picture books and creates poetry about the pictures as he goes along. I, not understanding much, could still hear him making the rhymes and vocab work. It was quite amazing. He loves poetry. Already.

Anyway, it was a *really* cold night and remember how I said there were no animals tied up for Eid? Well apparently, there was one sheep just randomly tied up in front of a restaurant. It was sad not only because he looked dirty, but it was also freezing and he stood there, still as death, with his head hanging kind of low. Good thing he had tons of wool on him, I guess. I tried to get a picture, but it was so dark and I didn't want to get in trouble. He saw the flash and looked towards us. Here's that pic where the sign nextdoor, ironically, says "Chelo Kabab", which is a kabab made from lamb.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Sunnis and Shias, Iranian nukes and American bullies... and CENSORSHIP

I had a very interesting class tonight. It was our first meeting since Eid, so we wished each other a Happy Eid and then the talked about how another big Eid is coming up... Eid ul Ghadir. It's going to be this Thursday. This is a very important Eid for Shia Muslims. AliBob will explain it in further detail.

Anyway, I didn't know it was coming up, even though I knew of it. So Mrs. Mirmohammadi said that AliBob probably knows and I said yes, but I'll tell him just in case he doesn't realize it's this Thursday. So the other ladies said, if he's Shia, he'll know, and then, noticing I didn't know about Eid al Ghadir they asked me if I was Shia or Sunni and I told them that I was Sunni.

They nodded understanding and proceeded to ask me about Sunni holidays. They asked, aside from the two Eids (Fitr and Adha) which ones do we have in Sunni tradition that are important. I had no idea. I didn't really grow up with any other Eids. Later on, AliBob told me that most Sunni countries celebrate the birthday of the Prophet. I think I may have when I was younger, but my family hasn't in years.

So we launched into a discussion of Shia and Sunni unity and they said that it's so weird to hear about Sunnis and Shias killing each other in Pakistan or Shias being picked on in other countries, since here in Iran, they're like brothers. They pray together, they live together, they stick up for each other. In fact, the Iranian government has been known to jail people who spread anti-Sunni propaganda, and it has banned their writings as well. I'm not saying there aren't Shias here who might not like Sunnis (can't always blame them either), but especially since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Shias and Sunnis here have coexisted in peace and harmony.

The ladies talked about how despite being Shia or Sunni, they have a common bond of being Muslims and if they were united, the Muslim world would be a lot more successful... and it also wouldn't be stuck under America and the West's thumb. How true... on both counts.

Also, parts of Iran have Sunnis in the majority and it hasn't caused any problems.

Anyway, it was fun, talking about it without insults or accusations or any of the rest of it. Let's hope Sunnis and Shias everywhere can learn a thing or two from Iran.

This leads me to my next point. The whole Nuclear Issue. No one is really a big fan of nuclear weapons... and I'm not going to argue that we should all be allowed to run around with h-bombs. What's annoying is that countries like the US and those in Western Europe are trying to tell everyone else how to conduct their business. It's unfair that all these countries pursue nuclear technology, whatever the reasons may be, and that the US is the only one that has actually used a nuclear weapon--twice-- and yet it still has the audacity to tell Iran that it's wrong.

The American government has done itself such a big disservice by alienating Iran. Iran has so much to offer, firstly things like vast reserves of oil, but also a more moderate and progressive Muslim voice... current leadership aside. The more the US pisses Iran off, the more standoffish the Iranian government will be. When was the last time the US allowed itself to be bullied by anyone? We are taught that bullies are bad, so why is it okay for the US government to bully its way through international relations?

That said, I'm not a fan of the official satus quo here*, and it seems that most people here aren't either. The silly "the holocaust never happened" bit really didn't help matters, to say the least. Another brilliant one was the banning of western music. People still play it, in fact, no one even takes this stuff seriously. I still see TV commercials with American songs, just without the words (most recently it was the instrumental muzak version of "Killing Me Softly").

But a country is a sovereign entity, and as such, has a right to do almost (short of the obvious no-no's like mass murder and any sort of injustice otherwise) whatever the hell it wants to do for the good of its own country. America does whatever it wants, and it allows its buddy countries to do what they want. Literally, America really does what it wants regardless of approval or disapproval from the international community, so again, why does America have the right to control what another country does? At least be the role model, will you??

Yes yes.. the world needs a babysitter and America is the self-appointed policing force, but is it any wonder that people all over don't trust America to be an objective policing force? It's not objective. Its hypocritical double standards and selective policy enforcing just undermine its credibility as anything other than evil, imperialistc and backstabbing.

Let's encourage democracy and rights for all while we whittle away at the rights of our own people. Let's sanction some bad governments and be best friends with other equally bad governments. Let's punish some people for violating UN resolutions while we look the other way when others violate the same resolutions. Let's spy on our own people without their knowledge or consent while babbling on about our right to privacy.

Anyway, what's most annoying is that if the American government paid attention, it would realize it's not all that hard to befriend Middle Eastern countries, especially Iran. In fact, what's interesting is that all Shia scholars, as far as we know, are unanimous in their ruling that nuclear weapons are not Islamically permissible because they inherently violate the ethics of warfare in Islam. Unless it's a matter of all of us being wiped off the face of the earth, there is no justifiable reason to conduct warfare against non-combattants.

Most Iranians are interested in the West and much of what it has to offer (except for the decadence, nudity and sexual promiscuity, I guess). They love Americans and are so curious and excited to know what Americans think of them and I'm always so embarrassed and apologetic when I have to tell them that Americans know nothing about them, and are more inclined to automatically dislike Iranians because of how the government is represented. They, being more discerning, reply that they don't like the American government but they still like Americans. I'm usually not sure how to respond so I just tell them that many Americans tend to be less educated than Iranians and in general are very unaware of the world that surrounds them and trust what their government and media tell them. The good news is that there are so many Americans who are more thoughtful and reflective, so that's always appreciated and a happy ending.

It looks like the US and its cronies have a particular dislike for Iran because it's not afraid of them. I appreciate it when a country doesn't cower under American domineering.. though I suppose I understand why sometimes, it just can't afford to stick up for itself. What's particularly ironic or funny or sad is that Bush and other world leaders are basically the same... 2 sides of one coin.. "you're with us or against us" types.

A result of 30 years of American sanctions here is that Iran has learned to be quite self sufficient, much like India and its long-time policy of self-reliance. They are able to sustain themselves and manufacture most of what they need internally... like polyurethane gloves for people with latex allergies. I know it's random, but I just found it so interesting.

There are lots of foreign (particularly European and Japanese) imports too, like L'Oreal, Pantene, Nivea, Gillette, etc. These, of course, cost a pretty penny, but they're available to those who want it. They have all the technology stuff available, as well as all kinds of kitchen appliances too... I made sure to check on the kitchen appliances bit.

Speaking of which, I have learned to live without a microwave. It's not that bad. In fact, it would be fine if I had more pots and pans in which to heat stuff up *and* cook.

*So I had included some blatant opinions on certain world leaders and my dear hubby unposted my post because apparently here, bloggers whose opinions aren't in line with the party sogan tend to be jailed. So, in order to ensure that AliBob will be able to continue with his research without any unpleasantness, I have modified/removed some of my comments.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Holy Shrine

Last night after I got home from being 'fitted' for my chador, I came home and my darling Alibobert had cleaned up the place because we were having the Elahis over for tea.

I was supposed to make this amazing Pakistani style tea and wow them but it didn't quite work that way. The tea was *okay*, although AliBob said he loved it. Not sure how excited the Elahis were about it, but they were polite and drank it all. We also had snacks and stuff, and the Elahis had also brought several sweets over. They always outdo themselves.

So yeah, so much for being an amazing Paki hostess. At least I didn't screw up the fruit and we all enjoyed those. I forgot to take pictures of our little tea party. As always, we had a good time. They're such good fun.

Tonight, I went with Fatemeh, the Khanum, and Dr. Elahi to the Holy Shrine for the first time since I've been in Iran. It was great.

Okay, to readers who aren't Muslim, you might not understand how much contention there can be between Sunni Muslims and Shia (Or Shii) Muslims. In Pakistan they're killing each other, in Iraq, non Iraqi Sunnis (the ones who're being terroristy in general) are coming into Iraq and killing Shias.
In general, a lot of Sunni Muslims don't like Shias and don't even consider Shias to be Muslims. Some tolerate them, others don't and pass this hostility onto their kids and so forth. Of course, this hostility goes both ways, but I feel like if Sunnis weren't so mean to Shias, the latter wouldn't retaliate. It also differs from country to country. Iranian Shias, perhaps because they are safe in their Shia country, tend not to be anti Sunni or even concern themselves with the whole Sunni-Shia divide. We're all Muslims and that's good enough. In Pakistan, amongst many, I see a lot more hatred of and attacks on Shias and Shia retaliation by hating and attacking Sunnis too. I don't know, maybe it's the mentality of an oppressed people?

So Iran is a Shiite country. I think by now, everyone here knows I'm Sunni. At first, when people were finding out, I was embarrassed and didn't want it to be awkward and I didn't want them to hate me or dislike me or give me a hard time or give AliBob a hard time for marrying a Sunni.
Oddly enough, everyone knows I'm Sunni and it doesn't seem to matter to them. There's no shock, no ill feelings... there's just acceptance without judgment. They still share their Shia beliefs with me, are willing to teach me things I don't know and ask me excitedly if I have visited the Holy Shrine yet and that I really should because it's their source of pride and joy.

I wonder what a more fire and brimstone Sunni would say to them... "We think what you do is a sin. You don't follow real Islam. Your shrine-visiting ways are borderline blasphemous."

Whatever. I'm touched by their willingness to share their most precious site with me.

So I went to the Shrine, not knowing what to expect or how I would feel. I told Fatemeh honestly I felt stupid and I'd make a fool of myself and I wouldn't fit in and I didn't know what to do. She said no problem, no one will even know you're not one of them. Fatemeh and Khanum lent me one of their chadors. It was my first time actually being out and about in chador, and while I found it unwieldy and oftentimes a pain, I *love* the element of anonymity it brings. People just thought I was Iranian.

I tried taking pictures but they're forbidden so I snuck a few anyway. The lighting was too low to get a good photo of the insides but I'll post what I got.
First of all, it wasn't what I had expected. It's a huge area, this Holy Shrine of Hazrate Masoomeh. It has a huge courtyard with fountains and several entrances, and a new wing added on with a huge open room with marble floors and pillars and ceilings with some calligraphy in plaster.. (reminded me of Grand Central in NYC or Union Station in DC). There are several chambers and just lots and lots of room for people to pray or meditate or people-watch or sit with their families and hang out. You drop your shoes in a bag and can carry them around with you or drop them off at one of many (ours was #11) shoe storage cubbies behind a counter.

The room where the shrine is located is actually not that big. It is decorated with cut mirrors (much like the other shrine we went to for Dr. Elahi's uncle's 40th) and blue painted tiles and calligraphy. The floors are all marble but there are areas where big persian rugs are scattered for people to sit on. The women's area is separate from the men's area by a half wall so the shrine sits squarely in between the two so that both genders can visit and have a look inside. I think AliBob posted a picture he found of the shrine.

Women were crying and touching the the shrine and praying fervently. Some people visit from very far away just for this one chance. There were women from all over. Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Tajiks, Mongols, etc. I felt weird touching the shrine, like a poser, and I wasn't sure what to feel or say. That was the most awkward part for me, I suppose, trying to feel something or some connection to it and actually believing that the Masoomah would hear what I had to say, but it was hard because this was never a part of how I was raised. I'm also kind of a cynic. It did remind me of the Catholic shrines you hear of where miracles happen and people go and pray to local saints. Though here, we didn't have any candles.

So I told the Masoomah that if she was there and could hear me (not sure how likely that is, since there were SO many people and I could barely hear myself think or talk) and had time, she could help me instill in myself a healthy respect for a tradition like shrine visiting. Hah.

To be fair, part of what made it hard for me to get in the mood was all the pushing and shoving. It's normal to people here, and in fact, even to most Pakistanis, but I suppose being raised abroad, I never grew up with pushing and shoving as part of my culture. It was always politely waiting your turn and all that. It really really really annoys me to no end, this shoving and pushing and knocking around.

I'm sure you've all read the news about the stampede that happened in Mecca and killed all those people. It happens almost every year and it makes me livid, not to mention embarrassed. How can people be so devoted and pious and God-loving/God-fearing (not the same thing, in my opinion) and completely forget the most basic principle of being kind to God's creation and your fellow man. How does rude shoving and pushing and anger and hitting mesh with anything good and beautiful and loving? It doesn't. There are no exuses. I don't care how pious you are, how devoted you are, how much fervor there is to fulfill God's will, how little time you have left in life, how long it took you to get here.. blah blah.. none of those are a good enough excuse to forget basic decency and good character and act like barbarians. I mean, can a Muslim imagine Prophet Muhammad being like that in his devotion? Again, where are the ethics?

So I did do the touching and I did a couple of kisses for good measure and so I would fit in totally, but then I just slipped out afterward. I also feel like if the place is imbued with the spirit of this amazing saintly woman who died here, then I don't *have* to touch the metal frame around her tomb to benefit... I could just soak up the vibes pervading the whole space.

I told Fatemeh about the shoving and she said you just have to push back but I explained that I find that so rude and sometimes painful if I get hit that I refuse to do it to other people. She understood but said that everyone pushes, so everyone knows to push back and no one minds. In my mind, it just has no place in a spiritual setting.. or anywhere else, for that matter.

So anyway, despite my inability to connect at the actual structure surrounding the tomb, it was still touching to see the emotion around me and I actually loved all the rest of it, sitting down, reading out of a prayer book in privacy, thinking. Everyone is sitting together and yet we are all in our own private space. I took advantage of having my chador pulled low over my face so I wouldn't have to worry about schooling my features around other people. I'm still self conscious. I thought of family and friends and I hope good things all come your way.

I also like that even though women's and men's spaces were segregated, there were big areas for them to worship and meditate and just be together while in a sacred space, so it did make it more family friendly.

I've decided I want to go back again. It really was something else.

And now, for the pictures, poor in quality as they may be.

This is Fatemeh and me (in chador!) right outside the entrance for the actual shrine room. The Khanum took this picture standing in the courtyard. The entrance is marked by that big green velvet curtain. In fact, if you peek inside, that thing you see straight ahead inside is the actual tomb and surrounding structure.

This one below, though blurry, is a look into one of the prayer/meditation chambers (it's the Imam Khomeini room) off the main great hall in the new wing. Those ceilings and walls are done up in mirror and the bottom half is marble. It's blurry because both Fatemeh and I had our hands on the camera and were trying to snap it superquick.

Here, I was hiding behind Fatemeh's shoulder so I could get a decent snap of something... anything. There are people sitting at the doorways with rainbow colored dusters ready to tap people who are transgressing the rules and I didn't want the guy sitting at this doorway to see me. Anyway, this is another chamber for the men. Or maybe it's a passage through to the shrine room.

Dr. and Mrs. Elahi and me (I'm on the left, can you tell?!?!) in the courtyard. Apparently it wasn't that crowded because the busiest days are Wednesday and Thursday nights, but for a Friday night, there were lots of people in my opinion.. a few hundred or so. It was just SO cold that most of the people were inside.

Us ladies in front of one of the entrance/exit arches. Which one am I?!


Thursday, January 12, 2006

So back to the same old same old.

So it turns out that our Eid last night wasn't very happening at all. There was no fanfare, no crowds, nothing really out of the ordinary. In fact, I even had my English conversation class on Wednesday night, and when I told the girls (it was just 3 of us total) that they could cancel if they wished, they said no no, this class is fun. Yes, I am *that* fantastic a teacher. :) J/k.. it's just girls chatting so it is actually quite fun.

Anyway I asked the girls if this is how Eid always was and they said yes, pretty much. They call family and friends and maybe go visiting a little, but not much else. Interestingly enough, I also learned that several of their family members do in fact slaughter animals for the sacrifice but there was still no overt indication of it being a holiday around this area, ie no animals spotted.

Oh speaking of which, (yes, I'm about to digress) since we've come here, we actually haven't seen *any* farm animals running around. I was expecting donkeycarts and horsecarts, sheep and cows here and there crossing the street, lots of chickens running around or in cages on the streets.. but no. Nothing. I think there are 4 or 5 chickens and ducks that belong to a household so they're like pets (except when one mysteriously disappears every so often) but nothing else. No animal dung on the streets.. no braying of donkeys. There are some stray cats you see slinking around, and at night sometimes you can hear dogs howling... but they seem to scatter during the day. They must hide out in the mountains. Sigh, I'm being cheated of my 3rd world experience. If I wanted clean streets and fam animal-free neighborhoods, I would have stayed in the Virginia suburbs. Actually, we had cows and horses where I lived in Virginia, so really the comparison is moot.

So anyway, back to Eid here in Iran. They all get one day off from school and work, which is odd. Overall, I'm surprised that in a Muslim country and in such a religious city, it didn't feel like one of the most important Islamic holidays, and people here only get 1 day off instead of the usual 3 or 4. Innnnteresting.

Apparently, the Persian New Year, Noruz, is what replaces all other celebrations as the biggest thing. It lasts 10 or 13 days or something like that, and that's when people are off from school and work and people try and fly into Iran from abroad to celebrate with their families and it's just one long celebration.

Some of the ladies, being more religious, had expressed a certain embarrassment and regret that Noruz overshadows the Eids, but they explained that during the Shah's time, he eleveated every Persian holiday to boost nationalism and cultural pride, and he downplayed Islam and, at least in terms of days off and celebrations, the trend seems to have stuck.

No worries, because from what I've noticed here, people are able to balance culture and religion pretty well. They love their Persian/Zoroastrian holidays and celebrations and are incredibly proud of it all, but it doesn't seem to conflict with their absolute devotion and piety as Muslims. So more power to them for having that many more holidays and enjoying them all.

Apparently there was a lot of very good Eid programming on TV. I suppose if I had watched Persian channels and understood them, I would feel more Eid-y. As it were, the Pakistani channel (PTV Prime) had lots of Eid programming too so I watched a bit of that. It was some boring music show in Lahore where all the songs sound the same, but I like the sound of bhangra music so I enjoyed. I also got to laugh at the cheesy dance moves, at the very poor sound and at the camera and programming glitches and awkward hosting by the MCs.

Oh, and we took a self portrait for Eid last night. I told him at least we should have one pic of the holiday. The green shalwar qameez (Paki loose-pant long-tunic garb) AliBob is wearing is the same one he wore on his birthday. His clothing of choice and comfort is shalwar qameez... what a Paki wannabe! We call it his special occasion ensemble, also known as his pyjamas. And don't be fooled, though it may look like I always wear the same gray t-shirt, this one is, in fact, a different one. The other finally got washed after a few weeks of accumulating body soil. Mua ha. Ha.

That's all we had on Eid. Snow and each other. We always have a good time together.

Anyway, the snow continued into the night and, lo and behold, today it had stuck, but only on the mountains. It's still weird for me to see snow in the desert, but whatever. The other thing seems to be rain. In the past few weeks it has rained on several days--not a heavy rainfall, but more like a constant pitter patter drizzle through the night. I'm annoyed that it feels so undeserty. I love rain. How dare it ruin my exotic Iranian desert adventure experience by raining AND snowing? I can't handle many more of my stereotypes, prejudices and preconceived notions being shattered. If I'd wanted a wet snowy winter, I'd just go back to Virginia. We'll just chalk it up to winter.

Today, Fatemeh invited me over to her place because she got a snow day. In Qom, a couple of centimeters does the trick and school is off. So we hung out and ate sweets and then Dr. Elahi came over and the 3 of us ate lunch together. It was ghormeh sabzi and it was *really* good... similar to the Pakistani palak gosht.

Then later on this evening, when the Khanum came home from work (yes, it was her first official day as she opened the doors of her private law practice) and we walked over to a seamstress's place so she could measure me for my chador. There wasn't much measuring involved (chador means tent) and she just let it drop and we determined the right length for m tent.

Anyway, AliBobba got a couple of good pics of the snowy mountains. I had taken some too but those were quite honestly just such crap.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I'm Dreaming of a White Eid

Eid Mubarak!!!! (Eid is pronounced Eed, and Mubarak is Mu-bah'-ruck and means congratulations or Happy or something.. like Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, Eid Mubarak)

Quick note of explanation to those who don't know what Eid is: Muslims have 2 Eids. There's Eid al Fitr, which is the Eid celebrated at the end of Ramadan, where we get lots of money and presents and we feast like starving pigs from morning until night. It's my favorite. I like to think of it as Muslim Christmas*.
Anyway. So Eid al Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice,is the Eid after Hajj, when, in some Muslim countries, you tend to see lots of goats and sheep tied up in the streets and then you see their bags of viscera decaying all over town for days after the whole event is over. Yum.

The sacrifice commemorates when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God, but God, seeing his devotion, told him to sacrifice a ram instead.
The point is to sacrifice something of yours to give to society and make sure the poor are provided for. I feel like people usually just take it to mean you kill a big bovine animal and give a third of it to the poor, a third to a neighbor, and a third to family. Usually, we know so many people that we end up with like the equivalent of 3 cows and 5 goats or something ridiculous and I wonder why we, not the poor, end up with so much meat.

Okay, so that was a little irreverent and honestly not everyone has that attitude and many people do still remember the whys of what we do as Muslims. This is what wiki explains about Eid al Adha: "The charitable instincts of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid ul-Adha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished Muslim is left without sacrificial food during this day. ...Eid ul-Adha gives concrete realization to what the Muslim community ethic means in practice."

In fact, wiki has very informative little blurbs on both the Eids so I'll just paste the links here for those of you who are interested in a little knowledge-building:

Hah, the bit on Eid ul Fitr in USA and Canada is interesting and true. Ah, to be Muslims in multicultural America (except for the governmental eavesdropping rights-snatching home-raiding crap) is quite something else.

So yes, back to the ethics... the whole ethics bit is great and caring for community is great, but it's just disappointing at a global level to see so much push for rituals that seem to have become hollow and meaningless and exploited.

Anyway, for animal rightsy people or just people who think animal sacrifice is a little passe and perhaps not as practical or beneficial as it may have been 1400 years ago-- when it was possible to make sure everyone was fed off one camel or cow or sheep and it was special for them because meat was such a rarity-- a viable alternative tends to be just giving charity to charities for the poor.

So in Qom (being the most religious and conservative city in the Islamic Republic of Iran) I have been expecting, all along, to see sheep and other cattle tied up and getting fattened for slaughter for slaughtering today, when I would see their viscera and blood rivulets. But disappointingly, no. Nothing of the sort. Apparently, though some people do slaughter animals here still, it is much more common in Iran to just give money to charities to make sure the poor are fed. I like.

We DID, however, end up getting snow! It's the first snowfall of winter, and though snow is not uncommon in Qom, it only happens a few times during winter and never tends to stick. It's amazing to see big fat fluffy snowflakes falling in a brown mountainy desert. I tried getting a picture my little digicam just isn't that powerful. Here's what I did get though.. try and see the snow if you can:

*Speaking of Christmas here, it didn't feel like it at all and a lot of people didn't even know it was Christmas. Some newspapers had pictures of "Baba Noel" but that's about it. It was sad. We did, however, listen to some Andy Williams (good thing Bobo brought his Andy Williams collection or what would we have done?!?!), called AliBobert's family and it was really cool to talk to them and especially to get to talk to Grandma and Grandpa because Grandpa has had cancer and it was just so good to hear his voice sound as jolly and loving as always. We sent xmas presents to the family via internet. What did people do before internet?
Anyway, we miss you, my white family.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Microwaves, Humility and Gender Roles

So I was thinking about Ms. S’s visit to me yesterday and the different things I learned about her. Interestingly, she does not have a college degree, or even a high school one, she told me regretfully. It was marriage and child for her, but she has been attending Adult School (which apparently, they have all over Iran) to get her high school diploma. She’s taking exams nowadays, 5 total, and she hopes to go to college to study psychology. Her goal is to get a PhD eventually. Very cool.

She also happens to be on her own while her husband is away on Hajj for a month in Mecca. She doesn’t know how to drive and she’s running the household and taking care of her son all on her own.

It seems a common thing here, amongst these ladies anyway. They married young, had children and did the domestic thing, but they still find time to attend school and earn degrees, oftentimes while pregnant or nursing or taking care of youngsters. They also tend to have to manage on their own as their husbands travel frequently for sabbaticals or courses abroad or pilgrimages. It seems almost everyone is gone for Hajj for a month around this time.

As I was explaining to her about my effort to cook near mealtimes because I want the food to be hot and I don’t have a microwave or enough pots to heat it up afterwards, I discovered that Ms. S also doesn’t own a microwave and never has. She laughed as she said they lead a simple life. Interesting, since her husband is the head of the language center at Mofid, and he’s fluent in English too

I feel bad for whining about my lack of electrical appliances when people here live that everyday and happily so. Many of these faculty families live in 2 bedroom apartments and have several children. The Elahis for example, 7 people total in a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment for 6 years. Although now 3 of the sons are off at university and one's graduating high school this year. Still, it's amazing.

In so many ways, Iran reminds me of a typical developing nation, and yet it seems so much more similar to America in other ways. In many cultures, especially in Muslim countries, being domestic is still the woman’s role (one could argue that by and large, that exists in America too, but you know what I mean), and while I see that here too, the men all still do their share of stuff around the house. From cooking, to taking care of the kids while the wives are at school or work and other “womanly” roles. There is no shame in helping your wife set the table or serve tea to guests or helping her clean up after a meal or anything else.

For example, Dr. and Mrs Elahi cut up fish together; he helps her, and Dr. Mirmoosavi helps his wife prepare the meat into mince etc. to freeze for later, and when Ms. MM first got married at 14, her husband did the cooking and helped her with all the chores. Men are just more self sufficient here and really have their wives as companions and partners and not just glorified housekeepers.

In Pakistani culture as I’ve seen in general, when we have dinner parties, the men will tend to sit around and continue talking while the women busy themselves cleaning up and getting the tea ready, but here, time and again, I’ve seen the men get up and help clear up and serve tea and fruit and dessert without fear of being emasculated. Although I must say I got lucky with my dad, who's less afraid to tackle all areas of domestic life, and he does so with diligence and meticulousness.

The men we know here are also alright with the idea of their wives going back to school and spending years schooling or being away at work or going abroad on business trips. From what we’ve been told, Dr. Elahi is actually an excellent cook too.

Humility seems to be the principle notion of how they all conduct themselves. It’s inspiring. The very antithesis of the whole “not without my daughter” crap stuffed down our throats on the other side of the pond.
Here, among the people we know anyway, daughters are just as encouraged to pursue their dreams and goals as sons and marriage isn’t an interruption but rather just a natural progression that doesn’t hinder anyone’s plans.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Can one digress at the beginning of a topic?

So I woke up embarrassingly late today… because I can. Actually, I want to get up earlier, but I can’t get to sleep at night until 3 or 4… so of course, my wake up time ends up being 11 or 12. So because I’ve been unable to breathe normally at night and just have coughing fits, I’ve been having trouble sleeping and so I wake up late. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

I lost my voice last week because of the sinus stuff, but I still held class so the ladies had suggested different home remedies (soaking eucalyptus leaves in our makeshift humidifer, which is basically a pot of water sitting on our heater throughout the night, gargling with salt water, eating lots of turnips). I did the gargling, did the makeshift humidifer, didn’t do the eucalyptus because I’m too lazy to go outside and pick the leaves.

Turnips I had 2 weeks ago when I first got sick. The Elahis had Bobby and me over and the Khanum made me turnips. It was so cute. The turnips were for my illness, but we all had tea and turnips. They also made me eat sweet lemons and oranges. And, the Khanum also made me a tea from a little purple flower that you dry and steep in boiling water. It’s called “khatmi” in Persian, but I don’t know what the English would be. It could be lavender… that’s the only little purple flower I know of, so of course, it must be the only little purple flower in existence on this green earth, and thus, lavender.

AliBob’s tutor’s wife had also called to ask me how I was doing and to suggest a few treatments, and my neighbor Mrs. MM also came by 4 mornings in a row when I was apparently dead asleep and drugged up to check on me.

Also, Agha Fazl also inquired about my health and he told AliBob that his doctor neighbor also wanted to know how I was doing and was offering her doctoring skills to me again if I needed them.

I feel special. Move aside Sharon with your paltry stroke. Here I come with my sinusitis. For a day, after reading about the bird flu thing in Turkey, I tried to convince myself I had bird flu; it just sounds so much more exciting than sinusitis... better ring to it. But no, just sinusitis.

It's annoying because it’s not typical for me to get sick like this and so frequently too. I’m healthy as a horse. A healthy horse, anyway. Not a sickly one with ribs all stickin’ out. Because unfortunately, I haven’t seen my own ribs in years…or any other bones for that matter. They’re safely blanketed in layers of fat.

But so far, this whole post has been a digression because I meant to tell you that, after waking up at 11am, as I sat in bed for the better part of an hour wondering what to do with myself (besides the obvious answers like getting out of bed, washing up, doing chores or any otherwise useful activities), the doorbell rang so I threw on my headscarf, my black overcloak “abaya”, and looked for my keys, unlocked our door, put on my shoes and ran down the stairs to the building entrance (yes, this is the process everytime someone rings the doorbell because our little intercom phone thing doesn't work) and it was Mrs. S, one of my students and her 7 year old son.

It turns out that she made me turnip honey and brought it over for me. Yes, let me say it again, Turnip Honey. So you boil the turnips, make a hole in them, pour in the honey and let it soak in there overnight and then put the mixture in a glass and put it behind the heater to let it warm up and then you drink it. It actually was *really* good. It was a tiny glass of the stuff. She said she'll bring me more before bed. Aww. (I offered to go over there, but she said no no, I'll just come.) She also declined tea and fruit. Am I a bad hostess? Do I give off a vibe of general ineptitude?

Anyway, her visit was a good motivator to do some housework and cooking.

Salty Water, Nice People

As some of you may know, Qom's water supply is salty. This means they constantly have problems with their pipes wearing out and that it's hard to get a good lather in the shower.

It also means that people buy water (for drinking and often for cooking) from little self-serve kiosks with water pipes. You buy a prepaid card and then fill up your "gallons" (any one of a variety of sizes of plastic jerry-can-looking jugs--from 5-20 liters, but never actual gallons!) at the kiosk.

I took two of our smaller gallons for a fill up last night and my card went from saying "930 liters left", suddenly, to "your card is not valid". I thought perhaps I'd done something wrong or it ran out of water or something, especially since this was a new card.

Soon an older man rode up on a motorcycle with his young son. They asked if it was broken and I explained what happened. So he tried it out and it worked for him. But he refused to let me leave without getting water, insisting that I give him my gallons, which he then filled up. They also explained that sometimes the very small electric chip on the card gets worn down or scratched so that it doesn't work, and perhaps that's what happened.

In any case, just another example of Iranian kindness and hospitality.

~Robert/Irfan Ali

Friday, January 06, 2006

Religion and Politics

Thursday is a day off for me—having just Friday off, in the traditional Iranian style, was not enough time, especially if you have errands to run, as most shops are closed on Friday. But since Sara is still out of commission from her sinusitis, I decided to combine my shopping for Desi items with a visit to Hazrat Fatima Masuma’s shrine, which is right next to the only shop in town selling Paki/Indian/Afghani items.

I was hoping just to zip in to the shrine, do the ziyarat (the ceremony of paying respects to Fatima Masuma, praying for self and others, etc.), sit and reflect (and people watch), and get to shopping.

But the shrine seemed a bit busier than expected for a Thursday morning and at the entrance I joined a line to be patted down by teen-age Basiji paramilitary volunteers. Stepping in to the courtyard I bumped into a huge mass of people waving banners and placards, and heard some rather bombastic speech-giving going on. I looked towards the podium, and only about 100 yards away from me was the oft-reviled President of Iran, Ahmedinizjad! For some reason he was giving a speech about something (just caught some generalities of hoping for economic and scientific progress and success for Iran—seems to be working as the Iranian space program is bustling and Iran is poised to birth a cloned sheep in just a few more months) which brought most of everything else to a halt. So, if you can’t beat them join them, and I listened and watched until he wrapped things up.

The crowd was varied and probably reflected the diversity of the Iranian people—true believers at the front and then radiating concentric circles moving from interested viewers, to the bemused, to befuddled pilgrims like myself just waiting to get back to business as usual. I tried not to take the occasional “death to America” sloganeering too personally, as both academically and experientially I know this is essentially anti-American government sentiment (often times rightly so), not any animosity to the American people. And, as the only American present for his speech (I’m assuming), there was nothing but welcome words and kindness from the Iranians at the shrine, whether clerics or the common man, who recognized me as an American.

At least in the end Hazrat Fatima was still there, peaceful and welcoming as ever.

Anybody who would like to be prayed for at Hazrat Masuma’s shrine, feel free to send your requests via our email contact here or post in the comments to any entry.

~Irfan Ali/Robert

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Important People and Big Fish

So last night, we went to Agha Fazl’s (ayatollah garb alert!) house for dinner. He is the head of publications at Mofid University, and he was an unofficial adviser to Khatemi, the former President of Iran. He’s such a jovial man and speaks what English he knows with great zeal and confidence. His daughter is in my conversation class and she’s just delightful. Again, she’s only 14 but she was in the kitchen w/her mom and taking care of her neighbor’s baby and running around making sure everything was alright for everyone.

AliBob's tutor/friend/student (they exchange Persian and Arabic lessons for English lessons) Ali G. brought his wife and 2 children. His older son, 4 and a half years old, couldn't believe that I don't speak Persian, so he proceeded to tell me the very long and very Persian sounding stories of Noah and his Ark, and of Jonah and the Whale. I understood big fish in the whole discourse. I have trouble with adult Persian, let alone the lisped Persian of an excited 4 and a half year old. He did speak well though. So cute.

The food was fantastic, as usual. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s such a thing as a bad at cooking/domestic stuff Iranian woman. Much like the question over the existence of the abominable snowman, one can never really know, but the 8-ball points to no.

Anyway, there was fish, chicken, lamb fesenjan (which was delicious, by the way), salads, rice, doogh (a yogurt and water and salt and mint drink…very refreshing). It was all fantastic.

They had asked their neighbor, who is a doctor, to come see me and make sure I was alright. I said no really, I don’t do the doctor thing… because eventually, it goes away, but she came and she was nice, so I relented. Good news, it’s nothing.

As usual, there were questions about the existence of children. I told (or tried) telling them how Iranians are always amazed that after 4.5 years of marriage (Oh. My. God. Has it really been *that* long?) I have neither children nor cooking ability. She joked that at this point Iranians would start worrying over my infertility. That could very well be, but I’m just not willing to test out the theory in case I end up proving them wrong. And judging by the size of my big brown rambunctious family, I can safely guess that infertility might not be a problem on my end.

I also feel bad because the dinner was at 8 tonight, a weeknight. This meant that dinner was really more like at 9 or 9:30. When wondering why it was so late, it turns out that they thought *I* had wanted it so. Agha Fazl’s daughter had invited us for dinner when she came for class on Sunday, and I had asked her what time, so I could see if I would have to move my Monday night class. She said “anytime you want” and so I then thought that maybe it was just an open invitation like a “come visit us and eat snacks and have tea etc.” type of thing so I told her, in what I thought was an apologetic tone, that I had a class from 7pm-8pm on Monday night because of a temporary change in schedule. She said okay, no problem.

I thought that was the end of the conversation and she would assume that it was a “sorry I can’t make it because I have class” response.

Yesterday afternoon, Bobo came home from the Uni and said “thanks for telling me we’re going to a big dinner tonight”. I told him we weren’t going, that we were invited, but I told her I had class around dinnertime. He said that well , apparently it was interpreted as an acceptance and 2 other families had already been invited. Oops.

So, I felt really bad and guilty that because of me we were having this late dinner that went past everyone’s bedtimes.

I also felt bad because they had called their doctor neighbor and apparently she had come by while we were having dinner so they sent her away and asked her to come again. So she came back at around 10, just to check my health. Yikes. I feel really really bad about that one.

Boboli and I just hope that people don’t think we’re snobs who must have things our way. I know people are trying to be nice but when everyone tries to be overformal and overnice it can get messy and unwittingly imposing on our part.

Anyway. Live and learn, I suppose. I think I ate more last night than I have in the past 4 days combined. AliBob also managed to eat some fish, some chicken and some fesenjan. I'm impressed, especially since he's really really not a fish person. There were lots of sharp little bones though, which made it hard to eat. We didn't find a Jonah in any of the fish.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Babies and Eyebrows

I went to Mrs. MM’s place today to help her study for an English exam she has tomorrow. She has skipped the first two years of English and started studying straight from the level 3 book so she could pass an entrance exam to get into seminary school (howzeh). I’m not sure it’s a good idea to skip so much foundational stuff, but she really wants to get started on school soon.

Here’s an interesting fact, Mrs. MM was married at 14, had her first child at 15, and now, at 34, has already married off said first daughter (daughter was married at 18, a year and a half ago.) She’s a fantastic cook (how could she not be, she’s Iranian) and her youngest daughter is 11 years old and has already started learning how to cook. So far, she can cook rice, chicken and spaghetti and do all the house chores. They sure do grow up quickly. I think that’s why I get along with the kids. I’m in denial of my own looming (fine, already here) adulthood.

Mrs. MM is a fun lady, and her youngest daughter is something akin to a prodigy; she’s just brilliant. Her husband (ayatollah garb alert) is currently leading a group of people at the Hajj, in Mecca and he’s a Seyyed, which, from what I’m told, means he’s a descendant of the Prophet. By dint of his lineage, he gets to wear either a black or a green turban. (So that means Khomeini is also a descendant of the Prophet, judging from the black turban he wore.)

Anyway, Mrs. MM wondered how I’ve been married so long and can’t cook and don’t have kids. Incidentally, Ms. N also thinks I should have kids as soon as possible; she had her first son within a year of her marriage, while she was in her last year of university. I know I got married before my senior year of college (wow, frightfully young), but a kid then would have killed me.

It’s better, they all say, having children as soon as possible after marriage. The ladies in my grammar class and I have already talked about this and they, too, feel that now is the best time to get started and get done, before I’m too old to keep up or worse, infertile. They may be right (less age difference, you get to see them grow up…blah blah) but really, I love other people’s kids enough… I don’t need my own. Not now anyway. Anyway, they also recognize the Iranian trend of marrying young and having kids fast. So many of these ladies are in their 30’s or 40’s and already have married children or grandchildren. In some cases, they have adult children *and* newborns.

Another interesting thing, while I’m on the topic of things people find so odd/curious/unnatural about me, is several of the ladies’ concerns about my eyebrows. Let it be known now, I was growing them out because well, I thought I’d get something nice done here in Iran. After my haircutting incident, I decided I’d just get them done in Pakistan, where I can make myself understood. I was never a huge eyebrow plucker anyway. A little cleanup is good enough. I really don’t dig the pencil thin perpetually surprised unnatural looking darkened with mismatching pencil eyebrows anyway.

I tried to explain to the ladies that my eyebrows aren’t that thick, dark, or long anyway so I can’t do much with them except let them be…(my kid sister got the awesome eyebrows gene, that little punk. Actually, she got the overall gorgeous looks and size 0 genes too, for that matter.) Anyway, I tried the whole “I like it natural” argument. I’m not sure they understand… they just kind of nod blankly.

But I don’t mind. I find it amusing and also so touching that they’re concerned about my eyebrows and skin and childlessness. Honestly, they’re just so sweet and well-intentioned and curious that I can’t hold it against them. And they have every right to be concerned with my skin. It’s horrendous, yes even moreso than it was in the US. I’m concerned myself. Why, at 25, does it look like I hit puberty yesterday?

On the other hand, I have found myself talking with ladies about Bobert on more than one occasion as we take inventory of all his ‘beautiful’ (their words, not mine) features, like his nose, his beautiful glowing white complexion, his eyes, his height, and his general splendiferous beautifulness. He’s like one of the girls we all talk about. I also find myself boasting about his absolute self-sufficiency and use that as a partial explanation for why I can’t do anything. He does it all himself and without complaint, so I never learned.

Today, Mrs. MM and one of my college-bound conversation students and I were talking and they were all saying how handsome Mr. Robert is and how every feature is perfect. Ah, my little fop. All he needs now is a cute little mincing walk.

He was always the wifier one of us two anyway, so it makes sense that we talk about his clear skin (I hate him for it and yet am optimistic that any potential kids will inherit this trait generously from him) and his domestic skills (again I’m hoping future progeny will be like him too, except they won’t bruise like peaches).


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year

Happy Gregorian New Year to everyone!

Wow, what an anticlimactic segue into 2006.

It didn't feel like anything other than a regular weeknight here, since in Iran the real new year worthy partying over is yet to come. Then there will be much merrymaking for 10 days.

Ali fell over a gutter yesterday and had cuts and scrapes on his hands and knees, and I have a cold or something.
I did cook a new kidney bean curry I looked up off the internet because I can't get mine to taste like my mom's stuff, so I figured I should do something else. AliBob loved it, so I would call it a success. (He loves almost anything though, so I'm not sure if that's really any testament to my cooking skills.)
We went to sleep at midnight with a quiet Happy New Year to each other.

Let's hope this coming year brings more peace and joy and ethical living all over the world. I also would like to add a little request for the cooking fairies to sprinkle cooking skill dust on me pretty please. Or enough funds to hire a personal chef. I'll accept either one.