Friday, May 18, 2007

My home, My country

I had written an article on Iran for Orato.com but it hasn't been published yet and I am not even sure if this is what they want, so for now, I decided to put it in here and wait for the comments and feedbacks I'll get from it in here. I just hope the length does not tire you and you read it until the end. So here it goes:

Our views of US



When I decided to write this I didn't have the faintest idea of where to begin! And it wasn't because I didn't have any topic or subject in mind but because there were so many of them. And as you will see I've tried hardly to cover as much of them as possible.

I was born two years after the revolution, the same year Iraq invaded Iranian frontiers and triggered an 8-year war. I'm what they call the child of revolution or sometimes maybe the child of war. Having experienced the bitterness and problems of the war and the limitations of living in a society filled with Islamic and revolution teachings and symbols I can say my generation have seen it all. Although this might seem a very hard condition from outside but for us inside it, it was an ordinary daily reality. So I'm going to try and express some of the thoughts that I think might be common among the majority of my generation and interesting for you.

It's been eight months now since I came to US. Prior to that, I was studying in France. I've also experienced the life in Canada and Turkey but among all these countries I have to say even to my own surprise I can distinguish interesting similarities between US and Iran. I may not be able to exactly describe them but life in here and Iran have some closeness in deeper levels although they might seem very distant on the outer side.

The first obvious and a little funny similarity is having two presidents with very similar thoughts. Both of them happen to think that God speaks to them, but it is a wonder why He is telling them two totally opposite things. They can even be considered a little look alike, if only Ahmadinejad decides to shave and put on a suit and tie which I don't see it happening ever.

Both countries, although very different in size, have very diverse climates in different regions and consequently have different and very diverse minorities and ethnic groups which most of the time live in peace alongside each other. But also, just like US, people are mostly conservative, pacifist and religious in small towns and rural areas but liberal in major cities. In both countries a lot of people are extremely proud of their country and their unique history and culture.

Probably a little overview of the relation of these two countries might help better understand the current situation. There are a lot of resources on this topic and there has been numerous articles on the press about it recently so I'm just going to go over some of the things I personally find more interesting.

It all started on August 1953 when a CIA-led coup overthrew the publicly elected prime-minister Mosaddegh and repositioned the king,"Shah Mohammad Reza". Or maybe we can go back a little more.

Before 1953 the view of Iranian people from America was like a savior, helping countries come out of the colonization by old powers. And the Americans who had come to Iran had proven this view of US, some of them like Howard Baskerville actually giving his life for this cause. There were also others. In the website of Urmia University, the university of my hometown, these words have been written to commemorate those Americans who founded that institution:"There they lie in peace away from their homeland, and the testimonial epitaphs on their tombs signify their endeavor and devotion to humanity." But the roots of the good feelings the Iranians have to this day of America albeit all the politics, can be seen more vividly in the story of Baskerville.

Then came 1953. For Iranian people the feeling was like the betrayal of the lover. That ended a friendly relationship between America and the majority of people in middle and lower classes of Iran. That was the departing point of the intellectuals and democratic leaders of the society from the United States as well. Their hopes of restoring the results of the constitutional revolution half a century before was gone. A year later when president Nixon came to Iran so that the Shah could thank him for America's role in the coup d'etat in a demonstration in the university of Tehran by students who were angry over Nixon for America's role, three students were shot death by the royal guard. To this day, that day in Iranian calender is named "the student day". These events in 1953 and 1954 can be viewed as one of the causes of the revolution 25 years later which followed the next year by taking the Americans in the US embassy hostage by the students. Again, although American people have a very bitter memory of this incident, for us, the generation after the revolution, it was just another outcome of the revolution and must be viewed in the frame of that time and the turmoil of revolution. Considering the emotions of the time, anybody trying to stand in those students' way could have just been called a traitor and anti-revolutionist. And 25 years later, today, we, the younger generation, understand neither the reason we are still being blamed for something we had nothing to do with nor the incident itself.


National Culture


That brings me to today and capturing of 15 British sailors and soldiers by Iran. It might be interesting to know that other than United States which has found a symbolic role in our minds in the past 25 years, Russia and Britain have a very strong presence in the nation's mind to this day. Specially the damages the British government has caused in the way of democracy and unity of Iranian people has such a great effect that still most of the people in our previous generation-my father as an example- see the British role in every major political incident in our country. For them British hand can be obviously seen in the political scene of Iran even when it involves other countries such as United States. That is why even for 1953 most of the people blame British and not the Americans for it. But interestingly very few people try to point the finger to themselves and try to stop blaming others for the problems they have had. It is true that foreign countries have tried to interfere in our internal affairs and control our politics but immaturity of a nation so used to monarchy because of the 2500 years of it has had its own effects. But now I think we are a little more experienced although still have a long way to go.

And in the matter of British sailors, although I didn't approve Iran's decision in capturing them but what came next gradually changed my mind. I saw media in US dealing with this matter and calling them hostages and relating it to the past and American embassy and calling Iranians hostage takers. Well, nobody asked those sailors what they were doing there in the first place. The difference between where they claim they were and Iran claims has captured them was only 500 meters! And then after they were released having a meeting with the president and receiving a bag of gifts (compare the situation with those in Guantanamo and then have a feeling of what handling media means) they said that they were kept in solitary cells and under mental pressures. They couldn't talk to each other and they had no choice but to confess. The very same day Iranian TV showed some films from them playing pingpong and chess among themselves which got almost no coverage in the media. Sky News also showed a film interviewing them before they were captured in which, one of them speaks to the camera about their mission of gathering intelligence information on Iran. This incident made me realize that it is wise to sometimes trust my government even if I don't like it or don't agree with it.

But what is it actually like to live in a society under a regime called Islamic Republic? I have to say basically it is not that different at all! Specially compared to other countries of middle-east Iranian society has a much more modern structure.

I have grown up in a nonreligious parents but both my grandmothers are simple women firm on their traditional and religious beliefs and brought up to a certain culture which is now part of the past. Islam for them is just part of the culture and a personal matter which has no contradiction with the other things in our culture which is now considered forbidden in the new regime. For example mixed weddings and dancing and singing of men and women together is a tradition in our region but that is getting harder and harder to hold such weddings, not because they are forbidden but because every official has his own view of the law and based on his views interprets the laws although the previous government did a lot to decrease this trend. Other parts of the country have their own traditions which might be more religious or less religious generally but that is just part of the culture. And criticizing the government and the regime is a national culture in Iran which has been practiced for a long time, sometimes quietly but mostly open and without fear.


The Revolution


If somebody asks me what is the worst thing about Iran I would answer: "the revolution". If then they turn to ask what is the best thing about Iran I would again answer them "the revolution". The first obvious reason for this is that I've been born just two years after it and through the media and the education and school it has been the center point of my life in Iran. But also what it has done in different aspects of our lives can be regarded as both the best and the worst things happening to my country. Most of the people outside of Iran has seen Iran after the revolution through some scary pictures drawn by the media: American embassy hostages, the angry people shouting in the streets and burning flags, the war with Iraq, the fatwa against Rushdie and a list that continues on and on. So I can assume everybody is familiar with the negative issues of the revolution. But what most of the people forget is what it has done contradicting its own label: "Islamic".

Iranian nation like most of the old nations historically has been a very religious nation. The religion has blended into their culture. This is also true in a lot of other countries even in Europe and United States. So for example Hijab(Women covering their hair) has been strictly regarded as part of the culture. But there has been no law either forcing it or preventing it. So when Reza Shah(the father of the last king of Iran) decided to modernize the country, as part of the process he ordered the women to open their hair. This was a big insult to everybody at the time. Some women choosing to stay at home and never come out as the consequence. That had caused a lot of families in Iran which as I said were very strict in their traditions lose their confidence on society and don't allow their girls to get involved in social activities and get a university education.

However after the revolution, all this changed. Exactly because of this Hijab, families decided to trust the society again and gradually girls entered different parts of society taking parts in every activity. And now, over 60% of students entering universities are girls. This on the feedback caused a generation to change their minds in many issues because of their children ans soften their beliefs. Spread of universities, opening branches in many small cities actually changed the look of those cities because of the students coming from bigger cities and setting a new trend in the way of thinking and in the way of dressing. Cities which traditionally had Chador(a kind of veil covering the women's body from head to toe) as the proper outdoor clothing for women gave its place to much lighter scarfs which got smaller and smaller in size as the years passed. But this was just the surface. Even deep inside, the culture changed. The combination of religion and state in the Islamic republic did the same effect it had done during the medieval years in Europe and so the new generation grew up knowing how to separate those two. And this feedback continues to change a lot of those values that Islamic republic is known to bear them. But now the problem is that people have changed much faster than their government. Although many officials have accepted these changes, there are still parts of the regime who actually believe they can stop and turn back the time and guide the people. But people will find their way and nothing will be able to stop them, as long as a foreign interference would not put an end to it. This is because Iranian people, just like any other nation, no matter how much they may dislike their government, love their country.


There has been a lot of articles and films on Iran specially in the last year or so but almost all of them have been told as a foreigner's point of view. Even if they were biased most of them didn't satisfy me at all, although a film by BBC came very close. I have sensed that all of them follow a trend in media and that is generalization of a country with a few clich├ęs and prototypes. It is as if somebody comes and tries to analyze and explain United States just by observing New York or Los Angeles. That is what has happened with Iran. Iran is just like any other country but it has its own good points and bad points. We may be a small country but with an ancient history having its mark in our daily lives we can claim we are no less complicated than a nation like Americans. We have conservatives, liberals, libertarians, religious, atheists and so on. Also Iran isn't just Persians, another generalization of the sort I mentioned earlier. I am for my part Azeri, a minority consisting 30 % of the whole population. There are also Kurds, Guilakis, Balouchs, Turkmens, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians and many more. So dehumanizing Iran for political purposes which is happening by the western media is just going to make a deep wound and worsen everything. A wrong step in here might turn out with a disaster much worse than the situation in Iraq right now.

To start with a change in usual articles about Iran and to end this one, I now want to talk about a different place in Iran rather than Tehran or Isfahan and that is my hometown. I come from Urmia, a city located in north-west of the country. It is one of the oldest cities of the world, dating back to the early civilizations around 5000 BC and it is believed to have been the birthplace of Zoroaster. It is placed between the border of Turkey and a lake called also Urmia. That is the second saltiest lake of the world. In our region we have very cold winters with about 1 to 2 feet of snowfall, so when I hear an American asking me whether I have ever seen snow in my life and how is it living in a desert among camels, I just have to respond with a grin in my face. But aside from jokes, this is naturally my favorite part of Iran, although I confess that there might be much more beautiful places than this in my country. For example northern part which is what we call the southern shores along the Caspian have the dense and humid and very beautiful forests, the center of the country is where the deserts are located and we have every kind of them, again in the south and south west comes other very ancient sites and cities along the rivers flowing in that region and the famous cities of Isfahan and Shiraz(familiar name? yeah, this is where the wine Shiraz takes its name). What I like about my hometown which makes it my favorite isn't just because it is old or it has beautiful nature and vineyards but also because it is a multi cultural, multi ethnic city.

I have kept mentioning the religion and this is where it clearly shows itself in my hometown. So what does that mean? Iran is a country of diversity and in this country my home town is the symbol for me. Although its different ethnic groups have diminished and through time it has seen different groups having the majority in here but it is still a special one. Because of the location of the city, it resides Shiite Azeris, Sunni Azeris, Sunni Kurds, Christian Armenians, and Christian Assyrians. There are mosques and churches, every kind of them. There is one actually located somewhere in the center of the city which Marco Polo during his travels has visited and has mentioned it. Urmia is surrounded by small villages spread through the vineyards and apple gardens and each of them are known as Christians or Muslims, Kurds, Azeris or Assyrian villages. This kind of living together has caused the people of the city to be known as easy going and soft in their beliefs and accepting guests with open arms.

So now I just hope that nothing would change this from outside and dramatically, even if it being bringing democracy to the country. We as Iranians may know better than anyone else that only we can change and decide the kind of government we want and even now our condition in democracy and the rights of different social groups is much better than other countries in the region and it will even get better as the new generation with its highly educated men and women take and claim their rightful places in the society.