Get ready for a major history lesson!
Alright, so finally I have to write about Iran. I hadnt been there in 13 years, and when I was in Africa I tried to go but it didn't work out so I gave it a second go when I was in Thailand. I went through all the nonsense you have to go through to get a passport renewed, but it was a little more complex because I had an exemption from military service that I had to make sure was in line before I left. Otherwise I would have been arrested in the airport and forced to dig ditches in the desert for two years. Ive never been a fan of conscription.....
So I headed out from Bangkok to Tehran via Doha. Im think im becoming an expert in that place. On the plane to Doha I got really loose on red wine, and was bored and I saw a good photo opportunity in the bathroom, so I had some fun. God knows what people thought I was doing, but I got the photos I wanted. In the end I looked like that guy from the James Gandolfini special about wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Konko, you know what Im talking about.
From the minute I landed it was a far cry from what I remember from my last trip. There was advertising of modern brand name clothing, there was a coffee store, and other little details that made me feel like its changed. Then when we hit the parking lot I saw more than one type of car. That was unheard of back in the day (more on this later)!!!
Ahhh, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The freest country in the world according to Ahmedenijad! So free in fact that you can do anything you want – that is unless you drink alcohol, own porn, show your ears if you are a woman, own a dog, talk bad against the government, own western movies, have premarital sex, practice the Bahai religion, support Israel, have a party with boys and girls, or wear boots if you are a woman – because all those things are illegal!
I wanna start off by mentioning that I am sure you have many stereotypes in your head about Iranians. They may include images such as these:
propoganda on blood and fire in Gaza
Well – you can throw all those stereotypes out the window because if anyone has at least one eyeball they would be able to see that the country is nothing like the propaganda that smears the world headlines. Im pretty sure if you had zero eyeballs you could figure out the same kinds of things, but definitely not with negative eyeballs – that just wont work (sorry – oh wait you have negative eyeballs you cant read!). The voice of the Iranian people is muffled over by the loud and ostentatious leadership of the nation which has its own agenda by sending such messages to the world. Most of it is laughed at by the citizens, and none of them take it serious. They think its funny, but there isnt anything they can do because of the way the government is set up and the way the police is run.
As a matter of fact, if you ask the people where is their favorite country (besides Iran) they will all tell you the US of A. Yeah, they dont like Bush – but then again who did??? All the people in the world realize that its not bad people that make a country bad, its bad politicians. America is no different.
If you did go through all the rigamaro and one million dances to get there, then you will find the people warm and friendly (almost too much! - more on this later), and have experiences more like this:
Typical 16 course meal at an Iranian household.
Everywhere we went there was food. We stopped to look at this mountain, and next thing I knew obgusht (traditional meal), tea, and sweets were shoved in our face. Oh yeah, you are disgracing them if you don't try it, so you have to eat.
What a wonderful family. I dont remember all their names, but the daughter is Rayhoney, then Mohammed, and the young boy is Ali. The little girl is Layla.
Me and Daryas pop sit down for some chai and jokes about Rockefellar
We lit candles for Ashura (neither Darya or her friend knew what the exact rationale for the ceremony was), then in protest of not being able to walk in certain streets because the girls were wearing boots we burned this box. Those boots they are wearing are illegal.
Getting silly in the palace
This is Darya, my pops secretary. I hung out with her most of the time I was there, and she really helped me get around. She brought me flowers to welcome me to Iran, and when her pop said she couldnt meet me at the airport she cried. She had never met me before, but that is their level of hospitality.
Lunch with out cab driver. He looked really gay in the other picture I had, so I used this one. As always, way too much food.
Old man with moon in background
So lets start out with fact and fiction.
1)Fact - Iranians are not Arabs! As a matter of fact they in a certain sense look down on them as not being able to get their act together, and for being dirty. Arabic and Farsi are two totally different languages, and are in no way similar. The word, Iran, actually means “Land of the Aryans”. Aryans are the name of people who practice the Zorasrian religion. Iranians were originally Zorastrian, the world’s first monotheistic religion, and following the invasion they were forced to adopt Islam. Zorastrianism has probably had more influence on mankind either directly or indirectly than any other religion.
2)Fact – Iranians poo in a hole in the ground. But then again, so does 90% of the world so that is nothing new. Oh yeah, they also dont use toilet paper. In every bathroom there is a hose that hangs from the wall. You are expected to maneuver the hose with the left hand and wash with the right. You have to do all this while standing and make sure you dont get water on you at the same time – its quite a challenge. The right hand is therefore considered dirty, and you should NEVER take food with the right hand. This also is done all over the world. It is viewed as being a more thorough way to clean yourself than good ol TP. The hose is most of the time the only option because TP is either not available or is too expensive for the people to afford. In the 10% of the world that uses toilet paper, 90% of that 10% dont have proper sewage systems and the pipes cant handle tp so you have to ball it up and put it in a bin in the corner of the loo which is damn gross in itself. Sounds gross, but that's how the world works. Of course, the wealthy install western-style toilets in their homes and do have toilet paper but thats a small fraction of the world. So next time your sitting all comfortable on your throne reading the paper thinking about how grand life is, or how fast that Kennedys is flowin through your system imagine squatting with a hose and wiping your ass with your hand - yeah bud, youve got it made!
3)Fact – Iranian women make the best wives. Sike!!! Haha, that's what my pop keeps trying to convince me so the running joke was that when I was there he was going to take me to the wife shopping mall. Iranian women are very considerate for their men to say the least, and never complain. When the man comes home they have a tea ready and give him a massage. I view them as having no soul....
4)Fact – I have seen more American flags burned in Peru than in Iran (total = 1). The people have a heart bigger than anyone of you can imagine, and have no interest in hating Americans.
5)Fact – Dont fuck with Iran!!! Dems some tough S.O.Bs as Bush would say. He was too scared to attack, and Israel cant do it alone. During the Iran Iraq Qar with no weaponry mass waves of tens of thousands of teenagers at a time (name is Basij) would attack the Iraqi front lines with nothing more than sharpened sticks to defeat the enemy and capture their weapons. Nobody knows the exact numbers, but thousands were mowed down by machine gun fire during the attacks. Oh yeah, and they did that all while suffering from biological and chemical attacks supplied free of charge by our kind Uncle to Sadam Hossein. Oh yeah, and when they werent being shot to pieces or gasses they cleared minefields by walking through them chanting prayers about the battle of Karbala and Imam Hossein (martyrs). Thats one hell of a way to spend puberty!!! At the end of the day you can sleep good tonight knowing the bill was picked up by you – the US taxpayers. I have seen the damage done to the survivors. Its horrendous. Mustard gas is by far the most horrible invention I can think of.
6)Fact – Even if Iranians were pissed at the US (they are not) its not like they don't have every right to be. In the good ol days the CIA overthrew Mossadeq, the nations first democratically elected president. The nation was robbed of its oil at rockbottom prices, and the Shah was forced to buy armaments while the poor starved. Nowadays the trade embargo has put a damper on the economy. Id be pissed too! As a matter of fact I give them credit for not being pushovers.
7)Fact – Even though it is an Islamic Republic (the only one in the world) not many people are religious. They have to follow the rules, but a lot of people dont go to the mosque, dont believe the hejab (head covering) is necessary, etc. Of course there are still a lot of people who would be considered conservative, but dont get the idea that everyone carries an AK in the name of Allah....
8)Fact – Many of the worlds greatest poets come from Iran. Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa'di, Ohmar Khayam, Rumi, etc... all reign supreme in the world of poetry. My name, Bijan, comes from a poem in an ancient book (1,000 years old) called the Shanameh by Ferdowsi about a prince named Bijan and a princess named Manijeh (my sisters name). The Shanameh is the national epic and was written around 1000AD when the Persian language and history was being threatened with extinction because of the Arab Invasion. It alone has been the one item that is credited with keeping the Farsi language alive when Arabic was becoming the universal language of the region. The Shanameh is reveered by Iranians, and almost every household has a copy. Ancient Iran used to center around poetry. Men would go to a local hangout, smoke the geylyon, drink tea and one man would read poetry as the others listened. I think it is this fascination with poetry that gives Iranians such a philosophical outlook on life.
9)Fact – Caviar from the Caspian Sea is the best in the world. The Caspian Sea which is the worlds largest lake has the best conditions to raise sturgeon. Their numbers are dwindling, and so the price of the black gold is going up. Get it while its hot!!! Oh yeah, so the pistachios, saffron, and dates (not the female kind!) are also world class.
10)Fact – Iranian hospitality is so over the top they will bend over backward in ways you have never seen to make sure you are happy. Just as an example if you go to someones home and you tell them you like their carpet they will start to move the furniture aside and pack it up and give it to you to take home! If you tell them their daughter is beautiful they will make sure you meet all three of them so you can have your pick! And the list goes on....
11)Fact – If you go to an Iranian home you will not leave until 1) you have eaten more than you did for the previous month (I can guarantee they will ensure this), and 2) you will hear about everything under the moon about what is happening in life, they sing to you, or you dance.
12)Fact – Booze is illegal, and so are night clubs. Shit, thats a bad fact! I should mention that people do anything in the privacy of their homes and generally don’t get caught. Secret satellite dishes bring in Western TV stations, the youth recreate discos, bars, and night clubs in their basements, and booze is transported in opaque gas cans. Many people make wine in their own bathtubs!
13)Fact – I saw snow when I was there and didnt like it. Didnt like it at all. Never living in a snowy place again.
14) Fact – Iran has the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. Jews have lived and practiced their religion in Iran for thousands of years and continue to do so. There are also Persian Jews scattered throughout the world, especially in Great Neck, NY where there are so many, they form little rivalries based on the town in Iran they came from. For example, the Tehrani Jews know exactly who the Mashadi Jews are, etc. There also are Christians in Iran. The days of non-muslims being looked at strangely are gone. When my pop wanted to work in the US consulate in Esfahan when he was in his 20s my grandma no kidding told him this "those people have blue eyes. Do you know what they will do to you? The people with blue eyes who dont believe in Islam will kill you and turn your body into oil!!! Do you want that?" That was the attitude for a while, but we all know that people from the US dont kill you and turn you into oil. We just kill the people and then steal their oil (or at least that has been the agenda of the govt as of recently, we will see about the future). Apparently they havent figured out the part about how to turn a corpse into oil, but as twisted as it sounds she was almost right.
I hope you liked that section. I used the Rick Vanness syle of fact stating which knocks em dead every time...
So Tehran has seen a lot of change in recent years, and its pretty clear. The skyline is growing, the span of the city spreading, and the culture is becoming westernized. The rules for the hejab which is the traditional covering of women have loosened to the point where I was almost going up to girls telling them to raise it on their head for fear theyd get arrested. I saw someone with a lip piercing which is another thing that I could never have imagined. Young people have sex (from all I can tell probably more than me and you). Crystal meth (they call it glass) is wreaking havoc on the youth, and the youngsters are so materialistic that unless you have a beamer you don't have any luck scoring a girlfriend. They are addicted to text messaging, trendy clothes, and listen to techno music (also illegal). Almost everybody young has been to jail for breaking the rules. Its not a jail, its more like a detention center where you go if you break the Islamic codes. If you go there a Mullah (religious leader) will give you some sort of a verbal punishment and lecture, and then you have to get picked up by your parents. For everybody who has been, they laugh at this and think its an absolute joke.
All that being said, the people of the country hold themselves in the highest manner and despite all that still act in what we would consider to be a conservative manner. I just mention all those things to give examples that they face the same issues we do in the states, or in any modern country these days.
There are little to no tourists in Tehran, and the numbers for the whole country are pretty dismal at best. If you are from the US, you might as well give up before you start. To get a visa takes something like 90 days and is a real pain in the ass. For other countries its not much better. As a matter of fact when I went to get my passport renewed in Bangkok the embassy there was really of no help – and Im a citizen! They have a goal to get 20 million tourists by 2020, but thats not going to happen. There are some package tourists that visit the more historical parts of the country (Shiraz, Mashad, Esfahan, Persepolis, etc.), but I cant say much about it. I think Russians have a pretty easy time getting a visa because so many come there for business.
As a matter of fact, when you are in Tehran there are so few outsiders that you are looked at as a bit of an oddity. People stare at you, and secretly listen to what you are saying, and always want to understand why you came to Iran. In my opinion they wonder why you came because they have such a negative self image of their country they cant understand why anybody would want to come, which is a shame.
The youth have a real problem with their country. They are upset that a country with so much culture, so much history, so much resources (2nd largest reserves of oil and gas in the world) that they are not in a more prosperous situation. They are upset by all the restrictions and laws placed on them by the government, and want to live free. Additionally there is very little opportunity for the youth jobwise. Almost everyone I met was an some sort of an engineer, or had a business degree (or both), but they had administrative type jobs that couldnt use their potential. For all these reasons the youth are jumping ship and see living abroad as their only hope. Thats not to say that they dont love their country – just the opportunities and living conditions are better elsewhere. Its putting a real brain drain on the country as well. The embassies in Tehran fight over the most educated and give them free visas, free education, and compensation packages because they know what good citizens Iranians make and what kind of contributions they can make.
The pollution in Tehran (17 million peeps) is some of the worst in the world. Something ridiculous like 10,000 people a year die because of it. They have a new metro system that is running in a limited capacity and is only just beginning to help things out. Part of the reason its so bad is because the city is surrounded by the Elborz mountain range which keeps it all the smog locked in that one area. Its absolutely gross, and I don't know how people don't think anything of it.
So what I was saying before about there only being one kind of car – thats entirely true. Fifteen years ago there was literally only one car company – Paykan. These son of a bitch cars were such poor quality, and are so inefficient that everybody hates them. Being the only national car manufacturer you would go onto the street and it would be nothing but white Paykans. It was almost like an episode of the twilight zone. Every once in a while you would see a black or yellow one if you were lucky. Last time I was in Iran me and my pop road tripped to the Caspian Sea, and this god damn paykan broke down at 4 in the morning and we had two push it for two hours! Today they are being phased out. Its kind of a love hate relationship we share, and so I told everyone I was going to buy a Paykan and put a nice motor in it and nice wheels. Thats the new goal. Pimp my Paykan!!! A majority of the taxis are still Paykans, and im pretty sure in the countryside they will last at least another few millenia.
There is a trade embargo of US goods on Iran. You cant find a single thing from the US there. My pop buys cheap shirts from Old Navy and gives them out as gifts because the people hold them in such high regard. If you wore an Old Navy shirt with a big logo on it you would get all the chicks. Last time I was there I had a small American flag on my shorts and I had to cover it up and destroy them for fear of what would happen if the police saw. Its a funny world.
The US Navy – with MH-60R helicopters sits out in the Persian Gulf making sure no US goods go in there, make sure the oil comes out of all the Arabian countries, and when they get bored they shoot down civillian airliners. Oh yeah, if the details are a bit fuzzy let me refresh your memory. In 1988 a US guided missile cruiser sitting in the Persian gulf (straight of Hormuz) in Iranian waters shot down an Iranian airliner flying in Iranian airspace immediately killing all 293 on board. During congressional testimony the crew maintained that they interpreted the airliner as an attacking (RIAF) F-14 fighter. It was during a time of war (Iran vs. Iraq), so tensions were high but I still dont see how you could mistake an F-14 with an airbus A300.
One thing about Iranians and their long history with many notable highs and lows is that they NEVER forget. I mean, NEVER. When Ahmadinejad wrote President Bush two years ago, in his 17-page letter he wrote about the 1953 Mossadeq overthrow and things from years ago that would probably never be in the mind of an American. I’ve asked Americans who lived through the Cuban Missle Crisis, for example, what it was like and some can’t even remember it happening. Some criticize us for being too short sighted. On the other hand, Iranians never seem to let go and many live in the past still thinking of their country as if it’s the days of the Persian Empire which ended over 1500 years ago. Like they met Alexander the great personally, and dined with Genghes Khan. They know the whole history inside out.... Who got a bj in the oval office again - I forgot???
I was supposed to be born and raised in Iran. My sister was born there in 1979 just a few months into the revolution without a US embassy and it was a bad time. They were killing Americans in the streets, accusing them of being spies. Then the war broke out with Iraq and all hell broke loose. There was missile attacks in Tehran, and Esfahan that nearly took our family out. Both times (1979 and around 84) we were in the bazaar, and the missiles came too damn close. Well anyways, my pop somehow figured a way to smuggle my mom and sister out and they vowed to live in the states.
For those that don't know, Iran in the 60s and 70s was under rule of a king – Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He was a forward thinker, and westernized Iran and did away with a lot of the traditional Islamic rules. He was in bed with the US, and was purchasing a hell of a lot of armaments and was selling the countries oil at rock bottom prices. That said, he was viewed as neglecting small farmers and large capitalists alike, but exploiting the country’s resources to cozy up to the West. Many of these farmers and merchants alike went on to become revolutionaries overthrowing the Shah. In any case, with all the rapid modernization Iran was well on its way to becoming a force to be reckoned with on the global playing field. Thousands of Americans lived in Iran, and champagne and caviar flowed through the streets. It was a time of real prosperity. As a matter of fact, Telephonics QE Kirt Weik (sorry if I misspelled) lived there at the time for a handful of years under the Shah working as a liaison for Grumman when we sold Iran E-2s in the 70s. His opinion as an outsider is that he has absolutely nothing but good things to say about the country and the people.
Well, the people were pissed at such rapid change and in 1979 they initiated a coup and threw out the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini out of exile and to put him to power as the supreme leader. At the time the new regime considered the US embassy to contain a “nest of spies”, which is warranted considering that in 1953 the CIA popped its cherry when they were sucessful in their first coup to overthrow the then democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadeq. So the new leadership allowed a contingency of university students to hold the embassy hostage. Fifty two US diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days, which eventually led to the defeat of President Carter in the 1980 presidential election. When Reagan took office, all the hostages were released.
During the hostage situation a unit of Delta Force soldiers developed a plan to fly into the Tehran soccer stadium with special fitted C-130 cargo planes and CH-53 helos to rescue the hostages and then fly out. Well, Operation Eagle Claw was a complete disaster when in a sandstorm well south of Tehran three helicopters crashed making the mission impossible. The CIA agents in Tehran were compromised, and the US was terribly embarrassed.
When the revolution came, those who were considered loyal to the Shah were killed. Those loyal to the revolution (really called the Islamic Revolution) were jailed, tortured, and killed by SAVAK (anti sabotage secret police). More on this later....
So since then the country has been run by religious clerics. Its probably the same situation that the US was under before we ensured the separation of church and state. I don't know about you, but if our prime minister was Billy Graham I'm not so sure Id be a happy camper!
They have a parliament and a president but these really hold little weight compared to the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei (the successor to Khomeini). Whenever you go to a government office you will see pictures of Khamenei and Khomeni. Its hard to miss their intimidating powerful stares. In order to be a mullah (and eventually Ayatollah) you have to study at the theology school in Qom, a few hours outside Tehran. Then you will have the tools to be sucessful in Iranian politics. If you look at all the Iranian presidents (sans Ahmedenijad) you will notice they dress in a traditional robe with a turban. Those guys are mullahs. Ahmedenijad never went to theology school, and therefore doesnt wear the holy garments but instead opts for more casual attire (for which he has been criticized). He is a religious conservative however and this allowed him to become prez. Before Ahmedenijad was Khatami who was still a religious man, but was seen as being too liberal so he wasn't re-elected. When Ahmedenijad took office, all the liberal movements of Khatami were immediately reversed.
The mullahs are the ones that run the country, and therefore are the ones who brunt the attacks at how the country is behind but nothing will ever happen. The people in power will ensure they do everything possible to stay there. This paranoia dates back to the days of the Shah and SAVAK, and will in all likely hood never go away. Random house raids, wire taps, etc are commonplace and are accepted as everyday life. Be careful what you say and who you say it to – those are the rules. You never know if somebody is going to talk with you about the government as if they are the opposition and then the next minute throw you in jail. For these reasons nobody talks politics.
My pop and I have a pretty non existent relationship, so I figured hanging out with him on a tour of Iran would be pretty cool, but I had to cut it short for a bunch of reasons. When I left Darya and her mom felt bad for me, so they saw me off by taking me out for cheeseburgers and a geylyon!
These next pictures highlight what my pop does best....
Looking around smiling
Pointing at something interesting, and explaining how he knows about it. Then finding all the flaws with it and explaining how to do it better next time. Its amusing. Everywhere he goes he gives all the advice in the world about how to do shit better. Like a commander doing an inspection.
Then giving advice for two hours on what to do in life to everyone around who will listen including taxi cab drivers, ice cream salesmen, waiters, gas station attendants, etc...
“Hey, taxi driver – come back here, I need to explain how I am the man and you should listen to me because I know better...”. This sequence of jokes doesnt sound funny but if you knew the man youd be wetting your pants.
"That over there, yeah - thats a real piece of shit!!! Haha, what a fool was the man who made that!!" Maybe thats a little out of context, but I made you laugh and that is whats most important!
Farewells with geylyon
Continued in the next entry....