Monday, August 18, 2008

A Visit Home

A friend has given me permission to post these reflections from a recent visit home to Tehran:

"What is this love/hate relationship with Tehran? Whenever I leave I count the days until my return!

Once again in my life I felt what it means to live in a politically unstable country, a country that may end up in a deadly war any day. As a result nothing is for sure, no long term plans can be made. It’s either fear of war or dread of an earthquake when you talk to people.

Tehran was, as usual, both magical and miserable. Its contradictions seemed greater than ever.

Driving on the Kordestan Highway, North of Tehran, there are two huge billboards almost across from each other: one with the likeness of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and a slogan about the Islamic Revolution - the other with George Clooney in an advertisement for Omega Watches.

Who could afford George Clooney’s watch when there is so much misery, in addition to the fear?

Even the life of the middle class is disastrous. I know a lady my age who once won the “best nurse of the year” award from Tehran’s biggest heart center. Besides her nursing work, she was also a personal assistant to my uncle’s old and sick wife. I met her again this year. Now she works full time for my uncle’s. She reluctantly retired from the hospital. When I asked why, I was told that for an early retirement, the government pays the retiree a one-time chunk of money (let’s say about $2000-3000). She needed the money, not for herself but for her brother. The brother had lost his sight in one eye during a surgery (recommended by the sister!). A few months later, he lost the other eye in a car accident and now he’s disabled. How unlucky one can be? He accuses his sister of mistreatment and expects her to provide for him. The sister has now sacrificed everything, including her career to support both her brother and his wife. She’s the same age as me: One day she went out from the front door and I from the back door!. And now I am sitting at a top American university , surrounded by talented, intelligent people. Unlike her, I have never been the best in anything.

The sad stories are never-ending. One day I visited my other uncle’s family. For years now, a cleaning lady has been helping them a few times a week. When we met this time, her face was white. I asked if she was OK. She told me she has a tumor in her uterus! I asked her why she is not in a hospital. I wondered what she was doing there, with a tumor in her body, making tens of dishes to be put in my uncle’s freezer. She told me in a very calm voice that she couldn’t afford having days off (and this reminded me of some American lives!). She said she had been hospitalized for heart surgery once and then for breast cancer. Here a biopsy takes not few hours but a few days in which one must be in the hospital. She did the biopsy once but they didn’t take enough samples! She had to redo the test but she refused to lose another paycheck. In my naive way, I begged her to do the biopsy. Finally my mom told me to shut up because I was scaring the poor woman.

In the middle of all the sad stories, my cousin’s son Siamak who was communicating with a European university about a PhD position, got an interview date. He’s a smart student, did his B.S. and Masters in Chemical Engineering in Tehran University and has articles published. It is wonderful to know that our students are still among the best in the Middle East and still attract western universities. Not being able to travel (he hasn’t done military service yet and can’t get a visa from anywhere!), the poor boy was kindly booked by the selection committee at the university for a Skype interview.

He paid tons of money to register for high speed internet in Tehran, just for the sake of the interview. He rehearsed with me. Two days before the interview as to take place the internet was suddenly disconnected – one a week after it was installed! Neither the telephone company nor the internet company could fix the problem. Siamak was upset. The conspiracy theorists in my family were convinced that the government keeps track of all internet communications and disables them when serious connections are being made with western institutions. Other more logical people including Siamak believed that Iranian companies buy advanced technology from the west but can’t manage to support it. Anyhow after lots of discussion we decided to tell the university selection committee the truth: “Sorry, we arranged for high speed internet but it doesn’t work and in the gigantic city of Tehran and there is no authority who can help us fix it. Could you please do the interview by speaker phone?"

We were lucky that the committee was compassionate (maybe they even pitied us). I was at Siamak’s when they called. Despite all the technical problems, the interview went well. When it came to personal questions they asked Siamak about his favorite pastime: The movies. “You wrote in your CV that you love movies, but are there cinemas in Tehran??!!” Siamak explained that as a matter of fact there are very nice cinemas in Tehran. But he was embarrassed by the question. I tried to cheer him up and told him after the internet problem , it isn’t very surprising that they misjudge facilities in Iran… We were happy when after couple of days the committee called and offered him the position!

I was so proud of him that without considering the rate of inflation (26%!), I asked my cousins out to dinner to celebrate! (A few days earlier I had heard about a silent sitting protest against inflation, in Keshavarz Boulevard after the Friday prayers. My aunt had seen it. I didn’t find any public announcements about it. We heard 15 people were arrested in Laleh Park).

We went to a fancy north Tehran restaurant that my cousins selected, and after seeing the menu, I was so embarrassed that everyone recognized panic signs all over my face. I tried to stay calm but I couldn’t. I went to the bathroom and counted and recounted my money! I am not sure how long I stayed in the bathroom, but I was sure that what I had with me was not enough to pay the dinner bill. To make a long story short, it was an awful dinner and I had to borrow money from Siamak, the guest of honor!

That night, the food price was not the only surprise in that restaurant. The openly gay/transgender waiter was even more amazing! He was so gay that I swear to God I have not seen such a beauty anywhere: Beautiful tanned face, carefully tweezed eyebrows, eyeliners, nicely dyed hair. and a chic outfit. How for God’s sake in a country where homosexuality carries the death penalty, this guy can be so openly gay?? And I wondered what else would I see in this fascinating, harsh, sad country if I stayed longer?

That night, after the dinner, we went for a walk in Saei Park in the Vali Asr Street. There were still a few animals left at the park. I imagine at some point this had been a family animal park with Shah bringing lots of animals there. I saw female Revolutionary Guards (Pasdars) walking around looking for men and women with improper clothing or hair style. Contrary to my teenage days, there was no panic in the air. Nobody cared. A man passed carrying a naked female manikin in each hand! What was he doing with them? Probably he was moving them from his clothing shop. I would love to see how lady Pasdars would react to that!

On small pieces of grass, families were sitting, laughing, and having picnics. My cousins asked me if I were sad leaving Iran the next day? I took a deep breath of the somewhat cleaner air of the park and said yes, I was always sad leaving Iran."