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Iran's fleeting hope: Returning home
I recently took a three-week vacation to Iran. When people ask me how it was, I tell them it was awesome and can’t wait to go back. What I came to know and love about Iran was a lot different from what many Americans, and even Iranians, had expected. Many bewildered Iranians have told me it is impossible to live in Iran; that it had nothing to offer me.
Doesn’t wearing the mandatory hijab bother you, people would constantly ask. Yes, I’d reply, but it’s not that important and I got use to it.
What could Iran possible offer?
The main appeal for me, being half Persian and half American, is a strong and supportive family network and warm, hospitable culture that you can’t find in the U.S.
Growing up in San Jose, California with my parents and sister, I sometimes felt very lonely. In America, people’s lives mostly revolve around work – success is the American dream. I often reflect on the violent nature of American culture and it strikes me that when people are left alone with no support, they lose their minds.
In Iran, on the other hand, you just don’t hear about someone going berserk and shooting-up a bunch of people in a public place. It is very difficult to escape the watchful eye of an Iranian mother or extended family. Everyone knows what is going on with each other. This can sometimes feel suffocating, yet at the same time it helps to support and influence people to act in the best way.
Iranians are famous for their hospitality. In being the perpetual guest, I was able to completely enjoy their generosity.
One custom that I love is tar’rof, which influences almost every aspect of Persian culture. It actually has no exact English translation; however, the word courtesy comes close. Tar’rof is such a prevalent custom that sometimes the receiver of the tar’rof cannot even recognize it.
So, you may be wondering what exactly is tar’rof? An example can be taken from a simple lunch break at work. Let’s say you forget to bring your lunch. There is no need to worry because your co-worker offers to share her lunch with you. Maybe you decline the offer, but she insists, and still persists, until you accept some of her food. You will not go hungry. This is the essence of tar’rof.
Iranians sometimes go so far as to give away their possessions, even if they do not want to. For example, every single time a customer goes to buy something at a grocery store, the clerk will tar’rof with him. Before giving the customer his bill or accepting his money, the clerk will tell the customer to take the items for free. But don’t be mistaken.The customer will always pay, and some believe that for this reason tar’rof encourages insincerity in the society.
To make the definition even more complicated, tar’rof can be given and received, all at the same time. Let’s say you are a guest at a dinner party. The host, usually the matriarch of the family, has made a lot of delicious food. You try a little of everything. Maybe you want more, or maybe you are full? The host, however, offers you more to eat. You decline the offer because you are full. Or is it because you are trying to be polite and are too shy ask for more? Either way, she will insist that you eat more. At this point, you both have tar’rof. If you do not accept the offer, it would be rude. If the host doesn’t insist for you to take more, it would be rude of her.
While still a place that is rooted in history and culture, the country is changing. More young people and women are educated. They have access to the world-wide web; they see what other, developed countries have, and they want that, too.
But progress will not be won easily.
The moment you step outside your home is the moment you lose your freedom and become a captive of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most of the time, the only freedom people have to fully express themselves is in their homes. Every home is a sanctuary.
My aunt and I struggled with this issue when I was living with her in Tehran. A year after I arrived, I started to go out with one of my friend’s brothers. My aunt, who was responsible for my well-being, was in a constant state of worry every time I left the house with him.
In actuality, my boyfriend and I never had any problems and openly went out to restaurants, parks and sometimes held hands and kissed, like many young people in Iran. Although not strictly enforced, we knew that we were breaking the rules, which made it all the more exciting.
In a theological republic, women and men who are unrelated are not supposed to have relations with each other. If the government so wished, it could easily send its agents, or “committee,” to crack down on the young rule-breakers. And once in a while it did – young, unmarried couples or women who did not wear their hijab correctly would sometimes be arrested and punished.
Once, I remember that the government outlawed nail polish.
Not only do young people, especially women, have to worry about Islamic law being imposed upon them by the government, but they also have to worry about their families.
Although the society is becoming more liberalized, it remains a taboo to have a girlfriend or boyfriend. A lot of the young people choose not to tell their parents, or even their friends, about their romantic relationships.
What is even worse, in my opinion, is that young women are very concerned about being a virgin when they get married (although this way of thinking is also changing). In a twisted interpretation of “saving oneself for marriage,” a lot of women choose to have only anal sex with their partners, thinking that they won’t be able to find a husband should their hymens be broken.
The young women I talked to also had a lot of misconceptions about sex. One girl told me that she knew someone that had so much anal sex that it messed up her digestive system, and she couldn’t keep her food down and was always throwing up.
I had spent two and a half years living and working in Iran from 2008 until 2010, which put me right in the midst of Iran’s cultural and political upheaval, when the Green Movement was born. Iranians, especially the youth, are ready for a more open and free society. They have been for some time. Especially now, since they have experienced some of that freedom, it will be hard for them to turn back.
One difference the Green Movement has had with other uprisings such as in Libya and Syria is its nonviolent nature. Although we don’t hear much about it anymore, it isn’t dead; it’s just gone dormant.
I remember arriving at the Khomeini International Airport for the first time ten years ago, with jumbled images of family members I met for the first time -- people I had never heard of, but who knew of me, their American cousin.
My father had left Iran in 1977 with my American mother just two years before the Islamic Revolution deposed of the Shah, ending any hope of returning for the next 25 years. People usually think that my parents met in America. But before the 1979 revolution, Iran was a fairly open country with Americans and other foreigners working and living in Iran, such as my mom.
Coming from and going to Iran now is no easy task. KIA lies approximately one hour outside Tehran’s city center. Additionally, there are no direct flights from the USA to Iran, and all the flights arrive or depart in the very early morning. People don’t usually return to their homes until three or four o’clock in the morning, and sometimes later.
This does not keep an entourage of family and friends from coming to the airport for your arrival or departure. When I arrived this time, I was greeted by my aunt, two uncles and their families. The group had dwindled since the first time I came. The only reason why my grandmother did not come was because she has become too old to make such a journey.
During my stay, Tehran had been experiencing one of the worst levels of air pollution in its history. A week before I arrived this past January, the government had called a five-day long public holiday due to the air pollution and announced that more than 4,000 people had died due to the pollution in 2012.
Needless to say, people don’t play outside very much. I mostly traveled from house to house – going to visit my grandmother for lunch, having tea at friends’ homes, sitting around and talking.
The mood had changed in Iran since I was last there a year and a half ago.
Iran made headlines when the government hung two young men who had robbed a man at an ATM machine. The hanging was carried out at the place where the robbery occurred, across from a very popular park near my uncle’s house.
That morning, the Alborz mountains that surround Tehran received snow, and much needed rain accompanied it that night. One of the young prisoners was photographed crying on the shoulder of his executioner. While many have condemned this ruthless act, including the victim of the robbery who pleaded to the court not to have these young men executed, many Iranians were satisfied with the results.
They reasoned that harsher punishments would deter the increasing crime.
Since the most recent round U.S. imposed sanctions took effect last year, the value of the dollar against the Iranian rial has increased more than three-fold. Everything has become more expensive, including staple items such as food. This has hit the working class and unemployed the hardest, hence the increase in petty crime and robbery. Iran had already been experiencing inflation due to President Ahmadinejad’s fumbling of the economy, but now the country is in hyperinflation mode.
I was warned numerous times during my trip to be very careful with my purse and money when I went out. Thankfully, I had no problems. Interestingly, one cab driver I spoke to told me that he didn’t think Iran has changed all that much; that the people are the still same.
Most Americans who have never met an Iranian before usually picture Iran as an American-hating country of extremists. The media, as well as the countries’ leaders, are responsible for this image.
However, most Iranians love Americans and do not hate the U.S. government. Like many indigenous cultures, Iranians are a gentle people who try to avoid conflict. Many loathe the current regime precisely because of the hardline position it has taken towards the West. And while some more liberal Americans have applauded Iran’s president for his denunciation of Israel and the West, a lot of Iranians want diplomacy.
There was a fleeting hope in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections that if a reformist such as Mir Hossein Mousavi was elected, the door to diplomacy would have been wide open.
After sneaking out at night, we wait for a friend to arrive from the USA via Qatar Airways at Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. His flight was delayed from 3:40 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
Alireza Mafiha, 23, and Mohammad Ali Sarvari, 20, before their execution, January 21, 2013. [UK Daily Mail]