Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I have been thinking much about Iran lately, reading several books on the country and culture. My fascination likely stems from working many years ago with a half dozen Iranians, a collection of disparate and unique personalities, led by the cheerful yet devious Mustafa Abdoli. I named them Mustafa and the Roving Iranian Review. They all seemed to have different backgrounds and interests: a nationalist Kurd, a fervent pro-Ayatollah Khomeini supporter, a world-wise somewhat slick businessman (Cyrus), a womanizing dandy, a wallflower who was almost invisible. They argued and disagreed about almost everything (almost playfully at times), but they were always polite and usually friendly. They had a nickname for me (I know I am spelling it terribly, but it sounded like Couzee, which I was told came from the shape of a pot they said I looked like, which I am sure was not flattering). Mustafa was known for his withering pantomime of coworkers. I even once dated an Iranian woman, a beauty named Fatemeh (though she went by Fay); it was the only time I was ever chaperoned on a date (her aunt). She was gorgeous (though my Iranian pals assured me that the women in Lebanon were considered more lovely). I fondly remember being invited for a traditional Iranian meal, the food served to me and my host, but his family hidden away.

I have read Alavi’s Persian Pilgrimages; Nafisi’s interesting memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran; Satrapi’s graphic novel of the Revolution, Persepolis; and Gharamani’s My Life as a Traitor. There were also travelogues, such as Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth (only a short, but interesting, portion focusing on Iran), and Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road (also only slightly devoted to Iran).

My latest literary foray into this ancient country is journalist Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. It is an insider’s explanation of the nature and culture of the Iranian people, especially designed for Americans; he explains behaviors that are confusing and contradictory to us. The Iranians seem almost culturally schizophrenic. They often lead outwardly devout and strictly male-dominated lives, yet behind the tall walls of their gardens and the privacy of their homes they party hard, enjoy western culture, and allow women a much greater level of influence---generally flaunting their disagreement with the repressive government and religious restrictions in the knowledge that unless they were rattling the entire neighborhood that they would likely be left alone by the authorities. I was astounded by the high level of drug use, especially opium (but also many more). In some ways Iranians, like other Middle Easteners, are hypocrites. They condemn moral failings in others and argue for the moral superiority of their culture, but engage in a whole gamut of illicit activities, finding ways to circumvent the rules. Much of their lives seem to be taken up with a formal form of discourse of falseness, from the exchanges involved in simply paying a cab fare to the more elaborate business deals.

I cannot recount all that was included in the book, but there were interesting sections: on the Holocaust denial, Iranian driving, the acceptance and protection of dissent from some mullahs. I loved the conversations about modern technology in the most unusual places: such as on cell phones, "Does it get good antennae?" I was surprised that Khomeini was of Indian background.

I would love to visit Iran.

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