Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Museum of Torture

I have to make this quick because I am still running around trying to get things ready before my out-of-town guest arrives tomorrow, but I couldn't resist posting a link to these pictures of a torture museum in Iran. There are even pictures of Khatami touring the place. There are a lot of sick ironies to be noted here, of course, but I don't have the time to get into it. Oh, and since I wouldn't have even seen the pictures if it weren't for Eehum, here is a link to his page (it's in Persian). I haven't read his whole post yet, but I think he has some line about the Shah and his torturers having been turned into a museum and that one day the current regime and their thugs will be nothing more than artifacts in a museum either. I'd like to see a museum of torture that has the crimes of the Islamic Republic side by side with those of the Shah's regime. That way people can see all the continuities between the two-- the same methods, the same kinds of individuals targeted, and sometimes even the same torturers (there has been some documentation on the roll over in torture personnel between the regimes, which I'll try to find if anyone is interested).

Friday, January 30, 2004

I've been having an Elvis Presley couple of days, alternating between uppers to get me going and downers to calm me down. No speed and barbituates for me, though, coffee and chamomile tea is enough to get me through a few cycles of highs and lows. But I've miscalculated, as these things go, and I am on a high when I should be crashing.
A two hour phone conversation with a recent political refugee from Iran about the pitfalls of Iranian nationalism has also contributed to this feeling of sleepless agitation. I wont re-trace the conversation here, but the short of it was that he was defending notions of "national honor" and "the national good" while at the same time distancing himself from chauvinistic definitions of what constitutes a nation. I was too annoyed to be nuanced, so I basically stuck with the claim that at the end of the day, all nationalisms are foul.
I know, of course, that it is more complicated than this and my own contradictory feelings/thoughts vis-a-vis what I consider my people, my country, etc. are a testament to how messy this stuff gets. It's revolting and yet can be so exhilarating, which explains why even the brightest and most critical people are vulnerable to becoming periodically intoxicated with nationalist fervor.
On the brighter side of things, it looks like me being all riled up will have a happy ending, at least for tonight. Some of my brother's friends have unexpectedly shown up, and I have plenty of energy to channel into being a hospitable hostess.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Correction to the post below: The author of the blog I referred to in my last post just emailed me to say that he is not in fact in Iran but that he is writing the dialogues as a way of conveying what goes on there. Well, so much for vicariously living out fantasies of driving around Iran in taxi-cabs.
And while I am put off by the fact that the said blog presents itself as though the reader is indeed privy to actual converstations taking place in Iran, at least the blogger had the decency to set me straight right away. Even better would be if he put this info on the site itself, but hey, I'm not one to pull some kind of moral police act on anything, much less on the khar-to-khar world of the Internet.

Before I screwed things up for myself by writing things about Iran using my full real name, I wanted my next trip to Iran to consist only of taxi rides from one end of town to the other end, just listening to people's conversations and catching glimpses of bearded taxi drivers in their rear-view mirrors.
Yes, it's true, I have a thing for the basiji look. It's peculiar and puzzling, even perverted maybe. And perhaps I will say more about this some other time.
But the point is, I don't think I will be going back to Iran anytime soon. In the meanwhile, I may have found a place to vicariously live out this fantasy (the one about driving around in a taxi as an observer, mind you, I'm not talking about fantasies centered around basiji looking dudes). Anyway, I heard about this new blog by a guy who just bought a taxi and will be blogging about his daily encounters. If you read Persian, you may want to check him out here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The big grocery chains have been pulling some major union-busting moves, so I have had to do my shopping elsewhere for some time now. Tonight, though, I almost broke down. It was cold, rainy, and I was having flashes of total apathy. But I dragged myself from the beachside-white-utopia town that I live in and drove to the beachside-white-utopia town 5 miles away and did my shopping at a store that shows its employees a modicum of respect. I know, consumer activism, nothing to be brag about, but it's all I could manage to do today.
I did run into a former student, whose name I couldn't remember for the life of me, even though he was a student in two of my classes last year. At least I remembered his face, which these days is quite an achievement, considering I sometimes hardly recognize people who are my current students. We talked about another guy who had been in one of the courses and who had had two films accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. The guy at the store seemed to be doing well too, which is nice to hear. I'm glad to see that not everybody falls into the post Bachelor's degree abyss that many of my friends and I fell into (and haven't completely gotten out of).

Saturday, January 24, 2004

I finally saw Forbidden Iran which annoyed me to no end. It is the same feeling I get when I go to the "Middle East" section in bookstores where they cram their shelf with anything from India to Nigeria, as long as Islam is somewhere in the title or the subject of the book. I used to try and talk to bookstore manages about their categorization problems and the responses I got ranged from polite condescension to outright hostility. And, of course, no one ever shifted their books around or re-thought the use of the label "Middle East" as a result of my attempts at intervention. A friend of mine has taken to re-arranging the books on her own instead of bothering with the bookstore staff, a practice which I may soon take up myself.
Anyway, I don't want to spend more than a few sentences on this Forbidden Iran thing since there was pretty much nothing good about it and I don't want to further aggravate myself by listing all its shortcomings. I do have to say, however, that I was especially appalled that they had included an interview with that charlatan Zakeri, a guy who seems to aspire to be Iran's Ahmad Chalabi. (By the way, if you want to see a choice photo of the convicted embezzler and Iraqi puppet government member Chalabi, click here).
The irony in all this is that Frontline did a great piece on Iraq a while ago, where they pressed Chalabi to produce documents to back the many lies he'd been feeding the Western media and Western governments for so long. Of course, Chalabi couldn't produce a damn thing, which really drove home the extent to which the illegal invasion of Iraq was based on faulty intelligence (in more than one sense, of course) and self-interested agendas.
Last point on the Frontline piece: a few pretty boys and a defector may add a bit of sex appeal, but Jane Kokan's superficial trek into the world of Iranian dissent didn't even manage to pull that off.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

I had a message this afternoon from some friends in Europe that the Swiss border guards were preventing the entrance of Iranis from other European countries who were showing up to protest against President Khatami's presence as the opening speaker of the World Economic Forum of Business and Political Leaders (held in Davos, Switzerland). I don't have any independent confirmation on this, but I'll be sure to post if I get any interesting updates. I know of at least one small group of Iranis who foresaw the border closings and are already inside of Switzerland. I've seen some video footage from a few days ago showing the Swiss cops hurling tear gas canisters and turning high water pressure on a group of anarcho-syndicalists who had shown up early to protest the forum. Whether the Iranis get the same treatment, or whether any Iranis are even allowed anywhere near the place remains to be seen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

I live across a small little park, and so sometimes at night we get some police action around here. It is mostly small stuff like the cops shooing away hippies trying to sleep in the park or telling rowdy teens that they need to go home. That sort of thing. But every now and again they go into over-reaction mode and we end up with five police cars, a fire truck, and even an ambulance for good measure, right outside our window. I don't know what comes over me when this happens, but I absolutely have to rubber neck. I generally turn out the lights so they can't see me staring. If it isn't too late at night, I will even go outside, unless my parents are visiting me, in which case my mom absolutely forbids me from leaving the house. She even tries me to pry me away from the window, lest some stray bullet flies three floors up, takes a turn, and smashes through the pane and into my forehead. Anyway, I sort of find my fascination with this stuff a little disturbing, even though sometimes I tell myself that I am simply engaging in some community "copwatch", you know, making sure they don't abuse their authority, which they seem to do quite a bit, if one believes the reports on the local pirate radio station. But in all honesty, I think there is a bit of pure voyeurism involved in the whole thing, and so I just have to own up to that. So this is all a confession of sorts because I just finished peeking out of my bedroom window (too cold to go outside) as a mini police and ambulance drama unfolded downstairs. It was all pomp and no circumstance, from what I could tell. Six big police-men huddled around some disheveled looking guy as the ambulance people gave him the Saddam Hussein treatment (checked his head for lice, looked in his mouth with flashlights, turned his head from side to side, that whole routine). That is what I think they were doing in any case, there were too many police and firemen blocking my view. And now that I can rest assured that our dutiful civil servants have whisked away this poor guy to god knows where (probably the drunk tank), I can finally get to sleep. Nothing to see here.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Working with film students at this university had really dampened my enthusiasm for watching, much less thinking about movies. I vowed last year that I would never be a teaching assistant for another film class ever again, though unfortunately because of Arnold's awful proposed budget, I wont be able to be at all picky about how I earn the pennies they give us graduate students in the humanities.
At least for this year, however, I get to take a break from film students and teach an interesting array of classes. The best part has been that I am now remembering the pleasures of picking what films I want to see and who I want to discuss them with. A category of films I've always enjoyed are ones that are about war. And I don't mean self-congratulatory, moralizing, we-are-so-ethical-and-great-even-in-war films like "Pearl Harbor", "Saving Private Ryan", and the like. I mean fairly critical films that somehow take as their setting war and war mentality. In the last two days I've watched "Apocalypse Now" and "Dr. Strangelove" and have an inkling to watch "Full Metal Jacket".
Maybe I am just looking for an excuse to indulge myself with great films, but I really think it is important to be in touch with critiques of past wars because they are relevant for our relationships to present wars. And as much as I hate the feel-good or tug-on-your-heart movies about war, I think it is important to watch those as well, since they provide important insights into how propaganda machines package war, justify it, and overall make it palatable for our consumption.
Ok, well, I am off to watch more war movies. In the meanwhile, if you have any suggestions about what to see, email me your favorites.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

I found out yesterday how the Pacific Ocean got its name/reputation. Around the time Magellan was out and about "discovering" places like the Philippines, ships' crews were getting sick and tired of roaming all around the seas looking for things for other people to trade. So mutinies and uncooperative crews were on the rise. To appease his own crew and talk them into sticking it out with him, Magellan, clever guy that he was, pointed out that unlike the Atlantic, the waters they were now sailing were tranquil and calm, and that the crew could just chill out and enjoy themselves until they chanced upon some peoples to plunder. Magellan must have been pretty persuasive because not only his crew but also his description stuck around, and so we have the Pacific, or Oghyanoose Aram, as we call it in Persian.

Now I don't know if the Pacific is in fact a calmer Ocean than the Atlantic (maybe some of you oceanography types can help me out on this), but I know of at least two people who would strongly disagree with the idea that it is a tranquil body of water. For their first date, a friend of mine who is from the Pacific Islands took her now ex-husband (a Canadian dude) for a tour of her local shores. They were walking along the water--not being dare-devils or anything, just walking along--when a wave came and sucked her date into the Ocean. He was slapped around the cliffs for a good 10 minutes, during which time he was totally helpless, and then he was unceremoniously hurled back to shore. An ominous first date, I would think, but I guess the trauma must have been a bonding thing. In any case, ever since she told me this story, I throw sideways glances at the Pacific whenever I go for walks just so I can try to avoid any waves that seem to be getting too close for comfort.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Although they are extremely scary, right-wing nutjobs are nonetheless often good for a hearty laugh. My friend and I just spent about an hour on the phone cracking up hysterically while going through the pages of this extremist Zionist Site that somehow has him listed among its "Self-Hating Israel-Threatening LIST of nearly 7,000 Jews". Never mind that my friend is not Jewish, is not capable of hurting a fly so he is not much of a threat to one of the world's biggest stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and he is not particularly self-hating either. In case you want to check out the list, make sure you have your speakers on so you get the full dramatic impact. I have to warn you, this site celebrates the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, uses quotation marks when it uses the words Palestine or Palestinian, and openly advocates ethnic cleansing as a "solution" to the conflict in Palestine/Israel. But precisely because it is so unbelievably over-the-top insane you may get some laughs out it too. They'll probably send me death-threats for linking to their site like this, and I'll be sure to post them for your reading horror as soon as they come in.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

On Friday night I went to a small memorial for Edward Said. After the service some of the attendees, along with Edward Said's son, Wadie Said, who was the main speaker, headed out to a small club to unwind. It was great to speak to Wadie Said, who was very pleasant and down-to-earth. My friend and I felt a little odd to be offering our condolences to him with beers in hand, practically yelling to be heard against the music that was blaring into the courtyard from the dance floor.

And last night I went to a concert of classical Irani music, the proceeds of which are going to the victims of the Bam earthquake. There were four separate performances, with a total of 12 talented performers, many of whom were quite young. One group I found particularly endearing had a young woman who played the oud, and their singer, who from where I was sitting looked about 15 years old but must in reality have been something like 21 or 22, had an impressive voice that didn't match his boyish appearance. If anyone reading this knows the performers and hears of upcoming shows, please let me know.

Friday, January 09, 2004

I saw on the news yesterday that a mountain lion in southern California had wounded one person and killed another. I thought it was a crazy coincidence of sorts because on the bus that morning, I'd been thinking about mountain lions in our area. Specifically I was thinking about these 8 year old twin boys I used to baby-sit when I first moved here, and how we would entertain ourselves by going on these fake safaris in the hills, looking for mountain lions. When it was time to go home at dusk (when the mountain lions actually do come out) they would sometimes get all defiant and refuse to go back home (they were a handful, those two). That is when I would have to remind them that we don't have a big chance against a mountain lion, which I had read tend to be particularly hostile to young boys (perhaps because they feel at once threatened by boys and yet confident that they can take them out).
In the hills where we would "hunt" for lions, there are signs everywhere about what to do and how to behave when you see a mountain lion. One thing they say is to never turn your back on it and run. Instead, you are supposed to make yourself look big, so if you have a jacket or something, you should raise your arms and fan it above your head, or simply raise your arms if you are out without a jacket. The signs also say to speak to it in a loud and firm voice (which strikes me as strange, I mean what on earth would you say to it?) and to throw stuff at it.
The mountain lion warning always worked like a charm, until one day when we were walking back home and one of the boys told me exactly how he felt about the whole thing. He just straight up said "I don't like it when you talk about the lions and us". So I was honest with him too, saying that I only resorted to the reminder when they refused to go home for dinner, and that really the chances of us coming across a mountain lion in the early evening hours were pretty minimal. He said he knew all of that already, but that regardless he didn't like it when I mentioned it.
I thought it was really great that he confronted me about the whole thing. I stopped talking about our chances against a lion, but there was no need for it from then on anyhow. We had reached a sort of understanding between us, and the other twin (who was the more hyper and more ill-behaved one) couldn't very well stay out in the hills by himself, so we would all happily go home when the sun set.
All this to say, how strange that I was reminiscing about this episode on a day when a mountain lion actually struck out at people. So in case you live in lion territory, please remember to do all the things above in case you find yourself face to face with one.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I just saw a very sad flash slide show about the catastrophe in Bam. You can link to it
here. It is produced by youth activists in Iran (left leaning, I believe, which is pretty rare these days). My gut feeling is that it is inappropriate--particularly at such an early stage in the tragedy--to use the disaster in pushing forth a political agenda, even if that agenda is one of resistance against tyranny. I think this is especially true given that many of the images used in this case are of corpses who obviously have no say in how their photos are deployed. And I seriously doubt that their families (if indeed any of their family survived) were asked for permission about the use of the images. There was an article in the UK Guardian recently about the ethics of using such photos even for news purposes, but I haven't had a chance to look at it yet

Now that I have finally started a blog, I admire more than before people who manage to post often and still stay interesting. As of now, it is still a writing exercise of sorts for me, so I hope my friends are patient with me through it.

I've been trying a new technique that may be useful for those of you who have trouble sleeping peacefully through the night. I read somewhere sometime ago that in terms of temperature, the ideal conditions for nodding off and staying asleep are a warm bed and a cold room. So for the past few nights, I've been turning the heater super low or turning it off all together. Then I pre-heat my bed with an electric blanket. When I am done doing my before-sleep fun reading, the bed is toasty and I can turn off the blanket. The trick is to keep enough layers on top of you so that the heat doesn't escape from the electric blanket once it is no longer on.

This was working pretty well for me for a couple of nights there, when I was sleeping fairly still like a normal human girl. Then I returned to thrashing about the bed the way I usually do, and I've been waking up tangled in the cord of the electric blanket. I angrily try to brush the cord away in my sleep, but then the control console smacks me in the head. None of this, of course, is any good for ensuring that I have a good cozy night of sleep. I think I may have to retire this method sooner than I had hoped.

I couldn't bring myself to listen to Arnold last night, and I am not sure I will be able to sit through Bush's announcement today. Lately, I have become a bit lazy with this stuff. It is no good to only rely on secondary sources/analysis, which is something I have been doing too much of nowadays. I think internet/blog culture is making my attention span shorter and my need for instant gratification even greater. Oh my, look at the time, I have to run and get some work done.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

This is the longest I have ever stayed in a town that made me so miserable. I’m not counting my kid years, of course. But when you are a kid you don’t have much control over where your parents drag you. If it had been up to me at the time, I never would have left Iran. When we finally came here for good, it was right in the midst of the “war of the cities” phase of the Iran-Iraq war. So my parents used to try to talk some sense into me, reminding me that if we went back, we’d have to deal with imminent danger, food shortages, and all the rest. It sounded good to me! I was fresh-off-the-boat in a rich white town, and I was entering the fifth grade, which also happens to be the year when most girls’ bodies start to change in every which way. So pretty much any situation seemed preferable to the one I was in.

Nowadays, I don’t have much of an excuse. I could ostensibly move to a nearby town and commute. Lots of people do it. But the nearest “cool” town around here I’ve already lived in, and there is always a feeling of regression when you make a move back to a place, particularly if you feel like you haven’t outwardly changed a whole hell of a lot. However, I am seriously considering moving to the nearest “un-cool” town. At least there will be some diversity. This place I live in now is unquestionably beautiful, but it is unbelievably homogenous. I pretty much conduct myself as though I don’t live here. I don’t know the names and locations of some of the most basic streets. When out of towners come to visit me and take a wrong turn off the freeway, for example, I can’t give them straightforward directions to my house. I don’t make eye-contact with others when I walk down the streets, and when I am on the bus, I dutifully put on my don’t-sit-next-to-me face. I know, it sounds like I’m a big curmudgeon, but I really think that there are no in betweens when it comes to this place. People either adore it to no end or it drives them crazy to be here for more than 48 hours at a time.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

I read in Emrooz’s Website that Pahlavi Street in Cairo is being changed to Mossadeq Street. I don’t know exactly where the former Shah is buried, but I am assuming it isn’t on Pahlavi Street proper. It would be cool if he were, however, because there would be lots to say if the last Pahlavi Shah’s final resting place was on a street named Mossadeq.

You’ll notice soon enough that I have a near obsession with issues of names and naming. Last year in a town nearby members of a Hindu Temple on Persian Street decided to take a case to the City to have the Street’s name changed. I don’t know exactly how they made their case, but I think it was initiated by some Hindutva types who didn’t want to be associated with anything Persian, which in Indian history is in turn associated with the Islamic rule of the Mughal Empire in the subcontinent. It was great to see the Iranian community—many of whom had opted for the label “Persian” as opposed to “Iranian” precisely because they wanted to associate themselves with some kind of pre-Islamic Persian glory—have to scramble in this case. To their credit, they managed to raise a ruckus and defeat the proposal. One of these days I’ll have to look into getting the transcripts of the City Council hearings on this case.

I'm just about recovered from the family trip to Vegas, which was actually quite fun. Oddly enough, I found myself having the same experience I did this time last year, when I was visiting Iran for the first time in 16 years. That is, I was so completely over-loaded with new sensory data that all but one of my critical thinking faculties shut down. The only critical faculty left, of course, was the one that recognized that I wasn't thinking critically. At the time in Iran, I was more than grateful for the break from my own brain (the guilt and self-chastising I gave myself when I got back to the States is another story). I’ll have to write about all of that sometime. For now, I just wanted to note how strange it was for me to have parallel experiences in two places that couldn’t be more different.
Then again, hmm, I’ll have to think about this one. The Islamic Republic of Iran and Las Vegas. Theatrics, dissimulation, slights of hand. Rumors of mafia-like networks running the main operations. A big seedy underbelly. Maybe not so different after all.
I’ll end this now, seeing as to how I am new to this whole thing. Also, I saw another Irani blogger post something about people going on with their inane usual rants when their homeland has just seen one of the worst natural catastrophes in recent history. (I haven’t figured out how to link to stuff yet, but I’ll link to his post once I learn how it is done). I take his point, so I’ll try to minimize the inanities as much as I can for a while