“Do you like it here?” This was a question I was asked almost daily in Tehran. Yes, yes I did. Wait, no. No I did not. I found myself unable to ever settle on an answer, and oftentimes I stood and argued with myself while the questioner hated himself for asking. The remarkable thing was that Iranians actually cared about my response. The question was not the equivalent of today’s obligatory “How are you?”
It would take a blind individual, incapable of seeing through the blanket of smog that covers the city, to ignore the captivating traces of history scattered throughout it. One needs to be able to connect the dots and, in their minds, recreate what Tehran once was. In fact, it is impossible to grasp Iran as it is today without knowing the political turmoil that unfolded there just under a half century ago. In order to make some sense of the people, places and things mentioned throughout these columns, it is worth briefly discussing the Iranian Revolution.
In a nutshell, America and Iran were on very good terms prior to 1978. America loved Iran’s oil, and the Shah of Iran loved its western ways, but maybe a little too much. Although the majority of Iran was of the Islamic faith, not all women made the choice to veil themselves. In America, not all Christians go to church every Sunday, but many still choose to; it’s the same concept. At some point during his rule, the Shah made it mandatory that all women unveil. It was a horror to the ones who veiled themselves for personal reasons — the equivalent of asking these women to roam the streets naked. Veiling was their choice, and they had done it for most of their lives.
This unwise and extreme action elicited an even more unwise and extreme response, which eventually led to a revolution. The non-religious people responded harshly as well because they felt as if their fellow Iranians’ freedom was being taken away, and that the Shah was ignoring the fact that Islam was the faith of most of Iran’s people. To many Iranians, it seemed as if the Shah was too swayed by the American way of life and ignoring the entire history and culture of Iran.
The Shah was soon overthrown to the delight of many. Unfortunately, nobody anticipated that religious leaders would then take over instead and impose their very strict interpretation of Islam upon all of Iran. The conclusion of the revolution was what Iran is today: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
All of this explained my dilemma with the aforementioned question.
I admired the people of Iran and their strength. I love my family, as well as the importance that the word “family” still has in Iranian culture. Work was just work; the days began and ended with loved ones. I was in awe of the country’s history and its ancient feats. The instruments and architecture, its herbs and spices, all stole me. It was a city unfolding on hills, a dichotomy of old and new. Clothes dried on wires as withering women peered outside of their windows to the high-rise apartments casting shadows upon their own. Every sight was a photo. Everything stirred my curiosity.
In contrast were the impositions, the veils and the laws. There was the subordination of women and the cultural expectation upon them to become wives and mothers. There was Islam, imposed, which is not what Islam is about. Then there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president who is more unpopular in Iran than George Bush is in America. He who has declared the Holocaust untrue and willed America and Israel dead, who honestly believes that the “phenomenon” of homosexuals does not exist in Iran, who would come on television to talk about power outages, only to say that by losing power, the people of Iran would learn to appreciate it when it returned. As if the people of Iran needed a lesson on appreciation.
I was as divided as the country itself. It was my home as much as it could never be my home. It was not the people of Iran or Iran itself that repelled me, but what it was being molded into by those in power. The truth is that Iran will never completely change shape. The people of Iran have a silent strength and, though there is no democracy, they hold the core of the power. They wear the suit of obedience as we wear our smiles at work, but they haven’t stopped living their lives. They are just living them out slowly, silently and sometimes secretly.