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Fear and trembling in Tehran
I realized that our national penchant for conspiracy theories does not spare natural disasters

June 3, 2004

Friday was an exceptionally humid spring day in Tehran. I was taking a rare afternoon nap when I felt my bed move and the room close in on me. I am not sure if it was the movement of the floor or the rumbling noise from inside the walls that woke me up, but I knew immediately that we were experiencing an earthquake.

I ran into the living room where my husband was holding my son (my daughter was in the garden) under a doorway. After the trembling stopped we headed downstairs and stood with other residents of our apartment blocks in the middle of the garden. We stood there talking for a long time, not knowing quite what to do, before we decided to come back up.

Ever since I have had children I get easily scared. I simply want to live to see them grow. I was scared out of my wits on Friday afternoon. The memory of the Bam earthquake (took place in late march killing more than thirty thousand) and the knowledge of the precarious geophysical position of Tehran injected extra horror into the loud roars and heavy trembling that seemed to last forever. The earthquake, whose epicenter was about forty miles away in the Caspian region, was later announced to have reached 6.2 on the Richter scale.

Tehran is an over-crowded city where the very few building standards that exist can easily be bought. Everyone knows and experts agree that an earthquake of more than six Richter would level the city in the most horrific way. There is a popular myth, which is very telling of the mood here since Bam: a few months ago Japanese engineers, invited to help secure Tehran against an inevitable earthquake, refused to stay overnight because of the bad condition in which they found her buildings. They flew back that evening to a more earthquake-ready Tokyo.

When we came upstairs, having lived in the U.S. for twenty-five years, I automatically turned to the television set to see if it would tell us what to do next. When I saw the so-called “experts” advising people to perform the Namaaz-e Ayaat, a special prayer meant for such occasions, I realized that I could not rely on the practicality of any information or advise meted out by the authorities.

In moments of uncertainty and fear one needs to hear someone who knows more about the disaster at hand than oneself. That is why in most places there are people whose job it is to worry about things the rest of the population seldom ponders--like what to do when an earthquake takes place. It is a grounding feeling to have the head of the Fire Department or Department of Emergency Services give practical advise.

I tried to remember my years living in California and the instructions that I was given then. I told my kids about where to stand and what to do. I prepared a bag with necessary provisions, including our passports! My husband explained to me that in the event of the “Big One” hitting Tehran, the airport too would close. I packed the passports right there with the bottled water and band-aids anyway.

Talking to friends and neighbors I realized that our national penchant for conspiracy theories does not spare natural disasters. There were even some who claimed Iran is getting rid of its nuclear arsenal ahead of IAEA inspections! “Our dogs did not act odd, like they should before a natural disaster. This means that it was an underground nuclear explosion and not an earthquake,” explained a second-year computer science student living a few floors above us. The lady who cooks for our neighbor said, “this is God’s wrath at all the money the mullahs have stolen.”

Most people spent the night outdoors --in parks and private gardens. Usually on these occasions when one member of the family panics everyone else finds relief in making fun of them. Having turned into an American mom intent on doing something pro-active to save her family I became the laughing stock of my husband, children and even my eighty year-old mother who had come to spend the night in our building. They made light of my fears and we all went to bed.

The damage in Tehran and surroundings was minimal by Iranian standards -- only around forty-five fatalities near the epicenter. But everyone is bracing himself or herself for another one. You see, they say that before the earthquake hit Bam the residents had felt trembling and rumbling all day but made the fatal mistake of not leaving town.

In the two years that I have moved back here I have never seen our building or my work place have an earthquake drill. My kid’s school has never had one either. When I tried to organize a drill for our building, everyone laughed at me and dismissed my idea as futile.

Perhaps I too should learn that special prayer because no amount of planning on my part can help here. Time to embrace my Iranian fatalism and stop seeking the comfort of cool-headed experts on the television!

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By Shahla Azizi


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