After 25 years
July 15, 2004
I had made a point of going for Nowruz to avoid the pollution of Tehran's
notoriously congested traffic, the soot of which penetrates every pore in the
house and every fibre in the lungs. As an added bonus, I not only got snow, but
the vision of beautiful women on the streets, barely covered with a transparent
scarf ever so lightly tossed over their frequently blond-streaked hair. (The
following week, as offices reopened, it was back to pitch black, black headcover
and black coat over slacks, which, however, are fashionably cut to show off the
curves of their young and shapely bodies).
I had heard much about the new women
of Iran, and indeed, found them striding with a self-assurance that was lacking
before. Not a man I spoke to was reluctant to admit that the greatest outcome
of the revolution was the change that had occurred in women as well as in male
attitudes towards them. It is somewhat ironic that my manic experiences invariably
involved the very things the mollas had resisted the most.
Since art and culture are a family vocation, I spent much of
my time visiting as many monuments and museums as I could fit into
my plans. Many of them are headed by knowledgeable women who are
sincerely devoted to the work they do. Not only that, but most
of the monuments I visited were in fact remarkably preserved, and
restored, if need be, with great expertise. Museums have increased,
with every provincial centre having one or more to boast of.
tourists from within the country, however, there is a clear bias
in favour of anything dating from pre-Islamic Iran. The Iran
Bastan Museum in Tehran (which is scheduled for a timely improvement
had masses of visitors with children in tow, but the next-door
Museum of Islamic art, which contains some truly amazing pieces,
was empty except for a group of visitors from China or Japan.
People travel long distances to visit the sites they have come
of by way of television programs devoted more and more to cultural
themes. At Soltanieh near Zanjan, I revisited the magnificent
Ilkhanid dome and found, to my surprise, that it was expertly
restored, and the stone platform that had once supported the
in the process of excavation, thus adding to the height and
majesty of the whole.
In pouring rain and sleet, a busful of
come from Gorgan to visit the dome, and they climbed all
the way to the top by narrow difficult stairs, with chadors hoisted
to avoid tripping. This was change. 'In the good old days',
whenever I mentioned a trip to Yazd or Kashan, many would react
The attention devoted to culture and art is allegedly part of
the 'Khatami effect'. Although he has disappointed his constituents
massively on the political front, people admit that if life has
become more bearable now, it must be thanks to him. In fact, it
is due to the pressure they put on a man who they hoped would do
their bidding. The people and not Khatami have obtained a lot by
expressing themselves: the music and song, men and women socializing
in cafes, couples holding hands without fear of arrest by guardians
of the mores, and above all, the freedom to criticize at will.
Not even those who depend on the government for their monthly
wages are reluctant to voice their criticism. I heard one such
complaining loudly in the workplace of the 'foreign Arabs' who
run the country today.
You feel the relaxation of rules everywhere,
even when crossing the frontier into Armenia as a woman alone
was going to attend the biennial conference of the Association
for the Study of Persianate Societies held in Yerevan's Ferdowsi
Hall), without being asked for a husband's permission to leave
the country. I did have a copy of the death certificate of
my late husband, but noone asked me for the proof that I had had
even in the days of the old monarchy.
My pointed questions
visiting sites of monuments, often put in the blandest of
terms, were neither construed as meddlesome questioning on the
of a woman nor as the curiosity of a foreign spy; on the
contrary, they invariably elicited the (undeserved) form of address
'In the good old days', whenever I ventured to visit the bazaars,
especially in towns like Kashan or Kerman or Yazd, with my head
uncovered, I would get dirty looks from men and women and sometimes
outright expressions of reproach or insulting remarks. This time,
had I dared to remove my scarf, I felt that noone would have cared
very much, and even if they did, it would be out of fear of losing
a job than out of belief.
That eventually the headscarf will disappear
rather sooner than later is a foregone conclusion, but for now
the door left ajar by the 'Khatami effect' has not opened enough.
At this point in time, I am not really sure whether a sudden
and wholesale baring of heads will be welcomed withtout further
Customs take time to adapt to desires.
That people must be readied
for improvements is attested by the tragic results of an excellent
network of roads which has caused an unprecedented number of
fatal crashes, mostly because of speeding and neglect of road signs
rules. Another example is the reluctance to use garbage cans
which, to the credit of municipalities, are now strategically placed
many places. And yet, in Tabriz, where it is forbidden to throw
away garbage into stream, the Aji Chai is teeming with rotting
debris, a revolting sight as well as a potential hazard.
Worse than the blight of rotting garbage, are the plastics strewn
all over the Iranian landscape. Littering town and country alike,
plastic sheets and bags are thrown away and blown by the wind to
faraway places like the Sistan desert.
A visitor from abroad joked
that he thought all the plastic in the world had come to pile
up around Zahedan. And this was an Englishman whose country's record
is so abysmal that it ranks 91st on a list of environmentally
countries. Plastics are the bane of our modern period, but nowhere
more so than in present-day Iran. And people love them. They
better do so, for unless a massive effort is made to collect them
the vastness of Iran and restrict their use, the leftover debris
will take five-hundred years to decompose but long before that
there will be enough of the stuff to bury us all.
are part of the love affair the people of Iran are having with
of the ugliest aspects of that which they seem to perceive as 'modernism',
including the twinkling fairy lights, the colourful mirrored glass
facades, the naively pretentious sculptures in gaudily painted
stucco, and in the interiors of houses, bouquets of artificial
flowers and draped curtains à l'anglaise in pitifully
limp synthetic textiles. Both of the latter are catered to in fact
chain stores with branches in every little town >>> Part
Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and
studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe
of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art
and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the
Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools
and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been
focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The
Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000)
called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".
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