Spending the Majlis elections in the United States
By Shadi Mokhtari
March 1, 2000
The long awaited sixth Majles elections had finally arrived. When the
polls had opened in Iran, it was probably about 9 o'clock in the evening
for me in the United States. I stayed up most of the night searching for
any picture, video clip, or article about the elections I could find on
the Internet. I had never wanted so desperately to be in Iran, to take
part in and witness the important historic transition it was undertaking
and to be surrounded by the energy of a society aware of the need for change.
In the morning I hunted for something I could wear or carry around with
me to display my invigoration and personal sense of connection to what
was taking shape thousands of miles away. I even contemplated making a
baraa-ye hame-ye Iraaniaan" sign to carry in order to make an
emphatic statement though I knew there was no one to receive it. My half-presence
in classes of 120 people who neither knew of nor cared about the struggles
and aspirations of my people made for a surreal morning. I regretted that
instead of listening to a Tehran taxi driver explain the intricacies of
democracy as he saw it, I was listening to a lecture on whether the seller
of a termite-infested house had the obligation to inform a potential buyer
of this fact under contract law.
Generally, I have serious problems with the Tehrangelas entertainment
industry and the culture of materialism and vacuum of values it often propagates
and to my relatives' amazement I do not see the latest music videos and
"shows" except in their homes when I go to Iran. Yesterday evening,
however, I had made plans to see "Samad va do Leila," a Tehrangelas
play/musical starring Parviz Sayyad and Leila Forouhar. I attended because
I was curious to see the famous Samad storyline- a legend of pre-revolutionary
Iranian popular culture, Sayyad's early 80s movie "The Mission"
was one of my favorites, and I thought it would be a good way to get myself
to forget how much I wanted to be in Iran.
What I saw was disheartening -- to put it mildly. In the conversations
that took place within the hour the show was delayed, I heard not one word
about the elections in Iran. On the day that Iranians in Iran had crowded
into polling stations in an attempt to take control over and responsibility
for their destiny, hundreds of Iranians in the United States crammed into
a high school auditorium to be "entertained" by a shallow and
distasteful charade complimenting the worst of Iranian culture with the
worst of American culture. In the play, Samad's unconditional love for
Leila was presented as absolutely nothing more than lust. In this rendition
Samad did not threaten anyone's eye with his finger; rather, he aimed for
the female actresses' breasts. He was interested in the "modern,"
Americanized, skimpily-clad Leila and repeatedly invoked the audiences'
laughter by ridiculing the traditional Leila who he called "dehaati"
serving to further reinforce the rural/urban social hierarchy so prevalent
in Iranian culture.
Perhaps what I found most insulting was the dismal attempt to interject
political and social commentary amidst the seemingly endless sexual innuendoes.
"Why do Iranians close their eyes to social and political activism
while consuming countless gheri videos," and "why are women objectified
in Iranian culture" were questions alluded to in passing. Bizarrely
these questions were only peripheral to the substance (or lack thereof)
of a play that in the final analysis only perpetuated Iranian prejudices,
and objectified women.
As I sat still staring in amazement into the sea of Iranians around
me who had risen to their feet to give the cast a standing ovation, I felt
even more misplaced than I had sitting in my contracts class earlier in
the day. A profound sadness overcame me. These people, many of which had
brought their children and teenagers in order to expose them to "Iranian
culture", were actively the passive subjects of the commercial production
of the North Tehran meets Hollywood mindset and the moral vacuum it too
often promotes. In so many ways they seemed to lack the sophistication
and depth I had sensed in speaking to Iranians in post 2nd of Khordad Iran
-- the educated and uneducated, rural and urban, female and male, religious
and secular and gharbzadeh.
The outcome of the Majles elections in Iran is just one sign of the
disposition of a people who are awake, active, and alive -- a people who
refuse to remain paralyzed any longer. Through elections, discourse, and
subversive resistance, they are revisiting their social, political, and
cultural values, definitions, practices and assumptions. Though the path
promises to be neither short nor smooth nor devoid of obstacles, the most
important point is that the initial steps have been taken and that they
are deeply rooted. Today Iranians in Iran want to discuss individual rights,
patriarchy, environmental degradation and post-modernism.
On the other hand despite their own view of how progressive and liberated
they are, members of the Iranian diaspora are not only behind in the current
social transformations taking shape in Iran, they have regressed. They
wish to cover blemishes and pain and indignation through designer clothes,
extravagant houses, and plays which demand little thought yet subconsciously
exert much negative influence. For the most part they are not particularly
interested in troubling themselves with fora that require them to think
about the developments, people and ideas fostering change in Iran. Nor
do they wish to look inward at their own values and behavior as a community
in the United States. In many respects they accept and perpetuate passivity
I realize I am being unscientific in generalizing. No doubt there are
still plenty of Iranians in Iran who are unwilling to take any responsibility
for their society because it interferes with their time for watching Turkish
soap operas off their satellite TV. Likewise there are plenty of Iranians
abroad who care deeply about Iran and their Iranian identity and who strive
to preserve the best aspects of their culture while critically questioning
its less desirable aspects. I also do not mean to romanticize Iran and
Iranian society. The spectrum of problems Iran faces are vast and in many
The point is, however, that the Irainian-American community and the
larger American society of which it is a part suffers just as many social
and cultural ills, only they take slightly different forms. For me the
most salient distinguishing factor is that right now while American and
Iranian-American society remains dazed and easily swayed by a variety of
commercial and other dubious internal and external cultural forces, Iranian
society in Iran is more alert, dynamic and alive and through initiatives
such as the preparation for and participation in the sixth Majles elections
it is thoughtfully taking its destiny into its own hands. This is why I
spent yesterday lamenting the fact that I was here and not there.