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.
Among 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 soon), 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 to know 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 edifice was in the process of excavation, thus adding to the height and majesty of the whole.
In pouring rain and sleet, a busful of tourists had come from Gorgan to visit the dome, and they climbed all the way to the top by narrow difficult stairs, with chadors hoisted up to avoid tripping. This was change. 'In the good old days', whenever I mentioned a trip to Yazd or Kashan, many would react with sarcastic remarks.
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 person 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 (I 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 to produce even in the days of the old monarchy.
My pointed questions when visiting sites of monuments, often put in the blandest of terms, were neither construed as meddlesome questioning on the part of a woman nor as the curiosity of a foreign spy; on the contrary, they invariably elicited the (undeserved) form of address 'Khanom Doktor'.
'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 ado. 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 and rules. Another example is the reluctance to use garbage cans which, to the credit of municipalities, are now strategically placed in 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 conscious 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 throughout 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.
Plastics are part of the love affair the people of Iran are having with some 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 by chain stores with branches in every little town
Author 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”.