From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley
My Life Stories and More
by Reza Varjavand
Xlibris Publisher (2009)
Reza Varjavand arrived for the first time in the United States from Iran – a country with a long and rich history of accomplishment – in 1973. He attended the University of Oklahoma and received a Ph.D. in economics. Reza came from humble surroundings in what he describes as the Misery Alley. He had seven siblings and was the youngest of four brothers. Their father was a farmer and mother taught Quran to a few girls in the Reza’s neighborhood. Fortunately, because he did not have to work alongside his brothers and father on the farm, Reza was allowed indulge his curiosity and desire for an education.
Reza’s life story speaks to a larger orbit of people than himself. From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley: My Life Stories and More records and shares with us Reza’s experiences in both worlds—Iran and the United States of America.
Few people outside the Middle East, especially Americans, apart from scholars, don’t have a good understanding or knowledge of Iran and its people in terms of history, religion, customs and traditions. The face of Iran is its rulers. We know names like the Shah of Iran (the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) and the Ayatollah Khomeini (who issued a fatwa on the life of Salman Rushdie for penning the Satanic Verses). Of course, the controversial Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s name often pops up in the news media. We are aware of these rulers because of the public nature and international resonance of their deeds. The rest of the people—common people—live their lives shrouded behind a veil (literally, if women cover their face). In some ways, these poor people are largely ignored and/or forgot. However, Reza remembers them and in telling his story he tells theirs as well. He shines a light on their intimate lives—he puts flesh on the bones of information we glean about them and values the existence of nameless masses in a way abstract statistics fails. Iran’s per capita income was approximately $5,360 in 1979. Not bad! Yet, this figure belies the actual distribution of income since large numbers of people forced to eke out an existence on much less income might account for the asymmetry in the quality of life Reza so vividly tells in his story.
In a broader context, the author speaks to the travails of life in his alley (neighborhood), as a proxy or representative of many such alleys, and perhaps even blocks, and cities in Iran. Reza’s account of his mother’s (being otherwise formally illiterate) tutoring of Quran provides insights into the role religion plays in an environment with afterworld imaginings, expectations, and musings. This is aptly captured in Reza’s description of his mother’s faith and in a way the collective beliefs of the Iranian people:
“My parents were completely unconcerned about the bleak future awaiting them. Their existence in this world was believed to be preparation for the next. Indeed, they viewed their temporary life as a prelude to eternal life after death. As a matter of fact, they were looking forward to the end of their mundane earthly life as the joyous start of their eternal life.”
Reza sees conversation as a vehicle for understanding. He writes in a fluid and vivid style that as I was reading him I felt led on a journey to a region of the world that is unknown to most of us in the US. True, sometimes we get slivers of the difficult existence Reza speaks to from movies. For example, in the movie Black Hawk Down an American soldier pinned down in a Somali hut laments, I paraphrase, “What are we doing in the dirty place?” Although this was a conflict between the Somalia people and Americans, and while Iranians are Persians (not Arabs), it is safe to say the quality of life for ordinary Iranians and Arabs cannot be differentiated by “race” or nationality. Reza’s book is inspirational because it is so personal, drawing on his own life in a manner that people in Africa, parts of Asia, India, and Latin American can relate.
A lesson to learn from Reza’s story is that no one needs to be a prisoner of his environment. One must be prepared to seize moments of opportunity. His early life was hard but his brothers made it possible for him to go to school, giving him a couple of Rials for lunch, coupled with his parents permission to go to school, if doing so did not interfere with his duties and if school did not inculcate in him notions that were in conflict with their religious beliefs—”anti-religious science.” As I see it, this is a story worth telling for a couple of reasons: (1) it will be uplifting for children in developing countries whose daily lives Reza keenly, vividly, candidly describes, and (2) it will bring awareness in developed countries to the plight for disadvantaged children around the world.
Another lesson one can learn from Reza is the positive effects parents have on children no matter their economic status. Reza writes:
“My parents did not do for me any of the things that modern parents do for their children. I don’t remember that they ever drove me to school, bought me a toy, took me to a restaurant, or spent any so-called quality time with me. But they were good parents, the best, and that is what matters. As a traditional poor farmer, my father had to work hard every day for many long hours. He did not have any additional time to spend with me. If I needed love and affection, I always could turn to my mother. My high respect for both of them did not allow me to challenge their decisions, be dismissive of their feelings, or even to raise my voice when talking to them.”
One could argue that this deference is conducive to stunted development. That might be a prevailing view in the West, although it did not appear to have had that effect on Reza. In fact, Reza again allows us to peep in an important way on his family in terms of the division of labor, and the respect of children for their parents. To be proud for his parents and love them regardless of the circumstances of birth speaks volumes. Contrast this with the demands and expectations of kids growing up in modern cities wanting things such as Xboxes, IPods, Wii games, computers, video games, cell phones, computer Internet service like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter; and where they spend many hours a week watching TV. I don’t begrudge modernity and its rewards of health, sanitation, recreation, etc. I do find children’s rebellion, profanity, disrespect of authority, of older people, and of parents, destructive in modern societies. On the other hand, I believe electronic games are the modern learning tools people have at their disposal from an early age.
Reza notes overcrowding has pros and cons. For the cons, look at life in the inner cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere, where kids (with some exception) start in poverty and are likely to lead nonproductive lives as adults. But poverty might be only part of the cause of this outcome. The level of poverty in the US is easily overwhelmed by the level of poverty described in Reza’s childhood neighborhood. Overcrowding in ghettoes and slums causes emulation of negative behavior. Worse, overcrowding spreads diseases such as cholera and malaria in developing countries, or the problem of HIV/AIDS around the world, which takes a disproportionate toll of the poor in developed and developing countries. Reza reminds us that overcrowding has positive aspects as well. It is people who create goods and purchase them and it is people who advance the state of the art in technology that improves the quality of life for all of us. In this modern world, appearance and height matters. Further, if you have a deficiency, it can be fixed with pills (for erectile dysfunction), plastic surgery, exercise and diet. The rise above environment is doable. That is the hope Reza’s life inspires.
Reza argues that economics is a way of thinking about the world we live in. While there are many theories about how the world works, there are some laws that seem immutable—the law of diminishing returns, which Reza alleges has been repealed by his wife. Today, under President Obama, and in light of the economic catastrophe he inherited, there appears to be a return to activist government—what with the billions to bailout banks, the automobile industry and Wall Street. This smacks of a return to Keynesian economics, which essentially had been set aside in deference to the wisdom of the invisible hand (i.e. market forces) to make economic decisions. The relaxation of regulations that might have prevented bad behavior in pursuit of profits is a source of the problem. We seem to have quickly forgotten the “laws of economics” although we live with them everyday. We forgot that without regulation, people can behave badly, like buying too many shoes—Imelda Marcos had 5,400 shoes. Where is the law of diminishing returns here? We also forgot the lessons of the Great Depression and the need to separate financial activities—investment banking from commercial banking, for example, for which the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was enacted. Glass-Steagall was abolished in 1999, which apparently led to the bad economic environment we are facing now.
Reza’s writing style, sense of humor, and keen understanding of his own past all come through in this book. We see clearly the contrast between life in Iran and life in America he wants to turn our attention to. The book is at once entertaining and serious reading. As he shows, there is no need for both these things to be mutually exclusive. At every level, readers will be engaged with the conversation Reza has started and will benefit from the cultural socio-economic focus of the work.
Seymour Patterson is emeritus professor of economics and author of The Microeconomics of Trade, The Development of Free Trade in the 1990s and the New Rhetoric of Protectionism, Foul Deeds, and Economic Growth in Botswana in the 1980: A Model for Sub-Saharan Africa.