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Spending the Majlis elections in the United States

By Shadi Mokhtari
March 1, 2000
The Iranian

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 "Iran 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 and apathy.

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 respects overwhelming.

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.

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