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My city, Isfahan
The good, the bad and the ugly

By Mohammad Ali
May 21, 1999
The Iranian

The last time I was in Iran was right before I came to the U.S. in 1992. Before that I was living in Turkey and I would go home at least twice a year. Ohhh I miss those days...

I lost my father about five months ago and it was a devastating loss for my family. I was planning to go home and be with my mother for a few weeks and possibly bring her here to the U.S. A week before Noruz, however,I got more devastating news: My mother had suffered a massive stroke. She was not able to handle the loss of my father. I was back at home in Iran within a few days and at least I had a chance to see her, though only briefly. She died in my arms, five minutes before the new year (saal tahvil).

I would rather not discuss my parents' death. Instead I am going to tell you a little bit about MY city - Isfahan; about the good, the bad and the ugly.

Let's start with traffic. We Iranian-Americans cannot drive in Iran, especially in Isfahan. There is virtually no regard for traffic laws. At every crossroad and circle stands a "policeman" -- actually young men drafted for mandatory two-year military service -- wearing an over-sized uniform, and holding a whistle and notebook. They are not considered real cops and no one takes them seriously.

Drivers constantly blow their horns. Distance between cars is measured by inches not feet. On a two-lane road, you can see up to five cars next to each other at a stop sign. Still, because of the extraordinary driving skills of the average Iranian, a thousand fender-benders per minute are avoided. Traffic tickets are issued regularly and are rather expensive.

Disregard for the rights of fellow citizens goes beyond driving. If you want to wait for your turn in a line to buy a ticket or even pay for something, you would have to wait a long time. Almost everybody is street-smart and they will cut into the line. Low productivity and high demand for many items has led to the slogan "The Customer Is Always WRONG." You cannot even try on a shirt before you purchase it. And if you do buy it, by God, it is yours regardless of any problem.

Since government workers have low wages, they do not feel obliged to provide proper services; and if they do, it is as if they are doing a favor. Administrative corruption is overwhelming. You must either know someone or bribe your way through any process.

When I was by my mother's bedside at the best private hospital in Isfahan, I constantly saw my brother "being kind" to hospital staff by sticking 1000-toman bills in their pockets. The hospital's elevator was only for the staff. Those who came to visit their loved-ones, even if they were elderly or overweight, had to climb the stairs to the third level. But somehow my brother was able to get hold of a key to the elevator. Obviously, for those who can afford it, it is a very good system; for those who cannot, well, too bad.

Addiction and prostitution are almost as common as drinking a cup of tea at home. Lack of entertainment and jobs combined with the easy availability of drugs are reasons why many young people (mostly men) use drugs such as opium, heroin, hash or marijuana. Many young women resort to Prozac. Poverty is forcing some single-mothers and even married women to do whatever necessary to feed their children. Younger girls want a better life-style, a nice scarf, purse or stockings and they know their father cannot afford them. Instead they try to earn the money by selling themselves. This is extremely sad; it makes my heart bleed.

Kalleh paacheh, kabab-by-meter and Isfahan's famous beriani are to die for. But a first-class restaurant there is like a third-class restaurant in Washington, DC. There are very few places with waitresses. Feasting on chelo-kabab soltani -- one meter of barg and one meter of koobideh with rice -- and an all-you-can-eat salad bar and drinks for a family of four will cost about 12,000 tomans (about $15) at Isfahan's famous Hotel Shah Abbas. (An average civil servant earns about 35,000 tomans per month).

Sports are very popular among young adults, and middle-aged folks go for a walk in parks in the morning. Soccer is still the most popular sport but wrestling, martial arts and body-building clubs are all over the city.

Debate continues over the positive and negative effects of many college-level schools (Daneshgah-e Azad) in every corner of the country. Many say it creates a nice environment for young students to study and be productive. Others say too many of these schools are lowering the level of education and the graduates often can not find a job.

Film and entertainment industries are growing rapidly. A new artist, singer and actor is born every day. There are five TV channels and many houses have a satellite dish.

Despite hearing about the lack of freedom in Iran, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- talks about the country's problems. Almost everywhere people discuss issues such as poverty, freedoms, police brutality, the Islamic dress code and everything else. It was very surprising for me to see a newspaper, Jebheh, calling for the over throw of President Khatami's government and another newspaper, Hamshahri, openly criticizing Judiciary Chief Mohammad Yazdi.

Well, these were some of my observations back home. I wanted to talk about funeral services in villages, birth control and other issues, but I'll leave them for another time.

Mohammad Ali is the host and producer of Naghsh-e Jahan program, on Radio Velayat in Fairfax, Virginia.

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