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Thursday, June 10, 2004

more from Tehran...

City of Constrasts
It is indeed amazing how much of a contrast there is within this very city. While overall I still maintain that Tehran at least seems to have changed and ‘reformed’ itself over the past two years, it is amazing how much of a difference there is within the space of a few kilometers.

In the north, where the city slowly climbs the mountains that borders this megalopolis, if one were to stay blind to a few minor items, one could be fooled into thinking they were in scores of other places around the world. In the centre-city, where I happen to be staying, it at least seems as though all the adjectives that one would get if they had a poll of one thousand people as to what they thought would best describe a developing world capital city. In the centre, the roads are more chaotic; the signs of Islamic observance more apparent; police and military more visible; the people significantly less well-off. Radical changes within a city is not unique to this part of the world but given the images that are often associated with this country, and indeed this region, it is interesting that even within such a very small geographic space that the differences are so large.

I recall thinking something similar last time I was here in Iran with respect to Tehran compared to Qom, just south of here. Qom is an important pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims, and quite conservative. Now, having spent considerably more time in Tehran than I did last time around, I am amazed that to find such dramatic contrasts within an even smaller area. It is no wonder to me now why I was told my a north Tehran woman and her friends the other day that they were scared to go to Qom – to travel from north Tehran to Qom would indeed be a shock, particularly when Qom is seen by the people here as a base of what many here detest in their government. For me I’m sure the shift would be dramatic – more so than just returning there straight from the centre of Tehran, but for me, while no fan of the regime, Qom is only the political base of something that I study, not the base of something I have to live with.

Voting in Iran
It appears as if I just might be able to vote in the upcoming Canadian federal election. After numerous attempts to contact the Canadian embassy to determine the process, it seems like they just might have a ballot for me ahead of the June 20 mail-in deadline. Now, I used ‘appears as if’ and ‘seems like’ because the people at the embassy don’t inspire much confidence. I know a good number of very intelligent people who have written the Foreign Service exam and none of them passed through to the next stage. Perhaps the key to success on the exam is to tick the “I’m not sure” box, as this is all I got in response to my questions.

Martyr’s Museum
Across the street from the old US embassy in central Tehran (now occupied by the military, covered in murals denouncing the United States and Israel, and called the ‘US den of espionage’) is the Martyr’s Museum.

Inside are several hundred exhibits of sorts, each profiling a different martyr, most of them killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Some are religious figures, most are soldiers, and the vast majority were martyred quite young, with one only 13. Each person (only one of the martyrs profiled is a woman) has space for their personal effects, usually their identity card, some money, some pictures and oftentimes the clothes they were wearing when they were killed, still bloodstained. Some have copies of the Quran, a handful of which had bullet holes in them. Each had a small biography, including the work they did before and after the revolution in aid of the cause. The older ones had almost all gone to Lebanon and Syria in the 1970s. Many of the younger ones had letters to their parents profiled, one 16 year old saying to his father that by signing the letter to allow him to go to the front he had signed his papers to martyrdom and he had therefore done his part for the revolution and would be a martyr as well. The religious men all seemed to have been killed around the time of the revolution, most by the MKO (Mujahedin Khalq) from 1979-1981.

It was rather chilling to see, particularly as recordings above some of the martyrs called the museum a “beautiful and wonderful place” while at the same time featuring some pictures of the martyred after they died. The fact that this place exists, and is reasonably well maintained despite the lack of visitors (I was the only one today) is probably telling of the level of control exercised by the more conservative elements here. Particularly interesting was that this was the only museum I’ve been to in Iran (this time or last) that criticized the last Shah. Even at some of his former palaces, where criticism of the Shah would be easy, particularly given the excesses and lavish decorations, it is not at all obvious that the Shah was removed in the way that he was. The only possible explanation I can think of is that the more ‘traditional’ museums, including the Shah’s old palaces are under the control of one government ministry while the Martyr’s Museum is under the control of another.

I am still having trouble uploading photos and I can't imagine my chances improving when I leave Tehran Friday morning.


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

No photos...

I can't seem to get any photos to upload. I was hoping to get them up to complement the last two (long!) posts. In time I'll get them up...

Tehran in Springtime

I think I would like to say that Iran hasn’t changed since I was last here in July and August 2002. But, if one were to visit Toronto or Montreal and return two years later I doubt they would find that anything had changed in either of those cities. There may very well be no difference and this comparison I have drawn may well be completely fair.

Nonetheless, given that virtually all articles in western newspapers about Iran say virtually the same thing about Iran – that the people want reforms while the conservative parts of the government resist – I can’t help but look for tangible signs of reforms here. My first impression was that society here was generally more conservative than before, but this was due more to the holiday on the day I arrived rather than any real turn to the conservative.

Given that I have yet to leave Tehran – likely the most liberal city in the country – I do not really want to give my opinion just yet. But, there are a few things I’ve noticed that have changed.

First, relations here between men and women seem to have liberalized somewhat. Holding hands in public (gasp!) seems to be no problem and seems to be done everywhere throughout the city, though I have yet to see a couple beyond their mid twenties doing so. And, something I never could have imagined seeing two years ago: a kiss in public the other day at the bus station. It does seem strange to be making anything of this, but I recall being told two years ago that such things were strictly forbidden. That was in Esfahan, but that city can hardly be much more conservative than Tehran, if at all.

The battle of the veils. Tehrani women, particularly the younger ones, seem to have maintained whatever magic it is that keeps their veils on, but so far back on their heads. If anything, they are pushed further back than before. Yesterday, when I suggested to a woman who was graduate of the hotbed of reformist thinking that is Tehran University that it seems to be that the position of the veil is a form of protest against the government, she smiled and seemed reluctant to agree, so replied with just a simple “maybe”. She and her friends seemed to get quite the laugh talking about Mullahs, particularly when they ride bicycles. That much has not changed: the people love making fun of the mullahs who run the country.

I should note that as with the last time I was here, I start begin any discussion of politics, but will happily engage in one if invited. Iran is in the funny situation of not being entirely free and having considerable capacity to stifle debate and keep dissenters quiet, but they’re not very good at running much of a police state. That said, they still are a champion human rights abuser.

Somewhat related to the question of the position of the veil on women is the rest of their clothing. Here too, the younger generation in particular seem to be pushing things a fair bit, with the chador clearly fading fast among Tehrani women. Generally young women around the city were pants with a sort of long coat and a separate scarf. However, these ‘coats’ seem to be tailored in such a way that they can get away with as much as possible without angering the authorities. Many wear pants folded up revealing bare ankles, again something that would not have been acceptable before.

Third, the economy seems to be showing some more signs of opening up, and western consumer goods seem to be more readily available. For a long time, Iran has had been building up their own native industries and manufacturing capacity due in large part to the sanctions regime that has been in place since the revolution. Particularly in recent years I expect that the sanctions have had an even greater impact in some ways given that so many goods now have pieces made in a number of countries, including the United States, and the sanctions rules have specific rules on what percentage of a given product can have been made in the United States. What products haven’t been kept out by the sanctions regime have been slowed by high tariff barriers on many things. As a result, Iran has quite a vast array of enterprises here making all kinds of things, a good number of which are quite clearly rip-offs of western products as trademark rules do not apply here. My favorites so far: ‘Kabooky Fried Chicken’ and the very common ‘Parsi Cola’. There was an Iranian-made ‘Crust’ toothpaste available in Iraq, but I have yet to spot it here. Iran has been opening its economy somewhat in recent years and I’m not sure if it is because of this that there appear to be more imported goods around, or whether it is due to other reasons.

While I have said here that the economy seems like it might be opening up, make no mistake: all the numbers out there indicate that it is still a disaster. Unemployment is sky-high even according to government numbers, and the country has the burden of a massive population bulge which means that huge numbers of Iranians are reaching working age every year.

Over the course of the past year, Mike and I engaged in a few debates over which traffic was worse, Iran’s or Iraq’s. When I arrived in Iraq, to his enjoyment I agreed that Iraqi traffic is indeed worse. However, upon further reflection here in Tehran, I would like to take that back. Tehran’s traffic is far, far worse than Iraq’s, at least in the areas I saw. Far worse. Iraqi Kurds have much better vehicles, though, and so they can go much faster. Hundreds of used cars from Europe were waiting at the border when I was there, heading to various parts of Iraq. They seem to particularly like 5-series BMWs, which regardless of displacement can go quite fast. Here in Iran, there are few imported luxury vehicles, with the roads covered mostly with Paykans (which look a lot like and are about as reliable as Ladas), small Kias, and Peugeot 405s (made here in Iran) and 206s. So, they have a harder time going insanely fast here. The roads here are always a sea of cars (except Fridays, that is) and motorcycles (although the motorcycles seem to prefer the sidewalk when the roads are packed). The traffic lights flash yellow all the time. Crossing the street takes confidence, but generally most of the cars will try to go around you so it is best just to walk quickly without stopping. Stopping in the middle of traffic is a sign of weakness in one’s road-crossing resolve it seems. So, I think one is far more likely to be in a traffic accident in Iran. But, I suspect that one is better able to survive the accidents here as the traffic moves much more slowly due to higher volumes and slower cars compared to Iraq. Sorry Mike.

And this post drags on…again. Rod has complained but he also complained that Alden never posts on his. Enjoy the bugs in Oromocto, buddy.

I’ve returned here to Tehran primarily to check out some of the things that I missed last time through. In the past few days I’ve been able to find (!) a few, and have mixed reviews. The last Shah’s palace in north Tehran is great as a museum, but horribly tacky; the military museum in the grounds had some pretty interesting weapons from Iranian and Persian history, including numerous gifts from dignitaries, including Saddam Hussein (he gave two brilliant Kalashnikovs to a minister of defence during the 1970s). Unfortunately they barred access to some tanks behind the museum, though parts of an Iraqi MiG, heavily damaged but with the Iraqi flag still visible on the tail section, was in view outside the museum. The national jewels museum, which I saw Saturday was spectacular, though again revealed the poor taste of the Shah.

Trouble finding the way around does have the benefit of forcing one to explore parts of the city that otherwise would be missed. One of the interesting things that I particularly enjoy looking at is the art and propaganda put up everywhere. I remember getting some films developed in Esfahan and the girls behind the counter all giggling when they gave me my photos back. They wondered why I had so many pictures of Khomeini and were amazed that I thought his omnipresence was actually pretty interesting, particularly when combined with images promoting the heroism of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war. On Sunday while lost I stumbled upon a particularly interesting mural on a wall beside a major highway here in Tehran. It combined a bunch of things, including the words “Down with the USA and Israel” and “His excellency the leader: Imam Khomeini’s followors are always supporting the palestinians and fight their enemies” (the errors appear on the mural). Together with this was a picture of Khomeini and Khameini’i and another picture of Sheikh Yassin, the leader of Hamas before he was assassinated in March.

I expect to be here in Tehran for at least a few more days as there are a few more things I would like to see and do, and as the city is horribly difficult to get around, making it tough to get to more than one part of the city in any one day.


Delayed Post from Eastern Turkey

I wrote this around June 2nd...

In the past few days I have been in some of the same areas of Turkey that I traveled through in 2002. Two years seems to have changed a fair bit in some ways but in others it is like my previous visit was just a month ago.

When I arrived in Diyarbakir two years ago, it was a hot July day with a forecast high of 49 Celsius. No, that is not a typo…forty-nine degrees. This time through it was a little warm, but not quite as stifling as, for example, Khanaqin the week before in Iraq. The city itself seemed quite different as well – even before the run-in with the police! Perhaps it is just a changed attitude on my part that has forced a different lens in front of my eyes this time, or perhaps there have been marked changes. Regardless, it certainly seemed as if there has been a concerted effort in the city to beautify it and to bring back the tourists that once filled its now-dingy and tired collection of hotels. The tea shops that obscured the inside view of the old city wall have been moved across the street facing them; on the outside of the wall, the gardens, parks and playgrounds seem to be fully developed whereas two years ago they were just getting started on building them. Also, it was then as it is now possible to climb and walk the wall, but now the entrances have been cleaned up significantly and while they still certainly would not meet over-zealous European or North American safety standards, improvements have nonetheless been made. Last time in the city it was the height of the watermelon season for which the region is famous, and this made for quite a scene at the watermelon markets just outside the city wall; in their place, however, were countless banners advertising a festival of some sort that appears to have just ended. A last reason for my different impression this time is that two years ago I saw little of the city outside the old city wall and generally speaking, outside the wall the better parts of town are found, with scores of people out on that Saturday afternoon doing their shopping.

All this aside, my different impressions of the city itself could not mask the distinct feeling I had two years ago that all was not well in the city, that while the war with the Kurds was over, the struggle continued beneath the surface. The government is definitely working hard to make that a distant memory, and perhaps had I not just spent time in Iraqi Kurdistan my memory would not have been so vivid. A return to this large city in the heart of Turkish Kurdistan once the Kurds are properly recognized would be interesting I’m sure and no doubt it would be quite the spectacle there with Kurdish dancing and music outside those most impressive city walls.

Dogubeyazit, where I sit now (although I expect to actually post this message from elsewhere), also has given me quite a different impression. This town is not far from the Iranian border and does not have a great deal to it aside from a magnificent old fort overlooking the town on one side and Mt. Ararat, straddling the Turkish-Iranian-Armenian border on the other. As I write this I’m thinking that either of these two things should make one think that there is indeed a great deal to it, and in fact it does. It is by the far the most interesting border town I have ever passed through and now I have the good fortune of being able to do so again.

Two years ago this for me was the gateway to the country which I had long been fascinated by the mere mention of which would kick my mind into gear thinking of radical revolution, clerical rule and status as a pariah state, having that further entrenched a few months previously when named in the axis of evil. Of course, much of what fascinated me about Iran two years ago turned out not to be the case in what to be perfectly honest was a most pleasant surprise. And so, today for me Dogubeyazit is not a portal to a twisted imamate that I thought Iran to be thanks to films such as ‘Not without my daughter’ and my having just read ‘On Wings of Eagles’ on that trip, but instead is the last stop before a country where things are quite normal and in many respects fairly liberal. Perhaps it is my different perception of Iran – what lies beyond Dogubeyazit – that shapes my different impressions of this frontier town.

Iran’s relatively liberal society could well have been upset in the past two years, so it will be interesting to see how things compare to my last trip. The recent elections in the Majlis were a farce and the reform movement from what I have been reading seems deeply divided while the people have tired of pushing for reforms as they seem to have gotten nowhere.

What is particularly strange about both Diyarbakir and Dogubeyazit is that both just seem so familiar. While I didn’t spend too much time in either last time, in each city I have found myself recognizing the hotels I stayed in, where I ate, even where I sent e-mail home. Good thing though, as I was too stingy to buy a Turkey guidebook before coming this time around!

Between Diyarbakir and Dogubeyazit I made a trip north to Erzurum for no reason really aside from that I had to pick up my Iranian visa there at the consulate. The city was quite nice, and the cool weather from the Black Sea a welcome change from the heat further south. From there I headed to Kars, towards the Armenian border as that town is the jumping off point to visit a group of old Armenian churches from around the 12th century. Kars is a wonderful small town, and seems like it is in many respects still stuck in maybe about the 1970s. I had a bit of this feeling in Erzurum, though Kars seemed more authentic given its much smaller size. Kars seemed to me to be how I would imagine some small northern Italian villages to have been about thirty years ago. More likely, though, is that Hollywood has made me imagine 1974 Italy to be like Kars actually is today. Now just watch the Kars tourism board latch into this and sell trips to Italians as how they remember Italy as children.

Ani was until quite recently a closed military zone and as such, clearances were needed to get there and photography was not allowed. Things have changed, however, and while the Russian army still patrols the border on the opposite side of the fence, photography is allowed and no clearances are needed. While photos are allowed, I foolishly lost all my photos from Ani due to impatience uploading them, which is quite disappointing as I did make a bit of a special detour to get to Ani after being sorry to miss out on it last time here (…and no, Mike, I did not lose my photos because I use a Mac, it is because I am impatient, something the good people at Apple haven’t found a cure for…yet). The driver out to Ani was fairly indoctrinated in the Turkish line towards Armenia and was well aware of the motion passed in the House of Commons several weeks ago recognizing the Armenian genocide. I would still maintain that it was perhaps not thing to do in diplomatic terms, it was quite bothersome to hear him dismiss the Armenian genocide in one breath and then in the next talk of the Kurdish ‘problem’.


Sunday, June 06, 2004

more from Tehran

I have yet to find an internet connection with a USB port here in Tehran and therefore cannot get any pictures up...or any of my long-winded posts I can put together offline and then upload.

The 'game' between the people and the government seems to be much the same as it was two years ago, with the people pushing the envelope with a variety of things to test the waters of the supposed reforms while the government seems to turn a blind eye. I have a few very crude measures to test just how far the envelope has been pushed and it seems to have inched forward at least a little since I was last here.

That being said, the government did bar scores of candidates from running in the recent elections to the Majlis (parliament) which resulted, predictably in a quite conservative result. The new government sat for the first time last week or the week before so perhaps in the coming months the 'envelope' will inch backwards again.