Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How do we come together now?

Obviously, I’m not an avid blogger since it’s been over 3 years since I last posted here. But after the election last night, I got to thinking about the last time I sat down to write on our blog. It was shortly after a very different election in Iran back in 2009. There was also a divided population with different ideologies. The demonstrations following the elections led to violence and bloodshed with many lives lost or ruined forever. Being so connected to those events, I do not take lightly people’s calls today for riots, and the deep-rooted fear of some that we should start arming ourselves in “preparation” – though for what, I don’t understand.

More than anything else, I think our election today was a wake-up call for America that we can no longer close our eyes to the changing demographics of our nation and the increasing diversity of us as Americans. We have to start talking – rationally and without fear – about the hopes, concerns and lack of understanding we have of each other. The bottom line is that this election wasn’t about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social status, age or a myriad of other factors – it was about all of those things. And the more we point to one group or another, the more we try to isolate “them” - whomever “them” is at the moment – the more we pull ourselves apart. We have seen this happening, and we need to stop.

Confronting our diversity in order to be a more inclusive nation - in order to be a more perfect union - has to be a personal journey for each of us. We each come with our own experiences, beliefs, values, and biases that can cause us to either close ourselves off from people we don’t understand, or to shrink from reaching out to those who are different from us. Coming together as a country requires us all to explore who we are individually and collectively in order to understand each other more fully.

I’ve been thinking back to when I first recognized I had biases about others. It was when Nickrooz and I had started dating. I rapidly had to come face to face with some misconceptions I held about the Middle East and Iran. It was tough to face my prejudices – no doubt about it. Admitting a group of people or region of the world made me uncomfortable required opening up myself to a range of feelings: frustration that I held biases about others, fear that I was a “bad person” or was narrow-minded overall, and anxiousness about what other prejudices I might hold. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was also a chance to start seeing the world from a different vantage point. I didn’t know then what crossing that threshold would mean for me, but I’m thankful I found the courage to look inside myself and begin examining the biases I’d picked up throughout my life. When I started acknowledging how much I didn’t know about others, I opened myself up to a whole world of people I might otherwise have blindly misjudged, feared, or worse yet, offended or hurt unintentionally.

Had I not taken the step, it’s very likely I would have missed the many wonderful years Nickrooz and I have shared together, learning from each other’s background and growing together. Had I not confronted my fears, I would not have gone to Iran and realized first-hand the beauty of the country, the generosity of it’s people and understood how badly distorted our view is of the Middle East and Iran in particular. Had I retreated back to only that which I was comfortable with, I might have never have learned so much about so many people whose backgrounds, lives and beliefs vary in ways both large and small from my own.

I didn’t know at the time taking that first step was only the beginning. It’s a journey I’m still on today. With as much as we’re all connected across the world now, each day brings new experiences and things to learn. I will say that confronting that which I don’t understand hasn’t necessarily gotten any easier, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

In this election, I’ll admit I got pretty fired up at times – my frustration fueled by the fact that we seemed to resort increasingly to sound bites and media hype on both sides rather than talking and listening to each other. I’m a Facebook fan, but as I reflect back, I’m as guilty as many of not taking the extra time to look beyond the posts to try to understand a different perspective.

So now here we are, one day after the election, and many of us are talking or posting about how we can come together again as a country. A person on Facebook recently asked if we’d all be talking as much about reconciliation and healing if Romney had won. My response? Yes – we have to. We can’t afford not to. Fear is not the answer. Threats of riots and guns are not the answer. Violent words or action of any kind are not the answer. The answer lies instead in confronting our fears and talking respectfully about our differences.

After giving this a lot of thought, I’m making a vow today to continue to learn about people and ideas that are different from my own. I’ll admit that trying to understand a conservative viewpoint from the far right is tough for me. Actually, extremes on either side bother me. But I want to learn and understand. I feel that it’s what I as an individual American can do.

So let’s talk. Not to try to convince or sway each other – but to understand and move towards each other again. We can do this. We will be far stronger as a nation by reaching out to each other than we will by pulling apart and continuing to go our separate ways, blind to others’ perspectives.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reflections on the past week

We've had a few comments from people lately who knew we were recently in Iran asking us "aren't you lucky you aren't there now?" and "what do you think of what's happening in Iran?". I'm not sure lucky is quite how we feel at the moment. Of course, we had planned to leave Iran prior to the elections; at the same time, our feelings right now are more of helplessness at being so far away. And frustration when others do not seem to grasp the magnitude of what's taking place right now in Iran. At a rally in Bellevue in support of the people's voice in Iran, most passers-by were supportive. But there were also some who clearly were not. And I have to ask myself, why would they not want Iranians to have the freedom to express themselves, to free press, to being able to democratically elect their leaders? All of those things only benefit the rest of the world through improved relations. Do the people here who scowled, and made rude gestures or comments towards those who rallied want Iran and US-Iranian relations to stay the same? Really?!

The people of Iran turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote for their next leader. When there was doubt cast on the legitimacy of the election proceedings, and the people began to demonstrate and make their voices heard, they were killed, beaten, arrested. Having just been in Iran, it is my view that the people there definitely do want change. They no longer want to be the enemy of so many countries. They do not want to be viewed as terrorists. They want better relations with the West. They believe in so many of the same principles we do here and the Iranian people recognize how much they have been isolated from the world.

People had a strong sense of hope with this election - that things could really change. Many Iranians have been inspired by the American people, in electing an African-American president for the first time, as well as the message by President Obama - a message of hope. Many people in Iran have felt so hopeless for so long, and Obama's message spoke to them. In fact, the two leading reformist candidates - Mousavi and Karoubi - used President's Obama's messages during their own campaigns. Karoubi's message was change, and Mousavi emphasized hope as he spoke to the people. In addition, both candidates expressed their beliefs in individual rights and freedom of speech.

It feels strange to be finishing our blog about a very enjoyable trip to Iran now that the past week's events have taken place. It's been difficult and surreal to watch the events unfold on the streets of Tehran - streets we walked peacefully just a few weeks ago. To now see people being killed and persecuted on those very streets is heart-wrenching. This last Friday, we attended a candlelight vigil with about 300 other Iranians and non-Iranians alike to honor those who have already died or been beaten in this struggle, as well as show support for those still continuing to make their voices heard. It feels like so little when they are giving their very lives for the dream of a better world. I hope that at least through continuing to talk to people about Iran, through this blog, and by not losing hope that things in Iran can change, we are contributing some small part to an improved future - both for them and for us.

Days 20 and 21 - Returning home

The last couple of days in Iran were fairly low-key; mostly spent with last-minute shopping, visiting with friends and family and preparing for our return trip. Although I always look forward in many ways to being home in Seattle again, with everything that is familiar and comfortable to me, it is also always very difficult to leave, first and foremost because we are leaving our family knowing it may be a couple of years before we can see them again.

The whole family came again to mom and dad's house for the afternoon and evening. Mom made Ash-e-Reshteh, a noodle, bean and herb soup which is traditionally made and then given away to neighbors after a loved one has already set out on their journey. But because mom knows how much I love Ash-e-Reshteh, she always makes it for us ahead of time, so that we can eat it as well!

The last couple of days, mom has also spent a great deal of time preparing and cooking nearly 50 pounds of herbs for us - the base of a couple of different Persian dishes which we both like. After the herbs were cooked for several hours, she put together several individual portions into freezer bags. They stayed mostly frozen, or at least cold until we reached Seattle. Each time we have a meal with one of these little packets, it will also remind us of mom and home in Iran. I was a bit worried about the little bags of chopped herbs making it through customs in the US, so I clearly labeled the bags with the ingredients - leeks, parsley, cilantro, etc.

There is no easy way to say goodbye at the end; we literally have to tear ourselves away and force ourselves to get in the cars to go to the airport. Akram, Mariam, Mahsheed, Behrooz and Massoud all came with us, and we had a long wait before we could finally board our flight and take off at 2 am. We were surprised to find at the security check-point a large number of Americans traveling on American passports - something I've never seen in Tehran before. We came to find out they were not only Americans, but also mostly from Seattle. They were part of a UN-sponsored delegation to build bridges between the Iranian and American people. They had been in Iran and had the same two-week itinerary that Rick Steeves had followed during his recent visit there. All of them reported having a wonderful time, and were planning on hosting talks and presentations about their experiences once they returned to the States.

After about 26 hours of travel time, we landed back in Seattle around noon on Sunday. Neither of us slept much during the flights, which meant we'd been up about 40 hours or so by the time we landed. However, in order to deal with the jet lag, we forced ourselves to stay up until 5 pm. I took a walk to the store, and found my senses overwhelmed by springtime in Seattle. Granted, Seattle on a sunny day in May is always spectacular, with the multi-hued rhodies and azaleas, the various shades of green everywhere, and the bright blue, clear skies above. But after being in Tehran, where there is less greenery, and most of the cars and buildings are fairly neutral colors, I felt somewhat like Dorothy stepping into the land of Oz for the first time. I noticed how many colors of cars we have - a yellow Volvo here, a red Toyota there - as well as how quiet and empty the streets were after the hustle and bustle of Tehran. And I felt extremely fortunate - to be living here, to have this paradise surrounding me, and to have so many freedoms that others around the world don't have. At the same time, I feel a piece of me is back in Tehran, with our family, in a land I have come to love.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Day 19 (5/13) Kashan - home of ancient monuments and rose water

Today, Nick and I borrowed his brother’s car early in the morning and drove to Kashan, about 2.5 hours south of Tehran. It is a beautiful drive, with the rugged outline of the Zagros Mountains to the right along the autobahn. Driving on the autobahn is very interesting. Just as it is in Tehran, nobody pays much attention to the lane markers. While in Tehran, one can explain this as being due to having just too many cars on the road, this is not so along the autobahn. In fact, we saw several lone cars driving right down the middle of the lane marker.
But, as Nick pointed out, it actually provides some measure of safety, as it gives the driver more room to maneuver on either side. Plus, if you want to pass somebody, all you have to do is honk and/or flash your light, and they’ll pull over into the right lane with no fuss.
We left Tehran at 6:30 a.m., and once we got out of the city, there were few cars the road. We did pass a couple of buses carrying tourists south. The most interesting one was a bus full of men. They were obviously listening to some good music, because a couple of them were dancing in the back of the bus. Another man was taking pictures of his dancing friends. We were so amused, and since we had the music turned up in our own car, my arms started dancing as well – they thought that was very amusing and they all started to look at us. Realizing it was probably not the best way to call attention to ourselves, we sped up and overtook the bus! The small Kia, “Pride” model we were driving is a great car, and very popular in Iran, along with Hyundai’s and Peugeots, as well as a few Nissan’s here and there. However, the new Kia Prides have one drawback – if you drive above 120 km/hr, there is a warning bell that goes off – a constant beeping. It doesn’t stop until you drop back below 120 km/hr. Since we were virtually alone on the highway, we were naturally going above 120 km/hr at times, but we found a solution. Put in a good CD and turn up the volume. Not only are you now listening to great music, but viola! - no longer can you hear that annoying beeping!

Kashan's history reaches back thousands of years. As such, there are a great many historical sites to visit. We first drove to Fin Garden, a royal bath/garden complex. It was here in the mid-1800’s that a very popular prime minister, Amir Kabir, and brother-in-law to the king was murdered on the king’s orders, as the king was afraid he had grown too popular. I'm always interested in what types of "Western" items sometimes pup up here. I think the most amusing by far was the one we saw at Fin Garden. There, among reproductions of ancient Kashan pottery and other handicrafts, sat a leather baseball glove. No explanation at all, just a baseball glove cradling a pottery vase.
After Fin Garden, we visited two historical houses - huge compounds with multiple courtyards, gardens and living spaces. Kashan, which sits on the edge of a vast desert, can get quite hot, and the way these houses were designed was ingenious. They were two stories, but they also had below-ground rooms that stay very cool on the warmest days. The houses also had towers that acted as air conditioners, pulling down cool air from the outside. The below-ground rooms were a welcome relief from an increasingly warm day.
By the time we visited our next destination, Sialk Hills, it was becoming quite warm, which for me gets a bit uncomfortable with my scarf and manteau (a short coat or loose long-sleeved shirt which reaches to at least mid-thigh). So we did not get to spend as much time there as I would have liked. Sialk Hills is the most ancient site in Kashan; its settlements date back to 5500 – 6000 BC. There are several settlements over thousands of years at Sialk Hills, and there is an ancient ziggurat, built by the Elamites around 2900 BC.
We were actually able to climb to the top of the ziggurat, from which there is a splendid view of Kashan. But the sun was intense at the top, and I scrambled back down pretty quickly.
Kashan is also the center of rose water and other distilled waters from various flowers, herbs and spices. Much of the distilling actually takes place in a town about 30 km in the hills northwest of Kashan: Niasar. The town is famous for its spring water used in the distilled waters, and a waterfall that cascades down the hill into the town from the spring. We were able to visit two homes where distilling takes place, and ended up buying several bottles of various waters – cinnamon water, cardamom water, rose water, mint water, lavender water.
As you can imagine, the fragrances that waft throughout the town from the numerous bubbling vats of flowers and herbs are magnificent . We hiked up to the waterfall, which has a beautiful park built around it. Above the park, where the spring emerges from the ground, there is a Zoroastrian fire temple. While it didn’t look very old, and there were no markers or plaques to provide any history, I learned later it was built sometime during the Sassanid dynasty, which reigned from about 200 – 650 AD. For being so ancient, it was very well preserved!
From the temple, we had a fantastic view of the surrounding hills and the village of Niasar below.
The drive back to Tehran was even more beautiful than the morning as the sun was setting over the Zagros. I found that my own challenges and frustrations in life seemed to grow much smaller under their shadows as I considered how many events throughout history those jagged peaks had witnessed in this, a cradle of mankind's civilization.

Day 18 (5/12) Lap swimming at an all-women's pool

Today was a new experience for me. I have always wanted to find a pool to go to when in Iran, so that I can get my normal workout, since I normally swim at least a couple of times a week back in the U.S. these days. One of my sister-in-laws, Akram, has a friend who is a swim instructor at a pool and club for women only. It was fairly close to home, so Nick drove Akram and me over there. The pool was very large, and while there were not people lap swimming as rigorously as they might in the U.S., I was still able to get quite a few short laps in. I was definitely a bit of a curiosity there. As I came up for air and to turn at one end of the pool, I noticed about 6 people sitting on the side just watching me go back and forth in the water. I smiled and said “Salaam” rather breathlessly. By my next lap, I noticed that most of them were back in the water swimming as well. The pool was fairly crowded and warmer than I was used to, but it was great to be back in the water again. The club also had a sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi as nice as I would find back home. While I found that it was actually somewhat refreshing having only women there, at least one women I spoke to indicated it would be nicer if it could be men and women. At any rate, the club is very cautious that nobody from the outside gets a peek of women in their bathing suits. Cell phones are strictly not allowed in the club - apparently there have been problems at some clubs before with pictures being taken by cell phone and then distributed. While this perhaps doesn't sound like such a big deal for somebody from the West (after all, who hasn't had their picture taken in a swimsuit at some point?), it would be mortifying for a women who chooses to practice full hejab.

When we got home that afternoon, Nick staged a photo session with me and our nieces, Mahsah and Parisa. We put on different outfits and adopted different poses - both inside as well as in the back garden. It was a fun way to connect with them both. I cant' believe Parisa is now as tall as me, and I'm sure will soon be taller! She is studying very hard for her university-entrance exams. It is very difficult to get into university here, much like many other countries, and there is an exam to select those who will have the opportunity to attend. Students generally spend an entire year, 12 hours a day studying for the exam. Parisa was telling us that she has 44 books that she has to study - 44! No wonder students spend so many hours for days, weeks, and months just studying.
Women here know that getting a college education is a key to a better future for them. Depite the difficulty of the exam, they have actually outpaced men in recent years in gaining admittance. They now make up approximately 60% of university students. In fact, the government has recently passed a law to make sure there is more balance between men and women in colleges - now it must be 50/50. So even if a man scores lower on the exam than a woman, he may get accepted to the university where she may not if the 50% quotient for women has already been filled.

The education has paid off for women. Each time we come here, we see and hear about more women with careers, making their own way in the world. We are very proud of our other niece, Mariam, who not only has a full-time job with a French company in Tehran, but who is also pursuing her Master's degree in commerce. Contrary to some misconceptions about Iranian women, there are women bankers, doctores, lawyers, and a full range of other occupations. Is there still a glass ceiling? Yes, absolutely. But it's changing slowly. The status of womens' careers now doesn't seem to me all that different from what it was in the 1960's and 1970's in the U.S.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Day 17 (5/11) Dinner with family

This evening, we went to visit Nick’s aunt in Karaj. She had invited us to her home, and invited her whole family as well – Nick’s cousins. When we arrived at Nick’s “zan-daie” (maternal aunt), not everybody had arrived yet; after all, it was only about 6:00 p.m., and those coming from work would probably not arrive until after 9:00 p.m. So we took a walk towards the shopping area for a while, and then went outside in the back yard amongst all the roses in bloom - heavenly! But slowly the family filtered in and as they did, we chatted with various relatives – all of whom it was good to see again after several years.

In Tehran, people often live in homes or apartments much smaller than most Americans. However, there is usually a large open room - our equivalent of a living or family room. For large gatherings such as tonight, when there were about 20 people around, the furniture is moved to the sides, and a large cloth of "sofreh" is spread out on the ground. The "sofreh" is then set like a regular table - no table extensions or card tables needed! Everybody sits around the sofreh. It's actually fairly comfortable.
The general menu for large gathering meals such as tonight is usually a "khoresht" (a stew to be served over rice - of which there are multiple varieties); plain rice with saffron; another rice dish with herbs; baked chicken, fish or kebab; green salad and yogurt salad.

I wish some people back in the U.S. could have observed this whole family gathering, because it is the side of Iran most people in the U.S. just never see; a close-knit, loving family who has always treated me with the utmost kindness and respect. Our gathering for a meal together was not so very different from a large family or holiday gathering back in the States. It was a celebration in our honor – for a nephew living in the U.S. and for me, and me his American wife. It was a beautiful gathering that brought me to tears knowing how much love there was for us there.

Day 16 (5/10) An alternate view

Today was a mostly quiet day at home with mom and dad. It was warm out during the day, so we mostly stayed inside. In the afternoon, when everybody else was taking a nap, I searched the airwaves with my IPod to see what I could find. I located some classical Persian music stations, and a Persian dance station. Most Persian dance music, as well as videos, are recorded in Los Angeles and then shipped to Iran, as there is a huge Iranian population in S. California. But then I located the most interesting station of all – the news, in English. Yet it wasn’t BBC or Voice of America (both of which are extremely popular on television through satellite dishes); rather, this was obviously Iranian government-controlled media in English. I always enjoy listening to the government sponsored news in Iran on television or radio. It is like taking the U.S. media's reports on the Middle East, with all their biases and and slant, and turning them on their head. For example, while our media has often ignored the role the U.S. played in Afghanistan many years ago, which eventually led to the creation of the Taliban, Iranian media will openly refer to the Taliban as the “U.S.-created Taliban”. Rather than referring to “civilians killed in Afghanistan”, the Iranian media discusses the “massacre of women and children”. Another example was when the station talked about Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Iraq, describing it as secret, due to “fear of dear life” given the “hatred of Iraqis for U.S. occupiers”. As harsh as it sometimes sounds to my American ears, I have to admit there’s occasionally some truth in how they describe some events. They certainly don't sugar coat it at all. At the same time, some of it is also exaggerated to make the U.S. look as bad as possible.