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September 12, 2003

Iran, Italian Spaghetti and Democracy
Yaser Kerachian  [info|posts]

I remember four years ago when I joined my research group here in Canada, for the first time, I got a chance to interact with the people who had come from different countries and backgrounds. Most of the time, we had lunch together and while eating we would chat about different issues. However the sad thing for me was that I had nothing to contribute when my friends were talking about subjects such as music, movie, novel and travel! The only music I knew was Iranian music and the only movies were Iranian movies. I had no opinions about the movie they had all watched or the novels they had read. In Iran, I had grown up amongst friends and family whose interests were relevant only to my home country, not to the rest of the world.

With my personal experience, it came as no surprise to me when I read in a A.T. Kearney/FOREIGN POLICY Magazine Globalization Index that, for the third year in a row, Iran ranked as the least global nation among the 62 countries which were studied. On the one hand, it is our government which is very isolated, especially politically. In Iran, the economic laws and regulations are also not compatible with other countries and the communication infrastucture is very poor. However the more important isolation comes from the society and the people who have very little connection to the outside world. In our schools and public media, there is not much discussion about other cultures and lifestyles. Living in Iran, you may never get a chance to know the taste of Chinese food, the beauty of Irish dance (of course!) or the harmony of French music.

The idea of this post came to my mind when the first issue of Shargh daily was published two weeks ago. Shargh is a Persian newspaper recently started in Iran by a group of journalists who used to work for the reformist papers. Shargh is not as political as those newspapers, instead it has color pages full of articles about world music, literature, politics and technology. What is fascinating about Shargh is not its high quality of journalism but its coverage on the world culture. In brief, it makes its readers more global and this is what our country desperately needs.

In the long run, Shargh is the most threatening paper against conservative's backward agendas. When Iran becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, people would not only get to know the delicious taste of Italian Spaghetti but also the freedom and democracy which have brought them that food. If the judiciary sytem was smart enough (let's hope they aren't), they would have shut it down from the very beginning.

Senior Grad at September 12, 2003 12:56 PM [permalink]:

Thanks for an honest confession, Yaser. :-) There are, among my Iranian acquaintance here, people who've been in Iran until the end of their undergraduate degree but seem very knowledgeable about the "world culture". Some of them have seen artsy movies that I had not heard about at all before they told me. I think there exist cultural facilities in Iran that are not available to public, but are available to an elite who are somehow connected to the government one way or another.

Your post also echoes, more or less, what I had written in my first ever comment in this forum, and I'm pleased to hear you believe the same thing. Allow me to quote only on paragraph from the long comment:

"... I think one concrete step for educating the people is making available for them, and even better, including in the curricula, an extensive knowledge of the beliefs [read "cultures"] of other humans who live on this planet. (This, by the way, is in line with President Khatami's call for Dialog among Civilizations.) I sometimes surprise myself by discovering new depths of my ignorance regarding how other people have lived or even live today. The world does not really consist of Iran and the West alone!"

Read more below "Changing the Culture via the Culture of Change" by Babak Seradjeh, August 18.

Ali Mahani at September 12, 2003 01:56 PM [permalink]:

This newspaper Shargh, has it got a web address?
If yes , would you mind passing the address to me?
Thanks for your help.

Ghazal at September 12, 2003 03:17 PM [permalink]:

Arash at September 12, 2003 03:19 PM [permalink]:

In addition to the factors pointed out by Yaser, I think language also plays a great role in this cultural isolation. Although taught in our schools, people's general command of English has been quite poor in Iran, even among people with university degrees. However, I have personally sensed a sudden increase in knowledge of English during the past couple of years, especially among younger people. It might be due to the Internet.

Senior Grad at September 12, 2003 04:28 PM [permalink]:

You are very right about the language, Arash. It's a shame that even our politicians seem to have a rather poor knowledge of English. How can these guys keep themselves posted about the complex ever-changing political scenery of the world?! No wonder Iran's foreign policy sucks. These guys just don't know their subject, man. (Not all of them, thank God. I have seen M-J Zarif on CSPAN and found him doing a quite good job in answering the callers' questions.)

Ever Arabs, thanks to their good relation with the US, seem to fair better than us. Pakistanis too, thanks to their once being part of a British colony, speak a version of English and in any case can read English books. Even natives of most African countries either speak French or English, so no language barrier for them, either. Sounds like only we, Iranians, have been left without a solid knowledge of English...

correction at September 12, 2003 04:31 PM [permalink]:

Even Arabs, thanks to their good relation with the US, seem to fare better than us...

yahya at September 12, 2003 05:40 PM [permalink]:

Yaser, I do agree that Iran is a very isolated place. But there has been growing outside sources. Many families have one relative who either lives in abroad or has lived abroad. Many families have some one who has been to Japan or Korea to work. Also, many listen to foreign radios. Lots of people have sattelite dishes. Believe it or not, in some villages, people have VCRs and sattelite receivers. So, I do think that Iranians are getting lots of information these days, and this information is helping the rapid change in culture.

Senior Grad at September 12, 2003 06:35 PM [permalink]:

You're making a big, even HUGE, mistake, yahya!

When I came to America I realized that (as I had suspected) our relatives who lived abroad mostly *misrepresented* what it felt like to live in the West. Not all of it was done on purpose, though.

They misrepresnted the West, because 1) they each had a very limited exposure to a small part of it (their personal life is mostly spent in "Iranian clusters", not to mention that their knowledge of English is not good enough to afford them a well-rounded understanding of what is going on around them) and therefore their sweeping generalizations about AMRIKA and how Americans are were far from accurate and 2) it is not possible, let along easy, for our highly "educated", but inarticulate, relatives to put in words their experience of another culture and also 3) our beloved relatives who lived in America were either too insecure to let us know about the negative side of their living abroad or had a dark outlook of everything Western.

All in all, we were deprived of an accurate picture. :-)

In my opinion, VCRs and Sattelite programs (read Hollywood and MTV) too, only exacerbate the twisted picture of the West that Iranians inside Iran have in mind. Unfortunately, this misleading picture (about what America really is and how it works) is instilled so deeply in our minds that many of us can't let go of it even after coming in close contact with the realities of the West. It takes some of us quite a few years to accept that we were mistaken about America being ... (fill in the blank!)

So I do not believe that such avenues of information can effect a positive change in our culture. To the contrary, to give you an example, our youngsters watch MTV and have their own "reading" of what West is all about and then confuse *dating* with sleeping around, or develop their own versions of dating! (See comments below Ghazal's most recent posting on Women's dress code in Iran.) More on this later...

Senior Grad at September 12, 2003 07:07 PM [permalink]:

Ali Mahani!

You're so funny, man. You claim to be an Iranian living in Iran and boast about how your judgement about everything related to Iran is sound (You recently wrote: " someone who has had the dubious privilege of living in Iran all his life, I feel qualified to describe social phenomena (like hijab) as I have seen them evolve over the past 2 decades.") only by virtue of living there and then you ask about the *internet* address of the Shargh daily? (Yaser has in fact provided the link in his posting. Just click!)

Too much Hedayat, maybe? ;-)

Ali Mahani at September 13, 2003 09:05 AM [permalink]:

Senoir Grad--

Yeah, I give you that. Very stupid of me. I just didn't see it was a link! You see, my self-hatred isn't totally unjustified after all.
Thanks for the compliment, though.

ghasem at September 13, 2003 10:54 AM [permalink]:

I do agree that Iran is isolated, but it might not be the only reason.

At least for the past two decades, the public media has kept telling "our culture is the best, having no defects,...". One of its obvious side effects might be what yaser pointed out.

Iman Aghilian at September 13, 2003 11:33 AM [permalink]:

Senior Grad,

You seem to be a very knowledgeable person.

John Anderson, RI USA at September 13, 2003 11:38 AM [permalink]:

Don't mean to intrude, but just learned of this site and the two posts and their comments have been very interesting. Hope you don't mind.

"Sounds like only we, Iranians, have been left without a solid knowledge of English..." Well, Bjørn Stærk From Norway has said much the same of Norway...

John Anderson, again at September 13, 2003 11:39 AM [permalink]:

the two posts and their comments which I have so far read

Senior Grad at September 13, 2003 08:12 PM [permalink]:

Iman wrote:

"You seem to be a very knowledgeable person."

Thank you.

For spelling knowledgeable correctly. :->

mammad at September 14, 2003 01:29 PM [permalink]:

First thanks to Yaser for...

One should also see it from the other way, too. The Iranian society has been
"deprived of an accurate picture" of west and the westerners of that of
Iran. When we talk about contribution in a discussion, one should consider the both ways in a discussion... Note that the perception of a person who lives in the US or Europe about Iran and Iranian
culture is not very developed either. whose fault it is, is another issue
and should be studied considering the Iranian and western media and also the
rate of tourism.

Also note that this kind of misinformation and wrong perception about a
country or a culture (Iranian towards American and vice versa) is not
limited to Iran-West. There are much more wrong stereotype and misinformation about another's culture and lifestyle, that exist on French-American, Mexican-American, Portuguese-French etc. issue. Note that these be seen mainly from the people who has less travel experience or study foreign culture outside his country.

this comment should also be applied to :

I also agree that TV and SAT. is not a very big deal in cultural exchange. Almost all the movies are fictitious these days, they don't show the real life. I'm not saying that you can't find a good movie but I can say that of you lay down on your couch and turn on your TV you won't see some real film ( A real film is not necessarily a documentary!),.....

I don't want to make a long comment about it. I also suggest s.grad to post his idea as new post instead of contradict people which is much easier! :-)

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 03:58 PM [permalink]:
Let me reply to your comment from the bottom up, mammad. You are right that "contradicting" people (I would call it "finding their faults" myself) is easier than writing a flawless posting. That is one reason why I do not volunteer to write a posting myself. :-) I admire those brave souls who put their ideas on the table, only to be dissected and devoured by the likes of me. But that is my forte! That is, to criticise what I see wrong with others' ideas mercilessly, but without making fun of them. This, I agree, may not be the best way to make them change their mind, but that's all I am able of. Nobody's perfect. :-) If I wanted to flatter myself a little bit, I would compare myself with a film critic who never makes a movie, but has opinions about how films should be made. You can't expect the film critics to necessarily make movies; can you? Although I do not know much about the twisted exchanges between other cultures, but I can agree with you that perhaps this is not peculiar to Iran-West situation. I did not deny that. But what concerns *me*, as an Iranian who lives in America, is the Iran-America misunderstanding (on the people level, rather than the government), misinformation, misrepresentation (on purpose or not), misreading (of the signs in other cultures), and perhaps a bunch of other "mis"es. Let me emphasise that I do certainly agree with you that a Westerner's perception of what Iran and Iranians are all about is also highly flawed. Part of this I find unavoidable. Even an anthropologist who's lived for a long period among Iranians may not quite "get it". There are, however, many resources for the interested American to find out about our culture. For example, the Lonely Planet books, though addressing tourists, usually contain a great deal of information (rather than misinformation or even worse, disinformation) about other cultures. What, let me ask you, such resources for an interested Iranian exist? Is there any channel for Iranians, especially but not exclusively, inside Iran who want to get a well-rounded, more or less accurate picture of what America (or West) is all about? I'm afraid I don't think there is. Whose fault it is, you ask. I tell you my opinion. I think it's our intellectuals' fault. (I resisted the temptation to put the word intellectual in quotes!) Alas, our "intellectuals" (can't resist it anymore) themselves seem to be either trapped in their misconceptions about what the West is or find it their duty to inform us of the selected parts of this complex phenomenon, known as the West. What is to be done? West has a long tradition of Orientalism. Granted, Orientalists were not all interested in figuring out our culture just to satisfy their curiosity. They were probably funded by their corresponding governments to help them puruse their colonial objectives. But much good, too, has come out of this tradition of Orientalism. Have we easterners, Iranians in particular, ever had something like Occidentalism? Not that I'm aware of! This is urgent. Miscommunication is enough already. Somebody should start informing us about the West... Anyway, I've been interested in how West views, or has viewed us since I came to America. ("Not without my daughter" was one of the first books I read from cover to cover in America.) But there is a wide range of writings about us. An old example is "The Valleys of the Assassins" by Freya Stark, a truly courageous woman (even more courageous than Betty Mahmoudy) but ju ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 04:59 PM [permalink]:

Follow-up: I was just googling and found the following, related to my last comment, that may be of interest:

Orientalism, Occidentalism and Knowing about Others
by Stein Tønnesson, research professor, NIAS

Vernacular Modernity: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 35-53. by MOHAMAD TAVAKOLI-TARGH

mammad at September 14, 2003 09:38 PM [permalink]:

Thanks S.Grad for your answer.

I think we agree on lot of things on this issue but I didn't understand why you said : "What, let me ask you, such resources for an interested Iranian exist?" I didn't say that....

Anyways, regarding the question that "whose fault it is?" I agree with you that the number of books about Iran written by Iranians (in Iran or abroad) each year doesn't exceed the number of fingers,.... In cinema its worse. But that's not all, I think that "EYES" are very important in our perception about something (maybe one doesn't find it very deep from the philosophical point of view but it's true) One should see people in streets in restaurant in universities with his own eyes to obtain and shape his own perception about the culture of a country, that's why all kind of "physical" presence in another country become important: tourism, student exchange, international competitions and conferences, business travels etc. (I think student exchange program is something that seems easier to be realized. should be discussed in separate post!)

I didn't buy your argument about "film critic". I think that the nature of articles here is already a kind of criticism on all the issue that are somehow related to Iran. Criticism is important when there is already some "realization"! And also a post of one page doesn't deserve a two-page criticism ;-) but that doesn't mean that comments are not welcome!

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 09:50 PM [permalink]:

How hard it is to spell "Senior Grad" (without quotes, please), mammad? :->

Also, beware that ou may be insulting the writers of these postings by doubting whether their one page posting deserves a 2 page criticism. ;->