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September 14, 2003

Neither East Nor West
Ghazal Geshnizjani  [info|posts]

staff218.jpgNeither East nor West: One Woman's Journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran by Christiane Bird.

I really enjoy looking at myself through someone else's eye specially if that person is coming from another culture with a different background but tries to see everything without prejudice. When I was reading this book sometimes I was annoyed by the question “why doesn't she get to see this aspect of Iran or that person?” But the fact is that she has already done a great job of meeting so many people and places that I, as an Iranian, never got to do or simply ignored. She even goes to a public bath, hamam omoomi, to meet women in Masuleh and also goes to a zourkhaneh (house of strength, traditional wrestling gym for men). I leave you with some quotes from the book.

Page 40, Tehran:

[...] the older one was an actress as well as student, and the girlfriend of the young man. He put his hand around her, and I nearly lurched to a stop.
“aren't you afraid to do that?” I said.
“do what?” He gave me a mocking grin.
“putting your arm around her. The komiteh—”
“Oh the komiteh. we don't care about the komiteh! When we see the guards, we run away.”
The actress looked down her nose at me—she seemed jealous of the attention that her boyfriend was paying to me—while her younger sister took my arm. Both women were wearing far more makeup than was I.
“of course we worry about the komiteh,” the younger sister said. &ldquoAfshin is just a little wild. And we're probably safe here, at this time. The streets are very crowded. Everyone is going home after work.”
“Tell me what you like to drink,” Afshin said abruptly, “whiskey, vodka, bourbon?”
[...] I already knew that although alcohol is forbidden for Muslims in Islamic Republic, it's widely available on the black market and very popular among the middle class.

page 125, Friday prayers at the university of Tehran:

No one else seemed to be listening to the Ayatollah's speech too closely, either, and after about a half an hour, I got up to speak with a trio of young women in white chadors who were staring at me. [...] Seven or eight other women crowded around us. One gave me a commemorative Rial bill, inscribed with the golden outline of a mosque, and another gave me an apple. Everyone wanted my autograph. As I wrote down my name over and over again, feeling both touched and foolish, the women suddenly raised their fists in the air, “Marg bar Amrika, Marg bar Israel” half-heartedly droned in a chant led by Ayatollah—Death to America, Death to Israel. I froze. The women looked at me apologetically.
“We don't mean you! Or the American people!” they said. “We mean the American Government.”
An older woman clasped my arm. “President Khatami says we should stop this ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’“ she said. “And he is right. It isn't good. It doesn't help anything.“

page 148, Tehran, on the phone to someone in the US:

“In fact, things are more than all right. This is an amazing country.”
“But don’t you have to wear that outfit?”—his word for the hejab. “Isn’t it hot?”
“Yes,” I said. “But ... it’s hard to explain. That doesn't really matter as much as I thought.” I barely even noticed my hejab anymore. “In fact a lot of women here are really strong. They work or they're in school, and they talk back all the time—“
“But you said before that guards can stop women whenever they want—”
“I know, I know,” I said, trying to crystallize my complex thoughts. “And there is a lot of repression here. People are tense—but that's not really what this place is about. There is so much else going on.”
It was as if, I thought later, pondering Americans' view of Iran, all that an outsider knew about the United States was its horrendous racial history, its violence, its drug abuse, its divorce rates, and the obscene wealth of some citizens compared to the dire poverty of others. All those things would be true, but the outsider would still be missing—and by the wide, wide margin—what united states is about. Politics and related issues are only one part of any country.

Page 253, Kordestan:

Rojeen and I sat down on a bench for a moment to take in the view.
“No, I never talk to boys,” she said in answer to my question. “If you talk to boys here, the neghbours think you are bad. I don't want to be friends with boys anyway—I just want to know one, talk to him about a year, get married, and go to west. I hate Iran.”
[...] “I don't want to get fat—I want to be thin like you and all the other American women, Iranian women are fat.”
“lots of American women are fat, too” I said. “fatter than here.”
“no,” she said “not like here”
“you'd be surprise.”
“No! I see the magazines. I know the American women are very thin and the American children are very beautiful.”

ghasem at September 14, 2003 11:46 AM [permalink]:

You have intoroduced me a nice book. Thanks!

Arash at September 14, 2003 02:12 PM [permalink]:

Very interesting posting Ghazal. Thanks! She (the author) seems to be very sympathetic towards Iran and Iranians in general. Any idea as how long she had stayed in Iran ?

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 04:10 PM [permalink]:

Funny, I just wrote something about such books (written by non-Iranian women about Iran) in my last comment in before seeing this piece. :-)

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 04:34 PM [permalink]:

A longer comment:

As I mentioned in my other comment, such books cover quite a wide range. Some of them are more scholarly (usually written by univeristy professors) and address political (or sometimes cultural) issues and attempt an *analysis*, and some, on the other end of the spectrum (in case you are happy with a one-dimensional spectrum) there are writings by travellers who are one way or another in the writing business (journalists, for example) and are full of observations about our behavior, but stop short of delving deeply into the heart of the matter. As Ghazal herself says, they can't help failing to "get it". They have their own frame of reference and tend to measure us with their own measure stick.

An example is in order. Ali Mahani wrote in a comment recently that after the 1979 revolution there was segregation of sexes in the buses because some blokes (that's his British word, and I like it) couldn't keep their hands to themselves. I completely agree with Mahani's explanation and I think you do too. However, to a simple-minded American obsever, such separation, especially when women are supposed to sit on the back, is seen through the eyes of someone who has experienced the seperation on the buses of white folks from the blacks and connotes humiliation of the ones who should sit in the back.

Back to the issue of such books. You can simply go to and start by searching for the book that Ghazal has introduced. I did the same. (I had seen this book in bookstores and browsing through it had frankly found it near the less than sophisticated end of the spectrum.) The biggest bookstore on earth gives you five similar books, among many other useful information, such as readers' reviews as well as the praise for the books on the back of them. Continuing this process (clicking on each of those five books and so on and so forth), you will be able to find what fits your interest. But I'm truly sorry that this is not going to be very helpful for those who live in Iran, Arash. Maybe you can make a library...

Arash at September 14, 2003 05:59 PM [permalink]:

Ghazal, I hope you fogive me for making this rather long comment which is also totally irrelevant and is rather on a more personal note although somehow related to Iran. Senior Grad was kind enough to address me in his comment and kindly single me out among those of us in this forum who live in Iran.

I realize it's probably nothing like being in Washington or any other place in the U.S. when it comes to having access to all sorts of information, but still, I think I can fairly manage to keep up or at least maintain the distance. Nowadays, it has become much easier for someone in Iran to gain access to information compared to say ten years ago. Now almost all of my friends are in North America or Europe and I can easily email them and ask them to get a book for me through or even pay a little extra to one of these book services in Tehran and have them order me a book but you know I somehow feel that Iran has always had this quality of being a kind of place where you can find virtually anything you want if you search hard enough for it.

There was a mention of alcohol in the excerpts from this book Ghazal just told us about. Well, alcohol might in fact be something very much in demand and not surprisingly fairly easily available but even when it comes to information, any piece of information you might think of and in any format (books, CD's you name it), you can somehow find it if you look hard enough for it. I have this dear friend who has compiled a very unqiue book in Farsi which contains a huge volume of information about everything that has anything to do with book publishing. I am amazed how he has been able to collect so many facts and items of information, especially given the fact its first edition was published almost two decades ago. He has some interesting theories about information, being subjected to other cultures and learning languages. He believes one might indeed be warranted to claim to know all the things s/he knows how to retrieve quickly. He also thinks one can learn a language, subject himself/herself to another culture without actually having to leave Iran. I think his opinion is certainly right about the English language and cultures associated with it. I wonder if an American can claim the same thing about learning Farsi or grasping the true nature of the Persian culture. This is something, those if you who live there can provide an answer for, I hope you would.

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 06:38 PM [permalink]:


I'm glad to hear that resources have become more accessible in Iran. I don't remember being able to order a book from abroad back when I was in Iran, or even if I could, I frankly don't think I could have afforded it. :-) But are there standard ways of accessing this data? Are there huge boostores full of the new books and huge libraries full of the classics you could go to and leaf through the books? I hope there are, or there will be some time soon. This would certainly accelarate the change of culture.

About your anonymous friend you have written: "He also thinks one can learn a language, subject himself/herself to another culture without actually having to leave Iran." I disagree, especially about the latter. That's why I find it hard to believe that Ali Mahani who hasn't left Iran writes in such a naturally flowing English! Well, maybe he's a genius. But about the cultures, you may *know* things about other cultures by reding about them or seeing films about them, but you cannot *feel* them unless you are in the atmosphere dominated by that culture. But that is just my opinion, and open to debate.

As for whether it is possible for Americans to have a good understanding of what the Persian culture is more than it is possible for us to know about their culture, I have written some things in another comment today. (See below ) I tend to believe that they do have a lot more resources for figuring us out, and you do not have to search for such resources *hard*. A simple curiosity, and there you have it.

There is, let me repeat, a lot of misunderstandings and misinterpretations even for those who actually travel to Iran and see things first hand and spend a short time to enable them write a book just to add one more item to their resume. (For example, I took pains under another posting of Ghazal to convince you that the notions of "dating" and "girlfriend" do not exist in Iran, but as we see above, Christiane Bird doesn't have any other terms than "girlfriend" to call that actress with.) But still, we can say that they have tried to figure us out *and* let others know about their findings. Have we done the same thing, that is, to figure them out and educate our people about them? I think not to the extent that we should have.

Finally, I "singled you out", Arash, because the previous comment was yours. I hope you didn't mind!

Ghazal at September 14, 2003 08:38 PM [permalink]:

I think she spent about three months in Iran. I guess if Iranians are interested to get something, they will find a way, and especially since the copy right law is not observed in Iran, people have even better access to some stuff. There only needs to be one copy of a book in Iran so that it can be spread out among everybody. Or movies are still in theaters here and people in Iran get to buy the VCDs.
Senior grad,
You seem to be very sensitive about the words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend”.
I think it is useless to discuss it with you anymore unless people from Iran actually tell you what they mean when they use the English words “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” for someone they go out with and have romantic relation with and give you some quantities so you can measure it with your American standards of these words and tell us if they pass the test or not.
When I was reading the book I certainly didn’t get the impression that she was getting a wrong picture about this subject.
Anyway I didn’t look at this book as a professional informative book, but simply as a different observation opportunity and it certainly was very good about it as she is a curious woman and doesn’t miss even small details.

Senior Grad at September 14, 2003 09:41 PM [permalink]:

What I am sensitive to, Ghazal, is abusing the words and intending by them meanings other than what they are meant to signify. You probably didn't read (or follow) my line of argument below your other posting. So allow me to reiterate for you in a nutshell... On second thought, nah, you can go and read the comments (mine and others) about dating under your other writing at :-) (Bass Voice gives an excellent account of what dating means in that page that I failed to acknowledge back there.)

I just have one point to add to my comments there. When I said in one of my comments that when people go to mountains or movie theaters or pizzerias it is more like hanging out than dating I meant when people do such things *in Iran*. And I mentioned that especially when there are more than 2 people doing such things together.

In any case, I would love to believe that Iranian youth have a correct reading of the dating phenomenon in the West, and then have compared it with the alternative (traditional) method(s) of mating, but I'm afraid I am not going to deceive myself into believing that they have if they actually haven't.

I also am not of the same opinion that if somebody is interested in something then they will find a way to get it. I am for equal opportunity. In Iran, if you don't live in the capital, or if you do live in the capital and do not know the "right" people, you will never be exposed to certain things, let alone realize that you are actually interested in them. I therefore do not agree with you on the claim that "There only needs to be one copy of a book in Iran so that it can be spread out among *everybody*." [emphasis mine]

Shiraz at September 14, 2003 10:47 PM [permalink]:

I personally think these kinds of books are useful in promoting our country to others. They might not be based on a deep research but it is the impressions of a person who is traveling to another country. And that is valuable, because we also judge other countries with our impressions and not based on a sociological analysis. They are also helpful in giving an idea to those iranians who have left the country many years ago and they have a hard time believing their families’ stories about how Iran has change from the early days of revolution. For some reason reading a book written by a non-iranian has more credit for them. Of course some people never want to accept that maybe things are getting better. I know there still exists a lot of shortcomings but I just mean it is easier to live in Iran now than it was 20 years ago.

I didn’t get why Ghazal chose these specific paragraphs? Was it just random or we are supposed to discuss about each observation. I don’t have much to say about the fisrt paragraph. People date, drink and party in the limits that they are allowed. Now again Senior grad would argue about “dating” :-) and the fact that there are some limitations. Yes there are but they aren’t as unbearable as it seems from outside. At least for me they weren’t. The second paragraph? No comments. The third exactly shows that the general view about Iran is very flawed. Every now and then I meet somebody who will VERY surprisingly tell me the story of his son/mother/uncle who has visited Iran and how pleased they were with their journey. It apparently shows that for foreigners it is a fact that Iran is a dangerous, poor, ruined country and when proven other wise they are taken by the surprise. And the forth paragraph is a sad reality. The country has been struggling for the past two decades that some people think whatever they don’t have is gathered in the west in general and in US in particular.

And at last I have to say something about the fact that even though you can find WHATEVER source you want in US it doesn’t mean that the people are well educated. I’m not even talking about the ordinary people in the streets but graduate students. It has always been a question for me WHY is that every time an international student says something about his/her country the americans are taken by surprise? That is because first of all they don’t have any motivation to learn about others. After 4 years, my american friends still mummble when they want to refer to the langauge of Iran. "… was it Arabic or Persian or whatever!!!! ". You cannot find such an indifference towards other nations in any other coutry. And secondly, they are very focused on their own culture, hobbies and way of life. No matter how many sources you have, if you don't use them what is the point? Of course it is useful for us (people from third world countries), because we know how hard it is not being able to find whatever you need so we cherish the opportunity and make the best use out of it.

Shiraz at September 14, 2003 11:29 PM [permalink]:

Dear Senior Grad:

Well it seems this “dating” business is not coming to a conclusion. If we cannot agree on a simple thing like this “vaay be haale” more important matters. The problem is that there is no way you can find the exact same definition for human relationships. These things are highly culture dependant. If I may strech “being friends” also has a different meaning in US. We consider far many people as our friends in Iran but here you have to have strickt qualifications to be called a friend. Can you say then we don’t have a friendship in Iran? No, it is just a matter of definition. I highly agree that "dating” does not exist in iranian culture. But this doesn’t mean some people have not adapted it from outside. This is my definition of dating “ First some good day you meet someone and you start liking echother, then you hang out for a while (can be in presence of other friends), later on you start going out on dinner, movies, etc. If you have the gutts you have sex and then it goes on and on until you either break up or you get engaged”. Trust me I have seen this pattern and I have also had one. If this is not dating then tell me what it is.
What makes you conclude that the actress in the book is not dating but she “thinks” she is?
Sorry if I sound rude, but sincerely I think you are overanalysing the issue.

Senior Grad at September 15, 2003 07:18 AM [permalink]:

Thank you, Shiraz, for your serene comments. I'm sorry that I may have sounded oversensitive to the issue of dating in Iran, what it means and whether it exists. I hope I get a chance later to explain more fully why it has been the case. But just to change the atmosphere of the discussion a little bit let me share with all the readers of this comment something that is related to one of your sentences. This way we can have a laugh together, I hope.

You wrote: "After 4 years, my American friends still mumble when they want to refer to the langauge of Iran. "… was it Arabic or Persian or whatever!!!! ". " Click here for a confirmation (I mean copy and paste it!) :-)

Senior Grad at September 15, 2003 12:33 PM [permalink]:

Re what Shiraz says about Iranians abroad and their continuous state of incredulity of some Iranians, their persistent refusal to see the reality of things rather than what they would *like* to see in things, I may have already written something. The examples abound. From those who want to believe that what the youth in Iran do is dating in the American sense of the word (it's becoming an obsession; isn't it?) to those who reject all the improvements in the Islamic Republic. I would like to offer some sort of an explanation for the latter and I would like to invite others to share their viewpoints on this. I shall leave the general question of why we (humans) sometimes stick to a certain view and can't let go of it in spite of all the empirical data for more able people to shed a light on.

I think the reason why some Iranians who have chosen to stay abroad have a hard time believing the advances (political, cultural, economical, social, etc) in the homeland is, among other things (such as hostility towards the so-called mullahs' regime), a simple psychological one: We need to be assured that we made the right choice when we finally chose to stay here rather than go back. The Iran-or-America question is a painfully hard one for most of us (I'm talking about potential or actual immigrants here only, not the exiles who do not have the option of going back) to settle, because the pros and cons come so close to each other. For most Afghanis, for example, in 90s, the choice must have been crytal clear: leave Afghanistan. This is not the case for Iran, however.

So after years of struggling with this question we finally gather enough reasons for ourselves to stay here. It is therefore clear why we should be bothered by any *true* news about Iran getting a better place and, say, more liveable than it used to be 20 years ago when we left it. So we automatically brand any such news as *false*. This is not peculiar to laymen either. Until his death a few years ago, Nader Naderpour, the renowned (self?)-exiled Iranian poet, himself something of an intellectual, could not bring himself to believe that the 2nd of Khordad (the 1999 presidential election) was not a hoax. Even allowing the thought of people having voted for a mullah to cross his mind must have been quite a horrible experience for him. And he was *not* a naive layman!

I apologize if it all was not relevant!

Senior Grad at September 15, 2003 05:24 PM [permalink]:

Just a short note to Shiraz, re dating, since she has been kind enough to address me so nicely:

You wrote: "This is my definition of dating: “First some good day you meet someone and you start liking each other, then you hang out for a while (can be in presence of other friends), later on you start going out on dinner, movies, etc. If you have the guts you have sex and then it goes on and on until you either break up or you get engaged”."

I find this an acceptable definition for dating, except I don't think whether the two people involved would have sex or not is a matter of "having the guts". It's too complicated an issue for such a short note. Maybe someone should write something about it and then I would start "contradicting" them. :-) One more thing: I think the issue of *intention* is also important in determining what can be considered dating. Unfortunately, I don't know of any method to read people's minds (or hearts), so this would not lead to a criterion...

What do you (and others) think?

Senior Grad at October 3, 2003 03:13 PM [permalink]:

Since now we're talking about dating ;-) and what it mean I find it relevant to share with you the following. There is this Iranian who made it to Stanford University some 50 years ago (through Beirut) and recently published an autobiography titled "The Road to Home: My Life and Times". On page 126 of his book (or if I'm mistaken, search the index at the end of the book for "dating") he tells the reader about his bewildrement with the ritual of dating in Stanford, and how a friend of his instructs him about the rules of the game, but he nevertheless manages to goof off couple of times. It is only a few pages long and if I had a secretary I would have her type it for you, but you may wanna check it out during the weekend. It's a nicely written memoir and once I started reading about dating there I couldn't put the book down until the end of the chapter, when the author leaves his American wife with their one month old baby in Beirut to go to Afghanistan!

Intrigued? That's the idea. ;-)

To be sure, dating in American colleges back in 1950's, that is, prior to the sexual revolution, (heralded by the invention of the Pill!) has been very different from what dating in America is today. However, it would be eye-opening to see the history of this social/cultural *institution* and compare it with what dating means today, and even finding out how it's evolved over the years. In any case, this smart Iranian fellow, living and studying in the midst of Californians, find himself "bewildered" by the un-said rules of the dating game and therefore embarrasses himself and his dates time and again. Imagine how confused the Iranian in Iran whose window to America has only been the American black-and-white movies must have been. The situation, in my opinion, has not changed much, that is to say, the Iranians in Iran are almost as bewildered about dating, if not more, as Vartan Gregorian was in in the 50s.

Winter Break at December 14, 2003 11:55 AM [permalink]:

First of all, congratulations to us all on the capture of the villain! May it have a lesson for other dictators all over the world! Second of all, the following book was brought to my attention today: 'Dakhmeh' by Naveed Noori (which is a pen name). When I looked for it in amazon it came up with the book that is discussed here, so I thought it might be relevant.

Bücherwurm at December 25, 2003 06:44 PM [permalink]:

I just came across the following book, which I think would make a great Christmas/New-Year present for your non-Iranian friends. (It would help if they had a sense of humor): The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Iran. Seriously.

Well, I haven't read the book (obviously), but here's a suggestion: can start an online library! This is just a raw idea, but this is how I imagine it happening: A list, not necessarily comprehensive, of Iran-related books that are written in English is provided by the website. can encourages reviews from the readers, or "steal" some reviews (with permission) from . A classification of these titles would also be an interesting thing to do, especially for scientists.

I am excited about the idea myself, but you may say this is boooring or it's been done elsewhere (has it?) or it's not part of's mission, or whatever. (Maybe someone should start something like !) Again, this is just a rough idea. For example, not all books need to be directly related to Iran. Etc.