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June 15, 2004

The Eleventh Commandment
Reza Rad  [info|posts]

Mehmooni: the time honored Iranian tradition of gathering with family and friends for good food, good music and good times — a staple of Iranian life. If you happen to be studying philosophy at university, like myself, the festivities may also involve you being skewered like a piece of kobideh as a punitive measure for your decision to pursue the penniless enterprise of falsafa.

When making the dizzying rounds of warm embraces and greetings, which usually involve lipstick stamps on both cheeks and the oh-so predictable "my, you've gotten bigger", I try with utmost effort to skirt the inevitable question: "So, what are you studying in university?" In fact, it's usually something more along the lines of "So, what kind of engineering are you studying in university?"

According to many Iranians, after God formed the earth and proclaimed "Let there be light," the Lord, in his unerring wisdom, made another universal and immutable proclamation: "Let all male Iranians who are deserving of respect become engineers." This decree was subsequently amended with "... or doctors." A decision on the proposed inclusion of "lawyers" is still pending.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I usually answer "conceptual engineering." Depending on the age and educational background of the respective relative, my mischievous remark, albeit completely sincere since philosophical reasoning is analogous to the basic principles of structural engineering, is hailed with a wink, nudge and light-hearted laugh or, to my amusement, with an oblivious "good for you", sealed with an approving pat on the back. Typically, a half-serious inquiry into my love life ensues, "Be honest, how many girlfriends do you have?"

Recently though, Iíve decided to shelve the sarcasm and answer openly and courageously.

- "Philosophy???"

- "Baleh"

This is where brows furrow, estekans full of fragrant tea are placed back on their saucers and the trepidation of greying relatives is tempered with a calm poise, ready to edify and enlighten.

"Joohn-eh-delam, have you thought about what youíre going to do after?"

At this point, most of the guests who are sitting or standing in the living room cease their gossiping and taraoofing momentarily, perk their ears, tune into my interrogation and await my response.

The tension is as palpable as the waft of gohrmeh-sabzi and kabab emanating from the kitchen, tinged with the miasma of cologne and perfume hanging in the air, thanks to immoderate uncles and aunts.

"I'm not sure. Have profound thoughts about unemployment?"

My humor is lost on them. Faces etched with concern stare back, mercilessly. Some don't seem too worried but that's because I can't make out their features under the layers of makeup.

"But dear, you have to think about the future and your finances. Your future wife and children" pleads an anonymous voice in the crowd.

Iranian etiquette dictates that I give ear to the advice and wisdom of my elders, ever ready to ponder their worldly truisms. That's fine. But letís get one thing straight: I canít even keep a girlfriend for longer than a month so letís not get ahead of ourselves and entertain any talk about my "future wife and children." Obviously, I don't dare voice the sentiment.

"Pesaram," interjects a heavily accented voice from the dinning room around the corner "keep the philosophy for after work. Do your serious work nine to five and then your philosophy."

"I say donít even bother with such silly things" advises the dutiful hostess while refilling the empty estekans scattered around a mountain of fruit teetering in a bowl festooned with flowery foliage.


Therein lies the problem: a status-driven mentality that ridicules any vocation or pursuit that doesn't generate abundant wealth. In no way do I want to denigrate engineering and medicine. They are challenging and noble disciplines that play an incredibly vital role in any civilized society. However, there are other branches on the tree of knowledge.

While in the hot seat, I want to dig at their hypocrisy, how they always go off about Iranís great poets and philosophers when they're trying to convince their non-Iranian friends that Iran isn't a Third-World nation or how all of Islam's great thinkers have been Persian. I want to explain to them that philosophy isn't trivial, light-hearted conjecture about the meaning of life or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; rather, it is a serious enterprise that undergirds all scholarly and practical investigations; it is not so much a body of knowledge as a systematic and disciplined investigation of the most general and vital questions that concern all thoughtful human beings at one time or another as well as a focused, rational analysis of the foundations and methodologies of the empirical sciences. It is the trunk of the tree of knowledge. Its tools are logic and reasoned examination, not whimsical speculation and grand pronouncements. And yes, I wonít be able to land a lucrative job right after graduation but so what. My main aim in life is to do something I enjoy, not to live in Orange County. And if you claim that philosophy is useless, well, you're inescapably engaging in philosophy.

Instead of articulating my grievances, I pacify them with the next best thing.

- "Well, Iíll probably go to law school"

The tension dissipates and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief.

"Now thatís a good plan," they compliment.

Moments later, the guests are invited to the dining room to witness the kingly feast, so beautiful in its display that one feels guilty for eating such a work of art. Among the many dishes of rice, stews and fresh herbs sits half-a-dozen skewers of kobideh. Forgetful of proper dinner decorum, I dash for the kobideh to sate my hunger for all things grilled. I never thought I would empathize with a piece of food but as the steamy kobideh rolls down the skewers itís not much of a stretch for me to feel for its ordeal.

This article was published in a recent edition of Ghasedak, an e-zine of the Iranian students at University of Toronto, republished here by the author.

James at June 15, 2004 05:05 PM [permalink]:

Anyone who'd come up with:

"I'm not sure. Have profound thoughts about unemployment?"

is going to do just fine; and I hope you manage to not become a lawyer in the bargain.

Ghazal at June 15, 2004 09:58 PM [permalink]:

Well you are not alone. I study Physics, more specifically Cosmology and My husband is an Astronomer! I remember people faces back in Iran, as I told them I am studying physics; they would usually look at me confused because they had thought I was a good student and even now in US when I get a call from older relatives from LA or Iran they sometimes try very kindly to make me feel better by calling me or my husband, Mrs. or Mr. Engineer! Any way I hope when we get our Ph.D. they feel better as they donít have to be so embarrassed each time they are trying so hard to figure which title they have to use to call us but it still wonít solve their problem of figuring out our madness! Each time they ask us if we would work in an industrial company when we finish our studies and we tell them that we can only work in research institutes or Universities who are interested in Sky or Cosmos and it is very hard to get a job they stare at us very suspicious, ďno, you have to get a job in industry, you are very smart and they give you lot of moneyĒ! Just add to their surprise when we tell them that my husband and I have been commuting last few years and will be commuting for at least next two years because it is not easy to get jobs in the same cities!
To be honest I think lot of younger people also think we are not realistic but they are just being more polite not to mention it in our face or they try to frame it in a nicer way if they want to mention it. But as you say I also believe happiness lies in following your heart and unfortunately I always find my heart in disagreement with majority of people!
By the way the comment about Iranian preferring Engineers to Doctors is not quite true in Iran or at least it wasnít back when I was there. Iíll never forget the day after the result of national entrance exam for Universities in Iran was announced, my friend and I were taking driving lessons and our instructor asked about where we have got admitted to. Well definitely I wasnít worth a compliment at all but my friend who had got an admission from EE department at Sharif University which was the most prestigious admission you could get at the time in technical sciences, proudly told him where she was admitted but our instructor said right away ďoh, so you werenít such a good student as your sister who got in to medicine School, after all!Ē

AmericanWoman at June 15, 2004 11:26 PM [permalink]:

One word:

Ali at June 16, 2004 08:30 AM [permalink]:

Well crafted. You are pointing at a core problem of a society that is epistomologically immature.

Ali at June 16, 2004 08:30 AM [permalink]:

Well crafted. You are pointing at a core problem of a society that is epistomologically immature.

James at June 16, 2004 08:40 AM [permalink]:

For Ghazal and Niayesh - Maybe not quite Hafez or Rumi, but I like it:

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-- Theodore Roethke

May we all take our waking slow, and go where we have to go.

Dan Schmelzer at June 16, 2004 04:10 PM [permalink]:

Hey, there are some things you can do for a living with a philosophy degree. Not many, but some. ;-)

The trick is to make the end-game sound exotic, cutting edge, and high paying. My brother got his M.A. in philosophy and went on to get his Ph.D. in medical ethics, for instance. He can make it sound like he's going to get medical doctor's wages, even if the only thing similar that he will have is a medical doctor's graduate school debt. :p

SG at June 17, 2004 09:25 AM [permalink]:

Great post. I only suggest you make the Persian words italic and give some explanation in the footnote so non-Iranians won't be discouraged to read your writing and have some sympathy for us.

James at June 17, 2004 09:39 AM [permalink]:

SG --- Good point. I was some of the Persian words, but many I wasn't. I was familiar with the general sense of things from family gatherings with Italian, Greek and Jewish friends; I'm amazed at how much of this is so universal.

SG at June 17, 2004 09:51 AM [permalink]:


Come again? ;-)


It struck a chord (or many chords!) with me as I had said similar things before in FToI. In particular, I once waged some sort of a war against studying pure Science under a proposal by Yaser Kerachian!

As for "mehmooni", this un-translatable word, some TV channel was showing the movie Godfather I last night and while I was trying to make up my mind whether I should go to bed or sit on the couch I noticed an uncanny similarity between how Italian mafia worked (according to that movie) and how Iranian families operate. I guess to some extent it must be true about Greeks (with whose culture I'm familiar only based that recent best-selling movie).

James at June 17, 2004 10:47 AM [permalink]:

AmericanWoman: I have been honored to have Jewish friends and relatives, Greek friends and relatives, AND now Iranian friends and relatives, and trust me, you all seem to share a gene regarding familial interactions that Machiavelli would have loved. I'm not complaining, but it sure and heck does keep me on my toes.

If you didn't get to watch The Godfather last night by all means do take it out, in fact the entire trilogy and take the time to watch this wonderful movie --- though do your best to ignore those sections where Sofia Coppola is acting; she's a truly wonderful director, but that says nothing for her acting.

SG at June 17, 2004 11:04 AM [permalink]:

Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians.

Do we see a pattern here?

James at June 17, 2004 12:20 PM [permalink]:

Yeah, he likes everyone. Goes with growing up in a housing project in the Bronx --- you either got along with everyone or you got beat up an awful lot; I didn't like getting beat up.

Wellesley Girl at June 17, 2004 03:08 PM [permalink]:
I think I did the best thing. Since I remember, I made my family understand that my dream job is to become a broadway dancer. I remember telling family friends and relatives that, and they all gave me surprised looks, with eyes the size of saucers, and muttered in disbelief "Are you sure! You'll change your mind!" As if it's an unwritten rule that Iranians can't be good at arts, and they have to pursue something they don't even enjoy. No matter how many people tried to discourage me saying that I will remain jobless and it's impossibly difficult to live with an acting salary I just didn't buy it. I actually think the whole aura of discontent gave me a boost in rebeling against their wishes. I told them don't bother, I will study drama and drama it is! So when later in college I changed my major ten times and eventually landed on math and french, not only no one objected, but also they were happy and proud. After all, having a degree in math is more promising than having a degree in acting or dance! Ofcourse I haven't given up on my dream of performing on a Broadway stage, but in order to become an actress, you really don't need schooling. What I don't understand is, first of all why are iranians so snoopy! What I want to do with my life is my own business, even if I fail at some point at least I will be happy that I made the choices and wouldn't blame anybody. Why are they so obsessed with asking you about your grades and comparing and evaluating you! I think that's what hinders creativity. We coerce children from early age to compare themselves with their class mates with other people their age, to think a certain way, to be a certain way. While creativity comes from freedom of thinking. We are promoting narrowness by making people believe if they are good at something they have to be perfect at it, and if they can't be perfect then they should just give up! Someone may not be very good in biology, but really interested in it, s/he may take biology classes just for personal interest, s/he may not get a perfect score in the class because the subject is difficult for her/him, and that's when we label that person as stupid, claiming not only she was supid and got a C, but her decision for taking the class in the first place wasn't smart either! We don't look to see what that person can do best, that person may turn out to be a nobel laureate in literature, but Iranian if s/he is, no one will ever forget the C in Biology (God Forbid)! I am not sure if I made my point clear but this attitude is what makes children lose their adventurousness, they only pursue things they are good at, and don't listen to their instincts, or pay attention to the nature of improvement! All diciplines, specially for a beginner who have never been exposed to that subject, take time. If you don't succeed at first, you shouldn't give up! It may take an amateur dancer years to be able to do a move, because she doesn't have the body strenght and the flexibility, but if you practice enough (and aren't sitting around waiting for the move to come to you) you will eventually improve, you may not become perfect, but you will significantly improve, this is a rule for everything, or your money back guaranteed! Second, why Iranians never pursue their dreams? Who says you can't be an author of an award winning book, an actor and a known string cosmologist, then let me introduce to you Brian Greene, or you can't be a concert pianist, a professional figure skater and a polit ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
James at June 17, 2004 04:40 PM [permalink]:

I'm not sure Iranians are any worse than anyone else, really. Of the three ethnic groups I mentioned, Greek, Italian and Jewish, all were focused on being involved in their children's lives. The Jews were also wrapped up in accomplishment.

I think people who've only been here for a couple of generations tend to be more involved in their children's lives and influencing them per their priorities and take on the world. Those here longer tend to have children who've had in inculcated in them that it's your life to mess up or make as you will, go for it (which is not to say that they're crazy about dancers/actors/musicians in the family, either).

Those who are associated with some sort of diaspora also have a stronger need for accomplishment in their lives and the lives of their children (sometimes accomplishment in THEIR lives is accomplishment in the lives of their children --- that really sucks.) The Jews, Iranians, and Chinese fit into this mold to some degree.

I think, though, it's all too difficult for many of us to just do what we think is right because we're scared, uncertain, and aren't getting the support for our hopes from those we most seek it. If you can't say the hell with it, I'm going to do it my way and that's it and, do so comfortably and with some measure of confidence (a very American type attitude), it becomes that much easier to see those those who didn't support you and are somehow seen to be responsible for your not making the decision you didn't feel quite strong enough to make on your own. C'est la vie, IMHO.

AmericanWoman at June 18, 2004 12:08 AM [permalink]:

The entry you responded to (Godfather) wasn't me, it was S.G. aka Senior Grad. Also, I like your (and Rothke's) poem.

It is a line from a movie, "The Graduate." Sometime in the '60's Dustin Hoffman finishes college, and is shocked to realize that he is expected to get a job. He walks down the staircase of his parents home, where they and all their friends are celebrating. One by one Dustin is approached by various friends of his parents (the world of adults) who offer him various paths into the future. They all seem so hypocritical, self serving, venal, repellent and bourgeoisie to someone as idealistic and moralistic as the young anti-establishment hero. The final straw is when a beloved uncle type slides up to Dustin, shakes his hands and says surruptitiously "One word --plastics" as if he is giving him a golden key.

Parents just want the best for their kids. They sacrifice so we don't have to have a life of struggle and hardship. All they want to hear is that we are happy, all needs met, doing fine. The author of this post might try telling his family he is an author, or a teacher, or the Gadfly of Orange County. Not really a lie, but only the part of the truth they are interested in, it might make life easier for everyone.

James at June 18, 2004 08:23 AM [permalink]:

American Woman --- Nuts, you're right, apologies to you and SG. Glad you liked the poem!

The Graduate is a terrific movie, right up there with the Godfather on must sees, especially to appreciate how cultures aren't always that different.

I'm not sure that parents are interested in their children being happy, to be honest. Some in fact are, they leave their children's choices to their children and guide as asked. Others are monumentally put out when their kids go their own way as it's not thought the kids know best. I guess it's all what type of family you have, but you're right, you have to find what you want to be yours, claim it, stick with it, and the rest of the world just needs to live with it --- that takes a lot of moxie, though.

SG at June 18, 2004 10:18 AM [permalink]:

Oh, "The Graduate". I now remember the pool party after Dustin's graduation. Couldn't help noticing that even in his youth, Dustin Hoffman, with that prominent nose, looked kinda old!

P.S. I personaly would put "The Graduate" above "Godfather I, II, and III"! :-)

James at June 18, 2004 11:06 AM [permalink]:

Well, not sure about I & II, but DEFINITELY III.

behdad at June 18, 2004 01:33 PM [permalink]:

I am studing siciology and i have a same problem sometimes my relatives ask me same questions,I couldent fine a good answer so i am going to study in low

AmericanWoman at June 18, 2004 09:36 PM [permalink]:

The study of Psychology will not be wasted in Law school.

James at June 18, 2004 09:41 PM [permalink]:

It might well help you understand why you made the career choice you did, giving you all the more reason to be sick about it. Don't mix pyschology and law, it'll lead to insights you'd likely prefer to not have!

Seeker at June 25, 2004 04:03 AM [permalink]:

I would just suggest,pursue your love and you will succeede. I close my eyes and walk the path and dont care about anyone. This is my philosophy. Although I loved physics in high school and I even participated in International physics olympiad but these same pressures prevented me from pursuing my dream work which is superstring cosmology.
thanks to all

shabnam at June 25, 2004 11:31 AM [permalink]:

liked your article. wondering if we can post it on our site. email me at srezaei AT persianmirror DOT com.