At about 5pm today, May 28, Tehran as well as some other cities in Iran including Esfahan, Arbedil, and Sari were shaken by an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey reported its magnitude to be 6.2 on the Richter scale but the seismology center at Tehran University reported it to be of a 5.5 magnitude. The quake was clearly felt by people in Tehran (where I am now) for about 4 or 5 seconds. Nothing seriously happened here in Tehran except maybe for a few shattered window glasses. Apparently, people living in the 2nd and 5th districts of Tehran felt it more strongly than other districts of Tehran.
The news I am getting about other cities is from the IRIB website. They have a live news feed from their website. Apparently the center of the quake has been near the small village of Yoosh (the birthplace of the famous poet) and Baladeh. According to IRIB most of casualties were among the people driving in the Chaloos road when mountain rocks started to fall off into the road.
The main reason for this post is to let those of you living abroad know that things are absolutely OK in Tehran and other big cities like Esfahan and Ardebil. I will try to update this post if there were any significant developments, but I suggest you follow the latest news from major news websites, and weblogs including the ones I have listed in the related links section below.
I've been sitting on these stories, hoping that some sort of unifying theme would emerge from them. I didn't really find one (I'm feeling lazy), so I'll just present these as a random collection of incidents.
Dad Gets Busted
Hah! It had to happen eventually. Dad had been showing off too much, flaunting his disdain for traffic laws at every opportunity. His favourite was driving the wrong way up a one-way street as a shortcut to his preferred parking spot (also illegal).
Of course, it had to end some time. One day, as we were driving up towards the parking spot, an officer in green flagged us down. He was a nice enough man: after exchanging pleasantries with Dad and talking about the weather, he wrote us a ticket.
I looked at the ticket. It was for only ten thousand Rials! That's about two Canadian dollars. I thought to myself, "No wonder nobody obeys the laws! The penalties are insignificant!" The highest fine that was listed on the ticket was for eight dollars. The penalties are so small that everyone would rather pay these fines once in a while than not be able to drive the wrong way up one-way streets.
However, I soon found out what the real penalty was. To pay the fine we had to go to the bank and get the old red-tape run-around for about an hour before we were able to pay the fine. Eek. Punishment through inconvenience.
Pushing the Envelope
Do you know what a roundabout is? We don't have these in Canada, but Iran is full of them: they are the poor man's traffic light. Rather than building intersections with expensive and fallible traffic light systems, most Iranian intersections have a large circular island in the middle. Traffic flows around this island in a counter-clockwise direction, entering and leaving on what amount to off-ramps and on-ramps. It's a system that works remarkably well, although with all the merging of traffic I think that everyone's heart rate goes up a bit. This is especially true for the freeway roundabouts where you have to negotiate three lanes of traffic rushing around at 80 km/h.
There was one time when we were in a taxi, driving into a roundabout from the West and leaving it from the North. Now, rather than going counter-clockwise around the roundabout 270 degrees like normal people do, our driver decided to take a shortcut. Once off the on-ramp, he turned around, facing the rest of the traffic, and went 90 degrees clockwise, honking furiously at anyone who got in his way! Aaaaaaaaah!
What will they think of next? Can this idea be pushed any further? Why, yes, of course. For example, in Canada, if you miss your regular off-ramp on the highway, you resign yourself to wasting ten minutes driving to the next off ramp, getting off the highway, and returning to catch the off-ramp in the opposite lanes. Not so in Iran. The solution that you can probably guess people use is the following: they stop, put their car in reverse, and go back to the off-ramp. That's exactly what most people do, and it saves them lots of time.
But one day, when we were driving along a particularly crowded highway, I was witness to a strange variation on this behaviour. A driver who had missed his off-ramp stopped his car and started driving backwards. However, because it was so crowded, it quickly became clear that his efforts would be in vain. So what did he do? He drove forward, then turned around 180 degrees and onto the on-ramp leading from the highway he had missed! The highway had concrete dividers, for crying out loud! That means that once on the highway, he would have to drive against the traffic until he reached the previous on-ramp, and drive off that.
Beginning to Drive in Iran
I was tired of being a passenger and was annoyed that I was missing out on the joys of driving in Iran. Surely I had some contributions to make to this art form! So, when we were driving home from Shomal* and Dad pulled over to take a five-minute nap, I insisted that I drive.
Keyvan, Dad's friend, protested, saying that I shouldn't drive without an Iranian license. "Bah!" I replied, "I'm planning on breaking ten laws! What difference is one more law going to make?" I was right, of course - it made no difference at all.
I had a blast driving home along the twisting two-lane highway, overtaking all sorts of slower vehicles. I don't think I was taking any unnecessary risks, but since the others didn't know anything about my driving, they nervously second-guessed everything I did. Glancing over at Dad, I saw that he was hyper-alert and that taking a nap was the last thing on his mind. He kept pressing on the imaginary brakes on the passenger side.
Oooee. It was fun. I even got to drive through the city and got us all safely home. Afterwards, when somebody asked Dad how my driving was, his reply was, "I'm scared when Ramin is driving." I can think of no higher praise. It was proof that had graduated into Iranian driving.
Since then, I've driven on a regular basis and there have been no unusual incidents. I did look into the whole issue of Iranian driver's licenses, and it turns out that I can use my Ontario license for six months.
Unfortunately, SUV's (Sports Utility Vehicles for you non-North Americans - cars like Range Rovers) have become popular in Iran, though it's not yet as bad as in North America. SUV's in North America annoy me, because they're so big, ugly, and wasteful. Did you know that the average fuel mileage in the US is now at its lowest point since 1980? Pretty sad.
Here in Iran, at least there is no shortage of oil, and gas is inexpensive at ten cents a litre (38 cents per US gallon). Incidentally, in Iran, the government sets the price of gas, once a year.
Iran is the land of the light and cheap car - most cars here would be considered compact or subcompact sedans in North America. Now go and throw a bunch of these SUV's into the mix, and all those beautiful traffic patterns are destroyed. You can no longer squeeze four lanes of cars into three lanes. The big ugly SUV's ruin everything. Grrr.
Mobile phones are also not uncommon, but Iranians seem to have the sense to not use them while driving. I guess there's something to be said for driving conditions that demand your whole attention all the time.
One day, I was taking a taxi ride with my sister, Sarah, to a museum when I had my strangest traffic experience. We were part of a large group of cars that arrived at a red light. The cars had already squeezed four lanes worth of cars into the three lanes that were marked for us. We were about ten rows back from the intersection and it looked like we might not pass the intersection with the next green light.
I don't think that there exists a taxi driver in the world that doesn't get fidgety in this situation. The difference is that in most countries, that's all the taxi drivers do: they fidget. What did our taxi driver do about it? He dashed across the divider line and into one of the empty lanes belonging to oncoming traffic! He had made a temporary fifth lane for us! Within moments, a pile of other cars had followed his example, filling out the fifth lane.
This seemed like a brilliant stroke of genius - until the guys at the other side of the intersection did the same thing. Nature loves symmetry!
So now, in a total of six lanes marked on the road, we had five lanes of eastbound cars facing five lanes of Westbound cars, a red traffic light the only thing holding them from rushing headlong towards each other. I don't remember ever before wishing so fervently that my traffic light stays red.
Too soon, the light turned green. Our taxi driver floored the gas pedal, scrambling for the tiny empty space to the right on other side of the intersection. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work very well when everyone has the same thought. Once more I reflected on the beautiful and tragic symmetry we were about to experience!
Fortunately for me and Sarah, all the cars braked in time. The resulting gridlock (the word has new meaning for me) took a long time to untangle, but untangle it did, and we continued our journey unharmed, though with a few more grey hairs.
After most such incidents, I find myself reflecting on the differences between the attitudes of drivers in Canada and Iran. I'm not sure where, other than Canada, I would have to go to find a greater contrast with the driving in Iran. In Canada, it's as if it's in our blood to follow the rules to the best of our ability. We're quite proud of it.
However, foreigners who've visited Canada seem to view it as a National Character Flaw. We are, it seems, quite intolerant of any deviance from the straight and narrow. "How dare you impede my right of way? Don't you know the rules?" That seems to be our response to any violation of traffic rules that slows us down. We are, in fact, hardly ever ready for the unexpected and loathe slowing down, whereas in Iran, the unexpected is the norm and taken in stride. Sometimes it seems like the Iranian way is more flexible, responsive, and natural.
Then again, maybe the accident statistics speak for themselves.
Overall, I've really enjoyed the driving experience in Iran. I'm still amazed that a system like this can work as well as it does. I'm glad, though, that I haven't fully graduated from the School of Tehrani Driving. Ask me sometime about the rules of engagement if you're frustrated and feel like picking a verbal or, heaven forbid, physical fight. I look forward to further education in the future.
* Shomal is the Farsi word for north. Northern Iran, which is bounded by the Caspian sea from north and the Alborz mountains in south, is a very popular holiday destination for many Iranians with its beautiful European-like terrain and weather.
The second scenario put forward another imaginary case. Parisa is a first year female graduate student who studies in the Dr. Zaari's research group. Dr. Zaari and most of his students are from Zaarestan a fictional country. Parisa has noticed that Dr. Zaari spends more time in social activities with his other students, and he also pays them more attention with advice regarding their career future. Parisa suspects this could be because she is the only Iranian in the group.
Participants quickly found out that it was hard to assess the situation of Parisa just from reading the case. As a result, the discussion turned to the challenges that the Iranian students face in America. What happened to Parisa could have been just the result of her mental sensibility to the fact that she comes from a different place, and that mental image has prevented her from trying enough to change the nature of her relationship with the rest of the group. It was said that although we do not know how different are the Zaarestanis from Americans, but we know that in American culture, new comers are provided with enough opportunity to socialize with others. The first few months of getting to the new place recognized as an important period because that is the time which people try to estimate the new person in terms of friendship and socializing. Often, there are numbers of offers in the beginning weeks for joining the rest of the group in social activities. If someone refuses to join the rest of the group for various reasons, then it will become less likely that he or she receives future invitations.
Emad Z., a first-year graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Inst. , believed that we should not wait for initiatives from other students for socializing, but we should take the lead. He told participants how he organized a major event in his department at the first month his arrival. Hazhir R., a graduate student in Management school of MIT, emphasized that the first semester is quite important. He said how norm formation literature shows that when we come to a completely new environment, we need to form new habits and norms which work in this new setting, and also this is the best time to consciously establish habits and norms which help us in future. As an example, he said it is quite important to find good friends especially from other departments since that is the time when students are more likely to see people from other departments and form new friendships. He also said that there are students who come from Iran with the mentality that taking courses and passing them is their only job here, pretty the same as their old way of doing work. Considering above mechanism, this will take away from them chances for establishing the norms of exploring new opportunities, finding new friends and learning about the new environment. In fact, what they need on their first semester is taking fewer courses and consciously focusing on building the habits needed for a better life here.
At the last part of this discussion, people mainly focused on the image of Iran and Iranians in the U.S. . It was said that existing negative streotyping toward Iranians should not damage our confidence in expressing and representing ourselves. As a short comment, Roya B., a student from Math Dept of MIT, told participants that this stereotyping is less in regard to Iranian women in America. She said it could be partly due to the fact that their work and success in academia is breaking many of those stereotyping which Iranian have been depicted by.
At panel part, four speakers talked about their own experiences. Reza Sadr, a Physics PhD from Boston Univ, who is working in a software company now, was the first person to talk. He believed that this workshop is a good start and just defining our problems could be a part of the solution. He mentioned number of problems for Iranian students: dealing with the new environment and culture, bearing the on going political problems of Iran, the difficulties of making trip to Iran, economical problems specially when they have a family, and difficulties in doing research. He talked about how we can learn while doing research, how to build a scientific network, and understanding the fact that research is a group work. Reza said how students should be looking for opportunities after graduation while they are in the school, finding out what are the hot topics, what kind of skills industry is looking for, and how they can present their skills in job market.
Payman pointed out the rarity of successful collaboration and cooperation among Iranian professionals, while collaboration is becoming increasingly essential in scientific endeavors even in fields such as mathematics, where now articles authored by several people are being published. The relevance is that a lot of recent progress is occurring at the borders of a number of well developed areas, where an individual may not realistically hope to master all the details and technicalities. He mentioned that the lack of ability for cooperation is a cultural issue, one aspect of which could be a lack of certain generosity that is required for teamwork.
He emphasized on the need for students to become insiders in their departments through interaction with other members in order to have access to information which they may not have otherwise. Finally he talked about the cultural lack of clarity in our ways of communication (even in professional circles) and the need to be more explicit and clearer in accordance with the American culture.
Massoud Mohazzab, a PhD in Physics who is working in industry now, had a different perspective from two previous panelist. He has received his PhD from Iran. While doing his PhD in Iran, he spent part of his study as a visiting student in U.S. . He talked how he has experienced dishonesty and unethical treatment in his academic life. He warned the participants of being too open about the details of their research ideas. He said how there are people who can take advantage of you and not to give you any credit at the end. Also, he wasn't satisfied with the race relation in this country. He was shocked when he had heard a South Asian friend of him was told by a European supervisor that we are working together in the work environment, but we are separate in the society. He also encouraged students to have industry in mind. He said how the money limitations are much less in the industrial environment.
Ali Nayeri, a Astrophysics postdoctral fellow in MIT, was the last speaker. He believed if students what to stay in academia should have a professional view toward science. They should find out what are the important fields and what are the important questions. As other speakers, he emphasized on team work. He recommended that people should try to be volunteer for new activities.
At the end of workshop, people talked about possibility of having similar workshops in future. Hamid M. from Brandeis thought that such meetings could be very helpful in giving better awareness on graduate life to students who have come recently from Iran, and he believed there should be more gatherings for sharing our experiences as graduate students.
I wrote this report more than two years ago. It hasn't been published before. I thought FToI is the best site to publish it because many of the audience are in graduate school.
Every year, a number of Iranian students leave Iran to continue their study in North American universities. As any other international student, they have to adapt to the new life style in North America. Here, they encounter a different educational system, a higher level of freedom and more options to choose from. They face new challenges as well. Some of these challenges are associated with making the transition from the undergraduate college to graduate school, and others are associated with going from one culture to another. At the MIT, a few Iranian students organized a workshop to discuss the general issues and problems that graduate students face with an emphasis on the role of Iranian culture in it. The workshop was organized by the Persian Association of MIT, and it was held at the MIT on October 6, 2001. Students from universities in the Boston area participated in the event.
The workshop was organized around discussion about two hypothetical senarios, which could happen in the life of a graduate student. The titles of the scenarios were "Your Supervisor's Recommendation for a Job" and "Learning a New Language". These were two case studies which the organizers borrowed from another similar workshop, but they tailored them to be more appropriate for the case of Iranian students. Participants started with finding solutions for students in these cases, but quickly the discussions went beyond the boundaries of the response to the scenarios. In the final part of the workshop, invited panelists talked about their viewpoints and their experience as graduate students.
Story of a recommendation
The first fictional scenario was about "Navid", a graduating student, who needs a recommendation from his supervisor. He has not been successful in the multiple avenues that "Dr. Smith" had suggested him to follow in his research. Navid is worried that his supervisor's recommendation will reflect only the recent setbacks in his research. Perhaps because Dr. Smith doesn't have a good impression of Navid's capabilities, he is asking him to aim low in his job applications.
Students participating in the workshop tried to identify with these kinds of problems. Facing serious problems at least at some point of graduate study is not unusual. Facing problems in research is normal as well because research means meeting the challenges in finding the truth and solving them. The process of research is not predictable either. Not only the students, but even the faculty do not know whether their way of approaching problems will work out. In the case of Navid, a serious issue was that he had been facing problems in his research, and he did not talk about them with his supervisor or other people. In a perfect situation, it would be nice to have a supervisor who was concerned about the progress of his students, but the reality is far from the perfect. Moreover, some supervisors believe that the student should take the primary role in evaluating his or her own progress.
In response to the question of how Navid could have found out about his own status, people recommended going to conferences, talking to other students, explaining his research and its importance to other members of the department, and trying to find groups who were working on the same subject of research in other parts of the country. Ali K., a second year electrical engineering student from MIT, mentioned that he found various research groups to be isolated from each other. In some groups, people do not know much about other projects in their own group. He believed having interaction with other research groups is essential in gaining a broad general knowledge. Payman K. , a current post doc at Brandeis University, said although these groups might be isolated from one another, it is our responsibility to overcome the communication barriers and make connections with other groups. He also added that networking will help bring your accomplishments into the attention of more senior members of your scientific community. This is particularly important in graduate school, as the results of the graduate work are not usually ground-breaking and will stand out more with respect to their relation with the mainstream research of senior scientists. This kind of recognition is very important in publishing papers or applying for jobs.
At this point, the discussion diverged from the first scenario, and participants started discussing the cultural differences which can hinder the interpersonal connections. Different interpretations of politeness in the two different cultures were partly blamed for making it difficult to have stronger connections. Parisa F., a third-year physics graduate student at Harvard, said that we, Iranians, think that we should have a full knowledge of a subject before approaching a lecturer after a seminar to talk to him or her about the subject of talk, but she has noticed how others courageously open discussions with speakers, although they might not have full knowledge about the subject. It was also mentioned that since in our educational system there has not been much attention to presentation, we have serious problems in presenting our ideas. The discussion about this issue was deferred to future events of this type.
Back to the case under study, it was mentioned that students should keep their direct supervisor on their side. What a supervisor thinks about a student is a critical element for their future. The trust between the supervisor and the student was said to be important throughout the graduate life. It was said that consultation with the supervisor is important, and problems should be discussed explicitly, but in a polite manner. Being persistent about a request which has been rejected is regarded very badly in American culture and should be avoided.
In explaining the supervisor's recommendation to Navid for aiming low in applying for a job, Reza S. said that it could be because of the fact that Navid's supervisor does not want to damage his own reputation by sending him to a good position if he believes Navid does not deserve the position.
You can find all the case studies here. You can also take a look at the steps for organizing this workshop here, even though it didn't happen exactly as it was stated in the proposal. I also have to thank Ali Khaki and Hazhir Rahmandad for their help in putting together the material and the workshop.
I am genuinely thrilled to be experiencing the traffic here. Rarely have I come across something so deliciously astonishing. And it seems like there are many lessons that can be learned from the traffic. Certainly, the anarchists of the world would rejoice in witnessing it.
I remember when my Dad was visiting us in Canada that he was always surprised when we stopped at stop signs. "But there aren't any other cars!" he would protest. Here in Tehran, he looks on the bright side of the traffic situation. He says, "You would think that there would be more accidents, with people driving like this in a city of more than ten million." And I think he's right. The reason that there aren't more accidents is that there are rules. It just takes a while to figure them out. All other driving behavior is a direct result of these three fundamental rules.
Despite the appearances of uncontrollable chaos, there is such a thing as right-of-way in Tehran. In Canada, we have all sort of rules as to who has the right of way in each situation. Here, most of these are condensed into the First Fundamental Rule of Driving in Tehran:
1. Whoever gets there first has the right of way.
By judicious use of this rule, you can accomplish exactly what the Lonely Planet Guide forbids you to do: cross eight lanes with your back to the traffic. Cars, Motorcycles, and pedestrians all have equal importance. This means that we, pedestrians, have as much of a right to the streets as the cars do (the corollary to this is that the cars occasionally come onto the sidewalks). You just have to make sure that the cars have enough time to swerve or stop so that they don't hit you.
Of course, pedestrians don't exactly belong on the street. If you were to walk out there and stand in the middle of the street daydreaming, you'd be asking for trouble. But so long as you're moving with purpose, your invasion will be tolerated.
Dad once made a U-turn in the middle of a four lane street by using this rule. Everything worked surprisingly well. He just stopped in the middle of the street (creating a backlog behind him), then started turning slowly into the oncoming traffic, even though there was no perceivable gap in the traffic. A few cars swerved and squeezed by us, but finally someone had to stop and give us way. Hehe! Of course, that created a backlog behind that car, automatically slowing down the next lane too. So the next lane was even easier. Within ten seconds, Dad had made a U-turn in a very unlikely spot, and traffic had returned to normal. There were no rude gestures, expletives, or car horns used by us or anyone in the whole operation. Amazing!
2. Signs and road markings are merely suggestions or decoration.
The other day, we were driving down a one-way street, when we were confronted by a big 4x4 vehicle driving the wrong way up the single-lane one-way street. As a result, the flow of traffic almost came to a stand-still as we inched by the over-sized monstrosity. Dad shook his head in disapproval and said, "She shouldn't be driving that car up a one-way street." I laughed and asked cheekily, "as opposed to a smaller car? It would be allowed to?" Dad replied matter-of-factly, "Yes."
I've seen it many times since. If going all the way around a one-way street is too inconvenient, people will go ahead and drive through it the wrong way. The people driving the right way don't seem to mind too much and are incredibly accommodating, giving you the right-of-way in many situations.
In fact, the only street-sign that I've seen obeyed with any consistency is the "dead-end" sign. We come across that quite often as we try to find short-cuts through residential areas. Clearly it is in our best interests to obey those.
As for the line markings on the streets, they are obeyed even less than street signs. The most prevalent example of that is that you will often find three or four lanes of traffic in what is marked as two lanes. Obviously, drivers are much better equipped than the authorities at figuring out how many cars can cram into a given space. In fact, the authorities don't even bother marking most streets, freeing the driver-artists to express themselves fully.
The driver-artists are always expanding their creative repertoire.
Last week, we were driving along the left lane of the two West-bound lanes of a crowded highway. I was feeling pretty safe, because we were separated from the two East-bound lanes by a pair of solid yellow lines. But suddenly, we were confronted by the sight of three cars abreast hurtling towards us! Someone in the on-coming traffic was trying to overtake the car in front of him by using our lane as a passing lane! To make things worse, the car was a Peykan, an it definitely didn't have enough power to overtake the other car quickly. Surely the driver would give up and return to the East-bound lanes? No such luck.
So there we were, plunging towards each other at 200Km/h (the sum of our speeds). I was frantically trying to figure out how this guy thought he had right of way in our lane when we were obviously there first. Unfortunately, I was getting no closer to the answer, but I was getting closer (very quickly) to those three cars. Fortunately, Dad (and the rest of the cars behind us) calmly squeezed over into the right lane of the West-bound lanes and then returned to the left lane when the Peykan had passed.
I forced myself to blink twice. Then I pried my fingers one by one from the top of the glove compartment in front of me. I was dimly aware of Dad giving a short chuckle. Slowly, I understood the third Fundamental Rule of Driving in Tehran:
3. If you have enough cheek, you can ignore the other two Fundamental Rules of Driving in Tehran.
Coming soon: Driving in Tehran, Part III - Some stories and observations
This is my write-up on driving and traffic conditions in Tehran. Since there is so much to write about, I have broken it up into several installments. Here is the first part which is on the foreign point of view.
Here's what the Lonely Planet Guide has to say :
"The traffic in Tehran is homicidal and no rules are observed. Traffic lights, indicators, footpaths, and the like are totally ignored. Of all the cars in Iran, almost half are registered in Tehran, and at times it seems like all of these are on the road (or footpath) at the same time. Most foreign drivers give up soon after arriving and quickly assimilate the lawless aggression of the natives. Drive with 100% attention at all times - or, better still, don't drive at all."
Elsewhere the same guide says:
"Whenever the English-language newspapers print another story of another horrific car accident, they include (almost with pride) the claim that Iran has 'the highest rate of traffic accidents in the world' - presumably per person. More than 200,000 road accidents are reported per year (and how many more are not reported?), i.e. one accident per year per every 15 vehicles on the road. More than 5000 people die every year on the roads of Iran.
... The willingness of a car to stop at a red light at a busy intersection is directly proportional to the number of armed traffic police the driver can see within rifle range. Some cars and all motorbikes (and sometimes even buses) use the designated bus lanes - which usually go in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic. Motorbikes, with four children and three chickens on board, go through red lights, drive on footpaths and speed through crowded bazaars for one simple reason: they can. All this would be funny if it wasn't so damn dangerous.
... never underestimate the possibility of dying a horrible death under the wheels of any sort of vehicle while crossing the road. No vehicle whatsoever will stop at any pedestrian crossing at any time. Resist the temptation to amble across an eight-lane roundabout at peak time in downtown Tehran with your back to the traffic like many Tehranis do... The best idea is safety in numbers: shuffle across the road in a tightly-huddled group of locals. Drivers are less likely to run over a group of people because of the paperwork at the police station, and the potential damage to their precious Peykan*."
Heehee! Doesn't that sound like fun? It took a long time to get used to it, but after a while, I learned to enjoy traffic in Tehran. After all, there's nothing quite like the rush of a near-death experience! And best of all, you don't have to wear a seat-belt here. As soon as I get desensitized to my current level of danger, I'm going to stop wearing it!
Coming soon: Driving in Tehran, Part II - The Three Fundamental Rules of Driving
* A Peykan is a no-longer-manufactured and always-obsolete Iranian car [lots of Peykans can be seen in the above picture].
Socrates: I have heard that people are already advocating my death in Athens' city council. Our little democracy is becoming slightly dangerous for people's heads.
Theophilus: Well, some believe, Master, that what you teach, is endangering the pillars of our ancestors' religion.
Socrates: Is that so? Well, the respect they have for their ancestors' religion seems to me a noble thing. It is interesting to note that, I, among all should be a threat to it.
Theophilus: And they say that you advocate tyranny against the self-rule of people.
Socrates: The interplay between the idea of religion as a dogmatic system and democracy as essentially liquid is very interesting to observe.
[Theophilus turns and looks at him with astonishment]
Socrates: You are either a believer or a non-believer; that's the starting point.
Theophilus: Well, I believe!
Socrates: Excellent! Then as a human being, with higher than average feelings for others, you face the terrible human condition, with personal and social magnitudes: the tragedy of human misery and the seemingly endless suffering of the masses. They could be from your home city, they could be the miserable slave kids: depending on your experience any or all of the sufferers of the world.
Theophilus: I hardly have any feeling for slaves, but when I see a poor man on the street, which is becoming an increasingly visible scene, I feel a certain angst and I do pray to the Gods to help him.
Socrates: For many, but maybe not for you, the immediate solution seems to provide a benevolent government that takes care of the situation-
Theophilus: Well, that actually is a solution that I would like!
Socrates: Then you must have also realized that "apparently" the most effective and "relatively" better systems of government are democratic on at least paper.
Theophilus: Just like our glorious Athens.
Socrates: How do your religious beliefs affect this?
Theophilus: It is simple. It would not be nice if one believed in a religion that advocated tyranny, once you came to the conclusion that a democratic government would serve people better and would allay their pains.
Socrates: But if you look at it closely, religion and the system of government can be two completely different things. They will be mixed only if we demand it. This mixture can be good or bad. In case of my personal health, this mix seems to be mortally dangerous.
Theophilus: Well it would be nice if one could enhance social responsibility of the citizens in a democracy by religious means. Wouldn't it be good if everyone voted and took part in the councils and helped the committees as if it was a religious duty?
Socrates: Certainly, but the problem, my good looking Theophilus, is that religion, despite looking so rigid, changes a lot during the history. For example look at our Hellenic civilization. We probably all had the same gods in the beginning, maybe we all worshipped a one God, but now each city has their own favorite god or goddess and our temples seem to be all so different from each other.
Theophilus: Democracy, also, is not a rigid thing. As you said, it is liquid!
Socrates: Yes, but this flexibility is a substance of democracy, while religion, should it change, becomes a new religion: Hence all the schisms and the emergence of new religions.
Theophilus: Well, I guess, there might still be a central theme to all these religions.
Socrates: There is and in fact religion, just like government is a great achievement for human beings because it can unify them and give meaning to their lives.
Theophilus: So you are not against religion, you are against democracy!
Socrates: No, I don't think I made my point to you. Why don't we go to the market and enjoy the evening. Seems that these evenings are already numbered for me and the company of handsome students like you is getting increasingly harder to find.