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Saturday, July 03, 2004

Go East Young Man

Another Try at Tehran University
I have now tried three times to get into Tehran University. Three times I have failed despite the fact that I am frequently mistaken for an Iranian and the day before my last try a 6’4” blonde-haired Swede got passed the guards. I’m not sure what I would find there, but as I am always thirsty for a healthy political discussion, this is what has driven me to take those long walks east on Enqelab Avenue. My last try was this past Thursday afternoon. The Swedish guy had got through a gate around the back of the campus, so this is where we headed. The campus is rather unremarkable; most buildings are ugly low-rise concrete structures painted various whites and beiges but all grayed from the pollution. At the main gate at the front there are two eyesores of abstract-type monuments on either side of the gate. Beyond that main gate is a massive blue steel structure about 100 feet in the air covering a piece of ground about as big as a football field. I am only guessing, but I assume this is where Guardianship Council head and former President Rafsanjani claims Iran seeks nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes in his sermons every Friday morning. Thursday the campus seemed to be quite deserted but we had heard the students were in exams so I thought if we just got in and sat somewhere eventually the students would come to us.

On each of the two main corners of the campus, at Enqelab Avenue and both Qods Street and 16 Azar Street there are massive billboards obviously appealing to a captive audience. On both jobsiran.com is advertising. The site must get a terrific amount of traffic, soaking up the one million or so members of the workforce every year. Perhaps the university graduates fare better than the average given the near impossibility of gaining entrance into a state-funded school. I’m told two million write the standardized entrance exams for a about 200,000 spots every year. University is seen as a good way to avoid military service, particularly for the males.

About 100 meters up Qods Street, we stopped to look at a mural partially covered from view on the street by some shrubs and the twelve-foot high steel fence. It depicts two sides of the revolution as the government today would like to see the struggle. On one side are youths, one male is on the ground bleeding after being hit by thrown stones. A girl in a chador holds two pictures of young soldiers, surely martyrs, perhaps her brothers. A man in a wheelchair looks away, beside a monument. White doves fly away from a field of what appear to be red tulips. A final man stands, unarmed, defiant with fist in the air. On the left side of the same mural, behind a fence of sorts shaped like the Star of David, are a pile of riot helmets, some riot police, the familiar skull statue of liberty as seen frequently here, and strangely, some elephants. Let me know if you can guess what the elephants are for – the first thought to cross my mind was the Republican elephant, but during the revolution Jimmy Carter, a democrat (donkey) was President. This particular mural looked freshly made and another appeared to have been stenciled in on the neighbouring building, suggesting to me a either a deeply polarized campus, or equally as likely, some government operatives operating on campus to put up such things.

More Murals!
What is perhaps more bothersome is that just down Enqelab from the university is one of the very common murals of martyrs up on the side of a building. Where we in the west would have advertisements to Coke, he is the always menacing glare of Khomeini with the oft-celebrated face of the 12-year old Martyr who apparently died while trying to throw a grenade inside an Iraqi tank during the Iran-Iraq war. A return to the martyr’s museum the day before and an interesting chat with a pro-government fluent English speaker made this even more disturbing for me than it had been before. This fellow struggled to explain how so many young had died in the war for little gain. He was quick to (rightly) point out the disadvantage the Iranians were at due to the superior Iraqi military equipment but struggled to find an explanation as to why the tactics employed by the Iranians were so poor. Why, for example, was a whole generation of young men used in human waves across minefields while Iranian tanks were left dug into the desert and used only as artillery? Nothing. And, in 1982, when the Iraqis had been pushed back out of Iran, why did the war here called the “Iraqi-imposed war” continue for six more years as the Iranians tried to take southern Iraq, particularly Karbala? Nothing. I suppose these responses explain why the museum was empty on both occasions I visited. Whatever post-revolutionary euphoria had gripped Iran for the first ten years of the Islamic Republic that compelled so many to seemingly so willingly die appears to have dissipated. This is not to suggest that there is no support remaining, but all of those who I have asked – and it seems all Iranians have at least one member of their close family who was martyred – said that their families wonder what they died for. This aside, I did see one massive congregation at a martyr’s cemetery on the Friday I arrived in Esfahan.

This fellow left not too long thereafter and we continued downstairs to look at the paintings inspired by the revolution. Two minutes later we were left in darkness. Power failure I thought. No, the lights in the stairs were still on. Evidently the English speaker had had a conversation with someone in the office of the museum after we went downstairs. I have never felt less welcome as I reached the top of the stairs and this middle-aged man stood there watch my two friends and I come up to ground level. I couldn’t help myself and smirked as I turned to the main door and out onto the street, just a hundred meters from the former US embassy.

East to Mashad

Just over nine hundred kilometers east of Tehran is Mashad. After a relatively pleasant ride on the train up from Esfahan, I elected to take it again to Mashad, eager to avoid a 14-hour bus ride. Thankfully it wasn’t like romper room as before and had a very slow but nonetheless pleasant conversation with the five others sharing my compartment. My creaking Farsi and their poor English soon had to give way to pointing at phrases in my phase book and hand gestures.

Mashad turned out to be very similar to Qom in that the centre city is dominated by a shrine and the surrounding areas are covered in hotels for the pilgrims and shops selling garbage. Lots of garbage, most of it imported from China. This evening I had to resist getting my picture superimposed on a picture of the shrine. The picture superimposing places and the numerous ice cream stands just makes the few blocks around the shrine feel like some sort of weird religious theme park. There are quite a few Iraqis around, visible because of their distinctive dress. More interesting was the dress of the women, some of whom had the Iranian chador as seen elsewhere but some with a veil covering the lower half of their faces and others with their faces and eyes completely covered. When their faces were completely covered it was similar to a Burqua as seen in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan except the burqua I believe has a small sort of hat with the cloth dropping from it whereas this kind of covering was more like a simple headscarf with an extra piece in the front. I asked if this was normal for some women to do just when they came to the shrine or if they were just from a part of Iran that I have not been to. I was told that they usually dress like that and most are from Khuzestan, which is in the far south of the country, beside Iraq. All of the women inside the shrine complex wore chadors and most in the city do as well, though the tailored suit is also quite common, just not as common as in Tehran and Esfahan.

The Shrine
I got a guide for the shrine complex and as I would expect, Russell, as the guide called himself in English, was all to eager to talk politics. He had plenty of interesting things to say about the government, much of which I had heard before, but he went far beyond anything I had heard an Iranian say before and the strange thing is that he was older than most of the Iranians I speak to, probably around fifty or so. The usual theory is that the younger generation longs for a return to the era of the Shah while the older generations support the government in greater numbers and do not suggest a return to the pre-1979 system as they remember the horrors of that regime as well. Russell talked endlessly of corruption and the antics of the ruling mullahs, arguing that they were worse than the Shah when it came to abusing the people while running the economy into the ground and curtailing personal liberties more than the Shah did. The shrine itself is part of a large business venture which gets some money from the government, a significant amount from pilgrims and more still from the sale of burial plots close to Reza. As the largest business venture in the country, they were able to bail out the government several years ago when they were at risk of being unable to pay government salaries. Those in control of this venture are close friends and relations to Khameinei and Rafsanjani.

I realized just now that I should have got some photos ready to post. I will get them up in time, and some impressions of Afghanistan.