P1010659 Zohra and I buying  children’s books in Mashad, Iran

CAROL MANN/FEMAID: report and reflections on Iran, May 2009

Going to Iran to buy books for our Women and Children’s centre in Farah, Afghanistan

For the past three years, my little non-profit Femaid has been working on a library mainly for women and children (and boys/men not excluded) in Farah, situated in Western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. Whereas most projects target Kabul for safety reasons or else larger cities, distant towns and communities are generally forgotten. Setting up a library in deeply rural Afghanistan is a challenge on many levels, mostly from unexpected quarters. I had made discreet enquiries about the wisdom of s sending books from Iran (AKA Axis of Evil) to Farah. The library is situated at the civic town centre built by American PRT (Provincial Reconstruction team, responsible for aid projects all over Afghanistan) They had welcomed the project and I was (briefly) tempted to tell them what I was doing. My well-connected US friend in Kabul candidly mailed me

Paranoia is still running deep with our “thick necked” friends and he said it would be a shame of your treasures were taken out to a field and detonated…

Little did I realize to what extent paranoia sends shock waves at this end albeit for other reasons

It had seemed to me that the most sensible thing to do was to go to Mashad, about 60 km from Afghanistan which as a university city and would naturally stock all the books I needed. Dari, one of the two main languages of Afghanistan, (the other being Pashto), is extremely close to Persian, so books from Iran are widely distributed in Afghanistan. From my own experience in Kabul last year, I had seen that the choice was limited and that ideally, it would be a good idea to go to close-by Iran. The books, I imagined, could be sent to a private house in Farah and then delivered to the library, as if the consignment had arrived from elsewhere. And once on the shelves, it would n’t matter anyway.
The opportunity arose. My dear friend Zohra, a native of Mashad, who lives in Paris had invited me to come and visit her and her family. Her city happens to house be the holiest shrine in the country a kind of mega-Lourdes, crossed with the Vatican, dominated by the immense Haram complex which is meant to give one a vision of paradise, as I was told by a young man whom I met on my way out of the book-sellers’ complex carting the books out several days later. Did I agree with this statement, he asked? I said it was difficult for me with no prior knowledge of paradise… I visited the great complex, classically blue-tiled with an incredible sense of space. You have to come to Iran to understand what the colour blue means, from every shade of indigo, to cobalt, to turquoise.

Zohra and I set off on my first morning to the bookshops, many concentrated in a whole building. Publishing is booming in this country and people read enormously. Zohra’s uncle, the genial Dai (maternal uncle) Reza has a book-store which specializes in IT and does booming business. At least half of the clientele are young determined women, shrouded in black. Mashad being a holy city, there are little, indeed no sartorial alternatives, unlike Tehran where shopping malls sells the strictest dowdiest rain cots in one shop and true hooker attire in the next, gleefully purchased by fashionistas who artfully turn the restrictions inside out. In Mashad, as elsewhere in Iran, even in the most conservative homes, there are opportunistic ways out of rules and regulations, today dependent on technology and IT. Iran is a supremely modern country, albeit of an alternative kind, legitimated by the Islamic republic’s particular brand of religion. Thus, Internet, chat and email provide outlets.

Setare, a pretty grey-eyed 24 year old graduate who works in one of the book-stores explained how she  had conducted her courtship through chat-rooms. Her true love and husband to be, was a cousin of hers which she was not allowed to meet because both of them were well past puberty, which puts a damper to any heterosexual meetings, especially in conservative families. “So I decided to start writing to him through a chat-room, we are lucky because we have a computer at home”. Indeed, she may not have been allowed to go to an Internet café, at least not in Mashad. “You see in my husband’s family, they believe that you should not meet your husband or your wife before the wedding”. Did her parents know about what was going on? “They are more liberal, they knew all along!”. And six months later, they were happily married.

Just before the wedding, they did what an increasing amount of educated young Iranian couples do: they went to see a psychologist and submitted themselves to a battery of tests to see if they were suitable for each other. Another young woman whose marriage had been arranged did the same. Farima, age 30, was over-qualified for any possible match, so a member of the family successfully introduced her to a work colleague.

Girls in Iran seem to have the selfsame problems finding a steady mate whom they can respect as their counterparts in the West. The conversations resembled those I have with my own 24 year old daughter and her friends, echoed over dinner in the desert town of Yazd, where in a back-packer’s hotel, my two Iranian travel companions and two girls from China, all young women in their twenties sighed and moaned about the men , prospective or otherwise in their lives. The laments are identical, the boys apparently equally hopeless all over the planet. The root problem is also the same: women have evolved at a far faster rate than men, left straggling behind, befuddled in remnants of patriarchal prejudice (in the case of Iran, more than just remnants) and demands that are now perceived by their potential mates as unacceptable. The most dramatic expression of this problem is the recurring self-immolations by educated girls who returned from Iran as former refugees to rural Western Afghanistan and are married off to louts who do not have the slightest respect for their aspirations. I have researched this trend which by now has spread all over the country and shows no sign of abating either. It has also hit some parts of Iran, for similar reasons.

In Dai Reza’s bookstore, we were informed that it was prohibited to send books from Iran. The reason given was that an exhibition staged by Iranians in the city of Herat, in Western Afghanistan and close to the border, had been seen as too provocatively Shia by the local devout Sunnites. This split which has divided Muslims worldwide since the beginning (1 388 years ago), centers round the importance of Ali, whom the Shias (short for Shiat Ali or partisans of Ali) regard as the true successor of the Prophet, whereas the Sunnites claim that at best, he is the fourth and last caliph in direct succession. Naturally such religious differences are used to reinforce and legitimize political animosity, as some people in the Western part of Afghanistan are justifiably worried by the growing Iranian encroachment in the region. Whether this is such a bad idea is debatable, most aspects of Iranian life could be successfully adapted to Afghanistan, and indeed would be much more suitable than the nebulous capitalist Western model currently being marketed with such disastrous results. But this is another matter and my opinions, as ever remain highly un-PC. Pakistan, a failed state founded on a crumbling ideology has nothing to offer to Afghanistan in terms of being a model, and the Afghans know it.. In the meantime, the enraged party in Afghanistan decided to forbid any importation of Iranian publications, including fairy-tales and booklets teaching infants how to count…

This reflects the possible differences of priorities regarding education generally. Four out of five women aged 15 upwards in Afghanistan cannot read or write, whereas three out of four women in Iran can, figures that are vastly superior to India or Pakistan. Iranian women outnumber men in universities. whereas in neighbouring Afghanistan, where only 30 percent ever reach Grade 5, compared to 56 percent for boys. As a result of prolonged study, young Iranians do not get married until well into their twenties, whilst half of Afghan brides are aged under fifteen. And the consequences are long term, as it is well known that a country’s general health level is directly linked to female literacy. Afghanistan holds one of the world’s worse records concerning literacy, infant and the especially disastrous maternal mortality, despite the aid that has been pumped into the country. Life expectancy in Iran is 71, and Afghanistan, 60 km away, a mere 44. The main paradox of Iran is the whole issue of women’s rights.

Whilst given huge opportunities in education and health options, women still suffer from the most basic of inequalities: in the eyes of the law, the value of a woman’s life is exactly half of a man’s which is getting more and more intolerable for the girls who have benefited from the system. When a woman is killed, the punishment demanded is half of what would be enforced if the victim were male. This even used to be the case for insurance claims, in the case of fatal car accidents. Strong public and especially feminist protest managed to overturn this law which marks a major victory for dissenters. In fact, what these protest groups, in their majority, want is not a true secular revolution:. Of course they have not lost their idealism, what they might claim privately is not the same as what is made vocal in public. Those who have provincial  origins know just how important religion is for their families, even if they themselves might not be devout. After thirty years of theocracy, they have become pragmatic in their demands and are demonstrating for equal rights within the system. The sooner those in power realize that the adjustments that need to made might ensure their long-term survival, the better it would be for the whole society.

The alternative is implosion and the further glorification of all things non-Iranian, especially uncontrolled consumer culture which is slowly beginning to hit the mass market, as is alas, junk food.. What struck me is that in fact patterns of buying are all related to socializing: you buy food for potential guests, furnish your house for those who will visit you, extravagant clothing for parties. Even beauty treatments, ubiquitous nose-jobs (for males and females) and the incredible variety- in Tehran- of eyebrow shapes speak of the relationship to others and public statement in a heavily restricted public space. Self-centered consumption, designed to repair wounded narcissism is not the central reason for buying a ton of useless artifacts, although there are indicators towards this, within the young  Tehrani professional elites.102_0102

Girls on a bridge in Isfahan

The young, as far I can see no longer trust the leadership, and it seems that a lot of the older generation share this opinion. Like any other traveler, I was anxious to see how the Leader Maximo was perceived. I was really surprised to see that people did not appear to take him seriously at all, claiming that he does not hold any true power. “We have to import petrol from abroad, because our refineries are in such a terrible state so what’s he going about out, thundered middle-aged Hussein at a road-side kabob restaurant- delicious as ever, may it be said in passing. ”  In the homes, restaurants, beauty-parlours (an absolute must) and guest houses I visited,  the theatrical leader’ appearance on TV, warranted tea-making, hanging up laundry and especially zapping elsewhere, including the much-loved video-clips shown on “Voice of Amrika”. Some laugh outright, clutching a bottle of mock-lemon-flavoured beer, others just curse the screen. The main aims of his rantings in Geneva and elsewhere, it seems, are not directed against the outside world, but are designed to keep firm control of dissidents at home, nowhere else. People are infuriated by his support of Hamas. “Why on earth is he spending our money on those terrorists” Ali-Reza a  Tehrani taxi-driver  exclaimed angrily. There is deep mistrust of Sunnites and Arabs generally here, in fact Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy does not appear to resonate with anything people feel in his country. This is a show put on for outside consumption, in order to spread the thrill of dread which no-one believes in at home. “We have to import petrol from abroad, because our refineries are in such a terrible state” As Bahman , a 35-year-old engineer I met in my travels said- and his opinion was frequently echoed subsequently; “You don’t really believe that Iran could drop a bomb on Israel, do you? Tehran would be wiped out in minutes, we’re next door” Will the elections change something, I asked “Our problem is apathy, people increasingly want to enjoy the moment and not look ahead, in case it’s just too dreadful” was 27 year old Azadeh’s mournful answer. Someone must like him, I said, for him to have got into power. Yes, Assieh a 30 year-old sociology major explained “The deeply pious communities, especially, those who feel reassured by his religious lingo: they feel that whatever his failings, his propositions remain Muslim, which is all they are asking for”. And religion is very much woven into the fabric of the country’s mores, as in Afghanistan where it is more intense and there is no space for doubt of any kind.

Yet the hope lies in Iran’s youthful population of which nearly 70% are under 25 and mostly, by now, highly educated, whilst generally remaining practicing Muslims. The fear of any youthful opposition helps explain the increasingly tough pre-electoral clamp-down on any form of protest or dissent we have been witnessing.

The whole Israel and Jewish question is truly perplexing. I have come to the conclusion that no two peoples resemble each other so much: an original fire god (Zartusht, Burning Bush, take your pick), an overbearing sense superiority derived from historical pedigree, family, achievement, education, business, powerful guilt-inflicting mothers, sugared daddies fretting and fussing over their darling Dokhtar who can do no wrong, food forcibly offered every hour on the hour, hospitality, endless gossip, continuous lamenting, an obsession with plastic surgery (noses) orthodontists and a genuine distrust of anyone not part of the community as each group is convinced to be the Chosen People . And to reinforce the point ‘Noshing’ is a Yiddish word that comes via the German from the Persian means Bon appétit or rather. Noshe Jan (nosh gesunderheit)!

Iran enjoys a large production of beautifully illustrated children’s books, with well-written poetic texts much loved by the local population. Some of the Western, mainly British publications that have been translated are positively embarrassing and frankly ugly in comparison. The difference is that Iranian children’s editors do not pander to what is being surmised in the West as a readership with stunted development, replete with simplified drawings and one-syllable words. Even in the cheapest books, parents are presumed here to want to read poetry and fairy tales to their children, illustrated by artists. Indeed poetry plays a major role in this country, volumes are published each year and poetry competitions are held all over and everyone appears to be able to recite Hafez.

Nevertheless, the strained relations between the different entities involved posed serious problems, one side the US aid people and on the other the Afghans themselves. The true victims of this political quibbling were (and remain) the children of Farah and their teenage mothers. All of a sudden, it was no longer a question of just expediting books and toys, but indeed smuggling them to the library. But this is hardly a local issue: the bank in Paris which holds the Femaid account (and naturally makes money from it, as banks do) refuses to send funds to Afghanistan, in case I may be financing terrorism (children’s books? Lego? ) and every year demands all kinds of justifications about what Femaid does. So I have to resort to MoneyGram and Western Union whilst the big-timers continue unperturbed… How on earth can one maintain clear accounts and accountability when one is forced to send cash?

I immediately set out to work on plans B to T (inclusive). A very cooperative Afghan book-seller did offer to send the books through a bus via an Afghan bus-driver friend of his, but the service stopped at Herat, several hours away from Mashad, the wild final destination of this expedition.

The next solutions included either a variation of plan B with locating efficient transport from Herat or better still, through relations of my Farah contacts and my assistant Zala, finding someone to drive the whole thing to Mashad whilst crossing a less vigilant frontier than at Mashad, where Bakhsheesh would be easier (plans D+E+F). Nevertheless, when with Zohra’s help we did phone the aforementioned relations who theoretically had been warned about my call, they appeared to be less than informed and not overly interested in the scheme, so further persuasion was needed (plan G-H).

Zohra and I then embarked on the book buying itself: as I have said, the sheer quantity and quality of children’s books is staggering, the visual presentation of the information, though there are some oddities such as an encyclopedia which claims proudly that all illustrations are “taken” (quite literally from Internet). We settled for children’s encyclopedias, fairy tales- mainly classical as classical tales are much loved), some Koran stories, manuals on health and children’s health, some Afghan history, dictionaries. And a section for tiny children, so that readers (young teenage mothers) can take their infants with them, which was one of the aims of this project. Then there arose another problem, sensitivity to Afghan mores. We had to check that anything faintly religious did not overdo it on Ali- the bone of contention between Shiites and Sunnis and enough to warrant an autodafé. We went through the books, immediately censoring anything with Ali, an Iranian flag or obviously Iranian situations. This was followed by a quick censorship of foreign adaptations: in one book meant to show a purportedly typical home, adapted from English, a scene showed a little girl sitting on the toilet- a) an unclean filthy act best kept dark, secret and supremely smelly and b) there are not such toilets in Afghanistan, except on NGO premises and the rare opulent home who wants to show off to its guests, so in fact it’s never used, as loos are always outside the house. Also so many references to toys, furniture, gender relations are at best meaningless to an Afghan public when not directly disrespectful. Why on earth do some books get published and adapted here?

In the plane from Tehran to Mashad, the steward had asked me to help him with his English homework in a book published by a renowned British publisher. The ludicrous text was about ‘Hip-Hop fashions” no less, meant to be very “hot” at the moment. The poor man, in his late 50s was totally befuddled. Hot? Garm? Like the sun or spices? This is a country where poems get printed on scarves and literature is worshipped. A seller of traditional garb, squatting amidst his wares at the Tehrani Friday market told me he had read Romain Rolland (had I read Jean-Christophe, I mumbled something about school) and then professed great admiration for Shakespeare. How and why should people learn English via Hip Hop or whatever? And what image are they getting of Western culture? Having said this, the young appeared to be enamoured of all things American which they observe via satellite TV (theoretically forbidden), pirated videos (ditto) and internet. In the self-same plane, I was sitting next to pretty 24 year-old medical student who told me how much she had loved ‘American Pie’ and what a wonderful perception of the US she enjoyed as a result. I spent much time in Iran trying to correct some of their impressions but I don’t think anybody believed me. Never have a met an overall population so enthusiastically pro-American…In the bus taking me from Isfahan to Tehran, I was awoken from my dozing by the unlikely words ‘Kaiser Söze’ blasting through the sound system. The bus company was showing a pirated copy of ‘The Usual Suspects’, and frankly Kevin Spacey does nicely dubbed in Persian, even if the DVD packed up before the end, something the other passengers did n’t seem to mind, gulping tea and munching on nuts and biscuits, proffered, as usual, by these well-run bus-companies. My kindly neighbour offered me half her lunch as well. This is the country of more than one paradox.

Back to the library project. We also bought a number of educational toys, mainly easy wooden puzzles, lego (unfortunately in plastic), building bricks, games to learn how to read and count. We tried to avoid all things Chinese which have invaded the market, I saw a few groups of Chinese tourists diligently visiting the sights in Tehran and Isfahan. Two intrepid girls from Hong-Kong, backpackers, whom I later met in Yazd explained this to me

“China is drilling away at Iranian resources, as China always does everywhere. We appear to be very generous, even if we send them a lot of junk, so we’re very popular here and feel very safe travelling round the country. You see both China and Iran are friends with countries nobody else in the world talks to, so this is a great place for is”

There were groups of elderly tourists trekking round Yazd, Shiraz and Isfahan, presumably the only ones who can take the liquor ban. But nobody must have warned them about the ubiquitously perilously high steps in every building or the rock-hard beds. The hip replacement surgeons in their countries of origin must be doing brisk business when they plod home…

A propos alcohol. One look at the beautiful mural frescoes in the 17th century palaces in Isfahan show that this is anything but a traditional attitude. On  the walls of the once royal Chehel Sotun, princes and their graceful consorts in see-through muslin blouses appear to be quite inebriated from drinking draughts of red liquid poured from crystal flasks. Grenade juice? Unlikely. Today this would warrant lashings with metallic cables from the pious authorities. Yet, in this supremely dualistic society, everything and its opposite, tout et son contraire co-exist amiably I have heard of the wildest parties in Tehran (and in Karachi) set up with well-laden bars, in true Prohibition spirit.

Back to Mashad, too distant for tourists and a city, curled up on itself and its sense of deep-seated holiness. In order to get through the PRT/ Afghan paranoia, I asked all the book and toys-sellers to remove any tall-tale stickers and pack everything in the most anonymous cartons possible. We ended up choosing sturdy Chinese cigarette boxes, a suitable packaging indeed for a consignment to be sent for children ! We all agreed that it would have been far easier to send heroin or”Kalashnikovs” the toy-shop manager chortled!

Working with Afghans for the past 10 year has not revealed efficiency as a dominant characteristic, quite the opposite of here where people are brisk and business-like, totally unsentimental. But no-one offers you tea in book shops, unlike the hospitable Afghanis who always know how to take it easy. Getting the price down, demanding Takhfif was not easy, I scribbled the appropriate words down in my note-book and conducted the haggling myself. My initial appeal to help poor Afghan children did not do anything. Afghans, especially refugees are universally hated in Iran, much to the distress of Iranian intellectuals. One and a half million refugees fled to Iran after the Soviet intervention and many have spent their entire lives there, enjoying many of the privileges offered the highly developed health and education systems. But since the fall of the Taliban, Iranians have fiercely cut down on health, education, opportunities, trying to shove them back over the frontier and displaying often racist behaviour. Yet in Kabul, in front of the Iranian embassy, hundreds of people line up all day to get a permit to get even the most menial work in Iran l So I used another, far more resonant tactic:

–       You don’t like Afghans do you?

–       Well, frankly…

–       You would like those refugees to go back home, right?

–       No question about that.

–       Don’t you think they are staying here because of schools, libraries…

–       Of course they are !

–       Well perhaps the best way to get them out is to contribute to the building of infrastructures, for instance our library in Farah. This way, they would n’t need to stay here

–       -Ah yes, that’s true.

–       Kheili khub, So give me that discount, as you can see, I am working for Iran and the Iranians

–       OK, 15%

As retaliation for the discount, this seller refused to deliver the admittedly heavy boxes to the Afghan book-seller’s shop half a street away where everything had been centralized. I was incensed, but we had to get a taxi to do 50 or so metres

A few hours before my plane back to Tehran, after a lot of “I don’t know if I have the time etc.”, we had an appointment with Zala’s relative who was meant to transport the whole thing. On the phone he asked about the cartons:  Cigarettes? What cigarettes? A question of size or tell-take make? He’ll have to sort that one out. The estimate I had (from another source, i.e. not from him) was amazingly low. I predicted that prices would be multiplied by 10, arguing that the dangers are insurmountable, frontiers impassable, gunmen, Taliban etc. I know that from experience having gone down the fearful route between Herat and Farah buried in a blue burqa and stopped by some kalashnikov-wielding thugs. But this man should know better and find another route, even though he would doubtless presume that I was a rich farangi paid for my efforts by some superpower, not some zany intellectual who sells crafts from her living room. Still, we clinched a reasonable deal, provided the boxes got there. Perhaps he liked the idea of a library after all.
In the end, amidst much argument masterfully conducted by Dai Reza, 8 large boxes, over 100 kilos were stuffed into a decrepit car, with a policeman in fancy gloves telling us off all the time, insisting that this was not allowed etc.
At each call to check what happened, I kept on getting a variable answer

– The boxes are in Herat, why don’t you phone up Khaled to check what’s happening ?

– Why don’t you look after it?  Excuse me, but, you were paid for it

– OK, I’ll call you back

Which meant that I phoned back to be told that the boxes actually had arrived in Farah, something which in reality took over two weeks.

They are still sitting in their original boxes awaiting to be displayed.

Of this, more later, when I have the details…

Post-Scriptum for the select few

Here I am re-reading my notes in Paris. Today, on May 5th an American bombing glitch occurred in Farah province, killing anywhere between 30 and 150 people, mainly women and children. The casualties were brought into the city. I read comments made by my friend Bilquis who is in the Provincial council An enquiry is underway. The results are ultimately indifferent. Collateral damage or whatever this kind of disaster is politely termed will have fatal consequences on any US funded or inspired project. My assistant Zala is in Farah at the moment, totally heartbroken. Since my return, I have found out that now that the library has been built, women will not be allowed to go to it. Even the education chief in the city told Zala that he would never permit his wife and daughters to go to a building “full of men”. Naturally the PRT are dismayed. I wrote to the new person in charge that for the past three years, I repeatedly offered advice and help, as an anthropologist/sociologist specialized in Afghanistan’s gender issues, for the building of the library. But the kindly officer in charge answered

Thank you very much for your offer. Unfortunately the constant rotation of personnel in this PRT does not allow for a constant monitoring of all the nuances of Afghan culture to be considered. Although the intentions are always good from our side it seems that the Afghans sometimes do not really understand us and maybe we do not understand them.

I had been worried from the start about the ownership of building and how to make sure it was optimally used and now things are bound to get worse. What are we to expect? The same things happen with the new hospitals? Women die in their vicinity because men feel they cannot bring them there honourably…

Anyway, true to form, I am working with Zala on plan B or is it R or Y. A Farah girl herself, she has gone to see the local authorities and has come up with the idea of creating a women’s centre in Farah. This is not as complicated as it seems if we can rent the right building, which should be feasible, we’ve done this sort of thing before. We can find efficient staff through Zala’s family, in particular one of her sisters and her family: this may not be the most democratic way of doing things, but it least when personal interest is involved, things actually work. The PRT have expressed interest and possible support, but at this moment, in view of the disaster that has just occurred, a library seems futile. So I hold my breath once again, the books will not be lost, so much is sure, let’s hope it’s for the best and soon… More fund-raising is on its way, tea served in my living room and the latest ‘tchatchkes ’ from Iran on sale…

Names have been changed to protect privacy.P1010897

What blue can mean is something you can only discover in Iran: every shade of turquoise and cobalt….