Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Those Crazy Tehran Nights! AKA: Today's Guest Blogger...My Mom

Backstory: My mom's family lived in Tehran when she was a child. They fled (in the middle of the night in a van, no less) when the Iranian people were becoming increasingly resentful of the Shah. So growing up, I always saw all these photos of my mom's "normal" childhood in a house/compound surrounded by 10 foot walls. And you can barely step in any direction in my grandmother's house without one foot on a Persian rug.

So in light of what's happening in Iran right now, I asked my mom a bunch of questions about the Tehran she remembers. I also asked her (being a history major and all) to dumb down the exact chronology of the Shah/Ayatollah deal. I knew the basics but was a little rusty. I thought I would pick tidbits from my mom's response and use them. Then I realized that my mom is far more funny, educational and interesting than I am. So please welcome the Old-School Iranian Blogging Stylings of My Mom:

First a set up.

After WWII Britain was awarded Iran as a protectorate. They proceeded to suck all of the oil out of the country and it made the Iranians mad, go figure. Britain left but that put the country in turmoil. They briefly had a president who wanted to nationalize the oil industry but then Eisenhower was president and saw an opportunity to spy on U.S.S.R. However, the Iranian government was a little suspicious of colonial powers and weren't too hot on the idea of just trading one oil sucking protector for another. So, the C.I.A. engineered a revolution to put a pro American in power. Hence, the Shah and Americans in Tehran.

Colonial powers brought in schools, roads, clean water, hospitals, etc. They also brought a challenge to theocracy and traditional ways. This set up the society for division. Young people, especially rich young people who were educated abroad, saw the opportunities that westernization brought with its freedoms, art, and secularization etc. This was a challenge to the less educated, less wealthy who remembered the foreigners with their money and immodest ways. They were supported by the religious right who lost power with the Shah who wanted to limit the number of wives, bring in western technology and in general challenge the power they held.

When the shah was ousted the extreme right took over. Theocracy reigned. If you want a comparison think medieval Europe during which they had kings (Ahmadinejad) but the real power was the Pope (Ayatollah). Europe during the Renaissance struggled over who was going to be top dog, the king or the Pope. The king ruled but he could be excommunicated by the Pope. Most law was cannon law drawn up by the Catholic Church (Shari'ah).

You now have several factions and coalitions. There are not just two groups who hate each other but several groups who have agendas that cross age and religious lines. Young people who appreciate western freedom and technology. Young people who want to control their own destiny without foreign interference. Older people who remember the days of the protectorate and remember it fondly and those who remember it not so fondly. There are always the fear mongers among the religious right who lead the less educated and ignorant into believing that if they allow a more secular leader in power all their daughters are going to start running naked down the street, their women will start talking back and driving cars, drugs and alcohol will be running in the public water supply (which would actually be an improvement in the water supply)and Britney Spears will bring her tour to Tehran.

So, in answer to your questions as to whether Americans are loved or hated the answer is yes. It just depends on who you talk to. When we were there some people would shout curses at us and some wanted to live with us. It was one extreme or the other. There was a reason we had 10 foot high concrete walls around our houses and dogs to patrol the compound.

Walls were necessary because people would steal everything. One maid tried to steal Wayne (her little brother/my uncle). There was little police protection and some people were desperately poor. Also, there was hostility to foreigners. The only thing that protected foreigners were walls, dogs and the Shah. Probably the dogs were the most effective for keeping us safe since the "unclean" dogs scared them more than the Shah or the police.

I only got to go to Isfahan, Persepolis, Mount Damavand and the Caspian Sea. There were no Holiday Inns so traveling was difficult. The only hotels were in Tehran. There weren't many small towns. It was either city or deserts, rural Bedouins living in tents and herding sheep. The rural people were very scared of the foreign "devils" with the exception of a few who were fascinated by the unusual. Ask your grandmother about being stranded in the desert over night. (Note: this was after crash landing a US Army plane that my Army pilot grandfather and nurse grandmother were using to fly to a little romantic weekend getaway in the desert while experiencing mechanical problems. Ah, the old days!)

The weirdest thing in my mind was the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the 2500 year old capital of the greatest empire of the world at one time, just sitting in the middle of the desert without a soul around it. No fence, no guards, no museum. It felt a little like being an alien visitor to a dead planet.

Women did not drive, vote, and only the very elite women were educated. For the most part in public they wore chadors. The Shah's wife did not wear a chador but covered her head a lot like young Iranian women now. Exceptions were for children and foreigners. My mother never wore a chador. In their homes women wore whatever they wanted and some could afford very expensive Parisian fashion.

The Shah tried to limit men to 4 wives and encouraged only one. He divorced his first wife to marry the second. That didn't go over well but some educated in the West were monogamous. Ironically the poorer and less educated the more likely there were more wives. Some of this had to do with the snowball effect of being poor, marrying and having children, needing to marry again for another dowry and another person to work to earn money for wife number one and the children. Wife number two having children so the need to marry again, etc. This was the cycle the Shah was trying to break.

The foreigners were more than just oil workers. There were ambassadors and their staff, oil executives and workers, importers, exporters, military, assorted consultants, engineers, teachers, medical staff, etc. Foreigners were encouraged by the Shah and welcomed by those who supported the Shah but hated by those who hated the Shah.

The American school was large and included not just Americans but also the children of any English speaking parent and a native or some natives who worked for American companies.

1 comment:

Grandpa Walton said...

Perhaps the delightful Madame Cobra would like to enlighten us more regularly on another blog you used to frequent, Amanda? If so, I would be happy to recommend her.

Goodnight, Amanda