As a young child, Bird spent three years in the northwestern town of Tabriz where her father served as a doctor for the Presbyterian ministry. She returned in 1998 to see the effects of the Islamic Revolution herself. One of her first acts was to look for the infamous DEATH TO AMERICA sign which hung at the Laleh International Hotel.
Two hotel employees with grizzled cheeks gave me a half-flirtatious, half-interrogatory stare. Taking a deep breath, I asked them about the sign.
"Gone! Gone!" they said, laughing as if I were asking about ancient history. "You are American?"
This could be the theme of Bird's travels, where everyone--from security police to government officials to men yelling "Welcome to Iran!" as they whiz by on their scooters--are practically ecstatic to meet an American. In the privacy of their homes they watch the Flintstones and CNN, listen to Michael Jackson and Metallica, drink alcohol and complain, mostly about the economy. In the end, Iranians start to seem not so unlike Americans in many ways--criticizing their government while loving their country all the same.
The fact that Bird, like Sciolino and Wearing before her, is a woman makes her story even more interesting, as she looks behind the veil and finds both the power and the constrictions that it represents. Her biggest strength is in asking direct questions about such ticklish issues as women's rights, but at times, her of lack heavy-handedness is enough to make you squirm. Wearing, with her lovely sense of humor and openness, did a superb job befriending and capturing the people. Bird, on the other hand, seems to have no sense of humor and has an irritating habit of getting irritated. Nevertheless, she fills in the essential historical and political background Wearing couldn't be bothered with. Together, the two paint a penetrating portrait of a rich and evocative land. --Lesley Reed --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
There is a red line in Iran that you should not cross. But no one knows where it is.
-- Popular saying in Iran
The first time I stepped out onto the streets of Tehran, I felt like a child again. Lona, Bahman's secretary, had to hold my hand, as people and traffic rushed and roared around us. Jet lag made me unsteady on my feet, and my long, heavy black raincoat seemed to be pulling me down toward a parched pavement that was simultaneously rising up to suck at my hem. The hot August sunlight burned across my shoulders.
The crush of women in black around us was overwhelming. Left and right, shrouded figures were striding purposefully by, carrying purses and briefcases and shopping bags. Because this was fashionable north Tehran, most were dressed as I was, in a manteau -- the French word for coat that is commonly used in Iran -- and a rusari, or head scarf. The manteaus all looked alike to me, but the rusaris came in a wide variety of muted colors and designs, as well as the occasional bright blue or green. Only a few women were wearing the chador, the traditional black bell-shaped garment that covers both the head and the body and is held at the chin by a hand or teeth. But whether encircled by a rusari or a chador, the women's faces shone out like jewels.
I was both one of them and a being apart. In a few days, I would get used to my manteau and rusari and barely notice them anymore; in a month, in fact, I would feel uncomfortable when in the presence of some men without my covering. In a few days, I would visit other parts of Tehran and know that this crush of people and traffic was nothing. But for the moment, I felt lost and, despite my disguise, horribly conspicuous.
Lona, her seven-year-old daughter Sepideh, and I were heading straight for the manteau shop. Though my American raincoat had met with considerable approval from Lona's discerning eye, we'd both agreed that it was far too warm for August. We walked down a smart street, lined with plate-glass shop windows displaying everything from Gucci shoes to Nike baseball caps. We passed by one sidewalk vendor selling hot tea out of a big silver pot, another grilling ears of corn over an electric heater, and a third selling shelled walnuts out of a jar filled with salt water. The shelled walnuts looked naked, like tiny brains.
The manteau shop was close and crowded, with the racks of raincoats separated by color. Green, blue, brown, gray, cream, and lots and lots of black. Some had fancy buttons, tassels, and ties, and most had shoulder pads. An embroidered gold panel turned one garment into a semi-evening gown and a nubby hood gave another a schoolgirl look. While I looked around helplessly, not knowing where to begin, Lona tried to convince me to buy one of the black-and-brown animal prints, or at least a light-colored raincoat. To wear light colors in Iran is a mildly liberal political statement, and as a foreigner, I could get away with a lot. But I refused. For all of the colors available in the shop, I'd already noticed that most of the women in the street were wearing black. I didn't want to stand out any more than I already did. And besides, I came from New York.
Finally, I chose the thinnest black manteau I could find, and we returned to the street, where I looked around me with a heightened awareness. I could now see differences in the women's attire that I hadn't noticed before. True, most of the manteaus were black, but they were of different lengths, styles, shapes, and fabrics. Some clung, some hung, some billowed, some flattered. Some seemed matronly, some youthful, some elegant, and some -- that lovely flowing garment with the V-shaped front panel -- sexy.
There were other differences in the women's attire as well. Everyone was wearing her rusari differently, with various amounts of hair sticking out the front or back. Iranian women have perfected something called the kakol, or forelock, which is a pile of teased hair -- sometimes several inches high -- that sits atop the forehead. The kakol deliberately flouts the whole purpose of the rusari, as does the long braid or swish of loose hair hanging out the back that some younger women brandish.
The women's lower extremities also sent out various messages. Some were wearing jeans, some elegant trousers, some heavy socks, and some stockings that were daringly sheer -- another liberal political statement. Iran's Islamic dress code decrees that women keep their lower legs and feet well covered, so thin stockings, along with open-toed sandals worn without socks, are forbidden.
Equally diverse were the women's shoes. They ranged from practical flats to stylish designer heels, from sneakers to hiking boots. Variations in these last two were especially popular among the college-age women, and I instinctively knew that each one was sending out a very different signal, which I was too old and foreign to read.
I adjusted the shoulder pads of my new manteau. Now that I was wearing a lightweight Iranian garment instead of a heavy Western one, I felt a bit better. I'd also noticed one or two women with light brown, almost blond, hair and realized that Lona was nearly as tall as I was. Perhaps, as a tall, blond American woman, I didn't stand out as much as I'd thought.
A moment later, Lona nudged me and tilted her head toward a parked car against which two men in dark green uniforms without insignia of any kind were leaning. "Pasdaran," she whispered, and I tried not to stare while simultaneously realizing that the men had already noticed me notice them and had registered my Western face. So much for my fleeting hopes of not standing out.
I'd read a lot about the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, an organization formed after the revolution when the clerics did not trust the regular Iranian army, which had previously supported the Shah. Initially a small unit designed only to protect the new leaders, the Pasdaran had quickly developed into both a powerful internal security force that patrolled the streets for breaches in Islamic conduct and a full-fledged armed troops that fought in the Iran-Iraq War. The Pasdaran's civilian counterpart had been the komitehs ("committees"), volunteer organizations formed around mosques and student and workers' groups as a rival authority to the regular police. In the early 1980s, the komitehs had roamed the streets, vigilante style, arbitrarily arresting thousands of people for everything from suspected prostitution to antigovernment activities and invading private homes on a whim in search of such incriminating "un-Islamic" evidence as liquor, Western music, and chessboards. The latter were outlawed in the early years of the revolution because of their associations with gambling and royalty.
In the mid-1990s, the Pasdaran and komitehs were merged into a single "disciplinary force," but many people still refer to the uniformed guards as the "Pasdaran" or "komiteh" and can tell the difference between them. Some also call them the "morals police." Their street surveillance is far more lax than it once was, but there is still no telling when they might suddenly arrest someone. On another walk just a few days later, Lona, Sepideh, and I would pass by two guards herding three young women with tattoos and heavy makeup into a van. Both tattoos and heavy makeup are officially forbidden in the Islamic Republic, even though cosmetic stores thrive and many women wear far more makeup than do most women in the United States.
From the Pasdaran, Lona, Sepideh, and I passed on to a small, covered bazaar selling inexpensive clothes, shoes, jewelry, and spices. Plastic shopping bags emblazoned with English words hung next to the stalls: Marlboro, Winston, National. We passed by a sleepy boy sitting beside a parakeet perched on a box filled with paper packets the size of tea bags. Each packet contained a verse from Hafez, the beloved Iranian poet of the fourteenth century, and for a nominal fee, the boy instructed the parakeet to choose one for me. The Iranians consult Hafez as the Chinese consult the I Ching, and each verse serves as an obfuscated fortune that's open to various interpretations. Ambiguity is highly valued in Iran -- a fact that delighted the writer part of me.
Later, Bahman loosely translated my fortune for me:
Let us sprinkle flowers around and put wine in the cup.
Let us split the sphere open and start a new design.
If grief arises and sends an army to attack people in love,
We will join with the cup bearer and together we will uproot them.
I didn't know exactly what that verse meant, but overall, I thought, it seemed to bode qu...