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To Be Young, Gifted and (Part) Iranian: Roxanne Varzi Interview, Part One: Exclusive Online Stop Smiling Interview

Exclusive Online Stop Smiling Interview

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

By Michael Helke

Roxanne Varzi, the author of the recent Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press), teaches anthropology at the University of California in Irvine. Her book is the result of a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her to conduct extensive ethnographic research in the city of Tehran.

Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a disproportionately huge youth demographic (roughly 70% of a population of 70 million), a direct consequence of the 1980-89 war with Iraq, which claimed the lives of an almost equally disproportionate number of young men. Toward the end of ensuring that Iranian youth grow up asserting the correct Islamic principles, the state has commemorated and promoted the wartime exploits of the Basij, comprised mostly of soldiers who martyred themselves in conflict with the Iraqi aggressors, as the ideal most worthy of emulation ? an ideal worth pursuing in their own lives. The notion (as seen from at least one corner of the world) that one helps the long-term national and economic prospects of one?s nation by encouraging its most vital participants to throw their lives away seems rather foolish, if not?. What was surprising to learn from Varzi?s observations was that many young Iranians felt the same way. They don?t talk about it as openly; but the sentiment is unmistakably there. They certainly don?t react to government propaganda as zealously as the state would like. Varzi credits, among other factors, a disconnect between state beliefs and the reality as the young of Iran are experiencing it for the failure of the two forces to interface in any meaningful way beyond the usual local pantomimes.

Varzi?s family left Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution, which deposed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah and brought back the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had hitherto been living in exile abroad, to preside over the institution of an Islamic state ? that is, a state with strict Islamic jurisprudence sitting at the center of its governance. Her mother, an American Catholic who grew up in Grosse Point, Michigan, brought little Roxanne, who was born in 1971, back with her. Varzi recalls having been teased mercilessly by her Grosse Point peers for her Persian accent. (One flinches to consider the tenor of these encounters with early-Eighties Midwestern anti-Muslim racist cracker ignorance. For a few years after the Iranian hostage crisis, I remember seeing many bumper stickers whose darker sentiments might have come out of Albert Camus?s Stranger; the mood grew even stranger following the bombing the marine barracks in Lebanon later in the decade.) When Varzi returned to Iran, starting in 1991, she felt extremely self-conscious to be bringing back with her a strong Michigan accent, having given up her Persian on the playground. You could say that Varzi had come full circle.

Varzi and I spoke during the month of June. A little over a month later, the state of Israel would respond to provocations by Hezbollah, the Islamic extremist faction, with a massive military campaign in Lebanon, where its home base is situated, involving fierce aerial bombardment and the deployment of ground troops. Hezbollah, whose express political purpose is the eradication of Jewish Israel and the return of the Palestinian refugees, receives the bulk of its military and financial support from countries like Iran and Syria; and, in the figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran ? and a former Basij ? they also have a soul brother of sorts, one who believes, among other things, that Israel should be wiped off the map. Iran continues to command world attention by its refusal, despite worldwide entreaties, to back off from its pursuit of nuclear power; recently it told the UN to get stuffed, it?s not slowing down, it has the right, same as everyone else, to develop alternative sources of power.

The speed and unexpectedness with which developments like this take place in the Middle East have a way of rendering every brief pause for reflection ridiculously quaint. Perhaps this will seem the case soon enough, in a year, maybe six months ? perhaps six days ? from now.

All that was in our future. During the course of our early discussion, we touched upon recent developments briefly, but for the most part hewed to matters of anthropology ? the study of human behavior in (comparatively) stabler settings. Varzi mentioned a class on Modern Iran she was teaching. Pressed for details, she spoke of the ?very diverse backgrounds? of her Iranian students, roughly a dozen of whom were born and raised in California. ?They sit in different parts of the classroom,? Varzi said. ?They don?t all sit together. They?re very much segregated or separated by their parents? politics, and how they were raised in terms of thinking about other people of the Diaspora. Much more so, actually, than the youth in Iran. The youth in Iran ? the secular youth ? are much more likely to interact with their Islamic peers than youth here. It tends to be a group of people that exist in a vacuum since 1979. A lot of that still plays out. It?s a lot more conservative, too. Someone told me last night ? and it?s a good point ? they said, it?s interesting how in Iran parents are supporting dating by allowing parties at home and all this stuff because the state won?t, whereas here, all of these Californians have to pretend they?re not dating until they get married because the Diaspora has stayed very conservative, having brought over an Iranian culture from thirty years ago. Whereas in Iran, the culture has really evolved and has become a lot more modern. I think that happens in most diaspora groups. I think they hang on to the sense of the homeland from whenever it was they left.?

Stop Smiling: Tell me how you secured the Fulbright grant that took you to Iran and ultimately resulted in the publication of Warring Souls.

Roxanne Varzi: Fulbright has different regional offices, and I suspect my Fulbright was given through the India office. Basically, it was administered through Columbia University, so I never actually dealt with any Fulbright people or had to go through any bureaucratic, permission, licensing, or any of that kind of thing. I just was basically given the money through Columbia University; it was administered through them.

SS: You didn't get to participate in any of the diplomatic tango that nations suspicious of one another eventually engage in?

RV: Just a little bit. Right before I left, the difficulty was that the money was technically coming through the Treasury Department, because Fulbright is a government agency. At one point I had to call up people at the Treasury Department, or the State Department, and ask them what I was and wasn't allowed to use the money for. We had economic sanctions on Iran at the time. Just like my colleagues who work on Cuba. It's very difficult to get government funding, to do any kind of research in either Iran or Cuba, so I didn't really think I would get the Fulbright. The caveat with Columbia is they won't even allow you to apply for their Columbia University Private Fund for Research, which they sort of keep on hold for people who have a hard time getting the more prestigious outside grants, like the Fulbright or the Social Science Research Council or the National Science Foundation. In order for you to even apply to Columbia's stuff, you have to apply to the outside grants. So I did that as a matter of formality [Laughs], and I ended up getting it, which was shocking to me. So I had to just go through a little bit of song and dance with the Treasury Department and promise not to pay any Iranians directly for helping me with my research, or to help the economy out too much. Which wasn't difficult, because I was not renting an apartment. I was told to just use my money for food, which was what I did. It was pretty easy.

SS: Didn't you try for a Fulbright prior to this?

RV: I did. I had applied for a Fulbright six years previously to go to Pakistan, because I was interested in Afghan refugees in Peshawar. I remember the Fulbright commission thinking, ?Oh, well, because she's the Iran expert, there's no way she's going to Peshawar. She's using it as a back door to get into Iran.? So I was very upfront about exactly what I wanted to do [this time around]: study youth culture in Tehran. I really didn't think I was going to get the grant, but again, I just applied because if I didn't, my department wouldn't allow me to apply for funds [Laughs] through the university.

SS: They were afraid you were actually going to do that?

RV: Yep. This is what I heard sort of through the grapevine. To be fair to them, I also heard that they really didn't think it was a safe place to send a female scholar. I had my hands in a lot of different projects [at the time], and I wasn't really positive about which one of the many projects I was interested in doing in Iran I was actually going to do. But I applied for exactly what I wanted to do, and I ended up writing a book on exactly what I applied for.

SS: You first visited Iran in 1991, right?

RV: Well, I started going back to Iran in 1991. I didn't actually start the project until 1995. But I had spent a year in Iran in 1993, after I graduated from undergrad, living with my uncle's family. That was the year that I relearned Persian. Then, when I came back to the States, I spent a year writing a memoir that never got published - this was before memoirs from Iran were really popular. People just weren't interested at all in even looking at anything that had to do with Iran. I ended up publishing some of the chapters from the memoir as short stories in various places; some of that writing ended up in [Warring Souls] as journal entries of mine from '93.

SS: Iran in the early '90s couldn't have been a very happy place. It was, after all, only a few years after the country's war with Iraq.

RV: Yep. The reason I think I ended up writing half of the book about the Iran-Iraq War is because there were still UN peacekeepers on the street when I went back in '91. Tehran in general is a very safe city. The government cleaned up all of the remnants of war. You didn't see bombed-out buildings. Every time a shell fell, or something happened, it would immediately be cleaned up, to keep up morale, so it didn't look like a war-torn place at all. The things that were most intense were the murals of martyrs. I read a lot about that kind of stuff: the production of culture in the public sphere that was a result of the war and as a result of martyr culture. The other thing was that there were a lot of POWs returning. But that didn't really begin until probably '93, that I really was aware of the return of all these POWs and the parades for them. That became a big sort of public thing, to watch these POWs return. Part of the reason that I was obsessed with the war was because when I first went back, I was worried that I wouldn't fit in with my family, because I had a strong Michigan accent: my mother's American, and I had forgotten most of my Persian because I was teased really badly on the playground and refused to speak it for many years. I thought that they just wouldn't accept me, or that I wouldn't get along; somehow I would be rejected. I realized that it wasn't all of those things that really separated me from other Iranians but the fact that I hadn't lived through the war. It's something that's never addressed: people don't talk about the war; there hasn't been a lot of academic work on the war. Certainly not in the States, and very little in Iran. So I became obsessed with this war that I had missed out on, that had made me a non-Iranian in certain ways.

SS: Your study of Iranian youth culture eventually entwined with the state's continued promotion of the culture of martyrdom during the war with Iraq.

RV: At the same time I was studying youth culture, I was doing this project on the war. I spent a lot of time because I was really interested in how youth were consuming this culture produced by the state. I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the producers of this culture, and then I had became more and more involved with talking with the Basij, who had been at the front and were actually continuing to produce culture. Chapter Three is all on the ten-year-long documentary project that took place at the war front, a Basij-operated documentary project which was really about trying to get people to come and martyr themselves at the front. It was a sort of propaganda project. I spent a lot of time talking to the producers of the program. It continues to go on, but now they mainly do things about post-war issues, like POWs or mothers of martyrs or the war area.

As a result, I kind of leapt more and more into their stories about the front. I ended up talking to a lot of reformists as well; the end of the book is kind of about the reform movement. A lot of reformists had actually gone to the front as Basij, which is what gave them the credentials to actually say anything publicly that was critical. I spent a lot of time talking to them and sort of thinking about ways that they moved away from the early religious practice that was so sort of state-grounded.

SS: The country has such a high percentage of young people today, owing largely to the war having claimed the lives of a generation of Iranian men. It would seem that the survivors of the war feel that their martyred brothers might have died for nothing, no? Considering the youth of today aren't able to relate to the war on as visceral a level as ex-soldiers?

RV: A lot of people actually were quite thankful that they weren't martyred in the end. And then other people just sort of fell into depression. It's been difficult for the war vets. They're not really accepted by society, because a lot of society didn't believe in the war. Nowadays it's being pumped up even more, again. It's an important issue, though: most families have someone who died in the war. It's a very sensitive issue.

SS: Did you discuss these issues with surviving Basij in significant detail?

RV: We talked a lot about that. Some of them who are still trying to produce culture are saying, you know, we're producing culture for this generation that just doesn't even understand us. They're very well aware of the fact that there's a big disconnect between what they believed in the '80s and what this generation believes now. Much like Viet Nam, there's been this shift that's happened over the past ten years, where through cinema, actually - and I write about this at the end of the book - cinema has been this bridge that's allowed some of the critique to come through from the Basij, but at the same time has allowed some compassion and understanding from secular youth who watch these films and really didn't get what the Basij were about. They sort of saw them as these almost fundamentalist, crazy people who went to the front; now they're starting to understand maybe what it was that compelled them. They have more compassion. And I think that compassion is coming through because some of these Basij filmmakers like Ibrahim Hatamikia, whom I write a lot about, who began to criticize society for not taking care of the war vets, but at the same time was subtly criticizing the government as well; sort of speaking directly to the Diaspora and secular youth.

SS: Rather depressingly, the Iranian government has played right into the hands of those who would portray their country as a fundamentalist furnace and little else, so it's somewhat cheering to see challenges brought against this surface by former insiders.

RV: What I really try to write about is how the Iranian government created a surface. The thing I was really interested in thematically throughout the book was this interplay between surface reality and something that was much deeper: the space of faith inside a human being and then the space of acting out habitual religious practice. What's interesting is that the government created this surface, and people weren't really able to look past the surface outside of Iran. The US and other Western countries - and their medias, I should say, really - fed on this surface that was created and were lured by it and weren't able to see beyond it. While all of that is overblown, at the same time Iranians gave the press that in order to keep them away from looking at some more important issues, which we still don't look at.

SS: Such as what?

RV: The fact that there's a crisis in identity, there's a crisis in faith among the youth. CNN tends to go into Iran and say, oh, the youth are all drinking vodka and partying: they want Western culture. But it's much more complicated than that. As a social scientist, that's what I was trying to complicate and to show, is that within that crisis, there's still religion. It's not like they threw out the baby with the bathwater. It's coming out through different practices, like Sufism and mysticism. There are twelve-step programs now. There's a huge problem with drug abuse. There's a problem with pre-marital sex: there wasn't sex ed in classes for a very long time. As a result, people were getting these back-alley abortions. I write about a lot of that stuff in the book. Going back to the initial Fulbright question, I think one of the reasons that the government has never gotten in the way of my research is because I was researching part of the population that they had absolutely no access to. They had created such a strong surface that even they couldn't see below. All of these things were bubbling up through the surface: the drug use, the abortions, the suicides. I wanted to be helpful, too, from a policy perspective. I was hoping that the book would actually shift some of the policy by pointing out that, look, this is a real problem, not having sex ed classes. And it's already shifted. They now have sex ed classes. They're allowing twelve-step programs. They're taking care of children, teenagers, who are attempting suicide, in the hospitals. Unfortunately, much like the States, they're just kind of overmedicating instead of really dealing. These are issues that they weren't able to research on their own. They had no empirical evidence for any of this stuff. They knew it was happening. I think they wanted someone actually to go in and say, look, this is what's happening. Someone actually point-blank told me that the Youth Foundation Institute, where I was doing my research, said, we're happy that you're doing this kind of work, because no one will talk to us. They needed to change their policies, and they were aware of that at the time.

SS: But how much change could the regime permit at a given time? It seems a great deal of Iranian youth culture is allowed a fair degree of latitude only on the implicit understanding that it could all be taken away if they chose to push too hard.

RV: I think that they're sending out messages every now and then, that you can only push so far. They're definitely doing that with intellectuals right now. When I was there this last summer, there was this message that was sent out, [saying] we don't want to mess with your private life. We're going to continue our political agenda, but we're not going to mess around with your domestic everyday life. Sure, if you stick to wearing your veil a little bit further down your head, and do those kinds of little acts of rebellion, no one's going to mess with you. But if you write something that's against Islam or the state or something like that, that would be more difficult. But I don't see a larger clamping down. I see them shutting down a few individuals to send a message here and there, but I think it would be difficult at this point to go back to, say, the early days of the revolution, and the people I talk to who are in Iran have said, it's not going to get clamped down to that degree. They don't see that coming anytime soon. But who knows? [Laughs]

SS: You think the status will remain quo for a while to come?

RV: I think so. Yeah. I haven't been there since last August. As an anthropologist, I hate making predictions unless I've really been on the ground and sort of have a feel [for the terrain]. I'm just going with what people say - I have years and years of contacts - but it does sound that way. It seems like that's what's happening.

SS: There's no lingering dread that cultural permissiveness will receive a fierce corrective from the state if it gets too out of control? That a return to the hard-line days immediately following the '79 revolution is always just around the corner?

RV: [Adults] haven't reacted at all that way to this generation. They just see the generation as lost. They don't see it as a failure of policy. I think they see a big shift that they need to make. The revolution is still relatively young. For us, thinking about thirty years, it's a long time. But in terms of generations, it's still young. They just see it as, like, okay, well, we need to shift this practice a little bit, or shift that. They know that they can't go in against this generation and change things back to the way they were in 1979. It would be impossible. I don't see that kind of clamping down quite yet. The recent nuclear issue has served to actually push more people to be in line with the Iranian state.


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