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

Exclusive Online Stop Smiling Interview

Author Roxanne Varzi


Sunday, September 03, 2006

By Michael Helke

And now, for the literal-minded, some facts and figures. Iran is a country of 70 million. Roughly 70% of the population is under 30 years of age ? that's nearly 50 million young adults. Unemployment for that segment of the population has gone as high as 28% ? therefore, at one point in the not-so-distant past, approx. 35,280,000 have had to make do without a job one way or another.

As is the wont of governments, the one in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran has two ways to go about coping with this problem.

The first is to pretend it doesn't exist: that the aspirations that set in motion the 1979 revolution (which tossed out the Shah and replaced monarchical rule with adherence to a strict set of Islamic codes of behavior, presided over by a group of unsmiling beards, called mullahs, who are in turn watched over like a pit boss by the Grand Ayatollah) have been met, and the various social problems that beset the young ? drugs, alcoholism, poverty, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, clinical depression, suicidal ideation ? are mere surface eruptions of a greater spiritual malaise, to be treated with liberal applications of Islam and more Islam, or else left to progress unchecked in isolation, until the sufferer either succumbs to depression-related illness (heart disease, schizophrenia) or throws himself off a mountain (preferably one of the out-of-the-way edifices in northern Tehran, the site of many lonely tertiary-stage terminations and lovers' leaps).

The second is to deal with it ? and this is where the troubles start. To make sure that today's youth are adhering in a respectful manner to the precepts of Islam, and thus (the reasoning goes) ensure the country has a future that doesn't include internal turmoil and (it naturally enough follows from that) vulnerability to invasion, their bright idea has been to rely upon the Basij to enforce social codes of behavior. The Basij are a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, positioned primarily with aggressive young people with little understanding of the ways of the world beyond their provincial neighborhoods ? hicks, as we call them in the States. During the 1980-89 war with Iraq, the Basij distinguished itself by the numbers of young men they sent to slaughter as mine-sweepers and human shields; as a military tactic, it was devastatingly successful, but it was also responsible for the disproportionate number of young Iranians that obtains today. (In order to make up the population shortfall from the war, surviving families were encouraged to breed more children; and boy, did they.) There are about 11 million Basiji operating throughout the country; and, although they are not exactly esteemed by their non-Basij peers as anything other than wet-eared cannon fodder, they are, in effect, regarded by the regime as de facto instructors of Islam ? instructors, that is, with very big rulers.

To make up for this deficit of respect (fear for Varzi's safety on the streets of Tehran keeps me from flat-out inventorying their less savory aspects ? assuming they even know how to read), the government has taken charge of promoting their present-day interests by reminding the populace of past heroic exploits, and holding them up as some kind of ideal to live up to. (It isn't a coincidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran, is a former Basiji: much populist hay has been made about his presumed authenticity, both before and after he was elected.) Iran has in effect promoted a culture of martyrdom, using the media of film, television and, especially, the murals; the message being advertised by it is that young people should be prepared to throw their lives away at a moment's notice in order to advance that ideal. It doesn't sound like much of a basis for constructing a society that will last.

In Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran, Varzi writes a great deal about how the state constructs and disseminates these images (with surprising sophistication, considering what they're glorifying) and how they get received by their intended audience (with an even more surprising skepticism, given the stereotype of the fist-pumping, Old Glory-burning hothead the West has long received as indicative of the national mentality). She also uses entries to a fictional diary she has written as a way of entering the headspace of a Basiji soldier (particularly a martyr confused about the value of his cause) and perhaps understanding the motivations attending those who would give themselves up to something they don't understand until it's too late. One can respect faith, but it's doubt that inevitably gives a person his education.

This is the second part of my interview with Varzi, the first installment of which posted Saturday.

Stop Smiling: Did you read that article published in Harper's about the mood on the ground in Iran [Christopher de Bellaigue, ?Under the Olive Trees: Waiting for the War in Iran,? July 2006]?

Roxanne Varzi: I have. He's got a good perspective, being right there and on the ground. It's true. I think it's an important perspective to have, because there are so many reporters who go in [to Iran] for a week or two and listen to what the Diaspora is giving them. But he's actually living there and has a good perspective on what's going on.

SS: The impression one gets from his article is of a resigned cynicism to any recent developments, both within and from abroad.

RV: It is, unfortunately. There's a lot of hopelessness in the generation that was raised underneath the revolution, which I write a lot about in the book. There's a lot of cynicism among the older generation, and then there's just a lot of passivity among everyone. The economy doesn't help, either. A lot of people are out of work. A lot of people just feel very hopeless about a lot of things, on a very domestic level. Almost to the point where they don't really have time to think about politics because they're too busy worrying about the price of ? I don't know; onions used to be one metaphor ? but just the cost of living is incredible in Tehran. For a very oil-rich country, the people are really suffering in terms of economics.

SS: One of the promises following the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution was that the state, if allowed by the rest of the world to be successful, would provide for its people. Had Khomeini lived to see the day, he may have been in for a very rude awakening, because the state appears unable to deliver upon that basic promise.

RV: Yeah. Especially for people who had fought in the war, or for the families who gave three or four sons of the Basij, those who were martyred in the war. They're really the ones who have been let down, on so many levels. They were promised to be taken care of. These widows, these war widows, they live in these big buildings ? they're kind of funny. [Laughs] They're not really well taken care of. They're almost ghettoized within Tehran. I think it's going to be very difficult for [the government] to keep up without fulfilling some of these promises. So Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [the current president of Iran] comes in, and he was a Basij, and he says, I'm going to go back and try to fulfill those promises that this government hasn't fulfilled yet. That was a very smart, populist thing to run on. So far, there have been sort of mixed reports about whether he's doing that or not. But it was something that was so absolutely necessary, to run on that kind of platform, obviously really spoke to a lot of people.

SS: Of course, Ahmadinejad wouldn't be able to get anywhere if he didn't have the imprimatur of the mullahs. Is there any sense on the ground that he has the necessary shrewdness to navigate successfully amidst competing interests?

RV: I have no idea about what's going on, really, over there in terms of government. I've stopped reading some of the papers and stuff on it. Unless you're there reading the Iranian press, I have no idea what he's up to. [Laughs] As an anthropologist, I couldn't tell you.

SS: Is it that you can't depend on the press on any side of the world to give Iran to you straight? No lines you can read between?

RV: It's funny. The Iranians that I worked with grew up having to read between the lines all the time. Whether it was Western media or Iranian media, you really get to this [Laughs] physical point about media where you're constantly reading between the lines. It's a lot of work. It's exhausting. I wouldn't say all Western media. There are definitely pockets of places where you get really great editorials and interesting information, and people are better informed than others. For the most part, I think the mainstream has its own agenda and it's difficult. It's the same with the Iranian papers. It's really difficult to read through that and figure out what's really going on.

SS: Considering the environment in which Iranian youth are growing up in, did you know how difficult it might be to practice traditional anthropology, that is, establishing working relationships, provoking unguarded, undistorted responses, from them?

RV: I did. I knew going in that it was going to be very difficult to do anthropology the way you would anywhere else. Again, on the heels of the media, there's massive trust issues. Especially if you're coming from the States, you're coming from the outside, and you're trying to get people to talk to you. That's another reason why it's difficult to trust what's said in the press. Because I know that a reporter that goes in for two weeks isn't going to get anything out of people other than, you know, some sort of sound bite or something that people think they should put out there. I think because I've been there since '91, and I was building trust ? and part of the reason I applied to do the Fulbright for youth culture is because I had all of these cousins and I had access to people, and they knew me, and I knew that that would be something that I could do good research on without having to go in and build up this huge network in the course of a year. I set about trying to do things that would put people at ease, but would also give back - I really think it's important as an anthropologist to give back to the people who you're working with and to unsettle that power dynamic, as someone who's coming in, as I did, from the Ivy League, New York City, coming in with that kind of authoritative voice or whatever, and trying to tone that down and change the power relationship where people were teaching me, that I was learning from people, and that I also had to give back.

I set up a doreh, which is Farsi for 'salon', and I did it with students from this university that draws from some of the smartest students in the whole country. It was a really good segment, a slice of people from all over. It's the first place where people really start intermingling outside of their socioeconomic, religious, and political affiliations. I had this group of people who trusted me, and we met at my place, and then I would go to parties of theirs, or out to films with them, and we would discuss different things. I gave them journals. I noticed that it was at a time where they were really in a crisis of mentorship. They couldn't turn to their college professors. Most of their professors were ideologues that work for the state and teach things that most students really weren't interested in and didn't want to learn. They weren't great mentors. [The students'] parents had kind of checked out, were depressed with the revolution, had their own issues. I write a lot about the difficulty of parenting when you're trying to discipline people [but at the same time] allow them to sort of rebel against the state.

I thought that keeping a journal would be a great practice for them as well, to have a place to think things through. I talked with them about journal writing, about how I kept a journal, how I wrote stories, and I passed out some of my writing, [which dealt with] how I felt about anthropology and power dynamics. I really told them what I was up to. I also told them that I wouldn't collect the journals if they found that the journals became too personal. Because I really wanted them to be open in their journals. I also asked that if they didn't want to turn in the journals that to at least come and talk with me about the experience of writing the journal and talk about some of the themes. They did that. It was amazing. That was one method. I also sent out some polls that I had worked up with them. It was my smaller group. We talked about how to ask questions, what questions were appropriate, what questions were interesting. They're all essay questions. I used to hand them out all over the place so that they were completely anonymous. They came back to me completely anonymous. I had class markers and things like that, questions that would point to demographics. But they were long essay questions. And people really filled them in, but again, it was like pure cynicism, sarcasm. Sociologists get numbers back; I think, as an anthropologist, what I got back was tone. I really got the tone of what was happening out there and how people felt. The tone was very bitter and very depressed. I have this one question, ?Where would you go if you could leave Tehran?? One person answered, ?To a place that I can only travel to through death.? There's a lot of that. I think if you spent twelve years in Iran, you can read through some of that. Again, reading in between the lines and figuring out what people are trying to say and getting the tone of something.

SS: What was the most noticeable difference between the generation of youth you studied and those who corresponded to your own, growing up?

RV: Generation by generation, the fear has dissipated, to the point where this generation that was born after the war ? totally fearless. They'll do anything. They don't care anymore. They have nothing to lose. My generation, the generation of those who were born before the revolution ? those of us who were eight, nine, ten when the revolution hit ? very different. People who were my peers in Iran were much more law-abiding, much more timid about doing things in certain places and in certain ways. Just much more careful. Still pushing the limits as much as they could, but in a more prudent way, probably, than the younger generation. But the generation that was raised under the revolution really felt comfortable with the people who sort of raised them, the ideologues in school. They understood them. They knew how to fight back. Like I talk about in the book, they know the rules. They know how to debate right through some of that stuff. They're comfortable with it. With most people in my generation, it came to them a little bit later. It was a little bit shocking. It was a change. They had seen something different. They knew what they had to lose.

SS: Despite this considerable failure to communicate, to see eye to eye, the irony of the situation right now is that the one thing that would unite everybody, regardless of background or belief, would be an American-led invasion of their country.

RV: Yep. It would. It absolutely would. I asked a lot of youth when I was doing my research on war ? youth who were secular, youth who didn't agree with the government ? if Iran were attacked, would you go to war? Because a lot of them said, I'm anti-war, etc. I said, well, just as a defense thing, if your country were attacked. They said absolutely. Last summer I saw it was pushing youth who were very pro-American more into the Iranian camp. In the media in Iran, the nuclear issue is being put there as nuclear energy. Tehran is incredibly polluted. I think it's one of the most polluted cities in the world. And it's being put out there as something that's going to clean up the air. It's being put out there as something the Europeans have, Americans have ? everyone has nuclear energy, [so] why is the world keeping Iran back in its dark age? It's very anti-colonial. They read all these post-colonial scholars, you know? They're all translated. They're on to some of these issues. They see it that way. Why won't the US let us have our nuclear energy? They don't see it at all in terms of weaponry or any of that kind of stuff. That's a totally different discourse. That's the discourse of this media. If you're just looking at it from reacting from different media discourses, then?

SS: The predominant view in America of the surface Iran has chosen to present is one of a country that has shunned modernity in all its forms save nuclearism.

RV: That's not true, though. That's the problem. Again, we don't really understand Iran. It's totally not the case at all. Khomeini himself used cassette tapes to import the revolution. One of the things that he really supported all throughout was media. The Iranian film industry was something that was supported throughout the revolution. Some of the most interesting stuff that's coming out of Iran right now is actually weblogs. What's interesting is, technologically, Iran has always kept up. You should see the malls. You should see the programs, the video games. The computer culture in Iran is really intense. So actually they've always kept up on technology. I remember when Ghom, the holy city, first went online, everyone said, what does this mean? They said, this is just a different means that we're using to propagate Islam. It's just a means. It's not, the technology is evil. That's never been part of the discourse. Technology has never been anything bad. Which is I think part of the success, also, of keeping up the revolution. They've kept up with the times in that sense. The irony is that we just don't see those parts of Iran. We don't see all of that. So we have this impression that it's not interested in technology, which couldn't be further from the truth. The number-one degree in engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. And computer graphics would come next.

SS: California, in particular Los Angeles, has a large Iranian community, doesn't it?

RV: Yep.

SS: What are some of the reactions to recent world events you've polled from among the community?

RV: I just gave a book talk last night in LA. The Iranian community is just extremely mixed about what they know about Iran, how they feel about Iran, and just talking about Iran can be extremely emotional, in a group composed of Iranians from the Diaspora, for many reasons. Just showing a film at UCI and doing Q&A afterwards can be an emotional experience. [Laughs] There are some people of the Diaspora who go back all the time and who are very involved in Iran, and there are other people who think that if you even so much as think about or write about Iran, then you're in cahoots with the state. It's very charged, emotionally.


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