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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Moharram and Ashura

Today is the twelfth of the month of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar year 1431. But for all Shi’as worldwide this month is a time of mourning, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Holy Prophet’s grandson, and his followers at Karbala, now in Iraq, in 683 CE.

The Imam’s camp comprising his followers and members of his family including women and children had its water supply cut off on 7 Moharram by the army of his enemy Yazid ibn Muawiyya. On the 10th of Moharram Yazid’s army and Imam Hossein’s seventy-two loyal followers engaged in combat which resulted in the killing of the Imam and all his soldiers and the captivity of his womenfolk and his ailing son Zain ul Abedin, who became the next Imam.

The significance of the Karbala massacre has come to symbolise the importance of standing up for Right against Wrong, at whatever cost. The Imam himself, and in fact his father Imam Ali and the Holy Prophet had known that he would be martyred there, but this was the only way that the purity of faith would be preserved: the martyrdom of a small group of men would henceforth live in the collective memory of believers as a triumph of good over evil.

So since Friday 18 December/1 Moharram young people all over cities and villages in Iran set up makeshift tents hung with green and black banners, in remembrance of the Imam’s encampment, and they gather in them every evening until the 10th of the month, listening to lamentations of the different events of the battle, beating their chests to the rhythm of the dirge and going on street processions that reproduce the Imam’s battle array, with drums, battle standards and a crier that chants the praises of the Imam.

The commemoration of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom not only keeps his memory alive, but alerts Muslims to the ongoing struggle against oppression and injustice, as it has done at critical moments in Iran’s history. (There is a mention of violence as a result of Moharram’s processions in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India). Last year the beginning of Moharram almost coincided with the bloody events at the Gaza strip, with the first of Moharram declared a day of public mourning in Iran, and with people in mass rallies demonstrating against Israeli government violence.

The mourning ceremonies reached a peak the day before yesterday, the day of Ashura (the tenth of Moharram) with street processions of men and boys carrying out ritual chest-beating and self-flagellation. A far cry from Christmas back home; but then again, as the Greeks say, “opou yis, patris,” or “everywhere on earth is home.”

Beginning of winter

To all my readers: following the recent disturbances, Internet services have been erratic, so please excuse my tardiness in adding new posts. See next post too.

Update on Among the Iranians: on Monday 21 Dec. I emailed the proof corrections and the index to the publishers in Boston, so my involvement in the text is now complete.

That very same Monday night was the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, or Shab-e Yalda in Persian. Normally this is a celebratory occasion for Iranians: they gather in the houses of their family elders and spend the best part of the longest night of the year munching seeds, nuts and sweetmeats, taking auguries from Hafez’s collection of lyrics and keeping alive the hope of summer in the form of eating watermelon. (A greengrocer in a street behind the Parliament building in Baharestan, central Tehran, stocks watermelons all year round.)

I say “normally”, because this year this happy occasion coincided with the beginning of Moharram, the month of mourning for Imam Hossein, so things were rather low key this time around.
(to be continued in the next post).

Monday, 14 December 2009

Charity Wedding

Update on Among the Iranians:
On Saturday 5 December I received the complete, designed document of Among the Iranians and I spent the best part of last week checking the proofs and compiling a list of corrections. Last Saturday the next major task began: compiling the index, and then both corrections and index must be returned to Boston by Monday 21 December.

Last Tuesday my daughter’s high school organised a charity wedding, aiming to gather enough things for the jah├óz (dowry) of five needy young women about to marry. The headteacher liaised with a woman from Mashhad (a city in north-east Iran) who co-ordinated the charity scheme under which needy young women about to marry were selected to visit the school. The school asked the students’ mothers for contributions in cash and kind for the dinner and refreshments (fruit, cream cakes), ordered wedding dresses for the brides and also welcomed practical help in making up and hairdressing the brides on the day. All students, their mothers, relatives and other female guests were also invited to contribute cash or presents..
When I visited the school the day before the wedding, a pile of wedding presents had already formed in the staffroom: carpets, crockery and cutlery, electrical goods, blankets, tea sets, towel bales, prayer mats, clothes, lengths of fabric.
On the evening, girls were already singing and dancing when we arrived at the school’s assembly hall. The brides then came in among cheers and ululations and joined the dancing too. The merriment continued for the next two hours until the guests were asked to go downstairs for dinner. .
Dinner was cooked on the school premises and laid out buffet-style on a long table in the school foyer: chicken in red sauce, rice with barberries, potato salad, lettuce salad, drinking yogurt and soft drinks.

On the same night a van would transport the gifts and cash donations to Mashhad, where they would be distributed among the brides. This was the first time I went to a charity wedding but, as I understand, charity weddings are usual in Iran. In Iranian culture, since marriage is a highly desirable state, it is expected that everyone will marry, sooner or later. According to custom, the responsibility of providing accommodation rests with the young man, but the provision of furniture, carpets and all life essentials lies with the bride. In the case of needy families for whom it may be hard to buy even the necessaries, charitable people co-ordinate the collections of cash and dowry items. Those who can help, welcome the opportunity to help others in order to please God. (For more on the marriage process, wedding celebrations and more, see Among the Iranians, chapter 8)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Among the Iranians: Update

The designed document arrived in the early hours of Saturday for proof-checking and indexing, both of which need to be complete by Monday 21 December.

On the PR front, last Thursday I contacted a few people with a request for pre-publication endorsements and I am very pleased that I have now got a good number of acceptances, including a few prominent academics whose work is connected with Iran.

SYNOPSIS

Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs

In the wake of the current media focus on Iran’s nuclear technology development and its place in Middle East politics, the West continues its quest to understand this paradoxical nation: its politics, yes, but also its people, their culture, and even the everyday customs and rituals. Among the Iranians presents an inside look at the hidden “rules” that exist among Iranians, from polite behavior and the underlying cultural notion of face to gender roles to the image that every Iranian wants to project to the world. Western readers may be familiar with a stereotyped view of Iran’s unchanging “high culture” in its great mosques and squares and to some extent its classical literature in the poems of Hafez and Khayyam. However, this book aims to convey the nitty-gritty of everyday life in Iran: how to queue for bread, how to get a job done in a government office, dress codes and degrees of piety, marriage as a connection between families, the elaborate system of Persian politeness.
Written with a mix of personal observation and intercultural theory, the goal of Among the Iranians is to open people’s eyes about the fascinating everyday reality of Iran—in short, the book seeks to explain everything you ever wanted to discover about Iran’s culture and customs, but didn’t even know to ask.

The web links:

Intercultural Press/Nicholas Brealey Publishing: http://www.interculturalpress.com/store/pc/viewPrd.asp?idcategory=&idproduct=357

Amazon US:http://www.amazon.com/Among-Iranians-Sofia-Koutlaki/dp/1931930902/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259836704&sr=1-1

Amazon UK:http://www.amazon.co.uk/Among-Iranians-Guide-Culture-Customs/dp/1931930902/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259588848&sr=1-1
Author’s blog: www.amongtheiranians.blogspot.com

Yesterday's Feast: Eid Ghadir

Yesterday was Eid Ghadir, a very important celebration for Shi’a Muslims. On this day the Holy Prophet returning from his last pilgrimage (‘the farewell pilgrimage’), he stopped the caravans of the pilgrims at a place named Ghadir Khomm. Then he told the Muslims that whoever loved him should love Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, and that whoever recognised him as his Master, should recognise Ali likewise.
For Shi’a Muslims this day marks the establishment of the Holy Prophet’s spiritual succession (Imamate), and it is a day on which the descendants of the Holy Prophet (seyeds) are especially honoured.
Hossein’s maternal grandmother was a seyed, so every year on Eid Ghadir all the family and acquaintances visited her and received a newly-minted banknote with her stamp on it. Since she passed away over two years ago, one of her sons carries on the tradition, so yesterday we were invited for lunch to the house of Hossein’s eldest uncle. He has four sons and four daughters, all married, twenty-one grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Most of these were there yesterday, plus his sister-in-law and her husband and son, and us four, so altogether about forty people sat down to lunch, which was brought from outside in two huge aluminium pots and served there: rice with fava beans (broad beans) and chives, and chicken in red sauce, served with fresh salad, drinking yogurt and jelly for desert.
I coudn’t help thinking that my father would go mad in such a gathering; he can’t stand the noise of as few as four people, so I kept worrying that this gathering would be too much for the uncle, who has been bedridden for the last seven years. I asked his wife.
“Oh, no,” she said, he absolutely loves having people around him. I just dread the evening when everybody will be gone and it’ll be just the two of us again.”

When Hossein sat on his bed to chat with him, the uncle mused, “Is there any joy greater than having one’s children and grandchildren around?”

Monday, 30 November 2009

Family gatherings

When my parents-in-law were still alive, their five married offspring would meet at their parents’ house if not every week, at least every other week. When we came back to Iran in July 2007, I realised that now that both parents-in-law have passed away, the children of the family did not see each other very often. Not that they didn’t like to; but other commitments got in the way, and despite everybody’s good intentions, visits were put off: this week their children had got too much schoolwork; the following week they’d got other guests coming over; the week after sister’s husband was late from work… and so on.

The middle brother-in-law has three lovely non-identical twin girls, now just five years old. It turned out that the aunts, my sisters-in-law, sometimes did not see these little girls for as long as three months, even though they all live in the same city. Well, this was getting serious, Hossein and I thought, so we devised a plan that other families also practise. After consulting with the others, we agreed that we would all hold a re-union dinner in one of the houses every four weeks on a rotating basis. I usually draw up a provisional list of dates at the beginning of the Iranian New Year in March and distribute it to everyone. The five offspring in the family host two re-unions a year each, roughly one every six months. We leave out the last month of the Iranian year (21 Feb-20 March) because then everybody is busy spring cleaning, and we also don’t have a planned re-union during the month of Ramadan, when we might be invited elsewhere, or we may have other guests. We have also arranged to celebrate the children’s birthdays on these occasions, so the parents of the birthday child bring the cake to wherever the gathering takes place.
Sometimes the dates need to be moved or someone needs to have their date swapped with somebody else’s, but the system usually works well. After two years of this system’s operation, everybody is looking forward to the next re-union.

The recent dinner took place on 20 November at the eldest sister-in-law’s house, when we celebrated the fourteenth birthday of the younger sister-in-law’s daughter. The next occasion will be on New Year’s day (1 January) at our house.

Monday, 16 November 2009

In Memoriam

The previous Friday, on the seventh anniversary since her death, the family gathered over her grave to offer their prayers.
Seven years ago Maman-jun came to London to look after the children so that I could go to Athens for an operation. She arrived on 28 September 2002 and I left for Athens on the following day. Five weeks later, on a Tuesday morning I got home, and on the following day Ramadan would start. On that evening, the Iranian satellite channel showed the pilgrims who went to Mecca for the Ramadan. Maman-jun had had the good fortune to be in Mecca during the previous Ramadan.
“Last year I was in Mecca,” she mused, looking at the TV images, “this year I am in London… who knows where I will be next year.”
“God Willing, you’ll be in Mashhad next year, “ I replied. (Mashhad, a city in north-west Iran is the burial place of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam, and a favourite pilgrimage site for Iranians.)
On Thursday morning she had a massive stroke, and in the early hours of Sunday 7 November 2002, she passed away at West Middlesex Hospital, Isleworth. Two days later Hossein escorted her body to Tehran for burial. She is now buried at the Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery, south of Tehran, in a two-storey grave which she now shares with Aqa-jun, her husband of more than fifty years, who passed away four and a half years after her. God rest their souls.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

How Life Gets In The Way of Work

This week began with my birthday on Saturday 31 October. A university lecturer whose paper I had copy-edited for submission to an American journal came over to bring the payment, and invited me out to lunch. We went to an Iranian restaurant with traditional decoration not very far from my house. I was very pleased to get to know her better and I hope this will be the beginning of another good friendship.

After finishing the copy-editing of the paper, I went back to a travelogue of the Persian Gulf that I am also copy-editing. This should finish in another month, but I very much doubt that it will. I am having problems concentrating, but, to be fair, too many things are always going on. On Sunday evening I had to go to the orthopaedist with an inflamed ankle, on Monday morning a publisher rang me with a translation proposal for an illustrated book on Iranian painting, so I went to pick up the book. He wanted an answer there and then, but I needed time, so I borrowed the book and gave him an estimate on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning I thought I’d try a Quran reading class at the same place where the traditional singing class takes place. This was the third session, but I was able to keep up. I think I’ll carry on; this has been something I’ve always wanted to do for many years, so now that I’ve got the chance, I’ll give it a go.

The traditional Persian singing class continues. Last Tuesday was the sixth session, so I have learned six “goosheh”, or melodies, to which any poem can be sung. As with my classical singing lessons two hundred years ago (in 1986-1987), I am holding my voice in, I don’t let it out free, for fear of…what? I thought that the years would have made a difference.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Mission Accomplished

This entry should have been posted three days ago at the latest, but for the last two weeks I had to work flat out going over the copyeditor’s comments across the whole book. When I received the files over two weeks ago, I didn’t think it would take as long as it did. I have responded to every query, carried out corrections, added quite a few paragraphs and deleted a few others, re-arranged the endnotes and re-styled the references.

While going through the copyeditor’s comments I couldn’t help thinking how easy it is for a writer to take things she knows for granted and assume (without really thinking about it) that the reader will understand exactly what she means. For example, in Chapter 4, which is about religious beliefs and practices, in the section on the obligatory prayers that Muslims have to offer every day, the copyeditor asked whether men and women pray in the same way. It had not crossed my mind that a non-Muslim reader might wonder about this, but then I remembered how I wondered myself before I embraced Islam.

Well, the book is off for pagination. The next time I see it, it will be page-designed, ready to be indexed. As I was attaching the files, I felt as if I were packing the suitcase of a dear child, who is not a child any more, and is now leaving home, ready to face the world. God knows what lies ahead.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Musings

Last Saturday I received the copy-edited files of Among the Iranians. Every single correction and amendment has to be checked, queries raised by the copy-editor addressed, bits and pieces added or moved around. And all this has to be returned to the project editor by Tuesday 20 October.

One day last week I was walking home from the metro station. I had been shopping at the Central Bazaar of Tehran and was fairly exhausted. On the way home I passed a lovely small square with grass, trees and blue-and-orange benches, just like the one to the north of our block of flats. There are four such squares in our neighbourhood, where mothers and children, youngsters or elderly people often spend some time in. That day the square was unusually quiet; maybe it was still too early. A middle-aged man brought an elderly man in his wheelchair and helped him settle on a bench nearby. He asked him if he would be all right on his own for a bit, until he went to run some errands. The old man nodded.

He sat quietly and looked around the park, at the trees, at the little sparrow that came to perch on his bench. He smiled to himself and whispered, “Khoda-ra shokr” (Thank you, God.). I thought of my father in Athens. His dementia is progressing in such a way that every time I return to Athens, he remembers less and speaks less, but he still smiles the lovely smile I have always known. Since the previous winter he has given up his usual afternoon walk round the block, because he can only shuffle his feet along and Athenian pavements don’t cater for such needs. So in the afternoons he takes the lift up to the roof and goes round a couple of times.
While I was there in the summer, we often went up to the roof together. The view is interesting from here: beyond the television aerials and the satellite dishes one can see the Lycabettus hill with the white church of Saint George perched on its top, the Sina Observatory, and the other hills around Athens against the famous clear blue Attic sky. On the evening before I left, we went up again.
Dad kept commenting on how lovely the sky was, and admired the buildings. He exclaimed how tall they were, and wondered how people managed to build them so tall and how come they don’t fall. I envied him then, for a moment, for being able to admire the beauty of nature and human ingenuity as if for the first time, just like a little child. He may have lost a part of himself –his memories- but has got back something perhaps as valuable: the pure, childish pleasure at looking at an animal or a baby or a beautiful flower. And he can’t miss me anymore now, because as soon as I leave, he’s forgotten me until I speak to him on the phone or go back to Athens. That spares one a lot of pain.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Traditional Iranian Singing

Just up the road from our house, Park-e Neshat, now renamed Mothers’ Paradise is a women-only park in which biking and other sport activities take place. Near the main entrance, the local cultural centre organises classes on handicrafts, traditional music, cookery and office skills, as well as classes for mother and children, and teenagers.

This park was designated as women-only about a year ago, but I had not visited it until last Tuesday. With the beginning of the school year I felt like trying something new from among the ‘regrets’ I carry in my mind about things I would like to do but haven’t had the time or the chance yet. Not that I have much time now, but as I’m getting old(er), I gradually realise how little time there is left in one’s life to do all the things one would like to do. I will never forget what my good friend Alex in London told me once: “When trying to decide whether you should do something, visualise the moment when you are about to leave this world. What will your regrets be?” This question always points towards true north.

Anyway, the cultural centre offers classes in traditional Iranian singing (avaz-e sonnati). I was told that I needed to get to the class and be tested before I enrol, so last Tuesday I went along. There were only another three students who started three months ago. The teacher asked me to sing something traditional. Not knowing any Persian traditional song, I sang a Greek one. She asked me a few questions about my previous experience (three years Greek church music, one year classical singing) and also whether I like Persian traditional music. I said I liked it, but haven’t tried singing it yet. Anyway, she said that I could join the class and see how it goes.
Apparently a set sequence of tunes is meant to be followed, so the other students have learned between eight and twelve tunes already, one a week. The teacher assigns a tune to every student individually, sings it for the student to record it and then gets her to write down the lyrics. Practising the tune at home is the weekly homework.
Iranian traditional music is mainly vocal, but the teacher accompanies the practice with a setar, a long-stemmed, three-stringed instrument similar to a lute, but with a longer stem and a smaller body. The sound of the setar is nostalgic, tinged with sadness, complemented by the lyrics that are usually taken from the body of classical Persian poetry: Hafez, Sa’adi, Attar, Rumi, and others.
Here follows my clumsy translation of my next week’s homework:

I have tried very hard to hide the secret of my love
But how could I be sitting on fire and not burn?
I was careful not to give my heart away to anyone
But when I saw your Face, all care and logic left me.
You sold me for nothing, but I am determined
Never to exchange one single hair of yours for the whole world.

Next Tuesday morning I will try a class on Rumi’s Mathnawi.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Summer's over

Last Wednesday was officially the first day of autumn and the first day of school in Iran. With the children off to school after a long summer (schools broke off just before the presidential elections on 12 June), this is an appropriate time to start off a brand new blog following on (with a break) from an older one (www.movingouteast.blogspot.com)

After nine months of writing and coinciding with the end of school in June, the complete manuscript of my book Among the Iranians (provisional title) was delivered (pun intended), so it was time for a break, or maybe more than one breaks. We went on a four-day family break to Mashhad in the beginning of July and then I visited my ageing parents in Athens for three weeks in late July.
Visiting Greece from Iran is not as easy at it looks. Although only a three and a half hour flight is all it takes, there are no direct flights from Tehran to Athens. One can always get a connection through another city, but it is expensive (see previous blog for last year’s adventures). This year I travelled via Doha, Qatar, without any problems or delays, I’m pleased to say.

My time in Athens was quiet. I met up with a couple of friends, but I mostly stayed at home, trying to make the most of my time with my parents and mainly keeping them company. In the last week I managed to visit the Acropolis Museum, and I am glad I did. I found it a very attractive building, light and airy. I loved the terrace overlooking the Parthenon as well as the Parthenon gallery.

Two weeks after I got back from Athens, on Wednesday 19 August 2009 we set off on a short trip to the North, by the Caspian Sea littoral, and Ardebil, in Iranian Azerbaijan.

We headed for the Karaj freeway. We parked by a parade of shops near Karaj and the children and hubby went to buy snacks for the journey. I got out of the car to stretch my legs and back. An elderly woman in black chador was passing by. She said that I was welcome to use the toilet in her house nearby if I needed to. I thanked her, but no, I didn’t need it then. She asked whether I have any children and repeated the toilet invitation for them too. I thanked her again and got in the car.

Later on we queued up at a petrol station. A street peddler on crutches was moving from car to car selling chewing gum at 500 tumans a pack. The driver ahead of us gave him 1000 tumans as charity, but the man refused to take it. When he got to us, he said, “I am not a beggar; I sell these at a profit of 100 tumans per pack. Why do people think I am a beggar?” and he stumbled off to the next car.
More impressions from that trip to follow in a future blog.

Got to sign out now. I’m snowed under by work: I am translating book blurbs for the publishers I freelance for, which are meant to be used for publicity material at the Franfurt International Book Fair (isn’t that cutting it a bit fine?). I’ve already done fourteen of them and there’s another twenty to be done this week. The manuscript of Among the Iranians is meant to come back to me for corrections this week and will need to be returned in two weeks’ time. Together with a good friend and colleague we’ve signed a contract for the translation and copy-editing of a photographic book on the Persian Gulf. I am copy-editing a psychology academic paper for submission to a peer-reviewed journal… and the list goes on. Still, it’s good to be busy again.

New Beginning

Welcome to this new blog, the continuation of a previous one (www.movingouteast.blogspot.com; do check it out) I’ve been keeping on and off since July 2007 when we moved to Iran. In these two years since the move many things happened in our lives: we are now properly settled in Iran, the children are doing well at school, I have finished the writing of Among the Iranians (or everything you ever wanted to know about Iran, but you didn’t know who to ask), the book that has been germinating in my mind for years.
Here I will post snapshots of everyday life in today’s Iran.