My Funny Valentine

Although they do occupy a portion of your imagination in the days before a rally, death, being beaten or getting arrested, are not the most frightening thoughts. The worst thought, always, without exception, is whether people are going to show.

On 25 Bahman, we – a group of eight – took off toward Enghelab Square at around two o’clock in the afternoon. I kept telling everyone that it was too early for leaving; that the rally was at three o’clock and that Iranians are always fashionably late. Nevertheless, the others were too anxious to sit still and so we left.

At about 2:30 PM we got to Enghelab Square. There were hardly any people on the streets and we saw few security men standing at intersections here and there. The only thing to note was a sharpshooter on top of one of the buildings just west of the square, with his rifle exposed.

We killed time until about 3:30 PM. That’s when the sidewalks started to show abnormal pedestrian traffic, walking west and Enghelab Square was flooded with Basij and plainclothes thugs walking or riding their bikes about.

We walked in silence toward Azadi for a while but the atmosphere wasn’t exactly peaceful. Basij, plainclothes and IRGC forces were circling around on their bikes, making a lot of noise and threatening people. Occasionally a group of twenty would drive by carrying flags, brandishing their sticks and clubs yelling “Hezbollah! Hezbollah!”

We kept walking. By Four o’clock the sidewalks were very packed, and the government thugs were getting nervous.

Regular police forces were also deployed, and standing in groups of ten or twelve at every corner of every intersection along the way. We heard, saw and smelled tear gas from afar but things weren’t too violent at the time. The IRGC, Basij and plainclothes mercenaries would rush the crowds on the sidewalks every once in a while, diverting us into the street traffic, from which we’d return to the sidewalks a few minutes after they were gone.

The action started a little past four o’clock when we got to Eskandari. We were hit by tear gas and attacked from the front by anti-riot guards. The crowd pulled back. One of the policemen at the corner of Eskandari told us not to run.

“They’ll beat you if you run. Just walk,” he said.

“What do you mean they’ll beat us? Aren’t you here to protect people?” I asked him half-jokingly, which is what some other people were asking also.

His superior standing next to him answered: “Okay, no more discussion. Keep walking. Just don’t run.”

All this was pretty friendly. In fact I did not see the regular police do anything but stand at the corners. They’d weather all the commotion plus the tear gas but didn’t budge. Most of the time they were telling people to walk in this or that direction and their behavior was relatively civil.

One of the officers standing there said to us: “You want protection? Just stand behind us and they won’t beat you.”

That’s what we did, and when the animals passed us by, the policemen told us it was now time to go up Eskandari and get out of the area.

Clashes had started up on Eskandari and tear gas was being fired so a couple of people in my group said we should walk back toward Enghelab Square which is what I did. When I got back to the corner of Eskandari and Azadi, the crowd had become pretty packed and I lost the others. A few minutes later a battle broke out.

From here on, everything is blurry. I spent some time around Eskandari, Dr. Gharib, Jamalzadeh and later on up on Forsat. Battlefronts were formed with people throwing stones at the IRGC and mercenaries, and then running into the side streets while chanting when the forces attacked. Plenty of tear gas was fired in the area, and in response, as usual we lit cigarettes or burned newspapers and posters.

At the corner of Gharib and Azadi Avenue, just before another round of attacks by bikers, two covert Basij idiots who were among the crowd suddenly pulled out their electric batons and started to beat people. The imbeciles didn’t realize it was too early and they were still surrounded by the crowd. In a matter of seconds they were pulled down, and a wave of people just drowned them under their fists and kicks. This time no one was saving them. Instead, everyone was screaming “kill them!”

When the other group of mercs reached the front, people ran inside Gharib Street running over these two Basijis. I don’t know what was left of them. The militiamen followed us inside Gharib until a few stones thrown from the apartments stopped them. They took cover and turned back and were then rushed by the people on Gharib. These cat-and-mouse games were happening all over.

I saw burning trash bins all over the neighborhoods around this area. I saw a man, probably in his Fifties, with a bullet wound around his knee. I believe it was at the corner of Dr. Gharib and a small alley called Sousan. People were carrying him out of the area.

At about 6:30, when things started to settle a bit, more pigs on bikes appeared in groups of fifteen to twenty, roaming in the main streets in the neighborhoods,  and yelling “Hezbollah Hezbollah!” or “Heydar! Heydar!” endearing themselves to the people even more.

How many people came? That was the question we kept asking ourselves that night. As always, I don’t really know. Judging from the crowds moving on the sidewalks and the size and spread of the clashes, I would say more people than last year’s Ashura.

I was out by Seven o’clock, and found the rest of the gang at a friend’s place.

I’ll proof and add anything else I remember later. Just used this chance to quickly post. I have somewhere to be in about an hour ;)

Of Mice and Women

I suffer from sexism in some of my behavior I admit. Take for example my visits to government or business offices. Be it an ISP, or the telephone company, the first thing I do when I walk in is to look for the women working there.  If none exist, which has yet to happen, I’d rather walk out and come back another day than subject myself to the work ethics of the Iranian male employee. It’s a generalization, but I’ll stand by it any day.

That’s what happened when I got to my bank one afternoon at about 1:00 PM. I saw four working windows, out of ten, three of them attended by women and busy serving other people. The man had no clients and was doodling, but I went to one of the women.

By the time it was my turn, there were no other customers left in the bank, and a playful conversation started between the clerks.

“So where is Mr. Karimi? Wasn’t he supposed to be back by now?” one of the women asked aloud.

“He tends to disappear a lot,” another one said.

The man raised his head and said with a smirk that Mr. Karimi was on his lunch and prayer break.

“Yes, Mr. Karimi apparently prays very deeply,” the woman at my window said while she was taking care of my paperwork.

“Yes, but when Mr. Karimi is here his output surpasses the three of you combined,” the man replied.

“Really? Is that so?”

“Yes…really. Men are much better at work than women you know.”

“Ah…so that’s why you and Mr. Karimi take a lot more breaks than us. You work harder and better during the few moments you spend at your desks.”

“Yes, we know our jobs perfectly and so most of the burden is on us. We have to carry your weight too.  It takes you women years just to start to get the hang of things.”

“That’s really funny, because by the time you are done taking care of one client, I am done with ten,” one of the women replied.

“Remember, speed is not everything, and besides, that’s what you claim. I propose we time ourselves and you’ll see this is a figment of your imagination.”

“YES!…LET’S!” the three women screamed.

“Ask your client,” the man said and turned to me: “Isn’t that so?”

What was happening there, in the best case, was what we call “eshvheh kharaki” or “elephantine flirting”. There are plenty of rude little dudes who engage in this behavior, and this one, outnumbered in his man vs. woman argument, was asking me to back him up. Boy, was I going to have fun.

“Nope!”

There was a moment of silence. The woman at the other end giggled.

The man asked me what I meant, and I clarified that I disagreed with him. There was more giggling to my left. He stared at me as if I had killed his brother.

“You don’t think we work better than women?”

“When I walked in, you had no one standing at your window while these three ladies were serving customers. Did you notice I still chose to go to one of them?”

“Treason, treason!” he said jokingly, but he was irritated. “Maybe you like to make yourself wait.”

“I do. Because when the wait is over, I am greeted with a hello and a smile, my counterpart listens to what I say, my questions are answered and my transaction goes smoothly and speedily.”

“You’re just saying this to please the women, otherwise you don’t really mean it.”

“Maybe, but let me say this too: It’s taken them thirty years of vying for position in this society, and they’ve been climbing a steep slope. From the Hejab issue, to university enrollment, to careers and professional life, they are gaining ground little by little. Soon enough you’ll realize that Mr. Karimi is not coming back and you’ll be alone among nine women. Be careful you don’t fall off your chair.”

“There you go,” said the lady with a grin and handed me a slip.

“Done?” I asked her.

“Yes…Unless my colleague has another question for you…”

I chuckled all the way back. They didn’t need my help. They’d have shredded the guy I’m sure, but the surprise element was irresistible. He shouldn’t have given me the opportunity.

Call it legalized prostitution, male chauvinism, a loophole in Islamic Shari’a, sick, a solution to the problem of Iran’s youth, hypocrisy, or anything else you like. I could not help but see Hafezoon as Hafeze Oon or “the protector of ‘it’”.

I ran into the website a little while ago, when the domain was still “hafezoon.com” – it has since been moved to “moarefe.com”. According to the rules page, Hafezoon is a website dedicated to temporary-spouse-finding, and not at all for friend-finding. No loitering. They mean business. I wasn’t looking for a spouse on that particular day, so I loitered. Sorry.

They explain that temporary marriage is a solution foreseen in Islam for times of urgency. A true solution, they add, would be the promotion of permanent marriage, as a happy society requires having happy families, and families couldn’t form unless the youth are swayed toward marriage of the permanent kind. But…

“It is clear that not everyone has the same circumstances, and some do not have the prospect of permanent marriage. Some men have not succeeded in marrying due to their work or monetary situations, and there are women who have lost their husbands and are grappling with economic difficulties. Introducing these people to each other can solve their problems in a two-way fashion.”

“We believe an environment should be established in which men and women who meet the requirements for temporary marriage could introduce themselves, and upon consent, start a relationship according to the Sharia, instead of forming illicit street friendships, or, god forbid, being drawn to promiscuity. ”

“Let us not forget that Hafezoon are those believers who protect their skirts from sin and satisfy their needs only through Sharia law. ”

They say again that the website is not a social networking site for finding friends – it just really looks like one of the better-known ones – that it is operating under the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and list some other guidelines.

I logged on.

The “Ahkam” or “Commandments” page:

There’s some stuff on how to perform the marriage and what to recite. Blah blah blah…ah…”The father’s consent” section…

“According to the opinions of most jurists [Faghih], if the girl has been married before (is not a virgin) there is no need for the father’s consent. But if the girl is a virgin, the jurists differ in their views.”

Various Fatwas are then listed. Some say yes, some say no. Some say no, but better if yes.

They accept ATM cards from all major banks, and the prices are pretty cheap I must admit:

Regular membership is free (that’s the package I have so far), one month special membership is five bucks…three months is eight…unlimited is twelve…and there are spouse-finding ad packages for 45 bucks, and some SMS packages listed as well.

I did a general search without any criteria and got a list of ladies to browse through. Let’s look at Baran’s profile – Baran means “rain”.

She is twenty-eight years old, single, and from Tehran.

Education: Masters
Profession: Student
Income: None
Automobile: None
Height: 165 (cm I assume)
Weight: 60 (kg I assume…not a nice question to ask a lady)
Skin: White

She has given herself a “3″ for beauty, with “1″ being the lowest score (unfortunately the highest is not listed, so I cannot really judge) and a “4″ for appeal.

The most important reason for marriage: Financial need (This is what I saw for other profiles in the list, I should note.)

Lifestyle: Living with family
Place: Northwest of the city
Cigarettes: No
Alcohol: No (I am now wondering what would have happened if she said yes.)
Religion: Islam – Shia
Hejab Condition: Without Hejab (I am now wondering what this question means. Is this when she is at home by herself, or out on the streets?)
Health Condition: Healthy
Contact Info: Hidden (Ah…This must be the catch with the regular membership.)

The little ad on the left is for the “Pearl Cream” which is for “face fatness” and “cheek placement” – to reduce the former and augment the latter, I imagine.

I then moved to a more advanced search. I was particularly curious about the “Health” and “Hejab” options in the profiles.

I’ll include this screenshot with the funky ads on the left for you to enjoy:

And Voila! “Health Condition” had a dropdown menu:

“Unknown”
“Healthy”
“With a specific disease (like Diabetes, Hepatitis, etc…)” (!)
“With a deformity” (!!)

I logged off.

Trick or Treat?

Trick…

Minority Report

I paid a visit to a pawnshop this week. That’s one effect sanctions have on the lives of ordinary people. Fortunately, my trip wasn’t for pawning anything, although such a day may just be around the corner, but it was the end of a long quest to find a way to get paid by a foreign client.

Ever since the sanctions materialized, money transfers have become very knotty. In the old days, we would provide our bank’s foreign rep and routing information (another bank in Europe for example), and our account number, and then waited for notification of the transfer, but those days are gone.  Even the currency exchange shops we used to work with are no longer providing this service. They used to receive money in their accounts on foreign soil and pay us Rials out of their accounts in Iran, making a profit in the exchange. These days, their accounts are under scrutiny, frozen, or they’re just afraid to make such moves.

So my partner looked for an alternative, and found a Jewish man with a pawnshop.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

A sweet, old, bespectacled man, wearing a mustache, was standing behind the counter. Next to him were two young men, most likely his sons.

“We called about the money transfer and you said we should come to the store for the account information.”

“Ah, yes, yes…come in.”

Most of the items in the shop looked like antiques: old clocks, a small desk, candleholders, and whatnot. Under the glass counter, there were some old coins and Faravahar pins.

The old man picked up the phone and made a call.

“Hello?…hey I called you about the transfer in Europe earlier today, so which account is good?”

The good one was an account in Eastern Europe.

After hanging up, he produced a little notebook and set it on the counter. I noticed the name of a certain Ayatollah G. and some numbers written on the open page. Seems like we would be listed next to him.

“So how’s the economy doing?”

“Well, the Ayatollahs are sending money out like crazy,” he said, pointing to his notebook. “What can I say?”

“Shouldn’t be too bad for you these days.”

“Not bad at all, with the banking situation and the wild foreign currency market.”

A couple of his customers came in asking for American dollars. Exchange offices no longer sell currency to ordinary people, unless they have a passport and ticket to show. Even in those cases, they sell up to two thousand dollars only. A cab driver told me that traveling people who don’t need to buy currency are “renting” their passports and tickets for fifteen or twenty thousand Tomans. I’ve also heard that airport authorities don’t let people take more than three thousand dollars with them while traveling. The limit used to be ten thousand.

The owner told them he was out of dollars at the time and asked them to check with him in a couple of days. He then gave us a paper with his accounts and other information listed on it and highlighted the account in question.

“Once the money is in, I’ll buy your Euros one Toman higher than whatever the Central Bank says on that day.”

We asked him about being a minority in Iran these days, and he smiled and said: “We’ve learned to live with the system. They come in and bug us from time to time, but reality is that the Mullahs need us.”

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