The sand is warm and the sun makes it perfect swimsuit weather. Three women, a girl, and a man are enjoying a lovely day on the coast: fashionable sunglasses, skimpy swimwear, big smiles. Californians? You’d think, except it’s an old photograph taken at the Caspian Sea.
Next slide. A young woman walks on the same beach. The photo is crisper, more recent. She’s wearing a longer tunic and the wind is blowing her hijab, covering her hair.
Next slide. A gorgeous set up for a bride and groom getting ready to pose for a photo. The sun is setting, the light is orange and low, and they are standing on the sand of a hot desert.
Next slide. A little girl and her mom in a winter wonderland. Snow is everywhere and there’s lots of it. Portland knows snow? Tehran does!
It takes about 20 hours to get there. There are no direct flights and if there were, they’d take 16 hours of air travel. With an 11.5 hour time difference “it’s the other side of the planet”. The little girl in the snow and the young woman on the Caspian Sea beach are the same person, my colleague Shabnam. Tehran is where she grew up and returns to visit her family. Jama is where she tells us about her Iran.
The photo on the beach was a pre-revolution shot that wouldn’t be possible to capture today. Women can wear a bathing suit but in an area separate from men. In fact, segregation goes beyond sandy beaches: Shabnam didn’t enter a co-ed classroom until her college years. She shows us a high school photo of girls wearing school uniforms: unrevealing and hair-covering. “None of these girls, but one, live in Iran today, which is sad and telling.”, she comments. Women can drive, vote and work. They don’t have the right to get divorced and cannot assume custody over children older than three years. And there are a lot of things that are not allowed publically.
But just like the desert and snow photos show contrasting images of the same country, within the limiting system blossoms creativity. Shabnam has friends who work in the film and music industries and cannot imagine working elsewhere. How do you shoot a movie with actors who cannot touch each other? How can you create music if women are excluded from singing? How can you party when dancing and alcohol are illegal? How can you wear hijab and be a fashionista?
“The religious police is everywhere and it’s scary” but there is a certain underground for everything: music, female vocalists, having a good time with friends, hanging out with your boyfriend in a coffee shop or on a trip (a term that’s still a taboo with the older generation). More importantly, Shabnam’s friends who work in creative, feel as if they would not be inspired outside of Iran as much as they are currently, despite all the limitations in policies of their country. This is what constitutes their art and it wouldn’t be the same somewhere else.
What is Iran like? “It’s not Iraq” – That’s a neighboring country. “It’s not a camel on a desert” – There are two deserts in the middle of the country. “The Head of The Cat”, or the Northwest, is cold, with snowy winters and -20*C temps. The South, by the Persian Gulf, is warm and humid. Tehran is metropolitan, busy, diverse, polluted and surrounded by gorgeous, snowy peaks to the North. The food, which Shabnam shared with us, is tangy, fruity and sour-ish: Persian Kebab, rice in all forms, lamb stews with herbs, sour cherries and plums are among culinary staples. The buildings are historic, dating ten or twenty centuries back. People are very friendly and inviting.
I’m getting a clear sense of my colleague’s life in Iran. She skillfully transported us, Jamanians, across the globe. I look around the room and I see our CEO, VPs, managers and my colleagues all drawn into the history of the 1979 Revolution and its consequences, photos of monarchs, “The Separation” poster, and ancient mosques.
“I cannot describe or explain my culture because this is something you need to experience yourself”, says Shabnam. “But if I was to choose one thing I’m proud of, it’s not the Persian Rugs. It’s the Persian Poetry”. The particular poem she presents is written by an Iranian poet, Sa’adi, and also inscribed on the United Nations building entrance, which she reads in Farsi:
“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain”
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