Friday, December 31, 2004

Unshackling Sanskrit

“A word is intangible. We can't buy it, hold it in our arms, or lock it in a safe,” began a recent mailer from Can a language then be considered someone’s fiefdom? According to Kalanath Shastry, noted Sanskrit writer and this year’s Sahitya Akademi awardee, the hold of orthodox pundits on the language is gradually loosening, giving it a chance to open its centuries-old linguistic heritage to others and enrich it further.

“There was even opposition from the old stock to my novel that deals with a student’s love for her tutor. They felt how could I write about such a subject. This despite the fact that the relationship is very sober,” he said, referring to Aakhyana Vallari, his latest fictional novel that features a lady recollecting her love for her Sanskrit teacher. “Sanskrit has always broken taboos rather than toe the line,” Shastry added. It is for this novel that he won the Akademi prize.

Over the last century, various changes have happened in the vocabulary and volume of work being produced in Sanskrit. From detective novels (spasha katha) to abuses (dasiputra for bastard), the “classical and dead” language has evolved. And it is rail, not lauhpathgamini. “One writer from Gujarat even caused a flutter when he started penning haikus, monologues and sonnets in Sanskrit,” he said. “A language has to give and take. Even pornography has become a subject in Sanskrit literature, though less in print form,” he added.

There is even a move afoot to avoid teaching children the dwivachan to simplify the language. However, Shastry cautioned against a Hinglish-like development. Earlier, during the 17th and 18th century, there was an “unwritten code” propagated by known grammarian Panini to keep the language insular. Sanskrit, he said, has borrowed words “cautiously and sparingly because Sanskrit grammar has the inherent strength to create words”. Like antastantra for Internet.

These words have the sanction of the Central Sanskrit Board, a government advisory body that oversees affairs related to the language. There are monthlies for children (Chandamama), which feature cartoons, and daily newspapers being published in the language. And incidentally, Magha, considered to be one of the three greatest epic writers in Sanskrit together with Kalidasa and Bharavi, was from Jalore. He wrote Sisupalvada.

To flourish, Sanskrit should be disassociated from religion and the taboos that come with it, Shastry felt. “It is not only for and of Hindus. In fact, one of the most chaste speakers of the language today is Ghulam Dastgir, who is a Muslim priest in Mumbai,” he added. Also, to establish itself as a modern and living Indian language, it needs to be more suited to contemporary needs. Like making it more job-oriented or “a language that pays”. “Sanskrit, ultimately, has to prove its utility,” Shastry said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

"The waste of a generation of Iranian youth"

Iran's domestic crisis: Its youth

by Elahe Enssani from San Francisco Chronicle

An impending danger is haunting Iran. While an intense debate, both domestic and international, has been carried out in the past year over the Iranian nuclear program, another issue that merits even more attention is being ignored: the waste of a generation of Iranian youth. This tragedy merits our attention because of the human resource being squandered.

Last July, the Research and Planning Institute for Higher Education, an Iranian government agency, conducted research on Iranian youth. The project focused on young Iranians with an average age of 21. The results are alarming: 53 percent of the participants see death as a way out of their lives and more than 77 percent believe there is no future for them. While one would expect further analysis and research in order to better understand the issues and to come up with solutions, few public debates have made it their central focus.

Where will this hopelessness of Iranian youth lead? How will this affect the hopes for a democratic future of the country? We all know that apathy precludes participation and empowerment, the two essential building blocks of democracy.

When you actually talk to Iranian youth as I have, you get a sense of their emotions, which are much like their western counterparts. You also see that their aspirations are depressingly absent. I've visited the neighborhoods and parks where I spent my teenage years, and I've spoken to many young people in order to compare how they feel in contrast to my own generation. While they have trouble identifying the future, they are not rejecting their past, nor are they denying the importance of Islamic values to their identity. But I've realized this is a generation that for the most part is being overlooked and, even worse, abandoned.

The Iranian government has not invested in the country's youth in terms of instilling leadership qualities or a sense of mission and aspirations by providing equal opportunities. In the 1970s, people in the United States talked about the "me" generation. In Tehran in the 1970s, people talked about the children of the shah's generation, in whom some of the oil money was invested. Many of us were sent to the best European and U.S. universities to receive higher education and return to take the country to the "gates of the great civilization." Even when Iranian intellectuals made fun of the pretentiousness of this ideal, such an investment made tremendous good sense. Working toward creating a great civilization resonated with a sense of idealism, mission and purpose.

Today's youth are different. They are without ideals or role models such as intellectuals, artists, poets, scientists or anyone who has excelled at something. They have no spokesperson.

The poems they recite and the literature they read are the ones my generation recited and read. Their sources of inspiration are a generation old! This is a generation that is apathetic about its leaders, and none of the many I interviewed aspires to lead the country one day. Most important, this is a generation that does not have a sense of national pride and identity. At a time when nationalism and a sense of national purpose are on the rise throughout the world -- from China and India to Brazil -- Iran stands out as one of the great civilizations whose destiny is ignored by its own people.

One university professor, who had studied in Germany and is now teaching in Tehran, compared Iran's young people to the German youth directly after World War II. He explained that the same hopelessness, sense of shame and lack of national pride had crippled that generation of Germans for years.

Iranian youth are an untapped resource who comprise more than 60 percent of the population -- perhaps a greater asset than the natural wealth of the nation.

If we care about the future of democracy in Iran, what should be done? The United States should encourage Iran's leaders to invest in that nation's youth in the following ways:

-- Acknowledge that the apathy crisis among Iranian youth exists. This may seem trivial to Americans, but it is really an important step, yet not taken. The conservative domestic media portray Iranian youth as happy, hopeful and committed to the Islamic ideals of the nation's leaders. But this oversimplification is far from the truth.

-- Shift the emphasis from religious values and traditional beliefs to individual freedom and to values that relate to their Persian identity. In other words, let the young be young and discover life for themselves.

-- Channel some of Iran's surging oil wealth into the basic needs of the younger generation. One simple issue stressed by the young people I talked to was the lack of youth centers and other places where they could socialize outside of family gatherings.

-- Finally, instill a sense of hopefulness by creating a level playing field in job opportunities and financial self-sufficiency.

Investing in the nation's youth would be a much more secure path to greatness than a nuclear program.

Elahe Enssani is chair of civil engineering at San Francisco State University. A documentary film of the interviews she conducted in Iran is in post production.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Iranian love for pomegranates

Pomegranates by Persis M Karim

To root themselves in their new home
Mother and Baba planted native trees: madrone, oak
And the manzanita at the end of the drive.
To remind them of their foreignness,
They planted olive, almond, quince, pomegranate.
The first time my mother packed one in my lunch,
I shrunk in embarassment, quickly returning
the leathery bulb to the brown bag.
How to eat a pomegranate without being conspicuous?
It is a slow and exacting endeavor,
an act of worship.

"You never slice them with a knife," my father would say
when the September heat had made the trees
sag with the heavy ornaments of Autumn.
In his world, men would sell them on the streets
for a few toumans, shouting, "Anar-e Khoshmazeh!"
"Delicious pomegranates!" while rolling the sun-flushed hides
between two palms.
Customers stood at the corner of a cart,
Kneading, coaxing the last of the blood-red juice from a hole,
Never allowing it to touch anything but their lips.
Our American sensibility refused this technique.
We never took their exotic form for granted.
"Throw them in the air, let them crack open,"
my brothers yelled, waiting for the quiet
thud and then the invisible seam
that split them open like an unhealed wound.
I liked the splatter of its color on face and hands,
The evidence of pomegranate carnage.

Once in my twenties, waiting in a chiropractic office
I flipped through a new-age health magazine.
Women wanting to conceive should eat
estrogen-rich foods: shrimp, scallops, pomegranates.
Like the larvae of some magical butterfly
They were a cure for barren women.
There are two kinds of people in the world:
Those who pluck the seeds from the waxy yellow
Membrane and toss them in their mouths--
And those who hoard the pile of ruby jewels,
jealousy guarding them until the last
kernel is devoured.
Once in a child's game of war,
My brother plucked the pomegranate,
Tore off its feathery crown
And mimicked the sound of a grenade
Exploding with his mouth full of saliva.
"Bury it" I said, looking at its inedible remains.
Baba would not tolerate such sacrilege.
When I learned a Sephardic version of the fall--
That it was a pomegranate and not an Apple
I felt a kind of secret pride.
It's too cold for apples in the garden of Eden
I said to a friend, knowing
they wouldn't be wearing fig leaves.
This fall my two-year-old son,
Undaunted, eats his first pomegranate.
His tiny, probing fingers, harvest the seeds
One by one. With hands stained
by this baptism, he offers them to me,
Like the remnants of an untold story
inherited in the womb.

Tank girls: the frontline feminists

From The Independent

These women have come from around the world to bring down Iran's ayatollahs. So why were they bombed by the West? Christine Aziz visits their desert HQ

As the coalition bombs hit the flat salt plains on the north-eastern border of Iraq, members of a little known, female-led Iranian army huddled in a bunker. While the earth shook, showering dust on their neatly pressed khaki headscarves, 25-year old Laleh Tarighi and her fellow combatants tried to protect themselves.

Eighteen months later, recalling the terror of being attacked by British and US bombers during the invasion of Iraq last year, Tarighi, a former pupil of Parkside and Hill Road School in Cambridge, says: "We were puzzled more than afraid. We knew our officers had sent messages to the Pentagon insisting that we were neutral and shouldn't be attacked. We were only in Iraq to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalist regime across the border in Iran."

It is hard to imagine that Tarighi was once a typical British teenager who loved going to the cinema and socialising in cafés. Few of her friends knew that when she was a child in Iran, her father had been executed for being a member of the Iranian resistance, and that her mother was a high-ranking commander in the National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA). After A-levels, Tarighi had planned to study media at university, but then, aged 18, she decided to leave the comfort of the home she shared with her aunt to join her mother in the NLA in a military camp on the Iran-Iraq border.

The NLA is the military wing of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a female-dominated, Iranian parliament-in-exile whose aim is to topple the Islamic fundamentalist regime and replace it with a secular, democratic government. The NCRI is led by a charismatic Iranian, Maryam Rajavi, 53. Security around her is tight for fear of assassination attempts, and she very rarely appears in public. Her organisation has kept a low profile until it recently started sharing intelligence reports on Iran's nuclear programme with America and Europe.

But, in spite of this co-operation, the NLA is still considered a terrorist organisation by the West. The coalition forces in Iraq have restricted its 3,800 combatants to their camps, and their weapons have been confiscated. Women make up 30 per cent of the NLA, but 70 per cent of the officers are female. The British Army has just one female brigadier, while in the Navy there are four female captains.

Rajavi has long encouraged female participation in the army. She argues that, as misogyny is the mainstay of the Iranian government, who better to strike at it than women? Her female recruits, many of whom had been tortured and imprisoned in Iran, train alongside men in all aspects of frontline battle, including hand-to-hand combat and armoured vehicle operation. With the backing of wealthy Iranian exiles, they are preparing for the day when the order comes to march east over the frontier to liberate their land from the mullahs.

Tarighi is one of hundreds of sons and daughters of Iranian exiles in Europe, America and Canada who have volunteered to join the army since its inception in 1987, when Saddam Hussein allowed the NLA to build its camps along the Iranian border. Until Saddam's fall in March last year, the NLA had been able to build up its military force under the watchful eye of its host.

When Tarighi arrived in Iraq in 1997, she was still sporting a stud in her tongue and wearing trainers - very different to the army's uniform for women of khaki headscarves, combat trouser-suits and boots. It was not her first visit to the NLA camp at Ashraf; when her mother fled with her daughter in 1987, they escaped to this camp, where they lived for four years.

The Gulf War in 1991 meant that all the camp's children were evacuated to foster-carers in the West. "I grew up in Cambridge from the age of 10. My life was pretty much there," Tarighi says. "After I passed my A-levels, I decided to spend a gap year in France before going off to university.

"But I got news that my mother had sent me a letter, care of the NCRI headquarters in Paris. It was the first letter I'd received in a long time, and it was very affectionate. I talked to NCRI members and decided to go and join my mother. We hadn't seen each other for eight years. I knew her immediately I saw her, but she didn't recognise me. I looked like any other British girl, and she wasn't too pleased about my tongue stud.

"At first it was difficult living back in the camp, and I missed a lot of things, especially, believe it or not, the English weather. I love rain, and there wasn't a lot of it in Iraq. But it was the friends I made in the camp, and the support and encouragement I received, that carried me through. I did marching drills and learnt to fire a Kalashnikov. I had never seen a gun in England. I didn't join the NLA for my mother, but for Iran. The regime murdered my father, and my grandmother had been in prison there many times. Resistance is in my blood."

Ashraf is 14 square miles of impeccable tidiness. The first impression is of a holiday camp rather than a military base. Eucalyptus trees line long driveways, men and women tend gardens, and there's the smell of bread from the bakery. Since Tarighi arrived at the camp in 1997, a swimming pool and an exhibition room have been built.

But in that time the cemetery, decorated with plastic flowers, has expanded. In the past 18 months, 40 soldiers have been killed in coalition attacks and, after these assaults, by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who then found it easier to slip across into Iraq. The NLA tanks and artillery that once patrolled and guarded the base have disappeared; in their place, American military police guard the entry checkpoint with tanks and patrol the base in armoured Humvees.

The growing danger meant that Tarighi left the camp soon after the bombing. Now she works in NCRI offices around Europe, still hankering for her army life. But another British girl, Sharobeh Barooti, 19, stayed on. She is one of several hundred combatants with European passports or residency rights who remain at Ashraf. Born in France, Barooti is an only child whose parents are in the Iranian resistance. She doesn't know where they are, although she receives occasional letters.

Barooti moved to the UK in 1991 to live with an aunt and uncle, but by the time she was 15, at Edgware High School in north London, she knew she wanted to join the NLA. "I had heard a lot about the Iranian regime from my aunt and uncle, and I began to feel I should do something. I went to the NCRI office in London and told them I wanted to join. They gave me information and arranged for my travel to Baghdad." She dropped out of her GCSE studies and travelled to Iraq, where she was met by officials of the People's Mojahideen of Iran (PMoI) - the most significant group within the NCRI - and escorted to Ashraf camp.

Sitting in the camp's library, she recalls that her friends thought she was mad. "After all, families are not torn apart in Britain, people aren't tortured, and women can achieve anything," she says. "In Iran, women's lives are limited and they are punished for the smallest things.

"When I arrived here, it was the hardest thing to obey different rules. It was so different from my life in London. For a year, I thought about the future I could have had in Britain and compared it to my future here. I had thought about travelling the world and opening an art gallery."

Several weeks after the fall of Saddam, the US General Ray Odierno of the 4th Infantry division entered Ashraf camp to negotiate the disarming of the NLA. He found himself in a room lined with cream Regency furniture and Persian rugs, drinking coffee from white and gold china cups and eating homemade sweetmeats with a group of female army commanders considered to be terrorists by his government.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton had declared the PMoI and NLA to be terrorist organisations, as a goodwill gesture towards Iran's newly elected President Mohammed Khatami. Recently, the NLA's potential to be used as a bargaining chip by Washington has been noted as tensions rise over Tehran's meddling in Iraq. But on his visit the US general, clearly impressed, said that he thought the terrorist status of the NLA combatants should be reviewed.

The disarmed NLA keeps up its training on computers, and the US military police in the camp are their sole protection against attacks by the Tehran-backed groups now moving freely around Iraq. "If the Americans don't protect them, there will be a bloodbath," says Capt Ismael Ibrahim of the Iraqi National Gathering party.

Only in July, when the NLA came under the protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention (relating to the protection of civilians in wartime), did its members feel safer. They no longer face the possibility of being handed over to Tehran by America in exchange for high-ranking al-Qa'ida members. As Captain Ibrahim says: "I think in a few years the US may think of doing to Iran what they have done to Afghanistan and Iraq, and will try to use the PMoI and NLA."

This is not what the resistance likes to hear, but in the long term this thinking could help the NLA and PMoI lose their terrorist tags. In May 2000, Britain included the PMoI in a list of 21 terrorist organisations under the Terrorism Act. A year later, the European Union added the PMoI to its list.

Mojgan Parsai, the secretary general of the PMoI, said in October: "From the outset, the terror label on the PMoI lacked a legal basis. We are blacklisted in the framework of commercial and political deals with Tehran." Her comments came as France, Germany and Britain were reported to have promised Iran that if steps were taken to halt work on completing its nuclear fuel cycle, the European side would continue to regard the PMoI as a terrorist organisation.

At a conference of human-rights lawyers in Paris last month, Bill Bowring, professor of human rights and international law at London Metropolitan University, said: "Under the definition of the Terrorism Act, Greenpeace and Amnesty International should be on the terrorist list. It was a completely arbitrary decision to include the PMoI on the list."

Also at the conference was the Danish human-rights lawyer, Anne Land. Earlier this year, she visited Ashraf camp. She is aware that the NCRI is accused by its critics of being a cult, and that some consider both the NCRI and the NLA to be militarily and politically ineffective.

"The real importance of this army has been overlooked," she says. "In Iraq, many women were able to go to school and university, to work and to wear what they wanted. Now, they are being intimidated in the streets for not covering their bodies, or for just being outside their homes. Groups of men strongly influenced by Iranian fundamentalists, who are apparently supporting some political and religious groups in Iraq, are making their lives miserable.

"The presence of a female-dominated army prepared to fight the mullahs and Iran's Revolutionary Guards is a powerful symbol to all women in the region. Its effectiveness is not in its military might. The fact that the army exists at all is a huge threat to all male-dominated fundamentalist regimes. It shows what women can do.

"The women in Ashraf say they don't want to leave until they have overthrown the regime in Iran. Unfortunately, they don't see their courage as having a wider, inspiring influence beyond Iran," Land says.

It was the treatment of women in Iran that moved Barooti and Tarighi to join the NLA. "My aunt used to tell me how Revolutionary Guards would stop women in the streets and wipe off their lipstick with the blade of a knife," Barooti says.

Tarighi says she cannot forget the harrowing pictures of a young woman her own age buried to her neck and stoned to death by a crowd. She asks: "Why am I a terrorist because I fight for my sisters' rights?"

Thursday, December 23, 2004

UN chides Iran over human rights

From the BBC

The UN General Assembly has censured Iran for human rights violations, in a relatively close vote. By 71 votes to 54, with 55 abstentions, the assembly on Monday said Tehran restricted free speech, used torture, and persecuted dissenters. The resolution is not legally binding but is an expression of world opinion.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International says it fears an Iranian woman convicted of adultery may be buried up to her chest and stoned to death on Tuesday. The human rights group has urged the Iranian authorities to grant a last-minute reprieve to the woman, Hajieh Esmailvand.

The UN resolution condemning Iran was sponsored by Canada - whose relations with Iran have suffered since Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in Iranian custody in June 2003. The resolution expressed "serious concern" about the "continuing violations of human rights" in Iran - including restrictions on freedom of expression.

It said the persecution of those peacefully expressing political views had increased, citing "crackdowns by the judiciary and security forces against journalists, parliamentarians, students, clerics and academics; the unjustified closure of newspapers and blocking of Internet sites".

The resolution also expressed concern at the execution of children, torture, as well as degrading punishments such as amputation, flogging and stoning, discrimination against women and girls, the persecution of political opponents, following last February's mass disqualification of opposition candidates in the run-up to parliamentary elections, discrimination against minorities, including Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims, and in particular followers of the Baha'i faith, including arbitrary arrest and detention.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International says time may be running out for Ms Esmailvand, the Iranian woman feared to be facing death by stoning on Tuesday. She is thought to be have been imprisoned in the north-western city of Jolfa since 2000.

Amnesty says she was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by execution, but adds that the Supreme Court has brought forward the execution to 21 December. The group also highlighted the case of another woman, "Leyla M", thought to be facing imminent execution for "acts contrary to chastity" in the city of Arak.

Iranian law is extremely specific about how a stoning sentence should be carried out, says Amnesty, ordering that men be buried up to their waists and women up to their chests. The stones used must be small enough not to kill instantly, it says.

This specificity "leads you to believe that the punishment is designed to maximise suffering", Amnesty International's Steve Ballinger told the BBC. The group says there were documented cases of 108 people being executed in Iran last year - making Iran second only to China in the rate of executions.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Afghan AIDS challenge

With 31 confirmed cases of people living with HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan, one could be forgiven for concluding that the country is comfortably poised in the global campaign against the disease. But Naqibullah Safi, the Director of the National AIDS Control Programme there, knows how fallacious that assumption is and how devastative it can be. With over two decades of violence that has left the government machinery, at best, crippled, he is not taking any chances.

“Even this figure has come to light through blood sample tests. I would say we have a minimum of 700 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country,” Safi said, with a stress on minimum. “It is a politically sensitive subject but we are all human beings. Even homosexuality exists in Afghanistan,” he added. Safi was in town on Saturday to attend a meet on AIDS at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) and to seal a cooperation contract to set up a public health institute in Kabul.

The AIDS challenge for Afghanistan is further compounded by its dominant position in the international drug trade. About a month back, a UN report had warned that Afghanistan could develop into a “narco-state”, given its two-thirds rise in opium production this year, and added the country was accountable for 87% of the world’s opium. In 2003 the trade was worth $2.8 billion, representing more than 60% of the Afghan gross domestic product.

Safi informed that Kabul has 7,900 heroin addicts, with seven per cent of them being injected drug users. “Again this is a very conservative estimate,” he said. The problem is expected to worsen with the recent increase in drug prices. “As costs go up, people are resorting to the most cost-effective method of inducing drugs and that is injecting,” Safi added. With a crippled health infrastructure, reusing needles in hospitals is also a bother for Afghanistan.

But a beginning has been made. Around 75,000 mullahs, who command an influential position in Afghanistan, will be trained by the end of 2005 to spread awareness about AIDS-related issues and later be monitored. The subject is also now part of a life skill-based curriculum for students beginning from age of 10. Safi’s approach also has lessons for us in India. “Rarely do we see ourselves at risk from HIV/AIDS. If we still look at it as their problem, then it’s our problem,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Dance performance at Ahvaz (Iran) creates an uproar

As India debates whether it's "ethical" to flash pictures of two Bollywood stars locking their lips, Iran faces "conservative" rage at a "vulgar and un-Islamic" dance performance.


A dance performance at the closing ceremony of a theater festival in the southern city of Ahvaz has caused an uproar. Conservatives have denounced the show as vulgar and un-Islamic. "An example of American democracy," said Ayatollah Makkarem Shirazi. Minister of Culture Ahmad Masjed Jameie, who is facing possible impeachment by the conservative-controlled parliament, has sacked the Iran Zamin (Land of Iran) festival diretor and called for the "punishment of violators."

Monday, December 13, 2004

Three cheers for Arian - Iran's first boy (and girl) band

Away from the hackneyed image of Iran, Arian, Iran's first two-sex pop band, has begun performing at concerts abroad, including the UK and Sweden. "If you go to Iranian movies all you see is misery - nothing else. People think Iran is like this - everything is a desert, all the people are crying... We wanted to show the real Iran," said Ali, one of the band members, to BBC. Check out the website at!

25 Years Later, a Different Type of Revolution

Western Culture Is Seeping Into Iranian Society, Despite Lingering Restrictions

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A20

TEHRAN -- Victoria's Secret has arrived in Tehran. So have the Gap, Diesel, Benetton and Black & Decker. A quarter-century after a mass movement inspired by Islam ended 2,500 years of monarchy, Iran's revolutionary society is moving on.

Yet, still trapped in transition, the Islamic republic is full of telling and sometimes bizarre contradictions.

At demonstrations marking the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover last month, participants handed out cards listing companies to boycott, including Calvin Klein, because they do business with Israel. But all over Tehran, billboards that once would have been reserved for revolutionary slogans and portraits of Iranians killed in the war with Iraq now advertise Calvin Klein.

Victoria's Secret is not a legal franchise. U.S. economic sanctions ban American businesses from doing business with Iran. So Iranian entrepreneurs buy brand-name goods abroad and resell them in their own shops -- often with the brand replacing the shop name on storefront signs. Some shopping sections of Tehran -- and the teenagers who frequent them -- are beginning to look like what one would find at shopping malls in suburban America.

The shop with sexy lingerie is a bit more discreet -- marked only by a trademark pink-and-white-striped Victoria's Secret bag in the window.

"Iran is now doing pretty much the same things as during the shah's era, except for symbols like women's scarves and 'Death to America' -- and most people don't mean that anymore, either," said a prominent banker in Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the government.

The modest clothing rules for girls and women have relaxed a great deal, too. Especially among the young, coats called roupoushes are now so short they end high on the thigh -- with slits going even higher -- and so tight that they accentuate rather than conceal the most specific attributes of the female anatomy.

"Every year, they go up a couple of inches," a young woman said with a chuckle as she picnicked with friends in a park. To complete the ensemble, tight jeans exposing bare ankles have replaced black stockings and baggy trousers. "Pretty soon you won't be able to tell the difference between you and us," she told a Western reporter.

The transformation of Iran's most cosmopolitan city is reflected even in its traffic. In the early years of the revolution, checkpoints manned by morality squads often popped up at night to ensure that women riding in cars with men were either blood relatives or spouses.

Now, Tehran is flooded with a new breed of law enforcement: traffic cops and meter men. They represent an attempt to control the capital's chaotic streets, where free-for-all rules account for one of the highest accident rates in the world.

Dressed in snappy white broad-brimmed military hats and dark green uniforms with gold emblems on their epaulets, the new traffic police look more like a brigade of generals let loose on Tehran's streets. And sometimes they act like one. Daringly deployed even in the middle of exit and entry ramps to freeways, they don't hesitate to order drivers to pull over for not obeying the dictate displayed on other new billboards, in Farsi and English, throughout the capital: "Fastening the seat belt is mandatory."

After 9 p.m., the generals retreat, leaving motorists to follow Tehran's widely accepted rules of the road. To turn left, get in the right lane -- and vice versa. If you've passed your exit on a busy freeway, just back up. And if you need to make an illegal U-turn, wait until oncoming traffic is roaring toward you.

On Thursday night, Africa Boulevard and other main thoroughfares are jammed with Iran's young trying to meet and impress the opposite sex. The idea is to clog the streets so cars filled with males in their teens and twenties can chat up or get the cell phone numbers of girls in cars going the opposite direction. Sometimes they end up meeting outside Tehran's growing number of pizza parlors.

Taboos on dating in public have largely ceased to matter -- except for parents' restrictions. In the early days of the revolution, the only couples holding hands in public were married. Attendants in theaters checked during movies -- in which women had to be depicted in Islamic dress -- to ensure couples behaved. And well over half of marriages were arranged by families.

Today, the assumption is that people holding hands are not married, Iranians say. A growing number of teenagers of both genders insist they will marry only for love. And no one monitors behavior in theaters, where one of the most popular twin features this month was "Kill Bill" and "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The government still sends mixed and confusing messages. After a decade of warnings about "Westoxication," or poisoning by Western cultural values, music stores can now legally sell CDs that were once available only on the black market. But a recent concert by a popular local Iranian band, Arian, was canceled, and public concerts at the Swiss, French, German and Turkish embassies have been banned or disrupted. After a musical performance by the Turkish ambassador's wife, co-hosted by the wife of Iran's foreign minister, several women who attended were hassled or briefly detained after they left, foreign envoys here say.

Yet Tehran is filled with signs -- from the canned pork on sale at a supermarket to the "Jingle Bells" ringtone on the cell phone of a staffer at Reselaat, one of Iran's conservative newspapers -- that the rigidity of the early era is steadily eroding.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Mohsen Makhmalbaf's third attempt to film India

Iranian director turns lens on India

By Saibal Chatterjee

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's most celebrated directors, will shoot his next film in the heat and dust of India. Makhmalbaf, 47, intends to begin filming early next year. The filmmaker was in India this year to scout for locations in and around the holy city of Varanasi (Benaras).

"The yet-to-be-titled film will feature non-professional actors from Iran as well as India," says Makhmalbaf. In many of his films, Makhmalbaf employs non-professional actors to heighten their naturalistic feel. "I like casting ordinary people," he says.

The Tehran-based director makes films outside Iran these days to avoid his country's stringent censorship laws. Makhmalbaf is currently shooting a film in Tajikistan, the location of one of his earlier features, The Silence (1998), about a 10-year-old blind boy who supports his impoverished mother by tuning musical instruments.

He is slated to be back in India by the end of the year to finalise the details of the upcoming shoot. "The film will necessitate several trips as it will be shot in numerous villages and small towns," he says. "It will be a freewheeling exploration of the soul of India."

This is Makhmalbaf's third attempt to mount a film in India. Fifteen years ago, he firmed up plans to make an India-specific film. "The venture fell through because I wasn't big enough back then to find a willing producer," he says. A few years later, he wrote another script, titled Maharaja, and headed back to India with a film crew.

The country's slothful bureaucracy spoiled the attempt. "The rules and regulations here were too complicated, so I aborted the project," says the Iranian maverick. This time around, Makhmalbaf is confident of pulling it off. "I already have a producer and the script is in the final stages of development," he says.

The last film Makhmalbaf directed was Kandahar (2001), set in Taleban-era Afghanistan. Since forming the Makhmalbaf Film House in 1996, he has concentrated on "making filmmakers rather than films", enabling wife Marziyeh Meshkini, son Maysam and daughters Samira and Hana to become independent directors.

Since the early 1980s, Makhmalbaf has directed such acclaimed films as A Moment of Innocence, The Cyclist, Time for Love, Marriage of the Blessed, The Actor and Once Upon a Time, Cinema. His cinema blends starkly realistic situations with stunningly beautiful, colour-drenched and lyrical images.

His love for India notwithstanding, Makhmalbaf is no Bollywood enthusiast. "My film will have nothing in common with popular Indian cinema," he says. Bollywood, he feels, does not reflect reality. "It showcases an imaginary, sanitised world meant for enjoyment, not introspection," says Makhmalbaf.

"I have visited India several times, but my understanding of the land comes primarily from Mahatma Gandhi's writings and Satyajit Ray's films," says the director, who also runs a project for Afghan refugees in Iran, a school for aspiring filmmakers and a production outfit.

Makhmalbaf is particularly impressed with India's thriving democracy. "Iran has a lot to learn from this country," he says. "India's democracy recognises and accommodates a multiplicity of cultures, languages, religions and views. In Iran, we have only one language, one religion and one power system."

His faith in Gandhian non-violence emerged rather late in life. "Today I am a citizen of the world. When I think of Mahatma Gandhi, I feel I belong to India as much as I do to Iran," he says.

Despite stringent censorship, Makhmalbaf and his filmmaker-daughter Samira use the medium to express concern at issues like the status of women and treatment of Kurds in Iran. "Every script is routinely vetted by censors in my country," he says.

"The last screenplay I submitted was rejected because it satirised film censorship through the character of a blind censor board employee," he says. Makhmalbaf does not, however, expect any trouble with censors in India. "I love India far too much to ever project it in a negative light," he says.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Top prize for Iranian film at Indian film festival

Iranian film wins Indian honour

Iranian picture Beautiful City has won the main prize at the International Film Festival of India.The film, which tells the story of a man on death row, won the Golden Peacock for best Asian movie. Director Asghar Farhadi's film was described as "a masterpiece of wisdom and humility" by a member of the jury.

The festival has taken place in India for 35 years, moving this year from the capital Delhi to the popular tourist resort of Goa. Beautiful City's lead actor, Faramarz Gharibian, was awarded the Silver Peacock for his role in the film.

Winning director Farhadi said he "cannot imagine a world without cinema" when he collected the honour. The film is only the second feature from Farhadi, who also took writing credits for both releases.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

MEMRI transcribes bits from the Khatami vs students heckle

The following are excerpts from reports by various Arab and Iranian TV channels of an address by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Tehran University students on Iranian Student Day. Soon after beginning his speech, President Khatami found himself under attack by reformist students, who voiced their disappointment in him.

In the coming days, will be releasing additional never before seen footage of this event.

From Al-Jazeera TV

Commentator: Did they come in droves to criticize or to praise him? It was impossible to tell. But opinions were clearly divided, so much so that they came to blows. Mohammad Khatami, the president elected with the most support in Iran's history - this is what he has come to. Some complained, while others' harsh criticism at times even turned into curses. It seemed that the students of the conservative movement were the only ones who, uncharacteristically, defended the reformist president.

Male Student: We, the students of the Basij, who are always accused of resisting the president, have come to defend him.

Female Student: Why did you keep silent over many things and nominate yourself for a second term?


Commentator: Khatami defended his government's achievements in foreign relations and in managing the nuclear issue crisis vis-à-vis the international community.

Khatami: The way we have dealt with the nuclear issue has removed a grave danger that threatened Iran. If we had not acted in an intelligent and calculated manner, we would have faced problems now.

Commentator: In the area of internal policy and in response to the students' accusations of being remiss in handling the pressures of the conservative movement, especially of the Guardian Council, Khatami launched an attack against both the reformists and the conservatives. He accused voices in the reformist movement of following Iran's enemies.

Khatami: Their behavior has cost them their popularity among most of the people. Today we hear voices in the reformist camp which are echoed by the enemies of this people.

From Channel 2 (Iran)

Voice: Dear friends, please be seated... Let us preserve the etiquette and honor of the university... I ask the dear friends... In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful... University etiquette and honor require that we be more tolerant towards one another.

Voice: At the university, Basij members have always been oppressed. In the entrance to the auditorium, some people were beaten. Those who were there saw me defend them. But the security men beat me too... They beat me as well as them. We have always been the oppressed in the university... Cannons, tanks, and Basij members are no more effective

Voice: I ask the friends to be more tolerant and patient.


Khatami: Sir, this is against the rules of democracy. What are you doing? How many people are booing? Don't make me have you removed. Behave yourselves.

Crowd: (shouting)

Khatami: Listen... Be patient. If people not yet in government cannot be tolerant, God forbid, what will happen once they reach the government? I believe that different views are being presented here by different people. I hope that... I hope...

Crowd: No more lies! No more lies! No more lies! No more lies! No more lies!

Khatami: All right... Okay, okay... You must be reasonable... Only dictators do not accept anyone who is different.

Crowd: (cheering)

Khatami: I hope that we will not see dictators at the university.

Crowd: (applause)

Khatami: We must be tolerant towards people with different opinions...


Khatami: I believe that the reforms should come from within the regime. I consider the Islamic Republic to be a great achievement of the most popular revolution in my lifetime.

Crowd: (applause)

Khatami: As someone familiar with the pains of society, I see the necessity of preserving this regime. I see the Islamic revolution as the most important stage in Iran's recent history. I see the defense of [the revolution] as my individual duty, for the sake of democracy, freedom, and liberation from foreign control.

Crowd: (applause)

Khatami: Long-lasting tyranny is our chronic pain, and the cure for this chronic pain is the rule of the people. We demand freedom. There is no escape. We want freedom in order to survive and to remain proud...

Crowd: (cheering)

Khatami: Dear sir, dear sir. Don't you want progress? Don't be angry. You are young. You don't know what this is all about.


Crowd: Jannati, Jannati, you're the enemy of the people!

Khatami: If you represent the people, I am the enemy of the people.

Crowd: (cheering)

Voice in Crowd: Is your name Jannati?

Voice in Crowd: What?

Voice in Crowd: They are saying, Jannati, Jannati, you are the enemy of the people.

Khatami: Oh, I thought you were saying Khatami.

Crowd: (laughs)

Khatami: I thought you were saying "Khatami."

Crowd: (shouting)

Khatami: Remember, the protestors are standing before the president and shouting their slogans in complete freedom.


Crowd: (shouting)

Khatami: I say this even now... The right way is to act within the Islamic Republic. Rest assured that beyond the Islamic Republic there will not be a democratic regime in the true sense of the word.

Crowd: (cheering, applause)

Khatami: Don't be tempted by those who were banished from the revolution and want to give us the gift of "freedom" and "democracy."


Crowd: (cheering)

Khatami: Brothers and sisters, thank God my term is over. But if anybody is owed anything, it is me.

Crowd: (shouts, booing)

Khatami: I'm not saying that the people is indebted to me. The people is the benefactor. The public owes me nothing. The public is the benefactor. But as the representative of this people, I say that some movements are indebted to me. Those fanatics with twisted minds, who lust for power, and who ignore the popular reform movement and its demands, have mobilized forces against this trend instead of conceding to the public and its demands. These demands stem from the public's desires that were manifest in the epic of May 23 [1997, when Khatami was elected]. They objected because of their envy and created obstacles.

From Al-'Alam TV

Female student to interviewer: I don't think President Khatami was able to fulfill his promises. I don't want to criticize him. However, even though he has always claimed to be honest, he did not have clear positions.

Male student to interviewer: In general, his term was a good one. We have succeeded in opening up to the world, and our relations with many countries have improved.

Male student #2: President Khatami enjoyed great support for a while, and I voted for him in the elections. But he was not able to use this support in order to fulfill his promises.

(1) Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), LBC (Lebanon), Iran Ch.2, Al-'Alam TV (Iran) - December 6, 2004. See MEMRITV Clip No. 401, 'Iranian President Khatami Clashes with Reformist Students at Tehran University', .

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"Khatami, what happened to your promised freedom?"

Students at the Tehran University, once the backbone of Iran's reformist movement, heckled and harangued President Mohammad Khatami on Monday, accusing him of lacking the courage to deliver promised democratic reforms in the Islamic state. The speech was held to mark Iran's annual Students Day and marked a new low for Khatami's relations with students who were behind his electoral victories of 1997 and 2001.

Desperate, Khatami blurted out three attention-grabbing statements:

"My period is going to be over soon but I do not owe anyone," he said. "Those power-seeking fanatics who ignored the people's demands and resisted reforms, they owe me. The ones who destroyed Iran's image in the world, they owe me."

"Just stop it. I will tell them to throw you out," he said. "You are unable to tolerate anything, even words," he said.

"There is no Third World country where the students can talk to their president and criticize the government as you do now."

I wonder if, now that he has a cool head, he would stand by his remarks? See pictures from the event and read more here. Gosh, he sure looks heckled!

What if it's not Israel that they loathe...

By Amir Taheri, The Jerusalem Post

In his recent foray into Ramallah, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw identified the Palestine-Israel conflict as the most important issue between the West and the Muslim world. Straw was echoing the conventional wisdom according to which a solution to that problem would transform relations between Islam and the West from what is almost a clash of civilizations to one of cuddly camaraderie.

But what if conventional wisdom got it wrong?

I have just spent the whole fasting month of Ramadan in several Arab countries, where long nights are spent eating, drinking coffee and, of course, discussing politics.

There are no free elections or reliable opinion polls in the Arab world. So no one knows what the silent majority really thinks. The best one can do is rely on anecdotal evidence. On that basis, I came to believe that the Palestine-Israel issue was low down on the list of priorities for the man in the street but something approaching an obsession for the political, business, and intellectual elites.

When it came to ordinary people, almost no one ever mentioned the Palestine issue, even on days when Yasser Arafat's death dominated the headlines. When I asked them about issues that most preoccupied them, farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and office workers never mentioned Palestine.

But when I talked to princes and princesses, business tycoons, high officials, and the glitterati of Arab academia, Palestine was the ur-issue.

The reason why the elites fake passion about this issue is that it is the only one on which they agree. In many cases, it is also the only political issue that people can discuss without running into trouble with the secret services.

More importantly, perhaps, it is the one issue on which the elites feel they have the sympathy of the outside world. For example, I found almost no one who, speaking in private, had any esteem for Arafat. But all felt obliged to hide their thoughts because Arafat had been honored by French President Jacques Chirac.

When some Arab newspapers ran articles on Arafat's alleged corruption and despotism, other Arab media attacked them for being disrespectful to a man who had been treated like "a hero of humanity" by Chirac.

Conventional wisdom also insists that the US is hated by Muslims because it is pro-Israel. That view is shared by most American officials posted to the Arab capitals. But is it not possible that the reverse is true – that Israel is hated because it is pro-American?

When I raised that possibility in Ramadan-night debates, I was at first greeted with deafening silence. Soon, however, some interlocutors admitted that my suggestion was, perhaps, not quite fanciful.

Let us consider some facts.

If Muslims hate the US because it backs Israel which, in turn, is oppressing Muslims in Palestine, then why don't other oppressed Muslims benefit from the same degree of solidarity from their co-religionists?

During Ramadan, news came that more than 500 Muslims had been killed in clashes with the police in southern Thailand. At least 80 were suffocated to death in police buses under suspicious circumstances.

The Arab and the Iranian press, however, either ignored the event or relegated it to inside pages. To my knowledge, only one Muslim newspaper devoted an editorial to it. And only two newspapers mentioned that Thailand was building a wall to cordon off almost two million Muslims in southern Thailand – a wall higher and longer than the controversial "security fence" Israel is building.

Muslim states have never supported Pakistan on Kashmir because most were close to India in the so-called nonaligned movement while Pakistan was a US ally in CENTO and SEATO.

When Hindu nationalists demolished the Ayodhya Mosque, no one thought it necessary to inflame Muslim passions.

Nor has a single Muslim nation recognized the republic set up by Muslim Turks in northern Cyprus. The reason? Greece has always sided with the Arabs on Palestine and plays occasional anti-American music while Turkey is a US ally.

When the Serbs massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica 10 years ago, not a ripple disturbed the serene calm of Muslim opinion. At that time, the mullahs of Teheran and Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were in cahoots with Slobodan Milosevic, supplying him with oil and money because Yugoslavia held the presidency of the so-called nonaligned movement. Belgrade was the only European capital to be graced with a state visit by Ali Khamenehi, the mullah who is now the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic.

And what about Chechnya which is, by any standard, the Muslim nation that has most suffered in the past two centuries? Last October the Muslim summit in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, gave a hero's welcome to Vladimir Putin, the man who has presided over the massacre of more Chechens than anyone in any other period in Russian history.

Right now there are 22 active conflicts across the globe in which Muslims are involved. Most Muslims have not even heard of most of them because those conflicts do not provide excuses for fomenting hatred against the United States.

Next time you hear someone say the US was in trouble in the Muslim world because of Israel, remember that things may not be that simple.

Respect, Mr Olmert

From The Jerusalem Post

"We hope that India will try to civilize the Iranians," Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

Olmert was speaking to more than 30 Indian journalists, representing all major domestic media outlets, attending a press conference held several hours after an Israeli trade mission arrived in Mumbai.

I think, for sure, Mr Olmert could have shown a little respect for the Iranian people. Often, the problem with such comments is that they do not distinguish between the people and their governments that necessarily are not an ideal representation of their beliefs, especially in the case of Iran. After all, would it be fair to say that Israelis are barbaric given Sharon's track record in Lebanon?

Poll: Over 50% of Germans equate the Israeli Defense Forces with Nazi army

From The Jerusalem Post

Six decades after the mass extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust by Nazi Germany, more than 50 percent of Germans believe that Israel's present-day treatment of the Palestinians is similar to what the Nazis did to the Jews during World War II, a German survey released this weekend shows.

51 percent of respondents said that there is not much of a difference between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today and what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust, compared to 49% who disagreed with such a comparison, according to the poll carried out by Germany's University of Bielefeld.

The survey also found that 68 percent of Germans believe that Israel is waging a "war of extermination" against the Palestinians, while some 32% disagreed with such a statement.

In a first reaction, the chairman of Yad Vashem's directorate Avner Shalev said Tuesday that the poll's results, which he termed "very worrisome," were indicative of a long-suppressed felling of anti-Semitism among the mainstream "so-called liberals" population which now, under the coating of anti-Israeli criticism, are becoming legitimate again. He added that the poll's results, which he said any objective person would repudiate, are also the result of the release of pent-up feelings of guilt built up from the Holocaust.

"The energies which bring about such answers come to protect feelings of guilt," Shalev said. 62 percent of respondents in the poll said that they were sick of "all this harping" of German crimes against Jews, while 68% said that they found it "annoying" that Germans today are still held to blame for Nazi crimes against Jews.

The survey, which aimed to determine what is "the cut off point" between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, finds that while "classical" anti-Semitism in Germany is on the wane, secondary anti-Semitism, often couched in anti-Israel views are on the rise, especially among the Left.

The German researchers who conducted the polls conceded that the results showing a majority of Germans equating Israel's Policy with Nazi Atrocities "may be worrying," but concurred with Yad Vashem's Shalev that the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict has made such analogies part of the public discourse.

"When you see an image in the newspaper, in a caricature, which is repeated day in and day out that Sharon is equal to Hitler than the image catches in your head because maybe you do not like Jews so much or maybe you hate Jews, and than this works out excellent," Shalev said, stressing that education of the young generation was the key to stemming such a tide.

In the survey, 82 percent of the respondents polled said that they are angered by the way Israel is treating the Palestinians, while 45 percent of those polled said that considering Israel's policies it was "no surprise" that people were against them.

The telephone poll of 3000 "non-migrant" respondents, which was taken in May and June, did not come with a margin of error.

"This is a very sad commentary about what is happening in Europe today which needs to send a very strong warning signal about how much work needed to be done to deal with these attitudes," said, Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Due in part to its blighted history, Germany is generally considered to be one of the more supportive countries of Israel in Europe.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Do you have a blog? If not, you're missing out...

Why 2004 was the year of the blog?

The term "blog" has been chosen as the top word of 2004 by a US dictionary publisher. Merriam-Webster said "blog" headed the list of most looked-up terms on its site during the last twelve months.

During 2004 blogs, or web logs, have become hugely popular and some have started to influence mainstream media. Other words on the Merriam-Webster list were associated with major news events such as the US presidential election or natural disasters that hit the US.

Merriam-Webster defines a blog as: "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks". Its list of most looked-up words is drawn up every year and it discounts terms such as swear words, that everyone likes to look up, or those that always cause problems, such as "affect" and "effect".

Merriam-Webster said "blog" was the word that people have asked to be defined or explained most often over the last 12 months. The word will now appear in the 2005 version of Merriam-Webster's printed dictionary.

However, the word is already included in some printed versions of the Oxford English Dictionary. A spokesman for the Oxford University Press said that the word was now being put into other dictionaries for children and learners, reflecting its mainstream use.

"I think it was the word of last year rather than this year," he said. "Now we're getting words that derive from it such as 'blogosphere' and so on," he said.

"But," he added, "it's a pretty recent thing and in the way that this happens these days it's got established very quickly." Blogs come in many different forms. Many act as news sites for particular groups or subjects, some are written from a particular political slant and others are simply lists of interesting sites.

Other terms in the top 10 were related to natural disasters that have struck the US, such as "hurricane" or were to do with the US election. Words such as "incumbent", "electoral" and "partisan" reflected the scale of interest in the vote.

Blogs also proved very useful to both sides in the US election battle because many pundits who maintain their own journals were able to air opinions that would never appear in more mainstream media. Speculation that President Bush was getting help during debates via a listening device was first aired on web logs.

Online journals also raised doubts about documents used by US television news organisation CBS in a story about President Bush's war record. The immediacy of many blogs also helped some wield influence over topics that made it in to national press.


BLOG noun [short for Weblog] (1999) : a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer

Merriam-Webster definition

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

UNAIDS Executive Director on AIDS and Rajasthan

Cautioning Rajasthan that it had the “cocktail” of ingredients leading to a possible AIDS epidemic, Executive Director of UNAIDS Peter Piot prescribed a concerted and large-scale campaign at various levels to contain the epidemic. “But the good news is that you have begun the fight early,” he said, speaking at a function organised recently by the Rajasthan AIDS Control Society (RSACS) and the India-Canada Collaborative HIV/AIDS Project (ICHAP).

Although being a low-prevalence state, Rajasthan has a population of 56.4 million that is subjected to significant movement of people. The mines here employ nearly 500,000 workers, many of them from outside, and an estimated 25,000 trucks ply on the NH-8 each day.

Then there is the proximity of high-prevalence states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat. Moreover, the large inflow of domestic and international tourists also increases the vulnerability of Rajasthan to a possible explosion of HIV cases. Currently, the registered number of “full-blown” AIDS patients at the SMS Hospital, generally accepted as an indicator for the entire state, stands at 1,153.

Project Director of the Rajasthan State AIDS Control Society Dinesh Mathur informed that AIDS was increasingly spreading to the rural areas in Rajasthan. “Jaipur, Nagaur, Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu account for 57 per cent of the total cases in Rajasthan,” he said.

Meanwhile, Piot expressed optimism, albeit cautious, that AIDS had made it to the political and financial forums across the world. “It has even made it to the Common Minimum Programme in India. It is a bold step for it is not just a speech but an official document for the working of the government,” he said. Piot informed that globally the amount of money spent on AIDS in developing countries stood at $ 200 million about seven years ago. “Today, it is around $ 6 billion and half of it is coming from domestic resources,” he added.

However, a recent audit of the National AIDS Control Authority had revealed significant deposits of unspent funds. Piot felt it was not just a matter of money and that not enough was being done to increase awareness about AIDS and talk about it. “It’s still too timid. India has to think big,” he said. UNAIDS is now looking at the low-prevalence states in India, including Rajasthan, and would offer a “window of experience” to other states and countries with similar problems. “We would also advocate for funding and offer technical support,” Piot said.

The Persian Gulf should remain... well, the Persian Gulf

Iran fights to keep Gulf Persian

Users who type the words "Arabian Gulf" are in for a surprise
Iran has stepped up its campaign to ensure the body of water between Iran and the Arabian peninsula is known as the Persian, not the Arabian, Gulf.

It is said to have withdrawn an invitation to National Geographic magazine to attend a festival because they refer to the Gulf as both. Iranian bloggers also launched a web action on the Google search engine.

The words "Arabian Gulf" elicit a spoof message: "The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Try Persian Gulf." The practice, known as "Google bombing", has been used in the past against George W Bush, who comes up under "miserable failure". The message parodies the text which usually appears when a web page does not exist, and goes on to recommend that users should read "some history books".

It is the second time Iranian bloggers have united to make a political point. Earlier this year, they used their weblogs to direct users to pro-reformist websites and online newspapers that had been closed down by the Iranian authorities.

Sign the petition here.

Dying a death each day

The story of Sudha Jain, a 30 year old lady in Jaipur, who lives with HIV/AIDS:

AIDS has not cracked my spirit. Even my health would seem perfect to you at first glance. But the worst that it has done to me is that it has cleaved and scattered my family. After my husband succumbed to AIDS, I had no money or income to support my three sons and had to send them away.

Eleven-year-old Bhavesh, also HIV positive and the only one of my sons to be so, is now a resident at a care home in New Delhi managed by the Naz Foundation. Parvesh, aged seven, is with my in-laws at a village near Bagru. Only Rahul, who is five, stays with me. I keep him with me so that I have someone by my side to give me water and medicines when I am ill. Someone to soothe my hurting legs for I often get fever and my legs start aching.

As the world observes World Aids Day on Wednesday, I am hoping to have my sons together. I want the government to create a care home where children like mine can be hosted. I want my family to be together more than anything else. The children often ask me why did I bear them if we had to live like this. I have no answer for that.

As someone living with HIV since 2000, I have grown used to the discrimination. People might not be overt but behind my back they act as if I were to die today. Yet, I have brushed all that aside and am focused on my voluntary work as a peer counsellor at the SMS Hospital and my membership of the Rajasthan Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (RNP+), where I get a honorarium of Rs 1,000 each month.

I hope to do something so that other ladies do not find themselves in such a situation. There are fifteen women with us at RNP+ who have been thrown put of their homes for carrying the virus. If cancer and tuberculosis patients can live together, why cannot those infected with HIV?

The big funding organisations spend so much money but it has not affected us much. We just get Rs 20,000 each for medicines and that’s the end of financial support. How can we buy the expensive medicines that cost as much as Rs 3,000 for each month. We are still struggling to get a BPL-like card that would give us free medicines and a pass for cheaper travel, which were promised by the government earlier. Will the authorities and agencies hear me today?

(as told to Debarshi Dasgupta)