Saturday, January 22, 2005

Say no to a possible war in Iran!

If you want to prevent another war, put your name on the petition. It reads -

To: United Nations General Assembly

We, the undersigned, urge you, the members and officers of the United Nations General Assembly, to pass a resolution against and to use all of your diplomatic and political powers to prevent an attack on the sovereign nation of Iran by the United States of America and/or her allies.


Sign it here.

Friday, January 21, 2005

"History is full of intriguing complexities"

He lies wasted and capitulated in front of the camera. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, a poet and a calligrapher, comes across as inert and helpless, in a photograph believed to have been shot in Rangoon. William Dalrymple, who shared his forthcoming book project in a talk on Saturday as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival (JHIF), is putting together the monarch’s decline with the decay of Delhi and the polarisation of a once pluralistic society.

After The White Mughals that explored syncretism between the British and the Indians in the 18th century, Dalrymple’s next book looks at how this world fell apart, especially with the “rise of Wahabi Islam and militant evangelical Christianity”. The latter of which, combined with British military victories, led them to an “assumption of racial superiority”. “This broke the link and the closeness that had existed, when one in three British in India cohabited with Indians and wrote Urdu poetry,” he says.

But not before the “last flickering renaissance” of the Mughal Empire with Bahadur Shah Zafar at its helm, a period that Dalrymple describes with “political powerlessness and cultural effervescence”. This period saw the Urdu language and poetry prosper and the Company School of Painting flourish with British and Mughal patronage, which, Dalrymple says, remains “underrated” even today.

But Zafar, because of his lack of interest in political matters and pluralism, was cornered from two sides. “He was seen by the British as a relic of the past to be swept away and the Wahabis started issuing fatwas against him because of his belief in Sufism,” he says. Then came the attack on Delhi with the Revolt of 1857 till the British finally took it over and ended the Mughal rule.

“Zafar was the perfect monarch for this period but as he grew older, he got out of the frame of time,” Dalrymple adds. Till he lived through the “slow dismemberment of one of the most sophisticated courtly civilisations”. The last Mughal emperor was tried and later exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Now, Dalrymple is recreating the period in Delhi with the help of two vital documents, the Palace Intelligence and Mutiny Papers, both of which are with the National Archives.

But history is not without its intricacies. Contrary to the BJP’s portrayal of the Marathas as a Hindu force set out to defeat the Muslims, Dalrymple says they had regular contact with the Mughals. “In fact, the Peshwas sent their emissary to the Mughal court for ratification. This is unlike the slight rewriting of history today that always sees Muslims and Hindus on a collision course,” he adds. For its easy to see history in a straightjacket fashion. “Bahadur Shah Zafar was not a patriot, neither was he a traitor. It is easy for us to view history in black and white but it really is full of intriguing complexities,” he says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Iran, a "red state"? Go figure, as Friedman says

From The New York Times

Funnily enough, the one country on this side of the ocean that would have elected Mr. Bush is not in Europe, but the Middle East: it's Iran, where many young people apparently hunger for Mr. Bush to remove their despotic leaders, the way he did in Iraq.

An Oxford student who had just returned from research in Iran told me that young Iranians were "loving anything their government hates," such as Mr. Bush, "and hating anything their government loves." Tehran is festooned in "Down With America" graffiti, the student said, but when he tried to take pictures of it, the Iranian students he was with urged him not to. They said it was just put there by their government and was not how most Iranians felt.

Iran, he said, is the ultimate "red state." Go figure.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tracing the Rajasthani link to Flamenco

It’s not often that as a journalist you expect more questions to be flung at you than what you can possibly ask. But expect Eva Santiago and her Flamenco troupe to turn the table on you. Here to perform in the ongoing Jaipur Heritage International Festival, the team from Barcelona is as curious as we are to learn about the links between gypsies in Spain and those in Rajasthan. Perhaps more!

While no conclusive proof has yet been found and the connections, many critics would say, are vague, the “prevalent theory” does accept that the gypsies there have a definite link to Rajasthan. “The roots of Flamenco, though somewhat mysterious, seem to lie in the Roma migration from Rajasthan to Spain between the 9th and 14th century,” says Encyclopaedia Britannica. These tribes, it is believed, moved westwards, via Afghanistan and Iran towards east Europe and finally reached Spain. Obviously, over time and along the route these people bartered influences and created the richness of Flamenco as we know it today.

Eva Santiago, the lead dancer of the group, waxed eloquent about the links. “The movement of the hands and the hips in dances here is similar. Even the rhythm of the music sounds alike,” she said. On the other hand, Jose Santiago, another dancer, was struck by the likeness between the features of Ram in a painting at City Palace and his folks in Spain. And for Raul Amador, the singer, it’s the kind of jewels worn by men. “It’s just been four days here and we have found so many similarities,” added Flo Guerin, the manager of the group.

Even Fernando Perez, a Spanish musician and an ethnomusicologist who is in Jaipur at the moment, is upbeat about the connection. “The language that I have heard here and what is spoken by the gypsies back home has the same melodic curve. The way they intonate the sentences is very similar,” he said. “It becomes even easier to catch the melody for someone like me who does not know the two languages,” Perez added.

Despite these subtle similarities, the differences are stark as many gypsies have integrated and established themselves in the mainstream Spanish society. “What I see here seems like photographs during my grandfather’s time,” Jose said. While on this trip, the troupe hopes to gather as much evidence as they can that would support the belief that the gypsies originated from Rajasthan. “Most back home have no clue that we could be from here. So, we must take back as much as possible from here,” he added. The troupe performs at Ravindra Manch on Thursday evening.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The rise and fall of Parsi theatre

Tracing the growth of a vital but often underrated and misunderstood theatre tradition in India, city-based playwright Ranbir Sinh narrated the growth and decline of Parsi theatre on Wednesday at a talk organised as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival at Naila Bagh. The rise of Parsi theatre, he informed, came after a long vacuum in the Indian theatre scenario with its lucid language content. “After Sanskrit theatre fell out of popularity around 900 AD, most of the theatre was restricted to folk and religious theatre such as Kathakali and Yakshagana,” Sinh said.

Characterised by a full company , loud dialogue deliveries and active audience-artiste interaction, Parsi theatre defined the growth of much of India’s modern theatre. “What was then known as Bengali theatre or Marathi theatre was in fact in style very Parsi,” Sinh said. “Personally, I also think that Kuchamani and Shekhwati Khayal came out of it,” he added.

The first play believed to have been staged under the Parsi theatre tradition was a Gujarati translation of the legendary Persian tale of Rustom and Sohrab in 1840. Taken up as a possible commercial venture by the Parsis, the plays soon went local with social themes. “Though it was a product of colonial times, the content was very Indian,” Sinh said. It even played a crucial role in the Indian freedom struggle and produced many plays such as Keechak Vadh that, though being based on mythology, had strong allusions to the atrocities of the British.

The Parsi style of theatre even has a prominent connection to this city. According to Sinh, Sawai Ram Singh ordered the construction of Ramprakash Theatre after watching a performance in 1878 at Jaleb Chowk by a company owned by Rustom Pistonji. So much so that he had Ratanji Dhoondi take over as the Director for the theatre and paid him a monthly salary of Rs 978, a princely sum in those days. The theatre, once an opulent stage with seats made out of Burma teak, now lies in a decrepit condition.

Elsewhere in Rajasthan, Parsi theatre also gave way to flourishing theatre activities, especially in Tonk and in Jhalawar. The second place saw the translation of many of Shakespeare’s plays into Hindi by Purshottam Lal Surya.

Gradually with the advent of cinema – many early Indian films were similar to the Parsi theatre style – and the fall of the British empire, the Parsi theatre companies started flickering. A few Parsis from Mumbai attempted to keep the tradition intact but without much success. Sinh felt that the way the Parsis managed the theatre companies could prove helpful to revive contemporary theatre, especially with a varied repertoire and actors in the troupe on a contract basis. The style of production, he said, could surely be adapted to present tastes. “But variety, standard and regularity are crucial for its survival,” he added.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Monday, January 17, 2005

Oh, dear! It's Iran next, says Seymour Hersh

The President and his national-security advisers have consolidated control over the military and intelligence communities to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Second World War national-security state—and President Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda for using that control against Iran and against targets in the ongoing war on terrorism, Seymour M. Hersh reports in “The Coming Wars” (p. 40), in the January 24 & 31, 2005, issue of The New Yorker. One former high-level intelligence official tells Hersh, “This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”

The Administration “has been conducting secret reconaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer,” Hersh reports, with the goal of identifying target information for three dozen or more suspected nuclear, chemical, and missile sites. One government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon tells Hersh, “The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible.” Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz think that like the former Communist regimes in Romania, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, “the minute the aura of invincibility the mullahs enjoy is shattered, and with it the ability to hoodwink the West, the Iranian regime will collapse,” the consultant says. The former intelligence official tells Hersh that an American commando task force in South Asia is now working closely with a group of Pakistani scientists who had dealt with Iranian counterparts; the American task force, aided by information from Pakistan, has been penetrating into eastern Iran in a hunt for underground nuclear-weapons installations. In exchange for his coöperation, the official says, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has received assurances that his government will not have to turn over A. Q. Khan to face questioning about his role in the nuclear black market.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message. The C.I.A. will “continue to be downgraded,” Hersh reports, and the war on terrorism will be “expanded” and “effectively placed under the Pentagon’s control.” The President has already “signed a series of top-secret findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.” Defining these as military rather than intelligence operations, Hersh notes, will enable the Administration to evade legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A.’s covert activities overseas. “It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld—giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally,” a Pentagon adviser tells Hersh. “It’s a global free-fire zone.”

The former high-level intelligence official says, “Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq.’ But they say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically.’” The official adds, “We’re not dealing with a set of National Security Council option papers here. They’ve already passed that wicket. It’s not if we’re going to do anything against Iran. They’re doing it.”... More

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The dwindling legacy of Soviet-era books

The enduring film Gone With the Wind opens with lines that exalt and reminisce about the Old South with its cavaliers, cotton fields, fair ladies and slaves. “Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilisation gone with the wind,” it says. But what do you do if books, considered to be history’s refuge, become history themselves? Where do you look for those dreams if the pages are scattered with the wind?

Many Indians who grew up on books printed in the USSR, specially those hardbound and colourful editions of folktales and stories for children, face a similar dilemma. After the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, which stopped their production, these books are now hard to come by.

Till then, the government spent a lot of its money on producing books in several Indian languages as part of the game of winning minds across the world. “Many Indians in fact developed a reading habit because of these books that were as cheap as 10 paise,” says Ram Pal, the owner of Jaipur-based Rajasthan People’s Publishing House, which was one of the two main importers of Hindi books printed in the USSR.

Now he is selling off the dregs of his collection. “It is only the slow-moving titles that are with us. About 90 per cent of the titles would be history in another five years,” he adds. Even the Delhi-based People’s Publishing House estimates that they have books that would last another four years or so. These two houses got most of the remaining stock of books in Indian languages at reduced prices as people there sought to destroy the legacy of Communism.

Once known for their superior printing quality – some would even surpass today’s standards – these books are fading out. They are in tatters, rat-eaten and yellowing with neglect. And often, the volumes are incomplete. “It’s not in our hands,” says Ravi Kant, a freelance education consultant, who remembers finishing books of Ukrainian folktales at exhibition stalls.

The Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RCSC) in New Delhi has informed that none of the publishers in Russia print books in Indian languages. "Mir, Raduga and Progress are mostly concentrated on publishing in Russia itself and translate works of foreign writers, which are in high demand in the market,” it said in an e-mail. “It may not be very pleasant for all of us,” added Sergey Cherkas, the Head of the Cultural Section at RCSC.

Many also criticise the books for being a larger part of the Communist propaganda. But Pramod Kumar, a city-based researcher on culture, denies this. “I purely remember them for being fun books with exotic names like Misha and Vassily. They were written in simple English and had simple plots like a lost horse in the woods. What possible propaganda can you get from such a story,” he says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Friday, January 07, 2005

Transsexuality (Yes), Homosexuality (No)

In a country that has outlawed homosexuality, Frances Harrison meets one Iranian cleric who says the right to a sex change is a human right.

From the BBC

For 20 years Mahyar has been a woman trapped in a man's body.

As a small child Mahyar liked dressing up in women's clothes and experimenting with make-up but as she grew older it got more difficult. "I badly needed to do it but it had to be in secret," she says.

Now she wants to have a sex-change operation - if she can muster the £2,000 it will cost in Iran. If her family doesn't help financially, she says she might sell one of her kidneys to pay for it.

"People say you'll get other illnesses but I think I can live without one kidney. I cannot live between the sky and the earth," says Mahyar.

Surgeons have already removed Mahyar's testicles. After the operation, her older brother locked her up for a week and wouldn't let her use the telephone. Mahyar's brother says someone has put a spell on her.

When Mahyar wants to feel normal she goes to the clinic of Dr Mirjalali - Iran's leading sex-change surgeon. There are women who were men, men who were women and those like Mahyar waiting for the operation they believe will be a sort of rebirth.

Dr Mirjalali says in Europe a surgeon would do about 40 sex change operations in a decade. He's done 320 in the last 12 years in Iran.
"If you saw them out in the street you wouldn't realise that one day they were the opposite sex," he boasts.

The doctor will use parts of Mahyar's intestines to create female sex organs. He warns it involves five or six hours of difficult surgery and weeks of painful recuperation.

Mahyar loves to go to cosmetics shops - and try out new nail varnish for her long manicured nails and discuss with the amused female shop assistants the best sort of foundation cream to hide her stubbly chin.

The sight of a man wearing make-up does turn heads on the street. Islamic tradition does not allow cross dressing - a man should only dress in male clothes. But that is not to say Iran's religious scholars are antagonistic to transsexuals.
Hojatulislam Kariminia wrote his doctoral thesis on the implications of sex-change operations for Islamic law.

He is a leading expert on questions like does a husband or wife need the permission of their spouse before a sex change operation? Is their marriage automatically annulled afterwards and what happens to the wife's dowry money or inheritance if she becomes a man.

He shows me the book in Arabic in which, 41 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote about new medical issues like transsexuality. "I believe he was the first Islamic scientist in the world of Islam who raised the issue of sex change," says Hojatulislam Kariminia. The Ayatollah's ruling that sex-change operations were allowed has been reconfirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader.

That has meant that clerics like Hojatulislam Kariminia can study transsexuality - unlike homosexuality which is completely forbidden in Islam and illegal in Iran.

"I want to suggest that the right of transsexuals to change their gender is a human right," says the cleric, who is so fascinated by the subject that he says he dreams about the transsexuals he has studied at night.

"I am trying to introduce transsexuals to the people through my work and in fact remove the stigma or the insults that sometimes attach to these people," says Hojatulislam Kariminia.

That's not easy. In every way Alan looks like a man but he was born Alim - with a woman's body. Three years ago he had a sex-change operation.
"I don't remember who Alim was - what she used to do, what kind of personality she had," says Alan. The past is something he'd prefer to forget.

Alan was about to get married when the parents of his bride found out he had been born a woman. They were horrified and refused to allow their daughter to marry what they considered another woman.

Iranian society has yet to catch up with its religious leaders - who say transsexuality is an illness like any other for which Islam has the solution and science the cure.

Alan shows me his new birth certificate and passport, which has been legally changed to say he is now a man. He's surprised to learn in Britain a transsexual who's had a sex change operation cannot change his or her gender on their birth certificate.

"I think in Iran it is better; in Iran they say you need to know your identity - either you have to be a boy or a girl," says Alan.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 comes into force in the UK in from April 2005. Under the provisions of the Act a transsexual person can apply to be legally recognised in their acquired gender.

Abuse of prescribed drugs continues unabated

As addictive drugs continue to be sold over the counter without any restriction, abuse of these prescribed drugs is not uncommon today. Often introduced to someone for a “good cause”, people soon latch on to them, being drawn into a vice-like grip of these substances that ruins lives with ease.

Some of the most commonly abused drugs include the “sleeping pills”, or sedatives in other words. Especially Lorazepam (common brands include Ativan), Nitrazepan (Nitrosun) and Diazepam (Calmpose and Valium). Then, there are the anti-anxiety drugs such as Alparazolam (Trika, Alzolam and Alprax). But the most life-threatening abuse refers to opiates like Dextropropoxiphen (Fortwin, Proxyvon and Parvon).

“A physician prescribes these drugs for a few days because a person needs them in a particular condition. But because of the relaxing effect of the drug, the patient switches to self-medication without advice from his doctor,” said Paramjeet Singh, an Assistant Professor with the Department of Psychiatry at the SMS Medical College. “Often people come to us after using the drugs for as many as three years and it is only successful because chemists sell the drugs on the basis of the old prescription or even without it,” he added.

These drugs, once having established dependence, lead to severe and painful withdrawal symptoms, which include irritability, mood swings, sleep disorders and lack of concentration. “Not all know that they would get dependent on the drugs. So, the moment a person senses a certain dependency, he or she should get in touch with a psychiatrist,” said Neeraj Garg, a Medical Officer at the Deaddiction Ward of the SMS Hospital.

The ward receives ample number of abusers of prescribed drugs and on an average around 20 per cent of those admitted, usually around 20, are addicted to opioid derivatives. People addicted to anti-anxiety drugs also frequent OPD sessions. Around five cases are reported for each session that covers about 40 persons.

As dependence increases, the craving for drugs also goes up. And if a person does not have easy access to the drug, the withdrawal symptoms set in pushing them to limits where they can hurt themselves and even cause injury to others. “With the passing of time, the drug requirement goes up because the liver metabolises the drugs faster and it becomes a vicious cycle,” Singh said.

The most effective way to check the abuse is to ensure that prescription drugs are sold only with a valid prescription. “That would end the whole story,” he added. Also, it has be to ensured that only registered medical practitioners prescribe these drugs and not underqualified ones. “Family members and friends also have a responsibility to bring addicts to a deaddiction centre. The sooner that happens, the better,” Singh said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Which is the real Rajasthani?

You are used to the canonical Padharo Mhare Des. But how about Padharo Mhaka Des? Or, Aaon Mhare Des. Opening a discussion on the linguistic variations of Rajasthan, something that according to a local saying changes every bara kos, is a task fraught with dangerous passion. A language, after all, touches raw nerves.

Despite established literary history, questions remain over the contemporary nature of the language. It doesn’t help even if the Sahitya Akademi, like recently, awards a prize in Rajasthani each year since 1974. The embers continue to simmer with varied dialects such as Marwari, Mewari, Waghri, Dhoondari and Hadauti.

And after the government in 2003 moved a resolution to adopt Rajasthani in the VIII Schedule, it became a political hot potato. The most vociferous opposition comes from the Bharatpur-Karauli belt, a Hindi-speaking region, that claims Marwari is being palmed off as Rajasthani.

“We have no opposition to an all inclusive form of the Rajasthani language. Because we think it’s not possible with the variations, we believe it would be best to continue with Hindi as the link language,” said RP Agarwal, the Rajasthan Bhasha Sankalp Virodhi Samiti secretary. Some like Kalanath Shastry, noted Sanskrit writer, even refer to the possible inclusion of Rajasthani in the VIII Schedule as “Balkanisation of Rajasthan”.

On the other hand, Nand Kishore Acharya, a noted litterateur based in Bikaner, sought to soothe the frayed nerves. “Why is there a controversy even before something is done about it,” he asked. “There is a standard form of Rajasthani when it comes to literature and there are people winning prizes from all parts of Rajasthan and not just Marwar,” Acharya said.

“But a standard form of the language as a medium to express thoughts would only emerge once it is used in daily life. A language evolves only when it is used, like being taught at schools and being used as the official language,” he added, who maintained that the adoption of any language has to be a democratic choice. “Even Hindi continues to evolve today with influence from Avadhi, Brij and Bundelkhandi,” Acharya said.

On the contrary, Govind Shankar Sharma, a writer and the Head of the Postgraduate Department of Hindi at SSG Pareekh College, said it was essential to document the similarities and dissimilarities of all the dialects of Rajasthani before a “lingua franca” is established. “It has not been done after the 1914 Linguistic Survey of India,” he added.

Despite the brouhaha, for some like Bihari Sharan Pareekh, a writer of Rajasthani and Dhoondari speaker, the pride of being a Rajasthani, strongly morphed with an independent linguistic identity, is a feeling that supersedes regional concerns. “Even if Marwari is adopted as the official language, we will be happy that we got the petals if not the entire rose,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Iranian women aim for Mount Everest


Iran Mountaineering Federation has taken a remarkable step towards the development of mountaineering in the country: They are organizing an Everest expedition in 2005, with a very special characteristic for the Muslim country. All climbers will be women.

The ladies are selected through different preparatory climbs, during which the girls have to prove their climbing skills and endurance.

In a countrywide announcement, Iran Mountaineering Federation invited all women mountaineers interested to participate. The selected would get a chance to climb the highest mountain on Earth and become the first Iranian Muslim woman Everest summiteer.

Sixty nine women from all over the country accepted the challenge and attended the first tests Dec 15-17; a two day mountain climb on the Anehsara and Sangesarak peaks (in the area of Alamkuh).

The aim: To test their "physical condition, stamina, strength, and familiarity with equipment and camping on altitude.”

31 climbers were selected to take part in a second ‘eliminatory’ climb. The climb took place last week and results have not been yet published.

This will be the first attempt by a national Iranian women’s team on an 8000er. However, the Iran Mountaineering Federation has promoted female climbing teams in the past few years, on six and seven thousand meter peaks in the Himalayas.

The Iranian ‘delegation’ on Everest won’t be exclusively feminine though: The National team of Iranian Men’s mountaineers will accompany this expedition and also attempt to summit themselves. The last successful climbs by an Iranian team on Everest was in May 1998, when four members summited the mountain.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Clerical chic

For Muslims, looking good has a religious seal of approval. And no one reflects this more than the stylish mullahs of Iran. Niloofar Haeri visits the city of Qom, home to the Muslim clergy's top tailors - and some of the best-dressed men in the Islamic world

From The Guardian

Women's dress in the Muslim world is endlessly debated and written about. But when it comes to what the men are wearing, we hear relatively little. And yet here in Iran it is clear to see that quite a few clerics are no stanger to chic. The graceful draping of good cloth, the layering of colours, the yellow slippers and silver rings with large agate stones, add up in many cases to nothing short of elegance.

If there is one major point of agreement among clerics, it lies in the importance Islam attaches - thanks to the many stories about how well the Prophet Muhammad dressed, and his love of perfumes - to looking and smelling good. Making an effort to be well turned out is not just allowed by Islam, it is positively encouraged.

In the middle-class salons of Tehran these days, one of the lighter topics of conversation is President Khatami's wardrobe. He is seen as very elegant; in fact, a bit of a dandy. Every new outfit he dons as the seasons change unleashes a fresh round of comment about the colours, textures and shapes of the robes, high-collared shirts and mantles that he wears. After the president appeared on TV during the summer in an elegant cream-coloured robe, other prominent members of the government followed suit.

For anyone who wants to learn more about Iranian clerical fashion, the place to visit is Qom. Besides its claim to fame as the spiritual heart of the Iranian revolution (Ayatollah Khomeini chose this traditionally religious city as his residence after returning to Iran in 1979 following the fall of the shah), it also boasts the best tailors to the Muslim clergy in the country, and possibly in all the Middle East.

On a childhood trip to the city, I remember thinking that the clerics in their flowing robes and layered outfits were so much more elegant than the women hidden in black veils - the "black crows" as some Iranians still call them. In my pre-feminist, five-year-old mind, I wanted women to be the elegant ones, showing off their clothes.

Over the past 25 years the Islamic government has successfully promoted Qom as a centre of Shi'ite Muslim learning to rival Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. Students and mullahs from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan frequent its seminaries. Pilgrims from the Shi'ite diaspora in Africa, America and Europe visit the shrine.

As a result, Qom now boasts more foreign residents and tourists than Tehran. Pizzerias have sprung up all over the city, and restaurants have added Arab dishes to their fare. Hotels, hostels, travel agents and souvenir shops cater to the hordes of pilgrims, religious tourists and seminarians from overseas. You can also check your email at the many "coffee net" places around town (although none of them actually serves coffee).

Qom has changed in other ways too. Everyone in Tehran told me that in Qom I should wear the full female get-up, including the all-covering black chador. I was worried that I was not wearing socks and that my fingernails betrayed bits of nail polish I had not had a chance to wipe off. In the event I did not have to wear the chador at all (a scarf was enough), and the Qomis seemed too busy to worry about bare toes or the state of my nails.

After getting directions from a mullah crossing the street, I headed towards a "passage" (pronounced in the French way) that was one of several shopping arcades made up almost entirely of tailors' workshops specialising in clerical clothes.

On the upper floor of the arcade I found a man who specialised in various kinds of cloth imported from Thailand, India, Korea, Iraq, Italy and England. This tailor turned out to be an Iraqi, the uncle of another tailor I had spoken to briefly downstairs.

Many of the tailors in Qom, it emerged, are Iraqi Shia. This particular family of tailors, the Asgari Najafis, had been deported by Saddam Hussein about 24 years ago at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, along with thousands of other Iraqis of Iranian ancestry. A younger brother of the family, Ali Asgari Najafi, who had spent most of his life in Qom and spoke fluent Persian, showed me the clothes and offered to model them himself. "I am very handsome, so these clothes look really good on me," he explained with a big smile.

"The main piece of clothing, apart from the turban," said Asgari Najafi, "is the long robe. Those who want to be chic and contemporary wear the labbaadeh, but those who are more traditional and want to avoid looking wealthy or fashionable wear the qabaa. You may have noticed President Khatami always wears the labbaadeh but the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamanei] prefers the qabaa."

Both the labbaadeh and the qabaa are long and come down to the top of the slippers (this is the case for traditional clerics who do not wear trousers; for those who do, the robe comes down to the middle of the legs). But whereas the qabaa has a V-neck and one side crosses the other at the waist, the more expensive labbaadeh has a high, round collar, tighter sleeves and stiff panelling in the chest area so that it looks very tailored. Many believe that the high-collared version is directly influenced by the robes of the Orthodox and Catholic priests in Lebanon, where large Christian and Muslim communities coexist.

Both robes can have numerous inside pockets, as many as eight for pens, books, prayer beads, watches and mobile phones. A frequent sight on the streets of Qom is of mullahs reaching inside their coats for their mobiles as they ring in various global tones. Many mullahs come for several fittings and can be quite picky, says Asgari Najafi: "The Lebanese ones would rather spend less on their food and pay for better clothes."

The star tailor of Qom is a snowy-haired 74-year-old with a bright smile. Abolfazl Arabpour sews clothes for the president and many important members of the government, and used to make clothes for Ayatollah Khomeini. "I started out in Tehran making clothes for army officers in the days of the monarchy," he says. "I hated that job, but I must say that the detailed work of army uniforms has served me well in making fine clerical outfits." Arabpour's logbook is inches thick. Altogether he has four workshops in Qom. His sons have also become tailors and many other tailors name him as their master.

Clerical dress has become political in Iran. In earlier days, according to Arabpour, clerical clothes were shapeless and too loose. Over time, and particularly since the revolution, they have become far more tailored, varied and formal. Because the new order gives some members of the clergy power and prominence, these politicians want to look their best, especially on television. But political power has also exposed the clergy to intense public scrutiny - so for those mullahs who want to avoid politics or close association with the government, there is a real temptation not to wear their clerical garb except when it is required by their religious activity.

"On the street, if I wear clerical clothes, some people will greet me because of it, and others will insult me for the same reason," says one Tehran mullah. "But when I don't wear it, I get neither reaction. And I prefer that." This mullah has stopped wearing clerical clothes except on very special occasions. When you wear clerical clothes, he continues, "you are advertising for your religion and implicitly calling people to it. But I don't believe that this is my duty as a cleric."

Another cleric that I speak to, who is wearing a light grey-blue qabaa of exquisite cotton with short open seams on both sides of the waist and a white shirt with grey stripes to match the qabaa, insists that interest in clerical fashion is not confined to Islam: "In all religions, the only principle has to do with being covered, for men and for women. Even in Europe until about 100 years ago, it was considered impolite not to wear a hat or some kind of head covering in public."

One of the hottest topics for mullahs now is how to respect the dignity of the clothes while responding to the necessities of modern life. One long-standing controversy is whether they should ride motorcyles in clerical dress. "If it was up to me," says one, "I would ban it; it just looks so undignified, especially when they also have their wife and child riding with them and they have to tuck the ends of their mantle into their trouser pockets."

In Iran's hit film of 2004, Marmulak (The Lizard) - banned after a month in the cinemas, apparently because it was felt to be too mocking of the clergy - a thief dons clerical clothes to escape from prison. But he soon finds out how many things he cannot do in these clothes without catching attention - such as running fast when he thinks the police are after him.

Arabpour echoes the lesson of the film, pointing to the racks of half-finished clerical robes hanging at the back of his shop: "There is only air in these clothes. What really matters is the character of the man who wears them."

Some Persians find Alexander not so 'great'

Hollywood's rendition of the legendary king angers Iranians

From The Daily Star

Some Iranians are up in arms again at the U.S. - this time due to Hollywood's version of Alexander the Great's conquest of ancient Persia. According to Hassan Moussavi, who teaches history at Shiraz University, Oliver Stone's latest blockbuster is merely the latest in a long line of affronts to the national esteem of the Persians.

"There is not even any proof that this Alexander even existed," asserted Moussavi, who said he was "fed up" with history's ongoing fascination with the Macedonian king, who died in 323 BC at the age of 32 after capturing most of what was then the known world.

"We should be clearer about which Alexander we are talking about. There are 300 of them in our history books, but no archaeological relic proves the existence of this particular one," said Moussavi.

The movie "Alexander" has yet to appear in Iran, but here in Shiraz - not far from the ancient city of Persepolis that Alexander destroyed along with the Persian empire of Darius III - it is likely to upset a people who prefer to see their Persian forefathers as the founders of civilization and a matter of national pride.

Furthermore, Iranians have so far had to make do with a one-sided account of Alexander's exploits, given that historians say that Darius III - who while on the throne was proclaimed the "king of kings" - left little in the way of historical documents.

So viewers will have to make do with watching the Persian king suffering defeat at the hands of the lesser-numbered Macedonian forces, and then flee in his chariot from the young blond-haired conqueror played by Irishman Colin Farrell.

For Moussavi, Oliver Stone's film "is built on a biased and partisan vision of history, and will only add to centuries of distrust toward the West. Another Iranian historian, Kaveh Farrokh, has also complained of "grave historical errors," in the film.

In a report in the Internet site of Iran's National Heritage Organization, he complained that "the ancient Iranians are portrayed in a way that is comical, if not insulting."

Roxana, the Persian wife of Alexander portrayed in the film by African-American actress Rosario Dawson, "was not black just as Alexander was not a Scandinavian," Farrokh complained over what he sees as the film's depiction of a Nordic blond defeating dark-skinned people.

"It seems that when it comes to the Iranians and their identity, we are permitted to rewrite history to entertain," he said, adding he was hoping for the day when a film would tackle the life of Sassanid king Shapour I (241-272 AD) who "defeated three Roman emperors."

But Shahryar Adle, an Iranian archaeologist, says Iranians should stop worrying about Alexander and instead embrace him as a man who came, married and never went back.

"The Europeans and the Greeks have seized on Alexander as a champion of the West against the East," he said. "But it was not Europe which won, because he was transformed into a Persian prince."

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Iran... Middle Eastern or Central Asian

I'm... Central Asian
Iran has much more in common with Afghans and Tajiks

by Bamdad B.


In my opinion, Iran (as a nation) should declare that it is not nor ever actually was part of the Middle East. Iran is more accurately located in Central Asia.

The Middle East after all is for Arabs (and Israelis) - let them duke it out to death. The Middle East ends eastwards at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Then everything changes- language, culture, calendar and history. The concept of Iran being in the Middle East is a British invention - much like the term "Arabian Gulf". It's just way off.

Iran has nothing to gain by participating in Middle East games (politics, sports, and alliances) - in fact Iran has no interest in either supporting the Israelis or the Arabs. Yet, constant association with the Middle East harms Iran - being placed in the same oversight department looking over Iraq, Egypt and Yemen (not only in the U.S. State Department but also Coca-Cola... ).

Iranians are not Arabs. In fact, Iran has much more in common with Afghans and Tajiks than Arabs. Afghans and Tajiks speak farsi - Iran's lingua franca. And in fact, Iranians have much in common with Turkmens and Uzbeks too. There is after all a very large Turkmen minority in northern Iran; and Iranian Turks (ie. Azaris) speak a very similar version of Turkish to Uzbeks and the Azaris in Azarbaijan (which not long ago was actually part of Iran).

Also interestingly, Iranian traditions such as the Iranian solar calendar and important days such as "No-Ruz" or the beginning of spring are important celebrations in Central Asia. On the other hand, Arabs follow a lunar, Islamic calendar.

"Ostan" depicts province or terrain in Farsi. Thus connecting 'Stan' to these nations - such as Uzbekstan, or Tajikestan, or Turkmanestan, or Kazakstan, or Afghanistan or Pakistan... automatically provides a linkage.

Not only language, culture, calendars, anthropology - but also history is another important connection. These areas after-all until only a century or so ago where always connected as provinces under different Iranian Rulers or as part of the Mongolian Empire.

My own great grandparents (from my father's side) were from Georgia then part of Iran until Peter the Great campaigned for that land. My (Iranian) grandmother from my mother's side has Mongolian features. And let's not forget that some of Iran's greatest poets resided in Samarkand (now capital of Tajikestan).

Iran clearly has much more in common with Central Asian nations.

But now there are two very important reasons why we must make formal political links: geographic and economic. Starting with economic considerations, there are substantial untapped hydrocarbon reserves in Central Asia. Iran, has enjoyed or suffered (depending on your point of view) almost a century of substantial involvement with Oil and Natural gas. Central Asian reserves have to be exported to have any value. And these reserves can only be exported through Afghanistan /Pakistan and/or Iran or both. This economic necessity will by itself bring these nations together to design, build and maintain pipelines and transfer hydrocarbons. Interestingly, it would be better for everyone if Iran purchased and used exclusively central Asian oil and natural gas in its heavily populated Northern cities and then exported its own product (since its product is produced near exportable ports) - as part of a transfer plan with these Central Asian nations.

But also, importantly these nations surround the Caspian Sea; and also plan to exploit reserves sitting below the Caspian. This brings about not just a common geographic and economic interest but also very importantly also an environmental interest. These nations must sit together not as economic competitors but as partners in dealing with the very difficult issues of exploiting Caspian Sea reserves. The Caspian Sea must be protected while there is drilling going on. It is a unique environment - with highly salty water balance and important species that can only be found there. The Caspian Sea actually is on the verge of destruction with many species on the verge of extinction.

We therefore see that there is a large group of interests that bring these nations together.

In a world, where nations are increasingly binding together to form supra-national entities such as for example the European Union or African Union. Also, with the break up of the Soviet Union along with reduced Soviet influence, there is an opportunity for a more 'natural' linkage to form among the nations of the central Asian region - based on common interests and the very natural linkages between the people of these nations.

Yes, I am proposing the formation of a Central Asian Union. I am proposing a Union of the "Stans". A new federal structure. Providing a good neighbor to the very dominant nations of China, Russia, and India. Here is some data worth considering on how such a Union might look like:

Central Asian Union

- Combined GDP: $1,469 Bn+

- Combined Population: 350 Mn+

- Combined Land Area: 8,500 sq km+

- Linkages: Cultural, linguistic, religious and economic ... all the way from Iran & Pakistan north to Turkey, Kazakhstan (including Turkemanestan, Uzbekestan, Tajikestan, Azarbaejan).

Why the veil is perhaps the world's most complex garment...

From The Globalist

While women increasingly play a critical role in Iranian politics, their faces still remain hidden behind a veil. But why do Iranian women wear veils? In this excerpt from her book "Persian Mirrors," our selection on the Globalist Bookshelf, New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino explores why the veil is perhaps the world's most complex garment.

For the Islamic Republic, the rules about dress are laid out in Koran: "Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze guard their modesty...They should draw their veils over their bosom and not display their ornaments."

They can go bareheaded only in front of other women, their husbands, fathers, sons, nephews, servants and children small enough to "have no sense of the shame of sex."

Required dress code

A rule requiring all women to appear in public in Islamic dress was written into the country's penal code, but the Koranic verse that defines it is subject to interpretatation.

The Islamic Republic didn't invent the veil, of course. Even before the advent of Islam, the practice of veiling probably existed among the Zoroastrians. From the 16th century on, a kind of all-enveloping Islamic veil was worn, although it was not black and its style varied according to region.

Taking up the veil

Eventually, well-to-do women of the cities and the court — certainly not a majority of women — took up veiling and secluding themselves from public view. The black "chador" seen on the streets today probably made its entry in the late 18th century — among the upper classes.

In the countryside, women have always worn veils, usually lively prints that protect their heads from dust. They often wear scarves with veils over them, wrapping and gathering them at their waists to free up their arms and to make the garments less cumbersome.

Choice of the majority

In fact, the consensus among modern and traditional, secular and religious women in Iran is that if women were given a choice, the majority would probably choose to cover their heads in public in some way.

Choice — to wear or not to wear the veil — has been an issue for decades. In 1935, going even further than Turkey's secular modernizers, Reza Shah issued an edict that declared the wearing of traditional dress (for both women and men) an offense punishable by a prison term.

Traditionalism versus modernization

The army and police roamed through villages to enforce the law, tearing chadors off women and handing out free Western-style suits to men. Reza Shah also banned men from wearing turbans. Mustaches were allowed but beards were forbidden, even for clerics.

To reinforce his message, Reza Shah brought the Queen Mother and royal princesses, unveiled, to a graduation ceremony at the Women's Teacher Training College in Tehran in 1936. The king told all Iranian women to follow their example and "cast their veils, this symbol of injustice and shame, into the fires of oblivion."

Source of protection

Not all Iranian women saw it that way. To many, the veil was a source ot protection, respect, and virtue. In her 1992 memoir, Daughter of Persia, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of a Qajar prince, recalled her mother's bitter reaction to Reza Shah's edict: "He is trying to destroy religion. He doesn't fear God, this evil Shah-may God curse him for it!"

Some women refused to leave their homes, some because they didn't want to be seen bareheaded in public, others to protest the decree. One of those women was Ayatollah Khomeini's wife, Khadija Saqafi, who, according to relatives, went without a bath for a year rather than venture to the public bathhouse unveiled.

Marked resistance

But that was only one view. The elderly mother of a close friend of mine called the announcement of Reza Shah's edict "one of the best days of my life." During the revolution in February 1979, women could go bareheaded in Iran, but within a month, Khomeini ordered all women to wear Islamic dress.

At first, Iran's women resisted. I walked through the streets of Tehran as thousands of women marched — bareheaded — to protest Khomeini's order. Men hurled stones, bottles and insults. Soldiers fired shots in the air.

Sensing the opposition

Still, Khomeini was politically supple enough to sense the strong opposition to his sweeping dictum. He had called the floor-length chador, the garment that covers all but a woman's face, "the flag of the revolution." But then he backed down, saying he had meant only to suggest how women should dress. Eventually, however, head covering prevailed.

The hejab — or covering — was undeniably a symbol of the forced will of the Islamic state. So resistance to it became part of everyday life. Since the revolution, there have been degrees of acceptable coverage. It took a while for me to figure out that what an Iranian woman wears often defines her politics and her level of piety.

A complex garment

For many women, the Islamic dress became a tool to be used to their advantage, a way into public spaces. It gave them the right to be present in public spaces-to work in offices, to attend college, to drive, to walk on the streets. "The veil gives women the license to do things," my friend Farideh Farhi, the political scientist, once told me. "They can cross borders with it."

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Centre for studying the aged

A Centre for Gerontology shall be established at the Rajasthan University (RU) by the beginning of the next academic session to enhance the understanding of the aged and their participation in the society. Established with guidance from the Jaipur-based Indian Gerontological Association (IGA), the centre shall be dedicated to research and academics on the aged.

Besides interdisciplinary research, focusing on biological sciences, clinical medicine and social sciences, the centre shall also conduct a postgraduate diploma course in Applied Social Gerontology, which is reported to the first such in the country. Open to Masters degree holders, the course will be spread over 18 months and comprise modules on health, management and counselling for the aged, among others from various disciplines. It shall be taught by teachers at the university.

Another highlight of the centre shall be a six-week course that would help elders prepare for retirement with tips on financial management and adaptation to a changed lifestyle. “A person’s social status changes immediately after retirement, especially of the administrative officers,” said IGA secretary KL Sharma, who retired as the Head of the Department of Philosophy at the RU. “It also changes how you are perceived by your family and has many psychological after-effects,” he added.

There is also a proposed diploma and certificate course in nursing, specialising in geriatrics, and a training programme for para-medical workers dedicated to the care of the aged in rural areas. The content for these two has already been designed by Sharma, who also masterminded the other courses, but needs sponsorship to take off. The IGA was established in 1967, when Sharma was teaching at the university, and it has pioneered research work on elders in the country since then. It also publishes Indian Journal of Gerontology, a quarterly journal printed with support from the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

In 2001, India had about 76 million people living above the age of 60. That number is expected to go up to 137 million by 2021, pushing India to the top slot, above China, with the maximum number of aged in the world. “We still think that elders, like before, are secure with their families. That isn’t the case with the emergence of nuclear families and in the changing scenario, the government and the society have to consider the aged seriously,” said Sharma.

He also had something to share with his ilk. “I have always maintained that the elders should change their attitude and thinking according to the lifestyle. It doesn’t help to be excessively interfering and self-centred,” he said. “They should integrate themselves with the society for often the problems are more psychological than financial,” Sharma added.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times