Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post #228 - Modern City, Ancient Faiths

Continuing our 2006 trip, back in Tehran...

Delegate Ona Owen, who had traveled extensively in her native Canada, Singapore, the UK and countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa, was in Tehran during the reign of the last Shah as a member of the Canadian foreign service. She and I both noticed obvious changes – a population that has grown to almost 70 million, better streets (hence, less dust) with more traffic, extensive and ongoing construction in the northern part of the city, and more landscaping and beautification. But, in other ways, the city remained the same: there are still the jubs or water channels running beside most streets, the bazaar merchants still bargain with their customers, the snow-covered Alborz mountains still loom above the city skyline. The air pollution in the capital was minimal as we toured the city, but later in summer it will again sting the eyes and may even force a shut-down of the capital on the worst days. Part of Iran's isolation, due to the sanctions, is lacking access to pollution control technologies and environmental planning ideas.

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Back at the Howeyzeh Hotel (where we had stayed at the beginning of our tour), I managed to get on-line and saw a report of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Capitol Hill. I was encouraged by the fact that experts on Iran were at least getting a hearing. Dr. Robert Einhorn (Center for Strategic and International Studies) said: “We must recognize that regime change is the prerogative of the Iranian people, not the policy of the United States.” Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy (Brookings Institution) counseled avoidance of sanctions and military intervention. Sen. Dodd of Connecticut explored the appropriateness in the present circumstances of tactics such as those used in the Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981. Sen. Biden of Delaware asserted that direct negotiations were, for this administration, “not simply a wise choice, but a requirement!”

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In the last of our private group gatherings to share experiences and help one another make sense of them, members like Nancy (“Jo”) Lane, who has been active with Neighbors for Peace and Code Pink, marched with Cindy Sheehan and worked with people in the barrios of East Los Angeles, wondered how we would translate all we had seen and heard into something coherent for “the folks back home” (in her case, South Pasadena, CA).

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Arash Abaie
At a synagogue near the center of Tehran – one of twenty in Tehran, we met with Mr. Arash Abaie. He is part of the second oldest Jewish community (after the land of Israel). Jews have lived in Iran for some 2,700 years; they were welcomed by Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, who liberated them from bondage in Babylon. About 25,000 now live in the country (only about 12% of the number who lived there before 1979); nominally Sephardic, but with some Ashkenazi traditions. Contrary to some misconceptions held in the West, Jewish-Iranians – who Mr. Abaie said are “first Iranian, then Jews,” most of their culture being Iranian – have the option of attending their own or mainstream schools (those attending public schools, about 60%, may still opt for Jewish instead of Islamic religion classes, and may still attend Hebrew school weekly). Jews have played a major role in the preservation and performance of traditional Iranian music, as Islam has placed restrictions on Muslims doing so. Abaie edits a Jewish magazine, gives lectures, prepares curricula for Jewish students, and participates in interfaith dialogue. (Interestingly, for us, distinctions of Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Judaism do not exist in Iran.)

There are several seats in the majlis or parliament designated for minorities, based roughly on current population figures (currently two Armenian Christians and one each Zoroastrian, Jewish and Assyrian). Equal employment opportunity, equity in inheritance and allocation of government funds for minority services are now a part of Iranian law. The hijab can be dispensed with in synagogue, and Jews can dance at weddings or other special occasions within their own community. Abaie acknowledged that discrimination does exist, nonetheless, an example being the case a couple of years ago in which thirteen Jewish citizens were arrested and charged for what he said was “no reason”. Also, no direct travel to Jerusalem is permitted, and there are no rabbinical schools within Iran.

The exception to the toleration in law and practice (such as that shown Christians and Jews) are the followers of Ba’haism. Although the sect began in Iran, it is viewed as an aberration and a Muslim heresy; tied up in some minds with stories of foreign manipulation and deceit (and with its world headquarters being located in Israel), this faith community has had the hardest time of it since the revolution, with arrests, voluntary exile and deaths having depleted the Ba’hai population of Iran, though it is still one of the largest minority religions in the country.

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