Pirouz Azadi , Los Angeles, U.S.A.
In Part I of this article and upon my return from Iran this past summer of 2009, I reflected on the rapid political developments and economic realities that have transpired in the past few months. In Part II herein I provide daily synopses of way of life in Iran that are the underpinning of the political realities. Simply put, a political establishment would not be self-sustaining in the long run so long as it does not either have a critical mass of the governed captivated and supportive, or the majority of the governed ambivalently apathetic and thus acquiescently complacent to the governors. True that the majority of the Iranians, from all walks of life, complain about their daily lives and future, and cite innumerous injustices and inequalities as imposed on them by the establishment. That said, however, so long as such dissent is not pluralized to a unified vision that could lead to action by again a critical grassroots mass, and hopefully without external interventions, fundamental socio-political reforms would remain just a dream. Contemporary history has taught us that ideological regimes that lose sight and support of their key critical masses would implode from within, and crumble onto their own weights. Iranians I believe possess many noble attributes including love for the family and the country, pride in their past, an affinity to learn from and share with others to synthesize new ideas, and an appreciation of their place and stature in the region and the family of nations. What I yearn for in Iran is to ameliorate individual and societal hypocrisy, lies and deceits, embezzlement and extortions, fraud and corruption, bribery & evasion of the laws and taxes, lack of respect for self and others. Superficial patronage (Ta'arof), the ever increasing sense of expectation by each citizen (tavagh-gho) from others, and the rationale for short-cuts and beating the system in everyday life is another Iranian habit that merits reconsideration. The whole country is run on a mafia style model where grand mafia bosses depend on little mafia functionaries selected on the basis of nepotism or cronyism, with every single person trying to grab money, power or influence. It's as if a social welfare and family based entitlement is expected by everyone, whereby they live by the day as if there is no tomorrow. Simply put, what Iranians need to do is to practice any religion especially Shiite Islam as they wish but to genuinely follow the three pillars of Zoroastrianism as embedded into their historical psyche in their lives: good deeds, good thoughts and good words. What I share herein, therefore, is based on first-hand experience of the various encounters this summer that I would hope they are reformed as the prerequisites toward building the shining Iran of tomorrow.
Modern medicine has only practiced in Iran since the late 19th century. Before then, they were Hakims, medical practitioners based on traditional, homeopathic, holistic and herbal medicine, and some would even mix such practice with religious rituals. Clergies and shamans practiced a type of superstition "quackery" to heal the uneducated poor. There were several decades of uneasy co-existence of old and the new in the early part of the 20th century, when both tracks were licensed by the government. Although the bogus part of the traditional Hakims was, by and large, eradicated in the 60's and 70's, there is a resurgence of such practice promoted by the current government.
Medical physicians and
There are currently 110,000 certified physicians, 7,500 of whom are unemployed. In contrast the number of working Iranian physicians abroad especially in the U.S. is estimated to reach 25,000. There also tens of thousands of para-medical and traditionalists (Hakims) who make all sorts of bogus and miraculous claims about their patients. Recent medical graduates should first serve a few years in government designated deprived rural areas of the country, before he/she is licensed to practice in larger cities, especially Tehran, where more than half of the physicians work and/or reside. Many of specialists openly boast about their "Board certified" credentials from renowned European and American universities and medical centers, whereas in reality most have only attended a short continuing education course sponsored by pharmaceutical or medical equipment companies. There is a fundamental disparity between those graduating from "mother" state institutions and the so-called "private" schools in Iran with less stringent admissions and passing standards. Doctors are perceived and treated as "gods" by the public. A doctor does not expect a patient or his family members to ask too many questions! They feel insulted if one dares to ask for second opinion.
The most popular medical
Iran has the highest number of nose reconstruction surgery. Other aesthetic plastic surgeries, face-lifts, lipo-suctions, breast augmentations, etc. are commonplace among the affluent elites. Both young men and women proudly display their nose band-aids for months in the streets as a sign of affluent modernity. There are some who may not need nose surgery or cannot afford it, but that does not stop them from displaying the post-surgical band aid on their nose as a sign of prestige. Many expatriates arrive from overseas to have the nose job done on their teen age children. Beautiful Persian facial features, after a nose modification is as attractive or even more than any other nationality. A typical nose job performed by a reputable surgeon, costs about $2,000.
Prostitutions although illegal, has been accepted as a reality and thus tolerated in the society. There are specific streets that they stand along to sell their bodies after dark, from as low as $10 to $100 or more, place provided.
Despite the adoption of western ways of life by the youth, even among the elites in the northern capital, a girl is still expected to be a virgin during the first night of her wedding for wholesome consummation. A great many, however, have premarital sex of all kinds; they undergo hymen-plasty (have their hymen deceptively stitched) right before getting married. There are even some who may undergo this ten minute operation many times in their single life until they fall in love with that "ideal" husband. Such an operation costs anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the surgeon's track record, level of confidentiality expected, and the level of desperation of the soon to be "pure" bride. Laser assisted surgeries seem to be the nationally accepted buzz word. Laser eye surgeries are about $2,000 a pair. Angioplasty and stent insertions into the arteries are as common as annual check-ups and cost about $1,000. The fact that 75% of back and spinal surgeries are failing does not deter the self-acclaimed orthopedic surgeons to lead their patients to believe this is the only viable option. Sex change operation, if recommended by a physician team, is not only allowed by covered under the national healthcare system. And last, abortion especially in the first trimester or beyond is as common as tonsillitis!
Medical Insurance and
The national healthcare system, instituted in the early 70's, still provides a minimum safety net for most people. Most affluent people carry one or more additional complementary private insurances. Even with such coverage, out of pocket expenditures, for more complicated procedures or long-term hospitalization, have increased at a rapid rate. A doctor's office visit averages $20 out-of-pocket, but a home visit by a doctor is as high as $150. Medical malpractice proceedings and the existence of patient's rights, non-existent a few years ago, are becoming acceptable in extreme instances, but there is no universally ratified national patient bill of rights or protection system. Medical tourism is only beginning to catch up for plastic surgeries or a kidney transplant, mostly by expatriate visitors in the summer, whereby they are immediately recognized and charged a higher rate. This will gradually raise the premiums on the locals as well.
Hospitals and Medical
There are 150 mostly government-run hospitals in the capital of Tehran; an additional 200 hospitals with substantially limited capabilities are scattered in the rest of the country, and most in the major cities and towns. A number of private hospitals, authorized only to those closely connected with the regime (khodi) have sprung up. A recent hospital called Erfan, which is said to belong to Dr. Ali-Akbar Velayati has cost $400 million dollars, with an annual return of $150 million. It charges up to $2,000 a night and has state of the art Siemens medical imaging and diagnostic equipment. Having our mother recently hospitalized at Erfan for over two weeks, we found there the lowest quality healthcare and support services, only comparable to free community hospitals in the urban centers of the west. One nurse was assigned to 8-10 patients, and would spend almost all her times at the station, seemingly on paperwork but gossiping, giggling, griping and eating. Nurses with a monthly salary of less than $500, would only show up by the patient's bed once during their eight hour shift. Every patient was required to have a close relative at the bed side around the clock to attend to patient's needs. Patients in heavy sleep or coma are routinely slapped harshly on the face or chest to "wake them up!" A doctor assigned to a patient would only make a daily round of a few minutes, and any inevitable changes had to wait until the next day. If more than one doctor paid a visit to the patient, they would never coordinate their diagnoses and prescribed medicine or procedures with one another. The nursing aides, janitors, and maids, up to a dozen hovering around on every floor with 40 patients, are constantly expecting "shirini" a daily lump sum for each that amounted to $3-5, as they each augment their salaries more than a nurse. The janitor would essentially use the same rag and detergent fluid cleaning both in the patient's bathroom and the bedroom's cupboard and lunch table! Although quite higher than expected, the fact that there is not a substantially higher number of staphylococcus or other epidemic pandemonium in hospitals is simply a miracle. Sanitary practices are marginally poor leading to the endangerment of the public safety. The patient's medical chart and documentation is sketchy at best and not, by and large, followed. Generally speaking, a patient has no right to ask questions from a doctor, and no legal right for a malpractice against a doctor or a medical facility. Any minimal ethical consideration is ever lower when the patient is a senior citizen. The rationale by the medical professionals is that the old patient has already had a full life and so, they give up on them.
The country has trained plenty of dentists. Orthodontics has now caught up to the west where each teen ager is wearing braces and retainers. Generally speaking dental services are cheaper by a factor of one-fifth when compared to the west. Again, dental hygiene like medical hygiene has a long way to go to close the gap with its western counterparts. Dental work along with a number of other medical services such as bloodletting was provided by the caretakers in the public bathhouses.
It is said, a society's cultural civility is reflected in its driving. If that is any indication, the Iranians are failing dismally. The Iranians boast to be among the best drivers in the world, since they get tangled hundreds of times in their daily driving and somehow come out of it miraculously unharmed. A three lane highway means as many as six or seven rows of cars strolling with one line of cars in the opposite direction or backing up! Almost no one drives between lanes, even if there is no other traffic. The traffic lights with a timer on them to indicate when the light turns red usually stops at t-4 seconds and suddenly drops to zero 15 seconds later. The traffic then continues a few seconds after the light is already red. And even then, ubiquitous 125 cc motorcycles, crossing the red, continue to spiral through in all directions. Crossing Pedestrians have no rights whatsoever, including the sidewalks where the motorcyclists storm through carelessly. Pedestrians, when crossing the streets even when they are allowed, or even while strolling the sidewalks, are always at the mercy of the car and motorbike drivers. The country has an annual rate of over 50,000 killed in traffic accidents.
There are over twenty million vehicles in Iran. The country manufactures approximately 1.5 million cars on antiquated assembly lines imported from European and Korean car makers every year. In Tehran alone, it is estimated that there are eight million vehicles, thereby making the mega-city a huge parking lot. Fifty plus year old sedans worth next to nothing co-exist along with $250,000 luxury Mercedes and BMW. There are still millions of inefficient cars on the road that guzzle and leak gasoline all over, have poor driving and safety performance, and are real moving bombs on the road, compromising on public safety. One could occasionally observe a five passenger sedan, Paykan, carry as many as fifteen! There are private car restrictions in central Tehran, odd days for license plates beginning with odd number and even days for the rest. However, with minor fine or pre-purchasing permit, one could violate this and any other traffic violations. When caught for traffic violations, a persuasive but expected negation would easily lead to an on the spot cash disbursement.
Buses and Motor Coaches.
Most Buses are domestically assembled and sold. There are still some municipal used buses imported from Eastern Europe nearly twenty years ago. They vary from wooden seat antiquated types to ultramodern fully air-conditioned, double-decker, lavatory, TV and reception type Volvos and Mercedes. There are plenty of domestic mini-buses to hire as charter. The bus coach fare between two cities is from $5-10, where city buses in Tehran vary from 10 cents to a dollar, subject to distance and bus amenities. There are special BRT bus-lines that make it fast to go across the city in less than half hour for a few pennies, whereas the same distance with taxi for a few bucks or private car may take up to two hours or even longer. The rear bus door allows women in, and the front half is reserved for men, segregated.
Iran Air is still the major national airline, but the country has dozens of other privately held aviation agencies, two of which have international flights. Iran has 181 jet and prop airplanes, and dozens of leased Russian Topolovs in dire condition from Aeroflot. There are nearly one hundred regional and half-a-dozen international flight airports in Iran. The number of fatal crashes and air accidents is extremely high. A recent Topolov air crash en-route to Erevan killing nearly 300 is now suspected to have been carrying detonation devices and surface to air missiles for the Palestinian group Hamas, and Islamic Jahad. The government blames the U.S. international sanctions on the purchase of spare parts and new aircrafts as the main reason for such poor record, but there seem to be an emerging resolution on this issue. The cost of air travel is noticeably low, and comparable to state rail system fare, like less than $100 round trip to the farthest national airports from Tehran. People have lost confidence in the air system, especially if prop or Russian planes are the carrier. Many tour companies openly boast about not using Russian planes, but charge higher. The Iran aeronautics has also assembled a domestic version of the Russian Topolov jet with a capacity of 150.
The National Railway
(Trains and Metros).
The railroad system has its origin in the early part of the 20th century, when the allied forces, the British and the Americans, wanted to open up a supply line to their Russian counterparts that were sealed off by the Germans on the European front. They also had the exploitation of Iran's oil and gas resources by the Anglo-American consortium in mind. The railroad system has since expanded to connect most major cities of more than a few hundred thousand inhabitants to the capital of Tehran. There are three classes of train cars; first class provides private cabins and berths, and luxurious hospitality. 2nd class has six passenger cabins, and 3rd class cabins are analogous to a bus and not recommend for long journeys.
Metro has been talked about and planned for fifty years, but three lines have only been realized less than ten years ago in Tehran. Additional lines are being constructed which will be fully operational within five years. Mashhad and a few other major cities have also been working on their own subway and above train city rail lines as well. Metro fare day pass in Tehran cost 30 cents. Trains are relatively the safest means of travel in Iran. The fist metro car is for women, the next two are co-eds, and the last five or so are typically for men, although no one would care if a family came in.
Taxis and agency cabs.
In Tehran alone there are a dozen types of taxis. The most common is the traditional type that goes in straight lines, where a passenger hops in and out in 1-3 km and pays anywhere from 20 to 50 cents. Then, there are those that for a fee, typically a dollar, carry you along with 3 or 4 others for a distance of 5-10 km. There are green minivans that carry up to a dozen passengers in predesignated routes for 50-75 cents. Then green taxis driven by women, initially earmarked to provide peace and comfort to women and minors, now pick up all passengers including men. Then, there is Taxi agency in every neighborhood where you call in to be immediately recognized because of your caller ID, and get picked up and dropped off at destination costing from $3-6, gratuities not included. Asking for an air-conditioned one is a dollar extra, but don't expect the driver to turn it on. Generally taxi drivers, especially when they reckon you are from overseas will go out of their way to prove their driving skills. This involves speeding, zigzagging and tailgating to the point of madness, but you don't dare to tell them you scared, as they feel insulted. If the driver smokes, and you beg him to put it out for your asthmatic condition, he would only hold it outside the open window and periodically draw deeply at it, while telling you all about the benefits, or lack of harm of smoking. And last but not least, it seems that every other private car is an unregulated gypsy cab, carrying passengers, as this has become the major supplemental source of income for millions of families. All the above said and if you are stuck in downtown gridlock, the fastest way is to risk it by riding along with another passenger on the back of a motorcycle that spirals you though the traffic and gets you to destination in a fraction time for three times the taxi fare! You better, however, have a living will in place.
Radio stations and TV channels are practically run by the fundamentalist and conservative spectrum of the government that is closely aligned with the office of the Supreme Guardian. Although there are still 30 "censored" newspapers published daily (well over hundred have been banned) they must only write about topics that the establishment feels pleased or ambivalent about. Thus most people, especially the educated millions resort to satellite TV (BBC and VOA Persian radio and TV), radio broadcasts from overseas, and the internet for news.
Telephones (land line and
The country has over 30 million land line and nearly 40 million wireless cell phones called Mobile. Cell phones sell for as low as $30, and with a communication card for $5, one has 24 access to most of the country for months. There are two competing wireless companies, one state the other private. Day laborers, more than a million of whom are Afghanis, may not have a place to stay overnight, but do carry a cell phone with them at all times. Most Iranian youths and a large cohort of the older generations are techno-savvy and use SMS, twitter, phone camera, and even download and watch entire movies on their phones. The signal quality, especially outside major cities remains sketchy.
Internet, Twitter and SMS.
Internet has been in Iran for almost fifteen years. Most use the dial up but now there is a personal or business DSL option with much faster speed. All Iranian youths use their computer applications to the fullest. There are DSL based internet stores called Café Net where for $2 an hour, you can surf the net and/or videophone your loved ones overseas; many marriages have come about as a result of such communication scheme. Many websites are, however, censored by the government. Word of mouth, as tradition has it in Iran, mouth-to-ear is still the most effective means of communication for information exchange. A bit of news in southwest Tehran Will arrive somewhat exaggerated in the northeast, 75 km away, in just a few hours.
Recreations and Sport.
Western style partying, especially in public is prohibited. Anything goes, however, in private parties which even if raided by the so-called revolutionary Basiji forces, can continue after the authorities are lucratively paid off. The best quality western liquors as well as contraband and alcoholic beverages made underground or by religious minorities as allowed for self consumptions, narcotics and porn movies are ubiquitously available. Lavish food and beverages take center stage in private parties commonly held by the close-knit group of 25-250, followed by dancing where the latest Paris and New York fashions are on display. Taking refuge in nature where control by vice and virtue police is at minimum, is another economical trendy pastime. Many go to mountain slopes north of the capital to escape from harsh repressing realities of the City. When a group of closely knit friends and families hire a chartered bus or mini-van, they are then in total control of their fate at least for a week or so, on the road. There are also underground rock and roll and hip-hop bands playing the latest tunes to pre-screened audience. An average wedding or funeral cost $20,000 to 30,000, but it is not unusual to hear a rich family holding their daughter's wedding in more liberal Dubai where they spend millions of dollars and cater for a week to their 500 all paid guests from Iran and around the world. So, private parties held by the same group of 10-100 weekly, is common. Soccer and wrestling are the preferred sports, although there is a cohort of players and fans for every other type sports. The government does not allow spectators when it feels vulnerable.
Fifteen million students study in the K-12 classes and an additional 2.5 million in the higher education and post-secondary education system. The government prints 150 million books for the K-12 students at a subsidized selling rate. Although in principle, most students attend "free" state schools, the local committees set the individual "suggested" tuition that is typically a few hundred dollars per annum, and may run to as high as $10,000 for the very highly competitive schools. K-5 is mandatory, and yielded close to 90% literacy rate for the nation. Sixty percent of the college students, particularly those who pursue medicine, dentistry, science and engineering, are women. The university system has two tracks: one is the major national state university system with 25 institutions, with free tuition and fees and a modest monthly stipend, that has an enrollment approaching one million; and the so called private "non-profits" with substantially lower admissions standards, and higher tuition and fees of up to a few thousand dollars. The post-graduate education (Master's and doctorates) have also grown producing well above what the nation can absorb. The high skilled graduates are increasingly unemployed or underpaid where they continue living with their parents well into their parents and thus delay marriage.
Environment and Human and
Among the three top nations with its oil and natural gas reserves, Iran has vast amounts of other natural resources which include fresh water aquifers, springs, rivers and lakes, forests and diverse flora and fauna, minerals, rocks and gems, but above all the most educated and skilled human workforce in southwest Asia. The country's population has grown from ten million in 1900 and will soon approach one hundred million; two-third of the citizens, born after 1979, are less than thirty years of age. There has been a mass exodus since 1979 of the more affluent and educated/skilled to the Diaspora, now approaching over three million, mostly to North American and European countries. Environmental education and observance of conservation guidelines by the populace is for the most part non-existent. Although respect for the environment is stipulated in the current Constitution, industries and activities administered by the government or para-governmental organs are the main culprits in the wasting of resources and pollutions leading to environmental deterioration. Private businesses and individuals are not too far behind with the same behavior of disregard for the environment. Dumping garbage and other refuse in water streams along the city streets or along the highways is quite ubiquitous. A conscientious homeowner may sweep debris collected in front of his yard to the stream situated along the neighbor's front yard and hope that when one day when the water is flowing strong, it will be washed away to another neighborhood. Plastic bottles and bags, containers and disposable house wares are found scattered everywhere, including the Tochal summit, north of the capital Tehran(Elev. 15,000 ft.) Recycling is only carried out by impoverished scavengers as a source of income. It is not uncommon to see truck drivers change their motor oil along the highways after they empty the old oil onto shoulders of the road. Stray Persian cats everywhere are as vicious as their wild Bengal tiger brethrens, just to survive. To sum up, until such critical juncture when the people truly embrace the notion of safeguarding natural resources and the environment for generations to follow, the concept of environmental sustainability remains yet another societal dilemma to be reckoned with.
Pirouz Azadi is a Pen Name for an American integrative science professor with multi-ethnic and inter-religious Iranian heritage. He has lived in the U.S. since a few months after the 1979 revolution when he arrived to complete his doctoral studies and has traveled and worked in a dozen other countries as well. Having developed and practiced a universal vision of appreciation, acceptance and tolerance, as evidenced through his prolific writings on Iran and the Near East, environment and sustainable development, humanism and naturalism, aspirations and challenges faced by first generation Americans, etc. Pirouz, nonetheless, keeps his beautiful place of birth Iran and his compatriots the Iranians, close to his heart.
Part I. The Paradigms of Religious Traditionalism vs. Secular Modernism (Mashroueh vs. Mashrouteh)
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