By Kam Zarrabi, Intellectual Discourse
There is no question that years of economic pressure and sanctions have had a significant effect on Iran’s industrial developments. Decades of attempts by the government to promote industrial growth to reduce the dependency on the oil sector as the backbone of the nation’s economy have been hampered by these sanctions. While these industrial developments have slowed down and in some cases even halted, other areas of development have not been affected as much, and that includes the educational sector. Unfortunately, the increasing budgetary limitations Iran is currently facing will adversely affect this sector, as well.
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The city of Kashan in central Iran, as an example, is now home to three universities, one of which, the Kashan University of Technology, is rated among the best in the country. Thirty years ago, Kashan could boast a handful of elementary schools and a couple of high schools!
Kashan University is a government funded facility under the auspices of Iran’s Ministry of Education. However, private donations, on many occasions by Iranian philanthropists abroad, including in the United States, have contributed significantly to the expansion of its various facilities, some of which bear the names of the donors. This kind of philanthropic generosity has also been extended to the semi-private Kashan’s Payam-Noor College, where the construction of its many facilities still continues at a fairly good pace, again thanks to donors some of whom prefer to remain anonymous.
My own family on both sides originally hailed from Kashan, and owned property in and around the city and in the small town of Niassar, a short distance from Kashan. Niassar also used to be the base of my private mining operations in the old days, and my favorite vacation retreat from the hassles of Tehran.
Because of my family name, business activities, and attitude of comradery that had always existed among my friends and colleagues, I was viewed with favor and respect by the locals, even those who were too young to remember or have a direct knowledge of me. Just as was the case during my last year's visit to the area after three decades of absence, the warm welcome I received was for me an emotional experience I shall never forget. Frankly, I did not expect that kind of reception at all.
Persian people, regardless of their social or financial standing, are seldom ever awed or overtly impressed by much. Their emotions are sincere but their inner cores are rarely demonstrably exhibited. I wasn't asked even once about America, life in America, or what it was like to be an American. None of that would interest them. And, I most certainly didn't feel as though I carried an aura of distinction or superiority around me coming from America with all its glory and glitter.
They were, however, curious, not about whether I thought their giant flat-screen TV or satellite dishes and the latest model cell phones, even iPhones and iPads that many carried, were up to Western standards, but about how I, as an old mining expert with a lifetime of experience in the field would appraise their mining operations. To be honest, I had a feeling they were simply being kind enough to acknowledge my expertise, perhaps looking for my confirmation rather than seriously asking for my professional advice.
I was honored to be invited by the president of Payam-Noor University, as well as by the head of the Earth Sciences College of Kashan University of Technology, for a guided tour of their respective campuses and to meet with their faculties as a “visiting scholar”. In the meeting at Kashan University, I was told that the Ministry of Education had just granted permission to the Earth Sciences College to offer PhD level curricula in their various disciplines, including geology, geophysics, branches of mining engineering, management of mineral resources and economics.
Clearly, there is a definite need for people with extensive experience and expertise to help get such ambitious efforts off the ground, and I sensed their sincerity when I was asked for my opinion and input in that regard, which I was more than happy to offer.
I was, however, asked to help in a far more important area: These academic centers are in dire need of money to grow and to procure technical equipment and scientific gear for their laboratories. The increasing budgetary problems, in addition to the difficulty of acquiring scientific equipment due to trade sanctions, have forced these institutions to practically beg for private donations.
I was asked - no, I was told, "Go back to America, tell the expatriate Iranian communities what you have seen here, tell them to help us in whatever way they can, to help the children of the nation they have left behind. Tell them about how we are struggling to provide for our youthful population under these circumstances. The nationwide "Concours" (university entrance qualifying exams) is only weeks away. There are over a million participants this year; high school graduates seeking university education. Tell them we need help."
When I returned to Tehran, I tried to convey their message to some of the wealthier and better educated friends and colleagues. As I had sadly expected, the typical response I received was apologetic at best, and cynically negative at its worst: "Are you kidding or are you truly that naive? What do you think will happen to moneys donated to them? They'll pocket the money and ask for more."
They wouldn't believe my eyewitness accounts that a husband and wife I knew well from Aran, Kashan, had each funded a facility under construction and nearing completion at the Payam-Noor University. I brought up the subject to one quite wealthy acquaintance who was trying very hard to purchase as many dollars as he could and find a way to take them out of the country before, as he feared, dollars would reach as high as 5,000 Tomans each. He is already a millionaire in good standing in the States, and has considerable income from his business activities in Iran. Yet, when I asked him if he'd consider donating some of his money toward these educational projects in Iran instead of exporting it, he laughed so hard that he remained speechless and couldn't respond!
Needless to say, the current state of geopolitical affairs has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for transferring any significant chunk of dollars to Iran even for legitimate philanthropic or educational projects. Procurement and shipping of scientific equipments to Iranian educational institutes would also encounter major obstacles under the current sanctions regime. There is even a shortage of medical supplies and medicines that affect millions of Iranians who are already facing shortages of things such as imported meats and even chicken feed, due to trade and banking limitations. Discussions regarding the sanctions, inflation and shortages do come up now more than ever.
People of means, whether in Tehran or in other towns, even in some villages such as my old Niassar, get most of their global information via their satellite dishes on their big-screen TVs, mostly through channels such as the BBC and VOA, even though most are aware that they are watching British and American propaganda rather than objective news and commentaries. For entertainment, an Iranian channel beamed via satellite and apparently owned by the Iranian diva, Googoosh, called MANOTO, meaning "you and I", offers a wide selection of high quality entertainment and educational programs, such as the National Geographic, Science, History and even Martha Stewart, etc., obviously purchased for re-broadcast. In addition, this channel does offer its own version of news and commentary, clearly in line with the Voice of America (VOA) model for obvious reasons.
Most ordinary or less sophisticated households do own satellite dishes (still officially illegal!), and tune in Arab and Turkish entertainment channels that feature the kind of programs one cannot find on Iran's own media channels. Local television programming consists of three main categories: news and commentary, general "infotainment", and religious.
The news programs are all scripted and sanctioned by the government, which is to be expected, as there is no such thing as independent news agencies in Iran. However, for those of us who remember the pre-Islamic-Revolution times, the severity of government propaganda, believe it or not, is less visible than it was over three decades ago under the former regime. In those days, almost every article of news had to start with the preamble of something, no matter how trivial or irrelevant, that Shahanshah Aryamehr had said or done, or how the event could be dovetailed with the Enghelab Sefid (the White Revolution). No criticism of the regime was ever allowed in any shape or form. Today, the name of the Velayat-Faqih (the Supreme Leader) or the Islamic Revolution is heard, arguably more often than it needs to be, but much less obtrusively and more in relevance to the actual newsworthy events. Criticism is allowed, not directed at the Supreme Leader, but against government agencies or officials, or even directed at the office of the President, as long as it is not viewed as politically motivated. There is also a definite attempt by the news stations to counter the BBC and VOA propaganda efforts, these days mostly regarding the situation in Syria, Turkey and Egypt, or the effects of the sanctions upon the nation and people's dissatisfaction or how they are coping with the circumstances.
The "infotainment" programming includes educational, medical, social, and other family oriented subjects, also cartoons for children. These programs are well-prepared, but lack zest or vibrancy, and the Islamic dress code is strictly observed, especially among the female presenters.
The religious programming, often broadcast in public places, dominate the scene, but lack general popularity among the viewers. Some of these programs are indeed educational and didactic from a spiritual, as well as an ethical/moral perspective.
Interestingly, Islamic teachers and preachers do not fall into the same category as the preachers or televangelists we see here on any Sunday. Islam, an extension of the so-called Abrahamic, monotheistic, reveled religions, is some six-hundred years younger than Christianity and has, by historical, geographical and sociological requirements of the times, evolved into a religion that deals with more than faith and submission to the will of God, but also a religion that formulates the doctrines of government, politics and economics.
In Islamic preaching, you won't hear metaphysical, metaphorical or almost child-like pedantic references to Biblical legends from Abraham and Amos to Zechariah and Zephaniah, what they supposedly did, said and what they meant, according to each Bible-toting evangelist, quoting the Holy Scripture as though God spoke to them personally in King James' English! Some actually claim to have spoken directly to God, or vice versa!
The best way to characterize this difference is as follows: Islamic teachings deal more with the practical and pragmatic affairs of everyday life, while in Christian teachings we see more emphasis on devotional, supernatural, or the more abstract concepts of religious faith.
Of course, there are aberrations or deviations in both cases. Here, however, we are dealing with what people are exposed to in televised programming sanctioned by the state in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, versus what the viewers see on public TV channels here in the United States.
In the United States, there are evangelists such as Joel Osteen, who inspire their huge audiences by their oratory skills, promoting hope, positivism and meaningful directives to living a righteous life, without resorting to too much sophomoric, superstitious rhetoric. There are also TV preachers like Benny Hinn and Dr. Mike Murdock, whose sole aim in life is to amass giant fortunes through deception, fear tactics and the intimidation of their gullible followers who are told they'd face eternal damnation if they hesitate to obey God's verbal commands as reveled to these charlatans, and send them their hard earned savings!
While Christian preaching is either cloaked in a veil of superstitious rhetoric and fantasy fairytales in the case of most evangelicals, or is, in the case of the Orthodoxy, overly ceremonious and lofty and beyond the comprehension of the non-initiated, Islam is a common man's religion, and its teachings which deal with people's everyday lives are more down to earth and simpler to understand.
During my trip to provincial towns and villages, I did not see any enthusiasm by the common folks to watch religious programs on their own television sets, even though such programs were always televised in public places, from restaurants to local mosques. This in no way implies a diminishing or a lack of religiosity among the people.
On my trip to China with a tour group from Iran, I noticed that a good majority of Iranian ladies insisted on observing the Islamic dress code, even though there was nothing to compel them, except their own personal preference, to do so. Two ladies actually sat for the "Namaz" prayer inside the plane to Beijing, while sitting in their tight seats. Watching these observant ladies sweating and gasping for air, wrapped in their Islamic attire in the hot and humid summer days in Beijing and Shanghai, was to me a clear indication of their deep faith.
Most of the members of our tour group had more than simple sightseeing in mind. Some were sent by their respective companies or academic centers to procure needed materials or negotiate deals with the Chinese companies. Others were on their personal mission to load up on cheap Chinese goods for resale back home. This has obviously been going on for a while, as most young Chinese sales girls at large commercial department stores had picked up enough Farsi to surprise the Iranian shoppers!
My own experience helping a friend buy some shirts at one of these superstores was quite revealing. The price for a shirt bearing a well-known mark, clearly an illegal copy, was listed at 720 Yuan, the equivalent of 120 US dollars. When I balked at the price, the young salesgirl immediately dropped the price to 800 Yuan. As was typically the routine, we started to walk away, with the salesgirl following us with a handheld calculator, asking us to punch our desired numbers. This game went on for about 10 minutes, until I punched in my offer of 80 Yuan. She screamed, "Mamma Mia, you are killing me" in plain English! They all do that, I found out! She punched in 400 Yuan and said that it was the lowest they would go.
| Kam Zarrabi is the
author of In Zarathushtra's Shadow and Necessary Illusion.He has conducted lectures and seminars on international affairs,
particularly in relation to Iran, with focus on US/Iran issues. Zarrabi's latest book is Iran, Back in Context.
More information about Mr. Zarrabi and his work is available at: intellectualdiscourse.com
I showed her the shirt I was wearing, and also my tennis shoes, both made in China, and purchased from COSTCO in San Diego, California just before leaving on my trip to Tehran. I told her that the shoes had cost me 14 dollars and the shirt, very much the same as what she was showing us, about 14 dollars.
She ran to their back office and returned with a gentleman who was perhaps the owner or the manager of the center. He quietly agreed to sell us the shirts, three of them, at 20 dollars each. He mumbles something that sounded like, "You Americans!"
Our Iranian tour members were not that lucky; they'd settle for fifty or forty percent of the original price and were confident that they could still make a good profit back in Tehran.
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