Sanctions are hitting hard, inflation is soaring out of control, unemployment is reaching staggering numbers and people are approaching the end of their patience! At least this is what we are reading and hearing here half-way around the world from the ground-zero, Iran.
I have just returned from my second visit to Iran, exactly a year after my first visit which had inspired me to write my memoirs,Iran, Back in Context.
Again, the only surprise, as it was the case during my last year's visit, was that there weren't any real surprises.
News is just as bad where I currently live in a small mining town in southwestern New Mexico, known also as a humble artists' colony that attracts some tourists when the weather allows. Silver City businesses are not doing well and many residents are on welfare or receiving unemployment benefits. Even the migrant workers who are willing to settle for much less than the minimum wage are not able to find work. This summer has been exceptionally hot and dry, and the endemic economic malaise has not spared this neck of the dried-up woods. But, all said, life's good and folks have come to terms with the fact that grass is really not any greener elsewhere, either.
On occasion, as many occasions as the sleepy town's organizations could conjure up, some sort of celebratory event is scheduled. Noisy Harleys with tricked pipes, some marching bands and a few farm tractors or a truck or two pulling a small trailer full of kids waving flags, roll down a quarter-mile-long main drag downtown, as people line up along the parade, breaking the monotony of life in a small town, at least for a couple of hours. Another local pastime, believe it or not, is spending a few hours on a Sunday browsing through the air-conditioned aisles of the local Wal-Mart and letting their eyes feast on the goodies most of them cannot afford to buy! This is here in rural America.
There is another mining town half a world away in central Iran. With its satellite villages, Niassar is about the same population - around eight or nine-thousand - and at about the same elevation - some 6,000 feet - and situated on the boundary between mountains on one side and a dry, forbidding high desert on the other, geographically very similar to our Silver City, New Mexico.
Niassar is a farming town west of the city of Kashan, known for its wild rose farms that invite tourists from all around during the annual rose harvest and the extraction of rosewater and the highly prized rose essence. There are several chicken hatcheries in the area as well, which rounds out, along with travertine and iron mines, the main economic activities of this region.
Niassar's nearby village of Barzok has a small semi-private community college with a humble student body and a less than stellar faculty. (We also have something in a somewhat grander scale here in Silver City; it is called Western New Mexico University.)
Students, boys and girls alike, receive degrees in agricultural fields, business and economics, computer technology, and environmental studies. Once they graduate, if they decide to remain in their own area, they would have to go back to their customary chores of farming, animal husbandry or work at the mines. Yes, there is unemployment in the technical sense of the word; a graduate in environmental sciences, for example, could not find a job in that field! A graduate in business administration still has to help plough the field and tend to the sheep, feed the chickens and count the eggs, or work at the nearest bentonite or travertine quarry. It might be years before he could start his own business and set his educational background to its intended use.
I met a young woman in Niassar with a PhD in literature, with a Minor in archaeology from Kashan University of Technology, who was having a hard time finding employment in her field and, instead, was working as a freelance writer for a local newspaper. She was considering applying for a teaching job at Kashan University, training other enthusiasts in literature and archaeology, who would have little hope of finding jobs in those areas once they'd graduate! However, between her income at the newspaper and her husband's salary as an employee at the nearby iron mine, they manage quite well.
What was quite telling was the fact that I did not see anybody idling around looking for a job or going hungry, in need of clothes or shelter! In fact, most farms and industrial establishments have to resort to Afghani migrant laborers, a good portion of them undocumented, to run their operations.
The more experienced Afghani factory workers receive very good salaries, mostly under the table, and live quite comfortably, far above what they could possibly expect back in Afghanistan. They are rounded up on occasion by the authorities, only to be released after certain "negotiations" with the plant owners. They are seldom, if ever, driven back across the borders to Afghanistan. That would cost the government too much, they are actually highly in demand right here, and they'd inevitably come back, anyway. Sound familiar? It should!
In big cities like Tehran, Esfahan or Shiraz, where those outrageously high statistics usually refer to, there is, again technically speaking, runaway unemployment. Many, especially younger folks, men and women, with college degrees or otherwise good knowledge and experience in various fields, cannot find “desirable” employment. A young man, a recent university graduate with an advanced degree in environmental engineering (a major more than likely chosen by default, since he did not make the grade in a more "useful" field!), works at a “Super”, meaning a grocery store, often no bigger than a 10x12 foot space, during the day, and drives a taxi in the evening. He is technically classified as unemployed, but makes enough undocumented money, plus a meager government subsidy as an “unemployed” individual, to make the ends meet. Simply put, he is too damned busy and doesn't have the time to sit and meditate and complain about the miseries of life in the big city!
A middle-aged woman with background as an executive secretary in an engineering and construction firm that had to close recently, now works part-time as an usher at a museum, and also as an occasional babysitter for a family where both the husband and wife work as attorneys at a small law firm.
Universities and community colleges that are sprouting everywhere, some, actually a handful, matching the standards of the most highly acclaimed in the world, and some at the level of the non-accredited junior colleges here, are graduating young men and women in droves, most of whom are unable to find employment in their respective fields.
There are reasons for this dilemma. 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.
We, therefore, see increasing numbers of high school and college graduates facing decreasing job openings in their fields of interest. Lack of “desirable” job opportunities is not the same as a lack of jobs or sources of income. Delivering pizza riding a 250 CC motorcycle, or repairing scratches on a car, is a job that generates income, even if the person has a degree in city planning! How about moving to a provincial town and working alongside, or replacing, an undocumented Afghani refugee in a stone-cutting factory, perhaps in Mahallat or Delijan? When I lived in Southern California, there wasn't a week that some Mexican or Guatemalan who could barely speak English didn’t ring the doorbell asking if I had work. I didn't see any Afghani or native Iranian begging for work where I traveled.
Are the Iranian people forced to work harder and longer hours to cope with the rising costs of living? Of course they are. Are they happy about that? Of course not. Do they have to cope with less than what they had expected, watch their spending and economize? Yes they have, and so do many of us here in the land of milk and honey. But are they reaching the end of their endurance and begging for mercy? Not in this lifetime, baby!
Iran is not India or Bangladesh. You will not find sickly, emaciated and hungry Iranians in Tehran or in other towns or villages wallowing in dirt and grime and hoping for the sky to open and food to drop into their mouths: No, you won’t! You may call it endurance, stubbornness, perseverance, adaptability and resilience, or simply, pride. As Jesus, quoting an even older proverb, said (Matthew 4:4), man does not live on bread alone. There are people in this world for whom pride, honor, integrity, identity and faith outrank a full stomach. Tell that to an academic economist, who does not understand that human passion, emotion and psychology cannot be reduced to numbers and bar graphs.
This nation has suffered a lot from internal policies and problems, and external pressures that include internationally illegal trade restrictions, even terror and barbarism, and continues to survive against all odds. Economic factors, sanctions, inflation figures and diminishing currency values against the almighty dollar do hurt the nation; there is no denying that. But if all this is aimed at bringing the nation to its knees, I for one didn't see any sign of that. Remember, eight years of war of attrition with Saddam's Iraq didn't do what the pressures from the West, a bee sting compared to a tiger's bite, is supposed to accomplish.
One piece of advice for those who think that the Iranian nation is at the verge of collapse, among whom we regrettably find many former Iranians living abroad who are even hoping for that eventuality: Don’t hold your breaths; it ain’t going to happen. Like vultures sitting and waiting on the telegraph wires anticipating their share of the road-kill, they are hoping for some catastrophe to befall their former homeland so that they might scavenge whatever they can and fly back to their comfortable nests.
If you truly want to see what’s going on in your former country, get your tail in gear and fly back there, but don’t stay with your uppity friends and relatives in North Tehran: they are quite upset that women still have to wear scarves and that the dollars they'd like to take or send abroad cost almost 2000 tomans each these days! Visit the ordinary folks, the eighty percent who live and work in the fringes of big cities, in small towns, villages and farms. See the pride, vitality and determination in the faces of young and old, even among those whose rudimentary, supposedly below poverty level, lifestyles seem utterly unbearable for the likes of you. You might then judge for yourself if that is a desperate nation at the verge of collapse.
We are not here praising or hating the Iranian regime, rising in defense of its policies or condemning its leaders as incompetent tyrants. We are talking about the Iranian nation, some 75,000,000 citizens who call themselves Iranian, regardless of ethnic, religious or linguistic divisions among them.
And for those who hate the Islamic Republic government of Iran to such an extent that they'd rather see a fragmented and disintegrated Iran than the continuation of the status quo, two points to consider:
1- Do you hate it because you are convinced it is so terrible; or, are you convinced it is terrible because you hate it for your own personal reasons?
2- What would you do to change things for the better, not for yourself or your own private interests, but for the Iranian nation? Just remember, you might call yourself an Iranian American or an Iranian whatever, but real Iranians live half a world away in Iran. It is not all about you or what you’d prefer; so please offer your suggestions with that in mind.
Finally, while you have your thinking cap on, try to come up with some suggestions to cure America’s own mind-boggling economic problems. Maybe one of the presidential candidates would choose you as his Chief Economic Advisor this November.
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
Other recent articles by Kam Zarrabi:
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Iran Back In Context
Author: Kambiz Zarrabi
Kamran Zarrabi has just completed writing his memoirs of his 2011 trip to Iran. The manuscript called "Iran, Back in Context" also contains the accounts of several interviews with a broad cross section of people, photographs, and details of travels to remote areas of the country.
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