Young street child selling fortunes in Iran. Picture courtesy of Shapour, flickr.com
I am getting ready to embark on a long trip to Iran this summer in order to begin fieldwork for my doctoral research. This will be the first trip that I will be taking in my life that will be solely devoted to observing how the less fortunate cope with the circumstances of their lives and struggle to make a better future for themselves. As I begin to pack my bags, though, I can’t help but wonder what they will think of my research. How will they respond to an outsider watching them, eagerly taking notes, and eagerly trying to learn about their everyday struggles? And can the writings and musings of one young idealist really make a big difference in their lives?
Iran, like many of its counterparts in the Middle East, is a land divided by distinct class lines. The rich-poor divide is at times so harsh that you can live your entire life in Tehran without ever encountering the harsh reality that surrounds the daily lives of your poorer counterparts. Like so many of my Iranian-American counterparts, my summer trips to Iran have usually consisted of extended mehmoonis (family and friend gatherings) and trips to Babolsar by the Caspian Sea. Poverty was all around me, but yet it was as if there was an invisible shield that prevented me from really seeing it. Taxi drivers would often complain of the rising food prices and the saghti-haye (difficulties) of life while they drove us to Babolsar; street beggars would cross my path as we headed to the mehmoonis. But it was as if I was oblivious to it all. Even now, despite the fact that I have decided to dedicate my entire professional career to trying to understand and to come up with solutions for alleviating poverty, I wonder if anyone can really understand its inner workings and the tremendous strength of spirit, resilience, and courage of the poor without actually living through it herself?
I have so many unanswered questions and conflicting emotions as I prepare for this potentially life-altering trip. Perhaps I shouldn’t look for answers now, and just be content with the questions themselves. Perhaps the answers will come when I least expect them to.