On our way to Iran from San Francisco, we stopped in Amsterdam to change planes. Shawhin and I got our coffee and orange juice (I’m the coffee person and he’s the healthy one) and we were on our way to find the gate for the KLM flight to Tehran. It turned out finding the gate was much easier than expected. All we had to do was to follow the large number of familiar eyes who spoke Farsi very loudly. It’s not common to speak loudly among Iranians, but somehow it seemed like we all wanted to make sure others noticed that we are Iranian, kind of like a signal, a way of communicating, a way to make sure other Iranians see us and can come to us if they are lost or need help of any sort.
I felt the excitement of going home after 8 years; it was amazing being among all those familiar eyes, familiar accents, familiar smiles, or familiar complaints. I realized in the middle of my excitement, however, that those eyes and accents were not our only guides to the right gate. It was something much more visual and obvious: the black clothes! Sadly I must acknowledge the current trend of fashion among my fellow countrymen. Black, black, black. All I could see was black, dark blue, dark gray, dark green, basically all sorts of varieties of black with different shades. I told Shawhin if he noticed that we were the only ones not wearing black at the gate while we were waiting for our flight. He laughed and nodded. I saw that his happy eyes transformed to something more like worried happy eyes. Well, I did not want to ruin this experience for him so I changed the topic. I was however deeply concerned about the effects of this color on people’s everyday life back home. Imagine living in a black city where colors are not widely accepted, are thought to be cheap, or are not even allowed in many public places. I wonder if anyone in Tehran or other big cities in Iran worries about this, but there I was waiting at the gate deeply struggling with these thoughts and emotions. I was emotional and excited with the thought of landing at the Mehrabad airport, seeing the Azadi tower when the pilot does a turn around it before landing, kissing the ground of my city, the city that really belonged to me. My fear of black, on the other hand, was constantly on my mind. I wanted to get the microphone from the flight attendant and ask all the passengers to change their outfits and wear brighter colors and was frustrated with my lack of power to do so.
A girl in Sanandaj, Iran, wearing traditional colorful costumes. Photo courtesy of Ddokosic
The art of dancing is truly a gift. It is an amazing feeling – the power in group dances – especially the ones with lots of energy, movement, singing, colors, and joy. I only saw these dances in Indian movies when I was a kid – we never had that experience growing up in Tehran. It seems as if Tehran is the America of Iran, where many people from different villages, cities, and provinces migrate to in order to provide better opportunities for their next generation. It is a busy city with lots of people, high rises, and traffic jams. Tehran has become the melting pot for the country, a city where people from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, languages, and costumes from around the country migrate to and learn to live next to each other. But in many cases, these individuals sadly forget their own backgrounds and costumes. As a result Tehran may have lost its own unique identity. Perhaps it’s hard to define it or perhaps this is what Tehran’s identity is: a melting pot. But why didn’t I, as a Tehrani girl, ever experience a Tehrani group dance like kids who lived in Gilan, Mashhad, south Bandars, or the nomads of Qashghai experienced?
photo courtesy of Ballet Afsaneh
Now in Berkeley, I am learning dance techniques of classic Persian, Qashqhai, Gilani, Tajik, and Afghani for the first time! And I realize what I had missed all my life. There is so much energy and unity in these dances that words can’t express.
Why not come up with a Tehrani group dance that can create this sort of synergy among the youth of this city? I would argue that group dance would help solve many of the problems that young people are currently facing, such as group work, confidence, and hope. In order not to cause any problems, the classes could be designed for males and females separately. And this group dance could be colorful even though Tehran and most other cities in Iran have widely lost their old costumes and are using western outfits. And even though most people in Tehran seem to have become extremely “black” oriented – meaning they mostly or only wear dark and black dresses and mantos (overcoats). Perhaps new costumes and dresses could be designed that fit in with the exiting young culture of Tehran – costumes that are a combination of old Iranian and Western styles, but with lots of colors this time. Imagine what a beautiful dance that would be!
This picture shows children cooperating during the reconstruction of schools in Bam (after the 2004 Earthquake which is an ongoing project), by the International Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Seismology (IIEES) in Iran – truly inspirational.
There is a serious need for proper reconstruction of Bam as well as improving children’s safety in many regions in Central/South-west Asia. According to a recent report by the IIEES regarding children’s safety in the case of earthquakes in Iran alone: 131,935 Classrooms need to be reconstructed, 126,010 classrooms need to be strengthened, and 39% of schools need to become safe. Involving children and youth in rebuilding and strengthening their own schools is a great initiative and a powerful idea.
I’m currently reading Three Cups of Tea, which is a book co-written by Greg Mortenson. It is a compelling story about an American mountainer who became inspired to build a school in the impoverished and isolated mountains of Pakistan. Mortenson began this journey in 1993 and since then has built 55 schools, especially for girls, in the area. The story is inspirational, yet I wonder if it takes more than a determined humanitarian spirit to create the legacy Mortenson has created. Undoubtedly he made many sacrifices in his life to be able to build these schools and worked hard to raise the necessary funding. However, one of the most vital resources Mortenson was able to acquire was the trust and support of the local villagers. He didn’t approach the project as a righteous American mountaneer trying to make a difference in their lives. Instead, he was inspired by them and the promise of their youth. In many nonprofit projects, we see western ideals being taken to other parts of the world and implemented in hopes of establishing the same infrastructure that has worked in the west. Yet, perhaps what is more important is to find inspiration from the target population and then implement projects within the context of their issues and their values.
Image borrowed from: http://www.kids-with-cameras.org
It is amazing what images the camera lens can capture. Mundane objects that we often overlook in our daily lives take on a whole new meaning when we see them through the eyes of another. As a medium for empowering, the camera is often the most simple restorative art form. Various organizations ranging from Kids with Cameras (producers of the documentary film, Born into Brothels) to Picture Balata have utilized the art of photography to empower and build confidence in marginalized children. While photography is not a panacea for marginalization and under-development, it can help to provide a sense of purpose and hope to children who may otherwise travel down the road to despair. By looking at the world with new eyes and seeing the impact that their printed work has on others, young people can find the internal motivation they need to implement change in their lives. Isn’t this the basis of sustainable community-based development after all?