Friday, December 17, 2004


Iran, women, the chador and the Western idea of beauty

I've been thoroughly facinated by Iran ever since high school. I was lucky enough to have met my first "Persian" who was an exchange student for a year. I liked her right off the bat. Her exotic beauty, her gentleness, were extremely appealing. The fact that she was being hosted by my best friend's family made it easy to get to know her, and I remember most Saturday's spent doing things together.

One memorable activity was going for the day to one of America's best zoos, The Brookfield Zoo on the outskirts of Chicago. We spent hours visiting animals from every continent. I'd seen it all before, but I enjoyed discovering my friend's surprise when she saw that giraffes really WERE that tall, and that jaguars really DID growl while they paced to and fro. We spent lunch basically throwing crumbs to the pigeons, sparrows and robins, watching how there was a certain interesting pecking order between the various birds. At the end of the day, taking the train back home, I asked her which animal she liked the most, thinking it would have to be something really extraordinarily rare and magnificent.

"I loved the Robins the most, " she said, to the amazement of the rest of us. "Didn't you see how they let the little sparrows have their fill before they started to eat? They are so beautiful to watch and I think that was the best part of the day."

How could anyone not fall in love with such a gorgeous person?

The very next year, my best friend's family got transferred to Iran. The father was an engineer and all of them were to go to Teheran, for at least a year. I remember getting the most beautiful gifts in the mail from my friend, including a small metal embossed and enameled container that has never left my possession. The Islamic Revolution happened, and they suddenly found themselves back in Chicago, but by that time, I was so madly enamoured of Iran, and so sad that there weren't many Iranians coming to Chicago (my political awareness at fifteen years of age wasn't that astute!) that I started to peek into Persian Carpet shops, just to get my dose of Iranity!

Everywhere I have ever lived, one of the first things I've done has been to find out where the Persian Art galleries and Carpet shops were. At first, I would sort of fake an interest in the art. It was indeed beautiful, but just so foreign to my comprehension. I just liked to hear talk about Iran, about its history and its people, about its hopes and its dreams and its aspirations. I got to know dozens of Iranians, who shared their culture and were generous in explaining the intricacies of their art. I found out that Persian art was not beautiful, it was sublime. The perfect combination of decorativeness - permitting itself to be inserted in a domestic context - and a higher awareness of the human spiritual condition, was vibrant, exiting, warm and stimulating. And so were the people who introduced me to this world.

I usually don't buy travel magazines, although I travel with my mind all over the world contstantly, taking travel brochures from the agencies and dreaming of seven thousand around the world trips, stopping off in all the places imaginable. So, when I saw this month's "GenteViaggi" in the kiosk, with the teaser for an article called "Iran behind the Chador", I couldn't resist.

Sandra Petrignani, an Italian novelist, made a reportage on her experience as a Westerner in Iran. I was surpised to find it somewhat rhetorical, but still quite interesting. She writes:
"…I found myself in Teheran. It is difficult these days to find oneself in a place so "other", the global village has invaded the entire planet. One is able feel at home anywhere, at least at some level. Not in Iran. Iran is a true "other place", where you are surprised at yourself for scrutinising humanity as if they were Martians. What happens? The men are gentle, they speak an unexpectedly sweet-sounding language which at times is similar to French. They are like men anywhere in the world, some particularly handsome. The Martians, in reality, are the women.

"The women, the women. I'm becoming obsessed about the theme. But it is right to say it loud and clear: the initial impact with Iran, for Westerners is the presence of the Chador. It is traumatic. Without exaggeration. You feel a sort of uncomfortableness, an insecurity. A frightening melancholy. On the streets you only see black-clothed nuns. The world is an enormous convent, colourless, faded. You are immediately aware of how deeply the West is immersed in erotism, in a constant provocation dealing with the exhibition of the body.

"Nothing in the markets, fascinating as they are, can compare to the segret of all those veiled women. You can lose yourself in the magic before the bas relief of Dario in the National Museum, but even moreso, you can become mesmerised observing the evident contradictions between modern behaviour, the normal attitudes of the women seated at the cafeteria and those who are confined inside clothing that is too heavy, women who have been made uglier, mortified in their femininity."

The reportage continues, quite interesting, but still nothing which hasn't been said a thousand times before, and actually, brilliantly in "Persepolis", the comic book.

What really made this article stand out in my mind was the link I made of it to an article I clipped from the newspaper, "Il Messaggero di Roma" the other day. Romana Petri wrote about a calendar that depicted women writers. I don't know about the rest of the Western world, but in Italy, in December there is a rush to bring out the most erotic and sexy calendar. Basically, the television personalities or models are wearing a bit of dental floss between thier buttocks and maybe a flower or two graces their hair, but these calendars are literally everywhere, not only in some barber shops.

Petri commented on the beauty of these writers, most of them well into the second half of their lives. She writes:

"Beauty, certainly, has never disturbed anyone, to say the contrary would be hypocritical, but to affirm that beauty and intelligence can be two parallel roads seem a theory that has been developed to spread itself precisely in a society like ours that, proposing only models of esthetic perfection, fills women unjustly with complexes, and therefore, makes too many women enormously unhappy. (As if bodily perfection is an antedote to the ills of life!)

"This lovely calendar of writers, I would like to see hung in the rooms of children (male and female alike), such as a preventive medicine to the excessive proliferation (in no other country as our own) of studs and showgirls. We need to educate men and women from the earliest childhood that they need to navigate in the gazes of an expressive face, to find the beauty in the profundity and not only in the surface; to understand from childhood on that youth is only a passage of life, a segment that is related to all of the others, and that after it, one continues to enrich oneself in another way, that we can continue to evoke in others a part of ourselves that when this time comes, we will be able to do so in an even more indelible way."


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