Monday, August 22, 2005

Dateline: Sean Penn's Continent-Sized Ego

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

It's the week preceding presidential elections. Candidates attack one another's credibility. Activists push to boycott the vote. Traffic and pollution choke the cities. Leftists support a no-win idealist. Preachers guide their flocks toward political starboard. The media have fallen under the grip of standing power, and should they defy it, they're imprisoned. University students promote human rights, while fundamentalists deny them. It is a culture in love with cinema. With Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. And anything Steven Spielberg.

It is a nation of nuclear power, where the lobbies of the religious right effectively blur the lines between church and state. But it is also a country of good and hospitable people.

No doubt. People are the same everywhere. Basically, we all just want to spend time with our families and friends, and we want to make a little money and have a good time. Most of us are sheep and we do what we are told. If the world around us tells us that it is ok to kill infidels, or hang black people from trees, or put Jews in ovens, or flail Christ in the street and hang him on the cross, then most of us would do it.

That's a sad fact of humanity, but history has taught us that it is true. God have mercy on us.

And when the local team wins a big match, there is dancing, kissing, drinking and drugs in the streets. Women are graduating the campuses in higher and higher numbers, occupying government in higher and higher numbers. Sound familiar? But wait. The women. Look at the women. All is not well.

Yeah, no kidding Sean, that's what us Bushitlerians have been harping about.

Now, to be fair, if I remember correctly, Sean Penn was relatively honest about his experiences in Iraq as well. I recall he recognized that he was being used, and got pissed off and left. I would assume he realizes to some extent he's being shown the Potemkin version of Iran.

And, even at that, it sucks for the women. What do you know?

At 3:30 p.m. Munich-time, Norman, Reese and I boarded Lufthansa Flight 602 to Tehran. The other passengers were about 95 percent Iranian and a few Europeans. Last year, including journalists, fewer than 500 non-Iranian Americans visited Iran. I looked around the plane, full of modern men and women in Western garb, returning from vacations, family visits and business. Alcoholic beverages were served on the plane. But no alcohol sold for duty-free purchase. Iran is an Islamic state and a dry one. Nonetheless, many of these travelers were happy to get in their last swill before landing.

Four hours and 10 minutes later and a time change that would have us land at 10:30 p.m. Tehran-time, came a P.A. announcement
as we went into approach: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important announcement to make. For all our female passengers, by decree of the government of Iran, all female visitors are required to keep their heads covered. In your own interest, therefore, we ask you to put on a scarf before leaving the aircraft in Tehran. Thank you." With that, women clamored for the lavatory.

One at a time as they exited, hundreds of years of transformation had occurred. All of these modern women, who would've looked quite at home dancing in a Paris nightclub, were now covered head to toe in black chadors, makeup scrubbed from their faces, cleavages and midriffs a memory.

Eventually, Norman, Reese and I went forward to the customs booth and presented our three American passports. We were told to "wait," rather abruptly. With that, the young Iranian customs official left his booth with our passports, taking them to another office, out of our line of sight.

The official returned, but without our passports or any explanation. We stood dumbly by, as the remaining Iranian passengers were stamped and passed us.

Over an hour later, we were still waiting in a now-empty customs hall. I sat on the floor. Reese paced. And Norman, Zen as always, stood in place. Suddenly, four uniformed customs officials appeared and hurried us into a small office, where one by one, we were fingerprinted and directed in Farsi. It wasn't clear whether the fingerprinting was leading to our being permitted into the country, or if our passports alone were the reason we were being detained.
What does he want?

The agent whose large hands had rolled my black-inked fingers and palms over several printing forms barked at me to follow him with a wave of his hand. He led me to a men's room, where he swung open the door and indicated I should go in ahead of him. It was a bit of a ratty hole. Water closets, open. Worn, reflectionless mirrors. Where our standard toilets might sit, these are simply holes in the floor, with dark glimmering puddles beneath, and fluorescent light above. He just stared at me. Neither threateningly, nor warmly. Seconds went by as I stared back. Neither threatened, nor comfortable. "Now what?" I said. He raised his hands and wiped his palms over one another. Yes, he wanted me to have the opportunity to wash my hands, rather than to walk, black-handed, into the Persian night.

So I turned to the sink, there were the last bubbles in a soap dispenser and I tried to pump it. The water came on automatically, nice modern touch, but it was cold. I rubbed my hands together under it with a bubble or two of soap, to at least a graying effect. When I looked for some sort of towel to dry them, there wasn't one. So, I took a deep breath and slid past my 6-foot-3-inch minder into one of the water closets, grabbed some toilet paper, and dried my dull gray hands.

There was, it turned out, a contrivance in the tone of all this. The language of the Iranian Parliament in the decree for fingerprinting makes no attempt to disguise the retaliatory impetus of the fingerprinting policy: Americans do it to Iranians. Iranians do it to us. When I thanked the agent for his help, I was as much thanking him for not putting my head in the water closet hole as for facilitating our clean-handed entrance into his country.

Now, Sean might not be aware of it, but he has just articulated one of Natan Sharansky principles here. Sharansky says that there are two basic types of societies. There are free societies, and there are fear societies. In a fear society, people become double-minded, thinking one thing inside, yet doing another outside. In other words, inside they are thinking they hate being intimidated, and they wish they could strangle the man who holds the key to their cell, but on the outside they are obedient. After awhile, they become used to the circumstances, and their inner reaction will likely be less violent, and more just thankful they aren't being beaten.

I'm sure Natan Sharansky would be appreciative of your well-described illustration here, Mr. Penn.

When we got to the baggage area, our driver was dutifully waiting, as were our bags. We jumped in the car and headed for the hotel.

The streets of Tehran at night are reminiscent of Baghdad or Mexico City. Jousting, yelling, horn honking and warm thickly polluted air, mud-splattered motorcycles, winding through human traffic at death-bound speeds. This was the week before the Iranian presidential election and the city was papered with campaign posters. Dominant were those of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

I knew it would be an eventful week. I did not know we were headed into the most violent week in Iran in more than a decade.

Tehran lies at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. In some directions, it doesn't look unlike Los Angeles at the foot of the San Gabriels. Staring into my room from the boulevard below was a banner with the visage of Ayatollah Khomeini. Our first scheduled event was the Friday morning prayer service. But that would not begin for several hours. I went downstairs, out the door, and walked into the Tehran morning.

This would turn out to be one of the few times I was able to be alone on the visit. But it was an important time for that. My unsure footing at the airport, the hustle of the city we drove into the night before, were by now, dreamlike and wary episodes of travel. But now I was just one more rested body and spirit walking down the Tehran street. What I had anticipated of this deeply Islamic city was some sort of post-chant, post-prayer gloominess, dark-eyed men with dark beards, eyeing me with suspicion, shrouded women not eyeing me at all. But that's not what I saw. And that's not what it felt like.

Of course one doesn't see a woman without a scarf, called a hijab, on her head at least, and a chador covering her body. It is unlawful to touch a woman in public unless you are her husband. Girlfriends and boyfriends are not permitted to hold hands. However, there are many smiles.

There was laughter and very warm feelings in the eyes that fell on this American visitor. Surprised to encounter me in their city, some told me how much they liked the movie "21 Grams," a film in which sex and drug abuse are both seen in graphic detail. Over the next days, I would find that American movies are readily available and popular in Iran, viewed on black market DVDs. The DVD man goes house to house, like a milkman might.

Yes, that's right, Sean Penn is idolized, even in Tehran. And, it seems like he likes the idea that the Iranians are enamored of the world of drug abuse. How liberated they must be, at least inside.

I walked slowly over about a 2-square-mile area. The image of Ayatollah Khomeini, as stern as an Orwellian leader, is omnipresent on the sides of buildings, walls, billboards and bus stops, watching my every move.

As I studied one of those building sides, the searing eyes of their beloved Ayatollah, I stepped off a curb and was nearly flattened by a transit bus. I leaped backward onto the sidewalk. And there they were, staring down upon me, Iranian men, in the front of the bus. But as I regained my bearings, the last third of the bus passed me and it was there, where everything went into slow motion. Sliding by me was the rear of the bus, occupied only by women in black chadors.

The back of the bus. I thought of Rosa Parks.

After getting our official credentials, we headed off to Friday prayers. Security was very tight around the stadium of Tehran University where the faithful assemble for Namaze Jumeh or Friday Prayers.

The stadium was hung with banners. One translated, "We shall always support the Palestinians." Another, "Resistance against the conspiracies of America and Israel will disappoint them to predominate over Iran's nation."

This phrase is attributed to "the grand, great leader." Bit by bit, the stadium filled until 10,000 worshipers created a sea partially of white and black turbans (the black represents the Seyed or direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed) pale and dark shirts. Chanting echoed throughout the building. Government officials fill the front rows. Military arrived in groups, in the belief that their prayers will be answered in multiples. Many, as simple conscripts, seemed less focused on the proceedings. And behind them, the sea of the devout.

The opening sermon was delivered by a low-level cleric, Ayatollah Mesbehi, and focused on economic morality. With every bow, and only backs showing, the bodies of worshipers created the illusion of an undulating Persian carpet.

The women were sequestered in an entirely separate area, all but unseen from the press balcony. The hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati arrived to deliver his sermon. He leads the six-man Guardian Council, the controversial and largely considered fundamentalist body that governs state decisions over and above those made by the president or parliament (Majlis). In an apparently direct targeting of centrist candidate Rafsanjani, he preached against the dangers of nepotism in government. Rafsanjani was known to employ many of his relatives in his cabinets, and represented a power and following that directly threatened that of the Guardian Council.

As Jannati transitioned toward international policy,
he reminded what was largely considered a reluctant voting public that every vote is a shout of death to America.

He goaded the crowd to join the chanting calls for "Death to Israel!", "Death to America!" Ten thousand strong of voice.

Now, doesn't that sound familiar? A stadium, a frenzied speech, a call for death to the Jews?

Even the unflappalbe Penn seems a tad, well, flapped:

I was struck by the familiar: a cleric guiding his followers in their politics, and toward particular candidates away from others. It has been my observation that this kind of invective speech is common, not only in Iran but in the Arab states as well.

According to many with whom I spoke, it had always been clear from the Iranian point of view, that the call is related to American foreign policy and does not intend to target the death of the American people. However, when the supposed purpose of a 10,000-person rally is in the prayer and scruples of Islam,

I can say that as an American (a half Jew, by the way), the chant demeans both intent and any religion that aspires to a core of love and reduces it to a cheap political threat of violence.

Overall, I would say Sean did a fine job on his essay. I think I'll give it a B+.