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Lipstick and Loopholes in Tehran by Nahal Tajadod

November 5, 2009

PasseportaliranienneBlurb: A wry and humorous account of the author’s quest to get her Iranian passport renewed. She embarks on a bizarre and circuitous journey, meeting a colourful cast of characters along the way: two photographers who specialise in Islamic portraits, a forensic surgeon who trades in human organs, a madam who wants to send prostitutes to Dubai and a grandmother who offers a live chicken to an implacable official. LIPSTICK AND LOOPHOLES IN TEHRAN is a fascinating look at the constraints and contradictions of contemporary life in Tehran from the author’s unique standpoint of being both a native of Iran and a foreigner.

The view this book gives us of Iran certainly isn’t the one we typically get in the news, but it does remind me of some of the more ludicrous parts of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series. It introduces us to the behind the scenes’ face of Iran so to speak; the story behind the islamically correct photo on the narrator’s passport for example: how the perfectly covering headscarf was adjusted by the male photographer she had met 5 minutes before, how that same photographer graciously offers makeup remover to his clients prior to the photo, and emergency mascara and lipstick afterwards… and how the final product goes through photoshop before being delivered. As we tag along on the author’s quest for a new passport we witness the absurdity of daily life under Iran’s Islamic regime. We also get a sense of the narrator’s difficult position, hiding her French passport and nationality from the authorities, leveraging her French connections to impress her interlocutors, and attempting to explain the Iranian system to her French husband, and ultimately feeling like a complete stranger in her native country, where her best friend acts as her guide.

So there is a lot to be learnt from this novel, but despite the above I found it very disappointing. For one thing, the passport quest is long winded and gets rather repetitive, as do the numerous descriptions of the tarof, the tradition by which Iranians will always refuse payment/ gifts/ invitations at first. But mostly I just couldn’t sympathise with the main character. She seemed to always be whining, fainting, acting against her better judgement and neglecting her daughter. Not that I expect or want book characters to be all nice and moral, but in this case she just got on my nerves.

I never thought that not ‘clicking’ with the main characters of a book could spoil it, but unfortunately it seems it does.

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Nicolas, Swami and friends

October 25, 2009

NicolasHey, have you met Nicolas? He’s somewhere between 6 and 8 years old, small for his age, an only child, and french as you can get. He was born in a Belgian magazine 50 years ago, under the writing of René Goscinny and the drawings of Sempé. He isn’t too fond of lessons, report cards, the supervisor or Agnan (the first of the class… unfortunately nobody’s allowed to hit him, “cause he wears glasses”) but he loves his teacher and getting up to no good with his friends: Alceste, who eats all the time, Rufus, son of a policeman, Clotaire, last in class, Eudes, who communicates with his fists, Geoffroy, who’s dad is very rich… and all the others. All in all, his life’s “really great”.

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What about Swami? He’s slightly older, 10 years old, but not much taller, and comes from Malgudy… Don’t take out your atlas, it’s a fictious town in south India, fathered by R.K. Narayan and illustrated by R.K. Laxman. He… well, he isn’t too fond of school either but gets up to lots of adventures with his friends: Mani, last in class, Rajam, son of a very well off police officer, Shankar… and all the others.

6000 km apart both of them have to deal with petty supervisors, anxious mothers, unfriendly neighbours and unwelcome exams… and think more than once of running away! Of course, the adults around them have their own troubles, rather more serious in Malgudi, where the rebellion against the British rule is rising, than in France where Nicolas’s dad awaits anxiously for a promotion and his mum takes a step towards emancipation by learning to drive. But the boys, unwitting witnesses of their time and culture, are rather more interested by their upcoming match of foottball or cricket.

So different and yet universal, their stories make for a very refreshing read… for kids and grown-ups alike! And if you’re not a reader (*shudder* 😉 ), they’re also available on screen: Swami and Malgudi’s other inhabitants are the heroes of a television series while Nicolas has just been brought on screen in a new film.

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Enjoy! And if you know of any other Nicolas or Swami around the world, please let me know!

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“Society is like a parent, a baby doesn’t question which is his own.” But society does.

October 21, 2009

I was just watching a documentary on ethnical discrimination in recruitment processes in France: The Glass Ceiling by Yamina Benguigui… Very well made, enraging by the situations it describes and the stories of the people featured: the stark, unacceptable truth about insidious (and most of the time unconscious) discrimination.

One point struck me particularly though. A woman explaining that having immigrated as an adult she thought her own struggles were due to the cultural gap, to having been raised abroad. But that her kids, born and raised in France, would feel at home. To ensure that they got the best education she sent them to private schools and to good higher education institutions to get masters degrees.

But when time came for them to find an internship they struggled for 6 months, were rejected everywhere. Nothing had changed. Worse. They were struggling more than if they had had a lower diploma… Because they had risen up the ladder and were now looking for management positions. Because their family had successfully integrated itself in the french society and system.

How vicious is that circle? They are amongst the best integrated people of immigrant origin; they have fully assimilated themselves; they have no doubt as to which is their country (as one of them put it, “society is like a parent, a baby doesn’t question which is his own”); they are considered foreigners in their parents’ country of origin… And that’s when society hits them back the hardest and says, “sorry, my clients/ employee base wouldn’t be comfortable with it… But I hope you’ll find your dream position soon!”.

Unfortunately for some of them such letters keep piling up…. One young man was explaining that in a year and a half he had gotten 600 rejection letters, 10 first stage interviews, and nothing more.

So some change their name, others accept lower qualification jobs, “anything to set a foot in a company”,… and all of them swear that for their own kids, sons and daughters of french people, “it will be different”.

I sure hope it will. We owe it to them to make it happen.

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“If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali”

October 18, 2009

Just wanted to share an image which you might have already come across but I only just heard and find very powerful. It comes from Shashi Tharoor, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and once UN Undersecretary General for Communications and Public Information:

“If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali – a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”

The melting-pot vs. the thali, assimilation vs. a sum of differences… Radically different strategies to create the identity of two nations, in both cases huge in size and extremely diverse in origins.

And it doesn’t only explain internal dynamics, but also the way these countries relate to other cultures. I’ve always been in awe of India’s ability to keep a strong, and very visible, cultural identity even as it is more and more integrated in the global economy. Simple things such as the traditional clothes and the Bollywood films, which might seem superficial aspects of a culture but are in fact very specific to India, remain strongly embedded in the country. In Dehli, young women wear jeans like everywhere in the world. But they also wear saris, not just for special occasions but because they are the normal, every day wear, and even fashionable. I always wondered how they do it, how they manage this duality: embracing the western way of life while keeping a strong grasp on their own identity.

But of course, they already are juggling the multitude of ways of life which coexist in their own nation, so what’s one more to them?

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Children of Kabul at the Quai Branly Museum

October 17, 2009

Time to resurrect this blog! I can’t believe that it’s been 6 months since I last updated it, but to my defence a lot has been going on what with exams, reports, moves, weddings… But I’m now settled in again, with a new flat and a job till end of November, so it’s time to get back on track.

However I’m still in a reading mojo slump, and even the few books I do finish aren’t necessarily about cultures, so I’ve decided to widen this blog’s focus. It will now be a space for any cultures related tidbit I want to share: book reviews but also movies, past or present anecdotes, exhibitions… Whatever might come up! Hopefully that will make the blog more interesting and enable me to update more often than once every 2 months when I finish a book.

MuseeQuaiBranlySO… to launch this new version of the blog, let me share with you the fascinating evening I had yesterday. I ‘noticed’ a few days ago that my new flat is walking distance from my favorite museum in Paris, or rather the only museum I really appreciate (I’m not really a fan of museums or pictorial art…), because it’s dedicated to ‘primitive arts’ from all over the world and what they tell us about the different cultures involved and interactions between them: right up my street then, even if looking at the past rather than the present. What I didn’t realize until 2 days ago is that the museum also has a contemporary and larger approach of these themes, through temporary exhibitions, film viewings, conferences, debates, themed visits of the collections and particular areas of Paris…  a full program of cultures related activities and debates, happening nearly every day, 20 mn away from my flat, and most of them free of charge. Of course, I had to try it out.

So yesterday I hurried out of work to watch 3 short documentary films by Afghani directors, on the theme of ‘Children in Kabul’, followed by a q&a session with one of the directors and a couple of people involved in the project. It was beautiful, and great food for thought. Each of the 3 films focused on particular children:

The first showed 2 child musicians, who attend one of the music schools which have appeared after the departure of the Taliban, to teach children about the music which had been banned for years. We see them as they learn how to play their instruments, following the teachings of ‘masters’, but also as they perform in small events to help out their family financially and face the mistrust of neighbors who have come to see music as evil.

The second delved into a brick factory and the kids who work there for weeks at a time, far from their homes and families.

Finally, the third followed young boys who live from washing cars at road crossings and in parking lots. It struck me particularly because one of the boys looked uncannily like one I met as I was volunteering in a Mexican program for street children a few years ago. Rodolfo was his name, and he and his brothers would perform fire-eating tricks at streetlights to earn their upkeep, and their mother’s booze. Bulbul, the afghani boy in the film, washes cars rather than performs tricks, but other than that it could have been the same boy.

Opposite sides of the earth, radically different cultures and political/ economical situations, and yet similar children, hardships but also appetite for life. Because those kids, in the films as in my Mexican experience, are still kids. Despite the hard labor, the contempt from most people, the absence of adults to protect them and send them to school… they still fool around like kids and bring much needed comic relief moments with their highly politically incorrect come-backs.

During the Q&A the director said that he wasn’t trying to pass along any message in his film, just to show things as they are. But questions, difficult ones, certainly abound for the viewer. What should we think of these kids’ lives? Of them having to work? Of their parents who seem strangely inactive? Of the people who refuse to pay the kids for washing their cars?

bulbul_12The program I volunteered for in Mexico advocated strongly against giving money to child beggars/ workers, as it only anchors them more in the street and a few coins given out of pity for their situation at such a young age won’t give them a future. But seeing the kids in the film hard at work till late at night, despairing because a client had only given them 10 cents or another refused to have his car washed, and they were still far from the minimum they needed for the day, I felt a twinge of guilt for all those times I passed child beggars and refused to give them anything. Of course if I went back I’d do the same thing, because there is no way I’m paying for the child’s parents’ booze, or encouraging him to stay in the street rather than returning to school. But there are different ways of seeing things, and unless we offer a viable alternative (school without monetary compensation to help the family unfortunately isn’t one of them), who are we to judge?

A couple of years ago I participated, through my student solidarity organization, in workshops led by an NGO activist to raise awareness about development issues and intercultural relationships. He was brilliant and gave us a real understanding of how complicated development issues are, and how messy things can get when one tries to ‘help’ someone from another culture, without really understanding the situation. But he was very extreme in his opinions. Amongst other things, I learned one day that he advocated children’s ‘right to work’.

Yes, that was and still is a real shocker. But as I discussed it with him I came to understand his point of view: in some countries, in some situations, children NEED to work. If they don’t, nobody can provide food for them. They don’t have an alternative, they have to work. But child labor being illegal, all they can do is clandestine work, or beg. If it was legal, perhaps they could have a safer, legally supervised work environment, which would also leave them time to attend school a few hours a day. But as it is they are completely vulnerable. And in some cultures, supervised work is a form of education: a way of transmitting a trade through apprenticeship from a young age, or a way of teaching responsibility.

Is that a good enough reasoning? Should the ideal of work free childhoods be dropped for darker but more realistic alternatives? I don’t know. But it certainly shows that there are more ways than one to view even those things which seem fundamentally obvious to us. Sort of like the Camel Bookmobile dilemma isn’t it?

AteliersVaranThe films were made as part of the Varan Workshops: film-making trainings which were created by Jean Rouch, when In 1978, the young Mozambican Republic asked him and other famous directors to film the changes occurring in the country. He preferred to train Mozambicans and empower them to film the reality of their country, which they knew better than any foreigner, themselves. It is this work which he has continued ever since, and I am grateful as it offers us windows in other realities.

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Gran Torino

April 14, 2009

grantorinogOk, so I know this blog is supposed to be about books. But I saw Gran Torino the other day and it just fits the theme too well to be overlooked. I had been told again and again that it was an amazing film which discussed (amongst other things) the theme of diversity, so when I finally saw it I had high hopes… I was very surprised by how it turned out, but definitely not disappointed.

The story of a Korean war veteran who disdains anyone and anything that doesn’t resemble him closely, Gran Torino is at first sight a very insightful comedy about cultural differences and stereotypes: men/ women, people of different ethnical origins, generations who don’t understand each other, young priest who tries to teach a war veteran about life and death… Each character seems to be a stereotype personified and they all take turns in mocking each other and being mocked by the producer. The resulting scenes are hilarious.

Which is why it is so much of a shock when the film brutally turns so dark, about half way through. What seemed to be mostly fun a few minutes before takes on a very nasty tinge and warning signs that were overlooked are brought back to the forefront of our minds as the characters spiral downwards.

In the end I just felt that it dealt brilliantly with that sensitive subject. Plus it’s a wonderful film. Go see it! 😉

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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

March 20, 2009

the-summer-bookBlurb: An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. As the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings, a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the very island itself.

Constructed as a series of ‘vignettes’ showing life on the island during the summer months this little novel tells a very simple story, yet a deeply compelling one. Nothing big happens but as we watch Sophia and her grandmother carve animals, explore neighbouring islands, entertain strange guests and deal with the summer drought we grow to love them and get much insight into their growing relationship, their way of life and, for a foreigner like me, a bit of the Finnish culture.

It was given to me by ii as part of the BCF World book day big book swap and having Finnish roots she had also told me a bit about the country’s culture. I was grateful for that as it certainly helped me to understand the novel better.

At first I felt a bit frustrated by the fact that some underlying issues which I thought were bound to come out in the open at some point kept being only alluded to. But then I realised that this was the characters’ way of dealing with them: going on with their lives without stopping to mope or complain. They’ll occasionally mention their pain through metaphors or scream out in frustration but life must go on. This seems to tie in with ii’s description of the Finnish ‘guts’. It is also served by Tove Jansson’s writing style: beautifully written, full of imagery and humour, the story really doesn’t need the drama brought by a more direct approach. Everything we need to know comes through and the focus is left on the everyday life of the island and the discovery of this peculiar place.

Inhabited only by Sophia, her father and grandmother, referred to throughout the book as “the family”, the island is a place full of contradictions: surrounded by water yet subject to terrible droughts, nature left wild yet tightly enclosed, a private property fiercely protected during the summer yet left stocked up for wanderers during the winter. Janssen’s depiction of the semi isolated life there is both compelling and very funny, with a touch of absurd.

As for the characters they are very endearing: little Sophia with her guts, half hidden vulnerability and her ‘overly busy life’ and grandmother, obstinate, afraid of old-age, secretly carving animals in the magical forest…

A lovely little tale to savour!