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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Bird's Migrations Span Cultural Gap

Author: Becca Kaufman Staff Writer

Christiane Bird is a freelance writer from New York. She writes about jazz and blues and makes travelogues on New York State. She is tall with a mop of blonde hair and when she came to speak at the Robert A. Jones '59 Conference Room on Friday, Nov. 2, to discuss the background of her new book "Neither East nor West: One Women's Journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran," she was stylishly wearing all black, looking very much like an artist from New York City.

Just a handful of years ago, while in the early processes of creating her new book, she was also wearing all black and writing, but in a very different context. In 1998, Bird travelled to the Islamic Republic of Iran to write what they call in Persian a safarnameh, literally translated as a "travel letter." This was not an easy mission: Bird was an American and a woman, travelling alone in a nation known to be less than tolerant of these two qualities. Women, she had heard, were not even allowed to stay in hotels alone. Nevertheless, she wanted to understand this distant and unreachable place, which for her was important on a number of levels. In the first place, Bird was returning to the grounds of her first memories; her father worked as a doctor in Iran when she was very young. However, for years she had not been able to return to her early home because of the tight political restrictions against foreigners, especially Americans. The combination of these two factors plus our Western perspective of Iran as an oppressive, depressed, and sad nation added to her intrigue and her desire to better answer the question, "What is Iran?" As she writes in the first chapter of her new book, "I went to Iran to flirt with my childhood. I went to Iran to court the unknown. I went to Iran to see the effects of the Islamic Revolution for myself."

The result of her inquiries was the basis of her presentation entitled "Public and Private Lives in Iran": what she sees as a large gap between the general perceptions of Iran and Iranians created from the strict religious and political rules under which they are theoretically obligated to live contrasted with their more personal spaces where their individual freedoms and opinions do exist. For the three months Bird traveled in Iran, she lived in this private world. Dressed as an Iranian women in the traditional hejab, communicating as best she could in the Farsi she learned before departing, moving in and out of peoples' homes in the cities and in the country, she found Iranians to be a colorful and complicated people who welcomed her into their home and their world with the same intense curiosity for her as she had for them.

In her presentation Bird explained that the first lesson she learned was that "nothing there is what it seems at first." She gives numerous examples of her encounters with this phenomenon. For instance, women are required by law to wear the hejab, a large garment covering their entire body and head, or a head cloth and a larger robe, but, as Bird described, the women wear it differently. Some wear it sexy, she said, some like a school girl, some with a flare, some very dowdy. The bottom line was that, even though it is a regulation and a uniform intended to ameliorate individuality, it does not totally succeed. She also made reference to music, which the government attempts to regulate, which is not always successful, Bird says. In taxis, she heard Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys blaring from the radios.

Perhaps Bird found the greatest disparity when she entered the homes of Iranians where she ate, conversed, listened and observed. She called the home the threshold: the outside colorless and plain and the inside brightly and creatively decorated. Even in the modest homes, she says, Iranians use artistic liberty to make their homes comfortable and pretty. The biggest shock for Bird was how the women dressed within the home. Instead of black robes she saw tight black pants and tube tops, long black hair and as much make up as they wanted.

Here both the men and the women were free to talk about subjects taboo on the streets from sex, drugs and alcohol to politics, literature and music.

Her experiences often followed these lines. She would meet men and women and her initial perception of who they were was not completely accurate. At one point, she was at daily prayers with a group of women, when over the loud speakers she heard "Death to America, Death to Israel" and then the women repeated the words. Realizing that Bird, an American, was standing at their side, the women made sure she understood the message: it is not the American people they are protesting; in fact, they like Americans. It is the American government.

Discovering these contradictions was the heart of Bird's journey. Reconciling them was another task, but Bird was able to keep a perspective. She found many things that she grew to love and now misses back at home in New York. When asked what, she responded, "having time to enjoy people and enjoy your friends, the sense of quietude."