Tag Archive | "Iran"

A Shiny Splinter


From David Anthony Hohol…


The Dancing Iranian 6

Iran is a beautiful country and so are its people. During my time there, I have never seen a group more disconnected from their nation’s leadership, never seen a government less representative of its populace. In nearly a decade, I never once came across an individual in full support of the Iranian government and its policies. People on our side of the global village forget, or are unaware of the fact, that prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, which was brought on by American interference and their installation of the Shaw, Iran was the most progressive country in the region. Nowhere in the Middle East were women treated with more equality, was secularism more infused, and both critical thinking and creativity more encouraged.

I’ve been to underground night clubs in Tehran, enjoyed fine malt whiskey in Isfahan, and watched scantily clad dancers on Kish Island, all of which are forbidden. I’ve cruised up and down tree-covered Valaisr Street, the longest in the Middle East, windows rolled down, music pumping everything from Eminem to Metallica, as cars and SUVs filled with young men and women laugh, dance, and flirt the night away. Such is real life in Iran.

But like so much of the leadership in the region, their government lives in denial.

As many have heard by now, six young Iranian nationals uploaded a video tribute to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”. They recorded and edited it on an iPhone, uploaded it to YouTube, then promoted it on Facebook and Instagram. They were, for a lack of a better term, being normal, having fun and being happy, embracing their youth and creativity and using the tools afforded to them by a technological revolution that knows no borders or limitations, regardless of government or country. They were also taking part in what has become an online global phenomenon, resulting in literally hundreds of cover versions of the happy tune being recorded in well over one hundred countries. If nothing less, this collection of young souls wanted to demonstrate that although they live in the midst of censorship and difficulty, they too experience joy and happiness, they too see the world around them, want to others to see that they do and want to connect. Connectivity is the underlying current from which all social media flows and has become the life blood of today’s generation in the process. The youth of Iran are no different. They are as much a part of it as anyone else.

“Happy in Tehran” was viewed more than 165,000 times before coming to the attention the Tehran police. The arrest of the dastardly villains of joy came on Tuesday, May 20th.BoG2yyJCQAAE8iz (1)

Ironically and perhaps befittingly, almost immediately after Iran’s president denounced Internet censorship, these six young Iranians were arrested and forced to repent on state television  for the horrible offense of proclaiming themselves to be “Happy.” Tehran’s police chief issued a statement saying that the youth of Iran “will not to be seduced by… a vulgar clip, which hurt(s) public chastity.”

Are you @#%^ing kidding me?

The arrest of the young dancers, and their televised public humiliation, has angered Iranians at home and around the world. Such actions once again reveal the total disconnect the government has with its own people and further still, from the global village of which they are a part. Such crackdowns serve only to make the Islamic Republic of Iran look fearful, ignorant, naive, ridiculous, and above all else, a very weak participant in the international culture war being waged online and beyond.

It’s when taking all this into consideration that a silly video of young people being happy becomes both beautiful and important; a shiny splinter of the human soul from which we can all draw upon. In the end, its message is simple – wherever you may find yourself in this big, wide world, don’t stop being happy and most of all, don’t stop being human. In the end, our humanity is all we will ever have to truly call our own. 


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The Root Of All Evil


From David Anthony Hohol… 

Hers is a sample of the Earthquake causers, stay clear at all times.

Here is a sample of the Earthquake causers. Stay clear at all times. Proceed with caution when approached by Va-jay-jays.

On April 16th, 2013 an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale rattled Iran, causing millions of dollars in damage, killing 34 people and seriously injuring many more. The country in suffrage, the Islamic Republic’s Clerical Leadership addressed the nation to help comfort the wounds.

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” said Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, a senior Iranian Cleric.

No, really. He actually said that. He actually said women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.

The rest of the civilized world will never look at the Middle East as a whole with anything but disdain and tragic humor until backwards, fundamentalist and misogynist drivel like this stops emanating from their highest sources of power.  It is even more tragic when considering that this writer, having spent time in Iran and knowing many Iranians, has never seen a people so far removed in their thinking from its leadership. Make no mistake – the Iranian regime is truly despised by the majority of its population. 

In a region where women are valued at less than half of men, even in legal circles (women are described as having a deficiency in reason and therefore cannot give testimony as a witness in any court. Only when two women testify together will their testimony be accepted) women are often blamed for the shortcomings of men. Now it has shifted to earthquakes. What’s next?  Volcanoes? Tsunamis? Global Warming? Unemployment Rates?

Women in Iran are required by law to cover from head to toe, but many, especially the young, ignore some of the more strict codes, wearing tighter fitting clothing and pulling their scarves back to show much of the hair. Holy shit, if that isn’t cause for an earthquake, I don’t know what is!


You nailed it Cleric, bang on the money, it's the women, the women that cause it all I say!

“You nailed it Cleric, bang on the money, it’s the women, those dam Va-jay-jays, that cause it all I say!”

 “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes,” stated the highly enlightened cleric.

I truly feel it’s this kind of thinking, these kinds of laws, in countries like Iran and most especially in the vestibule of defecation that is Saudi Arabian Legislation, where Islam is most damaged. Even more than the recent Boston Bomber, people look at this kind of thinking as scarier than that of some crazed lunatic; scarier because it is calmly streaming from a point of so-called reason and from those in positions of power, influence and control. 



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Kelish Zift

From David Anthony Hohol…

“Don’t worry, Fatimah,” my father said, stroking my tear stained cheek.

         “They’re only moving us to another location, Habibi.”

            Even at the age of eleven, I knew it wasn’t the truth. Even more so, I knew my father didn’t trust them for a minute, but he did his best to convince us he did.  

            Sectarian violence, the Americans called it. We just called it kelish zift, as what transpired was no less than total disaster. Several years later, I don’t think those who invaded my country ever really understood what they were doing when the came charging through the desert like cowboys; either that, or they just didn’t care. Even more frightening, perhaps, what unfolded was exactly what they’d planned all along. Within a few months, every conceivable part of Iraqi society began to crumble. Eventually, the real message of Allah, our kind and loving God above, disappeared from the hearts of so many, slowly drifting into the empty sand dunes of loss and denial surrounding us.   

            We became ruthless with one another. The occupier’s simplistically naive division of Iraqi people into Sunni, Shiite and Kurd aside, we became a splintered hoard of lost and angry souls. My beautiful religion was often the biggest victim, both in my own country and abroad. Animal-like packs of madmen kidnap Islam, holding it hostage for their own destructive deeds, and we all suffer because of it. In Iraq, people began to commit the most horrible atrocities in the name of Allah, and madness soon followed us all. I can’t remember all the details about that night, but I’ll never forget.  

            Even with a forced smile upon his bearded face, I noticed the sweat upon my father’s brow. My mother adjusted her hijab, a nervous habit that became obsessively compulsive whenever she was anxious or afraid. My older bother Khalid walked with a swagger of defiance alongside Father, his chest out, his chin pointed upward.  “Your family will look good on camera before passing to the angels above,” said the largest man of the group.

            With his AK47 assault rifle draped over his hulking shoulder, he rested his open hand upon my back. The softness of his touch surprised me.

            “Take your hands off her!” ordered my father.

            The mercenary scowled with intensity. My mother slapped the giant of a man across the face. “Bas! You cannot lay your hands upon my daughter… not ever!”

            His icy stare seemed to look straight through her, but my mother did not retreat a single step. “I’m sorry, you’re right… ana asif,” he said.

             The wry grin upon his round face said something else.

            The camera man was busy preparing the tripod when we arrived in the basement.  Surrounded by concrete walls, we were all asked to sit on a bench. We were then told to stand and finally, were positioned in a circle around my father – all the while the camera rolled. “All right, that looks perfect,” he said.

            “Yalla, shabab! They’re ready!” he suddenly yelled.

            From the next room, at least ten men with rifles walked in and took position directly in front of us. “What’s happening, Baba? Shoo tsawi, Baba? Shoo tsawi?” I asked Father again and again.

            My body began to tremble.

            He looked down at me with only silently regretful eyes. My mother’s grip nearly crushed my fingers. The men raised their weapons. Suddenly, I felt dizzy. Just before the room exploded with gunfire, my mother threw herself in front of me.  

            The next thing I remember is being rolled over onto my back by a large black boot and looking up at a savage pack on ominous faces hovering over me. “I won’t finish her off,” said one.

           “She’s just a child.”

            “Atlah barra! I’ll do it, you coward!” said another. “And here… take the machete and remove their heads.”  

            I felt a large hand wrap around my forearm and pull me to my feet. As I stood and focused my eyes for the first time since the roar of gunfire filled the room, I saw the bodies of my family.  The walls were red with blood. The floor was sticky. “Allah, Akbar! Allah, Akbar!” a man yelled, as he raised a machete high in the air above my father’s lifeless corpse.

            I only heard the sinking thud of the blade and never actually saw it come down. With the entire pack of animals looking on at the beheading of my family, I managed to dart up the stairs and sprint into the alleyways behind our home.  

            “Yalla! After her!” a voice bellowed, just as I reached the front door.  

            With a burnt-out urban jungle to disappear into, I quickly got away.

            Four years later, I find myself living in Jordan. Two years after the murder of my family by radical Iraqi extremists, with no compulsive CNN-like need to preface the description of those bastards with the word Islamic, I was living alone on the chaotic streets of Baghdad.

            At thirteen years of age I offered myself to a man, so that he would hide me in his truck and take me across the border into Jordan. It was the only form of currency available to me at the time and I did what I had to do to stay alive. Once I arrived in Amman, I was given a warm bed to sleep in at a camp for displaced Iraqis.  I became one of what later reached nearly a million Iraqi refugees in the tiny Hashemite Kingdom. The people here have been kind and I’ve done my best to go on living.  

            I try not to remember, I never want to forget, and madness still rages in the desert.   





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Nuclear Ambitions: Iranian Swagger Vs. Jordanian Reason


From David Anthony Hohol…

The Iranian political regime (and not its citizens who we have supported in their fight for democracy ) have been the self-declared enemy of the West since the 1978 Islamic Revolution, when the Mullahs took over the country. They’ve repeatedly spewed hatred, issued threats and sounded entirely unstable as a result. The crazy, corrupt, election-rigging hobbit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has talked about his plan to deliver a “telling blow” to the world’s leading powers, has mocked Obama’s attempts at dialogue, and openly expressed his desire to “wipe Israel off the map.” Even Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed regret over such a statement when he declared:

 “I reject his comments (Ahmadinejad’s). What we need to be talking about is adding the state of Palestine to the map, and not wiping out Israel.”   

This writer’s all time favorite quote from the Iranian Hobbit includes his thoughts on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden:

“I heard that Osama bin Laden is in Washington DC…Yes, I did. He really is there. Because he was a previous partner of Mr. Bush. They were colleagues in fact in the old days. Everybody knows that. They were in the oil business together. They worked together. Mr. Bin Laden never cooperated with Iran, but he cooperated with Mr. Bush because they are friends.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , Khomeini’s successor as the country’s “spiritual” leader, chimes in with his own rants from time to time, recently promising that Iran was set to deliver a “punch” that would stun world powers during the anniversary celebrations of the Revolution. No much happened by the way.

In the end,  such statements are little more than desperate attempts by the nation’s rulers to distract attention from their domestic issues and instill hatred of the West into as many of their citizens as possible. Iran, with its incessant ramblings, has managed to unite even the United Sates and Russia (a difficult task these days) along with virtually the entire international community, in their call for Iran to stop enriching uranium in its pursuit of nuclear power.   

Even if you disagree with the concept that those outside a sovereign nation can control what happens within it, one can, at the very least, see why there are those who would want to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.  

The Kingdom of Jordan, on the other hand, is a different story altogether.  

Recently, a new enemy of Israel has been slowly rising. King Abdullah II has been more critical of Israel that at any other point in his reign. He open declared that Jordan was better off before his father, King Hussein, signed the now infamous 1994 peace treaty with the Israelis. In a straight forward statement this past spring the King also stated, “The political trust (with Israel) is gone.”

He was also recently quoted as saying:

“I have to say that over the past 12 months, everything I’ve seen on the ground (in terms of the Israeli / Jordanian / Palestinian relations) has made me extremely skeptical, and I’m probably one of the more optimistic people you will meet in this part of the world.”

Just last month even Queen Rania,the wife of King Abdullah, offered harsh criticism of Israel in regards to their attack on the Humanitairn Flotilla headed for Gaza – the kind of criticism that rarely emanates from the state of Jordan.   

“The attack stunned the world because of its blatant and absurd disregard for anything resembling international law, human rights, and diplomatic norms. Its glaring outrageousness stunned, but didn’t surprise, me. It cannot be viewed in isolation. It is another upshot of a dogma long fermenting on Israel’s political landscape. It is a doctrine that lives for itself and off others. It survives by tapping into the subliminal and cognizant levels. It implants into public consciousness a set of tenets that see Israeli’s very existence as eternally under threat, to be defended through any means preferably through use of force to show the enemy who’s boss.”

Now what does this all have to do with Iran?

Jordan is a terribly poor country, with almost no natural resources of which to speak. The nation imports 95% of its electricity to the tune of billions of dollars per year.  A recent geological discovery however, could greatly help the tiny country with its economic woes. Nearly 70,000 tons of uranium ore was found in the deserts of Jordan, and suddenly the impoverished nation finds itself laying claim to the 11th-largest deposit of uranium in the world.

Jordan is now excitedly receiving bids from the international community to build a 1,100-megawatt reactor. This would only be the first in a series of plants that would not only allow Jordan to fulfill its own energy needs, but eventually export power, at a very tidy sum, to its neighbors.

The international community, headed by the United States, is in the habit of convincing countries, most especially those in the Middle East, not to produce atomic fuel. Why? The fear is that uranium enrichment, even at its lowest levels, would lead to enrichment of high-level bomb-grade materials. Worse still, this could trigger a regional arms race within a region filled with corrupt dictators that answer to no one. By extension, American diplomats are trying to prevent Jordan from receiving the necessary technology to enrich uranium.  

The United States wants Jordan to agree to the same deal the United Arab Emirates signed. Set to open a 20 billion dollar nuclear reactor, the UAE has agreed to buy uranium on the international market, as opposed to enriching it themselves. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are also set to sign similar agreements. Why doesn’t Jordan fall into place? The difference is none of these countries have their own uranium deposits, and in the end have no other choice. Jordan does and as mentioned earlier, is sitting on top of one the largest uranium deposits in the world. Enriching it will have a great economic impact on a state in desperate need of a shot in the arm.     

King Abdullah has been extremely angered by the attempts to block nuclear development and most especially, because they have no doubt resulted from Israeli pressure on the United States.  The King’s recent willingness to criticize Israel is directly connected to these circumstances. The effect could very well be the destabilization of the Israeli / Jordanian relationship and by extension, the region itself. From this angle, it would in fact actually serve Israel’s best interest to support Jordan’s call to enrich its own uranium.

Jordan is a pro-Western, politically stable Arab country. They are the only Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, albeit symbolic at best. Most importantly, however, Jordan signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which in turn, under international law, allows participants to enrich uranium for peaceful power production. Through all the discussion, King Abdullah has expressed his complete and utter willingness for transparency on anything related to the process.  

Simply put, there is no reason to deny Jordan the right to produce its own atomic energy. Doing so only suggests that no matter what a Middle Eastern leader says or does, he will always be held in suspect. This does not help peace in the region, but undermines it.   

Although it will be difficult, countries need to be dealt with in a case by case set of standards, and not painted with one broad stroke of a unilateral brush. Are the international community’s concerns with Iran’s development of nuclear technology legitimate? Absolutely.

And Jordan? Absolutely not.

Jordan and its King are simply not in the same category as the crazy wacked-out mullahs of Iran and their little wannabe-Stalin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The international community, and most especially the United States, needs to foster relationships, one country at a time, and stop packing the entire Middle East into one simplistic profile. Jordan is as good a place to start as any.        



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Iranian Hobbit and Wannbe Stalin – The One and Only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad_ColumbiaThe Iranian Mullah’s little wind-up hobbit, false president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been at it again in recent weeks. Firstly, he openly referred to the 9 / 11 attacks as a “big lie.”  The wannabe Stalin just loves the headlines and the Mullahs love to use him like their own miniature pit-bull, albeit an impotent one.  His ranting about the Holocaust, the country’s so-called nuclear program, and the complete sham that was the last Iranian “election”  have kept the international community’s ear tuned in, the never-ending wish of egomaniac like Ahmadinejad.

Making such claims about 9 / 11 inspires the anger and hatred from the West Ahmadinejad needs to fan the flames of isolation back home. He needs Iranian television to show news clips of people making derogatory statements about Iran, because this only strengthens his ability control things – control that’s been slipping through his fingers ever since last year’s ridiculously fraudulent elections.

More recently, and more importantly, (because no one takes what he has to say about history seriously) last week Iran’s most celebrated living poetess, 82 year old Simin Behbahani, was banned from traveling outside the country when she was not allowed to attend an International Woman’s Day Conference in France.

A female rights activist for Iranian women who have faced grave inequalities since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Behbahani was stripped of her passport at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport.

“The Paris municipality had invited me for March 8 and I had prepared a text about feminism and a poem about women, which I was going to read at the ceremony and return on Wednesday. After I crossed customs and my passport was stamped, two officials called me, took my passport away, kept me till 5 am and asked questions,” Behbahani said.

Ever since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, the Iranian authorities have severely cracked down on woman’s rights activists. Under his leadership, hundreds of women been arrested and jailed for writing feminist “propaganda,” forming activist groups, and organizing protests.

Despite the regimes efforts, Simin Behbahani refuses to back down. At the age of 78, back in 2006, Behbahani was even beaten by security forces during a rally in a central Tehran park on Woman’s Day – but still, at the age of 82, she fights on. Behbahani and Iran’s Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi are close friends and colleagues. Both have vocally condemned the Islamic Republic’s treatment of women as discriminatory.

Under Iranian law, a woman’s life and her testimony are considered to be half as valuable as that of a man’s. Once a woman marries, her husband can legally prevent her from working and she must get his permission to obtain a passport. Following the revolution, the age of legal responsibility was lowered to only 9 for women compared to 16 for men.

Before little Stalin rose to power, Iran was slowly infusing a new found openness and tolerance into mainstream society. Upon seizing the Iranian Presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad has done all he can to change this and both he and the Mullahs have successfully rolled back the clock to 1979.

Cheers Ahmadinejad, you’re the man!

From David Anthony Hohol…


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Lighting Up Iran



Photo from Reuters

Photo from Reuters

The people of Iran have not quietly gone away since the abhorrently fraudulent federal election back in June. Let us not forget the number of votes in dozens of cities across the country exceeded the number of eligible voters by nearly three million. After two weeks of near daily protests, the Mullah backed regime stood its ground and announced the caustic and crass Ahmadinejad would retain the country’s figurehead of power. And that was it, the Mullahs thought, but they thought wrong.

After being bloodied and beaten, prosecuted and jailed, protesters took a slower but steady approach. Whenever the excuse to gather in public was there, people have turned it into a protest rally.  Earlier this month, reformist leader Hossein Montezari, who spent six years under house arrest for anti-government critiques, passed away. During his funeral, some 50,000 people poured into streets, chanting what would have been unthinkable before the last election. “Dictator, this is your last message… The people of Iran are rising!” or “Our shame, our shame, our idiot leader!” 

Just this past week a religious festival turned into an anti-government rally.  As is always the case, police were called in and confronted people with tear gas and batons, chasing and beating the protesters furiously, but it didn’t matter. Everyday ordinary people who have simply had enough continued to stop their cars and yell “Ya Hossein, Mirhossein Mousavi,” the man most Iranians feel won the last election.  

And still they rage on…

To each and every Iranian who continues to push for their nation’s pursuit of truth, despite risking beatings, jail, or even worse, RELATIVITY OnLine salutes you. What you are doing is valiant and just; what you are doing stands for more than you know and as Dylan Thomas said: Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From David Anthony Hohol…



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Crossing Iran



At first, I was weary about the charges of fraud in Iran’s election.  After a decade of living outside my own country,  I’ve seen the Western media rush to judgement on anything to do with the Middle East far too many times – their bias is undeniable.  A week later, however, it’s become obvious . . . the Iranian election was rigged.

On June 23rd, Iranian authorties went so far as to admit the number of votes in dozens of cities across the country exceeded the number of eligible voters by nearly three million. Still, the regime says, election results will stand. That’s kind of like someone slapping you across the face and then saying there’s nothing you can do about it.

To each and every Iranian who has taken to the streets in the name of truth, RELATIVITY OnLine salutes you. What you are doing is valiant and just.  Elections are for the people and not the government, but some seem unaware of this very basic political ideal. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarack “winning” elections by receiving 99% of the popular vote is another prime example of voting irregularities in this region.  

The people of Iran, at least, have had enough and are standing up to leaders to say so. Courage lives on, hope never dies, and despite what many have forgotten, the world is what we make it . . .


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An Issue of Identity


From Lara Matossian-Roberts…

I’m at the passport control counter.  I greet the young Emirati sitting behind the counter in Arabic and hand him my passport.   I watch as confusion plays across his face.  He doesn’t say anything, just flips through the pages of my passport.  He asks me in heavily accented English where I’ve come from.  Again, I answer in Arabic.  Now he stops, looks at my passport, no doubt looking at my veiled photo there, then looks back at me and takes in my head of blonde highlights, my tank top and my shorts.  He asks me in Arabic, “How does this work?  Your passport’s Iranian, you sound Lebanese, but you don’t even look Arab.” 

I smile.  I was expecting this; it gets them, every time.  I launch into a brief, condensed explanation, and as he hands me my passport, he says in Arabic, “You don’t look like you speak Arabic.”  I say, “I know,” with a smile.  I thank him and leave the counter; story of my life.

I was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents.  My mother was born in Lebanon too, to Armenian parents who were first generation refugees from the Armenian provinces in Turkey, having survived the 1915 genocide that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians.  My father was born to Armenian parents in a small town outside Isfahan, Iran.  His great, great, great-grandparents had somehow moved across the borders from Armenia to Iran – a story long forgotten and unrecorded– and had settled down there and become Iranian citizens.  Many years later, a chance encounter with my maternal uncle in Germany, landed my father an invitation to spend the Christmas holiday season in Beirut with my uncle’s family, which is when my father first set eyes on my mother.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

I was only in Lebanon for three months after my birth. My mother joined my father in the UAE after getting married in Tehran, Iran just a year earlier, and she only returned to Beirut to have support from her family during the first months of being a mother.  Before returning to my father in the UAE, my mother and I made a short stop in Tehran, so my relatives there could see me as well.  My father was the last one to meet me.

I grew up in the UAE, along with my brother, away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  There was always just the four of us – a family.  Neither of us has ever set foot in Armenia, but that’s what we consider ourselves: Armenians.

I’ve observed that, in my adult years, I’ve had to give people an explanation when asked, where are you from?  An Arab from Lebanon would simply say, I’m from Lebanon.  Not for me though, the succinct answer.  My answer would have to involve quick history and geography lessons.

That was never necessary at school.  The one I went to was owned by a Lebanese family.  All the students were Arab expats, apart from the few Iranians.  I went to that school from kindergarten to my graduating year.  Everybody knew me; my classmates were the same every year, the administration never changed and the teachers never left.  To them, I was Lara and I spoke Arabic.  No mystery there.

I don’t ever remember explaining the whole Armenian story to anyone at school; to my classmates, I was just one of them.  Members of the administration referred to it though, from time to time – like that year I won the secondary school award for best Arabic poetry recital.   I remember at least a couple of members of admin saying to my father something along the lines of, among all the Arabs, an Armenian had to be the one to win the award for Arabic poetry recital.  Of course they proceeded to say that he should be very proud of me and all the bla bla educators feel the need to deliver in such occasions.

The issue of my ‘Armenian-ness’ didn’t come up for most of my time at university.  I went to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.  Armenians were a huge minority there and had long been assimilated into the culture.  The young generation spoke Arabic just like the Lebanese did, without any of the signature grammatical errors and the give-away accent of the older, first generation of Turkish-Armenians.  The Armenians had their quarter, political parties, representation in government, church, music, sports clubs, daily newspapers and of course, their food – food that the Lebanese Arabs had not only become familiar with, but enjoyed eating as well.

Armenians were, pretty much, part and parcel of Lebanon – which is why I was truly surprised when, in my last year of university, I ran into a student I had never met in the English Department of our university who thought I was Russian.  Genuinely.  After asking for directions to a professor’s office, we had a little chat and she asked me, Are you Russian?  I was intrigued.  I told her, No, I’m not.  I’m Armenian.  Why do you think I’m Russian? She said that I didn’t look Armenian, that I definitely looked Russian.  I asked her where she was from and she said she was Lebanese.  It was really interesting for me: a Lebanese, completely aware of the existence of Armenians, thought I was Russian.  Granted, Armenians were generally a tad darker, with darker hair, dark eyes, boney noses and bushy mono-brows.  But, it is safe to say that Armenians did come in a variety of colors as well.

That wasn’t the first time I had been mistaken for a Russian, but usually, this mistake was made by people who didn’t know that there was a small country called Armenia nestled between the Western Asian countries of Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.  They looked at my fair complexion and ‘colored’ eyes, listened to the language I spoke and assumed I was Russian.  I’m talking about cab drivers, cashiers and waiters, who were mostly from the Philippines or the subcontinent – they’d hear my mom and me talking and the inevitable question would come: You are Russian?

Well, to be fair, there was a reason. For the longest time, the only ‘fair’ people who lived in Dubai were either the Arab expats or the British.  There weren’t many North Americans and even fewer Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans – and they all spoke English – a familiar language.  Arabic was no mystery either.  Now people started mistaking us for Russians in the days when I still went to high school.  Those were the days following the break-up of the USSR.  Suddenly, there was a huge influx of Russians and other former USSR nationals come to grab themselves some valuable electronics and sell their wares:  caviar, bootleg vodka and cognac – and sex.

When we went out as a family, we naturally spoke Armenian.  An outsider at that point in time would take in our appearance, listen to our unknown language and conclude that, since it was neither Arabic nor English, it must be Russian.  I make no joke when I say that in my teenage years, my father would be approached while walking with me and my mother in one of the shopping centers and asked, how much?  My father was tanner than my mother and I because his work entailed him to be mostly outdoors and he was over a decade older than my mother.  Hence, people would jump to the conclusion that he was our pimp.  It didn’t matter that we were in a shopping mall and decently dressed.  People had formed a prejudice.  We were fair, we spoke an unfamiliar language, we weren’t veiled, and therefore, we were offering our services.

I remember the first time it happened.  My parents and I were just wiling away the Friday afternoon hours in what was then called Al Ghurair Center, a much smaller and humble version of the current Al Ghurair Retail City.  It seemed that the Emirati appeared out of nowhere and was suddenly at my father’s side, whispering something to him that was inaudible to me and my mother; we were just a couple of feet behind him. Registering the look of confusion on my father’s face, we heard him mumble a quick apology and walk away as swiftly as he had appeared.  My father had stopped walking and looked bewildered; it seemed he just couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.  When my mom asked, what was all that about?  My father said, I think he asked, how much?  My mother’s jaw dropped as she realized the implication and we all froze for a while, looking at one another.  I remember how, when my father had gotten over the shock, he insisted on finding the man and giving him a piece of his mind, but my mother, a peace-loving person, managed to dissuade him.

That wasn’t the last time – incidents such as this one abound throughout the early nineties.  Some of them had ended in threats to call the police and near fights, involving both my father and brother beating some stranger up; Armenians are as hot-tempered as Middle Easterners.  It was when it had happened one too many times that we decided that we were no longer going to speak Armenian when we went out; we would speak either English or Arabic.

By the time I had graduated from university in the late nineties, this prejudice had died down in Dubai.  My mother and I were not mistaken for Russians anymore.  That was largely due to the fact that Dubai had finally started getting the world’s attention and people from all corners of the world were pouring into the city.  Suddenly there were new English accents: the distinct South African, the Aussie drawl and the loud American.  There were many more Arab expats and more nationals from African, Central and East Asian countries.

I didn’t have to explain the whole Armenian thing in my first couple years of employment because I taught in the same school I had graduated from.  It was after that, when I dabbled in PR and press office for a year.  The reaction I got from the Arab expats I met that year at our various product launches was no less than hilarious; it’s amazing how I kept my cool professionalism when I was faced with sheer disbelief at my first utterance of an Arabic word, when, personally, all I wanted to do was to guffaw.  They would freeze, their faces a sculpture of astonishment; you speak Arabic? would soon be followed by, you’re Arab?  To which, my answers would be, Yes, I speak Arabic, but, no, I’m not Arab and then delve into the geographic and historical details of my national identity.  Of course, I had to do the same with other expats as well – only I didn’t have any bewilderment on their part to deal with.  Instead, they would say, Oh, so you speak Arabic too, that must be very useful here.  To which, I would say, Yeah, I guess.

I wasn’t so sure if it were ‘useful’ in the terms they meant: securing employment and getting government work done more easily.  For after a year’s stint in Public Relations, I renounced the world of commercialism and embraced my former status of teacher with a renewed fervor.  I certainly didn’t need Arabic in my field of employment, for I taught in English.

As for knowing Arabic making my life easier when it came to government work … well, I’m not too quick to agree.  I blame it mostly on my appearance.  I had started highlighting my hair in my first year at university, experimented with red and jet black, but always returned to the blonde highlights, which got lighter and lighter as I grew older.

Why am I bringing up something as trivial as hair color into an issue of identity?  Well, I believe it adds to the whole befuddlement factor.

So, did knowing Arabic make it easier for me to get government jobs done?  Not really, and in one case – it made it harder, a downright nightmare!  Generally, government employees everywhere, whether at the post office, Etisalat, the RTA, the ministry or the municipality don’t respond to me when I speak to them in Arabic.  I get the impression that they think that they must have misheard.  If I weren’t so used to it by now, I’d be insulted because it certainly feels like they’re ignoring me.  As they continue to ask me questions in English and as I answer in Arabic, I feel their growing discomfort.  The majority of them just continue in that manner till the work is done.  I have a feeling it’s a question of: What does she think, a ‘Western’ person speaking to us in Arabic?  Does she think we can’t speak English?  Well, we’ll show her!  But, hey, I may be wrong and may be reading too much into it.

There are a few of them who stop what they’re doing and share their wonderment with me, sincerely wanting to understand how a person who, to them, looks and sounds like she’s either British or American through and through can speak Arabic like a true Lebanese Arab.  It is even more surprising to them, because they don’t associate the way I look to the way a stereotypical Lebanese would; impeccably dressed, even if it were just a pair of jeans, with hair done, full make-up on, and all the requisite designer accessories. I, however, when running tiresome government errands, choose to be in my customary, comfy, khaki Bermudas and a t-shirt with flip-flops.

The contradictory combination of language spoken and appearance causes some kind of mental glitch to which they react to differently: they either ignore and proceed with the task at hand or stop and ask, and once having understood, some express appreciation at my willingness to have learnt the language and sheer amazement at how fluently I speak it.  This also applies to some Arab expats I’ve met who fill various positions in both public and private establishments.  Little do they know that there was no conscious choice involved no particular effort.  It’s as good as, in fact, better than what should be my mother tongue: Armenian.

They are not all appreciating though.  I refer to the nightmare I had briefly mentioned earlier.  I needed a police clearance certificate and had applied to obtain one.  On the morning I was there to collect it, instead of being handed the certificate at the counter, which was what was usually done, I was asked to follow an officer to another office.  As soon as I entered, from the musky odor of dust and accumulated breath and the inescapable chaotic feel to the big room, I realized that it was not one that was used for the public – just for the employees.  One of the officers gestured to me to come and sit at a chair facing his desk.  I had no idea what this was about.  The only crime I had ever committed was probably speeding a couple of times, and I had already paid those fines.  What was this about?

I soon found out.  The officer was Emirati of Iranian origin and because of my being an Iranian passport holder, he’d taken personal offense at the photo I had handed in for the police clearance certificate.  He started addressing me in Farsi, and I quickly told him I did not speak the language, but could speak Arabic.  That didn’t make matters any better; I was an Iranian and didn’t know how to speak Farsi? – utterly shameful. But I did speak Arabic – which made it all the more easier for him to start his offensive.  Needless to say, this was one instant when I should have just spoken English and pretended I didn’t have a clue what he was saying.  His voice was trembling with righteous rage.  Had I no shame submitting a photo where you can see my shoulders and arms?  (I was wearing a tank top in my photo, with my then long, blonde, curly hair reaching my collarbones.  There was no cleavage whatsoever on show – not even close!)

My eyes glazed over.  I was probably 23 at the time; a single, young, naïve-ish female in a room full of old sleazy wolves, but, there is something to be said about the Armenian spirit to fight.  I wouldn’t let him or anyone else talk to my like that!  I told him to stop right there.  I may be an Iranian passport holder, but that was all it was – a passport.  I explained to him that I was Armenian and Christian and that he had no right to single me out and bully me about my photograph, especially when there were no particular requirements whatsoever mentioned in the application regarding the specifics of the photograph.  He knew it was true and I was right.  He mumbled a few things I didn’t care to respond to as he handed my certificate and I walked out, shooting him a stabbing glare as I left the hateful room behind.

To be fair, though, I’ve had pleasant encounters with Emirati police officers of Iranian origin – mostly on the roads after a minor accident, or while trying to smooth talk my way out of a fine.  All of them react with the stock surprise when they see that my nationality on my driver’s license is in direct contradiction to my appearance.  They start talking to me in Farsi.  I tell them I can’t speak Farsi, but I can speak Arabic and, of course, they all want to understand how – they want to make sense of this confusing issue.  Usually, they let me go without giving me a fine.

Sometimes I’m not in the mood to delve into the nuts and bolts of my national identity, so when a cab driver or cashier or waiter asks me where I’m from, I take the easier way out, I say I’m Lebanese. I don’t look the part, but at least I speak the language and it’s a country they know; I don’t have to delve into Armenia’s location on the world map and other details, such as spoken language and climate.  Still the comments come, you no look Lebanon.  You English very good, like British.

I have even spoken English to Lebanese people in Dubai who wouldn’t have had a clue that I spoke Arabic just like them, if I hadn’t volunteered with the information myself.  Even then, the look on their faces is of utter surprise, you’re Lebanese?  They’d ask incredulously.  Armenian, actually.  Of course, this would just be the start; I wouldn’t have expected you to speak Arabic.  You really look ‘foreign’, they’d say.  What part of Lebanon are you from?  They’d want to know.  I’m not, I’d explain. (By now, I have this dialogue down by heart.)  My mother was born there, but I’ve always only lived here, apart from when I went to university.  And my father, he’s Armenian as well, but not from Lebanon, from Iran.  At this point, I can see their eyes transfixed, trying to make all the connections.  A simple transaction at the lingerie store that should have taken minutes would turn into a full-fledged narration of the details of my national identity that would eat up the better part of a quarter of an hour, to say the least.  I’ve had the same reaction from Arab colleagues who work with me at my current place of employment.  It took them a while to accept that Arabic is coming out of my mouth.

Sometimes, when a cab driver expresses an interest in the knowledge of my national identity, I tell an outright lie, I say I’m Canadian – to them I sound it and look the part as well.  Also, we have applied for immigration, we do hold permanent resident cards, but I’m not Canadian, not yet anyway.  I don’t think I would consider myself one anyway, even when I do become a citizen.  Just as I now say I am Armenian with an Iranian passport, I would then say, I am Armenian with a Canadian passport. But what does it really mean to be Armenian – Armenian the way I am?  I mean, I’ve never even been there…






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