Dec 27, 2007

Over There, according to Dubin

My understanding of the 'Stans is still limited, but I'm learning more through the years. First of all, there are more of them than you know. How many? Well, there are Pakistan and Afghanistan, obviously. Then there are the second-tier (in terms of name recognition) 'Stans like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan is in a category all to itself, owing to Sacha Baron Cohen and the infamy of his hero, Borat. Anyway, these are then further subdivided into lots of regional 'Stans, like Baluchistan, Shurjestan, Qoraqalpoghiston, etc.

If you had asked me to draw the geography of the Middle East on a blank piece of paper, I would have drawn Iraq and Afghanistan next to each other. To the left of this, I would have placed Israel and its bordering countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (which I know roughly how to draw as a vestige of Hebrew School in 3rd and 4th grade). So far so good. I know that Greece and Turkey are somewhere north of all that, and that if you go far enough north you'll hit Russia and Ukraine. Armenia and those guys are also north, somewhere. To the east you'll eventually get to India. But the problems would start once I had to join these things together - how far is Israel from Iraq? Where's Pakistan? How does Iran fit into all this? Did you know the eastern part of China is much closer to Kabul than Kabul is to Baghdad? And how did Kazakhstan get so big? No wonder they were pissed off about Borat.

My sketching ability is still poor, but it's better now. And today, I learned that Afghanistan and Iraq do not even share a border. After the Twin Towers fell, we were told that bin Laden was hiding in the hills of Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq using Afghanistan as a staging ground, but the relationship between these two countries was blurry at best to most Americans and I wonder how many people realize that Iran is a sizable piece of land right smack in between them. People my age have a vague awareness that the political history of Russia has a lot to do with power structures in the Middle East, but we don't have a good sense of how Russian interests shaped the area as much as American ones. (We probably know even less about what wacky meddling the US and Britain were up to while we were growing up.)

As time goes by, I piece more of it all together. Given that my ability to remember the histories of nations and wars is terrible, the only way I understand any of it all is through personal connections. For example, Iran. Growing up with Sara jan, I always had a special feeling about Iran and thought I knew a passable amount about the culture there, both before the Revolution and after. I could do a reasonable imitation of her father's speaking voice, and I knew some Persian words!* We were exposed to stories told by Sara's dad, stories about how much they partied and had fun there in their youths, and I got a vivid picture of the pro-Western life there under the Shah in the 70s (even if it was a very narrow slice of the picture). I didn't fully understand what the final straw was under the Ayatollah, if it was a cultural/religious issue or more related to the violence between Iraq and Iran, but I knew that something made Sara's family emigrate since people don't just up and leave their homelands for kicks. It must have been unlivable for them in Tehran.

Sara also taught me things** like, ok, the fact that Iran is totally different from Iraq, because the Iranians are Indo-Europeans. Whatever Iraqis and Armenians and Turks and Arabs are, they are NOT Persians. (Many nationalities are proud of who they are, but it would be just as valid to say that people are proud of who they AREN'T.)

But now what about Afghanis? When I moved to Philadelphia, I learned that there are two Afghani restaurants on Chestnut between 2nd and Front - Ariana and Kabul. I've tried them both and they are DELICIOUS. And both remind me very much of Sara's Mom's and Aunts' cooking. I also just read The Kite Runner the day before yesterday, a story of a young boy's life in Afghanistan before emigrating to the US in the late 70s. In the book, the characters who don't speak Urdu speak Farsi, and I recognized a lot of the words. Khoda hafez!

The Kite Runner really took it out of me, by the way. I know I'm sensitive to sad stories, even when they're nominally fiction. (This is apparently a quality I got from my Dad, who could barely watch Project Runway owing to its brutality.) Can I deal with seeing the movie, which happens to be out now? I probably will read A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I don't know which is worse - a book about the ravages of war, or a movie.

Is it wrong to learn about what's going on in the world through historical fiction? Probably, since it's on the fiction shelf for a reason. But I can't really absorb the current state of affairs in the world by watching CNN. And it does make me happy when stories like these become mainstream bestsellers; it means that people are human, and that they DO care about what's happening out there even if they can only process it in the form of a story, rather than a newscast.

On that note, I've been waiting with baited breath for Persepolis, and now it's coming to New York and L.A. on the 25th! Maybe next, we'll get to see something by Rutu Modan on the big screen...





* Ok, you actually don't even want to know what I learned how to say in Persian. It is a bunch of ridiculous and useless stuff. Although if I ever need to romance a Persian man, I can bust out my, "beman takyekon, mesleh shabnam begol."

** So interestingly, when Sara used to want to say that something was in the equivalent of "B.F.E." she would generally say that it was in Uzbekistan. Now I know that Uzbekistan isn't even that far from Iran, I mean relatively speaking. So, like, that's not even as strong a statement as I thought it was. Hmm.

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