Surviving the sanctions

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Iran will always be remembered as a miracle. Not that it has such an impressive economic growth; its oil subsidies, surpassing 80 billion US$ every year, and also the world’s highest, has disproportionately cramped the growth rate to date. Not that because it has an abundance of oil either; its plentiful resources have been the soft target for numerous emerging powers, particularly US, Russia, and China. And not even that its civilization is brought out of magic.

The miracle itself can be attested to the very fact that despite the malaise yielded by economic sanctions, spiraling inflation, and very high unemployment rate, and to exacerbate the whole matters, numerous natural disasters (most notably mass-killing earthquakes, rehearsing the pattern in an epoch spanning over three millennia, and most recently, its heavily autocratic regime, the whole nation can still survive. ‘Survive’ may not be a pretty word, for that can not describe the insurmountable plight bulk of the populace has experienced. Nevertheless, what that as yet sustains the whole country to this moment is, in short, the strong sense of persistence among much of its people.

Now the country seemingly glitters with hopes. With the appointment of Hassan Rouhani as the new leader of Iran, replacing his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with new possibilities of nuclear talks between Iran and the United States, and with Rouhani’s pro-reform agenda many experts have likened him to China’s pro-reform leader, Deng Xiaoping, the people are waiting for the moments when their plights are gradually taken off their souls. And they are still waiting.

In this October issue, Monocle attempts to document Iranian businesses struggling to survive amid waves of sanctions having been imposed on the whole economic system by the United States. Read the full article here.

Excerpt:

Sanctions are only half the trouble. Eight years of maladministration – under the increasingly unpopular government of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – have devastated Iran’s domestic industries and sent inflation soaring. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 during the beginning of a steep climb in global oil prices. The price per barrel jumped three-fold under his watch and Iran made more money than during the rest of its century-old crude export history combined.

The populist newly elected president spent this windfall transforming the Iranian economy. “Ahmadinejad flooded the economy with petrodollars. Cheap loans were given out for almost anything… Exotic fruits from places such as Egypt and Latin America were imported for the first time since the Revolution,” says Houman Dolatshahi, managing director of Tehran-based Atieh Bahar Consulting Group. “The domestic sector died, which caused a spike in the unemployment rate and the liquidity also brought inflation,” he explains. Inflation now stands at 44 per cent, year on year. Several experts put the inflation and unemployment figures even higher.

Ahmadinejad changed Iran’s – particularly Tehran’s – consumer market inexorably. Banned or heavily levied products such as iPhones, Western-branded clothes and large, status-symbol cars found their way into the market via importers with access to cheap foreign currency though government connections. But the sharp drop in the rial since the end of 2011 has exposed the folly of Ahmadinejad’s monetary policies during his first six years in office.

Why not everyone is gonna watch Persepolis.

Marjane Satrapi is a living talent. In my lifetime, there has never been an animated film – and never a motion picture itself – as satirically biting as her beloved ‘Persepolis’. What makes it exceptional lies on her ungodly experiences she herself had tasted through the tumultuous periods of life. She is not only doing her own tale-telling; things go deeper in the entirety of the 95 minutes Persepolis offers you. Deeper in her soul, she tells a fairytale about a polity imprisoned by its own isolationist regimes.

The story began with a young woman, that is Satrapi herself, undergoing a watertight immigration check-up upon her arrival in Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris, 1994. She later went into a toilet, and saw one French woman viewing her – and her headscarf, a must-have item for women in today’s Iran – with full suspicion. In no time, the scene moved into Satrapi sitting in a cafe, while a cloudburst was taking place outside the airport, at the same time contemplating about her gruesome past. There, we began to see a 9-year-old Satrapi, bigotric of Bruce Lee, Che Guevara, and revolution. A 9-year-old who was full of beans on revolutionary hopes instigated by the 1979 revolt which ousted the dictatorial, heavily anti-Communist Reza Shah Pahlevi. Life became more exuberant after her uncle, Anoush, was released from the prison after having been behind bars for 9 years, due to his Communist-inspired rebellion against the regime. Little Marji was overwhelmed by hopes, dreams, and ambitions (one of which was to become a prophet) by the outcome of the revolution; societies cherished the collapse of the regime of terror, which Satrapi indirectly implied as ‘teddy-bear of the West’.

However, it took not much time to grab every smiling face from virtually every citizen of the country. As soon as the Islamic Fundamentalists, those led by similarly brutal, sadistic, and savage Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, led a victory landslide with an overwhelming 99.9%, Iran was back into another regime of terror, but this time, on the behalf of ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. Women are no longer allowed to adopt Western styles of fashion outside their homes; every woman was required to wear hijab, otherwise they might be alienated by surrounding societies.

Her uncle – also her very own source of inspiration for her exuberant life, Anoush, was all in a sudden captured by the regime due to his ideology, and was subsequently executed by a firing squad. Iran was preparing for a war with Iraq, a war in which would later claim more than 1 million lives, and lasted for 8 years. Almost every single day was spent with overwhelming fear, due to the high possibility that Iraqi forces would fire missiles into their apartments, and blow their bodies apart. Millions of men and women were recruited in self-defense jihad units, in which they sacrificed their lives by crossing through the heavily landmine-infested Iran-Iraq borderline. To make things more miserable, Satrapi put a scene in which her mother was involved in a conversation with their neighbor, who had lost all her 5 sons in the war, and instead having them ‘rewarded’ with a government-made plastic key, which symbolizes ‘path to heaven for courageously expelling the kafirs’.

All the situation had its own immediate effect on Satrapi. There was much personal tumult she had to struggle. All sorts of Western art were prohibited – and are still in effect until this day. That means obtaining them would be a grueling process; even vendors of pirated DVDs on American movies would have to put their eyes all the time on to anticipate any unexpected raids that may be conducted by some kind of local sharia patrolmen. She expressed all her concerns on the loud, banging, explosive sounds of heavy metal bands, notably Iron Maiden (her lifetime idol), listened vividly to Michael Jackson’s songs (often mis-spelt in Iran as Jichael Mackson), and wore a denim jacket with signs written out ‘punk is not ded’.

Her personal struggle escalated after she was moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1983. She lived in a rented house under the strict supervision of Catholic nuns, but in her schooling life, she befriended a group of punk, anarchy-minded Bohemians, and frequently attended underground, death-metal concerts. She fell in love with one of them, but the relationship ended off in no time after the man declared openly he ‘is a gay, and is proud of it’. Having fallen headfirst into desperation, her relationship with the Catholic nuns deteriorated, and she was expelled after a rabble-rousery fracas, which ended up by snapping at the nuns as ‘prostitutes’. Most of her time in Vienna was spent bohemianly, where she had to move from her friend’s house to her friend’s house, again into her friend’s friend’s house, again into her friend’s friend’s house, and even had to stay 4 all-gay couples for some time, before she found a brief period of tranquility staying in a philosopher’s house. She fell in love with a freelance playwright, but she even fell headlong, deeper into the valley of stygian desperation, after finding out her lover was having sex with another woman.

Her life became unstable since then; she often had falling-outs with the philosopher, and ended up expelled. For months, she had to wander around the streets of Vienna as a beggar, having survived day to day from the food remainings she found in landfills. In a deep night, she fell into comatose. Someone out there had taken her to hospital. Unable to cope with the emotional pressure she had been facing for months, she decided to return back to her homeland.

Back in Iran, Satrapi again regained her gusto after she dreamt she met God – and Karl Marx, her longtime idol. She enrolled back into academic life, amidst increasing fear about more possible repressions coming up in the future, since the death of Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini. She openly spoke up about the hypocrisies and all the religious absurdities in symposiums, fell in love with a local man, married her afterwards, and divorced him 4 years later, before she moved to Paris, and lives there until now.

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To be honest, Persepolis is many times ‘crunchier’ than any animated films I have ever seen. If there were a measurement unit to calculate how deep these films are from 0 to 10, I would rate most of Dreamworks-produced films on average 5, most of Pixar-produced films on average 7.5, and Persepolis on 10. I don’t say that all Dreamworks- and Pixar-made films are bad, but Persepolis has its own path to interpret about the absurdities of the world in a simplified manner that, if you listen deeply on their dialogues, you will slowly feel it. But not everyone will do it. Only those who are already well-prepared to witness the personal tumults of Satrapi as a woman, and as part of Iranian nation, are permitted to watch Persepolis.

But perhaps the most important theme it wants to emphasize is about the essence of human freedom. Satrapi was once born in a country ruled by dictatorial regime, and once had to overcome all the challenges imposed by another, religion-based regime who continues to rule Iran iron-handedly until this second. Once she was set free, she had made one mistake, and had learnt it: the metaphorical wired fences of harsh rules had ‘forced’ her to dream and seek her very own utopia, a realm of absolute freedom. But the world out there never permits, and is always absurd. Only the resilience and fortitude of hearts of man in seeking human freedom itself that will set themselves free, not the elusive, imaginary pledges of utopia. That had ruined her life once. And she realized she must not make another mistake like that anymore.

This is a film to commemmorate everyone who dreams of being ‘set free’.