Monday, December 14, 2009

Ditto that!

I remember it vividly. About exactly a month ago, I woke up to the image of a sheet of carbon paper left over from some dream in the early morning hours and, too, to the smell of fresh school copies made on cranked copiers. Strange nostalgia! I don't remember ever seeing one of those machines -- whatever they were called-- and I had to ask around if anyone remembered them.

As a kid, I was always suspicious of a test if the page didn't stain my fingers with that warm, light blue or purple ink. It wasn't fresh enough, was it? But more importantly, no hand-out, no test, was really that important or that good, if it didn't have that intoxicating smell you remember if you are of my generation. The ditto sheets, made by spirit duplicators, belonged in our childhood classrooms. We did our French verb conjugations on them. Churches had them too, if you were so inclined. And, yes, it may just have been "the spirit", yes that intoxicating smell of alcohols in the solvents used as "inks" that eventually banned the "Banda" machines from schools. As much that, as the "high-volume xerox copiers" that displaced them. The memory of those spirits still excites us.

But why all this nostalgia?

Just reading the Wikipedia entry on the ditto sheet, had my friend Chris and I nearly in tears.

For my part, at least, looking back, there was an atmosphere surrounding those ditto sheets that never really returned after I was done with school. I remember the sheets in my college classrooms, too. Vaguely. But it was the collective ritual of raising up the sheet and smelling the spirit of the verbs to be conjugated; the ritual of standing outside in the school yard in the freezing cold, wrapped in our hats and gloves, and feeling the wet snow pressing through our leather boots and our thick woolen socks and talking and talking and talking endlessly over the answers to the questions on the test, as some smoked and some cuddled and massaged, or jumped up and down to stay warm... It was that whole sense of belonging to each other, to that place, to that light, to that piercing northern air, and to that moment. All of that was summed up in the fragrance of the ditto sheet. And as strange as this sounds: There was aura there, reproduced over and over and over again, as my world turned.

I clung to every single one of those sheets we got in school, put them carefully in my folder, and kept them perfectly neat through all my years in Norway.

Today, even the most important xeroxed papers get left behind after my faculty meetings. I insist to have the URL of the website to "what-ever-it-is" rather than lug another pile of paper home, folded, soiled with chewing gum and torn up here and there for a to-do list, an email address, or a book mark.

The generation before ours doesn't really have that nostalgia for the ditto sheet. Not really. They remember cutting, I mean literally cutting and pasting paragraphs together to write their essays with scissors and glue. That generation gets worked up by the sound of the typewriter. And frankly it doesn't care much for our texting habit.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Of Veiled Men & Revolutions

Most upheavals and revolutions have failed in their attempt to achieve their goals once the so-called "opposition" has come to power. This is as much true for the Algerian War of Independence of the 1960s as it is for the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s. Women took to the streets, shoulder to shoulder with their men in both revolutions and when the war was won, those very women were forgotten. Once again, banished to their apartments. Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade speaks about this in a poetic language that still haunts me now almost 20 years on.

In the Algerian War of Independence, men donned veils to hide weapons and women walked "naked" in the streets of Algiers to accomplish various missions "dressed" like European women in the Quartiers. So the use of the veil as a technology, as a weapon of war, is not new. In Iran it dates back beyond the Babi movement of the 19th Century.

In our time, in our upheaval, Twitter, YouTube, Flicker and Facebook are the technologies by which global involvement in the post-Election crisis of 2009 in Iran has been accomplished. Much has been exchanged and acheived in the last 6 months since the June 2009 election in these very media: images of Neda's martyrdom were circulated on social media, videos of student protests were distributed and then, later, appropriated by traditional media networks, and global pleas for Human Rights were voiced and campaigns launched through them.

But had you told me yesterday, the day before the six month anniversary of the election, that I would see my male friends and colleagues veil to support a tortured and humiliated student activist (Majid Tavakoli) in Iran -- a man photographed in a veil in Iranian State news because of a speech he gave in public, I would never have believed you.

Last night and today my friends, my heroes, and my colleagues appear in social networks in green and black and blue and multicolor headscarves, acknowledging the plight of both men and women in a State that does not recognize the rights of a people to be free.

Here are some of them:

Babak Takhti (the son of the great wrestler Gholam Reza Takhti)

Hamid Dabashi (the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, the oldest and most prestigious Chair in his field.) Photo credit: Golbarg Bashi

Pascal Uccelli (The great French poet and writer who also loves Beth Hart)

And the many many hundreds of Iranian men and boys on social media who call themselves Majid. They veiled. They caught us completely off guard. And stunned our senses in the most revolutionary ways!

UPDATE: Pascal Uccelli has translated this piece into French. Awesome!

UPDATE 2: To suggest, as some have, that these gestures are mere acts of "postmodern transvestism" is to disregard their function within the long history of forced veiling and forced unveiling in Iran and to ignore the many roles played by the Iranian chador in the nation's uprisings from the Babi movement to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

This archival video from March 1979 shows the early demonstrations by women against the imposition of the veil (hijab) on women in Iran:

(My deepest gratitude to Golbarg Bashi for drawing my attention to this archival footage. Golbarg Bashi is a Swedish-Iranian feminist and a Professor of Iranian Studies at Rutgers University)

Placed in the proper light of history and in the blinding glare of a bloody struggle for civil and human rights in Iran today, only fools would call this quiet show of strength and resilience in the face of brutal force, a gesture of "postmodern transvestism". In one stroke these brave "Majids", have openly shown their resistance to an enforced gender apartheid, their opposition to a State that consistently violates Human Rights, and voiced their desire for civil liberties. In this, they have just now arrived to stand proudly next to their sisters who have been at the forefront of the movement for basic rights for all since the early years of the last century. In looking at the photographs below, I am reminded of the words of the great Persian modernist, `Abdu'l-Baha : "...let it be known once more that until woman and man recognize and realize equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible. For the world of humanity consists of two parts or members: one is woman; the other is man. Until these two members are equal in strength, the oneness of humanity cannot be established, and the happiness and felicity of mankind will not be a reality."

UPDATE 3: BBC World Service's The World and Woman's Hour and CNN's Fareed Zakaria follow up.