I really meant to write up my experiences in Iran soon after arriving home, but in truth, the first semester of graduate school really sucks the energy out of you. I’m slowly rediscovering how to claim my own time to indulge in pleasure reading and writing for fun. I’m going back to Oman on Saturday, perhaps the lengthy itinerary will provide me some time to collect my thoughts.
I originally wrote this piece over a week ago, in Washington D.C. I was up in the air about posting it, but now, on the eve of my departure, I feel completely able to make my thoughts public. Turns out, there was nothing really to be concerned about all along in terms of putting this out there. My apologies for not having the time to update this piece to reflect subsequent diplomatic developments during the two weeks since this article was written.
In July, I received a strange, yet wonderful email. Of course, it wasn’t sent directly to me, but rather, forwarded from one of my research mentors. The ‘International Congress of Young Archaeologists’ had requested my mentor pass on the invitation to participate in their somewhat regularly held conference at the University of Tehran. The possibility of traveling to Iran was something I had long dreamed of, but having grown up during the Bush-Ahmadinejad years, it had not seemed like a realistic possibility. Yet here was the invitation, and I was faced with an important choice: to jump down the rabbit hole and see where I was to land, or to stay my hand, and be forever left wondering – what if? The decision was easy.
The invitation seemed almost an afterthought – the deadline for abstract submissions was only just days after I received the invitation. Not to mention the fact that the deadline was just in time to get the visas processed in order to even be able to go. Despite the many uncertainties, I went ahead and submitted anyway, even though I had no idea how the visa process works, no idea what our arrangements and accommodations would be, and no idea whether I could afford it. It seemed like a courtesy, it seemed like stage-setting for future endeavors, it seemed too good to be true. The other two invitees from my institution and I speculated quite wildly about what we were getting ourselves into. But sitting in the Iranian consulate of the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, the only khareji (foreigner) in the room, it started to feel a lot more real.
As is well known, the relations between Iran and the United States have not been the most friendly since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, and have especially been quite hostile for most of my lifetime. But in the wake of the 2013 presidential elections in Iran, there has been what some have interpreted as a détente between the two nations. Indeed, according to Al-Jazeera English “more positive diplomatic developments between the United States and […] Iran have come to fruition in recent weeks than in the past three decades” (1). Less than a month ago, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, and Barack Obama spoke on the phone for the first time, an event dubbed “When Hussein called Hassan” (1). Mr, Rouhani has been portrayed as a reformer, despite his close relations with the country’s hardliners. Yet, as a former nuclear negotiator, he does have considerable diplomatic clout.
Mr. Rouhani does seem to have a mandate for these overtures, as he enjoys the support of parliament and media reception to his endeavors has been favorable, despite the usual warbling from hardline ideological mouthpieces such as Kayhan and Rajanews (2, 3, 6). While there have been clear showings of dissent (4), it is apparent that many in Iran, both in the civil society and in the government are ready for a change in their relationship to the United States and the rest of the world. We certainly shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that this has occurred in a vacuum. Indeed, the latest round of sanctions has run Iran’s economy in the ground, creating impoverished conditions that in some quarters resemble the years of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s (2).
I can’t help but wonder whether this invitation that I received is connected with this atmosphere. I have been told the last occasion on which Americans were invited to this conference was in 2004 during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s liberal predecessor. But this time seems different, for despite Khatami’s reformist leanings, his attempts to make such diplomatic gestures were stymied by hawkish posturing at home (6). Indeed, to quote Ali Vaez, it is as if “the biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken”, but I still wonder if what we are seeing is truly the “beginning of a new era”(5).
But, in light of all this, it is hard to not see this invitation as part of this larger process. I have no illusions, however, about what this means as far as spending more time in Iran is concerned. Wiser and more experienced voices here have made it clear that current conditions resemble ones that have arisen before. The door of possibility opens an inch, and if you miss the window of opportunity, it quickly slams shut again. And that door is open just to visit, much less to plan and conduct a program of long-term archaeological fieldwork. While Iranian and American archaeologists collaborated in the Jiroft project during the last decade, it remains to be seen whether that sort of work is yet possible. In this regard, my trip will likely be highly informative.
Ostensibly the reason why I have been invited is due to my work on Iranian prehistory. As an anthropological archaeologist, I have investigated complex societies in Iran at a distance for several years now, using archival collections and published materials to piece together a more coherent picture of excavations that languished without being properly published. My research up to this point has focused on the Gorgan region of northeastern Iran, a veritable mini-Mesopotamia wedged between the Alborz Mountains, the Caspian Sea and the Turkmen Steppe, with hundreds of ancient sites dotting the interfluvial plain between the Gorgan and Atrek rivers. My work has focused primarily on a site called Tureng Tepe (Pheasant Hill), which incidentally, was the very first archaeological site to be excavated by Americans in Iran (Olson in review). Frederick and Susanne Wulsin were diplomat-explorers, working as part of an American envoy to Iran in the 1930s (Olson forthcoming). Their mandate was to broker a renegotiation of the Iranian Antiquities laws, but they were also given a permit to excavate in the vicinity of Astarabad (Shahr-e Gorgan).
Between October of 2010 and the present, I studied the Wulsin publications, archival documents, and the collection of artifacts they brought back to the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in order to reconstruct their excavation and to further our understanding of this important site. The results of this work are what I will be presenting at this conference. How apropos, then, to be delivering a talk on the origins of the Iranian-American archaeological relationship at a time when relations between the two countries are just beginning to be resumed, however fitfully, provisionally, and perhaps ultimately ephemerally or abortive they may play out from this point forward. Indeed, I cannot escape the feeling that this fantastic opportunity will not ultimately result in much progress toward resuming archaeological field collaboration between American and Iranian scholars. Nevertheless, I am hopeful, and look forward to the discoveries that await.
As much as I would love to continue this archival work with fieldwork on the ground, I know that beginning a new project in the region is far beyond the realm of possibility at the present. While there are a number of Iranian archaeologists who work in the Gorgan, in addition to a British team investigating the Kizil-Alan Wall (sometimes called Alexander’s Wall), institutionally, politically, and economically speaking, it would be far too difficult to get the requisite permissions and raise the needed funds to conduct a dissertation project in collaboration with these scholars. Nevertheless, I am overjoyed to have the opportunity to meet the people with whom I have corresponded over the last few years.
The day the visa confirmation came through was a reality check. The ball was really rolling, so to speak. Decisions had to be made quickly – could I afford to pass up this opportunity, despite it being right in the middle of the busiest part of my semester? Could I actually pay for the tickets and hotels up front, could the university reimburse me? How long would that take? Regardless of the answers to these questions, I had to move quickly. The only option to move things forward was to go to Washington D.C. to visit the Iranian Interests section of the Pakistani Embassy (Daftar-e Hezafat-e Monafe’-ye Jamhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran).
The office is located in a commercial building in Georgetown, which is not well connected to the Metro system, but can be easily accessed via bus. When we first arrived, we walked right past it, as the office is quite unassuming. The only indication of what is located within is an Iranian flag in the window, and a sign in Persian and English indicating the hours of operation and the rules concerning documents. You go through security and head up the stairs into a large windowless room, with rows of chairs facing a window. You take a number and wait for it to be called. There is tea on one end of the room, and a large flat-screen tv on the other, broadcasting Iranian TV (tuned to the Islamic Republic’s International News Network). As it is a Friday morning, it is not terribly busy in the office. There are several families, young couples, as well as older folks by themselves, and me. I stick out like a sore thumb with my wild beard, tailored jacket, and distinctly non-Persian features. Everyone is speaking Persian (except for the young children) and all business is conducted in Persian. It takes me a while to attempt to make conversation with anyone for fear of embarrassing myself with my once lucid-now broken Persian. Either way, I’m glad I got here early, because by noon the room had filled up with people.
In the end, it took the better part of the day to get everything taken care of. An older woman, a retired doctor, took pity on me and we had a nice chat. She explained to me that the usual official was not present and the people filling in for him at the counter were just as frustrated as we were, given the volume of business that ended up materializing. It was a trying day, as I had come somewhat unprepared (I needed a physical copy of several documents that I only had electronic copies of, passport-sized photographs, cash, etc.), but in the end everything worked out. I am grateful for the patience of the officials at the Daftar and for the friendliness of the people with whom I spoke. I am hopeful that bureaucratic processes will proceed more smoothly for the remainder of this endeavor, but for the time being, everything is set and arranged. I have my visa, my flights are booked, my arrangements have been made. Now back to getting ahead of schedule on coursework so this jaunt doesn’t put me too far behind… it is the first semester of my first year of graduate school after all!
1) D. Parviz. (5 October 2013) “Analysis: Is US-Iran détente for real?” http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/5/analysis-is-us-irandetenteforreal.html
2) Ali Ansari. (7 October 2013) “Iran and the US: the Politics of Détente” http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C5252A87A796E0/#.UlhBpCifNUR
3) M. Etebari. (4 October 2013) “Iran Press Report: Reactions to Rouhani’s Phone Call with Obama” http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/iran-at-saban/posts/2013/10/04-iran-press-report-phone-call-obama-rouhani?rssid=foreign+policy&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BrookingsRSS%2Fprograms%2Fforeignpolicy+%28Brookings+Programs+-+Foreign+Policy%29
4) Kayhan Editorial. “Rouhani dar payan-e safar-e panj-rouzeh az New York beh Tehran bazgasht emtiyaz-e naqd dadim va’deh-ha-ye nasieh goftim” http://www.kayhan.ir/920707/3.htm#N301
5) J. Mason & L. Charbonneau. (28 September 2013) “Obama, Iran’s Rouhani hold historic phone call” http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/28/us-un-assembly-iran-idUSBRE98Q16S20130928
6) Saeed Kamali Dehghan. (2 October 2013) “Obama and Rouhani’s telephone call of huge significance, says Iranian deputy” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/02/obama-rouhani-phone-call-us-iran
"The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, 15 to 17 years. A pair of Maryland cases vividly illustrates this inequality in sentencing. In one case, a judge in Baltimore County, Maryland sentenced Kenneth Peacock to 18 months for killing his unfaithful wife. The very next day, another judge in the same county sentenced Patricia Ann Hawkins to three years in prison for killing her abusive husband. Significantly, the prosecutor in the Peacock case requested a sentence twice as long as the one imposed, while the prosecutor in the Hawkins case requested one-third of the sentence imposed.”
“As many as 90% of the women in prison today  for killing men had been battered by those men.”
~ The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project
try and tell me sexism isn’t real
Hold the fucking phone
Franz Boas (via literary-ethnography)
Philadelphia adopting ‘doomsday’ school-slashing plan despite $400 million prison project
June 6, 2013
Days after Philadelphia officials pushed the city one step closer to a so-called “doomsday” education plan that would see two dozen schools close, construction began on a $400-million prison said to be the second-most expensive state project ever.
Pennsylvania’s School Reform Commission voted on June 1 to approve a $2.4 billion budget, ignoring hours of pleas from students, parents, educators and community members who warned the budget would cripple city schools.
The plan would close 23 public schools, roughly 10 per cent of the city’s total. Commissioners rejected a proposal that would have only closed four of the 27 schools that were on the block for closure.
Without the means to cover a $304 million debt, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, students can expect to go back to school in September without new books, paper, counselors, clubs, librarians, assistant principals or secretaries. All athletics, art and music programs would be eliminated and as many as 3,000 people could lose their jobs.
Only one of five state commissioners voted against the proposal, warning that Republican Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s administration had not looked hard enough elsewhere for proper funds.
That $304 million windfall is unlikely to be filled because the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed a tax break for corporations that will cost Pennsylvania residents an estimated $600 million to $800 million annually.
Newly unemployed teachers might consider submitting their resumes to the Department of Corrections, though, with the news that the supposedly cash-strapped government is digging deep to spend $400 million for the construction of State Correctional Institutions Phoenix I and II.
The penitentiary, which is technically two facilities, will supplement at least two existing jails, the Western Penitentiary at Pittsburgh and Fayette County Jail. Pittsburgh’s Western Penitentiary was built in 2003 with the original intention of replacing Fayette County Jail, but the prison has struggled with lawsuits claiming widespread physical and sexual abuse of prisoners.
Scheduled to be completed in 2015, the new prison’s cell blocks and classroom will be capable of housing almost 5,000 inmates. Officials said there will be buildings for female inmates, the mentally ill and a death row population.
Journalist Rhania Khalek noted that the racial disparities in the education system and prison complex, where 60 per cent of all people are of color, have created a literal “school-to-prison-pipeline.”
“In Philadelphia, black students comprise 81 per cent of those who will be impacted by the closings despite accounting for just 58 per cent of the overall student population,” she wrote. “In stark contrast, just 4 per cent of those affected are white kids who make up 14 per cent of Philly students. And though they make up 81 per cent of Philadelphia students, 93 per cent of kids affected by the closings are low-income.”
They are cutting sooo many schools over here man. And its like people don’t even care. You see kids crying and all and the officials give no fucks.
We could learn a thing or two from European countries…. They would take to the streets and spazz the fuck out! We just gonna cry and watch them cut a ribbon on a shimmery new nigga farm. We suck
the new segregation.
The Philadelphia School District announced 3,783 layoffs today, including:
- 127 assistant principals
- 676 teachers
- 283 counselors
- 1,202 noontime aides
- 307 secretaries
- 769 supportive service assistants
- 89 teacher assistants (early childhood)
- 53 school operations officers
- 45 school improvement support liasons
- 25 community relations liasons
- 25 food service workers
- 22 special ed classroom assistants
- 21 conflict resolution specialists
- 18 non-teaching assistants
But they’re gonna get a big ass jail. sweet