Thursday, January 31, 2008

The untold story of water in Tehran

Water is the source of all life. The Environment Committee of the Tehran City Council visited one of Tehran's water purification facilities and laboratories probably the most advanced in our region. Dr. Abad, my colleague in the Council also accompanied us. She is a woman of character , affectionate and forward-looking in her ways. She has a history of 4 years imprisonment in the AbuGhurieb prison in Iraq, during the eight year war that Saddam waged against Iran. We sometimes talk together about her courageous resistance in very difficult and inhuman circumstances alongside other women who were also imprisoned in those days.The strength and courage that faith can give to us is sometimes unbelievable.
She recalls those difficult but heroic moments with pride and occaisionally expresses concern on whether we are on the correct path today .
Some members of the media also joined us in the visit.They were asked to report objectively and correctly inform the public, about the challenges we have ahead, if population increases and consumption patterns do not change. We were briefed on water resources, allocation of new resources for the increasing population, reservoirs, purification and chlorination methods. We also visited the very sophisticated and advanced laboratories for analysing biological,chemical and physical qualities of the water produced and released in the pipelines. We visited the incoming water chamber (coming from Karaj dam) , the accelerators where the coagulation and precipitation process is executed and the filtration halls, we also saw the control rooms and the telemetric regulation performed. I felt proud to see how our experts and managers work so hard to maintain a standard quality of water for 8.5 million inhabitants of Tehran . We discussed ways to enhance water quality and standards and quality control methods and parameters which are routinely checked . We reiterated our commitment in the Council to support and assist the Tehran water authorities in their tireless efforts to improve water quality, and correct unsustainable water consumption patterns. An enlightening visit; now we can confidently enjoy a glass of Tehran water directly from the tap !

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back and forth; between science and politics

Classes are finished by now at the University , students and faculty alike are preparing for exams. Those students working on their thesis now find their advisers more available. Tarbiat Modares is a graduate university created after the Islamic Revolution. We have only MS and PhD degree programs in a wide variety of fields. Both degree programs have a thesis which includes practical research on a basic or applied approach and seminars which are intended to upgrade the research and presentation skills of the students.
One of the Immunology Department students had decided to take his seminar with me , and we had several sessions together to define the subject and prepare an outline of the topic and how it is to be presented in oral and written forms. I usually let the students find the subject themselves, since I believe looking for questions and unresolved issues is part of the research and the same goes for their thesis. I do not agree with certain colleagues who provide students with ready-to go subjects.
Students know what specific field each faculty is involved in and prefers to work on. This student proposed to work on Th17 which is a newly debated pattern for inflammatory cytokine responses. I thought it was an interesting subject and on the frontiers of immunological research, but he took a daring decision as well . He told me that he wished to present both the oral and written form of the seminar in English. For a student studying in Iran, gaining a strong command of English, is a difficult process, since our existing educational systems do not provide strong English training, unless the student takes his own initiative in this regard. Mahmood presented his well prepared seminar in English and did a good job , although he still needs to work on his pronunciation, syntax and sentence structure but on the overall he took a daring decision and did well.
As a retreat from the hectic work in the City Council and Environment Committee, I enjoy my work at the University very much. I consider working with my students as a blessing from God since I feel it gives me energy to deal with some of the difficult challenges we face in life. We have challenges in politics, in implementation of our ideals and in our efforts to improve the quality of life for our citizens. It does seem difficult sometimes, moving back and forth from politics to academic work, but I have been on that double track for a long time now.
What bothers me is the discrepancies we see between what the politicians say and what they actually practice. The recent disqualification of a large number of reformist candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections , is an indication that the legal procedures have become politicized . Independent press and media have all seriously objected to this process. The struggle is more than a tug of war between the rival political factions ie.; the reformists and the conservatives in power.
This debate is understood as a struggle to maintain the democratic quality of the Islamic Republic. This seems to be an indication that those in power are not ready to relinquish their grip on power through democratic means. I hope the reformists will succeed to correct this trend.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tehran City Hall and Gaza: Inside Stories

The Tehran City Council sessions are open to the public and media on Tuesdays. The main issue on the agenda today was the issue of managing and maintaining the quality of water for 8.5 million inhabitants of the mega-city. Tehran has enjoyed a high quality of water in its piping system since decades ago flowing water from mountain sources has given the water in Tehran a unique quality and taste. However, gradually due the sharp increase in the city's population, water is now also taken from underground resources and the limited potentials for water purification are also a potential challenge for the future. We adopted a bill asking the government to provide necessary funding for new water resources allocation and management of the current systems. I also brought up the need for a bill on more stringent standards for water quality and also more sustainable consumption patterns . We will bring the issues to the Environment Committee and come up with an appropriate proposal next week.
By the end of the session a group of kindergarten children with banners and balloons about clean air had settled in the public section of the City Hall. This week is named Clean Air week as a gesture to promote awareness on abatement of air pollution and the role of the public in this matter. They also sang a song for us and gave us flowers, we also took some pictures together.

The children's presence reminded us of the difficult plight of children in Gaza .The ongoing tragedy in Gaza is a serious matter for Iranians. I watched a presidential debate on CNN international this morning. I was surprised to see that the debate is still only focused on national issues while an important matter like the plight of the people of Palestine was absent. We have seen many scenes here of the suffering of the people in Gaza but it is noteworthy that they say they will resist and continue their struggle against the occupiers. I saw a report on a group of Palestinian women staging a protest in Rafah against the closing of the borders, they seemed to be so confident and daring. I am not sure the news and reports that we see in Iran are also broadcast in other parts of the world. I hope the tragic news of Gaza and the injustices against this nation gets across.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I have seen nothing other than beauty

I missed some important issues about Ashura in the last post. There is so much misunderstanding and stereotyping about this event. Although many books and articles have been devoted to this issue but there is still much to understand. I forgot to mention the concept of thirst; yearning for water, the element we need most to satiate but also to cleanse and uplift our potentials. The major yearning in Ashura was of thirst, and so it is today that we are still yearning for some substance of purity and sincerity , we look up to our mentors, our politicians , our leaders, but alas, where are we heading and who can quench our thirst?

Yesterday, was the climax of the mourning ceremonies and memories of an astute woman of high caliber who survived along with the children and other women, Zainab, the faithful sister of Hussein, who painfully suffered from the tragedy and persevered. She set an example for all of us since,we all suffer from losses in life, but we need support to withstand those losses psychologically and ideologically , otherwise we might face serious problems. She is a role model in that sense, but above all she has the mission to carry the message of Ashura. Who can convey the immense weight of the event, the philosophy behind Hussein's decision, the devotion and faithfulness of the companions, the purity and sanctity of those who fought? They gave their lives so that the Truth would remain and Islam could be understood centuries later in the form of its authentic teachings, unscathed and undistorted , unlike many other schools of thought and religion. Is conveying the message not more important than the event itself?
How is it that a woman is entrusted with the important role and the capacity to convey this message? Is it because women are strong mentors and educators and can influence their audiences by an intertwine of emotions,philosophy and reasoning altogether? The despotic ruler, Yazid, takes the women and children as prisoners to Damascus, in his glamorous palace and he asks Zainab, hoping to humiliate her , "did you see their death, defeat and destruction?". Zainab eloquently replies; I have seen nothing other than beauty.
She had the vision to see the philosophy and spirit behind those actions, and the foresight to look into the future and see how the message will stay alive and find new meaning, year after year, generation after generation, young people will find a meaning and direction for life, something beyond the dazzling attractions of popular culture, something beyond the double standards and fraud of these days, something long lasting , a genuine precious treasure of light within.
I also forgot to say that 14 centuries later, the message of Hussein is still vibrant, resonating with contemporary developments. Three decades ago, the Islamic Revolution was inspired by Ashura, the people then would liken the Shah to Yazid, as years later the people of Iraq likened Saddam to Yazid, after all a tyrant, is a tyrant whether in the pages of history or today in reality, the essence is the same, is it not so?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ashura , The Nexus of Love and Faith

There is a large tent now for several years during Ashura (the tenth of Moharram,the first month in the lunar calendar) , in the proximity of The Church of Mary , in central Tehran. This tent belongs to Iranian Armenians who have a vow to take part in the ceremonies of Ashura.
Ashura is the commemoration of a great calamity which befalls the Muslim society after the Prophet Muhammad . According to many historians, it is by far the most moving and captivating narration in the history of human civilization.

It is also the most misunderstood event of Islamic history. Opportunists have used the mourning ceremonies in countries like Iran and Pakistan to depict a dark and reactionary picture of Islam in the media. Supporters have, many times, gone to the extremes thus tainting the true portrait of Ashura.
Some consider this as a ceremony to mourn neglected human values which are forgotten today, values like forgiveness, compassion, truthfulness,and altruism. The message of Ashura seems to transcend time and geography, creed and nationality. Ashura tells us to open our eyes and hearts, to shed the darkness that prevents us from grasping the truth beyond our selfish ego.

The mourning ceremonies of Ashura are memorable. They are considered to be a spiritual feast, but also in literal terms. In Iran each year, millions eat from one table , the table of Imam Hussein. One can literally say that since many make a vow for Imam, there are grand cooking ceremonies alongside the mourning programs. Millions are guests of one single host sometimes for two or three days. Who is Imam Hussein, who is this man that captures the minds and hearts of millions?

It is difficult to describe this event, as it is difficult to speak about love. Islam is not only about edicts and prescriptions but it is also about love for beauty . After the advent of Islam, the life-giving message of the Quran and the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, gradually spread among societies in the East and beyond the Arabian Peninsula. The issue of leadership among Muslims was always a key issue since Islam proved to be a multidimensional religion and the issue of governance and the future of the people was never irrelevant.

When the Prophet passed away rivalry for key positions and leadership began. Worldly temptations led certain figures to deny the evident knowledge and capabilities of a certain few, particularly among the household of the Prophet, and to step forward to take power into their hands. Gradually, as the religion spread , the central Khalifat became more powerful and wealthier, signs of aristocracy, greed and corruption gradually emerged indicating a clear divergence from the original teachings and practices of the religion. Ordinary people were suppressed and robbed of their wealth to the benefit of rulers who only carried the title of believers and were no longer practicing Muslims. It became usual practice to preach ideas and practices that belonged to tribal traditions and were linked to certain personal interests as the core of religious thought.

Deviation from the genuine and original teachings of divine religions could happen later at the hands of opportunists who interpret the religion to suit their interests. Christianity and Judaism had experienced a similar threat. 63 years after the flourishing of Islam out of Mecca and the "Migration" of the Muslims which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, Yazid the Khalifat or ruler located then in Damascus, took a serious turn in his despotic and cruel policies in suppressing his opponents , who criticised his unIslamic demeanor .
Following the invitation of the people of Kufa, a city in Iraq today, Hussein the grandson of the Prophet commences his fateful journey as a sign of protest against the policies of the hypocrites who ruled in the name of Islam. Along with his companions and his family, Imam Hussein starts on a journey to purge Islam from the wrong traditions and practices attributed to this divine religion. He is confronted with the armies of Yazid and ordered to surrender.

Imam questions the legitimacy of the Khalifat and proclaims his preparedness to withstand for the sake of justice , truthfulness and all the forgotten human values. Imam is a reformist at heart he hopes to convince the rulers to change course without bloodshed. Yazid, however threatens the Imam with war and Imam tells his companions that they are free to return, but that he will resist and fight for the sake of righteousness. The companions all stay and they face an unequal and deadly battle, but their heroic resistance, faithfulness and bravery remains as an epic for humanity.

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein is an inspiration for humanity. It brings direction and meaning to the lost generation of today. Time has strengthened the message of Ashura so that that living for sublime values becomes just as important as dying for those values.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Guardian and Those Who Can Save the Planet

There is no end to this extremely cold weather, it seems. Tehran is still lingering about ten degrees below zero and most cities in Iran follow the same course; some even falling below -30 degrees Celsius. A friend called me asking me to take back the prayers we had made some months ago in the north pole. In an interfaith ceremony we had then prayed that global warming and therefore destruction of life on earth would slow down. "Your prayers have now been accepted and we are now freezing !" she told me ," please, if possible take those prayers back". My efforts to explain the scientific flaws in her reasoning were useless.
A couple days ago, I received an email from RSE Religion Science Environment , which is an international NGO that organizes symposia on the issues of religion and environment and the nexus of these two with science. The last Symposium was held in 2007, in Greenland near to the north pole. They held a prayer ceremony where all religions took part to pray for the earth. The email indicated that Guardian International Newspaper, in its January 5 issue had mentioned the names of 50 people who could save the earth. The Archbishop of Bartholomew, the Patron of RSE, was on the list. I read the list suddenly realizing that a few names below that of the Archbishop, my name was also there in that list of saviors of the earth!
A string of congratulations flowing since yesterday in this freezing weather has brought some warmth; for me at least. Many websites and some local papers have published the news. I think I owe this recognition to great people who have worked with me to protect our natural environment; scholars, managers, rangers, experts , NGOs ,media and the ordinary people. They all have a share in this title. Nothing could have been achieved alone. To save the earth we need a collective effort. You can see the article at http://www.guardian.co.cuk/environment/2008/jan/05/activists.ethicalliving.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sustainable Development in Frozen Weather

We have now been surviving sub zero temperatures for more than a week in Tehran and in many parts of Iran . I read an interesting news report about the residents of Kavir Lut or Lut Desert (which is known to be one of the warmest locations on the surface of earth during summer, with also one of the lowest altitudes) who had experienced their first snowfall after at least three decades. It appears that we are experiencing a severe weather condition which might be related to climate change. We had heavy snowfall last week and more cold weather and snow is apparently on the way.
Gas shortages have left some parts of the country with little or intermittent heating. Schools and universities, to which over 25 million citizens attend, were closed for some days and even government offices were closed for two days. Some people blame this situation on the unsustainable energy consumption patterns and lifestyle that the government and many people in Iran pursue. The fact that in many homes and offices, due to subsidized energy pricing, customers usually do not regulate their consumption levels is well known. Actually, sometimes, we resort to opening the window to let some of the excessive heating to dissipate. Striking that paradoxical point in Iran, usually leads us to a lively and on-going debate on the benefits and detrimental consequences of enjoying an oil revenue- based economy with major energy subsidies. The Persian paradox is that we are no. 2 in world natural gas reserves and we are now freezing due to gas shortages !
In addition , this government insisted on reversing the usual time-savings (1 hour time change) policy which had been implemented every year from times before the Revolution. This action was seriously opposed by both economists and environmentalists until, only a few days ago, when the Parliament finally compelled the Government to re-install the time-savings policy. Some analysts believe that the two year gap might have influenced the current gas and electricity shortages.
Today, along with my colleagues in the Environmental Committee of the Tehran City Council, we travelled through various inner-city routes via public transportation; including :a 8 passenger van (used as a taxi), the Metro or subway train , and also the BRT or newly and halfway established bus rapid transit system. Officials accompanied us on the way and many people recognized me and stopped to talk or express their views .

According to Government regulations and in accordance with legislation to combat urban air pollution, the bus system in Tehran should gradually out phase diesel buses and replace them with CNG powered buses. This was a policy adopted by the previous government during my tenure in the Department of the Environment. Some aspects of this policy were reversed unfortunately in this new administration , partly due to gas shortages particularly during the colder months. Next week,we will observe our national clean air day, aimed at raising awareness on air pollution.
The new BRT buses purchased recently were not CNG powered and I objected to this trend, recognizing the limitations the government faces in providing natural gas for the current CNG fleet of over 2400 buses in Tehran. There is also another serious criticism, aimed at the government these days, for the gas shortages which relates to the two year delays in the exploitation of natural gas reserves Iran shares with Qatar in Southern Pars or Assalouye. During the recent decade, Iran has experienced an exceptional economic and industrial growth and investment rate, thereby resulting in an increased demand for energy among other resources. It seems that this government has not always been able to keep up with the pace in providing basic infrastructure and energy needs.
The expansion of public transportation has been a major policy for both the City Council and the Government and among all options the Metro is the most efficient, safe, environmentally-friendly transportation system which must be expanded and supported with sufficient budget and strong policy. We adopted a bill this week in the City Council asking the government to provide its share in the Metro budget in an efficient and timely manner. I think our people deserve a high quality of life , as well as access to reliable and clean energy resources. We need to work to that direction to ensure a sustainable future for Iran.

Monday, January 7, 2008

American Elections : Hillary and the Denial of Feminine Traits

We are closely following American elections here from Iran. The recent Iowa results found their way in top news of both government and independent media in Iran. Many political observers have reasons to believe or speculate that political developments in Iran and the US are somehow interrelated after the Islamic Revolution. A look at the attitudes and rhetoric of Iranian and US Presidents during the past decades implicates some sort of reciprocal behavior between the two. Iran, once considered only an inferior outpost for American governments , has now become a serious rival by all means.

Take, for example, when during reformist President Khatami, Iran reached out to the world to maintain relationships on the basis of mutual interests and dignity; Secretary of State Albright came up with an apology for the CIA engineered Coup-d’├ętat in 1953 which had toppled the nationalist Government of Dr.Mohammad Mosadegh and had plunged the nation into 25 years of dark tyranny and dictatorship. However, when Mr. Bush changed direction to label Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil, the atmosphere in Iran also changed drastically , reformists came under pressure to stiffen their foreign policy and ultimately politics shifted, partly in response to the American aggressive tones, to the very sharp and yet ultraconservative rhetoric of the current administration in Iran.

In any case, as an Iranian involved in politics both in the national and to some extent international domain , I think it is important to provide an independent perspective on global affairs including American elections. Some media have considered the recent Iowa elections to be a political earthquake. In the election process Iowa has always been the first contest, but this time it has proven to be critically important as well. Here, many Iranian analysts are skeptical about the current bipartisan political system in the US. They feel that American politics are heavily influenced by outer forces, including market forces, oil cartels, the military machinery, the media conglomerate , but above all the influential Zionist lobby in Washington. Even if the majority of the American people wish for something, it will not emerge from the election before gaining the consent of those forces. This is the tragic fate of democracy in the US. These analysts believe that ultimately whoever wins, Democrat or Republican , little change will occur in terms of foreign policy and the” arrogant” attitude of the administration.

It seems that the Iraq War has helped Iowan voters decide and over come doubts that they have to take part in the election process. This a doubt that Iranian voters have also faced and this being very related to trust and belief in the possibility for genuine change. 220,000 democrats voted in Iowa which is twice the turnout in 2004. ( It is still less than the votes I individually obtained from the city of Tehran in 2006). They have understood that the system is facing a serious test and if it fails to restore the confidence people lost during this period, they will face more troubles in the future. Realizing the terrible social and economic woes at home and the immense losses they have face abroad, “change” is the key word all candidates employ. It seems that America has reached an impasse where desire for change out powers everything else.

There are two “firsts” in this round of presidential elections, the first black president and the first woman president are major temptations for voters cross cutting through gender and racial issues. Hillary Clinton has feminine appearances, money , organization, party stars and the popular Clinton name. She however lost in Iowa among the women and the whites. There are several possibilities to explain this voter distaste to Hillary.

The first may be, as explained above, the general aversion of the public opinion for anyone who seems to have strong ties to the administration and have supported the current President in some of his critical policies including going to war in Iraq. The second may be the name calling and smearing campaign she has followed in competition with her rivals. She seems to have taken the ethical judgments of the religious American society very lightly. It is interesting to note that we have had a similar challenge in election campaigning in Iran and the worse case emerged during the 2005 election presidential campaigns where contrary to all human and Islamic norms certain candidates relied heavily on the smear campaign for their votes. Interestingly both Iran and America have a very religious social fabric and despite this reality, many candidates on both sides of the divide have failed to demonstrate their ethical integrity. Not to mention that this fact weighs more heavily in a state which claims to be religious and Islamic like Iran. A paradoxical deduction worth contemplating!

Hillary, like many women reaching up to the helm of political power, has resigned from her feminine qualities . She has failed to draw upon her womanhood, her sincere affections , her moral integrity, her altruism and above all her sincerity in this campaign. In this race, Hillary has denied her sublime feminine traits. Hillary has made the mistake in trying to send the message that she is man enough to be president of the United States. She should have claimed she is woman enough to be president.

It is no surprise that Obama has won a remarkable appeal across cultural and racial lines. It may still be too early to say, but it seems that Americans are signaling for change. Americans must know that if they believe in the democratic nature of their political system , each one of them will be held accountable for the decisions they make and the votes that they cast since it will ultimately influence not only the livelihoods of millions of Americans but the lives of billions of others in the world.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Iranian Mountaineers

Snow is finally here in Tehran, we have now more than 30cm of snow in our front yard, at the north of the city. It has been snowing all day and even now at midnight. You can see spectacular scenes in the streets, and might find some trouble in getting home through the icy avenues at night.
In this very cold weather tonight, I was invited to a very warm and memorable ceremony. Several non governmental mountaineer clubs and associations had convened a nationwide ceremony to celebrate the achievements of pioneer leaders in this field. More than 1500 members had gathered in Bahman Cultural Center in the southern part of Tehran. The program consisted of a live Iranian music concert, a short satirical skit and a documentary on mountain climbing as a national sport.

I learned some interesting statistics, including the fact that over 300,000 people climbed the mountain ranges of Alborz in the north of Tehran every weekend. These mountaineers came from a wide range of ages (3-75) and from all walks of life.
I was invited as a guest speaker and I took the opportunity to stress on the environmental worth of mountains and their importance for our nature and biodiversity. I mentioned that during my tenure in the Department of Environment we had understood that certain mining activities were endangering Damavand, the most elevated and majestic volcanic mountain of Iran. We took measures to designate Damavand as a National Natural Monument, providing it with the highest degree of protection. I mentioned the importance of integrating mountaineering activities with environmental values and education on how to respect and protect nature particularly the mountains. In conclusion , I hoped that mountaineers would attain not only the summits of mountain ranges but also the summits of humanity and ethics that the world lacks so evidently .

As a mountain climber , you will find the opportunity to test your will and perseverance. You learn to tolerate hardships and prepare for the challenges of life. The mountaineer catches the birds- eye view, the vast perspective that many of us lack in in making decisions and choices in life. The mountain climber gets the chance to get closer to nature.
I remember how, as a college student during the dictatorship of the deposed Shah, we used to go mountain climbing as a means for maintaining self confidence and revolutionary strength and awareness.
Tonight, I saw men and women who had reached the heights of Everest and who were professional athletes in this field. I also saw men with disabilities, altruists who had sacrificed their limbs in defence of the country against the aggression of Saddam, more than two decades ago. These men climbed mountains with such unique strength and confidence. They stand as examples of endless devotion, confidence and love for all.

I forgot to wear my mountaineering shoes and gear tonight, but I somehow recovered some of the memories of those youthful days. Those were the very days that we had the energy to climb every mountain, with the hope of reaching the light and elixir of eternal bliss.