I want to [censored] Chromeo: a reflection

Chromeo-oh. CHROMEOoo-OH.

The crowd loudly chants in perfect unison – in feverish anticipation of what is sure to be a night of non-stop bump and grind. The moment the self-proclaimed “only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture” emerges from the darkness and Dave 1 utters “Two-step! Two-step! Two-step!” the audience erupts in a wild frenzy and the first wave of cries of euphoric excitement explodes upon the scene.

The splendid yet unlikely pairing of Dave 1, a lanky half-Moroccan hipster god with confidence in spades and P-Thugg, a burly Lebanese G and synth master of groove, is embodied in their unique sound: a deadly combo of 80’s old-school funk and new age electro music aesthetics. The venue is quickly transformed from a concert hall to a club in a dizzying swirl of lights and constant motion. Hotties, bodies all around—a smirk here and a look there, all behind the façade of wayfarers, as Dave 1 manages to make every girl swoon, and piss off every guy trying to score.
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Such was the atmosphere a few weeks ago at the Phoenix Concert Theatre when Chromeo last graced us humble Torontonians with their dance-funk charisma and talk-box skillz. Once again, they are scheduled to take the stage — but this time at the Engage Orientation 2010 Concert Friday, at Back Campus field with hometown sweethearts ZEUS and Allie Hughes, as the highlight of UTSU’s orientation. Hopefully, the concert will make all of that group chanting and those horrible t-shirts that you’ve worn all week worthwhile.

Chromeo is best known for its eclectic upbeat mix of Dave 1’s catchy guitar riffs, P-Thugg’s funky synth beats and talk-box magic and their sexy mostly female fan base. This two-some began creating music together at the tender age of 15, while both were in high school and still known as Dave Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel.

All the while, Dave 1 is earning a PhD in French Literature at Columbia University where he also teaches undergraduate classes in French. One person, two lives: Professor Macklovitch, poring over Laclos and de Sade in the library by day versus donning a flying-V guitar night by night as Dave 1. Not to mention Monsieur Gemayel, with a history as a number crunching accountant that completely disappears once he assumes his gold-toothed guise, would be a travesty considering this couple may just be the closest thing to superheroes I have ever seen.

Who needs capes and X-ray vision when you have instant anthems like ‘Needy Girl’, ‘Momma’s Boy and Bonafied Lovin’ (Tough Guys)”? Their third LP, Business Casual drops September 14th.

Chromeo will perform alongside Zeus and Allie Hughes at Back Campus field Friday. 4pm.

A good sport: It’s not ‘Rocket’ science

Pitching hero ‘Rocket’ Roger Clemens has come under fire after allegedly lying to U.S. congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Early next April, as Major League Baseball teams prepare for the 2011 playing season, one of the greatest pitchers ever to throw a ball will be finding out the date that he will be tried for lying to Congress about using performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s been a long, slow, public and painful fall from grace for ‘Rocket’ Roger Clemens, a seven-time winner of the Cy Young Award for his seemingly supernatural pitching skills.

The cat came bouncing out of the proverbial bag with a vengeance in December 2007 when former Senator George Mitchell published the Mitchell Report. The Mitchell Report was an exhaustive study was requested by embattled MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to provide a vestige of transparency into baseball’s steroid era.

Clemens was heavily implicated in the report. His former trainer Brian McNamee informed Mitchell that he had injected the ‘Rocket’ with illegal, performance-enhancing drugs on numerous occasions over several playing seasons.

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Through his all-star legal team, Clemens slammed back against the accusations, called McNamee a liar, and argued that he made it all up to avoid prosecution for refusing to co-operate with Mitchell’s investigation.

Although fans looked back on Clemens’ career numbers and noticed abnormalities in performance that made no sense for a player of his age, Clemens was unrelenting. He demanded and got a day before Congress where he and McNamee exchanged testimony under oath. Many observers expected that someone would eventually be charged with perjury and most assumed it would be Clemens.

Sentencing guidelines suggest he could go to jail for as long as a year and a half if he is convicted.

It’s hard to fathom what could have made Clemens deny what, in the court of common sense, has to be considered slam-dunk evidence. Always a bit of a megalomaniac, Clemens could have felt insecure that his place as one of the best ever pitchers, and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, would disintegrate with his golden-boy image if he admitted to illegal drug use.

Others, like Alex Rodriguez, who will go to the Hall of Fame, have admitted to steroid use and come away unscathed for their honesty. It’s tough to imagine that the baseball writers who will vote on which players make the Hall of Fame will forgive Clemens for dragging out a profoundly traumatic period in baseball history.

The odds of the ‘Rocket’ making it into the Hall of Fame are not likely given the path he’s chosen to take, and it’s probably a safe bet to say that if he ever does, a detour through the American prison system will come first.

Coming attractions

Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful follows the life of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father living in poverty. After being diagnosed with cancer he must insure the safety of his children, clear his debt and resolve his sins so that he may pass safely into the afterlife. However, a past in drug trafficking, a career in transporting illegal immigrants and an abusive, unstable ex-wife bring him no end of misfortune. Biutiful is gut-wrenchingly dismal from start to finish – even moments of happiness are overshadowed by tragedy. Running just under two and half hours, it is by no means a leisurely watch but, thankfully Iñárritu’s film is still worth the effort.

Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography gorgeously captures the desolate area of Barcelona, where the film is set, and no member of the cast stumbles in their performance. The narrative at times becomes too intricate, dealing with multiple themes and stories, many of which seem present only to amplify the misery. However, Biutiful is ultimately a story dedicated to fatherhood and when matched with Bardem’s impeccable leading presence, the two (dare I say it?) work beautifully together.–Ariel Lewis

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés)

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First, the obvious: Buried is a formidable, and rather miraculous, technical achievement. The 95 minute film takes place entirely within the confines of a coffin, where independent contractor Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried by terrorists somewhere in Iraq. Director Rodrigo Cortés’ camera swerves dynamically through the seemingly unworkable space, with cinematographer Eduard Gau’s shadowy compositions (the character only has a flashlight, a lighter, and a cell phone to work with) looking like striking pen-and-ink drawings. Another obvious point: Buried is something of an actor’s showcase for Ryan Reynolds, who is called upon to enact each of the seven stages of grief many times, often in close proximity to each other, completely convincing throughout. Here is the surprise: it’s a terrific entertainment, social commentary and all, with a race-against-the-clock structure that feels like good, pulsating pulp.–Will Sloan

Good Neighbours (Jacob Tierney)

In an unassuming apartment building in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of Montreal, four neighbours play a part in an elaborate crime spree inspired by misguided love, alcoholism, and the cats. Victor (Jay Baruchel) stars as a needy and painfully clueless elementary school teacher who moves into the apartment above waitress-by-day cat-lady-by-night Louise (Emily Hampshire) and the seemingly charming, decidedly unsettling, wheel-chair-bound Spencer (Scott Speedman). As Victor clumsily attempts to ingratiate himself among his new neighbours, an eerie connection to a string of violent murders emerges. And as tensions run high between Louise, and their cat hating, francophone, alcoholic neighbour, it becomes clear that this connection can only end in gratuitous and uncomfortably hilarious bloodshed.

Director Jacob Tierney’s follow-up to last year’s The Trotsky creates a tense and claustrophobic thriller/comedy that, despite the looming prospect of a serial killer on the loose and the desolate backdrop of Montreal in early winter, creates a thrilling movie that is not so much plot-based, as it is a study of unlikeable people. Through spot-on performances and brief but pointed dialogue between characters, murder and mayhem become the backdrop to an uncomfortable clash between unrequited love and Louise’s lack of interest in anything besides her two cats. Interactions between neighbours build in intensity with perfectly paced, and methodically repeated scenes of nightcaps and dinner-parties, and Tierney’s reliance on shock value (the crime scenes are caricatures, tempered by almost robotic characters) makes the painful movements of individuals who never seem to leave their somewhat dingy apartment building, interesting.–Emily Kellogg

Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

When an early scene of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats features a young man and woman dressing, applying makeup, then walking towards each other in slow motion while one blows cigarette smoke, set to a Spanish cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” it is easy to deduce that Dolan is a fan of Wong Kar-wai circa 2046. But when his camera also lingers fetishistically on the woman’s backside, pressing tightly against her vintage dress, that homage turns into plagiarism. Ditto Jean-Luc Godard, a well-known influence on 21-year-old Dolan’s first film I Killed My Mother, who is quoted not just in a series of self-consciously verité faux-documentary interludes in which several millennials talk about their love lives, but also in four separate dreamy post-coital interludes where the characters are bathed in primary colours (red, green, yellow, blue) in a way not exactly dissimilar to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.

Dolan throws plenty more visual styles into this film about two hipster best friends (Monika Chokri and Dolan – his camera loves him so) whose relationship is complicated by a mysterious, magnetic third wheel (Niels Schneider), but these selfish, shallow characters never seem like more than pretty faces to pout, and walk in slow motion. It’s tempting to say that Dolan at least has a good eye, but he’s stolen it from someone else.–WS

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)

If you believe that life is filled with sound and fury and ultimately signifies nothing, then Woody Allen’s latest effort, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, might be your kind of film. The plot revolves around the lives of two married couples, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Being of a ripe age himself, it’s surprising to see Allen’s portrayal of elderly divorcees reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes: Helena has an emotional breakdown and becomes obsessed with the occult while Alfie deals with forlorn bachelorhood by courting a streetwalker named Charmaine. Sally is a constant point of irritation throughout as she fills her days droning about her husband’s lack of success and the emotional state of her mother.

The one plus side is Brolin, who is able to play a neurotic writer/part-time chauffeur without becoming a bumbling mess. Greg (Antonio Banderas) and Dia (Freida Pinto) act as hollow eye candy when Sally and Roy need a distraction from their deteriorating careers. Banderas’ performance is rigid and lifeless while Pinto, referred to as an “exotic, beautiful creature” proves to be an extremely awkward muse. The story slithers its way to a climax and ends just when things get interesting. Viewers are left grasping at thin air for any sense of attachment. While the bouts of boredom and bellowing may be part of Allen’s overall view of life, it’s all so facile and unpersuasive that getting past the first hour proves to be a daunting task.–Damanjit Lamba

Get in the game

Perry Lefko of Rogers Sportsnet will be teaching a sports writing course at the University of Toronto.

Freelance Sports Writing, which is offered U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, will take place on Monday nights from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. starting on October 4 and will run for eight weeks.

Lefko, a veteran in the business of sports journalism, will be teaching this course for a second consecutive year at U of T.

Specifically designed it to help students find their forte and build on their technical writing skills, the curriculum is both innovative and packed full.

Writing techniques for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and blogs will be covered in the course.

“It’s important for students to realize that there are a lot of people out there who like to write and write about sports. You must be able to understand how to combine both of them. If you want to write a blog, you may have all the knowledge but your writing may not stand up that well, and people will notice that,” Lefko explained.

“You have to know how to write. People will want to read what you have to say.”

Through the Freelance Sports Writing course, students will get first-hand opportunities to impart knowledge from well-known professional journalists and athletes in the business.

Last year Lefko brought in Elliotte Friedman from CBC Sports and Spider Jones from CFRB’s Newstalk and the students got the chance to ask them questions about how to get a story, how to write a story, and how to present a story to their editors. He also managed to nab CFL legend Damon Allen to come in and speak to the class about his view of the media.

Lefko is looking to enlighten students who have a passion for writing and sports, and to push them forward, separating themselves from others in what has become a very saturated business.

Lefko said, “I encourage the people who take the course to be very interactive and take the opportunity to make the most of what they are learning.

“I want the students to learn the importance of writing and enjoy what it is that they are being taught.”

More information is available here.

Soldiers’ Tower begins four year restoration project

Soldiers’ Tower has begun a $1.8 million restoration project expected to continue over the next four summers. The iconic structure, built in 1924, is a memorial to the 1,185 members of the University of Toronto who lost their lives during the two World Wars.

“The aim and objective of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee is to honour those who gave their lives in the service of Canada and to support those presently serving,” says Brigadier-General H.E. (Ted) Brown, a Woodsworth alumnus and WWII veteran. “Age and weather damage require periodic renovations such as those now taking place.”

This summer’s work focused on the stabilization of the two western pinnacles that were suffering from weathered mortar as a result of rain and snow. The mortar is being replaced and the pinnacles are going to be reinforced with steel.

“An assessment by ERA architects in 2006 determined that critical restoration is needed to the pinnacles […] and the upper masonry of the Tower,” said University Advancement representative Kathy Parks in an e-mail to The Varsity. “Among other things, the pinnacles have moved off-centre. The northwest pinnacle is the most affected. Some other repairs are needed to other areas of stone on the tower that have degraded or been damaged.”
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The first stage of the project was expected to be completed by the end of August but has been delayed to September 24. The estimated budget for this stage of renovations is $260,000.

Construction scheduled for 2011 will include the dismantling and rebuilding of the two eastern pinnacles while 2012 and 2013 will focus on the lower reaches of the walls including the Tower arch.

The restoration efforts any of the engravings on the tower. Etchings of those lost during the Great War were previously damaged during past restoration efforts.

“… [the] lightening of the names resulted from a separate cleaning to remove dark staining of the entire wall and was recognized as a mistake after its completion,” says David Platt, the vice-chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee, in an e-mail to The Varsity.

Parks suggests that a graffiti incident several decades ago may have further impacted etchings on the Tower.

“… a student some decades ago spray painted graffiti on the Memorial Screen,” said Parks in an email to The Varsity. “We cleaned off the graffiti but the cleaning job made the names more difficult to read.”

The tower has had no major structural repairs for the past 85 years save for the selective replacement of sandstone masonry 10 and 40 years ago. After the current, multi-year restoration, no major structural repairs are expected to be completed for the next 85 years.

Soldiers’ Tower is the second tallest war memorial in Canada, after the Peace Tower in Ottawa. The 51-bell carillon is the only University-based carillon in Canada and is the site of the University’s annual Remembrance Day service.

“We promised there would be a place of honour for the fallen at U of T,” says Chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee Malcolm McGrath. “The Soldiers’ Tower is that place.”

The tower was originally built through a fundraising drive by the University of Toronto Alumni Association, which raised funds to build the tower and establish loans and scholarships for homecoming soldiers.

There will be free concerts held at the Soldiers’ Tower Sunday afternoons in September featuring reputed guest carillonneurs. A table will also be set-up at the UTSU Clubs Fair on September 10 where students can sign-up for the Carillon Training Program.

To learn more about the Soldiers’ Tower visit alumni.utoronto.ca.

The many shades of Varsity Blues

Going to check out the athletic facilities here at U of T is a task I have avoided for years. Although I’ve always known my tuition fees included a membership to both the Athletic Centre and Hart House, I’ve never taken advantage them.

As a fourth year, soon to be graduate, however, I’m now experiencing some regrets. Not only does U of T offer some of the finest facilities in the country, but also a variety of great options to get active and play the sports you love with your friends and fellow students.

I realized that to make the most of my last year here, it was definitely worthwhile to explore the numerous athletic programs that always were and still are available to me as a U of T student.

To my amazement, I learned that the Athletic Centre hosts 44 intercollegiate teams, and multi-tiered intramural leagues in 26 sports, while Hart House offers numerous classes in movement, fitness, and dance.

The opportunities available to me seemed almost overwhelming and it was then and there that I decided that a full fledged investigation into the vast world of U of T athletics was a must, not just for my own sake, but for anyone who might be looking to get involved.
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I decided to start at the top with the Varsity Blues Program.

The Varsity Blues athletes are the bluebloods around our campus and play against other universities at the intercollegiate level.

Dustin Yu is a member of men’s Varsity Blues badminton team. He is returning for a fifth year with the team and will be finishing up his triple major in political science, sociology, and psychology.

“U of T takes pride in sports. The décor of the Athletic Centre reflects the history of our athletic accomplishments,” said Yu.

Besides possessing both brains and brawn, the Varsity Blues athletes are friendly and down to earth.

“We strive to promote an inclusive environment. We welcome everyone and encourage everybody to participate,” said Yu.

But don’t let Yu’s easygoing manner and humility fool you. The Varsity Blues are some of the hardest working athletes on campus. All varsity players practice five to six times a week for three hours each session. Every two out of three weeks they participate in either an all day or weekend long tournament.

Kristine Drakich, who has been the coach of women’s Varsity Blues volleyball team since 1989, told me that although “it takes a significant amount of experience to be able to play varsity level sports,” students should not give up.

“To the risk-takers go the rewards. We have had people walk in and become starters,” said Drakich.

I began to realize that the Varsity Blues Program might not be what I’m looking for as a novice athlete just looking to have some good, clean fun.

Fortunately, as I was about to find out, there are even more options out there.

Intramural, intercollegiate, and tri-campus athletics are offered to all students through their colleges at the St. George Campus. U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga both have programs of their own.

At this level, recreational sports such as flag football, broomball, and ultimate frisbee can be foundm among the more mainstream sports like basketball and volleyball.

Rachella Valdez, a fourth year student in media studies and international studies at U of T Scarborough is a member of Intramural Division A volleyball there.

“It’s just for fun. It’s a way for everybody to be active in their own community,” said Valdez.

But for the eager amateur not quite ready to play for the Varsity Blues, the Tri-Campus Program is his or her best bet.

“The Tri-Campus Program is between the intramural and intercollegiate and the Varsity Blues Program. It is more competitive than the intramurals, but less extreme than the Varsity Blues,” Valdez explained to me.

This wonderwoman also plays women’s basketball through the Tri-Campus Program.

“Playing sports has made university so much better. In working with my teammates I have learned to be patient and to trust others.

“If you love it that much, you are going to make time. Who needs a boyfriend anyway?” Valdez laughed.

Although I’d say I’m pretty decent at managing my time, I acquiesced to the fact that I might not be able to dedicate quite enough of it to the rigorous demands of being on an intramural team at U of T. What I was looking for was a bit more low key; maybe a once a week type deal.

The instructional classes at Hart House vary in skill level and intensity and provide students with the opportunity to stay fit in a laid-back and comfortable environment.

“We offer movement-based, non-sport specific programs to all U of T students and staff,” explained Tom Moss, a former U of T student and the current the Manager of Recreation and Wellness at Hart House.

Hart House has a long list of free drop-in classes ranging from cardio sala to stretch works and core fusion to aquatics lessons.

Moss said, “Unlike the AC, we are not Varsity-based. The Hart House is historically the gym for the U of T community. By providing programs for all levels from basic to high intensity we aim to promote fitness and well-being to everyone.”

The facilities at Hart House are impressive as well. There’s an upper gym, a lower gym, air conditioned work out rooms, activity rooms, a suspended running track, and a pool.

But what really caught my eye when I was wandering around Hart House was the beautifully manicured garden in the quad complete with tables and chairs where students were reading and drinking coffee. According to Moss, I was “welcome to relax in it.”

That was more like it.

U of T has widest salary gap between genders in Canada

A recently released Statistics Canada report showed U of T to have the widest gap in average salaries between male and female full-time faculty members in Canada, amounting to some $20,158.

The research paper was based on figures from the 2008-2009 academic year, surveying “full-time teaching staff in degree-granting institutions who are under contract for twelve months or more,” including all ranks and disciplines.

Sara-Jane Finlay, director of Faculty and Academic Life at U of T, called the $20,000 figure “a very blunt analysis,” arguing it was not representative of the effective difference in male and female salaries.

“The biggest problems are that there isn’t a distinction made by discipline where there are vastly huge variations in average starting salaries, and in rank, so when you clump all those things together and you’re including in your analysis someone who’s in the humanities who’s just starting out and someone who’s been here for 30 years, is a full professor and works in engineering, management or law, you’ll end up with a massive difference,” says Finlay.

There are two mechanisms by which salaries get increased at U of T. One is an “across the board” increase, usually between 2-3 percent, and the other is “based on merit” — faculty reviews, publications, and the like. “There is no gender dimension to merit,” said Finlay — she therefore attributed the wage discrepancy to two factors.

“The majority of our senior faculty are men and that reflects the demographics of hiring 30 years ago, and the market salary in male-dominated disciplines tends to be significantly higher than the market salary in female-dominated disciplines.”

Finlay stressed that the salaries are “not something [U of T] necessarily sets,” but based on “what universities across North America would offer.”

“Those ones that tend to have higher salaries tend to be in disciplines that are male-dominated: engineering, computer science, management, business, law; those sorts of areas, and the disciplines that traditionally have lower salaries tend to be the ones that are dominated by women, so the humanities, education, some parts of the health sector. So that’s a huge difference right there and that’s an effect of the market,” said Finlay.

Though Finlay couldn’t say why the higher-paid disciplines are male-dominated, calling it “a huge societal question,” she claimed it was changing, with young women entering higher education at unprecedented rates, “so there are more women to become faculty members than there ever were before. I don’t know why there weren’t more women in engineering 20 years ago,” said Finlay. “Now there are.”

As the university has expanded its faculty, they have hired more women — last year, some 50 percent of new faculty hires were female — and Finlay claimed “we’re doing really well in that regard,” maintaining that “if you were to compare like with like — looking at those assistant professors with their starting salaries in the same discipline — you wouldn’t find that kind of difference. If you were to look at man and women in the humanities with same rank there would be very little difference in their salaries.”

Finlay attributed the increased proportion of female faculty to a wider pool of applicants, reflecting U of T’s “proactive recruitment” — trying to ensure they have applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds.

She also noted U of T’s “family-friendly policies,” such as year-long parental leave, childcare and eldercare benefits, and the university’s Family Care Office as contributing elements in the increasingly female faculty.

“It makes it possible for women to work in academia, and we don’t see the opting-out that you do in other industries, or off-ramping it’s called — where women leave in order to have some time for childcare and rarely come back, either at rank or the level or responsibility that they had before. We don’t see that. People leave for childcare and continue to move through the ranks.”

Finlay attributes U of T having the widest discrepancy in Canada to its size and variety of disciplines. “I believe we offer the most varied mix of courses in Canada,” said Finlay, “and so we have the widest range, so other universities that may not have the full range will have a narrower band of salary difference… People who don’t have engineering and law or management won’t have the salary differences we have.”

Iran: beyond the headlines

The new, all leather interior, white hatchback French-made Peugeot I’m riding in is one of the many cars zooming through Sari’s Khee-abooneh [street], Shoonesh, on a hot and humid April evening. Sari, a few hours north of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is a small city with a population of 200,000. If you’re young, privileged, and bored in Sari, Shoonesh is the place to be on a Friday night. Racing through the narrow streets, you only need a passing glance of consent from a neighbouring driver to signal you that they’re down for a challenge. A black BMW X5 cuts off the Peugeot within minutes of driving down Shoonesh. It’s the perfect partner for the girls I’m with this evening.

“Girls, I think he’s the one. Let’s see if he looks,” says Niusha, the driver of the Peugeot. The other girls giggle — there’s a rush of excitement. Is he going to race-flirt back? He makes a left turn at the next intersection, and our hopes subside. “Damn, did you see his car though? Dr. Habibi just imported one like that from Dubai.”

A moment later an orange Peykan — a common, locally manufactured car that hasn’t changed its model since 1960 — honks at us. “Ah-hh [the Persian equivalent of eww], he’s straight out of the Da-hat [ghetto]. He’s borrowed his uncle’s car.” Niusha quickly cuts him off, and we lose sight of him.

Niusha is a second-year architecture major at Daneshga-eh Noor, a university one hour north of Tehran. I had met her the night before at a party held by one of my uncle’s friends. She’s a daughter of one of my uncle’s co-workers. “If there’s an Enghelab [revolution] tomorrow, believe me, we would be the next Europe,” Niusha tells me, in a conversation not about politics, but about shopping. Her black Marc Jacobs dress and black Christian Louboutin pumps definitely help her argument.

The next night when we’re in her car, her Chanel headscarf dangles around her neck instead of covering her hair as dictated by Islamic Sharia law. When I ask her if it’s fine to be driving around the streets without her hijab, she replies, “I just got these highlights today; I don’t want to hide them.”

Niusha’s frank and free attitude toward life detaches my Western, media-oriented perspective from the reality that ordinary Iranians face. There’s a long list of issues brewing in this country: a boorish President, a budding nuclear program, human rights violations, continual unrest after a corrupt 2009 presidential election, and ongoing international sanctions. Yet for a 20-year-old middle-class girl like Niusha, her concerns don’t involve politics: Western headlines don’t define her Iran.
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This is the difference between an Iranian-Canadian like me, and an Iranian like Niusha. When I packed my bags to leave for Iran, I was ready to face the “crude” realities of the country. I had just finished a semester of introductory Persian and had read all I could on Iranian politics and history. I had exhausted every possible conversation related to the future and politics of the Islamic Republic with every single member of my Iranian-diasporic family.

The city of Sari is where I spent much of my trip this past summer. It’s a small rural city in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran, where my mother’s family lives. Sari is known for a lot of things: scenic mountain ranges, some of Iran’s most fertile Shalizars [rice fields], and probably the biggest pool of hospitals and medical doctors in the entire country.

My Dayee [uncle] Homayoun is a pharmacist and medical supplier for Beemarestaneh Shafa [Shafa Hospital], with supply links to the 10 other hospitals that are located in Sari.

My Dayee’s medical connections provide my family with many advantages. Any member of our family has access to private suites in Shafa for the treatment of anything more serious than a cold. I learned of these benefits first-hand due to some unfortunate sinus problems that required a minor operation. The only upside to the illness was a rare case of medical VIP treatment, which, for two nights, included my own private nurse and three-course (albeit hospital) meals in the biggest private room at Shafa. I was living the life, or so the generous supply of codeine was telling me.

My Dayee’s vast network of business and social ties also worked to my advantage by providing me with an invitation to a party attended only by Sari’s medical practitioners. This is where I would meet Niusha. Almost every specialist and surgeon who was not on call in Sari that night was at that party, including my very own anesthesiologist, Dr. Habibi, from my prior week’s hospital visit.

My immediate impression of the luxurious marble-floored apartment, where the soirée was held, was reminiscent of an image of the Stepford Wives. The women and men were divided. The men huddled around the bar where the male host urged his guests to drink. In another room, elegantly poised and groomed ladies sat on big French antique chairs while socializing with each other. I felt a little disappointed when the host sat me in the French antique room. The corner with the alcohol looked like it would lead to a much better night!

Once I met Niusha things started to turn around. I got a quick explanation of who all the guests were. It turned out the party was no ordinary gathering of couples, and the stylish women were more than pretty powdered faces. There were a variety of dentists, family doctors, and plastic surgeons among the guests. The most impressive of all was Sepideh Yazdani, dressed head-to-toe in black, in typical Persian fashion. At only 35 years old, she’s the head of the Department of Gynaecology at Imam Khomeini Hospital, Sari’s largest, and one of the most prestigious medical centres outside of Tehran. Something along the lines of Johns Hopkins, Sari’s Imam is the training ground for the country’s best medical students. Sepideh is the youngest doctor to reach such a position so naturally; this woman, who seems to have it all, intrigues me. She’s happily married with two young daughters and a successful medical career. Not bad in a country that has a codified law that views the worth of women to be exactly half of that of men.

Further investigation into the matter demonstrates a slight complexity regarding the role of women in medicine. While Sepideh’s success is admirable, under Islamic Sharia law, female doctors’ fields are quite limited. There is not a conscious effort by the Iranian regime to promote professional female doctors. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, there has been an ongoing attempt to separate men and women in almost every aspect of day-to-day life to minimize their physical contact. As a result of this gender segregation, only about one third of all medical students in Iran’s medical schools are women.

The party ended up exceeding my expectations, especially as I discovered huddling around the bar was unnecessary — the alcohol was served to the ladies on silver trays.

However, this is only a glimpse of how a small group of Iranians live. The vodka-cranberries served to me as I marveled at the successful and beautifully groomed the ladies around me, were only a part of my enlightenment process.

While I was reading and listening to music on a swing chair in my grandparents’ house, Olliyah, the 20-year-old housekeeper my grandparents had just hired, would join me in her spare time. My grandparents aren’t particularly well off, but help around the house is typical for most Iranians who have some money to spare. Needless to say, the Iran Olliyah inhabits is a completely different country than the one Niusha and Sepideh live in.

Our conversations over a shared bowl of Zeyton Parvardeh [tiny Iranian olives] on the porch are the only instances where I see Olliyah without her headscarf. She resembles Niusha and the female doctors in terms of Persian beauty, but Olliyah’s style is of a different nature. Her uniform around the house is a long bronze silk skirt, a regular long-sleeved cotton blouse, and a synthetic purple scarf with black beads stitched all over. Olliyah becomes barely recognizable when she removes her headscarf. She tells me it’s inappropriate to walk around my grandparents’ home without her hijab when a man she isn’t married to is present.

She sewed her skirt herself and bought her scarf for 1000 toman [CAD $1]. Our first conversation revolves around how it feels to be 20 years old. I tell her about university and my plans for grad school. She tells me about her husband and her plans to sign up her three-year-old daughter for day care in the deh [village] that’s 40 minutes away. It wouldn’t seem like we would have much in common, but we manage to find common ground through a discussion of clothes and our opinions on President Ahmadinejad.

She confesses that she doesn’t know how to read or write. Her 11-year-old brother died in a highway collision riding on the back of a motorbike when she was 14, and she never recovered from the trauma of losing him. She quit school and stayed at home to help her grieving mother take care of her other brothers and sisters. At the age of 17 she was married off to her husband, Shahban, who was 27. For cleaning my grandparents’ house, she and her husband get free room, board, and food. She tells me she’s saving up to buy her daughter a new dress for the next party her mother-in-law is throwing.

A recent headline in Western newspapers covered Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman from the Northwest province of Azerbaijan who was convicted for committing adultery after the murder of her husband. Cases like this certainly expose the sometimes-tragic circumstances of women in Iran. But for others like Niusha, Sepideh, and Oliyah, life goes on in much the same way it does in the rest of the world. There was nothing overtly political about these women’s lives. The prospect of new sanctions imposed on their country didn’t seem like an immediate concern.

Discussions about Iran often centre on the fact that the country has one of the world’s most active civil societies and usually reference the Green Movement that evolved in 2009 to protest the rigged re-election of President Ahmadinejad. None of the three women I met had any particular attachments to the protests.

Sepideh is a doctor at a state-owned hospital — any overt political stance would compromise her job. When I asked Niusha about the protests, she said it was great fun and that she was a supporter of Mir-Hossein Mousavi [Ahmadinejad’s political adversary]. The way she talked about taking to the streets of Sari, it seemed like she protested more as a pastime than a political statement. She had little to say about the policies of the candidates.

Part of Ahmadinejad’s campaign involved visiting the dehs and giving away money to those in need. Olliyah’s parents were among the recipients of these cash giveaways during the months leading up to the June 2009 elections. She firmly believes that Ahmadinejad was the rightful winner of the election, and that the protests weren’t anything more than a disturbance of the peace. “People our age are out of control. The way the girls were dressed when they were protesting, they might as well have forgotten about their hijab. It was out of control … people are upset they threw them into Evin [a prison in Tehran that houses political prisoners], but I’d rather have crazy things happen in the jails than out there on the streets.”

The death of one protester, Neda Agha-Soltan, captured on video and posted on Youtube, was a violent image of political discord. How could we not rally behind the cause of the Green Movement? But that’s the point Olliyah was trying to make. Watching news footage from North America distances us from what is actually happening on the ground.

My encounters with these three women this past summer helped me realize something: Niusha, Sepideh, and Olliyah are all products of their socioeconomic backgrounds. The privileged 20-year-old, the doctor, and the traditional-minded housekeeper all had different opinions and concerns about their country.

I had a conversation with my Iranian friend Shervin a couple of weeks after my trip. We were discussing the 2009 elections and I told him about the possibility of Ahmadinejad actually winning the elections fairly, relating Olliyah’s experience with campaign donations in the dehs. He immediately jumped at me. “So what do you mean? You’re for Ahmadinejad? What has the Green Movement been for then?”

I felt a little taken aback. Was it really that hard to see the situation from a different viewpoint?

I have no definite answer as to who should be governing Iran. I’ve never lived there, and probably never will. But for those Iranians whose lives depend on the actions of the Iranian government, it’s a different story.

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