Geopolitics

Salimi Saga: How The Iranian Revolution Changed One Family

Women in the streets of Tehran, Iran
Women in the streets of Tehran, Iran
Ghazal Golshiri

SARI — On this frigid January night, Maliheh Salimi's home is brimming with excitement. A rental company delivered metal chairs and tables early in the morning. Pink and white balloons were inflated; lace was knotted in the shape of a butterfly and pinned on the walls. Large pans, full of rice that Maliheh had left to simmer in a mix of water and salt, are steaming on a gas stove. The 57-year-old woman says she's lucky: One of the apartments in her building, in the modest neighborhood of Shahran (west of Tehran), was free this month, and the landlord agreed to let her use it as a temporary venue for her second-born son Amir's engagement party.

Part of the family traveled from Sari, a city in the north of the country. The Salimi* family are a bit like the protagonists Emir Kusturica's movie Underground: Within a few seconds, they can go from total silence to a frenzied dance, clapping their hands and shuffling their feet, while the most inventive of them borrow saucepans and trays from the kitchen to use as makeshift drums.

Women have arrived dressed in black chadors (the full-body veils worn by the most traditional and religious Iranian women). They slip away to change and quickly reappear in chadors of lighter shades, as they are inside and it is time to party. In the room, the marble floor and white walls are lit by raw neon light. Other women are wearing ample dresses with long sleeves and have chosen simple headscarves instead. Some — the younger ones — wear makeup, short skirts, their heads uncovered. All of them gathered in the same Salimi family. The venerable Madame Salimi is the eldest: At 80, she is the mother of some, the sister of others, or their aunt. But this evening, she is first and foremost the grandmother of the groom-to-be.

Looking at her, and even knowing her well, you couldn't possibly fathom how different her generation was from the ones that followed. Those differences — however trivial they may seem — really are evolutions, freedoms that were obtained gradually through everyone's resistance against the rigidity of Iranian society and, on a smaller scale, against that of the family. This is what makes the Salimis a perfect example of the kind of middle-class, educated families who have transformed themselves, and, in turn, transformed Iranian society since the revolution of 1979.

In the family's hometown of Sari, back when Madame Salimi's legs still allowed her to walk the streets of her neighborhood, people would stand to greet her. She is a generous woman who has earned the respect of the inhabitants. In Sari, if someone has a problem, they know where to turn. Madame Salimi always finds a solution.

I still remember the doors I'd knock on.

Her reputation dates back to before the revolution. In the 1970s, her husband was an outspoken critic of the dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After dark, he would lower the shutters of his copy shop and, with the help of his two eldest sons, Ali and Ramin, photocopy the press releases of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The great leader, driven out of Iran in 1964, was then living in exile in France. "I was 14 years old when, one day, I saw my parents sitting on our attic floor," recalls Ramin, now 54. "My father would start his tape recorder and stop it a few seconds later. My mother would write the words down: ‘We … the people … of Iran." It was a press release from the imam (Khomeini.) An opponent to the regime, all the way from France, was dictating the imam's words to another revolutionary in Iran, who recorded them on a cassette and would then distribute it around. And so on and so forth, from house to house, the words circulated throughout the country in just a few days."

In Sari, to inform people that a protest was about to take place, Ramin would take his bike, following his father's advice, and pedal his way through the streets, knocking on doors to ask every inhabitant to tell four others: "The next morning, we met where we had agreed and, suddenly, there were 500 people! An hour later, 2,000…. Magnificent! I still remember the route I'd take, and the doors I'd knock on."

Overthrowing the Pahlavi dynasty was then felt as a necessity for many, due to the repressive climate and the dictatorial character of the system. Ramin's sister, Maliheh, remembers when going back to school after deciding to cover her hair with a scarf. She was 15, then: "The headmistress first refused to let me enroll because, on my ID photo, I was wearing a headscarf."

Women walking in Tehran in July 2018 — Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/ZUMA

Everyone who is old enough remembers the day the Shah left the country, in February 1979, and even more so the day that imam Khomeini returned to Iran, from France, after almost 15 years of exile. "Those were our first national holidays ever!" says Ramin. What happened next is like watching a film on fast-forward. The Islamic Republic was established the same year. But in November 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. Ramin followed in the footsteps of his eldest brother, Ali, and left for the front lines. "Both of them wanted to fight," Madame Salimi remembers. "Even if I had told them no, they still would have left. They were in love with their country and with the revolution."

Beneath the bombs, in the southwest of Iran, close to the border with Iraq, Ramin recalled getting ready for his Baccalaureate exam with the help of a few school books a friend had sent him. He passed his exam in Ahvaz and when he returned to Sari for a surprise visit, he caught his two little brothers as they were playing chess. "I broke the chessboard in two and chucked it into the trash. And yet, I used to love that game ..." Ramin recalls. Chess had just been prohibited and remained as such until 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini lifted the restriction.

After a year on the front, Ramin enrolled in a howzeh, a religious school, with the goal to become a member of the clergy, "because their family was religious and all the universities all closed around that time," following the cultural revolution of 1980-1983. As the Islamic Republic was conducting a purge on "Western elements' in the education system, Ramin became a high school teacher, teaching philosophy, logic, religion, and the Arabic language.

It's also the time when Ramin decided to change his name to Mohsen, "more conventional" and adapted to a religious career under the turban. "My former name sounded a bit too "cool guy,"" he says with a smile.

I liked my life as it was.

The years went by. In 1988, the war with Iraq ended, with the overall death toll between 500,000 and 700,000. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died; Mohsen walked dozens of kilometers to attend the funeral. "As a leader, he was as charismatic as can be. We idolized him," he says today. The following decade, the young man carried on with his religious studies, while getting a Bachelor's in political science and a Master's in history. That's when he decided he did not want to become an imam after all. "I liked my life as it was."

Society changed. The shadow of war faded, life resumed its course. Zeinab, the youngest daughter of the family, born in 1981, turned out to be a rebellious teenager: At 14, she decided not to wear her headscarf at family celebrations, against the advice of her older brothers. "Ramin and Ali kept criticizing me," she recalls. Zeinab became the target of rumors about her relationships with boys. In a small town like Sari, she was seen as too frivolous, not respectable enough.

In Tehran on Feb. 14, 2018 — Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/ZUMA

In 1997, after years of what many consider "wishy-washy" politics, reformer Mohammad Khatami's candidacy awakened sections of society that saw the possibility of a new era in this man, likely to bring forth more political and societal openings. Mohsen would wind up campaigning for the candidate along with his students.

Khatami's landslide victory in the first round was a surprise. Newspapers were created, freedom of speech increased. Women claimed more rights. Civil society took root. Ramin gradually stopped using his new name. Once a strictly pious man, he started shaking hands with his female cousins from time to time. In the family, things started changing too: While before, someone's absence was brushed away by a vague "oh, he's on duty at the hospital," separation and divorce were now no longer taboo.

Zeinab ended up marrying her boyfriend. The two had been meeting up in secret for more than seven years, but Madame Salimi refused to acknowledge the young man's existence before his parents officially came to ask for the hand of Zeinab, now a 37-year-old doctor. "Because of my position in the town, I could not consider him my daughter's boyfriend," says Madame Salimi. "That just wasn't the way things were done." Choosing to marry your boyfriend wasn't done either — but that's what happened. The couple now has a daughter, Asal.

Everyone knew something was wrong.

But the "greatest ordeal that God has planned" for the Salimi family happened in 2009. That's when Shaghayegh, the niece of Ramin and Zeinab and Madame Salimi's granddaughter, decided she wanted a sex-change operation. Such interventions had been authorized in Iran following a 1981 fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, but in a small town like Sari where everyone knows each other, how were they to face this "shame," this "disgrace"? How could they avert such a disaster? Even Zeinab, the youngest and most progressive of the siblings, struggled to make her peace with Shaghayegh's decision.

"I've always behaved like a boy," says Siyavash — the name Shaghayegh chose after transitioning. "I hated being called ‘Miss." Everyone in our family knew that something was wrong, but at the same time, nobody wanted me to do anything about it." Siyavash, now 30, runs a restaurant in Sari. He says that his parents, aunts and uncles "cried a lot, but they've finally come to terms with it."

Siyavash underwent surgery twice in 2015: to remove his uterus and ovaries, and then his breasts — two operations whose costs were partly covered by social security and a health insurance fund. Every now and then, a member of his family will inadvertently call him "Shaghayegh," before immediately rectifying. Seeing Siyavash for the first time after his transition is always a source of concern for the family. Like tonight, for instance, at Amir's engagement party.

Siyavash catches a couple of furtive glances, particularly aimed at the nascent black hair of his beard and mustache. "They are very religious and strict. It doesn't take much to look at them and read in their eyes what they think," says Ramin, glazing over at a group of women in white chadors sitting in the marble room. But that doesn't seem to bother Siyavash, who flaunts a bow tie — and a matching purple sweater — and dances, as a man comfortable in his body. "I feel better," he says. "This isn't heaven, but it's a lot better than the hell I used to live in."

The Salimi family is hardly an isolated case. According to Zeinab, the youngest of her generation, born two years after the revolution, "almost all families have gone through more or less similar experiences, the same evolutions." Glancing toward Madame Salimi, she adds: "Even my mother has changed."


*Names were changed at the request of those concerned.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ