The Mote in Thy Sister’s Eye

We all live in different worlds, don’t we? I suppose that’s what makes travel so interesting: to see how widely dissimilar regions and disparate societies recognize and deal with comparable problems. How, for example, they might attempt to solve the ever-growing dilemma of urban pollution. The Chinese, remember, shut down many polluting factories for part of the Olympics they hosted. It was a short term fix, to be sure, but the effects were visibly evident.

Activists, or even cities in other countries have attempted different, longer term solutions with varying success. A common one seems to be restricting the amount of vehicles on the roads, whether by licence number, type of vehicle, or on certain days of the week. The success depends on whether or not it strikes a chord in the society but, probably more importantly, whether or not it is voluntary or officially mandated. And by whom…

There is always the possibility of unintended, unforeseen consequences however bold and thoughtful the concept. Consider the deceptively simple idea of ‘car-free Tuesdays’ in Iran: ‘[…] campaigners in Iran began marking “car-free Tuesdays” to encourage people to leave their cars at home in the hope of cutting down on pollution.’ The BBC article was reporting on a story in the Tehran Times, and I’ve included the link. ‘Tuesday was chosen because it is in the middle of Iranian week when traffic congestion is high and air pollution at peak.’

All well and good, even if unofficial and as yet unsanctioned, ‘the campaign was kicked off by Mohammad Bakhtiari, 25, who has majored in architecture and is a member of a local NGO with 1,000 members known as “the guardians of the environment of Arak city.’ It seemed like a good idea –it is a good idea- but there are issues… The idea was to encourage people to use alternate, less polluting forms of transportation –buses, or perhaps car-pooling, but especially bicycles to get around the city. Iran is a very conservatively run theocratic society, and women have long had to conform to various religiously mandated restrictions. And yet, ‘It had been understood women that [sic] could cycle as long as religious concerns were respected. But when asked recently, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, said women were not allowed to cycle in public or in the presence of strangers.’

Of course I’m not from Iran, nor do I even pretend to understand Islamic legal opinion, but I think that this fatwah –if such it is- involves a fair amount of cognitive dissonance even in a society that is used to seemingly arbitrary restrictions being imposed upon it. Presumably atmospheric pollution was not something anticipated in religious jurisprudence –it’s barely appreciated in civil law even today. A Fatwah, I’m given to understand however, is expected to break new ground –otherwise it might be considered simply a ruling –a considered opinion on the interpretation of existing writings. So I’m puzzled as to why, given the chance to become responsible caretakers of the Divine Creation which all religions purport to acknowledge, that the opportunity would not be seized and glorified. It might even go a long way towards mollifying some of the public antipathy about some of the more obviously capricious restrictions.

Just a thought, though… Why can’t women do their parts? If they adhere to religious codes of dress and conduct, aren’t they as much stewards as anybody else? Of course it’s now gone Twitter… And the social media campaign founder Masih Alinejad has said, “It is unacceptable in 2016 when you hear that a group of female cyclists have been arrested in Iran for the crime of riding a bike in a public place and made to sign a pledge promising they will not cycle in public again.” She is speaking out from the relative safety of New York, however. And I am writing from the relative safety of New Zealand… I ask myself why that should matter.










The Gyne Phone

The iconoclasts were people who destroyed religious icons for various reasons. It’s a practice that began thousands of years ago. And somebody’s messing with the icons again -but this time, it’s the  iconoplasts

The icon has ancient roots and the word derives from the Greek word eikon meaning ‘likeness’ or ‘image’. Originally, it was usually a religious depiction of a god, or saint, but destruction of icons (iconoclasm –clasm deriving from the Greek word Klan, meaning to break) gradually morphed into destructive acts against the status quo. However, given the ubiquity of the computer, icons today usually refer to representative symbols on the screen of different options or programs.

Before written traditions gained a foothold, the dissemination of information or tribal history depended on oral transmission –i.e. on memory. But this presented some problems in terms of the sheer volume and accuracy of what needed to be passed along. Addressing this issue, Wikipedia (sorry!) notes: “Without the use of writing systems to transmit information through time, oral cultures employ various strategies that serve similar purposes to writing. For example, heavily rhythmic speech filled with mnemonic devices enhances memory and recall. A few useful mnemonic devices include alliteration, repetition, assonance, and proverbial sayings. These strategies help facilitate transmission of information from individual to individual without a written intermediate…”

Then, with the advent of written transmission of information, one can imagine a gradually increasing dependence on this and perhaps a decline in the need for the enhanced memory techniques so necessary before:  At the time, I suspect this phase would have been fraught with objections from those traditionalists concerned about the atrophication of memory itself. Change is worrisome; it can have unintended consequences…

Well, the Phoenix has once again been aroused:  It seems that since most of us carry instantly –and ubiquitously- available information around with us in the form of smart phones or tablets, there is little need to memorize phone numbers or even addresses. And even less incentive, since we might remember them incorrectly. Egad!

I’ve noticed the transition over the years in my practice. At first, the patients would come in with lists –questions written on usually irretrievable little pieces of paper stuffed into their purses. Of course if they couldn’t find the lists, some of them then made desultory attempts to remember what they had written, but often to no avail. I became quite skilled at offering clues as to what they might want to ask, but alas, that too atrophied as time and computing advanced. It’s a two-way street, I guess. Use it or lose it.

But my younger patients (of course) appear to have taken it to extremes –or at least, so it seems to me… Judin was the most recent example, I think. She was a twenty-something woman of Persian extraction and she had come to me because of abnormal pap smears. Otherwise healthy, she sat proud and unmoving like a marble goddess in the chair opposite my desk. Her eyes tiptoed to my face and sat there like curious birds. She was dressed casually in a pale blue sweat shirt and white jeans, and as she moved her head from time to time, her earrings tinkled like little bells hiding inside her long, dark gleaming hair. Her phone lay dormant on her lab, but I could see her right hand clutching it like another equally precious jewel.

I commented on how beautiful and unusual I found her name and she smiled serenely, tossing her hair nonchalantly back and over her shoulders. “It’s the name of a village in Iran where my cousin was from. She came to live with my parents but died before I was born.”

“A village near Tehran?” I have to admit I was approaching the limits of my knowledge about Iran –my knowledge of its geography, at any rate.

She shook her head and the tinkling started again. “No, it’s in a very dry and poor region of the Sistan and Baluchistan province in the south east corner of my country -by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea,” she added helpfully, but she could read the confusion on my face. “Tehran is quite far north near the Caspian Sea.” She stopped for a moment to smile. “Judin is in the middle of nowhere.” Her eyes twinkled this time instead of her earrings. “Honestly!”

Judin –the woman- was obviously well versed in geography and family history, and I would have loved to pursue it further, but I realized, as did Robert Frost, that ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’… I had to press on with the consultation.

Some of the questions were background issues –housekeeping data that I needed to acquire to ensure I would not miss any other information that might be relevant to her abnormal pap smears. “When did your last period start?” I asked, assuming this would be a good place to start.

She smiled, and called her eyes back to roost while she lifted her phone from her lap like a religious icon. She tapped at it for a moment. “Just a minute,” she said sweetly enough. “Gotta find the app…” I could see her scrolling through the screen, her face intense, her body rigid. “Oh, here it is,” she said and glanced at me. “What was the question?”

“When did it start?” I prompted, fascinated by the effort she was making in her search.

I lost her eyes for a moment as they disappeared behind her lashes and then her lashes behind her hair as it fell forward when she lowered her head. “Well…” I could tell she was into it now: her voice seemed strained and I could see she was really concentrating. “…I’m having it now, and they only last 3 or 4 days since I started on the birth control pill…” Suddenly her face surfaced before she could restart a smile. “I don’t actually know… I guess I forgot to enter it.” She blushed and her smile disappeared. “Sorry,” she said, and looked at her phone again. “I’m going to say ‘yesterday’…” She thought about it for a moment. “No, it must have been the day before, or I probably would have remembered it.” She assumed the goddess pose again. “Yes,” she said, but more firmly now –more assertively. “Yes, it was two days ago!” She looked at me with an almost smug expression on her face that seemed to say “Isn’t technology wonderful?”

I nodded and entered the date in my computer –my substitute for her smart phone, I suppose. “And were your periods regular when you were not on the pill?” She looked at me strangely. “You know, once a month…?” I added.

She hoisted the phone once more and scrolled through it looking for the app again. It seemed to be taking a long time, so I pretended to bang my mouse against my coffee cup accidentally. “Yes,” she said hesitantly and without looking up. “But, you know I wish all months had the same number of days. Eyeballing the calendar to see if it’s the same would be so much easier.” She glanced at me, and then submerged her face in the phone again. “It’s easier to count the days I bleed than the ones I don’t.” Another glance to see if I was following her. “Fewer squares to count,” she added to make sure I understood.

“Maybe you should suggest that to the app-people,” I said, wondering if I’d used the correct word.

“You mean the IT people? The software engineers?” She smiled at me like a mother might to correct her young child. “What a great idea!” she said, when the idea struck home.

But I’d been skipping about in taking her history, and I thought I’d make sure I’d obtained the entire historical data before moving on to more pertinent issues. The age of menarche -or first period- can sometimes be helpful gynaecological information. “Do you remember how old you were when you first began to menstruate?” I could see a puzzled expression taking control of her face. I thought maybe English might be her second language and ‘menstruate’ might not be a word she would hear around the house. “When did you start your periods?”

The puzzled look disappeared, and a different one –an almost irritable one- replaced it. “Two days ago…” She cocked her head as if I hadn’t heard her the first time. But she was willing to forgive it, I could tell.

“No…” I paused for a moment, in order to figure out how to phrase it more clearly for her. “I mean you probably started to have your periods when you were quite young… Do you remember what grade you were in, or where you were living when you had that very first one?”

She nodded her head and stared at something on the wall behind me as if she was thinking about it. “I was young alright, but…”

I waited, for a moment or two and was just about to tell her to forget about it so we could move on when she suddenly fixed me with another puzzled stare. I could feel the weight of her eyes sitting on my glasses like two passenger pigeons that had already delivered their message.

“I can’t answer that question, doctor,” she said and sat back in her chair. My eyebrows must have moved because I could see her sigh in disbelief at my ignorance. “I didn’t have a phone then…” she said and shrugged. It was so obvious!


Cohabitation is the bête noir of some cultures and the realization of a belle époque for others. Lascivious as it sounds, it doesn’t necessarily exemplify freedom and liberation, though -it is a direct and unsubtle abnegation of long held moral and religious values for many. But why? Why would the decision to share one’s life need justification? Exculpation? And who should even dare claim the authority? Or, for that matter, the need to consecrate it? Given the rising divorce rate –even in strictly Muslim countries such as Iran where the rate currently sits around one in five- one would think it would make sense to recognize the need for more experience of the shared responsibilities of relationship, more knowledge of the partner, more time to adjust before a final commitment.

I have to admit that I approach the concept of relationship from a liberal Western perspective –more particularly, a Canadian view- where there are state-sanctioned civil ceremonies that bypass the need for a religiously approved union, and where once cohabitation has existed for more than 18 months, with dissolution, there are requirements to divide and allocate any assets –including children-  as if a legal commitment had been undertaken. A recognition, in other words, that because cohabitation is likely to occur whether or not sanctioned by some authority, there are still legal responsibilities that accompany it. From my perspective, that seems a fairly pragmatic and ecumenical way to mete out justice for something that, whether or not officially blessed, cannot be prevented.

So why the resistance? An unwillingness to acquiesce to moral depravity? A fear of loss of authority, either secular or religious? The all-pervasive concern of elders that the old ways are under threat? Or maybe just an underlying distrust of other ways of doing things, other ways of being in the world? After all, societies that have segregated themselves and become distinct have developed customs that are also distinct. Their foundational myths and folkways have hardened into inviolable practices that others don’t share. It’s what binds a culture together –like the nation state, like patriotism, like the sure and certain knowledge that the forbearers had a reason to think and act as they did- a deeply held belief that others are not like us.

We are all like this to a greater or lesser extent. We fear what is new, or different –especially if it comes to us from them. With their seal of approval. And unless we want to become like them, and assume all their mistaken and misguided beliefs –in essence actually become them- we must resist. And resist with the guidance and blessings of whatever authority we most respect. Indeed, it is their duty to justify and sanctify our resistance.

But I am drawn ineluctably to the notion of relational or relative values: the idea that what a society or group determines is appropriate, also determines the values of members of that group. A simple and organic concept to be sure, but one that is too often neglected in our assessment of the beliefs of the larger society to which the group belongs. Or perhaps more importantly, of the beliefs of the authorities who purport to speak on behalf of the state. Of the constraints they impose -or attempt to impose…

Of course, many will argue that some things are simply wrong; to think of them in any other way is self-evidently immoral –sinful, if the concept of sin as opposed to iniquity exists in the cultural framework. But that merely pushes the argument into another dark alley: why is something immoral in one culture and acceptable –or at least tolerated- in another? Is the other culture necessarily and unequivocally mistaken –even depraved- by default? If one side is right, is the other side therefore completely wrong? Partially wrong? Or just different?  It seems to me this is an important distinction: difference can be tolerated as a rule; being wrong cannot. It opens too many other doors. Escape routes for the less committed. The fringe-dwellers.

And yet, history has shown that if enough people begin to do something –even something that was anathema to previous generations- it can dwell unmolested in the shadows, camouflaged in the background and eventually emerge as something new and exciting for the young, its offence muted by a generational wink.

It seems to me that Iran, among others, may be changing like that.

Homogeneity is deceptive; immerse yourself in a culture, dive below the surface and it is boiling, fermenting, swirling with difference that is often invisible from above. Generalizations about it are just that: macroscopic observations that miss the microscopic, the constituent parts that are so essential to the whole.

So, is the cookie the result or the cause of the recipe?