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Iran’s Brain Drain More of a Flow, Really

by Jason Rezaian


When I first began travelling to Iran in early 2001 one of my initial impressions was how intimate a place it was. Although there were clear divides between what one did in public and behind closed doors, there was also a closeness that was hard to ignore. Six strangers piled into a makeshift Peykan taxi, large families picnicking on a roadside stretch of grass next to a clogged five lane highway, and the crush of pilgrims on holy days in Mashhad are all very common occurrences within the Islamic Republic. With camaraderie comes laughter and dialogue, both welcome sounds that can be rare in many parts of the Middle East.
Toward the end of my first journey to Iran, after being passed around from each extended relative’s home to the next, as I put my life in God’s hands one afternoon, and tried to cross at a busy intersection, I had a realization: This is the first time I’ve been alone in two months.
Many trips later much about Iran looks and feels exactly the same as it did then. The tastes, smells, superstitions and jokes haven’t changed, nor have the living conditions and struggles of most Iranians. Still, it feels evermore confusing.
To Westerners who only know Iran through our own admittedly limited media coverage, it can seem like the land of statistics: 60% of university students are women, two thirds of the population is under 30, Tehran is one of the most populous (and polluted) cities in the world. We’ve all heard them and for good reason; they’re true and easily observed. Less visible, however, are other striking phenomena, including Iran’s high attrition rate among its talented youth, the Brain Drain.

If you go looking for signs of these people in Tehran you won’t find them because, well, they’re gone. Head to Pune or Budapest or Vancouver and you’ll discover legions of young Iranians constructing makeshift communities around their customs and traditions, sprinkled with the liberal and public consumption of beer, something they can’t do back home.
For me, though, their exodus is making my times in Iran much lonelier.
Furthermore, the Iranian public’s increasing infatuation with Western popular culture and unparalled access to it, through the internet and satellite television, is having a deep impact on young Iranians’ images of who they are. Increasingly they are identifying with international ideals of youth through consumption, rather than the local culture and it is making it harder than ever to define what it means to be Iranian.
It took me several trips to realize that these were very real trends and not just coincidences, and by that time I had already become hooked on Iran. What was initially a sad fact about regular visits to a place, whose inhabitants have very real objections to how they are ruled, has become part of my own Shiite reality. In true Iranian form, I am resigned to the idea that with each arrival there will be fresh loss.
It’s now becoming a jarring aspect of every visit, calling familiar phone numbers only to hear a strange voice at the other end, or a recorded message telling me that the “mobile set is off” over and over again.
Like so many of these emigrants though, I now have the feeling of being stuck between two very different worlds, with affection and abhorrence for both. In America I’m continually drawn back to Iran, geographically one of the furthest places in the world from home, and once I’m there, I quickly long for some of the mundane freedoms I’ve come to take for granted.

I’ve formed my own ragtag crew of Iranian friends who’ve recently exiled themselves to the West. Although I was born and raised in the United States, they, like me, feel no connection to the by-product of revolution that is the Iranian American community, with its never evolving pop music and outdated and empty political slogans spouted on satellite television.
I’m thinking now of so many tired pop songs produced in Los Angeles, then imposed on Iranians everywhere. Recently they’ve even turned to writing “protest” songs like ‘Some Day’, the hollow freedom anthem by Nazanin, an Iranian Canadian beauty queen, turned actress/singer and political activist, who is lauded by Iranians all over the world for her commitment to liberty in Iran. I always wonder how people who haven’t set foot in a country for decades can presume to know what’s best for the place, and furthermore have their rants treated like trusted opinions by Western governments often deemed worthy of funding.
These folks have long since lost touch with the reality in Iran, and everyday that they spread their unrefined messages, the concept of Iranian identity becomes more confused, both for non-Iranians, but more destructively to those in Iran aspiring for something more.
Just as many Iranians leave and find themselves in new and unfamiliar lands so different than the ones they had imagined before their departure, our western perceptions of Iran are fatally limited, lacking texture and color. We are all guilty of believing the myths about the other, and for the young Iranian stepping into their new lives and can be an extreme letdown.
Iran bursts with so much possibility that one can become exhausted with anticipation. There is a unique brand of chaos best witnessed in Tehran at night. Pulsating traffic jams, make it impossible to move, but provide young people the opportunity to flirt between car windows, trading SMS messages and suggestive glances. You may be offered to buy beer from a guy on a motorbike; a small thing to us, but Islam’s take on alcohol makes drinking more thrilling than it ever was in high school. Strangers spark conversations with each other, covering all conceivable topics. Contrary to popular belief, no subject is off limits. Ultimately, it’s never boring, with the potential for every sort of imaginable encounter looming around all corners. It is a place that, although officially very repressed emotionally, sexually and creatively, feels alive and vital in the most meaningful way: in terms of human energy.
When they go abroad, especially to the US, many young Iranians are simply bored by the pace of social interaction. Sure, they can drink when and where they want, but so what? Baywatch made an incredible impression on the Islamic Republic and realizing that it’s not really like that here can be difficult to swallow.
The courting of the opposite sex, for example, takes on a much greater sense of urgency when a mutual attraction is uncovered. The where, when and how become imperative, and as one of my cousins memorably told me, “Haji, it’s like a jungle here. You must be ready and act fast. Get her or someone else will.”

When I returned to San Francisco recently I was invited to join the birthday party of another recent Iranian arrival. His girlfriend had called me last minute and told me to meet the group at 7:30 the next evening at Asia SF, a famous restaurant and club that does an all Asian, all transsexual song and dance routine every night. Interesting choice, I thought.
The group consisted of eight people, five of whom had come from Iran to study at UC Berkeley. We drank and laughed, and I loved watching their unsure interaction with the performers. Is it ok to be turned on by these people? was the look on most of their faces. They were a bit shell shocked, I think, by this completely sanctioned sin fest, but not unwilling to participate.
Somehow, though, it seemed boring compared to a night out in Iran, where everything exists as it does here, but in a much rawer, un-institutionalized form. There is no system of public dialogue for hedonism or alternative sexual expression although it exists of course; another example of repression, but also another possibility for true experience.

Just a couple of weeks earlier late one evening in Tehran, I was driving the streets with a good friend Saeed. I find Iran to be most alive when the sun goes down. We were headed north on Valiasr Street, named after the Hidden Imam, an avenue that runs from Tehran deep south to the posh neighborhoods at the foothills of the Alboorz Mountains. At the large intersection still known as “The Peacock Throne” young prostitutes stood around waiting for customers and hopping into the cars of johns, speeding off to locations unknown. A real problem here, but no one seems to be doing much about it.

I started to assume that every girl was working and would sometimes ask, “Is she one, too?” Locals seemed to have developed a radar for them. Saeed laughed at my naiveté. Sometimes, though, when he would point one out I’d tell him, “Maybe. But that one’s a guy.” Tranny spotting is not yet their forte.
Still, there are many advantages to the new lives most Iranians find abroad. I’m consistently surprised to see the “reality” shows on state run television that showcase the misfortunes of Iranians who have left and then come home, expressing the harshness and disappoint of their experiences in the West. These are clearly propaganda plays, and there is no denying how successful many Iranians have become, as it has been identified as one of the immigrant groups in the US with the highest level of education and income.
I wonder to what extent these skills are honed in Iran, living under a nightmarish bureaucracy that seems to mimic purgatory. It becomes very tiring, but it also provides one with a heightened sense of awareness, the ability to follow rules with precision and a knack for quickly identifying how individuals that have something you desire need to be interacted with to achieve the best possible outcome. It’s a never-ending series of finding connections, fortifying relationships with them, gauging when to make bribes and when not to, judging who can be helpful in which situations. It’s a complicated dance, and the public bureaucracy in most Western countries is so much simpler to navigate. Perhaps it this makes it easier for them to get ahead, too.
It’s also quite possible some of the same factors point to their absence from Western political life. By the time they get to the US or Europe they’ve had enough with bureaucracy and would prefer to stay on the sidelines. Another theory I have, though, is that many Iranians seem to be living in a now nearly 30 year long dream; the kind that takes place somewhere they don’t know well, yet is vaguely familiar.
Despite the tension between governments, and the lingering ill well by Diaspora Iranians against the current regime, there has never been so much flow of people, money and information than there is right now. With many western educated Iranians returning to Iran I see a great potential for redefining what being Iranian really means; shedding the bold attachments to conflicting ideologies, while maintaining the subtle curious about that which is different. For Iran the age of extremes has ended.