Iran is much less conservative than Saudi Arabia. For example, women do not have to cover their face, but only wear a scarf over their hair/head. You will often find that the women are wearing jeans (under their long coat which is standard expectation for women there). You also can find many recent movies, Iranian rap music on TV, and BMWs and Mercedes Benz’s in the streets. I saw Gucci and Addidas stores in the market, and there are McDonald’s knockoffs even. What I noticed in the youth is that often they are adopting American style without understanding it very well. That is unfortunate because if there is anything we probably shouldn’t be exporting abroad from the US it is our pop culture. When you realize that much of the middle east’s notion of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ really is seen by many to mean libertine attitudes towards sex and freedom to not follow rules, it becomes easier to see why Iranians religious leaders are not excited about America having an influence in their society and culture. (By the way, the Sunni’s have their radicals– Osama Bin Laden– and the Shia have theirs– Hezbollah.
I’ve noticed that Las Vegas is different than Iran. I got to Las Vegas tonight (Saturday). I’ve been coming here for 5 years for this class I teach on Vegas and LA, and I’m getting used to this place. Not that I like the Gambling or the sexual overtones which are everywhere– they are annoying and I find gambling boring myself…but this is a unique city which appeals to something in a lot of people, and it is probably the wrong sense of freedom which many foreigners confuse with liberty– libertineism. Vegas is where people come to be anonymous and do anonymously stupid things. Of course thats not all its about, but it is a prototype of the commodification of our culture– where you can buy happiness and obtain a license to do what otherwise you would be embarrassed to do. Its a place of extreme leisure and extreme vacation. Here many take what William James used to call a ‘moral holliday’.
In the last couple of years Vegas has come to be known even more pointedly as a place of excess which has led to phenomenal default rates on mortgages. The real estate bubble burst hit here particularly hard as people (in traditional vegas fashion) overbet their hand and ended up with upside down mortgages (owing for example 300,000 on a house which now is valued at less than 200,000).
In a city of Image, Neon and Glitter, it can sometimes be difficult to find substance, solidity, and real meaning. Vegas is a city of hyperrealities– of images of reality which are in some ways better than reality. Like an airbrushed photo on the cover of Vogue, the New York New York casino is much cleaner and safer than its actual counterpart on the east coast, and the Venetian Hotel and Casino has canals with Gondolla boats which are cleaner and much cheaper than the actual ones of Italy which it Mimicks.
Next weekend we go out into the wilderness desert to the south for a few hours and arrive at Joshua Tree National Park. That is a desert wasteland– a beautiful desert wasteland– which is similar to what was here before Vegas came to be created. Joshua Tree is the reality which has been covered over by the concrete, steel and neon of vegas.
Strangely, that desert of Joshua Tree is quite similar to the desert countryside south of Tehran in Iran as well. The desert is where the early church fathers used to escape to to get away from the crowds and the busyness of the cities. Being in Vegas, its pretty easy to relate to that desire in the early church fathers…
May God have mercy on us all…