Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflections on my trip to Iran

I decided to take a little jaunt to Iran for a few weeks in October. I know that to many of you it really doesn't seem like the vacation of your dreams but to me it makes sense. I like to see first hand what is going on in the world and to have a personal reference when watching the news. It brings current events to life for me. (More thoughts on this) I have been trying to schedule this trip for more than two years and have been interested in Iran for much of my life. Years ago my father did economic consulting for the Shah's government and we were on his holiday card list. Those cards were displayed in our foyer for years.

Timing wise, I might have picked two of the most rhetoric filled weeks in Iranian/American history. Figuring out to what write has been really difficult since I've been assaulted by political punditry speaking of the possible war and a diatribe of inaccurate images and messages on the news. What I saw on the ground seemed vastly different than what I expected.

"Be Careful"

First off, before I left, people often said "be careful". Throughout my trip I kept trying to figure out what they meant. What was I supposed to be afraid of? I'd been to Afghanistan where tanks were patrolling the streets and bombs were going off on one side of town when I was on the other. Iran, on the other hand, is modern. I mean I didn't even have to worry about stumbling over a pothole since well paved streets and clean clear sidewalks are the norm. Crossing the street in the fast traffic definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck, but they weren't gunning for me, they just had places to go and people to see.

Were my friends afraid that as an American I was going to be targeted? Well, maybe I was, but in a rock star sort of way. Ironically this is the one country I've been to that I wished I had an American flag sewn on my bag. I have never been received the way I was there. When people found out we were Americans, we were greeted with enthusiasm, curiosity and mostly just plain humbling hospitality. Merchants gave us free merchandise. Little girls asked me to sign their hands. (Is that rock star or what?!?!) I guess one thing became really clear, if you tell people they can't have something they really really want it and talking to Americans is no exception. Apparently the same is true with sex and alcohol there too. Lots of stuff happens behind closed doors.

Were they afraid I was going to get arrested? I'm still trying to figure out what was going on there. I didn't notice much more of a military presence than in New York. Yes, I had to follow the rules, which meant wearing hijab (a headscarf) and a manteau (a trench coat that definitely lived up to New York style). We did have a guide with us most of the time and didn't get to meet with many of the people we were told we would meet with. (Its unclear whose fault that is, the group, the government or the fact that meeting with a large group of Americans in the current political climate is a bit like wearing a target on your back, so maybe they didn't want to meet with us.) While we were there we were constantly reminded not to take pictures of the police or government buildings, so the idea that things were secretive definitely penetrated. We were reminded that the US has spent 75 million dollars on a covert attempt to destabilize the Iranian government, so naturally it makes sense for them to be a little suspicious of us.

I'm not so naive that I can say that I don't think the government knew I was there and was interested in who I was talking to. Our itinerary had to be approved before we arrived in the country. But I have been to quite a few totalitarian countries and I didn't feel as watched over as I have felt in the past. I personally was impressed on how many people wanted to tell me their politics and they didn't seem to be looking over their shoulder the whole time when they did. People would walk right up to us and ask "is the US going to bomb Iran?" They would tell me that Ahmedinejad was bad and that Bush was bad too and they wanted to know what I thought. Others shared their frustration with the faltering economy and many shared their hopelessness about the current situation. Contrary to Bush/Cheney speak there is plenty of debate happening in Iran on the future of Iran. They say Shia Islam encourages debate. Some people are used as an example and punished, but they speak up again and again anyway because debate is the Persian way.

The Women

As a Westerner its very hard for me to comment on gender rules in other countries, since I can hardly figure them out in my own country, but here are some observations. I mostly only went to cities and that taints what I saw, but a HUGE percentage of Iranians live in cities, so I got a feeling for at least how the half lived and I'll have to learn more about the other half though other channels. In the cities, the Iranian women I saw seemed strong, educated, hip, opinionated, giggly, spirited, beautiful and stylish. While its clear that women and men are treated differently in many ways, I think our Western views are worse than the reality. Women drive, vote, work and get educated. In fact, Women are attending universities in record numbers. Over 70% of the students at universities are women. While conversations told me that younger women feared marriage and being under their new husbands rule of law, the reaction to this meant they were avoiding marriage for as long as they could by pursuing education well into the PHD track. In my opinion all this education is going to lead to change, even if it happens slowly.

No one I had met had been arrested for breaking the dress rules, but many cursed the veil. I was told that usually dress rules are enforced at specific periods for about a month every year and its announced on the news everyday so women know when to be sure to dress the right way. I saw many women pushing the envelope wearing tight sweatshirts over their manteaus, thus accentuating their body lines or wearing their hajib low on their head so plenty of their hair showed... Many people say these small changes obscure the fact that most things haven't changed much, but from an uninformed eye, it looked like small progress to me.

When I wore the traditional hajib many men and women asked me what I thought of it. My truthful answer, that I sort of liked it, brought surprised looks. (More on this) Of course, I always said that no one should be forced to dress in any particular fashion and that that type of rule seemed strange to me as an American. Besides its definitely hot!

Small things made me feel this culture is more open to women than I thought and all of them are subject to interpretation. First, I thought I wasn't going to get one picture of a women in Iran. Islam demands modesty and requires women to not show off their faces. In most Islamic countries I've been to that means no one will let you take a photo of them. In Iran this was not the case. For the most part, every time I got the nerve up to ask, I got a yes in response. Silly observations showed that women could easily be found shopping for makeup, lingerie or even racy racy dresses with slits up to the panty line! (I really wish I had gotten a picture to show you the lace and leopard prints.) Life in Iran happens behind closed doors. There people take off their headscarves and reveal fashionable form fitting clothes. They also drink, dance, listen to music and talk politics. While the in other totalitarian countries, neighbors spy on neighbors and help enforce laws, Iranians have mostly resisted this so their homes can be havens from the rules of the street.

I believe that the only way to get real change in Iran is by taking baby steps and making the mullahs come to terms with change as it happens. Sudden pushes for modernization in the 60's and 70's in Afghanistan and Iran, were met with a massive conservative reaction. Right now over 70% of Iran's population is under 30. Many have access to the internet and satellite dishes. They hardly remember the Islamic Revolution or the Iran/Iraq War beyond propaganda on billboards and instead are interested in making money and living a life like they see others in the world live. They are steadily bringing change to society.


I have traveled in many Islamic countries and the religious presence is less visible on the streets of Iran than in many of those other places. The tourist route is filled with Islamic history. There are big beautiful historic mosques with tile work so ornate and stunning that it almost brought me to tears. I've never seen anything as magnificent before. The symmetry has a soothing feel and the architecture is vast and soaring. I was struck by the fact I rarely heard call to prayer, something that in some countries happens loudly, 5 times a day, shouted from the minarets all around a city.

In fact, the calls to prayer are one of the things I really love about traveling in Islamic countries. While our press makes it all sound fanatical, personally I feel like each call is a reminder to sit back and think about life and what you want and what you have. As far as I can tell, from my "why can't we all just get along" perspective, Islam in practice is like Christianity for me. People worship in big utterly beautiful spaces to be reminded of morality and the importance of family, community, working hard... After seeing the Iranian mosques I kept thinking if Christians saw how beautiful Islamic places of worship are, they would be less scared and more understanding of the Muslim faith.

The Islamic faith plays a role in Iranian culture, but it was estimated to me that only about 50% of the people in the cities attend mosque services weekly and I have read statistics that put that number drastically lower. I'm not sure what the US church attendance number is but I think its somewhere close to that. The numbers are much higher in the rural areas though. I even heard a story that in Tehran people go out in the street to try to lure worshipers into the big prayer services, since Friday noon prayer is used to deliver the main messages of the Islamic Government and a good turn out is crucial for the TV shots.

Hajib and chadors and other government rules in the name of Islam are sometimes more political than faith based. In Iran, its hard to make those distinctions because politics and religion are one and the same since the theocratic elite run the government. They don't make a distinction between religion and politics like we do. Religion is certainly seen as a way to control the actions of the people and I'm not going to say they aren't successful in many ways, but Persians see themselves as more evolved than that. They believe in art and poetry and all those things play a role in defining who they are. They believe that other religions should be allowed to practice reasonably freely as long as their people follow the government rules. For instance, Jewish and Armenian Christian women must cover eventhough its not part of their religion. One example is that although alcohol is officially banned in the country, Armenian Christians are allowed to produce alcohol for their religious services. Since Iranians still like their drinks, the Armenians end up being the alcohol providers for all of the country's private parties.

History and Culture

Persians are proud people. They see themselves as culturally superior to the other groups in the region. Their origins are Aryan or in other words from Northern Europe thousands of years ago. Iran has been on the crossroads of many civilizations. They sit prominently on the Silk Road and trade played an enormous role in their history. They are the country of origin for some of the Eastern World's greatest poets. In fact, an Iranian poet Saadi is quoted on the entrance of the Hall of Nations at the UN. The tombs of Hafez and Saadi are major gathering places in Shiraz, a Southern city. Music, miniature painting and other arts also play a role in Iranian identity. The Islamic government tried to outlaw many forms of culture and arts for the first few years after the Revolution, but it was clear that this is part of Iranian identity that they couldn't take away. Dancing is still illegal, which is very strange since the music is almost impossible not to dance to, but it is sensuous and therefore too tempting to the sexes. Once again, behind closed doors there is plenty of dancing going on, but it is publicly outlawed.

Remnants of Persian history can be seen throughout the country. We visited Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the administrative center of the Achaemenid Empire led by Darius the Great. At the height of the Empire, it spanned 3 continents. Persepolis was built in 520 BC. It served as one of the empire's capitols until it was destroyed in 330BC by Alexander the Great. What remains on the huge site are beautiful carvings and columns. Near the site are amazing tombs carved in the side of cliffs for Darius and his sons. We also went to the tomb of Cyrus the Great. While traveling in Iran you clearly feel that the Persian Empire played a major role in world history and Iranians are deeply proud of this history. Tehran is filled with museums that display great antiquities from Persian history.

Current Politics

Although I went to Iran in hopes of learning first hand a lot more about the current political situation, I can't clearly say I know what is going on. As is often true about totalitarian regimes, I may have only seen what they let me see. I was able to put a face on this "not as evil as we hear" empire. I discussed with regular people what they thought was going on. I learned about the economic pain the sanctions bring. I saw that many governments are maintaining relations with Iran even if the US isn't. I can't say I learned much about the new wave of arrests, but I definitely heard that they are used to control the people. I drove by the uranium enrichment site in Natanz that we are hearing so much about and saw many anti aircraft guns that certainly are protecting something. The "strategic" bombing that we hear about would be very difficult since the Revolutionary Guard sets their sites in the middle of major population centers so massive casualties would be a reality of any plan. I personally think that Iran wants a nuclear bomb to get the respect in the region they think they deserve. If they had a bomb the US would not be able to treat them the way it does now and since Persians think they are superior to Arabs they want us to see them that way too. People also constantly reminded us that Iran has never attacked outside its borders before and there is no reason to believe it will do it now.

I was impressed that Iranians can have such a positive view of Americans and can separate their feelings for our government from their feelings for us. I don't think that Americans are able to make that distinction. Instead I felt embarrassed thinking about how they would be treated in my country. For those of you that don't know, Iran was the only country in the Middle East to march in solidarity with the US after the 9-11 attacks. The streets filled with massive candlelight vigils. Even today in polls the perception of the US is higher in Iran then in any other Middle Eastern nation.

Mostly, I learned what is usually true, that things are much more complicated than the US press reveals. I feel very lucky to have the chance to face stereotypes and misinformation right in the eye and try to uncover what is really going on. Travel is a real privilege. Even as the world gets smaller with more TV and press coverage, its different to go to these places and see them first hand. So many sights fly in the face of my preconceived images. I hope each of you will take a moment to walk off the beaten path and challenge your stereotypes. If you can't make it all the way to Iran, how about stopping at a shop across town and starting a conversation with someone who doesn't look like you.

I have endless things to say but have to stop somewhere so feel free to email with any questions. Also my photos are posted below and there are many more thoughts posted there.


Anonymous said...

whitney r. sent me your post, this is an amazing personal story.

i am reading eat, pray, love, have your read it? something in my mind is telling me to GET A PASSPORT...

i think your trip and reflections will help inspire me to do so...

Anonymous said...

Hi, i'm a 24 year old boy from Iran, I have searched and read many (really many!) blogs and sites of americans who had a trip to Iran, but none of them had such a exact and detailed explanation of Iran. I really enjoyed your posts.
By the way, it is not because we are busy here that we pray 3 times! it is because we are shia!

Anonymous said...

amazing post...quite accurately I should admit, although wish you could post some of the pictures of the women in pool parties and all that..I never have fun anywhere as much as in Iran, everytime I go back, I enjoy every minute of the quality of life we have there, something we lack for sure in US. I say this as an American-Iranian-Austrian who has lived in many parts of the world...the only place that comes close to quality of life among most classes in my opinion is Buenos Aires...
I am taking my Austrailian boyfriend with me to Iran next yr, he is amazed by my pictures from my previous trips to Iran and quite disgusted by the BIASED western media...

Good job again, we need more open-minded high IQ people like you who are willing to see things for themselves

And btw, majority of Iranians, especially the youth can be classified as spiritually secular ot agnostic if you ask me, I went to school in Iran as well as in other countries, USA, -'hands down'- has the most fenatic and radically religious population I have ever come to experience in my list( thought they are not even aware of it as far as I see). I never prayed in my life,most my Iranian friends just JOKE about praying and anything that has to so with religion of any sort though we just BS people just to blend in and be safe while in Iran, and frankly even throughout history, Iranians were much more hedonistic and more concerned with wine, roses, and poetry ( read hafez) than with any crap of any religion, they just never took any GOD that seriously like others, and interestingly and certainly because of it, they remained the most peaceful, most progressive, and most open-minded people in their region. Just connect the dots!

Cordelia said...

I wish I had been able to see women at pool parties too. I wish I had made it behind closed doors to see what happened behind those big private garden walls. Or down into the dance parties.

Iran does a good job of keeping its foreign visitors separated from its local people. If I were to go back, I would be a lot braver and ask for invites.

Anonymous said...

So happy you posted this. I am traveling to Iran this summer with my 1/2 Iranian cousin and am so excited. My uncle from Iran is probably the greatest/funniest person I know and said that I will have a blast dancing and parting with his family! Can't wait!

Anonymous said...

i'm 19 years old, my parents are persian, but i was born in germany.
i often try to explain to people here, that iran is like it is shown on TV.
when i read your reflections i was very touched and reminded of the things i told people here.
it makes me glad to see, that there are open-minded people left in the world who are ready to discover the beauty of this amazing country.

thank you.

Sara Nikki said...

Great Post! :)

I'm a British born Iranian & trust me, they may be wearing modest clothes outside but behind closed doors they sure do know how to dress and present them selves
I myself wear the Hijab in London and I sense the same feeling as you had with it - It gave me my own privacy and control if that makes sense? :)

I'm not sure if you were with a tour guide when you were going around? I've heard you can tell them you've finished for the day, but then go out by yourself when they're gone?
& I'm sure many people will invite you to their homes (In Iran guests are seen as Gifts from God (: )