“What is your idea about Iran?” Some mass produced English textbook must be responsible for this question, and how frequently Iranians asked it of us. They’re often satisfied by our answer that says the landscapes are beautiful and the people kind. But some of them genuinely want to know our idea about Iran. They know their country gets talked about overseas and probably not in a very favourable light. So they want to know, quite candidly, what we think.
The truth is that we don’t have an idea about Iran. We’ve spent a month traveling about but we’re not closer to a grand unifying theory. There is too much complexity and too many contradictions. I still can’t get my head around how a country with such an excellent and civilised ice cream culture, for example, can countenance stoning its citizens to death. Does not compute.
What I can say is that some of the big ideas we had about Iran before we came were challenged, and dismantled in our time there. We’ve talked about the little surprises already. Here are some of the bigger ones.
It’s quite rich
Economic sanctions have stopped BigMacs and Boeings getting into the country, but they haven’t stopped oil and gas flowing out. India and China are willing consumers. And as a consequence Iran is quite rich. It feels more developed than we expected. Streets are clean, beggars are few and far between. The population is literate and educated. We’d have no hesitation visiting a hospital. There’s disposable income to spend on smartphones and the bazaars you buy them in are centrally heated in winter. Iran is a middle income country. It makes sense to identify it as one of the countries that could be the next big thing. Certainly if and when sanctions are lifted it could get rich, quick.
Travel is still pretty cheap, though. Subsidised fuel leads to improbably low bus and taxi fares. Food is cheap, if a little lacking in variety. The only time we really felt stung was paying for accommodation. There isn’t much in the budget range. When Iranians travel we suspect they stay with relatives and friends. And most of the tourists we encountered were continental Europeans who were in, or nearing, retirement, puttering about in tour groups and staying in mid range hotels. Their presence, by the way, is also an indication of how safe and easy Iranian travel is.
Women have some freedom
If we were to be born as women we’d rather it be in Iran than Pakistan. The laws might be more constraining but the culture is probably more empowering. Women drive cars, socialise outside the home, find good jobs, and make up more than half of university graduates. Ironically, women’s literacy rates increased after the Islamic revolution, because conservative families could be confident that when they sent their daughters to school, all the others would be keeping hejab too.
None of this is meant to belittle the injustice of Iran’s egregious laws which see women forced to cover up, paid less for the same work as men, and half as trustworthy in the courts. But many women we met in Iran were assertive and independently minded. They displayed everything from devotion (“I am believer”) to disdain (“we are forced”) for their headscarves.
Public and private Iran are very different
Just as the Iran you expect from the outside and the one you see inside are very different, Iran is very different in the private and public spheres. In private, headscarves come off, satellite TV comes on, pre-marital sex happens, and for the most part the authorities don’t worry about it. A party in private Iran might not feel so different from one at home, though drugs are more likely to be used than alcohol.
The public/private distinction is probably part of what keeps Iranians tolerating their government, but when it breaks down it can lead to all sorts of unhappiness. Landlords extort unmarried couples. If a couple separate during their engagement and a woman wishes to remove the name of her fiance from her ID card, she must prove that she is still a virgin, and many resort to hymen reconstruction surgery to do so. Oh, if you’re lucky enough to have your youtube video go viral, you might face jail time.
The government and the people are not the same
As hard as I tried, I never found someone who was prepared to rail about the evils of the West, or champion Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon (One man ranted at Fiona in broken English about the evils of Israel, but I missed it entirely!). There are good reasons for Iranians to resent western interference in their politics, but their complaints tend to be much more pedestrian. The economy is a big concern.
It was much more common for Iranians to voluntarily distance themselves from their government when they spoke to us. A devout woman who showed us around a major shrine in Shiraz complained privately that the government was corrupt, untrustworthy, and out of step with the views of its population. Most darkly, she told us, the government misrepresents Islam for its own political ends – there’s apparently no tight spot that a little Quranic interpretation won’t fix. She didn’t know whether they were building a bomb, she said, but she sure hoped not.
The Islamic Republic is here to stay
The frustration with the government we heard was so real and widespread that it was hard to understand how the government is in power. But despite their complaints, no one we talked to thought that change was on its way. That’s probably because:
- The people we talked to tended to be educated and urban, and the regime’s traditional conservative supporters are in rural areas.
- The constitution ties up power so tightly with the religious establishment that it would be very tough to unpick.
- The last serious challenge to the government’s legitimacy ended with a violent crack down that is sometimes called Iran’s Tiananmen Square.
So I guess our idea about Iran is that it’s complicated, interesting, and full or surprises.