“Yes. I’m off to Iran for a week.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Nope, I’m not.”
“If you don’t return, just know that I’ve warned you. Also dibs on your favourite mug.”
– A conversation with a South African friend, two weeks before departing for Iran.
Iran has become synonymous with Islamic extremism and terrorism. Powerful religious Iranian leaders who support radical organisations that share uncompromising Muslim ideology have contributed and sustained this global fear.
Western countries in particular fear that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate. Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilisations dating back to 7000 BCE and has endured invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and the Mongols. In order to form an Islamic Caliphate and reassert its national identity, Iranian religious leaders repeatedly call on all Muslims – Kharijites, Sunni and Shiite, to set aside their differences and work towards subjugating Israel and the West.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in particular, captured my attention. It is blatantly obvious that he is the most powerful man in Iran. I know this because as our airport shuttle made its way towards the northern part of central Tehran, we passed several murals, posters and banners dedicated to the Supreme Leader (Persian: رهبر معظم). Either Iranians are in absolute awe of his leadership or there is more to this adulation than meets the eye.
As negotiators arrived in Geneva for a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program in 2013, Khamenei called Israel a rabid dog with a government that was doomed to annihilation and stated that it was run by sub-human leaders, during a public speech.
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He also referred to the ‘arrogance’ of the U.S. and added that in the nuclear talks, Iran “will not step back one iota from our rights.”
In 2017, Khamenei tells a gathering of Iran’s air force commanders in Tehran, “…we had been working to show the world the depth of corruption in US government and ranks and files of the ruling elite; Trump did it in a few days after coming to the White House.” Khamenei’s got a point but his religious nationalism and blatant disregard for international diplomacy have warranted the anger of Iranian youth.
As tension escalates between Iran and the U.S, the majority of Iran’s population which is young, progressive, and not at all hostile towards the West has transformed into the most political and defiant group thus far. With two-thirds of Iran’s 78 million population born after the 1979 revolution, Iranian youth seek more practical rights that include economic advancement. They plan to achieve this through peaceful behaviour that would force the present regime to comply.
Public criticism of Khamenei has been taboo since the Islamic revolution however Iranian youth grow disillusioned as poverty, high unemployment and corruption persist. They have resorted to a messaging service called Telegram to spread news rapidly and safely. Telegram is perfect for this youth movement because of its strong emphasis on privacy protection. It is estimated that at least 20 million Iranians are Telegram users, surpassing Facebook and Twitter, which are both blocked in Iran.
During his annual Nowruz speech this year, Khamenei said, “Some unfair individuals take advantage of free speech and say that there is no freedom in the country, and foreigners repeat this propaganda, while in the country there is freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of choice.” He continued, “Today, no one under the Islamic Republic is pursued or put under pressure for being opposed to the government in their thoughts or views, and there is no intention to do this.”
Khamenei added, “However, freedom in the Islamic Republic, like other parts of the world, has a framework.” He continued, “The framework of freedom in the Islamic Republic is the constitution and the laws of the country; all of these laws have been inspired by Sharia.”
Orientalism & performing the role of the ‘other’
Iran and the Middle East are paying for the consequences of being ‘othered’ by the West. Middle Eastern cultures are always seen as ‘Other’ and are viewed as dangerous, exotic, mysterious, unstable, and undeveloping. Throughout history, Orientalism has been a lens that distorted the realities of the cultures of the Middle East. According to Palestinian American academic Edward Said, the continual representations of Muslims and Arabs in art and the media were very different from the experience that Said had as an Arab. In essence, the West very visibly asserted its power over the Orient by making them Oriental, or different, without taking into account the true culture of the region.
I believe that this course of history plays a particularly dangerous role in the strained relations between the Middle East and the West. The Western perception of the Orient has not changed for the same misrepresentations from the nineteenth century are still being perpetuated in the twenty-first century.
If anything, the consequence of this othering has triggered the Middle East to embody and perpetuate the characteristics of the ‘other’. By crippling the foundation of its oppressor[s] through fear the Middle East has a far more likely chance to succeed and attain an Islamic Caliphate. Interestingly, the ‘othering’ of the West is also evident in Iran as it resorts to ‘othering’ tactics that denigrate the West.
An example of an Iranian othering tactic? Iran’s former American embassy is now a museum of anti-American art.
7 conversations with Iranians that astounded me:
1. Farshad Khansari (Tehran grand hotel 1 receptionist) & The Taxi Driver
Farshad: Hello, I am Farshad from reception. The driver just delivered your phone and I sent it to Grand Hotel 2. If you receive it please let me know. Take care.
Saajida: Thank you Farshad, I received it. Thank you so, so, so much. May you always be blessed.
Farshad: Perfect! I wish you were in our hotel. Next time book this one 😊.
I have a proclivity towards misplacing my smartphone. This occurs frequently when I travel. I’ve toyed with the idea of surgically attaching the smartphone to my arm and wiring the central controlling system to my brain so that I could text and answer emails via thoughts. Yes, there are glaring gaps in my reasoning but offer sympathy to my hopelessness.
Globetrotting revealed that Europeans would not cater to my irresponsibility or assist me whatsoever. I didn’t blame them and channelled my despair through shrugs, sighs and disparagement.
Who on earth cared, right?
My Iranian adventure revealed otherwise. I had ventured out onto Iranian streets alone, was ridiculously lost for two hours and in a fluster left my phone in the backseat of a yellow dar baste (private taxi). I jumped off at the wrong hotel (Tehran Grand Hotel 1 on Shahid Motahari Street) and to the bemused receptionist (Farshad) I explained my predicament.
I had asked the taxi driver before I got into the taxi if he knew the directions to the hotel and he insisted that I need not worry. After scribbling my contact details on a piece of paper and leaving it at the reception (just in case), I took another taxi back to the right hotel (Tehran Grand Hotel 2 on East Sepand Street) and sat forlornly on my bed for an hour.
The hotel room phone rings and I am informed that the taxi driver drove all the way back, to the ‘incorrect’ hotel and then the correct one to ensure he handed the phone back to me personally. Before I hurtled towards him for a bear hug (I was going to lift him off the floor), I stopped myself (Iranian rule: no mixing of opposite sexes) and thanked the heavens. I prayed for his kids, his wife, his mother, his father and his mother-in-law.
More so I’ve learnt that Iranians have impeccable character and honesty. I don’t care what the world has to say, this is beauty in its purest form. I like the world of taarof (politeness). It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside and I’m left with a ridiculous notion that people actually care.
The Iranian way is not necessarily subtle but it is gracious and engulfing. Iranians practising taroof (Persian: تعارف ) will seek to raise the other person’s status, and lower their own; an act of politeness. It is not as complex as it sounds.
Remember: If you cannot speak Farsi, your manners will communicate your character and agenda to an Iranian.
2. The millennial poet who sat beside me in front of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Saajida: Are you Muslim?
Millennial poet: By name. At heart, I’m an atheist but of course, I wouldn’t openly declare that. May I share a poem with you?
Millennial poet: Do you know Omar Khayyám, our famous poet?
Millennial poet: “I sent my Soul through the Invisible, Some letter of that After-life to spell: And by and by my Soul returned to me, And answered: ‘I Myself am Heaven and Hell”.
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3. The bodyguard outside the Qalyoon (hookah) lounge
Saajida: I’d like to enter, please.
Qalyoon Bodyguard: No.
He gestures to my scarf and shakes his head.
Saajida: But why is my gender the deciding factor?!
He mutters angrily and stares back at me. We glare at each other for a few seconds and then I turn towards the group as they consult Google for a hookah lounge that caters to women. We never quite found it.
Conservative members of parliament are against women smoking hookah since they believe that the type of women who smoke are for the most part the same women who don’t adhere to hijab. Also, they resent women sharing a hookah pipe with men. Conservatives suggest that enforcing a ban on women smokers, not necessarily men, is vital and urgent.
Esmaiel Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the commander of Tehran’s police force, harshly criticised modern teahouses, describing them as corrupt hangout spots for immoral mingling and improper coverage.
4. Meeting with the Director General of International News, Mr Jafarizoj and colleagues
Chris Gibbons: What do Iranians think of Donald Trump’s threats?
(Cue a peal of laughter that erupts from Mr Jafarizoj and his colleagues.)
I joined in because the laughter was infectious.
World leaders were quick to react to US President Donald Trump’s decision to “decertify” an international deal on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The 2015 deal, reached between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union, saw Tehran curtailing its nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of crippling economic sanctions.
In a White House address on Friday, Trump struck a blow against the accord in defiance of other world powers, and despite the UN nuclear watchdog’s repeated confirmations that Iran was complying with its obligations under 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is complying with the agreement.
That’s despite Mr Trump arguing that it has done nothing to rein in its ballistic missile program or its financial and military support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups.
5. The waiter at Tehran Grand Hotel 2
Waiter: Are you enjoying Zeytoon Parvardeh (Persian Pomegranate, Olive, & Walnut Dip)?
Saajida: Yes, I am thank you.
(I continue to read at the table because the climax of the novel I figured was fifteen pages away. He interrupts.)
Waiter: Is that ‘Inferno’?
Saajida: It is.
Waiter: I like Dan Brown.
Saajida: You do?
Waiter: Yes. I’m addicted to thrillers.
Saajida: Do the themes offend you?
Waiter: Not really.
6. Feroz (tour guide) on the Tabi’at bridge
Feroz: Do you like wearing a scarf Saajida?
Saajida: I do. I feel comfortable. Do you enjoy it?
Feroz: No, I don’t. Not all the time.
Komiteh (Police) in Tehran are known to crack down on Iranians who fail to comply with the country’s Islamic dress code. Iran has a customary uniformed morality police and jail sentences for dress-code transgressors.
Women who venture outdoors must wear a headscarf, known as the “rusari”, and a long overcoat, known as the “manteau”; alternatively, they can wear a black cloak known as the “chador”. These are legal requirements, punishable by fines or imprisonment for repeat offenders.
7. Iran-e-Sepid’s chief editor, Soheil Moeini
Soheil Moeini: We don’t charge anything for the paper. And we don’t plan to. Being blind should not prevent you from knowing and learning the news and what is going on around you.
Launched in 1997, Iran-e-Sepid reaches more than 4,000 readers out of an estimated 500,000 blind Iranians. The paper carries a summary of the news, and inside pages focus on social and cultural issues, especially those related to the blind.
It has five blind reporters, and most other staff members are also blind. The paper publishes six days a week and is subsidised by the government.
– Saajida Francis