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Reisverslag Inside Iran
31 mei 2017
Within this huge amount of people inside the bus, I have found a spot for myself. I am completely surrounded by Iranian men. When I look to my right, I can see the women section of the bus behind a fence. In Iran, public transportation is separated: men and women have their own entrances. As odd as this may sound, you get used to this system really quickly, although I have to admit that I entered the women section once when talking with a female friend. Fortunately, smiling innocently and stating that you are a foreigner solve most problems in Iran, as was the case in this specific example. I also discovered that, although the outside of the Iran shows you a world of black and white, daily life is most of the times grey and more nuanced. People, especially outside of Iran, tend to focus on the extremes of modern-day Iran, but in practice the reality proves to be much more layered and explicable, as this blog will hopefully show as well.
Disembarking the bus, I find myself in the very city-centre of Tehran, Iran’s capital and by far its biggest city with more than ten million inhabitants. Before me, the infamous traffic jams of the city dominate my sight. Walking on the pavement, I end up in my own human jam, of people shopping or rushing to their specific destinations. I have started to know Tehran as an ongoing and busy city: from the morning until the night, buses are crowded and streets are filled with people. This makes the city lively, but I have experienced it as tiring as well. I have lived in Istanbul as well, but I had the feeling that that city has adopted its inhabitants much better, probably due to the fact that it is divided by a broad river. In Tehran’s case, geography plays a different role. In the north, the impressive mountains of Alborz are overlooking the city, while the one can find smaller mountains in the south as well. Therefore, Tehran is infamous for its pollution, as the mountains contain the smell of the massive amount of cars. Petrol is cheap in Iran, so the car is by far the most used way of transportation, as the air in the city makes abundantly clear.
However, despite these disadvantages, the city has become my home in these past two months, as I clearly notice on this last day, walking through its streets. This has one sole reason: the Iranian people. They have made my life very comfortable here. Most of all, the Iranians I met are extremely attentive, worrying about you and supporting you in every possible way. I have made really good friends here, but also the people I do not know that well, but whom I have met on daily basis, have made a huge impression on me. This last day, I say goodbye to the guy guarding the bus stop I have used every day, and although I have only greeted him every morning and I only talked to him once for a longer time, he still remembers that I come from the Netherlands and wishes me safe journey home. The same counts for the person I usually met in the fruit shop and the bakery where I usually went. The cook of the soup kitchen where I have eaten twice, recognises me as well and desperately wants to add me on social media. And as I enjoy one of my last walks through the main street called ‘Enghelab-e Islami’ (translated ‘Islamic Revolution’), I am suddenly pushed aside by another guy whom I met in the bus the other day, speaking with him about the status of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, I realise that people might remember me better because I am from a foreign country, but still I think that these meetings are also signs of an honest level of hospitality of the Iranian people. This hospitality has mostly come to the fore in my meetings with some Iranian friends I made.
I arrived in Iran at the beginning of April, to improve my Persian language skills and work on my master thesis, which is related to Iran. But I have to admit: foremost, I was eager to discover Iranian daily life through living in its capital for a longer time. I had been in Iran before, but only during a limited time of two weeks in which I spent all my time travelling through the country. During this term, I was challenged to design my own life in Iran and meet its people on a longer, more permanent basis. Fortunately, these aims have mostly come true during my time here. Let me tell you about the some specific persons I met on the way. Each of them have their personal stories which present the different layers and perspectives on Iran and its society.
One of the Iranians I got in contact with on a more regular basis, was Nima. Like most of my friends, I met him on an online platform called Couchsurfing, on which travellers and locals can interact. As guy growing up in Tehran, Nima knows the city really well and he enjoys going to every corner of the city, even the parts others recommended me not to go. Being really open-minded, he told me about the daily life in a religious state, where elements like alcohol and drugs are officially banned. His perspective on Iranian politics is really interesting. As with many others (politics is subject you can openly talk about with everyone in Iran), I discussed the upcoming presidential elections with him. Nima was hesitating to vote, as he did not agree with the system in general and felt that every candidate, even the reformist candidate Hassan Ruhani (who eventually has been re-elected as president of Iran), had to obey the more powerful Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Nima was the first, but definitely not the only person which is pessimistic about the electoral process in Iran, as he believes that the system itself should firstly be reformed. One of the main events I visited with Nima, was the international book fair of Tehran. On a huge terrain full of bookshelves, I found to my surprise many English books which criticised the Iranian state, a sign that censorship in Iran is not so clear-cut as it seems as well.
Another person I met after a few days, was Ali, a guy originally coming from the eastern city of Mashhad (the second city of Iran). Being a student, Ali moved to Tehran, but he frequently visits his family and his fiancée in the east. I had the honour to join him on one of these trips and we visited Mashhad together at the end of my time in Iran. Mashhad can be regarded as a much more religious city than Tehran: women mostly wear chadors instead of the simple veil most women in Tehran use (covering one’s hair is compulsory for women in Iran). Ali’s family was so kind to let me stay with them for two nights and I was therefore able to experience some first-hand accounts of Iranian family life. Apart from the great and delicious Iranian meals, which we shared with each other sitting on the splendid carpets, I witnessed the birthday of Ali’s fiancée Zahra, during which music and dancing were central elements. The opening of the presents was done by a family member of Zahra, who extensively told us who bought which present and why. It was wonderful to get to know these cultural elements so closely. It was also interesting that some members of Ali’s family were staunch supporters of Ebrahim Raisi, another presidential candidate who is known for his more conservative stance. He comes from Mashhad and is the keeper of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, a really important person in the history of Shiism, the main Islamic branch in Iran. I visited the shrine together with Ali and I was amazed by the religiosity of its visitors and their desperate wish to be at the shrine once in their life. Next to this emotional religious experience, meeting supporters of Raisi, who in the end has finished second in the election with 38 percent of the votes, was also new for me and added up to my understanding of Iranian society and it’s more conservative supporters.
Ali also showed me the cultural power of Iranian poetry, still an omnipresent force in Iran today. Work of great poets like Hafez, Saadi and Ferdowsi are still taught in schools and I attended a specific evening in Tehran during which visitors could recite their favourite poems, through reading or even singing. Ali himself knows many poems by heart and when being in Mashhad, we paid a visit to the tomb of Ferdowsi, who wrote the Persian legend called ‘Shahnameh’ (translated ‘The Book of Kings’), describing the roots of Persian civilisation. The rhythm and the melody of the verses impressed me and made me aware of the unique richness of Persian poetry, still cherished today in Iran.
Obviously, the fact that this ancient Persian culture has been passed on through so many centuries, gives the Iranian people a certain sense of pride for their country. The poems, mostly originally from the Middle Ages, not only provide the Iranians with the earliest signs of their language, the contents also serve as a guideline to life for many readers in the modern era. I noticed this while meeting Reza, who approached me in a crowded early-morning bus. As a student of the English language, he admired linguistics and he therefore greatly encouraged me to progress in Persian. I was touched by his somehow philosophical and open-minded life attitude, deriving from his admiration of the spiritual poet internationally known as Rumi. In contrast with most first-time meetings in Iran, Reza challenged me with more profound questions about the meaning of life. Even though I could not always follow him, it became clear to me that he was inspired by classical Persian poetry, in which eternal questions around destiny, love and friendship play an important role. It was impressive to see how Reza connected the classical teachings to his personal life. We had some disagreements about the role of politics in the modern society, as Reza had chosen to turn his back towards politicians in general. But from Reza’s point of view, his frustration might be understandable. An interesting discussion we had, took place on a Friday, when I wanted to visit the infamous prayer service at the University of Tehran with him. This service is mostly visited by Iranian hard-liners, as the slogans of ‘Death to America and death to Israel’ fill the air. Even though we visited the scene and I was amazed by the passionate attendees of the service, the event shows an ugly and distorted face of Iran. The university campus, usually a nice place where young people relax and hang out, changed in a strictly-controlled site where buses full of old men gathered to listen to the local fundamentalist mullah. The area, with a capacity of about thousand people, was only partly filled and the atmosphere was actually quite bleak. I even encountered the hardliner who plays a prominent role in the Dutch documentary by the journalist Thomas Erdbrink, who shot one episode about the religious fanaticism in Iran. Seeing this same person again in real life made me realise that the world of hardliners in Tehran is in fact quite small and limited. In the aftermath, Reza questioned my wish to visit the Friday prayer and argued that specifically this image of a fundamentalist Iran is the dominant image in the West. By paying a visit to the hardliners, outsiders are only confirmed in their beliefs about Iran. Instead, one should look for a more nuanced side of Iran, where critique on the West is still present (mostly due to its indisputable support of Israel), but where extremist expressions are put aside and context matters more. With his unique character, Reza has been able to help me finding this new perspective.
What also really struck me during my two months in Tehran, was its culture around dating and relationships. About ten years ago, I had read a novel by Shahriar Mandanipour, in which he eloquently tells a love story between two ordinary Iranians, struggling to meet out in the street as an unmarried couple. The novel also outlined the phrases which had to be removed before being published in Iran. After reading, I had the impression of a strict and strongly segregated Iranian society. Partly, my expectations have been met in this sense: I already talked about the separation of men and women in public transportation and the compulsory veiling of Iranian women. On the other hand, walking through the many parks of Tehran reveals a lot of occasions during which men and women completely mix. Mostly young people can be spotted together. Although places like university dormitories are strictly segregated in Iran, the campuses around the faculties are suitable locations where different genders intermingle. This is in contrast with primary and secondary Iranian schools, where boys and girls are taught separately. Moreover, Iranian workspaces are mixed as well, although men in practice work more than women. So even though the daily reality I perceived during my stay was not that bad as Mandanipour described, gender inequality is still one of the main problems of modern-day Iran.
I had the pleasure to meet with two Iranian women who could tell me more about their perspective. Helia had worked at an immigration agency, but quit her job after being convinced that she was not paid fairly. We visited an exhibition at the Iranian Contemporary Art Museum together, a museum which exposes remarkably progressive modern art, for example when it comes to painters who openly display nude human beings embracing each other (although the English word ‘intercourse’ was only translated as ‘moraghebeh’, meaning ‘meditation’…). In the lounge, Helia openly talked about her dating life and I liked her strong stance of independence. She called the interaction between men and women ‘problematic’, as both of them have never learnt to openly connect with each other. That is the reason why prejudices about each other still dominate their relationships: as long as it is not natural to grow up in a mixed society, I believe the prejudices and misunderstandings of the other gender will continue. Helia mostly makes use of internet websites to get in touch with other men, an increasing method in Iran’s dating world. This is a new phenomenon for Iranians, challenging them to come out of their comfort zone.
Anis was another woman who presented herself to me as a very honest and open person. It was really touching how she plainly described her problems with dating in Iran. She discussed the pressure and responsibility put on girls to marry early. At the same time, personal problems like depressions are still taboos in most layers of Iranian society. Luckily, Anis’ family supports her wish to develop herself and she does not rush into a marriage so far. Right now, she is looking abroad for more possibilities to study, as she feels slightly restrained by the atmosphere within Iran itself, especially when it comes to the interplay between men and women.
I am aware that everything I express here is based on meetings and conversations with the privileged elite of Iran, who is mostly living in its capital Tehran. The city sometimes felt as a bubble, especially because I was living on a university campus and meeting people mostly through Couchsurfing, a website only a specific part of the Iranian population makes use of. During my travels, to the western parts of Iran with my roommates and to the East, partly with Ali, I found out how I was treated differently by people on the streets. Being a foreigner and speaking some words of Persian, I was their ‘gateway’ to the outside world, a person they do not meet that regularly as the inhabitants of the metropolis of Tehran do. I am not able to recall how many times I had to pose for selfie with some locals. In these smaller cities and towns, one can also discover more local traditions, like the delicious cookie ‘Kulucheh’ from western Fouman or the marvellous turquoise ornaments from eastern Neyshabur. This last city also presented me with another unprecedented form of Iranian hospitality. Through Couchsurfing, I encountered Peyman, an undergraduate with big plans to inspire the local touristic branch in Neyshabur. A realistic plan in my opinion, as Neyshabur houses the shrines of some famous poets and scientists like Omar Khayyam and Attar. Besides, the city is located between the fertile plains of Khorasan province and the early mountains of the Alborz range, a splendid location. Peyman not only spent a lot of time to show all this to me, he also took me to his parents’ house, where I was warmly welcomed by his father, mother and two brothers. It was interesting how especially his mother wanted to know a lot about my background, mostly because I had told her that my father is a pastor. It was another lively event in which we had a lot of cross-cultural exchanges. Peyman also managed to bring me into a specific meeting of Iranian wrestlers, who master the traditional art of ‘Pahlevani and Zoorkhaneh’. During this procession, the wrestlers practiced by lifting heavy pins on the rhythm of some live music, played and sung by their own musician from the club. This sports combines the specific elements of power and exercise with the spiritual side of Iranian culture, as poetic lyrics are sung at the same time. I was astonished about the discipline, but also the kindness of the wrestling community, who all wanted to take a picture with me. The authentic and hospitable side of Iran had presented itself again in those days in Neyshabur.
When I look back on my time in Tehran and in Iran in general, I can also be grateful for everyone I met over there. My aim to find out how Iranian daily life looks like, has mostly come true. I agree with the cliché that nothing is what it seems in Iran, black and white turn into grey in reality, the country is full of paradoxes and the outside world does not seem able to grasp this reality. During my last weekend in the country, the, in Iranian terms progressive, presidential candidate Ruhani was re-elected, promising improved relations with the rest of the world. The night after the election, Ruhani’s supporters took the streets chanting and dancing, something extraordinary in Iran a few years ago. In the same weekend, the American president Trump closed a huge arms deal with the Saudi government, branding Iran as the evildoer in the region. The signs of hope and repair shown in Iran, were not met by the United States administration, on the contrary. I am not saying that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the perfect partner to cooperate with. The strict control the Iranian regime holds over its people, is debatable, but it has loosened as well the past few years, given the election of someone like Ruhani. At the same time, I have talked with so many Iranian who are not satisfied with the system itself as well and demand reforms. Conservative elements still dominate modern-day Iran, but that should not diminish the strength of the reformists, who also form an important of the country nowadays. When dealing with the Islamic Republic, we should take these layers and nuances into account.
Foto's bij verslag (30)
31 mei 2017 23:38 | Door: Harry Pals
Magnificent report of your time in Iran, well written and a joy to read! Thanks!
25 juni 2017 11:35 | Door: Anton
Mooi verslag van je reis! Gaaf ook dat je zo veel mensen hebt leren kennen daar!