by MARTY MCCARTHY
I never told anyone I was in Iran.
“Iran! But isn’t it dangerous?” It’s a question every traveller to Iran has answered. But it isn’t dangerous.
Politics and the media have given Iran a negative stereotype, but this bares little resemblance to the real Iran.
Origins of the stereotype:
In the late 1970’s Iran experienced a revolution. The Shah (Iran’s monarch) was overthrown, after decades of economic and social mismanagement, and an Islamic Republic established in its place.
However, if Iranians thought they were being liberated they were mistaken. Strict Shari’a laws were enforced, banning alcohol and imposing the wearing of chadors for women. “Progress” came with many restrictions.
In the following decades Iran became an increasingly outspoken campaigner against the Jewish occupation of Palestine, along with all other Western “interference” in the Arab world. Now, more than ever, Iran continues to publicly condemn Israel and the West, namely America and Britain.
Furthermore, George W. Bush’s allegations in 2007 that Iran was ‘the world’s leading supporter of terrorism’ caused Western paranoia to intensify. It’s a claim President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has continued to deny, while defending international claims that Iran’s nuclear program was being used to develop nuclear weapons.
Thus through association, Iranians have often been viewed as an extremist population, who support the manufacturing of nuclear weapons and roam the streets of Tehran voicing their hate for Israel and America.
These politically-fuelled stereotypes are responsible for giving Iran and Iranians their “dangerous” connotations.
Most Iranians do not embody the same attitudes as their Government.
Iranian politicians might have their differences with Western politicians, but not all Iranian people have a problem with Western people.
Nor do the politicians for that matter.
If you’ve ever been to Indonesia or China you will understand that the opinions of the government rarely influence tourism. According to the Australian Government’s travel advisory website, Indonesia is considered a higher risk zone for Westerners than Iran, but I don’t see Australians cancelling their holidays to Bali any time soon.
It’s the same in Iran.
In Iran police on the street constantly hassle you; they always ask if you need help and proceed to give it to you even when you don’t.
Furthermore, Iranian hospitality is second to none and being invited into unknown peoples’ homes for meals or home stays is a daily occurrence. To decline is to miss out on a genuine cultural experience.
Following an evening visit to a mosque an elderly man approached and asked me to follow him. He led me to a room full of teenagers eating dinner and invited me to join. I spoke no Farsi and they spoke no English, but in Iran language barriers mean nothing at the kitchen table.
Similarly, while walking through a park in Esfahan, a city renowned for what many call the most impressive display of Islamic architecture in the world, a teenage girl asked me to join her family’s picnic. Our discussion focused on the uniqueness of Iranian hospitality to which the girl said “but surely it would be the same in Australia”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wouldn’t be, especially if she wore her chador.
While exploring mud brick rooftops in the stiflingly hot desert city of Yazd a bus driver approached me and asked if I’d like him to show me around. He didn’t start work until the evening and wanted to show me the sights in the meantime; he never asked for anything in return.
It’s the same wherever you go; Iranians are eager to show off their country and culture.
Many Iranians will proudly tell you “we are Persian, not Arab,” a history epitomised by the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
They will also boast of the beautiful blue-mosaic mosques that adorn every major Iranian city and of the country’s incredibly unique natural landscape, from the Persian Gulf to the sandy deserts of the Kaluts to the 5500-metre-high Mount Davamund and neighbouring ski fields.
Yet despite their national pride Iranians can be surprisingly self-conscious and contradictory, which becomes evident during any conversation with them.
Iranian’s will first ask where you are from. The next question will undoubtedly be “do you like Iran?”
Once you have gained their trust, they will cautiously ask for your opinion on Iran’s nuclear program, chadors, President Ahmadinejad, terrorism, Israel and America. This is what they want to hear most. They want to know how you, the foreigner, see Iran.
Iranians are fully aware of their negative stereotype. It shames them. However, they still want foreigners to experience Iranian culture for what it is, not what the West thinks it to be. This is a large motive behind their hospitality – the desire to challenge the West’s negative perception of Iran by presenting themselves and their culture to foreigners as directly as possible.
It’s upsetting that it was easier to lie about being in Iran than it was to convince people Iran wasn’t dangerous.
So please, take the word of someone who has visited the country. Discard your misconceptions. Iran, it’s not as bad as you think.