Iran? Are you mad? Given that media stories often focus on Islamic fundamentalists, the threat of terrorist activity against the West and the effects of the bloody eight-year war with Iraq, the reaction of friends and family was understandable. But during three weeks Charlie and I discovered a very different country. Most of the Iranians we spoke to were aware of the dark-tinted glasses through which their country is often seen and were keen to discover why despite this we had come and what our impressions of the country were.
Some context. In 1979 the Shah (King) of Iran fled the country following a series of popular uprisings against his regime. Ayatollah Khomeini, a leading cleric, returned from exile and became the nation’s leader. Khomeini established a clergy-dominated Islamic Republic. Kohmeini died in 1989 but is still revered and his is very much a living legacy through the Islamic law and customs that condition almost every aspect of public life. Iran is a far cry from the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan. While women in Iran do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms as their Western counterparts, they are not subject to the draconian measures imposed by the Taliban.
Nevertheless many Iranians we spoke to feel that the economy is under-performing and increasingly resent the restrictions on freedom of expression, external travel and women. These are sources of frustration both to older and younger generations, but for different reasons. Some older people want a return to the more liberal pre-Revolution period. Younger people, many of who do not remember the excesses of the pre-Revolution regime, long for more freedoms which they learn about from satellite TV, the Internet and the increasing number of Western tourists. We heard of and saw numerous cases of people living a double life: people will rigidly conform to the values of the Revolution in public, for example women swim in the sea fully clothed, but will wear shorts and listen to Western pop music in their own homes.
Charlie and I regularly received invitations to people’s housesat one stage we were put in the position of having to simultaneously deal with three rival bids for our company. Iranians have a deep respect for each other and for other people. We were never harangued for being non-Muslim or for the past or present policies of our Government towards Iran. People were keen to practise their English or just curious to exchange views; religion, politics and Manchester United topped the topics of conversation.
Many people we spoke to expressed a strong desire for political and socio-economic change. In the past few years the electorate has voted for a reformist president and reformist groupsadvocating limited economic, political and social liberalisationnow have a majority in Parliament. But these forces for change are opposed by hardline clerics who remain very influential and have recently instigated the closure of most pro-reform newspapers. The tension between the two groups is evident. The outcome is unclear.
Travelling in Iran is easy and cheap. Iran is one of the world’s largest oil producers, which partly explains why petrol is some 40 times cheaper than in the UK. An eight-hour bus journey costs around £1, a one-hour internal flight around £20. The roads are generally good and comfortable, air-conditioned buses are available on most major routes. Shared taxis and buses (with separate seating for men and women) whiz around towns and cities. Expect to acquire a few grey hairs in the process.
Iran offers a variety of landscapes. To the North of the capital Tehran the Alborz Mountains tower to over 5500 metres. Travelling through the mountains along narrow roads between the vast exposed sheets of rock that have been forced up and across by the movement of the Earth is simultaneously exhilarating and belittling: a very visible reminder of the forces of nature (earthquakes in the area are common) and the precariousness of our existence. The North face of the mountains is a carpet of green woods that lead down to the Caspian Sea -the world’s largest lake. The green is in contrast to the aridness of two huge deserts to the East of Tehran.
Variety also characterises Iran’s famous handicrafts and in particular its carpets. From silk to wool, hand-woven or machine-produced, the carpets come in many sizes and colours. Haggling for a carpet over a cup of tea is an essential part of the Iranian experience. Our living room floors are much the richer for the experience.
The Iranian eye for art and design is also reflected in the mosques. Esfahan in particular, has some of the finest mosques in the world. Often tiled from floor to roof in turquoise and cobalt tiles, the mosques are cool, tranquil havens which take you away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and turn your mind to higher things. The impressive remains of the ancient town of Persepolis provide a 2,500-year reminder of the relative youth of much Western civilization. The deserted city of Bam, largely constructed out of clay and wattle and daub over 500 years ago, is another intriguing step back in time. The tiny number of tourists just adds to the appeal.
Iran produces a large amount of fresh fruit and vegetables which combined with the ‘dry’ society makes for a healthy diet. In the evening, particularly on Thursdays (the day before the one-day weekend), public squares and parks are packed with families eating picnics and playing ball games. This penchant for picnicking does however mean that there are relatively few restaurants, many of which have a limited menu. I used up my annual quota of kebabs and rice in just three weeks, but this may have been due as much to my limited Farsi as anything else. Tea is drunk by the urn-full and the tea-houses are charming. What more could an Englishman want?
So don’t believe everything you read in the papers. I felt safer in Iran than at times in the UK. While in one way it is nice to walk down the street in London and not regularly asked where I’m from and what I think about David Beckham, I will miss the Iranian sense of curiosity and hospitality not to mention the mosques and the landscapes. So as I sink my teeth into another juicy date from the Tehran bazaar only one thought comes to my mind: Iranyou’d be mad not to.