Published: February 8th 2010February 8th 2010
My new Iranian friend sheds a tear as he confides in me his sadness and disappointment. In embarrassment he tries to hide it, but frozen by the poignancy of the moment, I don't miss a beat. "You know, this country is getting real messed up. Everything, man, it's all becoming worse. How can this happen to us?!"
Nowadays Iran makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. A fundamentalist president with a loose tongue. A suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons to use them to destroy America and Israel. A religious government that restricts many basic freedoms of daily life. Its fiery citizens rioting in the streets and burning cars. The heavy-handed police shooting and killing these citizens during these riots. A joke of a judicial system condemning ordinary citizens to death on baseless allegations of dissent. An economy mismanaged by a religious government who know nothing about economics, and their antagonist rhetoric further isolating an economy already difficult for the average Iranian.
That's a pretty bad rap.
And these perceptions - most true, some not - are the only
things we see of Iran. Hence we think of Iran as dangerous, extremist and hating us and our very ideals.
But the reality is so
far from the truth!
Of course Iran is not alone in his regard, other countries suffer from the same prejudices too. Yet Iran attracts all the attention because of its administration's very public confrontations with us, and the fact that the Iranian people are so incredible in contrast!
Yes, its people are some of the most welcoming and hospitable I've ever met. And it is such
a shame that the world thinks them dangerous, and terrorists, and hateful; because in reality no one is as caring, and understanding, and generous as the Iranian people.
Think honestly: when going to work would you willingly arrive 30min late because you helped a lost stranger get somewhere? Would you see a foreigner in the street, bring him to your car, and give him some takeaway food you just bought for yourself? When selling something, would you instead refuse payment from a foreigner simply because he is a guest in your home country? Would you invite a stranger over for dinner? Would you even invite a complete stranger to stay with your family, for 3
No, you wouldn't.
And admit it!!!
But Iranians would, and in fact do so; because the above is only a fragment
of the undeserved kindness I received in Iran. So I want to do my part to show the world that is listening that far from being our enemy, Iran is our friend. They wanted me to pass on that message ("You go Australia, say friends!") and it's the least I can to do repay their overwhelming warmth.
So here is an insight into some meetings I had with Iranian people (but you don't have to be a detective to see the names are aliases). Hopefully, for those who haven't been to Iran or who don't know much about it except for what is in the news, it will go someway to showing that this is one special but severely misunderstood country in a lot of pain.
[The Islamic Revolution]
Skipping 2500 years of some of the world's most glorious and enlightened civilistations, the Shah monarchy of the 1900s modernised Iran but were also brutal and excessively
opulent. Overwhelmingly outraged, in 1978 the people began rioting with many dying in the process until they finally uprooted this "blasphemy" of a government in 1979. Many factions of society cooperated for this, but Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini (in the ensuing mayhem characteristic of all revolutions) came to the fore. Soon after in the urgency of Saddam Hussein's opportunistic invasion, Khomeini consolidated power by ruthlessly eliminating the other parties, and installed a religious governmental system that many didn't want but were powerless to stop. So the "Iranian Revolution" quickly became the "Islamic Revolution". And although not comparable to Afghanistan under the Taliban, it was still fundamentalist with many "un-religious" freedoms of life disappearing. Yet the majority of people still loved Khomeini: religious leaders are highly respected in Iran, and plus "he" liberated them from the Shah.
In this political system all real power is vested in the Guardian Council (comprised of religious clerics) which is overseen by the Supreme Leader. The first SL was Khomeini, the second and current Ayatollah Khameni; both conservative and fundamentalist. Although independent, the Govt is heavily monitored by the GC, and the GC in turn is actually appointed by the SL. So the position of the SL really determines the position of the nation, regardless
of who is in Govt. The President and Govt get all the publicity but they are merely puppets, because anything they do can be vetoed by the GC.
Thus when the liberal President Khatemi was elected in the 1990s, two thirds of his reforms (desired by a public increasingly dismayed at their lack of freedoms) were simply rejected by the GC. Khatemi was made to seem an ineffective leader, thus paving the way for President Ahmadinejad (whose ideals were nicely aligned with the GC and SL) next election.
And so we come to Iran today, with all the problems mentioned in the beginning resurfacing. The people realised that under Ajad, with his fiery dislike of the West and seemingly-crazy nuclear ambitions, the country was going backwards and hence voted for the liberal Moussavi in the mid-09 election. We all know how Ajad controversially defrauded that to remain in power, but we forget that SL Khameni had the power to overturn the result but instead expressly reaffirmed it. So the streets erupted in protest at the denying of their voting rights and in frustration with a president most people disliked. Government police and the GC's Revolutionary Guard opened fire, and many civilians died fighting for justice.
This repression (even in the last 2 weeks people have been executed after sham trials for participating in the protests) and Iran's undesired international isolation (mostly regarding its nuclear program, which most Iranians I met didn't really care about) continues today. And it is this dilemma that formed much of my conversations with the Iranian people.
[My friends] Steve
Realising we were foreigners, Steve asks to join us at a niche cafe in Jolfa, Esfahan. We talk, and speaking excellent English later reveals he's from Tehran. "What are you doing here? Business?" He looks around the cafe to ensure no one is listening, "No, no. F**k man, I'm on the run". Why? Because on the internet are photos of him in the Ashura protests. No he's not paranoid, mere photos are enough clues for the Sepah (pro-Govt civilian militia) to imprison dissidents. He rightly didn't want to be thrown in prison like the thousand
other Tehranis arrested after Ashura, especially given the executions I just mentioned.
For him these riots are just the beginning, "...but nothing will happen yet, because we don't know what we want. Sure we want Ajad out, but then what?"
"One thing we don't want is another revolution. Last time the police killed many of us in the streets, and what for? People are still
dying! Nothing has changed."
He then insists on paying for our coffee, and leaves us in awe, his small baggage in tow! Sammy
"My brother is in prison! Can you believe it? The f***ing government, man. I hate them so much."
Sammy uttered these latter 2 sentences so often it almost became his motto. Just like how Steve feared, the Govt used pics from the internet to identify Sammy's bro, arrested him and yeah chucked him in prison. He's still there as you read this now. Remember, these are real
people I met. Sammy's bro is a young man in his 20s. And what did he do wrong? Want what was rightfully his: a free vote and an honest government. Elli and Mandy
I met Mandy, 22, on a bus, and without hesitation she invites me to stay with her family!
"Do you like wearing your headscarf?" I one day ask her and her sister Elli, 19.
We hate it."
Elli and Mandy, within seconds of entering the house, rip of their headscarves. Like I mentioned, it is actually illegal
for women to be in public without their hair covered. You can imagine how much this sucks for young girls at that age.
Mandy puts much effort to make her face look good, she is quite beautiful. Yet she is moderate, other girls go nuts. In Iran's big cities, you frequently see faces covered with outrageous
levels of makeup, because in public women can only individually express themselves with their face. In the West you might think they're girls desperate for the attention they weren't getting otherwsie. But in Iran they're just normal girls trying to be beautiful.
However, a face only gives limited options for fashion... so the latest Iranian fad? Nose jobs! Yes plastic surgery is a resort to fashion here, so much so that showing off you've had a nose job by keeping on the bandage is cool. Even worse, guys
do it too!!!
Signs of a sick society desperate for normality, but unable to get it because of the one-size-fits-all mentality of a religious regime. Zoe
Contrast Elli and Mandy with Zoe. She's a young girl, I think 23, who studies English and speaks well enough. She seems beautiful, but I can only see her face; she wears her veil tightly, along with the blanketing chador.
wearing a chador?" I ask over tea, surprised. "Why?"
"Why? Because I am like an island, and my chador is an ocean that protects my innocence by surrounding me from men.
I am stunned by the poetry of her response. That is her almost-verbatim statement, I kid you not.
Unlike most Iranians I meet, Zoe is
conservative! And highly religious. Just like Ajad and the GC.
So does she like Ajad, and agree with his policies?"
"No! I hate him."
In fact, Zoe sums up to me the real problem with Iran today. The following is not verbatim, but is in summary what she and her like-minded sister-in-law had to say (cleaned up for grammatical purposes) over tea and then over dinner at her family's house: "In Iran we have many different types of people. Many religions, many ethnicities, many values. However, our government enforces only one way of thinking on us: conservative Islam. I am like that so I don't mind. But Islam is a personal thing. Government is public. You cannot mix personal with public. Because within the public, each person is different. In Iran we have many Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians too. And many Iranians don't even believe in anything. So why should others be governed by Islam if they don't believe in it? I want to wear a headscarf and a chador, and I think it's good to wear it, but why should another girl who doesn't want to wear it be forced to do so? People should have the freedom to choose. But in Iran, the government forces us, the public, to abide by something that is personal. All my friends and family think it is wrong, that and also all their hate of the West and etc. But our government will not change. They are becoming dictators, and we are not allowed to say what we want or do what we want. Then they imprison us and sometimes even kill us if we do. All we want is the freedom to choose, both our government and how we want to live."
Like I said, Zoe is just 23, yet has hit on the head what is fundamentally wrong with Iran today: that you cannot instill a personal way of thinking on the public. Bob
"Do you know what I want most of all? A real beer. None of this homemade crap. But a real beer."
Iran is an Islamic regime, and since Islam bans alcohol, Iran bans alcohol. Fair enough that Muslims cannot drink, but what about those people that aren't Muslim? People like Bob?
Bob also shows me a few videos on Youtube, and lets me check Facebook; all things prohibited by the Govt. How does he get all these things? "We also have to live", he answers.
But a real beer is the least of Bob's worries. His business is heavily dependent on tourists. And with the negative image of Iran today, they simply aren't coming anymore. He struggles to sell products, and his loans are sucking him dry. Iran's animosity with the West is not simply creating a negative image for its people, it's hurting
them too. They just want to be accepted internationally, and be normal.
Another example is the Carpet Restorer
, who spoke very little English but enough to communicate his financial struggle to me: "America enemy. England enemy. No friends, no business. Very sad." Johnny and the Moondogs
"Man, I just want to tear out Khameni's beard!"
I met an underground
rock band! Like many things, in Iran rock music is prohibited. They can only practice maybe once a month, and have to ensure that the neighbours aren't home so they won't be heard. Unsurprisingly, they disagree entirely with the anti-Western stance of Ajad (whom they call "The Monkey").
"Yeah we believe in God, but not in Islam", they say. They see the Islam their Government promotes: a heavy restriction on life's normal pleasures (like the music, movies and the internet they love), an unnatural separation between men and women (men and women are segregated in buses
), and they also see their Govt unfairly imprison and indiscrepantly kill their own people. And if that's Islam, they don't want it.
But why rock music, anyway?
"Because we are angry, and rock is the revolution!"
Amen, brother! Andy
"I have a lot of pain in my heart. I have nothing."
Andy is in a tough position. He is not purely Iranian, but half Iranian-half Iraqi. And the Islamic regime doesn't like that. It doesn't matter that he was born in Iran, or that his mother is Iranian. As an "Iraqi" he cannot go to university - simply not allowed. As an "Iraqi" he cannot get a passport - so he can't leave the country at all. As an "Iraqi" he can't even compete professionally in his chosen sport, which he excelled at. He is stuck, and with nothing: no qualifications, no education, no opportunity.
What kind of revolution liberates society like that? One that didn't work. Bus boy
A guy my age enters the bus, and after babbling something in Farsi recognises my blank expression and realises I'm a foreigner. Excited and curious, he sits next to me. He speaks no English, but we somehow establish the basic details, and evenually tells me his viewpoints: Ajad: thumbs up. Israel: thumbs down. Bush: thumbs down profusely. Obama: thumbs down, too!
Although most people I met dislike Ajad and the Govt and like America, there are also those that like him, and hate America because of its interference in other people's affairs (maybe they're not too wrong there!).
However, they are smaller in number, and are usually only those employed by the Govt. In fact, in my entire 6 weeks, I only met 2
people who liked Ajad. This bus guy, and another in a net cafe who could speak English. A few disliked America's "bullying" too, but like everyone else also disliked Ajad.
And also remember that although many of the people I met didn't like the Islam they see in Iran, a large majority of people in Iran are good Muslims. Many people truly believe in one God and humbly dedicate themselves in that regard. The masses of wailing pilgrims at the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, and the thousands
of Iranians I saw commemorating Imam Hussein's martyrdom during Ashura was more than convincing.
But as you can see nevertheless, the Iranian people are hurting, really badly. All they want is what Zoe said; a free Iran. An Iran that is friends with the West - with America and England and Australia. An Iran where they can choose their own Government, freely and fairly. An Iran where they can choose to be conservative or liberal, to be Muslim or not. An Iran that provides for them economically, and doesn't discriminate between its numerous ethnicities.
But like Steve said, they don't know how to achieve this. As I explained the real
power is with the SL and GC. So it's useless wanting Ajad to go and the Government to change. If they do the SL and GC will simply insert someone else with the same ideals. I hate to say it, but they are barking up the wrong tree. On February 11 there will be huge
protests, and I fear more Iranians will die, fighting for freedom, chanting "Death to the Dictator"; but only holding billboards of Ajad. Like Steve also said, nothing has changed: the repression of the Shahs was simply replaced by the repression of the Islamic regime. The only way the Iranian people can achieve the real freedom and international acceptance they so desire is if there is a fundamental upheaval of the status quo; maybe that means another revolution and more civilians dying, but I hope not. However, as long a fundamenalist and narrow-minded religious
regime governs a people so
diverse as those in Iran, the negativity that we so often see in the news of Iran will remain.
But even if that is the case, I hope now you realise that Iranians themselves are completely different. They do not hate us, they are not dangerous, they are not terrorists. Iran truly is one of the easiest and safest places I've ever visited. And like I mentioned, it's people are so friendly and welcoming that they will leave a special feeling in your heart. So instead of staying away thinking they are our enemies, go there soon and make some friends :)
(Sorry this was long, but it was necessary. Next blog will be short, promise!)