The Iran you can discover on your own
I asked him: "Of all the countries in the world you have seen, which one would you recommend that I visit the most?" He replied unequivocally: "Iran!"
What is the most effective way to break down prejudices, challenge misconceptions and influence people to fully appreciate and embrace the common humanity that we are share?
It’s simple: go there, see and then decide for yourself!
The greatest potential that travelling has is its capacity to open people’s minds to different ways of being, to enable people to share their differences and marvel at them: to appreciate that this diversity is part of what makes the world colourful and vibrant. Experiencing different ways of being allows us to appreciate the arbitrariness of own perspectives and therefore liberates us to disregard the limitations of prejudiced ideologies that so often lead to hatred and conflict.
I have learned from experience that the research that you do about a country prior to arriving never fully represents reality. Fortunately, I was already aware of this so I didn’t let the many disconcerting things that I read deter me from wanting to go to Iran. The main reason I decided to travel to Iran was because of the advice a friend of mine gave me in 2015, who is a seasoned travelled who has travelled to many more countries than I have. I had some holiday time and savings and I wanted to go somewhere but couldn’t decide where to go next. I asked him: “Of all the countries in the world you have seen, which one would you recommend that I visit the most?” He replied unequivocally: “Iran!” He had planted a seed: since then, Iran was ruminating in the back of mind. I had to see why this man, who had travelled the entire globe chose Iran as the most fascinating country he had ever seen and one which he highly recommended I see.
There are many misconceptions about both Iran and Iranians among Australians and people outside Iran. When I told people in Australia I planned to travel to Iran for the Christmas holidays, their instant reaction was an extremely distraught facial expression accompanied by a yelp of vexation: “Why would you want to go there!” I simply replied (admittedly rather condescendingly): “Well … the history of the Persian empire interests me for one…”
Obviously this is fuelled by how Iran is typically presented to the outside world in the international media. I find it disturbing that since the recent international developments concerning the economic sanctions against Iran began in around March 2018, the many social justice focused facebook groups that I have subscribed to seem to be publishing numerous articles about Iranian human rights abuses. Of course, this narrative was always present but I’m certain that this year the bombardment of these kinds of articles is linked to how the international community is concerned with fostering a polarised view of Iran.
What baffles me the most is people’s inability to distinguish between a country’s political policies and the people of the country. Even within ‘democratic’ nations – such as Australia – the policies of the government do not necessarily reflect the views of the people. This was aptly acknowledged in a collection of stories about refugee detention by a Rohingya refugee, who has been imprisoned in an Australian immigration detention centre since 2013. He states that: “I learnt all people are equal, but the politics are different…It’s clear to me that the people are different from the policy. And any kind of policy implemented in the world has nothing to do with its people.” ~ Sajjd (The Cannot Take the Sky, p.242). I think this is an important point to reflect on in any discussion about political differences.
When I visited Iran I was eager to see Tehran and cities such as Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd, Esfahan and Kashan, to visit the tomb of Hafez and the burial place of Cyrus the Great. But what most interested me was to discover what local Iranian people were like. I had seen the BBC documentaries about aspects of Iranian society like the politics of dating and read travel blogs with advice about ‘what not to do in Iran’. I was a little afraid that travelling solo as a woman might offend some people. I wanted to make friends and meet as many local people as I could to ask them their opinions – their opinions about life, love, religion, politics, about their hopes and dreams.
When I did meet people I found them to be incredibly welcoming, warm, friendly and open-minded. They were also interested in non-Iranians, in people who had travelled and experienced different cultures and ways of being. For this reason, I would say that Iranians are particularly able to value others’ difference and opinions or ways of thinking that may be different to their own. When I was visiting Beheshteh Zahra, two women in a chador approached me. Although they couldn’t speak much English they were interested in me and wanted to help me. They asked if they could show me around Iman Khomeini Shine because I wasn’t sure where the women’s entrance was. They ended up on the metro near to me and followed me upstairs, tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a copy of the qu’ran! I was so happy to receive this with a special note inside written in English:
“The name of this book is Quran … The Quran is the words of God that has been revealed to the last Prophet, Mohammad. You can call me for the Quran in English.”
I would recommend Iran as a place to visit to anyone who asked me. I would also tell female solo travellers to go on their own and reassure them that it’s totally safe to do so – I never once was made to feel uncomfortable by the men or women here. I would tell fellow travellers not to listen to the often misleading prevalent discourse about Iran or Iranian culture – the truth is Iranians and Iranian culture is not as distant or obscure as its made out to be. I say: go there, see and then decide for yourself!