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PostA Visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran; from Alejandro Soler (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela, 11/06/15 4:26 am)
My son Alejandro, who lives in Berlin, very recently spent some time traveling in Iran. I was myself kind of surprised by his comments and asked him to write them down. I would like to share his thoughts with WAIS:
A few days ago I returned from Iran. It is hard to summarize and put into concrete words all of the experiences and emotions I had on my trip, but I will try.
Even though I believed the trip would be safe and enriching, intensified by my long-standing curiosity for the country, I couldn't avoid feeling slightly hesitant at the thought of going to a country so often negatively portrayed in the West, where law obeys the precepts of a religion that, despite my respect for it, is perceived by westerners being somehow intense, extremist and intolerant. I couldn't avoid the fear of behaving or saying something that could be misinterpreted or disrespectful.
The trip could not start better than imagined, even before touching the ground of the Islamic Republic during the flight from Berlin to Teheran. I experienced an anecdote that marked in a good sense my whole adventure. My introduction to Persian idiosyncrasies took place when an older lady, seated with an empty place between us to my right on the plane, started talking to me and kindly offering me the fruit she had carefully cut and sorted at home. We started talking in a friendly manner in her rustic German throughout the whole flight, and when I asked her if she knew how to get from the far away airport into the city, she kindly offered a ride with her relatives that were picking her up.
Upon arrival, as an Iranian, she managed to get through immigration pretty quickly; on the other hand I had to go through customs and immigration for about an hour but finally without trouble. Feeling extremely embarrassed by the fact that her relatives were waiting for someone they knew nothing about to take him into town, I stepped out as quickly as possible. Robi--the elderly lady--at the exit, clearly worried, greeted me effusively and introduced me to her family. She thought the whole time I was being questioned by the police.
It was already almost midnight and I asked them if they could wait little longer while I changed some money. Not only had they been waiting for our delayed flight, they waited for me to come out of customs and even had to wait for my coming back from the exchange office, which took about another half hour. I was absolutely embarrassed, but they insisted on waiting and helping, translating and making sure I got what I needed. I met two female and one male members of Robi's family; luckily the man spoke good English that allowed me to make some funny comments and stories and make them laugh and comfortable with my company.
By the way, most of the communications during the trip was in English, a few conversations in German, at a very basic and rudimentary level, but very often at a good level with educated people. Of course many of the "conversations" were mimicry, sign language and gesticulation. For that reason, I am the only one responsible for misinterpreting perceptions and anecdotes I am about to tell.
When driving into the city with the family, while trying to take an unfamiliar exit from the highway to bring me to my hotel. it was late at night, dark of course, with bad traffic signals and they got lost. So they decided to take me to their home for some tea and arrange a taxi to take me to my destination. It turned out to be an excellent dinner at their small apartment; I was absolutely delighted by the opportunity to enjoy delicious dates, fruit in abundance and the eventual massive dinner that followed. Later they took me to my hotel at the other side of the city, negotiated on my behalf the price for the night and arranged a SIM card for my mobile phone. The story with Robi's family goes further but it would require a longer and detailed narration. This experience was, what I learned later, the Iranian hospitality tradition in its genuine form.
From Teheran, soon after I started my planned journey of 3500 Km to the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan, Qom, Yadz and some small towns, villages, the desert and the oasis. Iran is a vast country, beautiful with all kinds of landscapes and long, endless desert roads, not in bad shape.
More importantly, I found that Persians are kind, curious, gentle, considerate, generous, hospitable, discrete and humble people; sometimes perhaps too friendly and curious for western culture, careful of our own privacy and intimacy. Countless anecdotes I could refer to illustrate this perception in most of the places I visited.
Occasionally bus drivers would not charged me for the fare; once the driver stepped out of the bus and bought me water when he realized I was going to an area with no water available. People enthusiastically helped me with indications and transportation. A humble man, in the middle of nowhere, spontaneously offered me some small cakes he had and would reject any form of retribution. On one occasion, one night on the trip from Yazd to Shiraz, we had a nice conversations with and old man traveling with us; when he knew I did not have a place to spend the night at our destination, he kindly offered me his home, being very pleased and thankful for me accepting his hospitality.
I was invited into homes, provided with shelter and food out of what seemed to be pure hospitality, desire to help and welcome. It is true that I visited the country in the time of Muharram and close to the day of Ashura, a period in which Shias mourn the death of their third Imam and during which charity is even more encouraged.
I couldn't avoid trying to figure out where this generosity could come from. Was it some expression of old Persian culture, or was it the fact that so few foreigners visit the country that makes them feel especially generous and curious? Is it a consequence of the restrictions imposed by their form of government, the international sanctions, the Shia tradition? Or even a combination of all of the above? I'm not usually fond of generalizations, but the fact that so many people in so many different places and ways were so kind towards me makes it hard not to say that Iranians are without a doubt a kind and friendly folk.
From what I could see, to my surprise and contrary to what is exposed by western media, Iranians also didn't seem to be particularly extreme or fanatic regarding religion. Putting aside the fact that I found myself in the middle of religious festivities and that the country is ruled by the law of Islam, most of the people I encountered seemed to have a relaxed behavior towards religion and would allow funny comments regarding the Mullahs or even Khomeini.
Even the Mullahs I interacted with were joyful and friendly. Islam does not prohibit in any way fun and jokes, but this contrasts with the common outsider image in which Muslims, particularly Iranians, are often portrayed as religiously rigid, even fanatical, inflexible fortresses of rejection and hatred towards Western culture.
An illustration of less frantic religious practices in Iran, is that I can't recall seeing prayer bumps or "zebibahs" on people's foreheads, products of excessive praying, contrary to my experience in other Muslim and Arab countries.
I also was surprised that among the people I encountered, there were at least two who openly and quickly in the conversation declared their atheism and rejection of Islam and religion overall. Another one, a practicing believer, was greatly pleased when I explained to him my vision of God, distant from his, in which I declared all existing things holy and divine, meaning, elements of God. He opposed my view, saying that those were not fragments of God but signs of him. However, he complimented my perception as beautiful, and we agreed that what was important was to be and do good.
In a different aspect of perception of their culture, I recall having a conversation with a man in which he was talking about international relations. As expected, the subject turned to Israel. At one moment of the conversation, when complaining, he said "the Jews" and immediately corrected himself to say "the Zionists." Whether he corrected himself in order not appear radical before me or out of his honest belief, it doesn't change the fact that at least he had a differentiation of concepts between Zionist and Jewish which is, at least in political terms, more objective and less fanatical or racist.
To my surprise, I also saw Jewish-owned shops, men with Kippas and houses with the Cross of David on the door, also with no signs of vandalism or violence. I also never heard a negative comment towards neither Christendom nor Judaism. The only form of racist discrimination expressions I heard were from a girl of Afghan descent and the Arabs from the Gulf.
A major prejudice about Islamic countries we Westerners have, concerns discrimination against women. From my experience in Iran, I can only testify that, at least presently and in daily mundane life, women are treated with respect. Even though it is a fact that women have to sit in the back in public buses or the subway, in the last case with a physical barrier between wagons, I saw women also freely entering the men's wagon and sitting in the front of buses when the back was full. This points to a situation of preference, in which women have a "reserved" space and can also choose to mingle with the men, while the opposite (men entering the women's wagon) is not allowed. One interpretation of the above would actually see the men as the ones being discriminated against.
I have heard, however, that for example a woman's testimony in judicial court is worth half that of a man's. These deeper, more complex aspects of culture I was unable to see and cannot comment on, but from my experience, I never saw women being mistreated or yelled at and even also got to see women take part in negotiations and bully men. I perceived that in common life situations at least, women seemed to be seen at the same level as men.
I did notice, though, that women were constantly very conscious of their Hejab and Chador, touching and arranging it very often. That led me to believe that, if not uncomfortable, women were very conscious of the garment they were wearing. From a personal perspective, I prefer to actually forget what I am wearing, which for me is a synonym of comfort. I also heard from some people that they disliked the Hejab and would prefer not to wear it. Despite that, I also saw many women and girls wear the Chador, which is not particularly mandatory and more complex to wear than a simple Hejab or headscarf. This would point to either an imposition of tradition or an honest choice-not an imposition of Islamic law. I also was told that, not even long ago, women were taken into custody for showing their ankles or locks of hair.
In this regard change is probably coming. I saw groups of women hanging out or picnicking together. The older women would wear the most conservative clothing, the middle aged ones would be more extravagant and explorative, wearing makeup and Western clothing with only a head scarf, and little girls at times would be absolutely undistinguishable from Western counterparts. It is inevitable that contradictions and contrasting attitudes occur, especially in a restrictive system that is opening up to the world and facing inner evolutions. I suppose for that reason I often saw some ankles and a lot of hair.
When I was asked where I come from, I suspected that saying I was from Spain or Germany would not be sympathetic or interesting to Iranians. So I always answered that I was Venezuela-born. This answer caused different reactions: many had some knowledge of the country, others more surprised and said with excitement and sympathy they had never met someone from there; some people claimed they knew the country well and immediately recalled Hugo Chávez and the close relationship and cooperation Iran and Venezuela had built and continue to have.
What do Iranians think about their government? This topic was a very sensitive one for a foreigner and I had to approach it carefully. Depending on their reaction and in order not to be conspicuous, I would conveniently turn my political sympathies one way or the other, mainly to encourage others to openly speak their mind. That way, when Chávez was praised, I would do the same and ask them how they felt about the former and the current president and, when Chávez or Ahmadinejad were criticized, I would do the same. As a conclusion, expectedly, most people in the province and inland Iran were more supportive of Ahmadinejad and his populist attitude, whereas in big cities and more metropolitan liberal environments, the government was greatly and openly criticized. It seems that more people live in the cities than in rural areas, and most of the younger population lives in urban areas and has easier access to outside information.
Based on my experience, I would dare to say that the current political system is moderately supported. I listened many people´s complains about not having enough liberties or being repressed by laws and regulations. However they were all optimistic of future changes Rohani might bring. On top of that, I twice witnessed, when driving by Khomeni's mausoleum, how people with clear gestures repudiated him and his legacy.
There is a difference between supporting one president over another and actually supporting the overall Ayatollah, Sharia system. I think it is also fair to say that Iran's current status quo will sooner rather than later change or evolve. Surely things will not take the proportion of an Arab Spring, but maybe, if change is not progressively introduced, we may witness a Persian Autumn.
In such repressive environments, not much different from Venezuela, you always find open supporters and open but mainly discrete rejecters. The same way many young people I met listened to Western music, used proxies to access censured websites and criticized current status, I met other kinds of young people, particularly Mahmoud, who in his early twenties was assisting the religious university of Qom and proudly showed me a picture of him holding the hands of the other Mahmoud, Ahmadinejad.
There is much to say about Iran and what I saw. A number of days filled with constant activity and over 3500 Km of traveled road cannot be put into words easily, especially when there are so many impressions, so much to digest, to value and consider again. I very much enjoyed Iranian food, I never felt threatened or unsafe, I really appreciated the ancient buildings and modern architecture, beautiful mosques, amazing landscapes and the flavor of a very old and rich culture, the contrast of modernity and moderate prosperity, but above all some things remain certain and important to me: Persians are curious, profound, generous, kind, friendly and maybe on occasions even naïve.
I do draw a line between the cruel forces or interests that either nationally or internationally harm others, and those Iranians who remain far from politics, with simple lives and concerns framed in routine and everyday life and who, in absolutely all circumstances, treated me with kindness and generosity.
JE comments: My warmest thanks to Alejandro Soler for this excellent travelogue. Alejandro's keen eye for other cultures reminds me of his dad's report on Cuba, which appeared on these page in January. Now more than ever, I am inspired to place Iran high on my Bucket List.
Alejandro appended these photos.