I received many puzzled looks and raised eyebrows when I announced that I planned to circumnavigate the world without using an airplane. Most people’s interest turned to concern when I mentioned that Iran was on my itinerary, however. Isn’t it dangerous, people would ask? Most North Americans don’t even realize that it’s possible to go to Iran as a tourist.
Rest peacefully, dear reader; Iran is a safe and surprisingly modern country, and as long as you don’t tell the government that you’re a journalist or uranium specialist (ehem…), you needn’t worry. Iran definitely has its idiosyncrasies, however, and when it comes to the government’s policies towards its own citizens, some aspects of the country are downright sinister.
Backward, but not left behind
The Western media tends to portray Iran as a land of endless desert, oil derricks, religious oppression, and secret nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities, all controlled by legions of nefarious Muslim extremists sporting long beards and black turbans. After spending two weeks in the country, I have come to the conclusion that this is largely true. It is not, however, representative.
Iran is a relatively modern country, and it is certainly richer and more advanced than most in the region. The infrastructure is generally excellent, with reliable roads, water, and electricity. The tap water is perfectly safe to drink. While the income disparity between the cities and the countryside is large, most people seem to live decently prosperous lives. The shops are well stocked, the women wear fashionable clothes and makeup, and groups of friends go out in the evening for ice cream cones.
It doesn’t seem that the American-lead sanctions have stopped average Iranians from getting what they want. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are widely available, and many people walk around with iPhones. Fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC are not here, although local knockoffs have filled the gap, selling their versions of “happy meals” and “Kentucky fried”. Clothing emblazoned with all of the major fashion labels is readily available in stores, and while authenticity is doubtful, it doesn’t seem to matter much.
On a national level, however, sanctions are clearly having an effect. It’s difficult to transfer money in or out of Iran, mainly because the country is blocked from connecting to the international wire transfer system. Unemployment is high. Western institutions can’t lend money to Iranian companies, so there is a chronic shortage of investment funds. Most people are exasperated by the situation, and wish the involved parties would just grow up and move on.
What do you think of Iran?
As I wander about the gardens, numerous people stop to ask my honest opinion of Iran. Two teenage girls wish to practice their English, and their parents stand to one side, beaming with pride at their daughters’ language skills. An awkward youth with a gravity-defying head of tightly-coiled hair gesticulates excitedly as he tries to impress me with his knowledge of the world and what he assumes is our mutual dislike of the Iranian government.
In fact, disaffected youth from across the country seem to be drawn to me. I am stopped frequently on the street by people curious about my opinion of Iran. Several days earlier, while visiting the tomb of Ferdosi, another revered poet, I watched as a teacher encouraged her students to ask my father questions in English. When they spotted me, however, their timidity and decorum vanished, and they excitedly clustered around me like iron filings floating over a magnet. Their language skills extend little further than “Hello, where are you from?” but even after my tenth identical response I was nevertheless regaled with squeals of delight.
Iran is crisscrossed by well-built, paved highways, complete with modern overpasses, onramps, and signage. The cities are well-equipped as well, with wide and well-maintained streets. Iranians do not, however, bother following traffic rules. Driving anywhere is terrifying, and I feel an overriding sense of peril most of the time.
Traffic jams are rife in the cities, so to get anywhere drivers must resort to all sorts of tricks. One tactic is to drive on the dashed line, thus creating three lanes where in most countries there would be but two. In particularly bad traffic, it’s not uncommon to see small cars driving on the sidewalk, scattering old women and baby carriages in their wakes. Another tactic to escape bad traffic is to change direction suddenly by making a U-turn at full speed from the right-hand lane, a technique that our driver, Mr. Mamsoori, employs often and with gusto. Most drivers pay no heed to traffic lights and breeze straight through red lights. Right-of-way seems to be determined by vehicle size, with the larger vehicle gaining precedent. Sometimes a dashed white line divides two lanes heading in the same direction, as it does in the West, but at other times it divides two lanes heading in opposite directions. In Tabriz we encounter a busy roundabout that inexplicably has stoplights.
On highways, cars generally travel at 130 km/h. Those in a hurry—and that’s everyone—seize upon every opportunity to pass slower vehicles, even if a transport truck is hurtling towards them in the oncoming lane. This tricky maneuver is accomplished by accelerating as fast as possible until the last moment, at which point the driver veers into oncoming traffic, speeds past the slowpoke, and then swerves back into the proper lane. On several occasions while executing such a maneuver, Mr. Mamsoori straddles the centerline and directs our car between the vehicle we’re passing and an oncoming truck.
Mr. Mamsoori is not particularly adept at navigation, so we often find ourselves lost. His usual method of getting back on track is to stop the car (in the middle of traffic), roll down the window, and ask directions from a passerby. On highways, he instead positions his car about six inches from the vehicle in the neighbouring lane, rolls down the window, and then proceeds to shout back and fourth to the driver—while continuing to travel at 100 km/h. If we get on the highway in the wrong direction, Mr. Mamsoori simply reverses back up the onramp. On one occasion, when he couldn’t find the actual onramp, he simply drove across a field, drove up an old rammed-earth construction ramp, and cannonballed the car onto the highway.
It should come as no surprise that Iran has one of the highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world.
Price tag confusion
Nobody seems to know how much anything costs in Iran, including the shopkeepers. Trying to buy anything, from carpets down to raisins, usually involves a lot of discussion, some thoughtful beard-scratching, and possibly a phone call. And it’s not a language issue—our guide Ehsan does no better than I.
Even the cash itself is hopelessly confusing. The largest-denomination coin is worth 5000 rials (about 15 US cents), and if there are smaller coins in circulation, I’m never made aware of them. The lowest denomination paper note in circulation is also worth 5000 rials, while the largest is worth 500,000 rials (about $15 USD). Confusingly, the number “50” is printed on the 500,000 rial note. Prices are often, but not always, quoted in “toman” instead of rial. One toman is worth 10 rials, which doesn’t do much to reduce the number of zeros on a price tag, but does make it quite difficult to know how much money to hand over for a purchase. On one occasion I am quoted a price in “Khomenis” (referring to the late supreme leader), but since his image is emblazoned on every denomination of bill, it could literally mean anything.
Life under a theocracy
In 1979, the American-backed Shah (king) of Iran fled the country, and the Islamic Revolution was proclaimed a success. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France brandishing a new constitution promising freedom and good governance for the people of Iran. Before it was put to a referendum, though, Khomeini inserted an extra clause, giving himself supreme legislative authority. He quickly cowed the newly-elected government, established the Revolutionary Council as the supreme authority of the land, and thus ushered in Iran’s current era of religious hegemony.
The people of Iran must suffer many religiously-motivated laws that range from the benign to the draconian. You can’t own a pet dog, for instance. Pork and alcohol are banned, of course. Tobacco, marijuana and opium are not addressed, however (some suspect that this is because some religious leaders take the pleasure). Women must cover their hair in public. Pre-marital liaisons are strictly forbidden, of course, but to get around this an amorous couple can invoke the Islamic practice of the nikah mut’ah (temporary marriage contract), which can last as little as a few hours. Any man may enter into such a contract, but a woman must have been previously married.
Despite all this, it seems that few young Iranians adhere to the strict lifestyle they are implored to lead by the religious authorities. Young women wear fashionable headscarves pinned high on their heads, which does nothing to conceal their beautifully styled hair. Home-brew alcohol and smuggled whisky is commonly served at house parties, and (unmarried) men and women socialize freely behind closed doors.
A friend tells me a story that encapsulates well the state of law and justice in Iran. When he was in his twenties, Reza and his girlfriend drove into the mountains one evening to look at the stars. On the way, they were pulled over by the police. The officer demanded proof of their marriage or engagement. Lacking forged documents for either, the two were charged, and an Islamic court later sentenced Reza to 99 lashes. He appealed to a higher court, which reduced the sentence to a fine of five million reals.
The Great Satan
In 1979, popular resentment against the USA, particularly its ongoing support of the Shah, unified opposition groups and brought about Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic Revolution. Since then, the USA has been officially known as “the Great Satan,” and it is blamed for all variety of evils. To illustrate the vitriol still spouted by the government, here’s a quote I saw on a roadside billboard (ironically written in English):
In truth, the Iranians I meet harbour no resentment against the USA whatsoever, and seem almost embarrassed by their government’s anti-American propaganda. The fashionable set wear clothing emblazoned with English phrases (often nonsensical), and American music blasts from car stereos. Most young Persians think that the standoff between the Iranian and American governments is perpetuated only to benefit those in power, and has long since ceased to reflect the feelings of the people.
There seems to be an undercurrent of insecurity among young educated Iranians—a sort of inferiority complex fed by an acute awareness that most of the world knows nothing of Iran. The most common question I am asked by locals (after “where are you from?”) is “what do you think about Iran?” I tell them the sites are world-class, the people are generous, and the infrastructure is unexpectedly advanced. Unfortunately, I know that most Americans (and by extension Canadians) know little about Iran. Unfortunately, our media tend to cast Iranians as bearded “axis of evil” types bent on spreading extremist Islam and pursuing nuclear conquest. I wish the people on my side of the Atlantic were as knowledgeable and open as the real people of Iran.
Here are some pictures of some of the amazing roofs we saw in Iran.