April 17th, 2007

Despite media portrayals of Iran as violent, fundamentalist nation, it is really a wonderful place to visit. Firstly there is of course a wealth of stunningly beautiful monuments, art-work, and cool stuff to buy. More importantly though, there are the people. Iranians are all too aware of the shortcomings of their totalitarian political system, and will often complain to you about it mere seconds after meeting you for the first time. However in terms of everyday life, it is certainly not nearly as repressive as most of the Gulf countries, or even in (compared to the Gulf) relatively liberal Islamic republics such as Morocco or Pakistan.

Although women are required to wear hijab (which roughly translates as modest dress, involving covering everything except your face, neck, hands and feet), they are otherwise relatively unconstrained. So they share taxis with men, sit next to men in Internet cafes, and generally are visible on the street in a way they aren’t even in places like Pakistan. Indeed following the abolition of the religious police by Khatami things used to be pretty relaxed, with men and women flirting openly in cafes.

This has been clamped down on a bit in the provinces, so for example in Esfahan the cafes are now unfortunately solely inhabited by single men, and the further away you go from Tehran the less you see women wandering around the place, and the higher the percentage of them that wear a chador (basically a large and inconvenient-to-wear sheet, usually black, that covers everything except the face). Despite this, girls and boys still find ways to meet up. For example in Esfahan we sat next to a couple in a dark internet cafe who were simply there to meet, hold hands and talk. Although they gazed at the screen, they didn’t touch the keyboard for the entire half-hour they were there.

Since arranged marriages and parallel-cousin marriage aren’t traditional in Iran, there has to be a way for men and women to meet up – and the internet has become massively popular as a way to do this. Yahoo messenger is open on every terminal in every internet cafe (or coffeenet as they’re called) in Iran. Teenage girls are also expert in delivering lascivious glances, as I discovered to my embarrassment and Rani’s mirth. Apparently slightly overweight thirty-something IT consultants are the in thing. Great.

Go to Tehran and you can see as many young women as you like with peroxided hair, fresh nose-jobs, and headscarf almost falling off the back of their heads mixing with men quite happily in up-market cafes and shopping malls. The amount of time and money spent by women on their face, hair and perfume is striking – since women can’t express themselves with clothing and accessories (with the exception of D&G headscarves and trainers), a great deal of effort is spent on make-up and plastic surgery. Curiously, even though men do not have the same restrictions, we also saw quite a few of them with bandaged noses that were obviously not the result of late-night fisticuffs.

Indeed violence seems pretty absent from Iranian society. In our whole two weeks there, we only once heard two people fighting. Other than that, people simply never raise their voices. This took a while to get used to after India, where high decibel debates with recalcitrant rickshaw-drivers are de rigueur. This doesn’t of course prevent taxi drivers from ripping you off – it just means you have to be much more polite about it when they do. Because people are so well-mannered and public spaces are kept clean and well-manicured, Iran feels like an incredibly safe place.

Even the police are terribly nice. When we went to renew our visa our first contact was with the commander of Esfahan’s tourist police, who fired off a volley of idioms at us that he had learned from other tourists. This backfired slightly when he asked if Rani was up the duff, but he rallied magnificently by doing an excellent impression of George Bush delivering a speech and then declaring that he had a jones for a pie. After asking us to post him a good book of commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets, he told us that he is basically pretty bored since there are only ever a few crimes involving tourists a year in Esfahan, Iran’s top tourist destination.

One of the other things that Khatami did was to liberalise the press (although this didn’t extend to foreign fiction, making everything except government-approved authors such as Jeffery Archer unobtainable). There are now a bewildering variety of newspapers, even in English. However you still have to be rather careful about criticising the government, with the result that a large proportion of newspapers are filled with international news culled from AP, AFP and websites of foreign newspapers. This means that most Iranians are intimately conversant with the nuances of international politics and economics. They are also very serious about education, although only about 10% of high school leavers can get a place at university.

Iranians are also incredible sociable, with the upshot that we spent an exhaustingly large amount of our time discussing the minutiae of international relations and comparitive religion. As we went for a walk in Park-e Shahr in Tehran on a fantastically sunny Friday afternoon, we were called over several times by families demanding we drink tea with them. It is impossible to sit down on a park bench for more than a few minutes without somebody sitting down next to you and talking, even if you don’t share a common language. Anybody that accosts you but doesn’t speak English will simply co-opt a passer-by who does, so that they can fire questions at you via a translator.

The main economic problem Iran has is unemployment. Even the low percentage of the population who are able to get a higher education are unable to get jobs. Combined with the inability of young people to enjoy themselves through the traditional outlets of drinking and partying, this has led to a rapid increase in drug use, with ecstasy and easy-to-manufacture crystal meth (ugh) proving particularly popular. If anything proves to be the current Iranian system’s undoing, I think it will be this, especially given that people under thirty form the vast majority of the population.

I’ll definitely be coming back to Iran, certainly to stock up on cheap handicrafts, and possibly for a nose job. For now though I’m off to Turkey, where my first task will be to get hold of a cold Efes, and Rani will be joyously throwing off her headscarf – ironically in a part of Turkey where the religious right has long fought for the right of women to wear one to work.

  • Harish Mallipeddi

    Interesting to read about Iran. It is true that Iranian females are more outgoing and have more freedom (compared to say Pakistan) based on my interaction with some Iranian students here at my uni in Singapore.

  • Jim

    yeah, sounds great, but best not to go by boat, unless you’re desperate for a new suit…

    Seriously though, no matter where you go the vast majority of people are just people, like us and for the most part, decent. The problem with going to Muslim countries now is that as westerners, we are potential extremist targets. I therefore have to question the sense in going there in the first place, or the rights to complain, on the odd occasion that harm could befall.

    Informative and interesting article, nonetheless.


  • jez

    Hey Jim.

    I could see that you could be an extremist target in London, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, Kashmir, New York or the Congo.

    Iran on the other hand, to my knowledge, has never had any instance of tourists being targetted by extrsmists. This is because tourists are usually targeted in countries with internal conflicts. Iran doesn’t really have any (except Baluchistan, but the tragic situation there hasn’t affected the rest of Iran).

    Hence I wonder where you get the idea that Iran is unsafe for tourists. I can see no reason why that should be the case, nor any evidence for it.

    Rational human beings of all persuasions are able to distinguish between individuals and the actions of their governments. Psychopaths are not – but you’re orders of magnitude more likely to be murdered in a large city in the USA than be the victim of an extremist attack in Iran.

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  • Johhno

    >>> Rational human beings of all persuasions are able to distinguish between individuals and the actions of their governments.

    No, the people are responsible for the actions of their government.

  • jez


    Even if in some philosophical sense you can make the argument that nationals of a country are responsible for the actions of their government (which is a controversial position), it is nevertheless possible to distinguish between individuals and the actions of their governments. Even if I believed that U.S. citizens are all responsible in some philosophical sense for the U.S. going to war in Iraq, I certainly don’t reserve the same disgust for every U.S. citizen that I do for the U.S. government. The same applies to Iran and any other country.

    In any case, I don’t think the concept of collective responsibility can apply to a representative democracy, let alone a pseudo-democracy like Iran. It might apply to a participatory democracy such as ancient Athens.