A couple of weeks after I left Iran, I met a Vietnamese-American in a hostel. He was surprised to hear I spent two months in Iran and asked, like many others I’ve met, if it was safe to go there. The question expresses many years of propaganda against Iran, to which Western populations are exposed. We never hear an honest account of what life is like in that country and the multitude of opinions of ordinary Iranians. Iran is synonymous as being another bogeyman, alongside the likes of North Korea, in international discourse. If you haven’t heard anything else about the country, the question seems a sensible one. Is it safe to go to a country that constantly gets negative press? Surely no chink of light can come from such a place. After hearing about my time there and seeing the many pictures of the places I visited and the people I met who were so welcoming towards me, the American admitted he had no idea it was like that. On hearing my experience, he said his opinion and perception of the country had greatly changed.
In spite of the US sanctions crippling their economy, many I talked to lay the blame squarely at the feet of their own government. BBC Persia is popular there (nearly every home I entered had illegal satellite channels) but it obviously has it’s own agenda and gives another perspective, attractive to many who are sick of the situation. I didn’t talk to a single person who expressed satisfaction with the government. Nearly all young I talked to wanted to leave the country, as most of them had no hope of the situation improving any time soon. After the events of 3 years ago, when protests over the validity of the election result which handed Ahmadinejad his 2nd term as president were crushed, many became scared and hopeless – positive change seemed even more impossible from then on. Western media outlets capitalised on these events and used it for their own corrupt agenda. Even without this propaganda, many in Iran who had previously respected the government and the Ayatollah, saw the mask slip.
One guy I talked with who had been involved with the protests claimed he seen Hebrew writing on one of the gas canisters thrown by the riot police and also claimed many of the cops were Arab-speaking, presumably from Hezbollah affiliated groups flown in from Lebanon. The same guy, while expressing hatred of the government, wasn’t so deluded as to believe that Western powers had benevolent intentions towards his country. He said if the US ever attacked, he wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a gun to help fight the invaders in the hope of driving them from his homeland, as he saw the wanton destruction they had wrought next-door in Iraq. Whatever happens in Iran, I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of a strong anti-imperialist stance, combined with genuine solidarity with ordinary Iranians (not their government!). One day something will crack – the current situation is too unsustainable; the question is what happens afterwards and how can the US, Britain, Israel and other vultures be kept at bay.
As I walk though the streets of Shiraz before getting a cab to the airport, I hear the regular exclamation, “HAHlo MEEstehr” thrown my way from passers by. At this stage it’s getting old. I’ve never had such mixed emotions about a place. I’ve met so many intelligent, curious, kind-hearted people and fallen for their culture and heritage, I feel I’m already missing it, but I also know the strain people are under and the precarious position that could unravel in the coming years. At the airport I buy an overpriced bottle of water (price: 20,000 rial) as there’s no drinking taps around. I give the smiling woman behind the counter a 50,000 note and she puts it in the cash box with an indifferent defiance. “Change?” I ask with my hand out. “No change”, comes the confident reply. “What do you mean ‘no change’? You’re a shop – you have change”, I say. She then looks around, picks up a miniature chocolate bar and places it beside my water while saying “OK”, as if that settles it. She seems to be enjoying herself. I put the piece of confectionery back where it came from and insist on my change, as I’d like some souvenir Iranian notes to bring with me. This goes on for another minute before she hands me a 10,000 note with another miniature chocolate bar, and I give up with a bemused “tut, tut” to rejoin the long check-in queue.
I get on the plane knowing the paradoxes of this great country will be at the forefront of my mind for a long time.