(image from flickr)
Over the recent Thanksgiving break, I went on a backpacking trip in Iran. To my friends, my pre-trip plans sounded far-fetched and risky. Indeed, in the era of the 24/7 news cycle, constant media depictions of Iran and the surrounding Middle East region paint a picture of regional instability, conflict, and incessant violence. It is therefore natural that many Americans often draw unconscious (but mistaken) parallels between Iran’s actions overseas, and a situation of domestic political and social instability.
Nonetheless, my recently concluded visit to Iran paints another picture: while it remains a country beset by challenges in managing societal tensions and encouraging economic growth, Iran is in no way a monolithic entity, and to generalize it as an ‘Islamic Republic’ ignores the richness, diversity, and depth of Iranian culture, history, and society. In sum, my 9-day adventure offered me a small but tantalizing glimpse into a several millennia-old culture – one that has less to do with state-sponsored terrorism and religious extremism, and more closely related to a flourishing of the arts, and of state-sponsored architectural marvels.
To me, Iran is best described as a paradox. For example, despite the constant news updates on worsening pollution in Tehran, the city itself is flush with beautiful urban greenery. With its wide tree-lined boulevards and large public parks with tightly clustered trees and shrubbery, Tehran captivated me as one of the truly ‘green’ cities that I have visited on my travels. This proved ironic, as I too experienced my fair share of hours-long traffic jams within the city, and of its infamous, unhealthy smog.
Furthermore, strict Iranian media censorship and internet usage laws often belie an incredibly vibrant social media scene, populated by scores of tech-savvy Iranian youth. For example, when visiting Iran as a foreigner, you are sure to meet friendly Iranians who provide you with a quick rundown on the most effective free VPNs to download from the Android Play Store. As a result, apps such as Facebook, or sites such as businessinsider.com, are a mere additional tap away.
Indeed, this ties into larger media caricatures of Iran, often portraying it as an ultra-conservative society replete with government-condoned social restrictions. From personal experience, such descriptions cannot be further from the truth. While its status as an Islamic Republic does mean that all women are required to wear some form of headgear while in public (though not necessarily to cover their entire head), young Iranians are not very much unlike American youth, in that both share a common desire express their own individualism and independence. In any typical Iranian urban setting, conservatively-dressed women in all-black abayas and tightly-wrapped chadors walk side-by-side with much more fashionable ladies sporting headgear that typically reveals a large part of their hair. As an additional example, an Iranian acquaintance of mine quipped casually that Iranians were some of the heaviest drinkers in the world; not a casual claim considering that the country comes in at 19th place for number of alcoholics per capita (according to the World Health Organization). The prevalence of alcohol in Iran (if you know where to look for it) exemplifies the paradox between a religious-ideological government and political system (which officially denies that the consumption of alcohol takes place within its borders), and a polar opposite situation on the ground, where many everyday Iranians (particularly youth) regularly intoxicate themselves.
Amidst all these contradictions and generalized media portrayals, perhaps the best advice I can give is to look beyond our pre-existing assumptions, and recognize an element of diversity on our travels. Ultimately, this piece does not seek to dichotomize Iranian society as a clash of old and new. Contemporary developments do have roots in historical events. For example, the ongoing regional Shiite-Iranian and Sunni-Saudi geopolitical rivalry is grounded in entrenched historical enmity between Persians and Arabs; it is seen as a grave insult for a foreigner to mistakenly characterize Persian culture as being Arabic in nature. Nevertheless, I do believe that there needs to be a more nuanced, informed understanding within the collective American consciousness, towards Iran as a country and diverse society.
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