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Sunday
Jul052009

My First Draft on Iran

This post is far too long in coming. In the weeks between my return from Iran and the fateful elections,  I sat down to write out my experiences, as usual with an eye towards transmitting them to other people rather than just as an exposition of what I did.  I’ve always been uncomfortable with photography as a medium, at least with my personal grasp of it, as the act of taking pictures disrupts the event I’m seeking to capture and  the resulting images have a way of escaping their context and relevancy.  As such, my written accounts are much truer to my experiences.  Of course, just as I was about to send it out to my editor, everything changed.  The order that I had seen in Iran changed fundamentally with a single decision to falsify an election and the entire polity and society catalyzed into a revolution that is still unfolding.

Most of what I saw, of course, was not the Islamic Republic but was Iran, an Iran that continued through the first revolution and will continue through this one.  In retrospect, I’m glad that so many people voted and I maintained no illusions, but the voting process ended up being crucial when the moment came for people to call out their government on its bullshit.  My initial stance regarding the Islamic Republic was wait-and-see, for the simple reason that an electoral process was unfolding and because the alternative was a revolution, and revolutions have almost always eaten their children. The 1979 collapse was extreme in this regard in that organs of government were built anew almost from scratch, forfeiting knowhow and institutional memory in the process.  I remember the frantic email exchanges where my friends debated the legitimacy of voting and then finally went out and did it.  Now that it has so demonstrably failed, I  find myself completely opposed to the same system, but I still hold out the hope that all those quiet years of subtle agitation will eventually produce a stable Iran.  Were it not for people really believing the system and having the experience of their votes counting, the broad and peaceful opposition which we currently see would also not have been possible.

So rather than try to resolve my initial impressions with new interpretations, I finally decided to simply present my thoughts as I had originally set them out, one afternoon at the Cinema Museum café at Bagh-e Ferdous, interspersed with lattes and a lot of conversation with the ever garrulous and open locals.

Why Iran?  Iran, and its flagship city Tehran, far exceeded my expectations.  I had set off on my vacation with two purposes.  One was the practical goal of filling in my mental map of the area of the world where I have focused most of my travels, the odd and incongruous expanse between Delhi, Istanbul, and Cairo.  The other was simply curiosity to see a country that has both shaped and influenced, to a great extent, my life and the culture of my homeland, California.  I got far more than I bargained for.  It's  a country that's  far more advanced than I had seen or expected and far more inspirational than I thought possible. And I don’t mean advanced in a linear or teleological sense, but rather in the sense of social and cultural complexity. 

Tours are weird.  I got into Iran through a tour company, which made the process of getting a visa much easier.  If anyone’s interested, I can provide more information about the process, though I can say I highly recommend the company I worked with, Thundertour, as they were highly professional and did an excellent job.  With a tour, you get a guide, a programme, and prearranged accommodations.  Even though the service was great, the tour was a bit of an odd fit with my personality, especially given that the country is quite navigable and affordable on its own.  Iran is not the Middle East, it’s Europe, as you will see, and the services and attitudes reflect that.

For me, a tour felt like having a job.  Every day, I had to be up and going by nine and there was a schedule to stick to.  That was hard as Iran is a place prone to hangovers and not to keeping a schedule.   On the plus side, having a schedule got me out of Tehran, where I could have easily spent the entirety of my trip shifting between brunching and partying.  On the other hand, I could have used another day in Yazd and I had to kick and scream a bit to get a day in Esfahan shifted to Tehran because I had so much to do there.  But even if you’re not a tour person, like me, go ahead and sign up if you’re an American and it’s your only way to get in.  Iran is a completely different experience than anything else I’ve seen and did much to broaden my views.

Iran has produced results.  I expected another Middle Eastern country, and something to fill in the mental gap between Turkey and Afghanistan.  No.  It is a modern Western country in the good sense.  Along with great infrastructure and drinkable tap water,   the people themselves are extremely open and forward-looking.  Iran is qualitatively leaps and bounds ahead of neighbors such as Turkey and that is something I’m not willing to dismiss just because I disagree with certain policies.

Iran heavily challenged a lot of my previous political assumptions, showing me that social and technological development is possible and that popular participation produces more benefits than I expected in determining the development of a country’s political structures.  In the run-up to election, I’ve been engaged in a number of debates with friends about whether or not Iranians should participate in the election.  My answer is now a definite yes.  The political system in Iran is proscribed within certain limits, but it’s also obvious that voting reflects changes in policy.  Myself, I compare this attitude  to American elections where the political discourse is circumscribed not by a supreme leader but by the overwhelming conservatism of the electorate.

Iran doesn’t always offer people a fair trial and doesn’t offer full religious freedom as you can’t convert to whatever you want.  It has huge and unaccountable state enterprises and unaccountable governance institutions.  However, most other states in the area  many of them allies of the US, are far worse offenders on these grounds.  Iran has a system whereby results are not predetermined and people have the expectation that their participation matters.  The government also serves the people and is responsive to a degree I have never seen regionally, actively investing in infrastructure everywhere in the form of roads, universities, metros, and sanitation.

None of this means that we should shut up and stop supporting change where we see fit, but it does argue against fomenting another revolution that would simply set back the enormous social progress that Iran has made.  Had the revolution played out differently, we could be looking at a secular or socialist dictatorship in Iran that could have more internationally acceptable policies but be far more oppressive.

The interplay of revolution and culture.  The revolution produced change both because of and despite of it.  Confidence and independence seem to inform a lot of the attitudes that I encountered.  The mentality of independence wipes away a lot of the most tiring experiences of Middle Eastern travel, which can often consist of rather juvenile notions of political philosophy (hello Israel and Afghanistan!).

I thought I would find a confused and lost Iranian generation of youth but found this was far from the case, and in the process discovered just how big the gap is between Iranian culture in the diaspora and in Iran.  People have certainly found ways to rebel against the powers that be, as young people do everywhere, but such behavior in Iran is not blind and directionless rebellion but rather, a moving on.   Today’s generation knows that a secular dictatorship didn’t save them nor did an Islamic state.  Because they’re not beholden to the promise of utopian philosophies, they’re instead focusing on the real incremental changes that produce results.

The revolution is everywhere in iconography and political art and I think this affects the discourse as well.  Imagine if the radical left-wing students at your university took over the campus.  You know whom I’m talking about.  The guys that shouted about a whole slate of causes from workers’ to indigenous peoples’ rights.  It all seems tired and washed out 20 years after the collapse of communism, but in many ways the radicalism of the post-war period coalesced and reached its height in the Iranian revolution.  So posters and billboards everywhere glorify protesting and populist slogans, and whether you agree or not, theyfeel incredibly juvenile thirty years on.  The revolution was a simpler time for humanity and politics, both for the Iranian protesters and bewildered American observers.  Those of us fortunate enough to have survived it all or to have been born after have a much larger base of experience, knowledge, and wisdom to build on.  The practical effect of all the reminders of revolution, I think, is that it makes protesting look uncool.  I’m generally not a fan of protesting and rarely participate myself but I suspect the average Iranian at some level has also decided “let’s do things rather than just protest about them.”

The effect of all of this was that I could have conversations with people about what they thought and not some random ideology.  No one needed to align a given view with Islam or being Iranian as so often preoccupies people in Afghanistan.  They could just have an opinion and express it.  This also gets to the kernel of what I think is different about Iranians in Iran versus those on the outside.  Iranians on the outside often haven’t worked through all of the deep social issues of Pahlavi society that were uncovered by the revolution because they haven’t had to.  Iranians in Iran have reached their own understanding and society seems very relaxed and at ease with itself, setting aside the underlying antsy-ness I also found growing up in Southern California.  In short, ideology in Iran is uncool and I can  picture people getting up off their asses when the ideology gets too loud.

The revolution brought together a developing country deeply riven by the internal divisions inherent in such shifts.  Like in many other places, these differences were often forcefully expressed in the religious/secular divide.  The revolution effectively secularized religion by removing it from the private space and putting it firmly in the public space as a universal baseline.  The secular and religious classes now found themselves in the same room.  The secular classes were circumscribed in public but could still compete on their accumulated wealth, education, and experience.  The religious classes now found all places in society open to them and a helping hand from the government encouraging them to get up.  The government subsidized courses of study like philosophy and theology that encourage nuance and made them attractive options for people that would previously have walked away with the black-and-white worldview conferred by an engineering degree.

Gender equality in action.   One of the revolution’s most tangible benefits is the education of women and their increased involvement in society.  This is no shock but seeing the results in practice was refreshing.  What happened was that the most traditional members of society, who would have previously stayed at home or not fully participate, suddenly got full license to leave the house and do their own thing (relative to before).  Education is transformative and rarely in the ways that educators anticipate.  The secular middle classes retain the same values that they had before the revolution but women in small towns went out and learned and saw themselves as full and equal partners in society.  The result is not the sort of liberalization that applies to liberals but a broader equality that cuts across classes and, in comparison to everything else I’ve seen in the area, has altered gender roles.  I did have discussions about “traditional gender roles” with Iranians, but while identification with such roles is very alive and even part of a set of political beliefs in many areas of the States,, nobody in Iran seemed to have any concept of returning.  No “the woman should stay home to take care of the kids” or “you have to wait till your married for sex.”  I just didn’t hear it.  From my perspective, I also found interaction with women to be a lot more relaxed, equitable, and straightforward than any other place I had been to.  There’s no doubt that the massive inclusion of women in society has produced a glaring contrast in a place where the government doesn’t give them full political rights.  That contradiction will continue to be important in Iran’s development, but at the social and cultural level, the discourse of gender equality seems to have been deeply and conscientiously internalized.

Haute couture reaches new heights. In a lot of ways, Iran felt like the future, and not the cheesy Tomorrowland or Dubai version.  The key to this is the combination of grandeur and style.  Tehran is a stunning city for its geographical locale alone, set against a backdrop of enormous mountains and climbing over 1,000m from bottom to top.  When you’re driving along in Tehran, occasionally you get a glimpse through the trees that reveals how high you’ve gotten with a stunning view of the city and skyline.  Amongst all the stores, restaurants, and very stylish locals you also get the sense that you are ascending culturally, as if you’re looking down on places like Paris that once had their day and glory but have now faded along with the twentieth century.

And this sensation is by no means limited to Tehran.  Other cities also mix the modern and traditional with exceptional ease.  The food everywhere, even though it entirely lacks heat, is almost always exquisite.  In every place, I noticed the soaring public architecture and graceful freeway interchanges, but the details were great too, such as the perfectly manicured and radiantly green parks, and the tastefully placed cobblestones and landscaping in the street-side gutters (joobs) that distribute rivers  (yes literally) and drainage through cities.

Amazing pop culture.  Pop culture is another thing that strangely benefits from the imposed adversity of government sanctions, both the Iranian government’s  on culture and the economic ones from other countries.  Iran definitely has the most vibrant pop music scene I’ve ever seen, and none of it is heard on the radio.  Music tastes  are mediated through satellite networks such as Persian Music Channel based in Dubai or Los Angeles and of course the tastes of individual consumers.  I used the opportunity to load up on Iranian music.  My friend brought me to a store where the owner asked me what kind of songs I would like and then burned me as many mp3 CDs as I wanted for $1.50 each (apparently I can also download them free online).  Some music is the boring old love music that wouldn’t be out of place on the Turkish, Israeli, or Arab pop charts, but a lot of it is simply excellent.  I’m still listening to and organizing the 500+ tracks I brought back with me.  The techno and electronic compositions are first-rate and make for gripping listening.  Rap is the real standout however.  Persian has always had a poetry fetish and this carries over well into rap music, with stunning beats combined with hilarious, clever, and/or penetrating rhymes that mean you can’t do anything else, you just get engrossed in the song.  Topics range from  clever expositions on sex to some excellent pieces ridiculing Zionism and the Iranian government all in one breath.

Confidence.  As a Westerner, I usually face an uncomfortable power dynamic as the one with education, opportunities, and little to prove, while my interlocutor lacks all of the above.  For better and worse, Iran has been as isolated for 30 years as almost any state can be and the habit of blaming outsiders has far exceeded the limits of credibility.  As such, I was treated remarkably equitably and few encounters contained any more expectation than their face value would suggest.  Frequently, it was expected that I would speak Farsi and people would just come up to me and ask for directions to things, and no one was surprised that I could communicate back to them.  People didn’t ask me to help them with migration visas but instead expressed interest in tourists visas out of a desire to travel and see other countries.  Also when people asked me about the West or my opinions about Iran it was out of genuine curiosity and without the need to prove something.  Likewise, I found discussing politics very easy.  People were not shy nor did they seem to have any notion that their political beliefs would get them in trouble, though of course, none go so far as to say “down with the Islamic Republic”—the lack of such sentiment is both the result of the state not crossing too many people’s red lines and security services being deployed very quietly in the background for those few people who would challenge the order.  People really think that their vote counts and they're excited about voting even if their selection is not what it should be in this election.

The security state.  The Iranian security state is clever.  Rather than minders getting in your face all the time, security is enforced at key nodes and in a way that most people neither see nor realize.  Visas for many foreigners, especially ”high-risk” ones like Americans, are not mediated individually but through tour companies, which in turn have trust-based relationships with key ministry workers.  The tour company then hires a guide, all of whom must have licenses and are only certified to guide people from certain countries.  My guide told me that only about 50 people can be guides for Americans.  As the tourist, I have a relationship of implicit trust and respect with my guide and company that provides a strong deterrent for not getting any of the above in trouble.  And because the government is not overly intrusive in verifying all of my movements, compliance is fairly easy on my end.  In Israel, I felt a very much adversarial relationship with the security services because of the reality of the situation.  In Iran, I was definitely annoyed but the reality of external threats and the reality of internal development made me decide to be cooperative if an issue would ever arise.  Ultimately, the security forces are based on trust.  In every city, on every avenue, there are pictures of people protesting against tyranny and real martyrs who gave up their lives.  On the one hand, these strengthen solidarity for the government in Iran, but they are also a powerful constraint on it looking too much like the previous one.  If the government were confronted by a broad group of protesters, no doubt the hard security apparatus, consisting of the revolutionary guards and basij, would be called upon but ultimately could not be relied on for very long to quell domestic unrest.

My feelings toward Afghanistan.  Ultimately, I will return to Afghanistan with a heavy heart.  It’s depressing that a line was drawn in the sand by some British guy 150 years ago and on one side you get a modern country and on the other people struggle with the concepts of restaurants, literacy, and pavement.  The irony is that the sheer amount of foreign intervention, no matter how well intended or efficiently implemented, simply ingrains the wrong attitude into Afghans and creates a culture of dependence.  It also obviates the very necessary internal political discussions that Afghans need to be having amongst themselves regarding their own political future.  On the other hand, Iran shows that a place can grow and “catch up” with any country in the world it desires.  Iran may have a lot to learn still but there’s a lot that we can learn from it.

 

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Reader Comments (1)

Wow. I just stumbled upon your blog and I am amazed by the quality and depth of your posts. Now I can't give some sensible comment before reading everything you wrote here... so, see you later...

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTilman

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