Friday, July 06, 2012

General impressions

I'm getting ahead of myself here because I'm so far behind on my blogs, I guess I need to write a blog about Iran and my perception of the everyday here. The sites and my travel are one thing, but it doesn't really explain what the people are like and what life is like. It's not what we think. Yes, it's very strict with many silly, every day and ordinary things illegal, (like backgammon, cards, couchsurfing, satellite dishes, alcohol and women not wearing headscarves) but our belief that people agree with these laws and that such things don't exist in Iran is also very, very naive.
They drink here. Maybe not like the Aussies, but there is plenty around if you look for it. I know I'm meeting a very liberal subset of the population and it's very dangerous to make wide generalizations from that, but basically every person I've met and talked to in Iran drinks alcohol on occassion. Real stuff is imported on the black market and everyone has a “dealer”. I've heard that a single can of beer on the black market can cost about as much as a bus ticket halfway across the country! The most common alcohol is home-made and while some is quite sophisticated and/or toxic, it can also be as simple as people buying the non-alcoholic beer readily available here, adding their own yeast and sugar and letting it sit for a while.
The Iranian people are really like anyone anywhere else and are not extreme, but love to party and rebel as much as the next country. They just manifest it in different ways. If in the US marijuana is illegal but everyone does it, so in Iran everyone drinks behind closed doors. You could even say that if the official policy also supports terrorists, then they again rebel and are peace-loving people, no threat to anyone. In the home the women get very relaxed and animated and everyone loves to joke. You would never guess that they are “Iranian” people in the western sense of what we expect when we hear the name. I have not felt a single threat or bad vibe here. It's so much safer and more relaxed (towards me) than so many other countries I've been to. Like the Pakistanis when we were there the people are sensitive to and worried about their international reputation and want very much for visitors to leave with a good impression and try very hard to show their hospitality.
The Iranians are racist (like anywhere else) but it's the typical racism that you get from a proud country hating its neighbours. Ask any Iranian who they hate the most and they'll say Arabs. For some, the reasons go back as far as when the Arabs invaded and forced Islam on them, others the Iran/Iraq war, accusations of cultural theft, etc etc. They'll claim that the best parts of Arab culture and technology were stolen from Persia long ago, which is quite possibly true. One of the biggest manifestations of this rivalry is in the “Persian Gulf” debate. I am surprised how many people here have brought up the topic and asked what I call the Persian Gulf. There is currently a big push elsewhere to have it renamed the Arabian Gulf. Google Maps no longer names it anything and the Iranian government has threatened to deny air space to airlines that “mislabel” the gulf on their inflight maps. This seems to be having an effect as people here are sensitive to the debate and are very happy when I tell them that the whole thing is nonsense because to me it is, has been and always will be the Persian Gulf.
Some Persians don't like Turks, though generally they seem to be friends and for many Iranians it is the first foreign country they ever visit. They don't trust the Afghans and Pakistanis and idolize the Europeans. They like America and can't imagine America declaring war on them because they believe they don't deserve it because they are nice people though they will admit they have a crazy government. But at the same time they really resent the idea of another country telling them what to do. They like the US but don't want it telling them that they can or can't have nuclear power for example and if the US attacked they'd be forced to side with their government though everyday here they rebel against it. I think the point they're making is that change has to come from within and they have been trying as was shown in the 2009 failed revolution. Sooner or later they will succeed though it might get more repressive again before that happens. Everyone has told me that the youngest generation now is very different and much more liberal and anti-religious. They just need to grow up a little and seize the power. They do say they don't like Israelis (which is different from not liking Jews) but it comes from the same source as us not liking them. Pure ignorance and propaganda from mainstream media controlled by lying governments.
They are not all dark-skinned, and the majority don't have beards either. On many occassions I have been mistaken for a local. I've had people just walk up to me and start asking directions or discussing the newspaper in Persian only to be shocked when I told them I didn't understand. In Shiraz I was walking with a Dutch couple and a guy came up and started to talk to them (they were blond and very obviously foreign) and asked them if I was their local friend. Maybe if you just glance at me you could be confused, but the reverse is also true and I find myself also very often mistaking a local for a foreign tourist. But every time I ask a local if I look Persian they say definitely not. I'm too tall, too-white, have the wrong fashion, etc. But I do see the occassional tall Persian, or light ones (even with blue eyes) or wearing a t-shirt and hat so it is theoretically possible to end up with a combo like me that is Persian. 100% I can't be mistaken as Chinese, but maybe it's only 97% here.... The most likely explanation is that there are so few tourists that the people just assume that I am not one especially if I am not doing something obviously touristy.
Internet, music and other media are banned, blocked, or heavily censored. Satellite dishes are illegal so everyone has one. Facebook is banned and blocked, so people use proxys and everyone seems to have an account and wants to add you within 30 seconds of meeting you. Music is censored so the Persian bands are all based in California. I actually like the music, whether it's the old traditional Tar, Sitar, Tambour, Daf or other instruments and folky old singer or the modern Persian pop.
As I said before the people like to joke and are completely different in the home. They have to lead 2 lives, public and private, but many try to push the boundaries. Women have to wear a hejab by law so the hair is covered. The chador is not required though most women still seem to wear it though it depends on how traditional the family and city is. Non-muslims would never wear it. Liberal Muslims don't wear it, and from looking at people you can tell quickly who is more open-minded. Even still, though the hair should be completely covered, many wear the scarf showing half the top of the head and quite a bit of hair. In strict Islam makeup and other vain things are not allowed, yet many women wear makeup in whorish amounts, wear highheels and tight pants under their jackets (they are not allowed to show their butts so have to wear a long shirt/jacket). Iran is also the nosejob capital of the world and you see lots of both men and women wearing bandages on their noses either having recently had the operation or, more frequently, pretending that they have (it's a money thing...). But seeing the really strict clothes like burkas or eyes-only chadors is quite rare and much worse in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan for example. In Europe they might be banning it and complaining about it, but those people aren't Iranians....
The weirdest thing is that somehow couchsurfing is illegal or so I've been told. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me but has something to do with minimizing the contact between locals and foreigners because of fears of spies and rebellions. In most places it's fairly relaxed and hosts don't worry too much about it, though I've met quite a few that know friends or other CS members that have been in trouble with the police for being very active. Some hosts have asked not to have references left or at least not to admit that they've been hosting. They'll warn me that if I'm are stopped on the street by the cops or other people, to say that I'm staying in a hotel. This hasn't happened to me, but I had to put a hotel name on my visa extension application and my hosts were nervous about the whole thing at the time. The thing is more about not hosting, but generally meeting up can be ok, though also discouraged in some ways. But it's kind of dumb because back when I was in Dubai the couchsurfing website was blocked by the government (I don't know the current status there now) and yet it isn't blocked here. I've been told that some of the local members are government spies and hope to use it as a way to infiltrate the network and find out what people are up to. I don't know how true it is, but it seems reasonable and there are not as many large CS meetings and events as in other countries unless it's between known friends. But it depends on the place. In the west at the beginning I had no idea and all was good. In Shiraz things are relaxed and my host took me around everywhere and there was no worry, though she mentioned some of these problems. In Kerman I heard more but things aren't too bad. In Esfahan though, it's a different story. It's more strict and if foreigners are mixing with locals for more than a couple minutes then the police can come over and question you. Not just any police but certain types I guess. Anyway, the locals would be the ones to get in trouble not me so my host would keep a lookout and once in a while ask me to walk a distance aways and pretend we weren't together or remind me of a cover story if we were ever stopped. I never understood who we were avoiding but apparently there are some kind of police that bust people for not wearing their headscarves covering enough or some other kind of infraction and also for talking to foreigners without a tour guide license. This kind of paranoia sucks and probably explains why few people would randomly approach me during the course of a 12hr day walking around the city. I kept an eye on people and very few women would make eye contact or be looking around at others while walking. Sometimes you can't kill people's natural curiousity but in Esfahan it seems you almost can...
If I had a dollar for every person that told me they had a relative in Canada or was trying to immigrate there I'd never have to work again. I think they'd get a little extra excited when I said I was from there and then there'd be a million questions about how to get a visa or about the next step in their application. They love Iran but want to leave, citing worsening economic problems and needing freedom as the obvious reasons to go. Their currency has almost halved to the hard currencies in the last year or so, raising prices for them but making it even cheaper for us. They are doing away with dual-pricing for foreigners so it's got the best value tourist sites in the world now. It's just 25 cents for something as fantastic as Persepolis, the price of a local ice cream cone...
Speaking of ice cream, with all the hot sunny weather and all the ice cream shops everywhere I've sort of become an ice cream cone junkie. The food in Iran continues to be good and I'm gaining weight from all that is offered me. I've eaten more cherries, walnuts and pistachios here than in all the rest of my life put together. But the fruit is all smaller and the apples, grapes, peaches and melons are all tiny compared to average sizes back home.
Overall what has been impressing me the most in Iran is the generally high level of intelligence of the people and awareness of their own pre-Islamic history and culture. They take pride in it and I was surprised to see it so valued in a country that is so notoriously pro-Islamic. This is in stark contrast to Egypt, where it seemed so many of the people have no clue about their ancient history, especially as I've already met more people in Iran that have recognized my name as belonging to Amun Ra (the ancient Egyptian sun God) than I did in Egypt! I think in some ways you can make an argument that Iran is particularly repressed and opressed by its government because there is still so much potential to once again become a regional powerhouse as was more or less always its natural historical status. There is still a kind of vibe from the culture, that if the political system was more relaxed and things free then the people would suddenly rise up and accomplish great things. In Egypt I didn't feel such a vibe and if I had to guess I'd say that although Egypt just had a successful revolution, they will not do a lot with the opportunity and will never become significantly more powerful or influential than they've always been. Maybe this is what everyone in the region is afraid of and why their neighbours are helping to globally undermine and ostracize Iran. I remember having a long conversation with a guy working at the Jordanian embassy in Ankara and being told that Iran was considered their biggest threat because Iran has always been so strong and influencial in the region's history. Time will tell.
Ammon

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