The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Iran - khoda hafez (goodbye)

I arrived in Iran with few preconceptions. I was determined to get behind the headlines and Ahmedinejad's war of words with the US. I had read two books to give myself a brief introduction to Iranian culture: We are Iran - an edited collection Iranian blogs; and Persepolis, a well known (graphic) novel by Marjane Satrapi about her life during and after the revolution and her love / hate relationship with her country. If anything, I expected a groundswell of opposition against an overtly oppressive regime.

So how is Iran today, more than 25 years after the revolution that created the world's only Islamic state? In our brief two week visit (spent mostly in central Iran, but also in the North, Tehran and the East), my impression is of a proud and deeply conservative people and a state that taps into that conservatism rather than imposes it by force.

Iranians' pride in a culture which is deeply rooted in the past is unquestionable. Their awareness of it is both broad and deep, spanning the arts (back to the great poets), politics (back to Cyrus the Great) and of course religion. It does not appear to stop abruptly before 1979 as Turkey's appears to pre Attaturk.

This pride manifests itself in a strong sense of identity and separateness from (and sometimes even contempt for) Iran's neighbours: in Farsi not Arabic; in being Aryan not Arabs; in being Shias not Sunnis. This identity has withstood constant foreign intervention (whether Arab or 'Western') ever since. Iran is a case in point of the complexity of the Middle East and how dangerous it is to think of a heterogeneous thing called 'Islam.'

That we would find such a conservative people - both young and old - surprised me enormously. Superficially, this is expressed in Iranian politeness. Ta'arof is a social code whereby you must refuse any offer 3 times so as to allow the offeree to escape from the offer without losing face. For example, in Tabriz a young man we met in the street suggested we come to his house within 30 seconds of meeting us. We declined once and that matter was finished; textbook Ta'arof!

Iranian hospitality is genuine and generous, however. In Shiraz, 60 year old Mahmoud took his duties very seriously, refusing to allow us to pay for anything and seeming almost protective at times when others came to speak to us. In general, we found Iranians to be sincere and warm. They are people of smiles more than raucous laughter.

More profoundly, perhaps the conservatism goes some way to explain the total lack of overt criticism of the regime we found, even when gently probing for it. Of course, this is not to say that opposition does not exist, nor can we really know how much fear of the regime still remains, but desipte lengthy conversations, we heard nothing either from Mahmoud who spoke warmly of the days before the revolution or from Eshan, a 25 year old who at least in terms of clothing, football and music was as 'Western' as we were.

Police presence on the streets in Iran is minimal: less than Syria and far less than Turkmenistan, which is a true police state. Perhaps the lack of activity in the evenings suits the importance Iranians put on family life: we did not see a curfew being aggressively enforced.

Of course there are many (vocal) opponents of the regime and this culminated in a string of reform bills in 2003. But if our experiences are at all representative, they seemed to suggest that mainstream Iranian society is actually rather conservative. This might explain why Iran swung to the right in its most recent elections and why an initially socialist revolution in 1979 could be so spectacularly hijacked by the right.

There are forces driving change, however - both economic and social. And both are felt most acutely by the young. Making ends meet in Iran is tough - with inflation running at c15% p.a. and property prices soaring way ahead of this, particularly in the capital (which is bigger than London). Many prices, particularly but not exclusively 'Western' clothes and food, seem out of kilter with earnings (the average salary apparently being 200 USD per month). We heard from one man how the government is under competing pressures on the one hand to decrease the massive subsidies of fuel (diesel coming in at a whopping 1p per litre!) and on the other to keep inflation under control and maintain the popular vote.

Jobs are hard to come by, putting a premium on education. Ali, a school teacher in Tabriz, told us of fierce competition in University entrance exams: only 10% of male applicants are successful, resulting in 16 hour days of revision. Even if they make it, they must then complete their 18 month military service before getting job. By this time, a young Iranian man will want to marry (which requires a sort of reverse dowry payable to the bride's family) and to buy an increasingly unaffordable house to live in with his wife.

Competition for jobs may also be putting a premium on the English language. I was astonished by how much people valued talking to us in order to practice their English. This combined with new technology (mobiles are ubiquitous in the cities and the internet increasingly tolerated) will allow increased access to English language media. This suggests that the days when middle aged people who have not encountered English for decades (we met two) must surely be over. It will be interesting to see whether the traditional social activities that we saw spanning young and old in Shiraz will stand up to increased choice amongst younger Iranians.

So my sense is that Iran is changing, but at its own pace. Perhaps the conservatism has become more pronounced in recent years - it is hard to know without previous experience of Iran. Either way, the liberal reforming zeal that achieves some coverage in our media is perhaps no more the whole picture than it was in 1979.


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