This is a reflection on a recent one-month, self-organised holiday in Iran. When I decided to visit, the first question people asked is ‘Why on earth would you go there?’ Thus account was first written for (and published in) the PIMA Bulletin 26, September 2019.
In brief, it was a huge privilege to be so warmly welcomed as a visitor to such an interesting and important part of the world. It was mid summer and there were very few other Western tourists, but locals were universally keen to open their hearts, their minds and their country. While the official Australia government advice is ‘reconsider your need to travel’ it was for us totally safe on the ground as independent travellers.
I cried when I was so warmly and unconditionally welcomed as an outsider to go into a Friday Mosque within the ancient Tabriz Bazaar. Most of the fears about being Moslem in the world are totally irrational. We were welcomed more warmly and unconditionally than any outsider, particularly any Moslem, would be welcomed be Australia.
It was necessary to find ‘Plan Bs’ to get around the crippling US sanctions, re-imposed when the US government unilaterally walked away from the existing international agreement limiting nuclear activity. This involved making bookings through third party companies and countries, getting a local debit card, and accepting that several commonly used vectors of international communication and funds transfer would not be possible.
The negative press and irrational fear about Iran was at its height while we were there, with the US reportedly coming within ten minutes of launching a military attack in the Straits of Hormuz. Not wearing shorts, the need for women to wear a scarf in public, and the gender segregation of swimming in pools, are the main obvious necessary compromises for travellers. Iranian women can now do most things aside from being the President, a judge or ride a motorbike and attend a men’s football (soccer) match.
Iran as an Islamic Republic very dependent on fossil fuels is not without its problems, but in most respects it is a very safe, clean, modern, highly educated and literate society. Previous civilisations have removed most of the tree cover and many modern Iranian cities are severely drawing down the water table by pumping. The landscape has a stark beauty, from the extensive snow-covered mountains over 4,000 metres above sea level, to the extensive deserts and the small amount of forests along the Caspian Sea margin in the north.
The public transport systems (metro systems, airports, rail services) are very good despite the sanctions. In western terms everything is incredibly cheap, but the sanctions are biting harshly into its people and economy.
Bounded to the west by protracted military conflicts in Iraq, also to the east in Afghanistan, and to the south at enmity with some of the pro-American Gulf States, Iran sits in a geopolitically difficult context in 2019. It is still living the dreadful legacy of a horrific and pointless conflict with Iraq (1980-88) that ended with millions of deaths and stalemate. While it has little appetite for more military conflict, it has intervened to support several nations and peoples (rightly or wrongly) fighting other liberation struggles in North Africa and the Middle East. It is understandably concerned about being dragged unwittingly into other conflicts by the major powers.
The literary, technological, political and present day legacy of the achievements of the ancient and highly developed Zoroastrian civilizations and the Persian Empire are evident everywhere. This is a very proud country, whose main crime in the past century has been to stand up against provocation and attempts at regime change engineered largely outsiders, most recently including the US.
Of the many countries I have been to in the world, this is the country I have learnt the most from. I came away humbled by the warm welcome and the ongoing indignities its proud and patient people have been forced to endure, and are currently reliving. Iranians find themselves in 2019 in a very conflicted and contested geopolitical context, being forced to develop a national ‘learning and coping culture’ necessary to preserve and also transform their ancient traditions and modern civil society.
If you do go to Iran, and I encourage you to do so to see and learn for yourself, you will learn as much about the relative poverty and backwardness of many aspects of our own culture, lives and nations as you will about Iran. You will also learn to better accept, understand and appreciate religious and cultural difference, at home and abroad, rather than fear and dislike based around irrational fear and misinformation.