23 April 2007

Welcome To Iran!

It has been brought to my attention [thanks Iain!] that Peter Hitchens has written an insightful article about his recent travels in Iran and a friend has suggested that I repeat here a small piece that I wrote after I visited Iran together with my wife and children ahead of the 2005 Presidential elections. For those of you who don't know and by way of background to some of the references below, I worked in the Persian-speaking world for a number of years and have always found the hospitality-based culture throughout Central Asia to be extremely welcoming.

"Welcome to Iran – I love you!"

TehranWe found Iranians to be extremely open, significantly more so even than elsewhere in Central Asia, constantly welcoming us as they passed in the street and stopping to talk – our favourite greeting was the cyclist who yelled the above quote at us as he raced past us.

We saw all the signs of a free and vibrant political process in the run up to the country’s presidential elections and, contrary to Western media portrayal, saw no evidence of anti-Americanism. Rather, we found a desire for improved international relations. Only one religious leader we spoke to in an Islamic school appeared somewhat perplexed by us – but that could have been because he hadn’t met Westerners fluent in his language before, because he hadn’t had an American woman in his school before, or because these two children had what he thought of as Muslim names but were apparently Christian. If he had seen how my son was moved to pray for the people of Iran in the Royal Mosque in Isfahan, he would no doubt have been even more baffled!

Another notable and unexpected observation was the comparatively unobtrusive influence of Islam. Whereas Turkey claims to be secular but every skyline is defined by its towering minarets and the call to prayer is inescapable, mosques in Iran were generally far more secluded and in the week of our visit we only heard the call to prayer four or five times. Yes, every woman has to cover her head completely, yet the boundaries of even this dress code are being progressively tested, especially among the young (who make up the majority of the population), with headscarves being worn further back across the top of the head with each passing year and repeatedly being allowed to slip and re-adjusted when in the workplace. One 26-year-old devout Muslim with whom I had a long religious and political conversation on one of our flights observed that most people are increasingly disillusioned with Islam because it promises "power and wealth in this life and the next" but the religious leaders failed to deliver on this promise after they assumed political leadership in the country. The demand for change is widely expected to increase in the wake of the elections.

Hopefully the above account will help explain some of my other posts about Iran that may have baffled some of you – and perhaps also some of those about Turkey.


HelenS said...

I see this year's clampdown on Iranian women floating the dress code laws has already begun: see today's Telegraph.