Iran: a rant and an ode

Mashhad Travel Blog

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the road to the Turkmen border

(During my stay in Iran I wrote an epic rant of about 5 pages about what I thought of the country and its politics. I have tried to edit it down a little as to not bore my readers too much)

I left Iran with mixed feelings. Not so much mixed feelings about my trip, which had been fantastic, but rather mixed feelings about the country itself. Never before have I travelled to a country where I was confronted with its ugly politics on a near-daily basis. I have been to countries ruled by a totalitarian regime before. Syria, Cuba, China, to name but a few, but never have I travelled to a country where the people were so vocal about how much they hated their regime and how much they wanted to leave their country. And of course meeting the two brothers in Tehran, one of whom had just been sentenced to two years jail time for simply walking in the street during protests, that was just getting a little too close for comfort for me (since then I met two more people who had been arrested during the riots, one of them has also fled the country, the other has not actually been charged, but he did get beaten up seriously by the cops, breaking his jaw and shoulder).

The road to the Turkmen border

And with people I mean virtually everybody you meet in the street, even if they didn't speak English, their gestures would tell me as much. Though  the oppressive regime is unlikely to bother tourists, as a tourist you do see how it affects locals on a near daily basis, ranging from blocked Internet and TV to not being able to travel to getting arrested for seemingly minor offences. This is not something that makes you happy when you travel through a country.

I see no easy solution for the country. The people currently at power will do anything to stay in power. Opposition has been outlawed (the lack of protests on June 12th is proof of that) and even within the inner circle of the government anyone who is too liberal with their ideas will get ousted.

The road to the Turkmen border
Things were looking up at the beginning of the new millennium, with many reforms taking place and barbaric Islamic laws changed or abandoned (the legal age of marriage for girls used to be 9, it has now been increased to 13 - still criminally young). Grand Ayatollah Khatamy doesn't have the charisma as his predecessor, Khomeini, and tries frantically to retain his power by ruling with an iron fist. His puppet president Ahmadinejad does exactly what Khatamy tells him to and many of the barbaric laws previously abolished have now been re-instated, or worse. During my stay a new law was introduced: women with manicured nails are supposed to wear gloves in public. If they don't, they risk a fine of $100 per nail! (and plenty of lashes, obviously, Iranian government officials seem to just love to hit women).
The road to the Turkmen border

And so we are back to women's rights in Iran. It is disgusting. The way women are restricted in order to protect 'good Muslim men' is just appalling. Every girl in Iran over the age of 9 is required by law to wear a hejab, in order to prevent men from having bad thoughts. Nine years old! Just what kind of bad thoughts do men have when watching a nine year old kid? In my opinion the so-called theological scholars in Iran are just over-sexed paedophiles. By insinuating that a 9-year old girl could invoke impure thoughts with men and thus putting her in a hejab, they aren't preventing men from having bad thoughts, they are sexualising children!

And the solution could be so simple. Apparently it is all about men not being allowed impure thoughts. Women can have as many impure thoughts as they want, since there is no law restricting men in their dress code. So if the problem is with men getting aroused by watching women, maybe it is better for all Iranian men to wear a blindfold in public. That way they can't see the women and they can't have any impure thoughts. Ticket to heaven secured.
Because I can tell you, from what I have seen in Iran, the current restrictions are not helping. Hejab or no, Muslim teenage boys are as oversexed as they are everywhere else in the world.

Before I am enraging the whole Muslim community with my words, please note that I have nothing against Islam as a religion. On the contrary, there are many things in Islam which I prefer over Christianity. I have a problem with fundamentalist regimes, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Communist or Right Wing.
If a women chooses to wear hejab because of her tradition or religion, by all means, let her go ahead. I have Muslim friends who wear hejab and I will never say anything bad about them. But by making it a law, and by denying people that basic, God-given right of choice, the regime in Iran is exactly doing the opposite of what is written in their holy book. All in my opinion of course.

There is a lot to dislike about Iran. Public transport is slow, uncomfortable and unreliable. Food is rather bland. Hotels aren't particularly good value (with the exception of the Silk Road in Yazd and Khan-e Ehsan in Kashan), but that is where couch surfing comes in. I think Iran has one of the most active CS communities in the world and staying with locals dramatically improves the experience.
And that is where the highlights of this country can be found: meeting people. Meeting young, lively people who try to make the best of the situation and attempt at living a normal life.

I could go on for hours about the misgovernment in this country. Aside from the religious oppression, there is the complete mismanagement of its oil wealth. Rather than upgrading the outdated oil rigs to meet the demand of petrol, the government instead uses the money to subsidise petrol and imposes taxes on foreign cars which use less petrol and thus could be a solution to the petrol shortage.

From what I have seen sanctions from the West have very little effect. The government bans anything Western (clothes, TV, film, music) already, so whenever new sanctions are imposed the government just uses it as propaganda to justify their own ridiculous rules. Currently the sanctions result in Iran not being able to maintain their fleet of aircraft, or not being able to import European cars. If an Iranian plane will crash due to poor maintenance the Iranian government will be the first to point at the sanctions as the cause for this. So long as the West (or in this case, it's actually the East) choose not to sanction Iran where it will really hurt, i.e. the oil, then the regime won't budge. At all!
India and China are Iran's biggest oil customers and besides the economical interest, there is also political interest not to give in to the US demands for more sanctions. Besides, it would be a bit hypocritical for China to impose sanctions against a regime for oppression and human rights violations, now would it?

Of course, these days the sanctions are no longer about Iran's human rights violations, but rather for its nuclear program. And here's the interesting bit. Even though many Iranians don't like their government, they do agree that the US can't simply demand that Iran stops its nuclear program. After all, if Israel has nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons, why can't Iran have them? Iran is a member of the non-proliferation treaty. Israel and Pakistan aren't.
Again, it is all propaganda, but fact of the matter is that many Iranians do like the idea of Iran as a superpower. The great Persian empire is still fondly remembered, despite collapsing some 2000 years ago.

So what's so good about Iran then? Well, for starters, there's the magnificent site of Persepolis. Then you have the beautiful cities of Esfahan and Yazd. The stunning Kaluts desert. The mountains in the north. In all, it is a very diverse country. But as any visitor to Iran will tell you, the people are the highlight of the country. Iranians may well be the nicest people on earth (to visitors at least, amongst themselves they are not all that nice and hospitable). On a daily basis people would come up to me, welcoming me to their country, inviting me for tea or lunch. Total strangers who would give me their phone number telling me to call them if I ever have any problem or need translating. Taxi or bus drivers who don't want me to pay for the fare. The list goes on. Each and every single day there was at least one heart-warming encounter that really touched me.

For me Iran had been a very special experience. It had been everything I had hoped it would be and so much more. I have met several people who I now consider close friends. I have learned a lot about Islam and the history and politics in the Middle East. And most importantly, I have learned to appreciate my freedom that I often simply take for granted.

Farewell Iran. Horrible Iran. Beautiful Iran.

dukeBG says:
"And most importantly, I have learned to appreciate my freedom that I often simply take for granted."

Never forget it buddy, never!
I tell you as a man grew up in the darkness of communism...
Posted on: Aug 09, 2010
edsander says:
Excellent rant !
Posted on: Aug 06, 2010
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the road to the Turkmen border
the road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
The road to the Turkmen border
photo by: alexchan