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Tehran: Initial Impressions

September 20, 2008

Toilets in train station: unexpectedly spotless and squeaky clean.

The first two people we met (taxi driver and hotel manager) were vocally critical of Iran. In the words of the former: ”Mullah, no good”. The hotel manager, Ali, also spoke with disdain about the religious authorities, lamented the absence of discos and whiskey, and even went as far to say that he missed the days of the Shah. They also praised the countries in the world that are so often met with so much disapproval in the Middle East: the US and UK.
We later discussed such overt dissidence and uncommon appreciation for the West, and wondered whether they were their true opinions, or whether they were saying those things to either flatter us or provoke debate. Obviously, the history of Western intervention in Iran (CIA-supported coup of democratically elected government of Mossadeq in the 1960’s; proppoing up the Shah’s brutal regime thereafter…) is reason for distrust and disdain. But, thinking about more contemporary reasons for which the US and the UK are so despised in the wider Middle East, namely support for Israeli occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, I realized that the view from Iran on such issues is bound to differ. On the former, despite the rhetoric of the Iranian government, I do not think that there is the same amount of identification with the Palestinian cause in Iran as in Arab countries (despite the fact that in many of these, such identification is largely rhetorical and substance-less). Culturally, religiously and linguistically, Iranians are distant from Palestinians, and therefore probably do not see the Israeli occupation as threatening their larger community, as is often the perception from an Arab perspective. I am as yet unaware of the extent to which the the disdain of the Iranian government for Israel is shared by the Iranian population, but I think that the whole issue is more a question of geopolitics than identity. Secondly, the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was seen as an infringement on a collective Arab or Sunni Muslim sovereignty, was in many ways positive for Iran: it toppled the man/regime with whom Iran had engaged in a brutal 8-year war (an end in itself), and thereby shifted the balance of power in the region in their favour.
And then of course it is simultaneously very possible that Iranians are tired of the impositions of their government. But is it dangerous to be so vocal about such views? I would guess that despite the fact that the security apparatus undoubtedly flexes its muscles when appropriate, most often with higher profile individuals (academics, activists, bloggers), the circle of fear surrounding the expression of dissidence in certain situations (ie to foreigners) is weakening…

Tehran bazaar is a combination of Souq al Hamidiyya in Damascus, the suave shopping district of San Remo in Italy and Ikea: beautiful old arches/ elaborate wooden windows/colourful mosque domes lurking round every corner, sheltering endless alleys of gold and silversmiths, watch retailers, fake designer clothing and the most stylish range of kitchen and housing supplies Ive ever seen! It is brilliant and bustling, and does not disappoint.

And yet Tehran is quieter and more low-key than I expected, which is probably because its Ramadan. But also, I feel it is much LESS alien to me than i expected it to be. I think it has something to do with my expectations of Iran being built on images of a staunch ‘Big Brother’ state, complete with massive posters of Imam Khomeini on every street corner, huge Soviet-style buildings and a strong police presence. Instead, in southern Tehran the buildings hardly exceed 2 or 3 stories, the police are few and far between and the political propaganda is not overtly omnipresent (although this could have something to do with having spent the past 9 months in Beirut, where political posters outnumber consumer advertising and there is a tank on every other street corner).
I suppose that Tehran does not live up to its reputation in the Western imagination as the steely capital of the demonised Islamic Republic. Nor does it strike me as overly conservative: alongside the many women in chadors, we have spotted Hermes scarves, Gucci and Dior sunglasses, nose-jobs, exaggerated fringes escaping from hijabs, dramatic make-up and long/spikey hair on men. I feel frumpy with my oversized salwar kameez and tatty black scarf, while my scruffy, untied Doc Martens have received more looks of disapproval than any amount of hair/lower arm/ankle that has peeked out from my clothing.

Its funny, because we claim to be aware of the impact of media distortion on the perception of Otherness. We fashion ourselves as ones who are able to deconstruct the discourses and power relations that inform the way that we think about distant cultures. We feel confident in your non-essentialist view of any religion or ethnic group. And yet, the extent to which we are taken aback by the way in which an encountered ‘reality’ differs from what we have been exposed to betrays the inescapability of our construction. Which is not a bad thing, because it is healthy to be reminded of our bias, our partiality, our preferences, and how those influence the way that we not only see Otherness but also how we behave in its presence.

For me, that is one of the most valuable aspects of directly encountering difference: it makes us as much aware of aspects of the Other as much as what characterises the self. I learned this the hard way, during a difficult year spent studying Arabic in Egypt. It is a reflection that i hope i will never forget, because by recognizing my own agency in experiencing foreignness, I will be less likely to react angrily to the difficulties that will inevitably be faced in that encounter, and look inside for solutions rather than attributing blame outside.

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One comment

  1. […] Tehran: Initial impressions, by Beirut to Beijing and Beyond […]



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