Iranians love Chris de Burgh. This puzzles me. They also love Leonard Cohen, which puzzles me far less. There are many other things about Iran that confuse me, and it would take far more than the two months I have to understand this intriguing culture. Having been here for over a month, I am somewhat embarrassed by my previous preconceptions about the country. I shake my head in disbelief when I think back to the woman who crossed the border one month ago, the woman who thought she couldn’t talk to men, that she wouldn’t hear music anywhere, that friends were not allowed to socialise.
When Sara and I meet our Portuguese friend Karina, we all decide that it is about time to start hitchhiking around Iran. The biggest problem is explaining what hitchhiking actually is, as it’s unheard of here, and paid ride-share is a common way to travel. So when three tourists don’t want to pay, locals are shocked. Often people form a group around us, discussing amongst themselves how impossible it is. It is, however, completely possible, and we usually never have to wait more than a few minutes. The magic word is “salavaati”…it’s a religious charity word, and as soon as we say this, locals understand that we won’t pay!
Hitchhiking enables us to get to beautiful desert places, such as the Zoroastrian religion pilgrimage temple in Chak Chak, deep in the mountains.
We also spend a couple of days in Meymand, a semi-nomadic cave village. We sleep in our very own cave house. For once, we are the tourist attraction, and we are visited by Iranians, who want to dance with us and take photos of us. Iranians have far less inhibitions than westerners when it comes to dancing!
Hitchhiking is certainly memorable, and our drivers include a man with the tiniest hands in the world, who takes nine hours to drive 300km, tells Sara that his girlfriend is a lesbian and that he will write about us in his diary. Another driver chucks Sara and I out of his van in the dark, on the motorway. As we try to hitchhike, the police pull up, flag down a passing car and force it to take us to our destination!
In the desert
We arrange a desert trip with some Persian friends. However, before even getting to the desert, the police demand that we all go to the police station, where we are questioned for a couple of hours. Why are we all together? Do we have husbands? Do we have money? It’s unclear whether we are breaking any law, and we are finally allowed to go to the desert – one of our highlights of our time in Iran! It’s beautiful! We camp for two days and walk 20km, surrounded by giant ‘sand castles’. The guys we are with become very close friends of ours, and the five of us become inseparable. I feel very lucky to have met such amazing people in Iran – people who will be friends for life.
British propaganda versus reality
Whilst I am in Iran, the highly dubious IAEA report about Iran’s supposed nuclear intentions is released. Whilst I am in the desert, the British embassy in Tehran is stormed, and the story is blown out of proportion by the western media. Alongside this, the British Foreign Office website states that “British nationals are warned against all but essential travel in Iran and the small number that are in the country are being told to stay indoors and await advice.” Stay indoors?! This dramatic statement is ridiculous, and on that very same day I am out on the streets of Iran, telling people that I am from England. I am welcomed to the country countless times and told, “oh, I would love to go to England!” Currently, the Foreign Office website states that “we advise all British nationals in Iran to keep a low profile.” Ridiculous advice, Foreign Office. This is one of the friendliest countries I have been to and Iranians do not judge people by the country they are from. The Foreign Office continues, “Iranian paranoia about Britain’s supposed role in its politics means that the security forces are suspicious of people with British connections.” Paranoia?! (See links at the end for Britain’s involvement in Iranian politics).
So-called “liberal” newspapers are also compliant with this propaganda, with newspapers like The Guardian showing angry Iranians burning the Union Jack flag. The western media depiction of Iranians as either barbaric or anti-west is both wildly inaccurate and dangerous. Potentially, bombs could rain down on Iran. With most westerners’ only media source being propaganda, would the public empathise with Iranians? The power of the media in demonising a country and culture is evident when many westerners think Iran is too dangerous to visit. The storming of the British embassy occurs just a few doors from the cafe where Sara and I go every day, and where, shock horror, no angry Iranian has shown “anti-British rhetoric” (another Foreign Office quote) towards me.
The Medialens website, as always, holds the media accountable for inaccuracy. The editors write to the BBC, saying, “It is sort of amazing that you BBC journalists can discuss the bad blood in UK-Iran relations without mentioning the US-UK military coup of 1953, with oil the motive. And without mentioning the subsequent US-UK military and diplomatic support for a horrifically violent tyrant right up until the end in 1979.”
I am invited for tea with a Persian woman. She states, “we love all people. It is governments who hate, not people who hate”.