For those who don’t have the time to read my 1600-word essay, here’s ’10 things that surprised XC in Iran’ –
- Iran is bloody safe. I didn’t bump into any extremists. People are friendly, respectful and eager to talk to you about their country. No military outpost, or tanks with black flags rolling down the roads.
- 3.6million women were warned for not wearing proper hijab, and in one year, 18,000 women were sent to court for this. However, walk down any streets in Tehran or Esfahan you’ll see women wearing hijab just loosely over their head.
- The law says unmarried boys and girls shouldn’t be seen alone together, but people still do at a risk. Sit whenever you want in a bus, there’s no female only section.
- Iranian women wear very heavy make-up, almost all of them. They also like to color their hair blonde.
- Iran has the highest number of nose surgeries per capita. The nose bandage is a sign of wealth.
- People aren’t afraid to criticize the government even in public, just like many of us.
- They are not ‘Muslims’, they identify themselves as Persians before anything else and are extremely proud of their Persian history and culture.
- ISIS is called Daesh, some didn’t even know the term ‘ISIS’ exists.
- Taxis don’t run meters, and cab-pooling is a norm. You hop on to a taxi that goes from point A to point B with a standard rate, usually with three other strangers.
- Almost everyone I met was in the Iran-Iraq war, or has family members that were in the war.
“We are lawless.”
Sina proclaimed. A smirk appeared behind his perfectly groomed hipster beard and pointy mustache. He also goes by DJ Sinsaw, and deejays at Iranian wedding parties since clubs are illegal in this country. When he is not mixing beats Sina goes boxing – a pair of boxing gloves charm rests on his chest as a declaration of love for this sport. At first glance, Sina seems to fit right in London or Shanghai in his low-rise jeans and round-rimmed glasses, but strikingly out of place in Iran. With us was Hossein, also in the wedding business who loves Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, a huge fan of British rock band, Queen but doesn’t quite get Bowie. We had just returned from Persepolis, and were now sipping cappuccinos at a coffee shop in Shiraz, the home of revered poet Hafez (who loved wines and wrote profusely about them. This guy, I like him already).
We started talking about many things – from the Rouhani government to dating. They told me many of their friends had left Iran to become refugees in other countries, and they felt trapped. At one point I asked what does freedom mean to them. “Freedom means being able to hold my girlfriend’s hand on the street without fear.” Hossein said. Sina pointed at his beard and said, “Freedom means not getting arrested for growing a beard for fashion instead of religion.” Sina and Hossein complained about the widening of income inequality, the danger of cultural debasement as a result of a rising consumer society, and how difficult it is for a decent young man to find a girlfriend unless you are rich. This was all quite fascinating to me. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds, we seem to share many things in common – certain fundamental beliefs and aspirations, things that trouble us up at night. The Iran as described by Sina and Hossein sounded nothing like the ostracized pariah that we’ve come to known in Western media, but one that is rather similar to ours. Widening income equality and rising consumer society – aren’t these the same debates we have in our societies as well? It is the same tension that exists between every government and its people, but with governments serving their own agendas instead of serving their people’s. We have conjured up a different Iran in our heads because some governments are serving their own agendas. Didn’t the US government invade Iraq and Afghanistan, training ostensibly freedom fighters in Syria, and keeping quiet when their ally Saudi Arabia abuse human rights on many occasions? One’s good guy is just someone else’s bad guy, it just depends which side you are on.
But just when you think we have reached cultural singularity – where we are liberals, love freedom, latte art and industrial cafes, one of them blurted out, “I would go to war if I could kill the Arabs.” Sorry, there will be no PC bullshit in this writing; that was quoted verbatim. He wasn’t the only one that had expressed such sentiment. I later met an Esfahanian in ancient mud city Yazd, we had come to a tourist gallery and in that gallery was a room in the basement with about fifteen maps plastered on the mud wall, each showing different periods of the Persian Empire expanding and shrinking, all the way from the beginning of the Archamenid Empire to modern day Iran. One of the most important maps was the one of Arabs invasion in the sixth century. Soroosh, the Esfahanian stared at that map for a long time and said, “I look at this map and I want to cry.” It seems outrageous for someone to hold vengeance towards another group of people for what their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, and even more bizarre for it to come from a group of seemingly liberals. When is peace ever going to be possible if we keep counting scores like that? Me being me, I had to probe further. “But that was hundreds of years ago! Why the Arabs not the Mongols?” “Well, they can come and loot our gold that’s fine. But they destroyed everything. They killed our people, and they changed our religion. We were never an Islamic country.” Persians used to practice Zoroastrianism since 3500 years ago before the Arabs invaded Persia. The state was subsequently rapidly Islamicized and the newly subjected people were under the pressure to adopt Islam. Today, only a few thousands Zoroastrians left in Yazd and India. For ignorant fools like me very soon realize the dangerous simplicity of stereotyping the Middle East as an Islamic region, and all people are just ‘Muslims’. Iranians identify themselves as Persians, and the pride they take in Persia’s rich and long ancient history is palpable.
We took an evening stroll along the beautiful Zayanderud River in Isfahan and Soroosh schooled me on more Iran politics. Still in his early twenties, he is more mild mannered, unlike Sina and Hossein who are much more energetic and passionate, but equally eager to explain his country to foreigners like me. “We were never an Islamic Republic, look at what Islam did to my country. I don’t want girls to wear hejabs!” It’s difficult for me to recount his exact words right now, but I think I sort of got where his angst came from after hours of conversations. He believed Islam was just being used as a tool to win over people support. During the 1979 Revolution, they promised the people free water, free oil, free this and that under the name of Islam. And right off the heels of the revolution Iran plunged straight into an eight-year war with Iraq. They never got their free water and electricity. People’s lives never got better. When the Iranians discovered the truth it was already too late. And as much as they dislike the current regime, they know they cannot afford another revolution with Daesh hovering at their border. On top of that, Iran continues to be portrayed as a global threat whereas Saudi Arabia, with their ultra-conservative Islam, abuse of human rights and lack of women’s rights are met with much more forgiving criticism just exacerbates things. To him, this chain of events is all related. If the Arabs hadn’t invaded them in the sixth century, their history would live out very differently today. I don’t pretend to know enough about what is going on today with the war on terror, or ISIS and the Syria civil war, but I’ve always said this is not about religion, it’s geopolitics. Religion is just a tool power hungry egomaniacs use to serve their own agendas. Soroosh’s father, just like Hossein’s, served at the Iran-Iraq war too as a doctor. His father used to be a fervent believer of Islam, who often cited the Quran in his letters home during the war. Today, Soroosh’s father is an atheist who enjoys a good laugh whenever these letters are read back to him.
I chose Iran as a travel destination to proof something. Those who consume media in my part of the world believe that this country is full of extremists and is in constant turmoil. So picking Iran and traveling there alone as a woman will immediately proof those people wrong. It will also qualify me as a badass woman, which feeds my ego. To my disappointment, Iran is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been in my entire life. So I did not return to Singapore feeling like some femme fatale badass chick. I’ve traveled across cities from Shiraz to Yazd, Yazd to Esfahan in a bus, passing through hours of dusty desert and snow-capped mountains and never once did I feel unsafe. There weren’t any soldiers in camouflage uniforms or tanks with black flags rolling down the roads. People are respectful; no one stared at me because I looked different, they would just approach me with curiosity and kindness. I met Soroosh in a random backpacker hotel restaurant in Yazd, the next thing I know he was my couch surfing host in Esfahan. And when I was in Esfahan I met a retired grandfather who spoke very good English, he then suggested to bring me to see the shaking minarets and I ended up following him on a little bus adventure around town. This will remain as one of my fondest memories of the trip.
Picking an exotic destination aside, traveling alone to a place of zero familiarity can be an incredibly rewarding and emotional experience. I broke down in tears in my hotel room after sitting in a bus for six hours staring at desert and mountains, everything was just in fifty shades of brown. It was only my third day in Iran and I was still feeling extremely anxious, wondering if my existence alone was offensive. It was the feeling of complete isolation that got to me. There was no Internet or Facebook to distract me, it feels silly saying this but it was rather scary having to face your own thoughts for an extended period of time. Those around me are busy planting their roots, and here I am, uprooting all the familiarities and comfort in my life – coming to Iran by myself, moving to China alone, there was a lot of ‘What the fuck are you doing with your life XC’ sort of questions. I’m not sure if I have quite answered that question yet, since I didn’t have much opportunity to be alone after that day, ha! But I’ve certainly realized how easy it is to just go through the motions of life with all its deceptive distractions and never once had to face these real questions – questions about who you are, what you want, and what life really means to you. To quote Hafez –
I’ve lived my life without a life –
Don’t be surprised at this;
Who counts an absence as a life,
When life is what you miss?’
I didn’t get to go to a desert rave party, guess we’ll have to wait for next time.