Iran, March 2010

My friend Elisabeth Thoburn has already written extensively about last year’s trip to Iran on her expansive on-line travelogue and even allowed me to make a couple of contributions. However, on this occasion I did remember my own camera and will take this opportunity to post some of my own impressions and pictures of this exquisitely beautiful but culturally disfigured country.

 Whether I would be able to accompany Elisabeth for part of this particular trip was an on-again off-again proposition for much of the preceding eight months as my clutch of grandchildren continued to increase in size and all the other responsibilities seemed to expand in accordance with my capacity to service them. I’m sure many people will empathize when I say that the newly retired often wonder how they ever had time to go to work. Nevertheless, this capricious grandmother sneaked off to Iran for a couple of weeks when Edward was barely two weeks old without telling anyone but the officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My audacious behaviour was suitably dismissed when, on finding out where I was, my son e-mailed to say that he was sure I would be fine because, after all “Elisabeth seems like a very sensible person”.

 During the seventeen days that I was able to spend in Iran I was able to hit all four of my “must see” targets. Listing them in historical order they are:

 1 Choqa Zanbil: the finest remaining ziggurat of the ancient world

2 Persepolis: the city of Darius & Xerxes, sacked by Alexander the Great

3 Isfahan: heart of the Silk Road, sometimes called “Half the world”

4 The fantastic Mughal treasures of the Iranian Crown Jewels in Tehran

With the exception of the jewels, for which I have had to reproduce guide book photographs, I hope that the following pictures will do justice to the heartbreakingly lovely Persia of art and literature. But what did I really think of Iran? After all, I am a grown up and surely I didn’t make the journey simply to satisfy my thirst for archaeological adventure and some good photo-opportunities.

 Everywhere we went it seemed that people wanted to meet us, chat to us and be photographed with us. It was holiday time; families were out in force and this gregarious welcome almost, at times, overshadowed the disapproving looks that we got from so many of the people in the background. The omnipresent Iranian scowl is predominantly a chadour wearing, female phenomenon and it told me more about the level of oppression in the country than any security checks or police presence. Because actually, the latter appeared pretty light to innocents like ourselves; the only time we attracted the attention of the security police they sat us in the shade and fed us ice cream while they hunted down our lost idiot of a taxi driver at Persepolis. It will tell you just how innocent we were if I say that I thought they were plain-clothes park attendants until one of them shushed the armed, uniform guards out of their office so that we could have somewhere to sit out of the glaring midday sun.

 No, it was the women, always the women. Flocks of black clad, compliant females of indeterminate age watched all other women like hawks (if that isn’t mixing my avian metaphors). Large numbers of younger or more urbane women appeared to trounce the dress code with every conceivable western style accessory. Filmy wisps of head scarves barely covered exaggerated beehive hairstyles; strappy, heeled sandals attempted to out-bling the obligatory over-sized sunglasses and the traditional Persian manteaux, a long flattering coat-like garment, has been replaced by a little belted jacket affair that barely covers the bum. In fact, the only time I saw one of the traditional garments it was on a foreign visitor. Believe me, the crows had a lot to disapprove of.

 These obvious outward signs of a society divided were reinforced by so much that we experienced while on our travels. I am not a journalist so I feel it would be wrong for me to repeat individual conversations; the paranoid view says that there is a danger of people being traced by “the authorities”, alternatively it might just be viewed as a breach of hospitality. What I can say, though, was that I was completely unprepared for the level of education and access to the World Wide Web. Censorship may be practiced but the government appears to have completely lost control of the electronic superhighway and, given that it has taught a very high proportion of its citizens to speak English, information is everywhere. Covert satellite reception abounds.

I have given this a great deal of thought since the so called Arab Spring. Why were Iranians not among the very first to topple their overbearing regime if so many people were living in discontent? The first thing to be understood is that Iranians aren’t Arabs. The Persian mentality is very, very different and Iranians do not like to be thought of as Arabs or even to be classified as part of the Middle East. Secondly: most of us nowadays probably don’t understand how a theocracy really works. When it comes down as the Word of God, a large proportion of citizens are going to do as their government directs or heaven help them. Literally. Thirdly (and even as an Englishwoman I don’t believe I’m speaking out of turn here) some aspects of former American foreign policy have a great deal to answer for.

So, would I go back to Iran? Hell yes, I’d hop on a plane just to go shopping for the incomparable rugs, ceramics and miniature paintings. This truly is the dwelling place of fairy tales; personally I believe that Isfahan rivals Venice as the most beautiful city in the world. The grandeur of Persepolis illuminates a pivotal point in the history of civilisation and there is still so much else of Iran left to explore. But would I take my granddaughters? Will this country become a suitable destination for intelligent, open-minded young women? Now these are questions that only history can answer.

Categories: Middle East

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