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A portrait of Iran (part 1)

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25 February 2011 14:19

Vanessa Newby is PhD candidate at Griffith University who is studying Arabic in the Middle East. The photos in this post are her own.

Late last year, I was chatting to a friend in his home in Tehran about politics, the favourite topic of Iranians. 'I'm going to tell you something I wouldn't dare to say to anyone here', he said, lowering his voice. 'I'm not sure that Ahmadinejad didn't win the election last year.' 

It's not an opinion those in North Tehran and the majority of the Iranian diaspora would care to hear, but I was very impressed by this man's ability to honestly question the political affiliations of his countrymen. 

Isfahan.

Not all Iranians are North Tehranis; many have low levels of education and a good percentage remain deeply religious. As I traveled around Iran I observed these societal divisions, but also the importance people afforded to their national symbols, which attracted Iranians of all backgrounds. It indicated that, unusually for an ancient country, nationalism remains a key element of Iranian culture.

My travels in Iran took me to Tehran, around the Caspian Sea, down to Kashan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, and West up to Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran and a religious centre housing the tomb of the eighth Imam, Imam Reza. 

In Iran, it's very easy to notice a division between country and city. Educated city dwellers could not wait to complain to me about the regime and apologise for their Government. Along with a secular democracy, they crave social freedom. We went hiking up a mountain in Isfahan and my Iranian friends showed me a section of the park where people were praying in the open air. I was told this had never happened until after the election, and it was known to be something the Government had recently organised. 'Why are we not allowed to play music in public here, but they can organise mass prayers whenever they feel like it'', I was asked bitterly. 

Music is now being played, however, in many of what are called in Iran 'traditional restaurants', where you can order the ubiquitous 'chelow kebab' (rice and kebab). Here musicians play traditional Iranian folk music and the customers delight in it, partly because they know it is a form of political protest.

I was fortunate to speak to a couple of South Tehranis during one of my visits; a shoemaker and park manager. One spoke English and translated for the other. They were very keen to ask me about my opinion of Iran (as all Iranians are) and they painted a very different picture of their Government. They were thrilled that their President was standing up for their country and defending Iran from the clutches of the Americans and the British (pictured left, the former US Embassy in South Tehran).

I'll never know if I was being fed a line but they exhorted me at the end of our conversation: 'You must go back to your country and tell people we are happy here and we are not bad people. You must tell more people to come here and see for themselves and not believe what the Zionists and Americans say about us!'. 

These views are considered typical of the lower socio-economic strata of Iranians. But with the Iranian economy in poor health, how representative they still are is up for debate. As I traveled by road, I could not fail to notice the long queues for fuel at every petrol station. I estimated that it would have taken at least an hour-and-a-half to get served. A taxi driver in Mashhad summed up his feelings: 'The economy is falling apart and they are worrying about the hijab!'.

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