We've come to the end of our time in Iran as we did at the airport ready to fly to Yerevan for our Lada adventure through Armenia and Georgia.
Yesterday was really just made up of making our way back to Tehran where we went out to Darband Mountain which is a mountain at the end of the metro trainline. There are long taxi cues to take you to the top in ridiculous traffic. Once up there, it's about 1-2km of mountain side that is terraced and covered in teahouses and restaurants along a stream. It has potential to be spectacular but instead the workmanship is shoddy, rubbish is building up in the stream and the stalls are selling cheap imported tat. Despite this, there is a wonderful variety of people drawn here - the walking/mountaineering group who have their retractable poles, ropes, helmets and the earnest hiker look; hipsters making their way to the open areas at the top for shisha; trendoids wanting to be seen, taking selfies in the middle of the stream; and domestic tourists at the end of their sightseeing days.
I was pleased to have an experience true to today's Iran to finish, especially as it was relaxed and gave time for some reflection. I'm very glad we reduced our time in Tehran, it's an entirely charmless city rivalled only by Jakarta in my experience. The traffic is solid and once it gets moving would rival any South East Asian city for chaos and disregard for others. It's the first place in Iran we negotiated with taxi drivers, were overcharged or felt like targets (is walking wallets), unlike what we experienced in the North, there's a sense of competition at the expense of others. Not uncommon in large cities and to be expected but was an uncomfortable transition from the relative ease we had experienced elsewhere.
[warning: the next bit is overly verbose, long winded and really just random thoughts rather than anything thought through... in other words, feel free to skip if entirely!]
I've been reflecting a lot on Iran, what we've seen and trying to put together some coherent thoughts. In no particular order:
- cars and vehicles are great indicators of relative wealth and this was very true across the four towns/cities we spent time in. In most areas and particularly outside Tehran, Paykan rules the roads. The Iranian made vehicles are clearly what happens when your country is embargoed and you quickly need to start producing your own. Personally, I quite like the look of them and if I had the skills to modify engines and gearboxes, would happily take a body home. Most are in terrible condition. From there you have the knock offs - Saba (Saab), Peuge (Peugeot), Jac (Jag) and BWM (BMW). We saw some of these in Tabriz but there were even more in Qazvin as we got closer to Tehran. And then there are the 'brand names' - Kia, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, etc. These were most common in Tehran. We didn't see many luxury vehicles even in Tehran - and largely these were BMW.
- there's a shoddiness to a lot of the craftsmanship across the country. Whether it was traditional crafts such as silk weaving, knife grinding or carpentry, or modern construction/manufacturing. Everything was just poorly constructed, a lack of care or attention to detail. One of the reasons I loved the caravanserai in Qazvin was the proliferation of local modern designers who were evidence of people putting time, effort and skill into creating objects of beauty. The need for beauty is a human thing but in a culture that reveres poetry and the arts, it feels sad to be buying manufactured crap that will fall apart immediately.
- from what I've read and heard, Iran has a long history of progressiveness and liberal thinking, and it would appear some of this is filtering back into the culture. There was a Guardian article published while we were here about women removing the hijab in cars in Tehran, but we also saw it here. Hijabs are loose and in some cases cursory, ankles/wrists are on show even in more conservative rural areas. No one blinked an eye when in answer to their question about our religion we said 'no religion'. And there is a respect and aspiration for learning and education. English was spoken widely with many speaking 3 or more languages and people studying for higher degrees, or speaking of friends studying abroad
- there is a warm and seemingly genuine love for australia, I've never been gladder for my citizenship. So many we spoke to wistfully expressed a desire to come to Australia anda few were already making plans. It is at once humbling abc at times embarrassing given our politics and position in the world
- while I've always felt travel highlights the difference between citizenry and government, it was stronger and starker here than I've experienced. It meant the local Iranian people we spent time with would not only distance themselves from government policy but they also pass this on to others. There is a deeply ingrained understanding that these are separate points of view and aren't to be confused (understandable given their history).
- picnicking is the national sport and every Iranian appears to be an elite athlete at it. Carpets, shade cloth, kebab grills, butane, etc. are all lugged up hills and into parks for long lunches. The only other place I've been that comes close is South Korea but even they pale in comparison!
- as a gross generalisation, Iranian women are the most elegant on earth. The attention to detail (matching shoes/trainers to scarves or details in their chameez, scarf tying/folding, mixing of patterns etc) and the pride in appearance leave me shamed
Finally, it's no surprise that gender has been on my mind since being here. I've always found Muslim countries are more visibly male - on the street, on transport, etc. you see more men than women. But this is further confounded due to the dress laws. I've whinged about the scarf and made jokes about it, but in reality it goes deeper than that (of course). While the dress rules are grounded in modesty, the experience of having to follow these rules and wearing the hijab was, for me, constantly distracting and an overt reminder of needing correction.
By constant distraction, I don't mean the irritation of a fly buzzing around and distracting you lightly. I mean the girl in the nightclub in a dress that is too tight and riding up so she's constantly pulling and tugging and playing with her clothes. It's a constant stream of thought that is policing the placement of the fabric - how it is wound around your bag handle, if it's stuck on the chair back, has it dropped off completely, is it choking, etc. Now, I'm the first to admit that some of this would become second nature with longer term use but it's never something women are unaware of. So few carry bags and their hands are often hovering either actively fiddling or ready to catch it if it falls. For me, I've felt this hampered the way I processed where we've been and what we've done. In both my photos and my memories there's a distance, I haven't quite been there. For my photos I've fought this hard to try and really focus and grab opportunities but I'm really feeling it in my memories which feel removed rather than fully lived.
On the other hand, the dress (along with cultural behaviour) have made me more aware of the overt differentiation of being female. That sense that in being female there is something 'not quite right' at best and downright immoral/incorrect/disliked at worst. The dress and behaviours compound as overt symbols and reminders of this 'lesser-ness'. I see it in the women here as well, they are friendly, generous and gracious but shyer, engaging less readily than the men. The men when they approach us speak to Tom directly, glancing at me. In some ways it suits me because it puts me more in the role of observer which is where I'm comfortable... but it also is muting. And it's there in micro-interactions as well. Where western men will often make space for women, here it's men nudging women aside or standing in a way that pushes me into a corner or out of the way. I don't have an answer in terms of which is 'better', there are issues with both - any system that is based on constituted differences rather than mutual respect feels destined for problematic power dynamics to me. But the change from one system (covert) to another (overt) has made me more conscious (for now) of my gender and what that signifies to others.
Finally, it's not that the men we've spoken to have left me out or shown me disrespect - I'd never want that to be misunderstood. In fact most, especially Sharrom and Hosein, went out of their way to open conversations with me or draw me in to what they were talking about with Tom. These observations are based more on the accumulation of things - rather than one off examples.Read more