“Every Iranian I’ve met wants to drink alcohol, every couple I’ve met here want to hold hands in public, and every Iranian woman I’ve met wants to ditch hijab. So why not just, you know, do it?”
What?” asked our guide, “And give the government an excuse to crack down again?”
I’ll admit I viewed Iran with suspicion and fear before my first visit there in 2016. A place of repressive religious rules, sponsor of terrorism, part of George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. A desert land with strict entry requirements.
When I arrived, I found that the reality belied the myth. A place of beauty and culture, filled with friendly people, few of whom were religious, and most more than usually unhappy with the government.
Not to say that the government wasn’t doing a great job of administration. There were wide motorways and railways everywhere, the cities were full of parks, the people were healthy and well-fed, and education seemed to be a top priority. Many people spoke English, and school students were keen to show off their skills when they encountered foreigners. Any blonde woman in the party was mobbed by schoolgirls at historic sites, the co-focus of a hundred selfies.
I was utterly charmed by Iran.
Throughout the country are the ubiquitous donation boxes to help support the casualties of the long Iran-Iraq war. Images of the fallen are displayed prominently in murals, street displays, and in public establishments. The donation boxes are in the shape of a pair of protecting hands and seem to be distributed one every few city blocks. The story goes that if you make a donation, good luck will befall you.
One man, our guide said, folded a 100 000 rial note, slipped it through the slot, and set off across the road, his good deed done for the day. He was clipped by a passing Peugeot, and as he hopped back to safety, nursing a bruised leg, he saw someone making a donation into the same box.
“Stop!” he called out, “That one isn’t working!”
Unrest in a land of peace
So it was with some concern that I heard of deadly protests spreading through the cities. The protesters claimed that it was in response to worsening economic conditions, the Iranian government said that it was initiated by outside agitators.
Unemployment is rife, and the long years of sanctions have not made the situation any better. In fact, as Iran re-opens up to the West – and to Russia and China – increasing trade and tourism should be helping matters. On the other hand, Iran is rife with tales of official corruption, so perhaps not all the benefits are flowing down to the citizenry. Mind you, that is hardly unique; I’d say that social gaps are far greater in the States of America than in Iran.
On that note, President Trump and Saudia Arabia have been working together to attack Iran in every way short of actual combat, so the official claims of foreign interference have some level of credibility.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the news from Iran is not good, and I hope that matters settle down. There is a level of tension between the people and the government hardliners – again, hardly unique; in most democracies, about half the people detest their government – which needs to be resolved for continued peace and prosperity.
The elderly gentleman who offered to help me in the street now insists on playing me his Frank Sinatra records on an ancient machine. He’s a big fan of My Way and sways as he plays it again and again. We watch old footage of the American singer and actor on a scratchy VHS player for half an hour at least.
He and his family tell me about Iran, a country they love but one with deeply-rooted problems. It’s like they’ve been waiting to get it off their chests; a conversation they can’t have openly with their neighbours. —Rohan Smith
Read more: The travel moment I wasn’t expecting in Iran