On a Persian carpet. The diversity of Iran

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CEZARY SZCZEPANIUK

Idea

In September 2013 for the first time in my life I traveled to the South Caucasus and visited Georgia and Armenia. This way I crossed “my geographic border” and expanded my spatial horizons. I spent two weeks hiking in beautiful Georgian mountains and later visited Armenia for a few days. There I realized that Caucasus is the edge of European civilization and a perfect gate to start the travel to the Middle East. 

In a hostel in the centre of the Armenian capital I met Stephan, a young man from Belgium who just came back from Iran. He described his trip to this country as a spectacular experience and immediately inspired me to start preparation for my visit there. On the very next day I visited all tourist agencies in Yerevan asking about possible travel to Iran, how to arrange a visa, how to get there etc. In the end I abandoned this idea, and went to Turkey instead.

Preparing the journey

Three weeks later I was again in South Caucasus, I came to Georgia for an Election Observation Mission conducted by OSCE. When you travel from West of Georgia to Tbilisi you may encounter such road signs: Tbilisi: 100 km, Baku: 860 km, Teheran: 1320 km. This really turns on imagination. You think: Iran is just so close now, it is indeed feasible to be there…. During the mission I had to work very hard and I forgot about it, but I met another observer from Poland, Kasia. She studies Iranian studies and speaks fluently Farsi. It was then, that I came to the conclusion that the trip to Iran must be my next challenge. After the Election Observation Mission, back home, I started planning the next travel. The goal was to go to Iran and make a reportage about its people. Having lived and traveled in the Western Europe, having traveled and worked in the “Eastern Partnership” countries, I was ready to ‘conquer’ the Middle East.

Preparations

My friend Mateusz who studies European studies in Cracow and has a lot of experience in cultural projects agreed to join me in the adventure. I have already heard of a few people that went to Iran hitchhiking, and said that it was an unforgettable experience. We were planning to follow their path. In exactly 45 days we prepared everything: applied for a visa, described all objectives of the project, created a blog, applied for a few grants at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and sent out the partnership proposals.

Organizers of the project: Mateusz, Kasia and Cezary

Organizers of the project: Mateusz, Kasia and Cezary

The project

The main objective of our initiative titled “Flying on a Persian carpet” was to prove that Iran is a friendly and developed country, rich in cultural heritage, and its inhabitants are open to foreigners, hospitable people. We wanted to ‘challenge’ the media which usually present Iran as a dangerous country ruled by ayatollahs whose main aim is to build a nuclear bomb and destroy Israel. Through our initiative we aimed to show that Iran is travelers-friendly, and that Muslim people are not terrorists. This initiative aimed to encourage wider audience to discover this almost unknown country, to study its literature, cinema, and the Iranian culture at large.

The blog http://latajacnaperskimdywanie.wordpress.com/ was launched and we were reading what is only available about this country. We prepared our interviews, translated questions in Farsi, packed our bags, opened our minds and hearts for meeting the very different culture from ours and… we were gone.

Travel

On the 22 December 2013 for the 8th time in the last weeks I landed in Georgia. With Mateusz, my travel companion, we started our journey through Caucasus. For four days we traveled by bus, train, or hitchhiking through Georgian valleys and Armenian mountains, between Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh, to the Armenian-Iranian checkpoint in Noordooz. Our dream was coming true. After a two-hours border control we were in Iran. For the next three weeks we would travel across the country, starting in the North-West province of East Azerbaijan with capital in Tabriz, then to Tehran and Mashad – the holy city for Shiites. Later on we passed the desert in the East side of the country, close to Afghanistan, through Tabas, Kerman until the main Iranian port – Bandar-e Abbas. There we took a ferry to an island located on the Persian Gulf – Qeshm. After that we headed to Shiraz, then Isfahan, and back to Teheran. During this travel we encountered many positive attitudes towards foreigners, we accepted many invitations home offered by random local people who we met in the train, bus, or even on the street. Altogether, we have travelled about 12.000 km by plane, bus, train, car, motorboat, ferry and motorbike.

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We have eaten various of types of kebab, we saw different cities, varying from cold and snowy, with Armenian heritage Tabriz, modern Teheran, religious Mashad, located on the desert Tabas and Kerman, industrial harbor Bandar-e Abbas, and beautiful, cultural and historical cities of Shiraz and Isfahan. We saw vast, arable lands in the north, deserts in the east, oases on the deserts, snowy mountains, forests, seaside and moon landscapes of Qeshm. There was always somebody willing to help us, when we were lost, who offered us a drink or just was interested in our travel.

During the trip we recorded a couple of interviews with people of different communities that we will present in our reportage video about people of Iran.

Politics and history

Teheran - Azadi Tower – Tower of Freedom

Teheran – Azadi Tower – Tower of Freedom

Iran’s history offers a spectrum of the rise and fall of greatest civilizations, rises and declines of empires through the times of ancient world, medieval history until the modern ages. For the entire 19th century Iran was heavily dependent on the British Empire, which colonized the country and shared benefits from its rich natural resources with Tsarist Russia. With the global decline of the Commonwealth during the first decades of 20th century Iran started to regain its strengths. In 1935 it changed its name from Persia to Iran. As an outcome of the coup d’etat organized by Western intelligence services, from 1953 until 1979 Iran was ruled by Western-dependent shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This period finished with the martial law, followed by “Islamic revolution” that established the country’s current political system – the Islamic Republic. Iran became a state combining elements of modern democracy and religious dictatorship. The religious authorities called the Guardian Council gained a strong role in the political and public life; the Sharia law has primacy over the natural order.[1] The supreme religious leader, the face of the Revolution and modern Islamic state is Imam Khomeini. One can see pictures and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini in almost all public places – in shops, trains, bus stations, public offices… In spite of his death in 1989 he is still considered as the symbol of the Revolution and the highest religious authority. Until today, the fundamentalist has a strong power in the public sphere and shape current political and social life in Iran. They influence how people should behave, they talk in media about sexual life, elaborate on the marriage, youth, death, free time and every other aspect of life.

During the 1980’s Iran was engaged in a long and destructive war with Iraq, which lasted until 1988 and ended up with the death of about 1.5 million people on both sides. Until today people remember heavy missile attacks of Iraqis bombs reaching Teheran. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, regardless of the Iranian big role in fighting terrorism (as Iranians used to tell us all around), American president George W. Bush decided to put Iran next to North Korea and Iraq on the “axis of evil” list. In the first decade of 21st century Iran intensified the efforts to enrich uranium and build a nuclear bomb, with a peaceful intentions, as authorities claims. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often scared the world with the rhetoric of destroying Israel and by threatening the USA. The current ruling administration with the president Hasan Rouhani seems to present a relatively moderate political option and brings hope for a reconciliation with the Western world.[2]

On the wall of the former US Embassy in Teheran

On the wall of the former US Embassy in Teheran

Society

With almost 80 million of population Iran is a relatively low populated country, when comparing to other Asian states. It is ethnically a diverse country, although dominated by Persians (61%); other ethnic groups encompass: Azeri (16%), Kurds (15%) and others (8%). The main paradox is the level of respect and freedom of Jewish community in Iran. Israel is officially the biggest Iranian enemy and citizens of Israel are not allowed to visit to Iran (they won’t be granted visa) and vice versa. Nonetheless in Iran lives 30 000 Jews, what meant that they form the biggest on the Middle East Jewish diaspora, that enjoys big respect[3]. The main religion of Iran is Islam with Shia majority in the center and North, and Sunni minority in the South. This differentiation can be observed by different types of mosques – Shia mosques has no minarets and muezzin don’t rise five times a day to call for a pray. Iranian people are very respectful for other religions and will be always happy to listen and compare the fundaments of your religion, always expressing appropriate understanding and respect.

Young girls in Mashad during the religious holiday

Students of chemistry and physics in Shiraz

Instead of politics and religious competition, the Iranian society seems to be more focused on acquiring basic economic livelihoods. About four years ago, according to statistics, 64% of the country’s population was younger than 30 years old. This has strong consequences for functioning of the state, including its education system. Iranian society is well educated; about 60% of students are women. The universities are of high quality, but only with regards to technical studies, the social science remains neglected. Such a division ensures good economic growth, but the quality of political life, public life, press and media sphere, suffer. Only a few of young people are able to communicate in foreign languages. This can be explained by the fact that traveling and studying abroad for Iranians is difficult, and is connected with strong visa restrictions and isolation of the country on the international scene. In order to be able to leave the country, a young man has to serve at least two years of the obligatory military training. In case of refusal, he won’t receive the passport. Most of young Iranians are proud to serve the country and go to the army. A traveler in Iran will always meet young soldiers, either on the streets, in buses or trains. They are usually first to help and welcome you by a polite expression: “Welcome to Iran!”.[4]

Out of Iran, especially in US, Canada, Australia, Turkey and Great Britain exists huge and well organized Iranian diaspora. They emigrated mainly after the revolution in 1979, some of them converted to Christianity, but still cultivates Iranian traditions and strong ties with the country of origin.  More about Iranian society you will find here: Iranian society: a surprising picture.

Economy[5]

The Grand Bazar in Tabriz

The Grand Bazar in Tabriz

The main source of revenues and funding social policies in Iran is income from the hydrocarbons. Iran is the fourth country with the biggest oil reserves and first in proven gas reserves in the world. It means that Iran has 10% of the world’s oil and 15% of gas. The country is a member of OPEC and one of its largest exporter. This natural richness influences the internal politics, history and external relations. According to the CIA Factbook, the GDP per capita (PPP) is about 13.000 dollars. The high percentage of industrial sector in entire economy makes the country still vulnerable and dependent on the prices of minerals on the stocks. However, Iran is not a rent economy, as since few decades government stimulated the development of various sectors of economy – services and agriculture. Nowadays Iran is not only the main exporter of oil and gas, but is also the first world producer of pistachio and an important producer of famous Persian carpets. Nonetheless, the level of unemployment is high – 16%, and the rate of people living below poverty line is almost 19%. Inevitably, embargos and sanctions imposed on Iran make international trade more difficult, but the demographic peak of 80’s and 90’s in Iran has also added to the toll. Current inflation rate reaches 42%, but is much lower than just a few years ago. The income in Iran is not equally distributed, there is a big social dissection. People try to make their living by simple local bazaar trade, a tradition with long and rich history in Iran. There are no big Western chains hypermarkets in Iran, their function is replaced by the everywhere-present bazaar. Sanctions imposed by the Western world on Iran has an outcome in the foreign trade structure of Iran. The main trade partners of Iran are UAE, China, Turkey and South Korea. This has as well positive results, as the economy was not strong bounded to the western economy, the wave of the financial and economic crisis didn’t have an serious impact on Iranian economy. While traveling through Iran, one can have impression, that country isolated by West, has to maintain self-efficient and produce as much as it can by itself, not to rely on the import.

What is interesting, during our travel the young people complained not on the unemployment, but rather on low wages; the infrastructure is developed and in the shops we could find mainly products of local origin. This makes us think and debate about the nature of current economic crisis – is it an effect of too broad internationalization of the trade? Unsuccessful reforms during the Ahmadinejad tenure and the corruption are next to sanctions source of problems for the Iranian economy .

Customs, culture

The fact that Iran is a Sharia law bound, totalitarian state, where Shia Muslim have majority dominated how the people think and behave, or at least how they should behave. Religious police and religious courts controls all field of life – public life, sexual life, habits, and much more. This has influence of the level of perception of freedom, that is very low in Iran. Most of the young people who we met said that “Iran is not a country for youth”. Officials claim that any abbreviation from Islam will be punished by death, what particularly scares young people. Death penalty is imposed on the homosexuals and adultery. A well-known is a statement of the previous president Ahmadinejad that “in Iran there are no homosexuals”. Interestingly, Iran is the only country in the world, where the government refunds 100% of the costs of the change of sex. The position of woman in the society is limited. When a girl reaches 9 years old, she is obliged to wear hijab. Only at home or in closed areas among other women they can take it off. Officially, contacts between persons of a different sexes who are not part of a family are forbidden. Apart from the Northern Teheran, an enclave of freedom, this principle is strictly followed. Drinking alcohol is also forbidden by law, however a few times I had the pleasure to be invited for a homemade alcoholic drink. Sexual segregation exists in all spheres of the public life, but for a few years now the relaxation of restrictions has been observed. Metro and buses have special compartments for men and women, and foreign female travelers has to wear hijab, as well as appropriate dresses. Shaking hands or kissing in the cheek with women are strongly not welcomed. During the trip many girls or women were stopping us in order to chat, but usually just for a few minutes and always on the street only.

Three Poles and young Iranians in the coffee shop in the Northern Teheran

Three Poles and young Iranians in the coffee shop in the Northern Teheran

Poland and Iran

Poland has a history of diplomatic relations with Iran dating back to 15th century. The common factor that brought this two, very different countries with an opposite geopolitical orientation was then a common enemy – Turkey. Trade relations started even earlier. After another geopolitical change, Iran was one of two countries (next to the Ottoman Empire), that did not recognize the partition of Poland in the end of 18th century. In the next years Persia was a hospitable host for Polish exiles, many of whom were included in the Persian army and fought in Central Asia. During the second World War Iran became a shelter for many Polish soldiers and their families.

Instead of conclusions

Our Iranian trip confirmed our thesis given in the objectives of the project, which stated that there is lots of false information about Iran and its society in the international, particular Western as well as Polish media. Personally, we have never met more open, hospitable and friendly people than those in Iran. This fascinating country offers a lot in terms of sightseeing, culture, heritage, history, arts and its people. Definitely, studying Iranian politics and its multiculturalism is a must for those who do not think in a conformist way about the world and the international relations.

 


  • [1] The Guardian Council is a body consisting of 12 members that have power of vetting legislations, presidential candidates, the Parliament, supervise the elections with the accordance of the Islamic rules. See e.g.: “Iran’s revolutionary guards”, Council of Foreign Relations, Available at: http://www.cfr.org/iran/irans-revolutionary-guards/p14324.
  • [2] The explicit chronology of events important for modern Iran you can find under following link: BBC Iran profile.
  • [3] The history of Jews in Persia/Iran, Pars Times, Available at: http://www.parstimes.com/history/jews_persia.html
  • [4] More about Iranian society you will find here: Iranian society: a surprising picture.
  • [5] Data from CIA world factbook: Iran – Economy, Available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html

Cezary Szczepaniuk graduated from University of Maria Curie-Skłodowska in Lublin with Master degree in international relations and from College of Europe postgraduate European Interdisciplinary Studies with specialization “EU as a regional actor”. His interests vary from international security, to Eastern Partnership, Ukrainian geopolitics, Middle East states culture and politics and European Security and Defense Policy. This text was written as a part of the project “Flying on a Persian carpet” that you can find here: http://latajacperskimdywanem.wordpress.com/english/


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Cezary Szczepaniuk

Cezary Szczepaniuk, - Współpracownik CIM - absolwent stosunków międzynarodowych Wydziału Politologii Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej w Lublinie oraz podyplomowych Interdyscyplinarnych Studiów Europejskich na specjalizacji „Unia Europejska jako aktor regionalny” w Kolegium Europejskim w Natolinie. Jego zainteresowania obejmują szeroko rozumiane aspekty bezpieczeństwa międzynarodowego, Partnerstwo Wschodnie (Ukraina, Gruzja), NATO oraz Wspólną Politykę Zagraniczna i Bezpieczeństwa UE. Cezary Szczepaniuk graduated from University of Maria Curie-Skłodowska in Lublin, Poland with Master degree in international relations and from College of Europe European Interdisciplinary Studies with “EU as a regional actor” specialization. His interests vary from international security, Eastern Partnership, Ukrainian geopolitics and French security to defence policy. He took part as an international observer in the Election Observation Mission during presidential elections in Georgia on October 27, 2013.

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