Iran has an image problem, that’s no understatement. In both Europe and East-Asia I got worried looks when I shared my plans to visit the Islamic Republic. Even in Central Asia, a region with many problems of its own, people held their breaths whenever I mentioned Iran. Upon arrival in Tehran’s Ayatollah Khomeini Airport I received my Visa in a mere 10 minutes and an official greeted my with a warm ‘Welcome to Iran”, a phrase I would hear many times. But by far the most popular one was “Iran people good, Iran government bad”. The unparalleled kindness and generosity I enjoyed during my one month stay in Iran, starkly contrasts with the aggressive tone of Iranian leaders in our media.
While the rest of the world seems to have forgotten that a people and a government are not one and the same, the Iranians definitely haven’t. On no occasion was I blamed for the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and have condemned millions to structural unemployment without an end in sight. Never did anyone scorn me for the years of Western intervention in Iranian politics that ultimately lead to theocratic regime of today. They knew full well that I have had no say in any of this, yet when we in the West hear about Iran we shiver and picture AK wielding fanatics.
The ancestors of the Iranians, the ancient Persians, also don’t enjoy a good image in the West. As the adversaries of the freedom loving and noble Greeks they surly must have been an Empire of pure barbaric evil! The 2006 movie, 300, where oiled up Spartans fight hordes faceless and depraved Persians, comes to mind. Forgotten in all of this is that the Spartans were such excellent fighters because they lived in one of the most brutal slave societies in documented history. One wherein an elite of highly trained warriors had to be permanently under arms to suppress the slave population. Very little freedom loving to be found there.
The Persians on the other hand ruled an empire from Central Asia to the Balkans and Egypt. For respecting local customs and religions of conquered peoples, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian empire, was seen as a liberator rather than a conqueror. Cyrus is also famous for freeing the Jews from Babylon. A deed that earned him the title of Messiah. By making the empire work for the common people the Persians were able to consolidate their power in newly conquered territories. Moreover, the cities and art of the Persians often dwarfed Greek accomplishments and in fact had considerable influence on them. When Alexander the Great had conquered Persia his friends and generals complained that their leader was to eager to adopt Persian culture.
But the image problem of modern day Iran has little to do with the animosity between Greeks and Persians of 2300 years ago. It can be squarely blamed on the radical strand of Islam that the regime adheres to. Women must cover up and aren’t even allowed to sing (might provoke the guys, god forbid!). Dancing in public is forbidden. So are alcohol, parties, playing cards, etc. But in my experience most Iranians are fun loving people and quite sophisticated in circumnavigating these rules. More than often I was presented with homemade beer, wine or even spirit. In parts of Tehran I spotted girls walking around, carefree, with their hijabs down on their shoulders, revealing their hair.
This divide between the strict laws, draconic punishments and the liberal mindset of some Iranians creates wonderful contradictions. Like a woman with torn jeans and a ton of make up but neatly covered up with hijab. Or smartly dressed businessmen hiding in the shrubs of a park during Ramadan to hastily eat a sandwich. Young guys wearing T-shirts of Western rock bands, a diabolic genre that obviously needed to be banned. With many Iranian men clearly having a weakness for fashionable clothes and able to grow impressive beards Tehran is furthermore fertile ground for the unrelenting expansion of hipsterdom. Our media and their government in no way do justice to the diversity that exists in the streets of Tehran.