Thursday, 11 August 2016

Welcome to Iran

'Welcome to Iran' is shouted out the windows of almost every car that passes us.  People in the street say it to us too, followed by 'What is your country?'.  This question is usually followed with 'How do you like Iran?', an easy question to answer - we love it here.  What's not so easy to answer however is when they shyly ask next 'Why do people from the west think we are all terrorists?' Why indeed. 

Our taxi from the airport. 3 people, 3 bother!

Neither Nick nor I have ever been anywhere where the welcome has been so big, so widespread and so overwhelming in its sincerity.  We have stayed in countless Iranian families homes, we have been fed and watered and not a day has gone by where we haven't received something free of charge.  The welcome is huge and across the board: children and adults; city folk and country folk; rich and poor Iranians.  They seem delighted to have people visit their country and ignore the 'black news', the bad press this country seems to generate in the western media.  They do their utmost to help us and leave us with lasting good impressions, to hopefully go home and spread the word.  Which we will, we tell anyone who asks.   The hospitality and friendliness towards us isn't just a bid to change the country's awful reputation abroad though.  It seems to be an inbuilt characteristic of Iranians.  They are a family and community oriented people, and if you enter into their community it seems you get treated as part of it.  It's not a need or a task they feel they must perform.  It's a default response and they seem to get as much happiness and joy out of the interactions with us as we do with them. 

We arrived in Tehran on Sunday July 24th, after what was one of the most mental check-in experiences in Dushanbe airport.  We hadn't registered in Tajikistan - something you are supposed to do if you stay longer than 30 days, regardless of how long your visa is valid for - and there appeared to be an official way of dealing with our lack of registration, and an unofficial way! The official way would have seen us being sent somewhere to fill out the required forms and pay a fine of about $200 each, as well as missing our flight.  The unofficial way meant we greased someone’s palm quite generously and were ushered through to the check-in desks in hushed tones!

If you look closely at the bottom right hand corner you'll see a chador clad women going about her business

Next, we had to get the bikes on board the flight.  We knew we’d have to pay excess baggage charges for them, but we hadn’t been able to find out how much before getting to the airport. We were 56kg over limit, and at an official rate of €3 per kilo we set about haggling them down pretty quickly.  After settling on an amount, the money was quickly transferred into someone’s pocket and didn’t seem to be done in any sort of official way at all.  Someone from the airport even followed us to security and told us not to mention the amount we’d paid to anyone!  But with the bikes safely checked-in, we didn’t much mind where the money had gone.

At this stage we'd been through three security bag/body scanners, but getting through security meant going through another two.  The queues were pretty long and disorderly and there didn’t seem to be enough staff so it took forever.  Luckily Dushanbe airport is pretty small because by the time we got through security and boarded it was twenty-past ten and the plane was due to depart at half past!  Anyway, as I said, a bit of a mental airport experience, and one that left us significantly less well off, but we were on our way to Iran and feeling pretty excited about it all.

Before getting to Iran, I hadn’t really given the enforced dress code for women much thought except to hope that I wouldn’t be too hot and sweaty with long sleeves, long legs, and a headscarf on all the time.  I hadn't given any consideration to how it was going to make me feel.

My experience began on the plane.  A 30 something year old, modernly dressed man in the row behind us, very politely told Nick that I might have some problems because of my lack of head covering, to which I thanked him and told him I had a scarf in my bag and would put it on when we landed.  His comment had been friendly and one that was very much made out of concern and a want to be helpful, in what we would later discover to be true Iranian style.  Walking back from the toilet later on in the flight, an older man (maybe mid 60's and quite conservatively dressed), motioned at his wife's chador and then at my head in a way that didn't seem as friendly and helpful, and more an instruction to 'for god's sake woman, cover your head'!, or at least that's how I interpreted it.

Sitting in the airport, waiting for our lift to the hostel, I was very aware of my headscarf and the restrictions I felt it was imposing on me.  I had no real peripheral vision.  Not being used to it, I was constantly fidgeting with it, fixing it, touching it, checking it.  I felt very covered up, hidden even, although it was just loosely drooped over my head.  I also felt like an imposter, and even would go so far as to say I felt offensive or even rude, like I was in some way mocking the women who’s reality it is to wear headscarves on a daily basis. I felt I stood out although I was trying to blend in. It felt like everyone was looking at me, and I was immediately very self-conscious and felt quite on edge and a bit irritable.

How much of what I felt initially, and still feel, about wearing a headscarf was to do with actually being told how to dress by a government, as opposed to my own ideas and conceptions of what it represents, I’m not sure.  Did I feel small and invisible, discriminated against, because that's what my western mind views the enforced wearing of a headscarf to be, or is that how it actually made me feel, how society here made me feel, just by virtue of being covered up?

I am getting more used to wearing it now, but still find it very frustrating.  I have become a bit more brazen in my attitude towards it, foreigners seem to be awarded a certain amount of leeway.  On the side of the road when we stop for a break I often take it off.  The humidity along the Caspian Sea made wearing it cycling almost totally unbearable, and the only way to cool down at all when we stopped was to take it off momentarily.  Nobody seems to mind though which is great.

Enough about the headscarf.  It dominates my days here as it is, no need for it to dominate this post too.  So, what about the rest of the place? What do I think about Iran? We are asked by locals on a daily basis and it's a hard one to answer in any sort of succinct manner.

Emerging from the airport in Tehran, it was apparent we were no longer in Asia.  Things looked and smelt different.  The people looked different.  The writing was different.  It's not Asian looking or feeling and it's also not western looking or feeling either.  I suppose that's because it's the Middle East, and I've never been here before!

It's a place that seems loaded with seeming contradictions.  Though not compulsory, a lot of women choose to wear chadors, even in Tehran which I was surprised about having heard that Tehran is very modern and very fashionable city.  I was expecting lots of designer handbags and sunglasses, but the number of women in chadors far exceeds the number of women pushing the boundaries on what they can wear, letting their headscarfs fall right back off the back of their heads so that only their necks and a small portion of hair is covered.  In the middle of the city, on our first evening we came across a huge skate park which was blasting out modern house music.  Both boys and girls were in there, on bmx's, skate boards and rollerblades.  Seeing, and hearing, that didn't sit so well with the image we have of Iran as a restrictive place to live.
Skate park in Northern Central Tehran

Old but well maintained propaganda and some conservative women rejecting 'Satan's influence' in Tehran city centre

Some typically middle eastern landscapes. However, at the top of this pass, we descending into thick, moisture-laden jungle, taking us both by surprise

A daily occurrence - multiple people slowing as they pass to say hello, welcome us and take photos of us.  Usually but not always, the attention is directed to Nick and I can be somewhat ignored

It's hard to know how aligned any people are with their government, even harder when you are only in the country for a short while, and harder yet when you can't speak the native tongue.  To us, the regime, in principle at least, seems very conservative but then the people are just like any others - they aren't the government and don't necessarily agree with what the government do.  They want to connect, they are interested in places they have only read about, they are understanding of differences.  The more modern and middle class the people the less religious they are, much like at home, or any other country.  However, we have met some seemingly strict Muslims.  Two men in particular stand out to me.  Both were young (one 20, the other 26), both refused to shake my hand, because a 'good muslim' should never shake the hand of an unknown woman incase....incase what exactly, I'm not so sure.  Neither of these men were total strangers to us.  They were a part of two separate families that took us in and put us up for a night.  The welcomed us into their homes, interacted with us, treated us as both honoured guests and as part of the family.  Yet when it was time to leave the next day and we were saying our goodbyes, Nick extended his hand which was taken warmly and with real feeling but mine was refused.  They both smiled, a strange glassy-eyed smile and removed their hands to behind their backs, saying nothing just smiling that smile until I understood and took my hand back and tried to pretend it hadn't just happened.  In both those families, all the other male members of the family gladly shook my hand and wished me well.  Both times it happened I was left feeling odd.  It's their religion,  I understand that, but my inner feminist can't help but be offended by such blatant differences in treatment between Nick and I.

This family of brothers and their mother put us up for the night. Mostaf, the third person from the left, was one of the hand-shaking offenders.

Enjoying dinner with the lads!

Another day, another family. They convinced us to stay until lunch the next day so that they could show us around the area.  We agreed, eagerly.  Salar, on the far right, was another of the hand-shake offenders.
The lads - past and present - are everywhere, looking down on everyone and everything. Revered by some, hated by others, but ever present either way.
We have discovered that Iranian men aren't granted passports until they have completed their compulsory two years of military service.  Wages are low, especially in government positions like bank workers and teachers.  Despite this, people are often slow to criticise the regime, saying how great the current Ayatollah is, and I suppose in comparison to the last guy he's not too bad!  Someone said to us that the government ask the Iranian people to restrict themselves and give up some of their freedoms (like drinking alcohol and socialising with the opposite sex) in return for protection in what is a troubled part of the world.  Iran is a very peaceful country. A beautiful country, filled with amazingly warm and friendly people, so something is obviously being done right here but I can't help thinking that restricting people's freedom, in any capacity, isn't the best course of action.  

There are many things in Iran, as seen from our western viewpoints, that baffle us.  It is a place of contradictions. Many of the ideas we had of Iran, before we got here, seem to be true but there is so much more that we don't here about, and that is a great shame.

**As always, for more photos of our Iranian leg of the journey, check out our Facebook page.

Photos of the Iranian leg of our cycle home
Posted by Nick Doran on Wednesday, August 3, 2016

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