It’s mid-Autumn and I’m darting up and down trendy Via Cola di Rienzo in central Rome, excited and worried at the same time. I’m looking for a sort of long tunic, coat, jacket. Anything. Just long. And possibly able to hide any body shape, or anything at all for that matter. I struggle but eventually buy a jacket – a purchase that didn’t really manage to give me peace of mind.
The day after I was to fly to Iran, and instead of focusing exclusively on my usual pre-travel research, my thoughts were mainly about what I was supposed to wear.
My journey included a stopover in Istanbul from where I was to take a direct flight to Tehran. All I did during the two hours in Turkey was to carefully study what Iranian women were wearing. Somehow, I felt inappropriate. I knew Iran’s policy was not as strict as mainstream British media suggested, but every time I travel to a country that is new to me I pay extra attention not to go against traditions and social mores.
My hijab consisted of a pashmina that I had recently bought in India, worn clumsily to the extent that it kept falling off. To my ill-concealed disbelief, however, I noticed that Iranian girls’ hijabs, as casual as mine, were worn in a manner that naturally enabled them to enhance their femininity.
The first thing tourists will notice as soon as they venture out of Tehran’s airport is the hectic traffic, pretty much like in every other city. Feeling a little more familiar immersed in daily routine, travellers can defy their own inner feelings with greater ease before actually landing in Iran. Despite global perception, Iranians don’t really look oppressed, and the capital appears as busy as the typical modern metropolis with all sorts of cars darting back and forth, couples strolling about hand in hand and commuters waiting for their bus.
If part of the Western media landscape indulges in detailed explanations of how oppressed Iranians are, it will probably take no more than an hour, and not much attention, to understand that the natives of the Islamic Republic, like everybody else, wake up in the morning to go to work or college, or to go shopping or any other leisurely activities they like. Similarly it won’t take long, even to the lesser informed traveller, to understand that Iranian women are not confined to the kitchen, but rather, to study and work as much as their male counterparts showing great ambition. In a nutshell, it’s easy to understand that our media’s distorted reporting is simply that – distorted reporting.
My personal epiphany involved the Iranian people in general. And obviously I’m not referring to the members of the Unified Ummah, the NGO that invited me to Iran, but to the random citizens that I had the opportunity of meeting fleetingly during the week I spent there; from the girls at the ladies’ restroom in Tehran’s Milad Tower to the street vendors at Tehran’s local markets, who never shied away from showing their curiosity about my provenance and asking my opinion on what I had seen of their country.
Conceiving of Iran requires thinking outside of the box, of being fully aware of the distorted mainstream media images often given. Despite this, I travelled somehow preoccupied, with the kind of stress that fades away only when you set foot on a new land. Nobody paid attention to my clothes, nor to my ‘foreign’ hijab. No inspector suggested I dress more appropriately, except a smiling girl that I soon found out was a police officer. “Sweetheart, that’s too short”, she hinted to me, before learning I was foreign.
Going to Iran, tourists will face an unexpected welcoming, an unbearably fascinating culture – and a population that never misses flaunting it – natives who love barraging their guests with questions about their opinions on Iran, and about their own countries’ lifestyles, hungry for cross-cultural exchange.
Iranian society is one that inevitably lures you off the beaten track, one that makes you sense those ancestral elements that you long to unearth, one that makes you beg for more at every step. If you are not impressed when spotting McDonalds in the middle of the desert or Starbucks in Shanghai’s Yu Gardens, then Iran might be the place for you. Sanctions have had the effect of encouraging the local economy, pushing Iranian companies to produce their own goods, with the obvious result of rewarding tourists with comforting authenticity instead of the run-of-the-mill KFC.
I was fortunate enough not to limit my stay to the capital and ventured to ancient villages such as Kashan and Abyaneh, dating back thousands of years. And it was precisely when wandering through the tangled streets of ancient towns that I wondered how it could be possible, in 2011, for the East and the West to still remain so unknown to each other? How is it possible that the media is capable of influencing people’s perception on countries to the extent that they prevent us from planning a holiday to undoubtedly interesting destinations?
Is Iran the perfect country? I doubt it. But then again I have never found such a place. More pointedly, a hungry media and the rhetoric of desperate politicians, promotes to the extreme the false idea of a clash of civilisations, and this is not bound to achieve anything good – not for Iran, nor for the rest of the world.
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