Travels in the ‘Real Iran’
Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture
06.19.09 | 10:22 AM ET
Watching the shaky YouTube videos and frantic Twitter feeds filtering out of Tehran, like messages from outer space, I’m struck by how little we know about the Islamic Republic. For years now the media has dutifully reported every incremental development in the country’s nuclear program as well as the (often outrageous) statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We care about Iran, albeit in the way that a mouse cares about the neighborhood cat. You’d think we’d know it better.
Familiarity breeds contempt but not, it turns out, context. For all we hear about Iran and its nuclear program, Iran remains a mystery, as dark and opaque as the head-to-toe chadors worn by some Iranian women. Why? The easy answer is that the media fail to report on the country in a meaningful way. I’d caution against blaming journalists, though. Visas are difficult to come by and, once in Iran, journalists are kept on a tight leash by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
There are, too, less obvious impediments to figuring out Iran. I remember interviewing a young Iranian woman, her head covered in especially conservative hijab, who told me in a perfect Valley accent that she loves (just loves!) MTV. I was shocked by the incongruity of it all, the disconnect between her appearance and her words.
On another trip, I attended Friday prayers, where the crowd chanted repeatedly “Death To America,” and sounded like they meant it. I dutifully recorded each chant for an NPR news report. As the crowd was filtering out, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I spun around and found myself staring eye-to-eye (more like eye-to-chest, actually) with a huge Iranian man. Where was I from, he asked in broken English. For a moment, a long moment, I was tempted to say “Canada.” But I screwed up my courage. “I’m from America,” I said, staring at the ground and hoping he would now go away. “Oh, you American!” he exclaimed. “Welcome to Iran. We happy you are here.” And he sounded like he meant it.
So was the Death to America bit a charade? I don’t think so. He did mean death to America but not death to Americans, an often spurious distinction but one for which I was grateful at the time.
That was before the days of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. Now because some Iranians are using these technologies we think we have a clearer picture of Iran. One columnist cooed that these electronic missives offer “a genuine, unique glimpse into the real Iran.” True, social-networking sites are playing a role in the dramatic events unfolding in Tehran, but a message sent via Twitter does not represent the “Real Iran” any more or less than one sent by carrier pigeon.
Let’s not forget that a few short months ago, techno-thusiasts were equally excited about Moldova’s Twitter Revolution—a revolution that never happened.
Iranian experts (and these days anyone with a keyboard is an Iranian expert) use the day’s developments to underscore how they reveal once and for all the “Real Iran.” See, conclude these “experts,” the Real Iran has a democratic heart beating inside its dark chador-covered soul. No, counter the skeptics, the Real Iran is those thugs on the government payroll, beating women. Can they both be right?
Yes. And no. The Real Iran is much richer intellectually and culturally than most Americans believe. The Real Iran is more pro-American than we think. The Real Iran is also hostile to America and Israel and is intent on building nuclear weapons. It’s tempting to dust off that old cliché about Iran being “a land of contradictions.” That’s true of every nation. Still, Iran is especially complex. The disparity between appearances and reality is wider than in most, partly because we know so little about the place and partly because life in the Islamic Republic requires a degree of duplicity on the part of Iranians.
We travelers believe the best way to get to know the Real Iran (or Japan or Cambodia) is to go there. “Experience the Real Iran” blares an online ad for a company called Intrepid Travel. It offers a 15-day tour called “Iran Adventure,” where you can “Spend a night with a nomadic family, admire the delicate beauty of Esfahan and enter into the mysterious world of the Zoroastrians.” I’m sure it’s a fine tour, but it’s not the Real Iran any more than Colonial Williamsburg is the Real America.
When I lived in India in the 1990s, my friend Subash would always tease me whenever I mentioned my desire to see the “real India.” My unspoken assumption was that Subash, a Western-educated business consultant, did not represent the “real India” but the sadhus and snake charmers did. He had a point.
In the end, I left Delhi having never found the “real India.” There was no real India to be found. That is also the case, I’m sad to report, with Iran. The color of this revolution may be green, but Iran is painted gray. It is a deep, impenetrable gray, one that is constantly shifting hue, depending on how the light strikes it.