For those of you out there who may have a rather negative impression of Iran: dispel such thoughts immediately. It is difficult to imagine a more welcoming country, you are assailed by a chorus of “hello how are you” wherever you go, from gurgling infants to doddering old men, from school girls to soldiers, the welcome is always sincere. I have even had a smiling baby handed to me for a kiss without their face turning into that “you’re not my mum” state of terror. I’ve lost count, in only 2 weeks of the small acts of kindness and generosity that characterise the people here. As for its reputation for political antipathy towards the West I have yet to meet one person with a good word to say about their own government, some have even declared their love of George Bush and Tony Blair. This is a land where English football is broadcast regularly with Farsi commentary, consequently the locals usually know more about the subject than I do. Teenagers declare their devotion to Brittany Spears, despite having a government which bans even some insipid Iranian pop music that is deemed too racy for the masses.
As for Islam, it often provides little more than a cultural backdrop for the young population and for many, the restrictions imposed on music, behaviour, love and dress have just discredited aspects of the religion. Of course, the country is hardly about to turn atheist overnight with many devout Muslims, but this by no means equates to support for a government which has presided over a stagnant economy for so long. The ever present swathes of black material that cover all but the face and hands of the majority of the women in no way inhibits them from living the everyday kind of life that we would understand: they take their kids out for pizzas; surf the internet; natter into their mobile phones; drive cars; sell bus tickets and fuss over which shoes to buy in the multitude of shoe shops. Given the profusion of these shops one would imagine it as a nation of Imelda Marcos’s. One particular vision which did much to demolish any notion of an all pervasive conformity and severity imposed on women, was watching a robed and head scarfed mother hurtle down a kids slide in a playground shouting “WHEEEEEEEE” to her excited children waiting at the bottom.
Naturally, Iranians are justifiably proud of their history, bear in mind that they had developed cities, great works of art and architecture when much of the English population was cloaked in animal furs, said “ugh” a lot and hitting things with a club was considered the height of civilised behaviour. The pride in the pre-Islamic history seems one small way of showing their contempt for the current regime without the consequences that outright condemnation risks. The mosques, both old and new can rarely be dismissed however, with their hectares of patterned tiles and bands of elegant calligraphy. The pick of the bunch so far has to be the Imam Mosque in Isfahan: imagine something the size of St Pauls cathedral with every square millimetre covered in detailed tiling. The characteristic blue and turquoise predominate, giving coherency to what would otherwise be a gaudy riot of colour in some cultures. Isfahan, with its several parks, tree lined avenues and riverside has to be the greenest city in the region. Admittedly this is in sharp contrast to other cities in Iran which suffer from the decrepitude brought about by the powerful combination of poverty and rapid expansion in the latter part of the 20th century. Tehran certainly will not be winning any environmental awards unless someone decides to bulldoze the lot and plant a few million trees. Its one saving grace has to be the background of snow capped mountains that rise steeply from the outskirts to the North of the city. Iran’s obvious downside (apart from the much loathed government and the tendency for earthquakes to devastate large sections every few years) is the traffic: imagine the heaving mass at the start of a big city marathon but with cars and mopeds, all racing on a “me first” basis. The general rule of driving on the right is by no means hard and fast, it becomes almost redundant when applied to mopeds. If you ever have any plans driving there, may I suggest you hire a tank at the very least, with plenty of ammunition to dissuade the more eager road users. On one level you cannot call the motorists bad drivers, simply because it requires great skill to weave through the constantly shifting slalom of traffic, through gaps with centimetres to spare, all whilst chatting on the mobile and berating other drivers. As for pedestrians, you need an in depth knowledge of automotive vector dynamics and the realisation that you are at the bottom of the food chain. Thankfully the health system here is fairly well developed.
In the same way that English universities must have a Nelson Mandela hall, every town requires an Ayatollah Khomeini square. And, in keeping with a man of such austere tastes (his modest bungalow in the city of Qom must rate as the most humble abode of any countries’ leader) these squares are often shrines to 1980’s concrete, with half finished building works and if you are lucky, maybe some budget hi-fi/DVD shops, purveyors of the kind of entertainment that would have had him demanding the severed heads of its perpetrators – Reservoir Dogs and George Michael being two fine examples. One can’t help but sympathise with Khomeini with regards the latter. It’s easy to see why the man’s humble surroundings played well in a region characterised by corrupt leaders squandering the nations’ wealth on gilded palaces. Pity his propensity for firing squads and lashings was not equally modest.