Recently my husband and I visited Iran (pronounced ‘Ear-on’) for an 18 day immersion tour in the ‘Axis of Elegance’. We were drawn by its ancient history, and curious as to its present-day culture and lifestyle. What we found there was a treasure box. Persia is sexy, sexy because she hasn’t sold her soul to the bottom-line.
Iranians are proud of their heritage and deep-time archaeology. Its people identify as Persian, rather than as Arab. Most Iranians are Shia Muslims, not Sunni Muslims. Most of Iran today is modern, but pockets of traditional lifestyles remain. For example, tribal nomads still traverse the Zagros and Alborz mountains.
While we saw all too many shahid (martyr) images of dead boys lost in the Iraq-Iran war lining the streets, our overwhelming impression was that Iran was a country whose message to the world is Peace. As one man in a shopping mall put it: “We think all humankind are the same and we respect all and believe in dialogue between all nations”.
It is law in Iran that women must cover their head. The dress code is more liberal in Tehran and Shiraz cities than in rural areas where conservative attitudes prevail. The young women were extremely stylish with their hijab/headscarf perched delicately on their heads and wearing their manteaux (a long slim coat-dress covering arms buttocks and thighs) with low-heeled shoes.
We never saw any spazzy, sleep-deprived, ill-mannered children while in Iran. All small children were held close in the arms or within arms-length of a family member. We saw many groups of school-children, all dressed exactly the same, keen to approach us with joy and laughter.
The typical Iranian dwelling is sparsely furnished to suit the desert. It has a small altar, a TV station, white billowing curtains to amplify the breeze, Persian carpets on the floor and stout cushions to rest the back. A small oven sits on the kitchen floor, and food preparation is done beside it at ground level.
Iran has zero tolerance of alcohol and also of violence to women. We saw this at an airport where, allegedly, a woman was shoved by a man and in response she caused such a ruckus airport security bundled the offender off.
Tarouf is an Iranian form of civility. It acts as the social glue in a socially-ranked collectivist society. Experiencing and observing tarouf made me reflect on our own society’s habits. Perhaps our individualist society has too much freedom of choice? Perhaps choosing for ourselves and not the greater good isn’t always wise in the long run?
Iran has well-developed social welfare programmes ensuring everyone gets a square meal. And though a cynical view might be that a well-fed population is a compliant one, we did not encounter beggars (though we did see dirt-poor people) or rough-sleeping.
Iranian leaders are taking a firm stance against what is called ‘Westoxification’: western excesses and hubris. For example, YouTube and Vimeo are blocked in Iran.
Yet despite our obvious status as Western tourists, in my eighteen days in Iran I never once felt alone. Whenever a small space opened up around me an Iranian woman would reach in and grasp my hand to share whatever she had, mulberry fruits or fresh pistachios or dried figs or tissues (to mop up a spill), or just her ability to translate or add up the strange rial currency with millions of zeros! Never have I struck such gentle curiosity and genuine warmth, and now back home the thing I miss most is the ‘reaching in’.
Because of American-English imposed sanctions Iran has been cut off from the world trading and banking system since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. One advantage of sanctions is no imported junk. There’s no obesity from over-consumption here; Iranians are as trim as we were before McDonald’s. Because they’ve had to rely on themselves to provide all their own needs, craftsmanship and food production is alive and well.
From the tour bus window I saw in Iran a mirror of how we could do a better job: we could protect our land and environment; support children’s and women’s welfare; improve our moral courage and go to people’s aid (rather than pretend not to notice trouble); revive our manners – ‘please excuse my back’ or ‘you go first’ (and while we’re at it we could cover our beefy butts and boobs); we could emulate Persian-style hospitality and human connectivity.
Annette Rose is a registered nurse, doctor’s wife, mother & grandmother, social anthropologist, creative entrepreneur & storyteller, and in the future she wants to be an angel investor.
Read more about her journey in Iran, at times following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, on Instagram @annettewhiterose #tourofpersia
Read about the history of Islamic medicine on Corpus: The Golden Age of Islamic Medicine