Iran 1 - See no evil

See no evil in Axis of Evil: Prior to my trip I had heard a lot of positive things about Iran from other travelers, but still expected difficulties and some problems. After all, we were three foreigners who didn't speak the language traveling in a supposedly conservative Muslim country. Three weeks in Iran, and we experienced ZERO problems. After my bad experience in Kyrgyzstan, I was a bit nervous about anyone in uniform. I'm glad to report in Iran, everyone in authority - custom officials, airport staff, police, guards - were very nice to us.  Ordinary people went out of their way to help us because we were foreigners. In countries with established tourism, such as Egypt and Turkey, there were plenty of touts and scammers who made a living ripping off tourists. They appeared to be friendly but in the end they just wanted money from you. Since Iran sees very few tourists, everyone who came up to talk to us was just friendly and curious. Iranians are genuinely happy to see tourists, however few there may be. It's amazing how many people in Iran speak fluent English. Some of the sample questions were: Why do you come to Iran instead of the Bahamas for vacation? How do you like George Bush? How do you like Iran? Do you really think the US will attack Iraq soon? Wade was usually stuck answering all the political questions, while Amalia and I watched in amusement as he desperately tried to distance himself from Bush.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:42 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 2 - Beloved Leaders

NOT! People openly criticize the ruling mullahs, and they are not just doing that in the privacy of their homes. I've heard taxi drivers, and random people who came up to us on the street complain about the repression, corruption, state of economy, morals police and women's dress code. A female friend of mine apologized that I, as a tourist, had to put up with hejab in Iran. I said things might change pretty quick in Iran, maybe when I come back in five years, none of us will have to cover our hair. She thought that was crazy talk. I asked how old the supreme leader was. She said :" 64, and he is very healthy." She answered my second question before I asked it. For some reason I thought mullahs were like Catholic priests who never get married. A taxi driver set me straight. I quote his words: " Four wives on the book, hundreds off the book." Holy Cow! No wonder they pray so much - to get rid of the sin. I think he was referring specifically to the ruling mullahs, not all mullahs, as it is extremely expensive to keep four wives let alone hundreds.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:40 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 3 - Women

Iranian women are among the best educated in the ME. Over 50% of the university students are women. They hold high tech jobs, run magazines and newspapers. There are even a few women in the parliament. I noticed that about half of the airport staff and bank employees are women. If you can look past the dress code, Iranian women fair a lot better than their counter parts in other ME countries. In Tehran during rush hours, you can see plenty of women carrying suitcases as they go to and from work.

Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:39 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 4 - Dress Code

Perhaps the most dominant image of Iran in most foreigners' minds is women clad in black chadors. Before I left home, I asked Sherry, my Iranian coworker, and got a realistic idea of what women are really wearing these days. Iran is the only country I know of that requires all women to wear hejab. Even in more conservative Saudi Arabia, there is no law that says non-Muslim women have to cover their hair, although if you don't, you are likely to get harassed by the matawwayeen. In Iran, foreigners are required to cover their hair, but no one really cares how you wear your scarf as long as you have one on. Most women in Northern Tehran - the trendy part of the town - wear designer manteaus, jeans or pants and high heel shoes. They wear their roosaris (scarves in Farsi) as far back as possible, just short of taking them off. The manteaus and roosaris are of various colors in addition to black, still the most predominant color. The young Iranians also wear a lot of make up and usually carry trendy name-brand purses. They would not look out of place in any cities in America. I actually think the roosaris give them a classy look. People make such a big deal about the dress code in Iran while it really isn't. I didn't like wearing a roosari either but I learned to tolerate it. When it got cold and windy I was actually glad to have one on. I can see it being a bigger issue in the summer, though. If you want to visit Iran but are concerned about the roosari, come in the winter. I brought a silk scarf with me. It was kind of slippery and needed constant adjustment. By the end of the first day, I bought a magnae - a square piece of cloth folded into a triangle. One of the triangle sides is sewn together leaving an opening for the head. You poke your head through the hole and flip the rest behind. Voila, I didn't have to fiddle with my scarf anymore. This was not just my problem. Iranian women were constantly adjusting their hair, roosaris, magnae, and mostly chadors. Men wore the same clothes as Americans. Jackets and jeans were most common. No shorts or short sleeve shirts, though.

Granny scarves: I found the following on the internet and I couldn't have described it any better. Too bad I lost the link to the original site. "The foreigner women dress in basically two styles - modified western style and Iranian style. The first style usually means an oversized shirt untucked and loose pants. I never like the look of it. They look like they just rolled out of bed in their boyfriend/husbands' pajamas. The second are people who finally gave up the western clothes and dress the way the locals do. Why invent something when Iranians have been perfecting their hejab for hundreds of years. You can spot foreigners from miles away by the way they wear their scarves - granny scarves covering curlers."

Roosari or Magnae: I stayed at my friend's house for five days when I was in Tehran. Every morning before we left the house, we got into this 5-minute heated discussion about whether I should wear a roosari or a magnae. I wanted to wear my magnae because it's easy to manage. She insisted that I should try her roosari (I was already wearing her manteau). I did give in one day and had to constantly adjust it. The next day I told her no way, I was going back to my magnae. We got into the same conversation all over again. I threatened (jokingly) that I was going to run out on the street without the magnae or the roosari if she and her friends didn't leave me alone. They teased me the whole way to the movie theater saying that I looked more devout than most women in Northern Tehran.

There seem to be two classes in Iran: the roosari class - the educated, westernized, English speaking, non-religious, middle to upper class, and the magnae, or the chador class - the uneducated, poor, and religious. The educated and non-religious class constitutes about 10-20% of the population and most of them live in Nothern Tehran and other big cities. The poor and the religious mostly live in villages and small towns. During the Shah period, the rich and educated ruled the country and they were the ones who benefited from the system while the majority of the Iranians remained poor. Even though the Shah( both father and son) pushed for roads, hospitals and schools for the masses, people in the lower class felt the upper-class were raking in all the money while they were left behind. At one point, Reza Shah, the father, banned chador, a policy welcomed by the educated and westernized women, but frightened the conservative and religious. Many conservative women refused to leave their houses. The tide changed in 1979 when Khomeini, supported mostly by the poor and the religious, took over Iran. Now, it's the elite who feel they are being repressed.

Chador: It means 'tent' in Farsi. It is made of a rectangular piece of cloth without buttons, zippers or velcros. To keep it from flapping all over the place, you have to hold both sides in either with your teeth or hands. If you didn't grow up wearing one, you'll probably find it impossible to manage. I once stepped on a woman's chador and almost pulled it off her head as she was getting off the bus in front of me. Oops! I wanted to get one as a souvenir, not to wear, so I asked the guide where I could get one. He said I needed to go to a tailor shop and have it measured and tailor made. What? I thought it was just a piece of cloth. Not like it needed to be form fitting or anything. Wade, Amalia and I all thought the guide didn't know what he was talking about, so we asked the female receptionist at the hotel and she said the same thing. Hummm... Amalia and I were really curious, so we specifically went to the chador section of the bazaar and saw people buy fabrics and have them made into chadors. The cheaper fabrics were just plain black cotton, the more expensive ones had intricate designs and patterns in them. I guess it's like K-Mart chador vs. Versace chador. Over 80% of the women in Esfahan wear chadors, while less than 10% in Tehran do. Iran has no shortages of beautiful women. It's hard to convey femininity in a tent-like garment, but they manage that just fine - they've perfected chador wearing to an art. It's a treat to watch Iranian women flow through the streets with grace and style, almost like opera singers on stage.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:38 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 5 - Transportation

Iran is surprisingly easy to travel in. Iran Air flies to all major cities and is reliable and efficient. The bus system is extensive and organized. Roads are in pretty good condition. We didn't try the train, but we were told it works pretty well too. Most of the street names are sign-posted in both Farsi and English, a legacy from the Shah era. Navigating is totally easy.

Local Buses: Men and women ride separately; men in the front, women in the back. Even families going out together have to ride separately. There is a barrier in the middle of the bus. No gender mix here. I've routinely seen the front of the bus cramped with men, but the back only had a few female passengers, or the situation could be reversed. At main bus stations, you buy tickets from ticket booths, not from the driver. At bus stops, men pay the driver, women pay the ticket collector, usually an old man sitting in the back of the bus close to the barrier. If there is no ticket collector, women pay the driver ONLY if he steps to the door. Of course it's too much of a hassle for the driver to get up and go to the door at every stop, that's why he only does it at a few main stops where most people get on and off. Most Iranians are honest, thus the system works well here. Before you jump on the separation issue and equate it to the US bus system in the 50's when blacks rode in the back and had to stand up if a white person wanted a seat, let me just say I don't like the bus rules here either, but I don't see it as a discrimination issue. Here, men and women get the same level of service. Men can only ride in the front of the bus period regardless how crowded it is. All three of us assumed the bus system was imposed on people by the religious fanatics hell bent on separating women from men in all public places, until my friend told me NOT SO. Up until four years ago, men and women rode together. The government separated the riders at the request of women because they were complaining about harassment on local buses.

Men and women ride together on long distance buses, metros, trains, and planes.

Shared Taxis (Savari): They cost a lot less than regular taxis and travel on set routes along major streets. You need to know not only the name of your destination, but also the exact route to get there, and you need to convey that to the driver in Farsi. You wait at a major intersection or "meidun", and shout your destination, usually the name of the cross street, to the driver. If he goes there, he'll let you in. Otherwise, he'll speed away and you'll try the next one. It usually takes two or three savaris to get to your destination. The word thank you (merci or khali memnon) signals the driver to let you off. Shiraz was the only place I felt comfortable taking savaris because the major street that runs across town is wide, obvious and straight and it's called Zand, totally easy to say. One day I took a savari to go to the Eram Garden. There were three people in the back, so I took the front passenger seat. When we got to the garden, everyone else had already gotten off. It was just the driver and me. I handed him a 500 Rial bill. Instead of taking the money, he reached over and grabbed my thigh. What a jerk. I threw the bill in his lap, got out of the car and slammed the door behind me. Lesson learned: NEVER TAKE THE FRONT SEAT if you are woman traveling alone.

Crossing the street: Crossing the street is quite scary here. You boldly step into the traffic and have faith that cars will stop for you. The first couple of days I hesitated at the curb when Amalia and Wade crossed the street just like the locals. Amalia said the traffic in Madrid is almost as bad. When I was on my own, I usually waited until someone else also wanted to cross the street and followed closely behind. Once I followed a fat lady in a chador with a kid. They stepped bravely in front of cars. I hesitated for half a second, long enough for a car to cut right between me and the fat lady. I was left behind in the middle of the street by a fat lady with a kid! I crossed the street alright, but it definitely gave me a bigger adrenaline rush than climbing. :)

Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:37 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 6 - Money

It seemed that every block in downtown had at least two banks. There is no black market here since banks offer the same rate. I hated to exchange money on the street or from some dodgy exchange office. In Iran you can exchange money easily and safely in a bank. The exchange rate is 8000 Iranian rials to a dollar. The largest bill is worth about US $1.25. A single $100 bill turns into a stack of rial notes one inch high. I had to use all four of my jean pockets to carry them all. Iran is no doubt the cheapest ME country to travel in. A 3-course meal in a nice restaurant costs about $3. Casual meals or fast food costs about a $1. Mid-range hotels cost about $20 per night. A bus ride within the city is about 3 cents. A magnae is about $1.50. A watermelon is about 50 cents each. Gas is 7 cents per liter, diesel is even cheaper. Domestic plane tickets are about $15 one way.

Embargo No golden arches or any American companies here because of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US. Coca-Cola can be found in a few stores only. The label on the bottle says it is bottled in Mashad, Iran. I'm curious to know how Coca-Cola got around the embargo. Alcohol is prohibited but I think you can find it if you know where to look. None of us drink alcohol, so it wasn't a problem. Credit cards issued by US banks are useless here. Iran's economy is mostly based on cash; most places don't take credit cards anyway. The well-connected carpet dealers are the exception to this rule. They usually have agreements with banks in Dubai and can accept all major credit cards.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:36 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 7 - Propaganda

Except at the former US embassy, I didn't see any "Death to America" messages on billboards or in the paper. Trust me, I looked and looked. People were being extra nice to us once they found out we were Americans. It seems that Iranians are quite capable of separating the people from the government. I wish more Americans could do the same. I saw 2 daily English papers here. The international sections were filled with articles criticizing the US. But hey, when was the last time you read anything positive about Iran in a US newspaper? The Iranian president Khatami is a reformist supported by the majority of the people. There is going to be some big changes in Iran in the next few years.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:35 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah

Iran 8 - TV

There are at least two all-day religious channels. If you want to know what religious channels are like in Iran, just replace Pat Robertson with a mullah. Both of them make about the same amount of sense to me. You never see women on religious channels.

The other three or four channels have mixed contents. About half of all programs are sporting events, primarily soccer and wrestling(boring). Occasionally they show men's basketball, volleyball, skiing, and swimming. You are not going to see female swimmers on Iran TV any time soon. There are two TV series, both with really bad acting, although I was told that the acting isn't that bad if I could understand Farsi. News programs are usually co-anchored by a man and a woman. Of course the female anchor has to wear hejab. It might look funny, but I'd rather see women on TV with a coat and a magnae then no women at all. They show a couple of American TV series dubbed in Farsi: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Little House on the Prairie. It quickly became apparent why these two programs were OKed by the Iranian government: most women back then wore bonnets. :)

Religious programs: old bearded men talking about the Qur'an, intermittent with scenes of flowers, trees, rivers and mountains. Tacky.
Soccer: whole bunch of men kicking a ball back and forth for hours.
Wrestling: sweaty men groping each other.

Seven channels with nothing on. Iranian TV can be summed up in one word - BORING.
Posted by Linda on Oct 05, 2003 12:34 PM : 8 Syaaban 1424 Hijriah
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