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Bīstoon | Iran and Its Visitors


12 Jul 2012 23:56Comments
Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. His "Bīstoon Chronicles" appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[ Bīstoon ] Two recent encounters -- one, with a series of disturbing articles in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof about his trip through Iran, and the other with a young diplomat stationed in Tehran -- have prompted me to write something about the position of the visitor, especially of the Western variety, in Iran.

I begin with the diplomat. We caught up in a hip little Tehran café after a few years of having no news of each other. Our last meeting had been at a mutual friend's wedding.

My interest in how visitors interact with Iran -- distinct from how they view Iran -- is partly the typical curiosity of a people who belong to a culture that is complex, self-confident, and yet marginalized. We Iranians are strong consumers of the dominant, European culture. Our own country, however, has such limited representation in foreign media that sometimes there is the feeling that we cannot be understood. And so when I asked my diplomat friend how he was faring in Tehran, I was probing a mystery. A mystery I happen to have explored regularly, since part of my interest lies in my own background: I left Iran at 14, did not return for six years, and now visit only every summer. In certain respects, I am a visitor, too.

My diplomat friend is clearly frustrated. He tells me he has failed to make a deep connection with Iran. He does not have many Iranian friends and does not think he has made any headway in understanding the country. "Everyone is hospitable and everyone is interested when we meet. But it never goes deep. Either they don't let me into their lives, or I end up rejecting them because right off the bat they ask me to get them a Schengen visa!"

Along with this lack of contact, he is also experiencing an overabundance of complexity. "Listen," he stops me as I begin to talk about the hard work I think it takes to expand one's threads of communication across the lines that divide people from each other within Iran, even for me. "If you ask me if I have actually met ordinary Iranians," he says, "I wouldn't know what to say. There are so many issues and all of them are so mixed up.... Everyone I meet is some version of abnormal!"

His despair doesn't surprise me. Europeans and Americans who visit Iran briefly report about the warm hospitality of Iranians, the ease with which conversations get started. The opening piece in Kristof's series is plastered with that sentiment. It's titled "Hugs from Iran." But I also know that visitors who stay longer often talk about the inability to build on the initial warmth, to actualize it. The country is there, in plain sight and out of grasp. The final piece in Kristof's series begins to hint at this impenetrability. If you keep looking, he writes, you notice a lot of contradictions, and the contradictions are not marginal to understanding the country.

Meanwhile, my young diplomat, like many other foreigners he knows, has gradually sequestered himself in wealthy north Tehran. In his off hours, he hangs out with other expats, goes to as many parties as he can, and spends time poolside.

In his particular case, there is plenty of room for surprise. He is not a scared foreigner sent here on a mission he did not choose, you see. He happens to be an expert on the region, with a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies. He speaks Arabic fluently and spent several years living in Arab countries. He is even learning Farsi now, though none of his Iranian friends are willing to speak it with him. If he is so aware of his situation in Iran, it's because he can compare it with his life elsewhere in the Middle East, where he made lasting relationships with a large number and variety of locals.

I cannot comment on the difference in this regard between Iran and, say, Jordan with any confidence -- for that, I would have to know Jordan as well as I do Iran. I imagine the "ordinary Jordanian" to be as complex as the "ordinary Iranian" (Kristof states that his desire to engage with this fleeting subject was the main purpose of his trip).

From what I know of this region, I can guess that at least the setting in which visitors get to interact with locals has somewhat different coordinates in Iran than it does in most other Middle Eastern countries. The difference has to do with the state of white privilege in Iran. Because it was never physically colonized, Tehran never developed the type of neighborhoods, hangouts, and unwritten protocols that cater primarily to Westerners. Such spaces, in the countries where they do exist, allow visitors and a section of the local population to mix under prearranged conditions -- conditions that privilege the guest over the host. But those spaces simply do not exist in Iran. It's true that Iranians, like all Third Worlders and perhaps more than most, are fascinated by the West. It's also true that the Iranian virtue of hospitality kicks into full gear as soon as one meets a Westerner. But Americans and Europeans have no place of their own, no easy entry point, in Tehran or any other Iranian city.

By extension, Iranians also do not have a history of sustained contact with visitors. If the uninformed visitor's gaze flattens the many facets of the locals he meets, the locals by turn flatten the psyche and purpose of the visitor. The Westerner is as flat as his most ubiquitous manifestation: the TV persona. He is an object of fascination bordering on entertainment. Watch the videos Kristof has brought back from Iran and concentrate on the faces that surround him. See the smirks, hear the dismissive or singsong tones, consider the sarcasm in so many of the responses. What sort of communication or investigation is really taking place here?

Kristof has avoided what my diplomat friend has not: he has escaped the trap of north Tehran, traveled across the country, and talked to a respectably wide variety of people. But whereas my diplomat refuses to use his observations -- albeit limited -- to draw large conclusions about Iran, Kristof is rather confident of his own observations - also and certainly limited.

In a video, he asks the people of a village what they think of America. "Do they think 'Death to America' here, or do they think, oh, 'America land of freedom'?" he asks.

"This is a village," one man answers him. "If on the news they say 'Death to America,' then we also say 'Death to America.'"

This response, which packs in more self-awareness and social commentary -- as well as self-protective evasiveness -- than most of what passes for news analysis in the U.S. media, is taken, or at least presented, at face value. The villagers, Kristof reports, are susceptible to state propaganda. If they are, this man's response is not the evidence. What it does testify to is the inapplicability of bipolar questions about America to Iranians.

In the article titled "In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun," we find a familiar image. Young Iranians drinking, having sex, and talking about leaving the country. It's an accurate image of a considerable portion of Iranian youth -- and it's incomplete. Most importantly, it's an image, a surface, not a description of undercurrents. It does not, for example, tell us about the intersection, in specific groups and individuals, of pleasure seeking with religious feelings, economic opportunity, or familial relations. What are the boundaries to the personal freedoms these young people seek? What price are they willing to pay for them? Kristof may be aware of such questions, but the data he gathers does not let him couple surface with depth. This is how the piece ends:

I think of a young man I met who said wistfully: "It's normal for a boy and a girl to want to hang out together. What's wrong with that?" The romantics are on our side and far outnumber the fanatics. We should bet on them, not bombs, as agents of change.

I won't ask who is meant by "we" and what side exactly is "our side," especially when the Times has gone the extra distance and translated each of these articles into Farsi. But I am curious as to what is meant by "change" here. The implication seems to be that the fun-loving tendency on the rise in Iran is a dynamic force toward a Western type of democracy. By that account, Latin America should have achieved universal democracy at least half a century ago. If, on the other hand, change is supposed to mean a move away from religious observance, then are we to assume the most pernicious and widespread political cliché of the last decade -- the idea that any clash between the West and the Mideast, and by extension within Iran itself, is a matter of reason and moderation meeting fanatical unreason?

In the above example, the oversimplification that stems from confusing surface with undercurrent is lighthearted. But in another piece, on the role of the recent economic sanctions and the hardships they impose on Iranians, things get more serious:

I regret this suffering, and let's be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials. I'm also appalled that the West blocks sales of airline parts, thus risking crashes of civilian aircraft.

Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favor sanctions because I don't see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.

The mismatch between the two neighboring paragraphs can be fixed grammatically: Kristof has not seen the sanctions working, which implies observing change in political undercurrents; what he has seen is the sanctions at work: shuttered factories, rising prices, unhappy people. What's more, the surface and depth here belong to two different bodies: the former to public opinion, the latter to the elite political strata.

Why are these problems of investigation and representation important? Can they be solved by leaving Iran to Iranians to write about and giving up on the whole damn mess altogether?

No. First, because an Iranian writing for the Western media market is prone to the same demands, shaped by political powers, that force him to abandon complexity and stick to the prevailing assumptions.

The second reason is even more immediate. Iran, like almost all developing countries, is in a tight spot, sanctions or no sanctions. Isolation and lack of understanding are mainstays of this tight corner. And for better or worse, Western nations have a role in the future of Iran, if only through the cultural and economic force they exert on the rest of the world, to say nothing of brute military power. In this context, understanding becomes essential. I'm specifically talking about understanding between nations, and not between governments. The more Iran is observed and understood, the better -- so long as the visitors take Kristof's excellent advice from the final piece in his series and use "a dollop of humility and nuance" when they reach the stage of analysis.

People like Kristof and my young diplomat are people of dearly needed good intentions. Beyond good intentions, they have the talent and willingness to engage Iran intimately. I imagine that there is one clear way to avoid both overconfidence and despair in this engagement, the terms of which are neither easy nor clear. The way is to go in not merely as observers, but as conductors of serious work between cultures, the type of work that over time brings out the many facets of a country in the grip of rapid transformation. Whoever steps down this path should be ready to carry his or her investigations out over an extended period and in cooperation with people active on the ground. At the same time, he or she should resist the demands of the media market for easy explanations that cater to bipolar questions. There is no "us" and "them" in this dialogue. Only publics that have to emerge informed out of a mess of confused political rhetoric.

Photo via Flickr.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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