Debunking Perceptions (Iran Part 5)

The other day, conversing with a lawyer colleague of my husband, I was once again forcibly reminded of the trickle down effect of information, the puzzle-like nature of abridged and edited data. In truth, this is not a realization that ever escapes the periphery of my mind's eye, the knowing that what I'm reading, seeing, hearing and processing is at best a subjective and singularly limited view of any topic I choose to engage in or with.

There are two things that are true to the nature of a story, one is that there is always another side and two, that for every side we don't know about, there are another ten that are not even getting told. Keep that in mind as you read about my Iran because there is an inherent understanding I hope you are aware of every time I make that statement: it is not really my Iran. It isn't even the Iran of those who live there on a daily basis. Their in situ realities are nucleic sized bits of a complete panorama none of us, even those who get to live some experiences denied to others, ever get to see. Reality is as one can only tell it and even then, not that at all.

Feeling somewhat lighter of spirit for having re-stated what I believe to be apparent already, I'll tell you what lies at the heart of this next Iran post - misinformed perceptions.

Neither one of these two photos is mine though I wish they were. I also wish I knew to whom I could credit them to. Both came bundled in a bunch of Iran photos I received a long time ago via mail. I saved them to my files because the images were beautiful. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you either what parts of Iran they show.

Dizin mountain resort, one hour or so outside Tehran. Unknown photographer.

Before I left for Iran I got asked this question three times within the span of two weeks. One of the people doing the asking was my local librarian! Will you be bothered by the sand? I could tell my questioners all had similar visions of rolling sand dunes and the incongruity of a jumbo 747 landing in the midst of nomadic desert dwellings.

The CIA factbook says that Iran is roughly the size of Alaska geographically speaking and that its terrain shows rugged, mountainous rims; high, central basin with deserts, mountains and small, discontinuous plains along both coasts. See for yourself (above) what Iran can look like depending on the seasons and the location. I know there is sand, but so far, I haven't clapped eyes on it.

Two young women wearing mantos and hejabs walk in the city center near the baazar, Tehran. Notice the open-toed sandals of the girl on the left.

Feminine unmentionables openly displayed at the baazar in Tehran. More expensive offerings can be found in high-end malls. Obviously, there's always a need for these no matter the outerwear one is swathed in.

An older lady sporting a more conservative but light-colored manto and hejab shops at a manto shop. Manto stores can be found by the dozens in every shopping mall. There's fierce competition amongst them to keep stocked up on the newest fashions.

Photo found on the Internet. It was probably taken in Tehran where the girls are more bold in their street fashions. These three are almost borderline in what is allowed. Technically, the sleeves of the manto should cover up to the wrist and flow down to mid-thigh closer to the knee. Also the hejab or head covering should cover all but the crown of the head but, as you can see, only the lady with the red hejab is correct in how she wears hers. Having said that, most of the younger generation tend to wear their hejabs like the two girls to the left. Everyone wants to show off their highlights and hint at the length of their hair.

I think that when westerners envision how women have to dress in Iran, what the mind more commonly supplies for them is images of the burka or the chadri both of which are more common to Afghanistan or to Saudi Arabia or Yemen for example. In my two trips to Iran, I've never seen any female wearing either one. Not in Tehran or in Isfahan nor in more conservative-minded Tabriz. What is required by the government is that women who are outside their homes (as once inside the house none of these clothing restrictions apply), wear either a full length chador or an overcoat called a manto used in conjunction with a hejab or head covering.

The older generation tends to be conservative on this front. Let's say that about 80% of women above the age of 50 or 60 (that I observed), wear darker mantos and longer sleeves with darker-hued hejabs. Now the younger female generation (especially in Tehran) push the envelope on this. At malls, where young men and women go to hang out, to see and be seen, the girls could rival the rainbow in their choices of manto and hejab coloring. Not only that, but they wear fishermen length jeans (mid-calf or hemmed at the ankle) as well as open-toed sandals to show off their pedicured feet.

Here's an interesting statistic: The census of 2006 puts the total population of Iran at around 70 (though many state it could really be closer to 75) million. Of that amount, one quarter or 25 percent of the population is under the age of 15! and 70% or thereabouts is under the age of 30! What those number imply, amongst so many other (interesting) things, is that the majority of Iran's population was born after Shah Reza Pahlavi's reign and the subsequent Revolution that overthrew him; also, that they were born after the US hostage crisis and that an immense majority of the current population now in their early to mid-thirties, was literally in diapers or not yet born either when the Iran-Iraq War took place.

Little children playing out on the street, Tehran.

For my final debunked perception, I'd like to address that which ascribes a palpable not to mention visible Iranian hatred of the United States and its citizens. I suppose there is fair reason for those who have never been to Iran to imagine why a US citizen might be persona non grata there. Even I, who was a relatively small child, when the US Embassy was stormed and taken in Tehran, can recall images of the terrified-looking US hostages, blindfolded

Boof Burgers is a popular hamburger chain in Tehran. In decor they look like classic American diners. All their signs are dual language in nature.

and manacled, iconic identifiers to the start of the Iranian revolution. There's also of course all the current bad blood that flows freely between the government of the United States and the government of Iran, a matter which does nothing to help further the understanding of its peoples. Nevertheless, I can tell you the following: The West (to not say solely the US) influences Iran greatly. For example: English is openly taught at schools and universities and a western way of life (to not say an American way of life) is openly pursued and viewed as a fashionable, sometimes even preferable, way of living. Western music, western books, western foods, western cars, western styles of clothing and certain western ideals, those tangible and intangible trappings of a world outside of Iran, speak like you cannot believe to the heart of modern-day Iranians. That is not really because they idealize the United States but more because its young population has a sincere desire to catch up with the rest of the world. They don't want to be left behind and with that in mind, they do their best to circumvent the degree to which imposed restrictions deny them the right of advancement.

At almost every shop I visited in Tehran, I could ask my questions regarding wares and prices in English. Nearly always I was answered in the same language. And, rather than evidence dislike or hatred towards me because I clearly looked foreign and spoke a fair enough English that I could initially be taken for an American citizen, all I got in return for that incorrect assumption was kind curiosity and politely worded questions about my stay and reasons for travel to Iran.

To them I represented, tourism, US dollars (still a preferable monetary tender to Iranian Tomans) and the enigma and aura of the US. In one toy store in particular, the Persian owner even came out to say hello to me. He told me that five years earlier, he had quit living in Houston (couldn't make this stuff up even if I wanted to) and returned to set up a business in Tehran. A child of his still remained stateside and he told me that he had just arrived from Houston a few weeks prior after a visit to his college-aged daughter here.

All this to say, that I've never felt any fear for my person as an apparent foreigner or a probable US citizen (which I'm still not) while in Iran. Rather the contrary really, a bit like enjoying the superstar life one might say.

Lamb burgers and lamb sausage pizzas? Boof Burger
menu in Farsi.

As I have no desire to overload you, I'll stop here. I'd be great if you would ask me about perceptions you've long held about Iran which you would like to explore further. Should you have one (or more), I promise to address them to the best of my ability. Before I go, I'll leave you with this photo of a small grocery store I visited. If you enlarge the image, you will notice a ton of western products on sale. Much, much more than I'd seen sold on my first trip to Iran three years prior (or maybe I wasn't paying as much attention as I was this time). Not only did the owner speak fantastic English, but he recognized me on further visits, always bringing out the bottled orange juice I preferred for my son as well as the Halls breath mints he knew I favored. How nice is that?

You have a great day and I'll see you on the Leaping Thought Chahar Shambe (as I know your are all veritable pros on you Farsi days of the week by now, I won't clarify what day you should look to for my next post. :-)


For more and different perspectives on Iran, I point you to the following links I've gathered over time. They are blogs, news articles and just anything found on the subject of Iran. Happy reading.

- Fox News article on Iran. Part I and Part II

- The blog for Brown Book Magazine - a self-titled urban magazine and blog guide to the Middle East.

- Jadi Blog - Blogging and updating regularly from inside Iran, Jadi keeps "an eye on freedom of expression, censorship, internet filtering and..." she leaves it hanging there.

- 3 years ago, Sean Penn the actor spent a much publicized 5 days in Iran acting as a reporter for the San Francisco. Here are his own impressions of the country. Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5.

- Arash Dejkam's Iran Pages. Many great photographs categorized by regions.

- More interesting photos sponsored by the website of the Iranian Cultural & Information Center.


  1. I just learned a lot! This was a great post. And some very lovely photos.

  2. I loved looking through these photos. Thank you *so much* for the photojournalism.

  3. I love that the population is so young...it's such an opportunity for our two nations to sort of put aside the bitterness of history. Like new beginnings. Here's hoping our next administration doesn't squander the opportunity to mend.

    As a visitor, a tourist, you wore the traditional and expected female garb, but did you have to? What would have happened if you had not? Just wondering, besides coming off as a insensitive American, I mean.

  4. Your blog is a breath of fresh air. I've learned more from you in the 10 minutes I spent reading your front page than I ever did from books or media.

    I have been trying for a while now to re-learn history and am always fascinated with realizations that are a 180 degree turn from what I thought to be true. I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who thought Iran was "sandy." Ugh. I'm such a dumb American! But, I'm getting better!

  5. Questions? Questions? Okay, here is one. In this country we have a tension between secular and religious interests, but it gets played out in the media. Obviously, there is a tension in Iran as well. How does it play out? Does the media give voice to the debate or is it all limited to homes and coffee shops (or Boof Burger outlets)? I'm guessing that they don't have talk radio?
    Also, do they worry that Bush is going to attack them before his term is up?

  6. I loved this post, thank you for all the pictures and the commentary which goes so far to debunk the myths we have about Iran. It makes me want to get on a plane immediately!

  7. Half-Past Kissin' TimeJune 12, 2008 at 2:44 PM

    I would have the same question as Ron. This was good information. I didn't realize Iranians were open to Americans or our products.

    Still having trouble with your feed, even though I've switched to Google's reader. However, you are now there; hopefully any updates will be caught.

    P.S. The cookbook will be coming off the presses next week! I don't know if you caught it, but my husband lost his job (company went bankrupt) two weeks ago. He started a new one on Monday (a great opportunity, actually), but $ is tight, and I'll need to come up with about $500 to cover the difference between those pre-ordered and those not. It may take me a week or two to figure that one out, but I will not forget your cookbook once they arrive!!

  8. Mamabird: Thanks. Learn a lot from you too. Hope you never quiz me on it however.

    Slouching Mom: A little bit of what you've been missing since you left. You are very welcome.

    Cce: If only. Nevertheless, I can scent the time is ripe for all sorts of possibilities. Our President keeps hinting at those great options (wait a bit, choking on the sarcasm here) and I'm putting my money on him knowing what he's talking about.

    Seriously though, I have great hopes for Obama. Now that the Mullahs have decided to reign Ahmadinejad with Larijani as speaker of the parliament, let's hope all the inflammatory rhetoric gets toned down on that front and that over here the same takes place.

    Your question: Absolutely I was expected to. Every woman foreign or native must be covered in one fashion or another. Still, I saw some Scandinavian women and several Japanese tourists in places like Isfahan, without their head coverings and wearing hip-length shirts as their mantos. Personally, I had no desire to risk being given grief over the issue. When in Rome and all that. My token resistance was that I wore light colored coverings and my mantos had 3/4 length sleeves, not the requisite wrist length. It was also embroidered. I noticed only 2 religious police women giving me a second look while out and about. One approached me and pulled the hem of my manto down. It had ridden up on one side while walking. That was it.

    Fashion Paramedic: As for yours, I agree on all your fashion calls. You are a breath of fashion saavy air. And please don't speak of yourself in such terms. You are nothing of the sort. You just didn't know. Now you do. Someone told you something new. But remember, I'm not the best authority on anything and THAT is my caveat emptor.

    Ron: In Iran, the national media plays out nothing but the government script. The fare offered by the satellite dishes is an altogether different matter. All the California based Farsi-language channels, Voice of America and all the major news networks get their fair play in homes that can afford a satellite dish and dishes are everywhere. Openly displayed many times, rich home, middle class home, poor looking tenement style housing. They all have dishes. I've been told that every once in a blue moon, the government sends something akin to a satellite police out to comb the neighborhoods and that when that happens the dishes get taken away, confiscated, their owners mostly fined, sometimes more than that. Apparently though, for every disappeared dish, ten more sprout up to take its place. Tehran is a ginormous city, 14, 15 million people. The census isn't reliable and many say there's possibly even more than that. Can you imagine what kind of police man power might be needed to keep all those satellites in check?

    Inside the homes there is really no religious dissent. Much of the younger generation just goes about its business doing what they've been doing for ever. For the females especially that means putting on the manto and the hejab or in the more religious families, the chador. I did notice some talk on the rise of subsidized gas prices (they pay a whopping 4cents per litre of petrol or about 15 cents a gallon). That can be a veritable fortune for many and there was grumbling about that. Also rice. You don't know this but the pillar of Iranian cuisine is rice and the rising costs of this basic food staple is also occasioning a pinch that is felt in every Iranian kitchen but, returning again to the question, religion, not really that I witnessed. Islam is a way of life even when there is tepid observance of its most important aspects. Nobody really talks about what is normal. The abnormal I've already told you about.

    Suzanne, go. You are no novice to this. So much to see. Food way better than anything you ever had in Baku. No good Azeri Slut shoes (still remember that) but other compensations are right around the corner and best of all for you, if you go to Tabriz, know that it is just one plane ride's hour away from Scalini.

    HPK: Didn't gyp you. Look above. Answered plenty for both you and Ron. Honey, I don't know what to tell you about the feed. I'm about to tear my hair out here. I've decided that I will privately feed you my feed via e-mail. Every time I post, I will send it to you. On my Half Past Kissin honor. And I've already told you not to worry about the book. I'll get it when I get it. I can't wait to try out your mama's cooking though.

  9. Hi Gypsy, Thanks for your comments on my blog. It is always fun when some one new stops by {and leaves a comment} thereby I get to find their fabulous blog! I didn't have nearly as much time to spend reading through as I wanted, I will be back for more asap!

  10. Milena, thank you so much for this wonderful post. I hope one day my family will be able to visit Iran- even better if our governments were working with each other at that time... I appreciate your perspective and your willingness to share it with us!

  11. Natalie: Loving your blog. I know the feeling. I'm so appreciative when people leave comments. The dialogue that brings about is just great. I'll also go back to yours.

    Nona: I couldn't agree with you more on the thought of our governments doing more for a rapprochement. I'll drink to that. With you especially, who are in this diplomatic business, I feel especially happy that in these posts you find something of interest. I think I have one more Iran writing left in me but it might be another week in coming. This Friday I have my US citizenship test. Cross your fingers for me.

  12. Thanks for your photos and information about it.
    I'm an Iranian and took a look at my country from your point of view, and indeed, your post was interesting to me and I shared it to my Facebook.
    Thanks again!


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