Travel abroad is great — because inevitably you get to return home. This truism is most keenly felt after taking a trip to Iran. Like no other country in the world, Iran leaves the foreign traveler with the feeling that no matter how bad home is, at least it's not like this. What is it about Iran that makes one feel this way?
Well, it is certainly not the people — for the people of Iran are some of the most generous people in the world. If you have family in Iran, you'll understand the meaning of this. From the moment you step off the plane, you will be catered to, fed, taken out, toured and pampered, until you are screaming to do something for yourself.
The level of hospitality is unfathomable. The feeling that you get is that if your relatives could take a shower and go to the bathroom for you, they would do so. Within the span of 24 hours, you will be treated more graciously than you've experienced during a lifetime in the United States. And the generosity is bottomless — it's a 24-7 all you can eat smorgasbord.
The negative side of this generosity is that it can be smothering. For the U.S. traveler, more used to doing things on her own time, in her own way, the idea that you can't pay for anything yourself or go anywhere, without a thousand offers from family members to treat you, is overwhelming.
After the third or fourth offer for lunch (that is, after eating two or three lunches), the closest thing to paradise appears to be a room in seclusion — without anything to eat or drink in sight. You won't find this in Iran, unless you end up in prison — which is indeed a possibility.
In stark contrast to the hospitality of the people are the rigorous and frightening lashings-out of the police force and religious extremism. A strand of hair is visible beneath the obligatory head veil of a woman walking in public, and a random fourteen year-old will aggressively yell, “Your hair is showing! Cover yourself!”
For those unaccustomed to this state-enforced veiling, the backlash leaves one speechless. You can't exactly tell the fourteen year-old to screw herself, as you would in New York City or Los Angeles. In Iran, you are not merely a guest, but a foreigner. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Iran, the realization of this proverb is increasingly difficult to accept.
It's 120 degrees fareignheit outside, and you want to take a hike up to the local mountain. As a woman, this will entail donning a steamy headscarf and an overcoat called a manteau, at bare minimum. Suddenly in the midst of summer, you're dressed for New York winter. Even worse, you look three times your age. The next step is to roll yourself in a body bag and be interred.
The heat is suffocating. You can barely breathe. The roosarie and manteau might as well be called the anti-fitness machine. They make one want to stay inside the house — forever. And indeed, many Iranians seem to do almost everything inside the home.
Iranians in Iran don't like to hear criticisms of their country and living situation — particularly when it comes from outside. The defensiveness is paradoxically life validating and life quenching. It is life validating because no one likes to hear others talk negatively about their home; it is life quenching because many people in Iran are unhappy and can't bring themselves to admit it.
The bulk of young adults in Iran see little hope for the future there. Talk of leaving to Canada, the United States or Europe is quotidian. Many of them were not around before the revolution to acknowledge the drastic changes or differences in lifestyle. And yet, the legacy is there. Their parents have been tortured, imprisoned and killed into silence — to the point that taking the heat with a roosarie and manteau is the least of their concerns. Getting up in the morning and breathing is just good enough sometimes.
And who are we to complain, as Americans? We fly in and after a few weeks are buzzed out of fiberglass custom doors, by virtue of foreign passports. We carry carpets, souvenirs and a few crazy stories to tell our friends. We have the luxury to leave. But they have to stay there, deal with the police and the extremists shouting commands of propriety at their heads, standing in lines for milk, and maintaining their dignity in face of everything.
The exit doors are closed for the people of Iran, unless they have the wealth or the high-powered connections to get out. Some Iranians may say that life is okay, that things are better than they used to be — but few say that they love it, or gush with joy about anything coming their way — unless they or someone they know is leaving.
In the midst of self-conciliatory remarks, the dark circles under the eyes of once beautiful women cast a shadow upon every discussion in Iran. These dark circles frame windows of sadness and nostalgia. And yet in spite of the struggle and the pain, the Iranian people have not given up on themselves or the future.
Many of their children are leading the way. The police officer that berates the person on the street sometimes gets a beating of his own. Mobs of youth are fighting back. Silences are being broken. The dangers of talking back are ever present, yet the force of the people is resurging — and some are willing to pay any price.
Because of its revolution-peppered history, Iran is one of the most difficult countries to forecast. Any sort of lip service to what the country should do for betterment appears insensitive to its revolutionary history, which includes much bloodshed and loss of life. At the same time, basic freedoms such as being able to swim in public for women, without being cordoned off, or being able to drink alcohol, to avoid the unsafe and rampant manufacturing of toxic homebrews, would be a start.
History has shown that repression does little but push the filth under ground — until the pipes bust violently at the seams, and a new enigmatic creature comes tumbling out, along with its afterbirth.