As every Iranian knows, it is an unwritten rule that when friends or relatives return from their annual visit to Iran, it is mandatory that they bring back at least one, if not all, of the following items: a large quantity of pistachios, handicraft goods, the odd carpet and, if you are lucky, the latest batch of homegrown jokes. Pistachios, of course, are perhaps the most predictable item on the list and the ones most likely to be given away.
There is, however, one thing which each visitor brings back that is never predictable. I wait for it with more anticipation than all the objects in the heavy suitcases, namely people's stories about life in Iran.
These are often a blend of colourful vignettes of the latest trends on the street, such as mobile phones, the rise of internet cafes or the latest manteau styles on the high street, mixed with rumours and hearsay which result in an apparently comprehensive analysis of the country's state of affairs. However, the pictures which emerge from each account are often so contradictory that it is difficult to judge the extent to which they can be relied upon to represent a true vision of contemporary life in Iran.
There are those, for example, who return with tales of a country which never stops partying, where everybody goes jet-skiing or mountain climbing at the weekend, where the latest Hollywood releases are on DVD and where everyone, in short, is living the high life. Such visitors would have us believe most of us are wasting our lives in the West in a never-ending cycle of work and bill payments, instead of catching the next flight to Tehran.
Until, that is, you hear the accounts of those who return with a picture of a country that is going to the dogs. In this scenario, the stories are not of a society devoted to a life of pleasure but one which is overcome with despair, of boys and girls who are constantly hounded by the “morality” police, where there is no entertainment of any description, where the nation's young are all hopeless drug addicts, where corruption is rife and the price of everything so high that without super-wealth, you may as well give up on life and stay at home.
The truth must surely lie somewhere between these two extremes – but that would be too simple. To take an artificially “balanced” point of view would be to minimize some of the more unpalatable aspects of life in Iran today (as if someone could only be a semi drug-addict) while ignoring the truth of some of the better ones.
Also, what is factually true in both scenarios does not necessarily amount to the totality of truth, even if such a thing were ever possible. That is why, ultimately, the contradictions revealed by the opposing accounts reflect mostly each individual's personal experience of their visit, which is why even the same visitor will sometimes return from different trips with a wholly different view point.
If, however, one had to decide which picture approximates more closely the everyday experience of the rest of the population, alas, one would have to admit that the more pessimistic reports are probably closer to the mark. Short or even long visits can never provide a visitor with the full extent of the drudgery of most people's lives and a month of continuous entertainment, parties hosted by relatives and freedom from the stresses of life and work back home can easily become confused in the mind of the visitor with the everyday experience of the country at large.
On the other hand, those who rage most strongly against the problems in Iran, be they social, political or economic, and vow never to set foot in the country, must also acknowledge that enough Iranians have taken the dramatic step of returning to live in this country to prove the point that, for some at least, life in Iran is preferable to life in the West and that, for them, its worst aspects can be assuaged by a mixture of compromise and sacrifice.
The fact that of those returnees, some make the journey back to the West filled with disillusion and disappointment, while others persevere with their move, only goes to show just how much personal experience dictates one's choices and views and, on a broader level, why no two people can every fully agree about the most fundamental questions of life.