Tehran greeted me on January 3rd, 2007 around 5 am at the Tehran International Airport Mehrabad where courteous but thorough officials waved me through immigration to The Islamic Republic of Iran.
The legendary hospitality of the Orient was fully confirmed as a committee, dispatched by the Conference that I was to attend, sent at this inconvenient hour three members to greet me with a beautiful flower arrangement. I went to many Conferences in my lifetime but was never made to feel so welcome or special! This is what I call civilization at its best—especially when one realizes that I am the holder of an American passport that at the present time distinguished me as not an ideal guest.
Tehran is an enormous city of 14 million people that struck me from the onset as being very orderly. Yet, the presence of police or military personnel is very scarce. I was also struck by the honesty of the Iranians I met. One does not see many children in the streets and that is probably due to the traffic that is as unruly as the pedestrians are orderly! Perhaps, the overwhelming number of cars in a very dynamic city of that size might make it unavoidable, as well as its pollution, particularly in the South of the city that is lower than the North.
Tehran appeared to me as a dynamic and prosperous city. Like all large cities, the city is divided between the wealthy (in the North of the City) and the not so wealthy in the South of the city. Yet, contrary to let us say New York city, I did not see the dire poverty of homeless citizens curled up in carton boxes with no access to the most elementary hygiene facilities, while affluent citizens pass by without an awareness of their plight or even existence. In New York, they are just part of the decor, perhaps much as a trash can.
While Tehran might not be paradise, (and I know of no place that might be for after all we are on earth not in heaven), the citizens have some freedom that they take for granted such as: one can park one’s own car without paying for expensive and limited space parking meters, as is customary in the US, Europe and other places, not only in large cities but in small towns as well. In addition, citizens in and around Tehran are not monitored by over-zealous policemen that watch every move, just in case one might over-speed or act strangely or who knows what. If a country invests enormous amounts of money in technology it makes sense to use it in order to justify its expense. Some behavior might be more restricted in Iran, but this might be why I did not see gang-style youths that might render streets unsafe. I felt perfectly at ease walking along the streets of Tehran, in spite of the language barrier that was the main obstacle I encountered during my stay. The alphabet is particularly intimidating to a foreigner for it makes one feel illiterate.
Since I came to Tehran to attend the 25th Fadjr International Theatre Festival, I shall comment on my observations on this topic. I do not know what I was expecting but certainly not the openness granted to the plays. Overall, Iranian plays, based on the few that I saw, appeared to favor tragedies much as the Greeks—although perhaps with a morality attached to it, and certainly some rebellion of a sort. The Iranian actors impressed me by their acting abilities that showed depth. Theatre can be unforgiving to actors particularly where decor are kept to a minimum as seems to be the case in most Iranian plays. The education in Iran must be high. All the youths and adults I talked to were dynamic in intellectual pursuits, very knowledgeable in diversified subjects, nothing superficial about it. Naturally, the Persian culture has produced many outstanding scholars, and modern Iran has not forgotten its legacy.
On this short journey to Iran, and alas I was able to be introduced only to Tehran, my impression of Iran is that its citizens are strong-willed, dynamic, courteous with a great sense of hospitality yet not servile, and fatalistic in a pessimist way as opposed to the Turks who are fatalistic with an incurable optimism.
In conclusion, in my opinion the main differences between Iran, Turkey and USA are:
The Iranians are very ambitious, yet they are realistic and fatalistic in pessimism. There is an element of contradiction in their behavior between today’s aspirations and the legacy of their highly sophisticated and civilized culture.
The Turks are modest at heart and fatalistic yet optimistic.
The Americans are superficial in their ambitions with the proverbial attitude that “the ends justifies the means”.