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Small increments
Although change is taking place, the nature of it is quite different

By Bijan Moshiri
February 25, 2004

Below is an email I recently sent to my brother from Iran. I thought your readers may find it interesting.

Babak jaan salaam,

This is my first update from Iran covering my experiences and impressions during the last ten days. Overall, coming here has been a very positive experience, but ten days are not enough for me to reach definite conclusions about Iran after fourteen years of absence. So far, I still feel like a tourist who keeps to himself and is here for only a few days, watching everything but staying detached and not becoming one with the environment.

The first few days have been interesting. Everything went smoothly at the airport and I was through in no more than ten minutes, with everyone being nice and courteous. The level of air pollution in Tehran is high, but not as high as I expected. Somehow I had imagined having problems breathing here! As it turned out, I got used to the pollution quickly, but some days are worse than others depending on the weather.

It also depends how much time I spend on the streets. The traffic in Tehran is very congested, and during the rush hour, cars moves very slowly. There are a lot of new cars on the streets compared to fourteen years ago. More than 50% of the cars are Korean (Kia etc.) or French (Peugeot or Citroen) models assembled in Iran. People here say that each month, 1,000 new cars enter the streets but none leave to provide space for the new ones. If so, then the city will become a parking lot in a short while.

Driving here is quite crazy but not without its own (unwritten) rules. Basically, cars and motorcycles (of which there are so many) drive everywhere they can, with people moving in between. The best image I can think of to describe the Tehran traffic is a field full of snakes that mingle and move in various groups and in different directions. But despite the traffic, I find that drivers use their horns a lot less than they used to. It is as if people understand each other and have learned to expect the unexpected. Nobody wants to get excited over nothing.

People here are also much more courteous and polite than I expected. Whether it is on the streets, in government offices or in shops, they are mostly easygoing and polite towards each other. This has generated tremendous respect for them in me. It is easy to be polite when you live in Vancouver where everything is in order and almost everyone can make a reasonable living. It is quite a different matter when you are living in one of the most polluted and congested cities in the world, and where most people work all day just to make ends meet.

Businesswise, there seem to be a lot of opportunities here. Most successful people here tell me that it is impossible to be successful in Iran without cheating, lying and bribing your way through. At the same time, comparatively speaking, there are not many products and services of high quality here. As one of my friends put it, Iran is quite barren and full of opportunities for someone who is willing to make a commitment. Apparently, most businesses that offer high-quality products do so until they are successful, but thereafter their standards fall sharply.

As for the TV and the media, they are almost 100% controlled by the state, and this makes most programs dull and uninteresting. However, it also reminds me of the powerful role the media play in our lives, as the picture that is painted of the world and of Iran is quite different here than it is in Canada. It serves to remind me how much of my thinking has been shaped by BBC and CNN, and how much people's thinking here is shaped by the state media.

As for the inspiration and momentum for political and social change, the picture I have in mind of Iran has changed quite a bit. When in Canada, I and many others could not wait until the country was converted to a full-fledged democracy overnight, so that we could return to live here and enjoy the benefits of both worlds.

But here I realize that although change is taking place, the nature of it is quite different. Change here is happening much more slowly, in small increments, and through the efforts of many who have to deal with their current situation and do what they can to make it a little bit better each year. This struggle probably needs a number of years before it shows results tangible in the eyes of those outside Iran.

But it occurred to me that in such circumstances, Iran more than anything needs people who are currently living abroad to come back and do what they can for the country. However most do not want to do this, and I do not blame them, but the facts are the facts. On a positive note, while working with some of the NGO's (non-governmental organization) in Tehran, I have come across Iranians who live abroad but are currently working here as volunteers.

I myself have not made up my mind about how it would feel to live here on a permanent basis and need more time to do so. So far, I have traveled to Arak, Nahavand and Kelardasht and will be leaving for Bam in about a week. I have accepted a position with an International NGO. I expect to stay there for a few weeks depending on how useful I can be, and if I can do some interesting work. I have taken some pictures during my travels which I will try to post on the net and send you the link. I will try to give you a call in the next few days.

Take care and love to all,



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