Persian Perceptions

Written on 09 May 2012 by  / Published in Blog

It takes quite some sense of self-importance to feel let down by a country. Winston Churchill spoke of Britain’s admirable restrain in respecting Irish neutrality whilst contending with the advance of national socialism. A frustrated restrain clothed in disappointment.

George Bush ruefully accepted France’s abstention from the axis of the willing, scorned and bitter. Had they forgotten Normandy? Ireland it seemed had let down W.B Yeats in the autumn of 1913; “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

Four months before we were to leave home I too felt the tangible deflation borne of a nations actions. Iran, it seemed to me had let me down. I had defended our decision to choose a route crossing Iran against all comers. Instinct and past experience convinced me that a nation cannot be judged on the perceived mis-deeds of its leaders, that often such perceptions were subjectively created and propagated. I went as far as to argue, in a normative sense, the questionable moral equivalency of the nuclear non-proliferation demands. When I read of the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran my assuredness vanished in an instant.  The fundamental principle on which peace between states rests and indeed is fostered is that of diplomatic respect and safety. It is not an important ingredient or a helpful tool, it is a basic necessity and pre-requisite for any dialogue, mediation or reconciliation. I felt angry. Writing this I am aware of how self-involved such a reaction was but it was how I felt and no doubt hugely impacting on my state of mind entering Iran.

I knew then as I know now as I try and sum up my experience of a country in a few short words that my opinion, reaction or feelings are largely inconsequential. What I personally feel and try to articulate is at best a source of mild curiosity to family, friends and the few who may have stumbled upon our site. Yet I am truly anxious in expressing it. The picture I paint and how it is perceived matters to me in a way I have not felt for anywhere else we have been. I want to get it right not just to increase wider understanding but to elucidate for myself what my own convictions are.

It has now been three weeks since we crossed the border between Turkey and Iran at Bazargan. That time can be summed up in a word; people. I could tell you about Mahdi Milani, his sister Homa, brother Hahdi and parents Achmed and Fatima. I could tell you how they took us into their home for two days and treated us as if two returning siblings. No, I should write about a night in a gym owned by the Kazim, the mixed martial arts Iranian and Central Asian Heavyweight Champion. Or the following day when he unexpectedly turned up at the door of our guest house in Tehran having driven for an hour with his friend Sepihr simply to show us the city. But then I couldn’t fully explain how two paramedics cooked us dinner in a prefabricated hut having offered us refuge from a storm. You’d also never know of how a small village seemed to collectively organise a loft on which we could sleep.  

Perhaps, it was in the chance and brief meetings that the magic is best expressed. The countless pieces of fruit handed through car windows or offers of homes in which to stay, too many to feasibly accept. Maybe you would understand if you saw the faces. The indescribable but unwavering openness and welcome. When you couldn’t see the faces you still heard the shouts; ‘welcome to Tabriz’, ‘welcome Yazd’, ‘welcome in Iran’. It never felt forced or feigned. The welcome has substance and it’s consistency has been overwhelming.

Still, this is no utopia. The warmth of the people cannot prevent the chill of censorship and propaganda. The kindness cannot disguise the anti-semitism and bigotry of the state sponsored media. Crucially, a public who seem to crave peace are steeped in a climate where war is celebrated and propagated. All this to say nothing of the status of women. Better than the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Sudan but still, as dictated by the Koran, inferior in every practical sense.

It is difficult to reconcile this dichotomy in my mind, even now.  I keep returning to a single thought. Lions led by lambs. The petulance and bravado of Iran’s leaders, to me, is borne of fear. In light of past action, current rhetoric and a long history of Western self-interest the fear is not without basis. It’s manifestations, though indisputably crude and contemptible, are hysterical. All bleating and bluster, yet hollow and terrified. The people, however, who’s sons and husbands died in their thousands less than a generation ago fighting an American funded Saddam Hussein display a resilience and pride that cannot be taught or pretended. 

Iranians know how they are perceived. They have told us, again and again. Yet those we have met are determined to refute it. The generosity and happiness with which we have been met was not based on our nationality. It was displayed before we spoke. The people of Iran have encountered mistrust, defamation, and accusations of malevolence. Rather than react with bitterness and hate they wish simply to be seen as they perceive themselves. Peace-loving, welcoming and proud of their heritage. 

I am not naively suggesting that anecdotal evidence of this kind is authoritative, but nor should we naively accept the single all encompassing narrative we are fed. Accept or reject what I have expressed but do so with open eyes and treat the western media  accounts with the same skepticism and distrust. 

In a small town about 100km from Tabriz an English teacher named Eric invited us to stay in his small school. He asked us to sit in on one of his classes as his students discussed humanism, Nietzsche and the relative merits of melon juice as against the actual whole fruit. Leaving the next morning I went to thank him. He would not hear of it. He simply asked that we told people what we have seen.


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Since 2008 David Burns and Maghnus Collins have embarked upon man-powered adventures across the globe. The pair have cycled, run and kayaked for over 30,000 km in some of the most remote locations on earth.

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