After living here for two years, after reading countless articles about Iran, after viewing news spots and listening to radio spots about Iran, I want to offer a few quick pointers to journalists coming to Iran.
Tarof is a complicated system of manners than can make it extremely difficult for a visiting journalist to get a straight answer.
a. Iranians would rather agree to do something than to admit that they cannot help you.
b. An initial "no" or "yes" should not be taken seriously. If permission is not granted initially, keep asking. It pays to be persistent.
c. Most Iranians you meet will invite you to their homes. If you agree to go, please understand that your visit may cost them a lot of money. They might not really want you to come. It might be too expensive for them.
d. If an Iranian invites you to a party where alcohol is served, you might want to remember just how expensive that alcohol is. They may love to see you, but resent the amount that you drink. Try to show some restraint. A case of beer costs 70,000 tuman. Cheap, brand name whiskey costs 50,000 tuman. This is not cheap even for a westerner. Imagine what it means to an Iranian.
This is a kind of addendum to tarof. The biggest cliché in the world is that the Middle East is a veiled society where there is a strict dichotomy between outside and inside behavior. (I know, I know, Iran does not consider itself part of the Middle East. Is a region unto itself.) Just because it is a cliché does not mean it's not true. Please take it seriously.
a. Take everything presented to you with a shaker of salt. Take context into consideration. Ask yourself, who else is listening? Who else is observing? For example, when an anti-American speech is made on the anniversary of Iran's revolution, don't forget to mention the occasion in your reporting.
b. It's hard to get to know Iran and Iranians unless you marry into an Iranian family. Don't be fooled by appearances.
c. Go to any funeral or wedding that you get invited to. Funerals do not require invitations. Your presence at one would be welcomed.
d. Most Iranians in exile do not know anything about Iran as it is today. Don't depend on them for information unless they still have family in Iran and have traveled here in the past two years.
a. Iranians are prone to exaggeration. All Iranians.
Northern Tehran vs. the rest of Iran:
a. Take any opportunity to get out of north Tehran. Talk to people who are neither wealthy Tehranis nor fundamentalist Islamists. Find the middle ground. How big is it? I have no clue myself.
b. If possible, opt for an intercity bus when traveling out of Tehran. Talk to your fellow-travelers.
c. Don't stay in a protected bubble. Your hotel, your friends or friends of friends, and most of the people you are meeting have little to do with Iran or Iranians.
There is no one more privileged in Iran than a western woman. If you are a woman, don't pass up the opportunity to come here.
a. Do not be offended if a man does not shake your hand or look you in the eyes. Don't let it make you feel anything at all.
b. Shake hands with anyone who offers his/her hand. (For men as well)
c. Don't over dress. Iranian women expect you to push the boundaries of hijab regulations.
d. Style is key. Don't let the Islamic dress code make you look unstylish. Practice wearing a scarf before you get here. Buy a fashionable jacket that covers your ass. Look good.
e. Go to as many all-women events as you can. Try to talk to women without any men around.
a. Shake hands with all of your female colleagues and all women who offer their hands.
b. Don't be fooled by women who are demure in front of men.
More than once, I have seen reporters refer to the supposed religious tolerance of reformist clerics. When a cleric expresses his tolerant views, please ask him these questions:
a. Does this tolerance refer only to the "people of the book" or does it extend to the Bahai, Hindus, and Buddhists (to name just a few?)
b. Does tolerance refer to Muslims who convert to other religions?
c. What about aetheists?
Many Iranian women struggle to assert their own personality through their hijab. Strangely enough, style *is* a form of protest. Style, however, is a function of class. Wealthier women can afford to flaunt dress codes because they can afford to pay any fines that they might be saddled with as a result. Poorer women are more subtle because the fines would be impossible to pay and because their families commonly exert more pressure on them to conform to Islamic dress standards.
Chadors are the big black capes that women wear over their heads. Manteaus are the jackets women wear. Please keep the two separate.
Government employees are required to wear chadors. Not all of these women would choose this form of dress for themselves.