Friday, August 26, 2005

Tips for Journalists Visiting Iran

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.

Gender Roles:
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.

For women:
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.

For men:
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.


Hossein said...

"Government employees are required to wear chadors."
not always true.maybe in a few spots

assigned reader said...

I enjoyed (and was informed) reading your recent detailed analyses. Someday you should write a book or travelogue about contemporary Iran.

Anonymous said...

I second the previous comment here. You should seriously consider writing a book on Iran.

P.S. I still read your blog regularly and enjoy it.

ET said...

Hossein, Yes, not always true. Sometimes they just have to wear hoods and long manteaus.

This is also true of students. There are universities that require chadors and universities that do not. It all depends.

And since the government sector is so gigantic in Iran, my statement was incorrect. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

you mentioned lack of tolerence vis a vis other religions such as Buddhism. How true is that?
about Bahaism and Atheism, it is probably true.
But I've heard that even in ghom there are islamic scholars which show off their knowledge of Buddhist sutras to each other.
what is your experience of such lack of relegious tolerence?


ET said...

Fred, I did not say that there was *necessarily* intolerance, and there certainly is *not* ignorance of other religions. But the Koran does make a difference between "idolatry" and the "people of the book." Many Islamic scholars say that the idolatry (SP?)lambasted in the Koran refers to that of the bedouins, but I always wonder. That's why I say: ask.

BTW, Iran is currently cooperating on a survey to find evidence of Buddhism along the Silk Road:§ion=2

DoctorZin said...

Interesting Post.

I wish you had an RSS feed to keep up on al your posts.

On blogger that is just a simple setting change to make.

Contact me if you can.

Rosemary said...

Thank you, Doctor Zin, for introducing this site!

Dear ET,
I think it is a wonderful endevour you have undertaken here. If one or two little things may have been "misunderstood" or "not always true," it is important for us readers to realize it is better to be careful than to be rude! Especially in a different country! lol.

Great work that you have done. When I get a chance, I am going to write about it so others may come to your site. I hope that is okay, since your site may be monitored. I would not want to cause any trouble. Let me know, okay? Have a wonderful day.

ET said...

Rosemary, I am sure my site gets monitored. But so what? I am a small fish in a gigantic pond (70,000 Persian bloggers). I am not organizing anything, so I do not think it would be a problem to pass on the link.

Anonymous said...

Great post, ET

Marie said...

I have one: Don't compliment anyone on their jewelry or chachkas or anything else that they can easily remove and offer to you. They may urge you insistently to take it, and then you must refuse (which can take quite some time :)

Tori said...

If you do find it necessary to compliment someone on jewelry or clothes or tchatchkas, say "That looks great on you"

Laundress said...

Thank you for the very informative blog. My husband is Iranian and we will be traveling to Tehran for the first time this year. I've been struggling to separate the wheat from the chaff and this has been a very helpful read.