At school in 1980, a teacher asked us to imagine the world and our lives in the year 2000. I decided that by the dizzyingly distant age of 31 I wanted to have travelled to East Berlin, visited Moscow and Beijing, been to Persepolis (in what was formerly known as Persia), and lived in Japan.
While none sound groundbreaking in 2017, at that time Japan was still a difficult country for foreigners to break into. The Cold War made cities such as East Berlin, Moscow and even Beijing difficult to visit, and tourism to Persepolis was interrupted by the Iran/Iraq war. Thanks to the local travel agent, Persepolis – the last on my list – has finally been ticked off. And although 17 years overdue, the trip was well worth it.
The politics of that part of the world is, at best, complicated, and at worst nightmarish. Decades of fascination with one of the “cradles of civilisation” has seen me try keep abreast of current affairs in the region, although this is tricky with cultural bias leeching into the media. Iran had a revolution driven by religious reformists who were not Christian and so was therefore portrayed as our enemy. This was 38 years ago, and a visit to the country was eye-opening.
Often the pendulum of a country's character will swing violently one way or the other. But, given time, things even out. Persia has had a civilisation that goes back farther then the Greeks, and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is but a mere speck on its timeline. But unlike neighbouring countries – some of which are feted as our allies – I did not find a nation of teeth-gnashing religious fanatics abusing women, harassing minorities and repressing education.
Prior to my trip, responses to my going were polarised into “wow, what a fascinating destination”, and “why do you want to visit such a dangerous place?”. Propaganda over the past couple of decades has certainly damaged and warped many Australians' views of this country. None of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were from Iran, and as a Shia-majority country it is hardly going to be supporting ISIL (which views the Shia faction of Islam as infidels).
I was far safer in Iran in April 2017 than I would have been in France, for example. After decades of economic sanctions, and eight long, arduous years of war against the Western-backed Iraq (1980-88), Iran has plenty of problems internally to deal with, including droughts and pending water shortage. Also, watching neighbouring Iraq and Syria totally destabilised and torn to pieces from external meddling must have some impact on a nation's psyche.
However, not in any way expected. April 1 is Persian New Year and spring was beginning to flourish with trees budding new growth, while water gushed through Tehran's waterways from neighbouring mountains' melting snow. There were beautifully decorated sculptures of giant colourful eggs, a symbol of the new year, throughout the city. Roughly 15 million people live in Tehran, and crossing the road is a hairy experience. There was much bustle and ignoring of traffic signals, but a lack of anger or “road rage” was noticeable. Mosques we visited were breathtakingly beautiful and each designed to create a sense of serenity. The decoration was stunning, sometimes so beautiful as to be overwhelming.
Iranians are proud of their pre-Islamic past and protect historical sites and minorities, including Jews, Armenians, nomadic tribes and Zoroastrians. All have rights to practice their religions and customs protected by law. Iran has an incredibly rich and vibrant culture. There are artists and art schools, modern musicians and Iranian popular music, poets and sports, just like most other countries. The people were amazingly friendly, and quite curious about visitors. I felt welcome there, and had a sense of a people who loved colour, pleasure and were generally quite easygoing – far more civilised than portrayed here.
I could fill a tome … but instead urge anyone wanting to visit somewhere with historical sites, interesting shopping, welcoming people, rich culture and varied landscape to try Iran – while it's still possible.