New Internationalist

Iran. Hear us - not our government!

July 2006

In January this year, Iran resumed nuclear research and development. Iran’s Government explains that this will help the country provide more energy for its 70 million people. But although Iran has not violated its Nonproliferation Treaty commitments, its nuclear development has also included enrichment – an achievement that Iran’s critics point out could now be used in the production of nuclear weapons. The confrontational tone of Iran’s recently elected President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – including suggestions that Israel should be bombed – has further stirred suspicions that the country’s nuclear ambitions are not entirely peaceful. These events are providing the US Government with ammunition to cast Iran as a hostile Muslim country whose aggression urgently needs to be addressed by the UN and the international community. So when English photojournalist Jeremy Curl visited Iran earlier this year, he was surprised by the warm welcome he received. From the capital Tehran, through the cities and into the rural provinces – even in a police cell after being accused of spying – he found some of ‘the friendliest people I’ve ever met’. He introduces just a few of them here.

The savari (taxi driver) – a Kurdish man who drove a taxi to make ends meet – smuggles English breakfast tea in the boot of his car. Proud of his knowledge of English, he attempted to count to six million during our three-hour drive. As a Kurd, he is fiercely opposed to the oppression of his people by the Iranian Government. Some Iranians believe that power will slowly devolve from the Government over time. Others, including my taxi driver, think that if the Government continues to take its people for granted, reprisals will take place in the not-too-distant future.

The farmers of Averbaijan province in northern Iran. This very squalid and lonely village in the shadow of the volcano Tacht-e-Soloman (a little of which is seen in the reflection of the mirror) has agriculture as the sole source of income. In most rural areas the inhabitants are conservative and obey the religious law. But this village was so small (with only a handful of locals) that the girl in the picture is not wearing a headscarf: a crime punishable elsewhere by beating. As a man, approaching women everywhere in Iran proved very difficult, but less so here.

An admirer of Hitler. His father was a colonel in the Iranian army. After talking to him at length, I discovered that he knew very little of German history and the implications of being a Nazi sympathiser. He believed in the importance of strength and the belief in one’s convictions, but had found it in the wrong man. Like most Iranians, he wants his country to develop nuclear power – not to bomb adversaries but to provide self-sufficiency and technological achievement.

The first telephonist. An elderly couple from the old town in the city of Yazd in central Iran. Their mud-brick house was 800 years old and needed constant repairs. He was the first telephone operator in the country when Iran first invested in telecommunications under the Shah’s rule. Iran’s infrastructure is excellent and no expense is spared on its roads, railways and telephone system, funded by the country’s oil exports. However, he tells me that the people see little actual money. He finds himself humble but comfortable: ‘It is the way.’

The tea-drinking Kurds. Tea forms the very lifeblood of Iranian life, and I spent many hours drinking tea chatting with others to escape the hot sun. I had tea with these two Kurdish men in the mountains bordering neighbouring Iraq, where they had fled during the 1990s to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime. One – who had spent a summer as an illegal immigrant in London selling cigarettes – was worried that other countries would see Iran as a dangerous and harmful ‘terrorist’ country in US President Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

The woman in the tourist office in the city of Shiraz in southern Iran. Most of the tourists are Iranian. As an educated woman she can find work easily, but the prospects of promotion are slim. She was very proud of Iran’s long history and asked if their history is taught in schools in Britain: ‘It is important to understand other civilizations as well as your own. History has taught us that.’

Soldiers and cells. This picture was taken just before I was arrested on the Iran-Iraq border, and accused of being a British spy. The soldiers were both hospitable and nice, but felt they had to follow protocol so they kept me for a day in a cell. Foreigners are unheard of in this remote region so the guards chatted about English Premier League football (about which I know nothing). But there also seemed to be other forces at work: a deep-rooted suspicion of foreigners amongst the official ranks of the army and police.

This column was published in the July 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 391

New Internationalist Magazine issue 391
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