Now it's been about Six months that I live in Italy. I'm here to study for my Master's, and as you might have guessed very well by now I'm from Iran.
These Six months have been full of joy and adventure for me. I have met a lot of interesting people. I have been to many beautiful places. And I've done a lot of things that I hadn't done before.
But also during these Six months - my first stay in Europe - I have experienced a lot of new feelings which some of them, I'm afraid, can not be called good ones at all.
Among these feelings - and I'm holding personal impressions to myself - one of the things that has struck me in particular is how many people here view my country. I have to admit based on the bad publicity that Iran gets in certain well-established western media and with political struggles going on all over the Middle East I didn't expect much. But still sometimes I hear things that get too much to bear.
In my conversations with newly-met people - not necessarily Italians, but from all over Europe - usually certain topics pop up times and times again. Being from a journalistic background in Iran, I figured it may do some good if I try to write down a sketch of those topics so that they may be informative to other people as well.
And hence, here we are. A typical conversation between me and a newly-met European friend:
- So it must have been pretty rough for you in Iran, eh?
- Well, kind of… depends on what you mean by "rough"?
- I mean with the current war going on and all.
- War? What war?
- Aren't you fighting Americans? And all the ISIS barbarians and stuff. Man, what you've been through!
- I'm afraid you are talking about Iraq my friend. It's IRAN not IRAQ.
- Uhhh… Uh I'm sorry, what a stupid mistake to make.
- No don't worry. It's a far away world to you anyhow.
- So these are two different countries altogether… like Italy and France?
- Yes, and the difference is far bigger than what you expect between Italy and France.
- Aha… So what is your capital city?
- And how big is it?
- Well its quite big, the biggest city in western Asia with resident population more than 8 millions.
- Is it modern? I mean what can you expect there?
- It's a metropolis. So you might expect a rather modern city, with many of the facilities and structures you see in a big European city.
- Uh I didn't know that…
- Just Google it man, you can see a lot of pictures if you're interested.
- But listen, another thing: women in Iran don't have the right to vote, right?
- Are you even serious? Of course they have. Elections are not that democratic. As about four years ago we had a series of big street protests against fraud in elections and dictatorship. But the right to vote in Iran has nothing to do with gender. Actually the percentage of female population with higher education in Iran is greater than men.
- Hmmm… You mentioned dictatorship. How totalitarian is your country? Do you have a king or something?
- That's a tough one. We do elect a parliament and a president, so in theory it's a republic and we don't have a king. The problem is that we have this supreme leader who has a say in almost everything. He may not enforce his power in all the affairs, but in theory he can. He is selected for life, and the selection process can not be called democratic.
- I see. And he is the one who forces women to cover their faces in the streets, right?
- Women in Iran don't cover their faces. We do have mandatory Hijab because aside from the legislation, a proportion of Iranians believe in traditional Islamic Laws. Again, it's not democratic. But let's get the facts straight: Hijab in Iran usually means a scarf. It's not the old traditional Arabic kind of Hijab that you think. And although most Iranians are Muslim, we are not Arabs.
- Really? So what language do you speak? You mean it's not Arabic?
- No, it's Persian. The alphabet and certain words are common, but otherwise they are two completely different languages. Like Italian and English.
- Oh interesting. Let me ask you another thing that's been on my mind. Do alcoholic drinks exist in Iran? I mean had you ever drank alcohol before you were here in Italy?
- Of course they exist, the problem is you can't buy them legally. And you can't drink them in the streets. You have to call a dealer or something. And usually in less than two hours you will get your drinks. Let's say, it's like marijuana here. And we don't have disco bars too, but really it just takes a party-going friend to take you in all those underground parties that are a lot of fun.
- It's strange. I've been watching this movie lately. You know… Argo! I got the impression that you Iranians really hate European and Americans!
- Oh man, come on! That's just Hollywood. I'm not saying none of that happened. But it was a time of revolution and turmoil and also the movie is full of absurd exaggerations, or just pure nonsense. Let me tell you something: if you want to gain some information on how life really is in Iran watching Argo, Persepolis, or No One Knows About Persian Cats is the worst way of doing it, because they are just way too much biased. If you want a more realistic take on Iran's society watch "A Separation", the film by Asghar Farhadi who happened to win an Oscar two years ago.
- OK then. Let's say that I want to travel to Iran. How safe is there really? I mean can I walk down the streets without getting stabbed or shot?
- Man! Are you even serious? It's not Wild West. Actually as far as crime and terrorism attacks are concerned Iran is quite safe. Especially big cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, etc.
- Yeah maybe, but for foreigners I mean… What I'm concerned about is how Iranians treat foreigners?
- OK, for that matter let me just quote what I have lately read in Esquire. It's from Graham Hughes, a man who has traveled to every country on earth:
"The friendliest country I went to, by a mile, was Iran. I just wasn't expecting that. I was on this overnight bus, and this little old Persian grandmother was sitting in front of me, nattering away on a mobile phone. She turned around and waved at me and gave me her phone. I didn't know what she wanted me to do with it. I said "Hello," and there was a guy on the other end, perfect English. He said that his grandmother was concerned about me-the bus gets in very early in the morning, and she's worried that you won't have anywhere to go or anything to eat, so she wants to know if she can take you home with her so she can cook you breakfast."
- Do you recommend me to travel to Iran then?
- I don't know. It's your own choice. But if you want to travel and you are worried about getting stabbed, arrested or things like that you are just being foolish.
- OK then, give me a reason why I should consider traveling to Iran?
- First and foremost Its going to be a completely different world for an European. You may travel all across the Europe, but in essence nothing changes. Traveling to Iran would be like you have interred a whole new world. Streets, buildings, people, even traffic would be completely different.
If for nothing else, just seeing the Grand Bazaar of Tehran would below your mind right away. And I'm not even mentioning the great countryside landscapes, the remains of "Persepolis" - the Great ancient Persian city which was burned down by Alexander - Countless Palaces and Mosques, Momentum of Islamic Architecture, etc etc.
- But won't I be in a lot of trouble communicating with people there. I mean because of the language and all.
- As I told you before people are notably kind toward foreigners - we even have a saying that literary says: "we care more for our guests than for ourselves". And for the language part, a good proportion of young people in big cities like Tehran can understand English.
- Oh man, your country doesn't sound as scary as I expected.
- Well friend, you know what they say… "Looks can be deceptive."
*Elias Gharib has worked as an editor and columnist for several Iranian Newspapers, mainly covering International Relations and Political Economy issues. #Medicine