The last eight days of November of 2018 will remain bright and beautiful in my memory. I had my second visit to Iran. Tehran to be specific. The first visit twelve years ago was a short 3 days visit for a Conference confined to a hotel and the conference venue with not much of an exposure. But this time it was very different.
First thing that strikes me about Tehran is that every road, alley, street corner is clean to the hilt. I am told they do midnight vacuum cleaning. But every morning at six when I often went out for a walk or later in the day during my travel across the city, including the outskirts and the busy markets, cleanliness was on the face, but without making any fuss just as an everyday routine affair. Even the extremely busy Bazaar-e-Bozorg (Grand Market) which has a few thousands visiting it every hour has no dirt, garbage, cigarette buds, plastic packets etc on the streets. Most types of plastic bags are banned. I was impressed with the cleanliness in public toilets too and in a public hospital that I had briefly seen.
Second thing that made me sit up and take a look at the city was the infra-structure. From wide roads to well marked small alleys, every destination had an English and Farsi (Persian) identity written at well designated places. The construction is largely eco-friendly, with glass walls and energy consumption attempts are all too evident, especially in the new constructions. Large bridges, huge MiladTV Tower (fourth tallest in the world), several layers of roads and flyovers which look like a concrete but well planned cobweb from the top revolving restaurant of MiladTV Tower, to smaller roads and jogging tracks and residential downtown: it is a European city in the Middle East, with decidedly a Persian atmospherics and several beautiful mosques. And, interestingly, most roads and alleys named after the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq 8-years long war which had two civilians fighting along with every army man of Iran. The Tehran Municipality has created a huge ultra modern War Museum with images, video, news paper clips, destroyed residue and what not from the war years.
Third, tradition blends with modernity. And nature adds the icing on the cake. So many exquisite mosques, several gardens (one built above an erstwhile dumping ground of garbage and you cannot tell it unless told), lakes (one created from the reprocessed sewerage waste of the city, which you cannot at all guess), one tree against every two buildings, flower gardens, large exclusively for women park-garden-gym-pool complex, and a bevy of parks for elders and children across Tehran: all of these dot the city skyline and by-lanes in equal measures. Tradition blends with modernity in the society as well. Traditional attire, food, courtesies, culture, music, family centricity, all with modern idioms, social media, Persian jazz, fusion dance, et al: it is a nation in a transition indeed.
Fourth, the comfort with which the women travel in the city is such a great relief for me to hear and see, being the father of a young lady in her 20s and with hundreds of young adult female students. The female researcher of Tehran University who took me out for a dinner meet with two top scholars of two universities of Iran at 8 in the evening dropped me at nearly 12 in the night returning alone in a cab and had this to say, “I have not faced any problem all my life as punishments for any harassment of women is very strict from lashes to imprisonment to even death penalty in extreme cases of rape or murder, and the conviction rate is high. Also, the society in general is value-oriented and shuns violence against women”. The pubs are open till midnight, but they are non-alcoholic pubs with tea, coffee, non-alcoholic beer, snacks, shisha or hookah, music and dance at times.
Fifth, education is very wide spread with 12 million graduates among 82 million people, with more than a hundred thousand doctorate degree holders, apart from nearly 5 million students studying now, according to Mehr News Agency. Every citizen has to at least complete school education and ensure education of children up to the Higher Secondary level made compulsory and it is punishable by law not to be educated, with government education being provided free and yet with reasonable quality. One can opt for an expensive private education too. Education at higher university level is competitive but largely free in public universities for those who can make the cut. The spate of privatization in education is on the rise which many citizens are resenting now. I visited a Kendriya Vidyalaya run by the Indian Embassy and found good quality of Indian and Iranian origin children there too.
Sixth, public healthcare, medical sciences research and medicinal provisions in Tehran city were impeccable. All public healthcare system is free service to citizens, 98% of total medicines of Iran are produced locally, medical research especially of Royan Institute (and University) has got more than 200 international awards and recognition with IVF, Stem Cells and Cancer research ranking one of the best 7 in the world. Private expensive healthcare for those who want special services is coming up and Iran is now the leading destination of medical tourism for the Middle East. Interestingly, Iran has given visa on arrival facility to more than a hundred nations, though India does not figure in the list as “Indian government has put a lot of restrictions on Iranian citizens getting visa to go to India”, as noted by a senior diplomat. They rue the Indian government’s approach and seem to be keen to have an open arm policy both ways.
Seventh, Iran is an Islamic State and hence, true to its ethos, there are restrictions on attire of men and women. No bare body display, even by males; and no public display of affection (there can be a rare late night exception for a couple in love bidding goodbye after a romantic evening). All women partially cover their heads, hijaab is usual, and head to feet are covered for men and women. You may have a less variety of designs and colors in the attire of the citizens, but a distinct class with character is visible in mass attire. There is discontent in a section of Iranian youths on this, and that is understandable. Our national habit of peeing against the wall is a punishable crime here, and there is no concept of urinal even for males as all have to use toilets only closing doors. Toilets have largely the desi commode as Iran was never subjugated as a colony (though under US-British influence during the Shah rule), and hence the culture of using raised Western Commodes has not caught up ever. While it is a challenge for us urban Anglicized unhealthy Indians, but squatting for toilet has apparently made an average Iranian healthier in the knees and stronger in their digestive system.
Eighth, facing a more severe regime of sanctions since the start of November 2018, Iranian currency is surely on a slide. And that is causing recession, though not yet a slump, and is killing jobs, though not yet a bloodbath in the market-place. Current unemployment rate is around 11% of the population, and growing unemployment is a cause of concern and disgruntlement too. But ingenuous Iranians are finding a way out of this as well. They have started trading in barter with the nations they are still having business with. So, Indian basmati rice against their oil imports. Half of the cash paid trade with India is in Indian currency and half in Euros. Several bilateral banks have come up, like Iran-Venezuela bank, United Commercial Bank of India in Tehran, Iran-Japan bank etc to help people do business avoiding dollars. Iranians in general understand that the US led West has been doing injustice towards them, and hence they are by and large with the government on international policy, though may have different shades of criticisms of the government on domestic issues.
Ninth, interestingly, the family as an institution is going strong and by some persons’ estimate, getting stronger in an inwardly-looking nation, called a Pariah State by the West. Along with family, social peers, engaging with technology and a lot of creative content are the other attachments of Iranian people at large. Hence, a lot of eating at home and out together with family, a lot of peers get-togethers, a lot of time on social media, and a lot of use of modern cameras and smartphones, among others, lot of consumption of even the government controlled television and radio channels, and a lot many audiences for Iranian cinema and theatre. TV-Radio is exclusive domains of the government, but newspapers digital media are largely private. Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter are officially filtered, but most Iranians have found apps and ways to get the same through VPN, Bazaar.com and Proxymaster. Interestingly, the Iranian alternative to Youtube, named Aparat, and that to Facebook, named Cooble, is doing fairly well with more than 30 million users in each, in a nation of 82 million people and 75 million handsets, almost majority of which are smartphones. And their holding company, SmartIdea, is a leading IT company of Iran today. Interestingly, the Russian social media platform, Telegram is doing fabulous, sanction or no sanction. The lady of the house calls the shots at homes which men gracefully accept and rejoice often, and would be sadly dubbed as henpecked in India. However, as is usual with an Islamic State, gay or lesbian relations are illegal, socially shunned, and hence are totally under the wraps being severely punishable.
Finally, there is neither the one extreme of a barbaric Islamic state with medieval laws and people languishing in abject poverty while the leaders regale in loathsome luxury in Iran as the West would like us to believe, nor the other extreme of a nation of all happy healthy prosperous values-driven people with no crime, no fights, no conflicts, almost a heavenly life, as the Islamic State would like us to believe. But surely there is a modern nation, with deep Islamic values, with educated and healthy people, having their own share of economic challenges due to sanctions and due to a growing decline in the socialistic welfare economy role of the State, with a semi-established democracy which interestingly has an important role of elections from local self governing bodies till the Presidency, which were not suspended even during the Iran-Iraq war days. Surely there is humility in the life and living of top leaders as we could see in the 3 roomed humble abode of the father of Islamic Revolution, Imam Ayatollah Khomeini, where he lived for the last ten years of life and died there at 92. We could see no beggar on the streets of Tehran, though Afghan refugee kids were selling flowers and memorabilia. Immigrants have put up good looking small shops at designated places and the city has come to accept them for sundry small jobs. We could see no one soliciting commercial sex, though have heard of a very few cases somewhere in lesser known alleys. We could see no fear in the eyes of the women on the streets and no fight for space as the society is respectful towards the fairer gender. We could see and feel the courtesy of every Iranian we met as Indians, and the pub-owner requesting us to sing Bollywood songs and cheered as I sang a song from Sholay on their demand. We could see them less smiling and all on work from 8 am till 4 pm of the day, but all smiles thereafter. We could see a city working hard for five days of the week, but completely enjoying the two day break of Thursday and Friday each week with family and peers, and many going to the country-side away from the din and bustle of Tehran with 12 million residents. We could see a well developed transport system with two part buses (separately for men and women), metro rail, taxi-on-call network, and men on hooded and glass-protected bikes on the streets.
I had gone on 23rd of November to Tehran as a sceptic, and have come back on the 1st of December of 2018 as an admirer of Persian culture and cuisine, Farsi people, and also appreciating the Iran government struggling to ensure social security measures for all citizens in spite of sanctions and its own internal limitations and contradictions.
The author is a noted media academic and columnist, being the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai; and former Media Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.