(Persia Digest) - Iranians tell USA TODAY reporter, Kim Hjelmgaard, that they want to make sure he gets a good impression of their country, a place that, for all its faults, Iranians still love and say is inaccurately portrayed in Western media.
I was curious to see and hear and taste my way around a country Westerners and, in particular Americans, have grown accustomed to seeing through a fear-provoking glass: U.S.-flag-burning, "Death to America" sermons, repeated threats against Israel.
Iranians, as I quickly found out, were equally interested in me and wanted to make sure that I formed a good impression of their country – a place that, for all its faults, they still loved and said was misunderstood and often inaccurately portrayed in Western media.
"Kim, I hope you will change your mind about Iran."
"Kim, how are you finding Iran? Is it what you imagined?"
"Are we Iranians as scary and evil as Trump says, Kim?"
Less than 36 hours since my arrival, questions of this kind were turning into a refrain.
"Most of us are too busy on Instagram these days to be burning American flags," a young Iranian man in my hotel said to me in a wry tone as I waited in the lobby for my translator and photographer to pick me up. He had asked why I was in Iran.
"Iran, you must remember, is not North Korea. We don’t execute people by feeding them to starving dogs," he said.
Many people would probably be surprised at just how ordinary Iran can seem.
The highways and service stations are modern. The water is drinkable. Air conditioning makes average summer temperatures of more than 100 degrees bearable. Bearded men (hipsters, not religious zealots) can be found in cafes. North American social media software is widely used, and smartphones are everywhere. Access to Western music, movies and TV shows is made possible through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, that enable Iran’s internet and app users to remain anonymous and secure online.
Unlikely as it may seem, the most popular television program in Iran for years was "Baywatch," the U.S.-produced show about the adventures of lifeguards on a beach in California. Most Hollywood movies are popular in Iran. The latest favorite TV show: "Game of Thrones."
Every now and again, the government cracks down, but it also tolerates Western media.
“Do you know the show 'Friends'?" a young artist in a Tehran cafe asked me as we watched the highlights of a World Cup soccer game in Russia that was being screened. "I really love Joey," he said, referring to the struggling Italian-American character played by Matt LeBlanc in the NBC smash-hit sitcom from the 1990s.
"He’s so funny," the artist said, noting that he watched "Friends" episodes most days.
Unlike in some of its neighboring countries, terrorism and suicide bombings are not a common occurrence in Iran. The nation is not a battlefield. Outwardly, Iran is like a cross between Istanbul and Paris.
As far as comparisons to other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles may be the most appropriate: warm summers and mild winters, mountains and deserts nearby (Tehran is missing the beach), diverse cultural and dining experiences, intolerable traffic jams and plenty of plastic surgery (Tehran is the nose job capital of the world. More on that later.).
It's nearly impossible to miss the huge portraits of the nation’s two supreme religious leaders painted on the sides of buildings and on highway overpasses. It’s a little disconcerting to constantly be confronted in Tehran and other Iranian cities by the ubiquitous images. There are also many mural tributes to Iranian “martyrs” who died in the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88, as well as various pictures and makeshift shrines to military commanders assassinated by Iran’s archenemy, Israel.
Of the two supreme leaders, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, is the more blatantly scary-looking. In the images of him, he is always scowling, one dark eyebrow intimidatingly raised.
On the other hand, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in the supreme leader’s hot seat since Khomeini’s death in 1989, looks more approachable and less menacing.
Some images of Khamenei even show the hint of a mischievous smile.
Iran hits you with other culture-shock-inducing factors and inconveniences.
For one, because of sanctions, Western bank and credit cards don’t work. That means that for foreigners, everything from hotels to emergency medical care must be paid for in cash.
I was forced to pack wads of U.S. dollars into my backpack, belt and iPhone case. This was partly because of the sanctions but also to be prepared for Iran’s ever-shifting exchange rate.
Amid the specter of the return of U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s rial currency has lost half of its value against the U.S. dollar over the past four months. The government attempted to fix the rate at 42,000 rials to one dollar in April. As of this writing, the unofficial rate is more than double this figure.
There are other rules and "red lines" that can’t be crossed. For example, "morality police" from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance make sure women cover their hair and dress in figure-obscuring clothes. Failure to do so can lead to a small fine or a prison term.
Men can’t wear shorts.
Throughout the day, the Iranians I met were unfailingly polite.
A well-known Iranian film producer I met with was so taken with his foreign guests that he spent an extremely long time showing us studio posters from the dozens of movies he had worked on over the years. These posters adorned his office walls. He explained the plots, who the main actors were, what they were doing now.
Iran’s movie industry is one of the most distinguished in world cinema.
In 2017, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the best foreign-language Oscar in Los Angeles for his drama "The Salesman," about a teacher’s wife who is sexually assaulted in their new home. Until his death in 2016, Abbas Kiarostami, declared by many critics to be the greatest Iranian movie director of all time, worked in a slow-moving, minimalist style that conveyed the humor, tenderness and everyday problems of his Iranian characters.
"Iranians used to prefer action movies and historical dramas," said Morteza Shayesteh, the producer. "However, most people today would rather watch a comedy," he said.
He paused, then added, "And what do you think of Iran, Kim?"
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