A pair of Iranian girls with their selfie stick in front of the candy-coloured Golestan Palace in Tehran.
T plus 64 - Tehran
Iran has received some sensationally bad press for many years. Labeled as part of the Axis of Evil by Bush Jr, along with North Korea and Iraq, and denounced for its hardline Islamic approach to women and civil rights, a generation of news readers have been led to believe that the country is full of AK-47 toting fanatics on the back of Toyota pickup trucks with female slaves tied up in the backseat.
Of course, the world now knows that Bush was an idiot. He was wrong about Iraq, and he was even more wrong about Iran. Even US intelligence agencies today admit that Iran wasn't on the path to manufacture nuclear weapons. Yes, they had the capability to, but so do a dozen other countries. Sabre-rattling? Look who's talking. Frankly I'd be more worried about the madman in Russia right now. And who made the US the authority on crime and punishment on nuclear policy in this region anyway? The sanctions which have cast Iran into the economic wilderness have hurt the Iranian people - 80 million of them - more than anything else. And now the world rejoices that a new "deal" has been reached, just hours ago, because they need Iran to contain the bigger and badder ISIS.
What about Iran's appalling human rights track record? Yes, it's completely unacceptable that women continue to lead oppressed lives, and that dissenters habitually disappear. But I argue that other countries like Saudi Arabia have equally horrific practices and the world doesn't seem to mind doing business with them one bit. I'm not condoning a race to the bottom here; I'm just saying that the international community has a habit of being unjustly selective when it rationalises who is most convenient to condemn.
Iran, just like any relatively nascent post-revolutionary country, is finding its way. The political power base has swung back and forth between the liberals and the conservatives, and presently resides with reformist President Rouhani, elected in 2013. It doesn't help that the executive branch's authority is somewhat hobbled by the country's Supreme Leader, technically Iran's Head of State, and the powerful cleric-dominated Guardian Council which have the final say on Iran's nuclear and foreign policies, and well as having its own private military and religious police.
Of course, we could go on and on forever about history and ethics, but more importantly, how does it feel on the ground? Well, in the 40 or so countries that I've visited, I have yet to see the same warmth shown in Iran to foreigners. People here simply go out of your way to help you, even when you don't ask for it. And if they are unable to help, they'll help you find someone who can. I have been invited to have lunch at strangers' homes, received offers to be hosted in different cities and "hello'ed" and "salam'ed" more times than I can count just walking down the street. All with no hidden agenda or expectations of any kind. Just the sincerest of intentions and the most genuine curiosity about the outside world, and what others think of their country. I have been completely humbled, and honoured, by what I have experienced in Iran.
Here's another take on the supposed religious backwater which the country is purported to be. It's Ramadan right now, when all Muslims should be fasting. So you'd expect the entire country to live or die by this Islamic principle right? Wrong. As far as I can tell, most people don't fast the entire time, although they make an effort to be discrete when consuming food and water. When I boarded a bus (with tinted windows), more than half of its passengers were eating and drinking. But most restaurants are closed during the day. When I asked a local about this and he replied that Iran is a country of contradictions. Appearances are often just that - surface-level charades to keep within societal expectations. For this reason, and the general feeling I get from people, I sense that the country is a lot less conservative than we dare to think! I'm fascinated to see how, and when, this undercurrent of liberalism will surface, and how it will interplay with the religious veneer that obviously has to be upheld.
Is there anything to see and do in Tehran? Well, if I'm honest, not too much. It has a very large and busy bazaar which controls about a third of the city's total commerce. The Golestan Palace, seat of the former Shahs is like Versailles on steroids and the Jewels Museum contains enough carats to make the contents of the Tower of London look like a child's playset.
Some photos from my walkabouts:
Some anti-USA murals on the walls of the ex-US embassy, from a different time. Now, the place is known to the locals as the fabulously named US Den of Espionage. Quite creative, I have to say.
The unabashedly gaudy Golestan Palace - mirrored tiles in all their glory.
Vivid afternoon scenes from Tehran's Bazaar.
The last rays of sunshine streaming into the carpet-section of the Tehran Bazaar.