Unfortunately most of the people in the world, because of massive negative propaganda run by some media corporations, consider Iran as an unfriendly country. But when people visit Iran, they see a reality which is very different from the perception created by the mainstream media. Instead they find a country which has close to 15000 years of recorded history and civilization with a very attractive literature and culture and of course with the warmest people.
Dr. Philip Price is an American tourist who came to Iran in April 1999 to see his Iranian friend Mohammad. Before that, he had visited some other countries like Italy, Mexico, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece. So he is very familiar with different people and cultures.
Now 10 years later, I had an opportunity for a friendly conversation with him about his memorable trip to Iran. I think what he has to say will be interesting for people who want to see the facts and other sides of Iran.
Dr. Price is a scientist (with a Ph.D. in physics). He lives in Berkeley and works for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
AT: Iran has near 15000 years recorded history and civilization; and because by that you can find different cultures, accents, ethnic groups, ... in Iran. Which parts of Persian culture, literature, music, handy crafts, clothing, food, families, etc, attract you the most?
Ph: Much of what I knew before the trip, or thought I knew, involved things from very long ago: I had heard of "Cyrus the Great" (as we call Kourosh), and knew that although he was a military dictator, he favored freedom of religion, and allowed conquered peoples to maintain their culture. I had some vague knowledge that the Battle of Marathon involved Persians. I knew something about Alexander the Great's conquest, and had heard of the city of Persepolis (Takt-e-Jamshid). In somewhat more recent history, I knew that Persia had made great advances in sciences, including astronomy: in college I had written a very poor history paper about "Ibn Sina", who we know as Avicenna.
But as far as the history of the last few hundred years, I knew almost nothing. I knew that Iran has some beautiful Islamic architecture, I had seen some "Persian miniature" paintings, and I know Iran is a source of beautiful carpets, but that's about all.
I was in high school during the Iranian Revolution, and the U.S. hostages at the American Embassy were in the news every night. At that time, I learned about some of the Shah's civil rights abuses, the secret police, and so on.
So, when I decided to visit my friend in Iran, pretty much everything I knew about the place was in the paragraphs above. But that was enough to make me very excited about the trip, and I read several books about Iran before I went. There were no good English-language guidebooks for Iran, or at least I couldn't find any, but I did find a rather mediocre one, and that was much better than nothing. So by the time I went, I knew that some areas of the country were very different from others. I knew that there were still nomadic tribes of sheep herders, and that part of Iran had once been known for producing great wine, and that there were places where women in colorful tribal clothing worked in the rice paddies. It all sounded very exotic and interesting. And of course I was looking forward to seeing my friend, who I hadn't seen in about eight years.
AT: You visited four vital cities with their own particular people: Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Rasht. So you are familiar enough with Persian society. How do you found Iran and Iranians?
Ph: The thing that struck me the most was that, everywhere I went, people made a point of welcoming me to their country, not "even though" I'm an American, but _because_ I'm an American. I would think that all Iranians hate all Americans and that my presence would be resented. For instance, on my web pages about Iran, I have a photo of a rice merchant in his shop. I had seen the big piles of rice through the shop window, and had my friend ask the merchant if I could come inside and take a picture. This prompted a little discussion --- who is this guy, where is he from, and so on --- and then the man asked my friend to translate: "You are very welcome here. Thank you for coming to our country." This was very typical of the comments that I got everywhere.
Considering the short time I was in Iran, I have a remarkably large number of memories of people being very kind or generous to me. For example, some guys working at a toll booth invited me to share their breakfast, which I did.
I'm afraid the major differences between American and Iran caught most of my attention, and I was less able to notice the differences between the people in one part of Iran and another. I did notice a few things. I saw that in Esfahan many women pushed their scarf far back on their head, and wore a little bit of makeup, and I might have even seen some who lightened their hair. This seemed different from the rest of the country that I saw. Also, in Esfahan I saw some people playing hockey on roller skates; that certainly didn't fit with my preconceived notions of how people would act in Iran.
People seemed a little less warm and friendly in Rasht, although that is an impression from a very short visit and I don't claim that it is true in general. Oh, and the food in Rasht was noticeably different from the food we got elsewhere; I remember one restaurant where we got many little dishes with just a few things in each: a few olives, a few nuts, and so on...very interesting.
Finally, I'll mention something that was really the only significant source of unpleasantness on my trip: my friend's insistence on paying for everything. I had a general impression of how much money my friend was earning, and I knew what we were paying to travel to different cities and to take taxis and to go to restaurants. I felt very uncomfortable that I was such a burden. In fact, here is what I said in a letter I sent to friends from Iran: "This threatens to erupt into a major hassle, since I am simply unwilling to let him continue this generosity: the trip to the Caspian cost him more than 1/3 of a month's salary, and the difficulty this will cause him is much, much greater than a similar proportion of my salary would cause me... He says that he is ecstatic to have me here, that both the culture and his personal feelings make it impossible for him to allow me to pay anything while he is my host, and that we should not discuss it anymore (I keep bringing it up). I really don't know what will happen, but something has to change. I feel like the proverbial white elephant, which is quite appropriate since the pronunciation of "Phil" means "elephant" in Farsi."
It's pretty remarkable that the worst thing about my trip is that my host was so generous that it made me very uncomfortable. Iran was a great place to visit.
AT: In 1993, you visited Italy. As you know Iran and Italy both are the most historic countries in the world. What would be the most similarities and differences between their cultures?
Ph: Both countries show great pride in their past accomplishments, and both try to preserve examples of their artistry and architecture. On the negative side, both countries seem to have some problems with government corruption and favoritism, though I am more certain of this in Italy than Iran. There are some similarities in the food. Even the architecture can be similar: Masuleh would not look out of place in the Italian hills. And both Italians and Iranians seem to have a casual feeling about how long it takes to get things done (to get a new telephone installed, or have a new appliance delivered, or whatever), so perhaps there is some similarity there, too.
One other similarity, that might also apply to other countries, is that...how can I put this...Italy is populated mostly by people who look like each other, and Iran is populated by people who look like each other. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is one of the most diverse areas of America and probably the world, I see a huge variety of people every day. My immediate boss was born in America, but his parents are Korean. His boss is from India. I have a good friend who is half black (like our President!). Every day -- literally every day --- I see, and talk with, atheists and Jews and Christians and Hindus (and occasionally Muslims, though not every day), who are white or black or Asian or mixed-race. I know there are differences between the people of Central and Northern Iran, or Southern and Northern Italy, but it's certainly my impression that in either place, most of the people you deal with each day look and talk pretty much like you do. That's not the case where I live (although it is the case many other places in America.)
And, finally, in both countries I think family groups are very important. It seems that many people in both countries live with their families even as young adults, and stay in close touch with brothers and sisters and cousins, maybe more than here in America for example.
If you hadn't asked this question I wouldn't have thought of comparing the two countries, but the more I think about it, the more similarities I see. So I guess its a good question!
Still, there are some big differences. To give just one example, Italians really love food, and put a lot of effort into making really good food; it's a big part of life for a lot of people there. Even towns just a few dozen kilometers apart sometimes have special dishes that people in other towns don't eat. The people in Bologna make Bolognese sauce, and not far away the people of Parma are famous for their ham, and so on. In Iran, it seemed that most people think of food as fuel, and I didn't see a lot of variety in food or its preparation, except that as I mentioned it seemed somewhat different in Rasht.
AT: And for the last question; after about 10 years of your trip to Iran, are you interested in visiting it again? Do you want to see Iran's development during these years?
Ph: I would absolutely _love_ to visit again. It's optimistic to think that I would be able to judge the development in the past ten years --- my time in Iran ten years ago was barely enough for me to get a hint of the place. But there is so much more to see and do there, I would definitely like to visit again someday.
Our two governments are finally talking again, so maybe it will be possible soon. I hope so.
Visit Phil Price's web site for more information about his travels and his vision.
International Freelance Journalist.
He can be reached at
English Blog: www.hellowords.wordpress.com
Persian Blog: www.universityit.blogfa.com
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