By Anna Vanzan
Perhaps no other country is as misunderstood as Iran is. No matter how hard some scholars and laypeople try to offer a different perspective, Iran does scare people who never visited it. Well, let's say that the present international political situation does not help much to erase prejudices and taboos, but what about the historical past? It is most surprising that people have so many wrong ideas about Iranian history as well.
I am writing this from Iran, after talking with foreigners who have been living here for a long time and still believe that Iran officially became a Shia country under Shah Abbas I (late 16th century), while Shia had already become the state religion under the founder of the Safavid dynasty, namely Shah Ismail I, when he proclaimed himself shahanshah of Iran, in 1501.
The same can be said about the theory of "velayat e faqih" the governance of the jurist, according to which only the most learned Shia scholar can rule. The theory now implemented in Iran is commonly attributed to ayatollah Khomeini, but in reality it goes back to the Safavid times: Khomeini only put it into action.
Starting from the Safavid times many Europeans flocked to Iran in search of either commercial contracts or alliance against the Ottoman. Some of them wrote their experiences pretending to offer "the real" portrait of Iran, but they rather contributed to create a false image of the country and its inhabitants. For example, they mistook Iranian typical ta'orof (a set of kind expressions by and large exchanged between people) as a proof of Iranians' deceitfulness: according to the European travelers, Iranians were apparently kind, but interiorly deceitful. Moreover, Iranians' supposed "falseness" was associated with their religious practice: as Shia are permitted to hide their own religious identity in case of danger, this procured Iranians the charge of being two-facedness.
Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much, though globalization should have done something good in this respect. Just think about the very successful Iranian diaspora: even the ones who do not have the chance to visit Iran are likely to come to know some Iranians and see how they actually are. Not to speak of the flock of business people, diplomats, journalist and tourists who stay in Iran for a while. However, both the ones who spend in Iran just a few days (perhaps barricaded in their hotel hall!) and those who settle down in the country for quite a while, seem to carry a sort of dark glasses which prevent them to see Iranian vast range of reality.
By paraphrasing an Italian adage which says that "the worst blind is the one who does not want to see", I must sadly say that most observers of Iran are still rather blind.
About the author:
(Venice 1955) holds a Degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures (University Of
Ca' Foscari, Venice) and a Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies (New York University).
Though she is interested in the Middle East in general, her research is focused
especially on Iran, Central Asia and the sub continent (Pakistan, Afghanistan,
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