The Iranian paradox

Travel Destinations — By on September 10, 2007 at 10:29 am

It’s often been said that Iran has pehaps the most Western-oriented society in the Middle East, albeit one that is kept under wraps by one of the more repressive governments in the region. British writer Anne Penketh got an inside look at this Iranian paradox during a recent visit to the country. She wrote about her experiences for the U.K. Independent.

We had stumbled on one of the paradoxes of Iran, which seemed to me like a curious mix of America and the Soviet Union. Behind closed doors, middle-class Iranians are dressed in the latest Western fashions, enjoy a glass of black-market wine, and watch satellite television. Yet outside they are subjected to the watchful eyes of the state’s repressive security apparatus, while women can be threatened with jail for showing too much hair under their hijab…

On the flight from London to Tehran, it had been quite a sight to see the plane transformed into a giant changing room when we touched down, as Iranian women in full make-up and skimpy clothes put on their scarves and overcoats, smiling at each other in silent complicity.

During her visit, the author also had an unexpected opportunity to behold the wonders of the Iranian city of Esfahan:

I was an accidental tourist in Esfahan. A small group of Western journalists had been invited by the government to tour Iran’s most sensitive nuclear sites. But when we arrived in Esfahan on the first leg of the tour these plans immediately began to unravel. We were informed that after an afternoon’s sightseeing, we would spend part of the next day visiting a steel plant instead of a scheduled visit to the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Needless to say we rebelled, and Jafaar, the government representative in Esfahan, became our unofficial tour guide to his home city.

I had long wanted to visit Esfahan, once the capital of Persia, but had not been prepared for such splendour. The Persians called it Nisf-e-Jahan, ” half the world”, meaning that to see it was to see 50 per cent of all the worthwhile sights on earth. The city, framed by spectacular jagged sandstone mountains, is an oasis in the desert, and is therefore surprisingly green, cut through with an elegant garden boulevard lined by plane trees.

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