The painting : Iranian women through the ages
October 2005 , I borrowed a set of charchava and manteau from my friend Jeannie , and went to Iran .
At the time the US was already threatening sanction of Iran over the development of nuclear energy, but apart from a mass demonstration in Tehran and an occasional slogan of " Down with USA " splattered on the walls , Iran was outwardly calm .
We landed at the new 3-week old Tehran Airport and immediately met a set-back. The architects in designing the roads leading from the airport neglected to cater also for big buses and our poor driver, despite the utmost clever maneuvering , broke the side-mirror and cracked the front window of the bus on the narrow gateway .
While I'm all for equal rights to ( or better still, equal bans of ) nuclear power for all countries, I can't help but worry over the nuclear insulations these architects might build !
I found one of the first things any Iranian would impress on a visitor is (in case one doesn't know ) : they're not Arabs . Indeed the name Iran - from the Middle Persian Eran - comes from the term for Aryan (the land of the nobles) .
" So you're cousin to the Germans ?" I teased Mahmood our tourguide, and he smiled happily ; the Iranians are immensely proud of their Aryan roots.
The Arabs ended the Persian Empire in AD637 , but make up only 3% of the population today . The Islamic religion they brought in practically replaced the indigenous Zoroastrianism , with the result 99% of the Iranians are Muslims , and Iran is the only Shiite regime in the world .
Prior to my visit I was fed with details of all kinds of restriction a traveler in a fundamentalist religious country has to observe, as well as the dire consequences if caught out, so I was surprised by the secular atmosphere when I got there . A couple of days into our tour began the Ramazan , but almost all restaurants operated throughout the day, and Mahmood and our driver ate with us and never missed a meal. I don't remember mosques calling nor people stopping for prayers anytime in the day ( particularly in the shopping areas ) , and young couples are frequently seen strolling the streets hand-in hand . Mahmood said open courtship's more relaxed in the cities than in the rural areas , but there're plenty of other signs that the late Ayatollah Khomeini's grip on the country's loosening .
This is reflected most evidently in how the women fare nowadays . While the elderly matrons still swathe themselves in austere chador, the manteaus of the younger women are getting shorter and shorter, revealing blue jeans and sneakers . More and more hair's peeping out from under the headscarves, which now come in a riot of colors and designs . Women drive , receive higher education and make up 50% of the workforce . The legal marrigeble age is now 18 , versus 9 in Khomeini's days . In cases of unwanted teenage pregnancy, the mullahs would be consulted, and the young man might be made to marry the girl if both sides agree . Unlike Parkistan or Afghanistan, nobody's stoned to death for extra-marital liaison any more . Prostitution's alive and kicking but assumes a different guise to appease the Islamic sensibility . Apparently temporary marriages, in which a man can marry a woman for a limited period of time , even just one hour, in exchange for money, is permitted in Iran . I was told there're cell phone stations that men can call and put in their order for their temporary brides, but the Authorities would only admit to 2,300 cases of AIDS in the whole country .
Not surprisingly divorce rate in Iran is a whopping 70% , surpassing the 50% recorded in the US and the 37% in China .
I saw a group of young girls playing hockey in the park , and Mahmood said girls can do any sport they want , but they have to wear long sleeves and long trousers for any game performed in public view . Women can wear any style of bathing suit in the all-lady's pool (all pools are segregated anyway ) .
TV and Radio Stations are State owned but nobody pays much attention to them ; newspaper do carry articles with opposing views ( within limits ) to the Government's , but most young people get their news through the web .
Alcohol's banned and after seeing my disgusted looks after tasting the foul non-alcoholic beer , Mahmood told me many folks secretly brew wine and beer at home but would only share it with close friends and family members . He promised solumnely since now we're friends he'd let me try some of his batch next time I visit . Apparently there are "muslims" and then there are "muslims" , and the Iranian muslims by and large appear to appreciate earthly pleasures more than some others , granted , all on the hush hush .
Curiouser and couriouser , Iran is one Middle Eastern country where sex change operation is legal , and I was told Tehran abounds in trans-sexauls , but why a man would want to be a woman in a Islamic society is beyond me !
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been elected president shortly before my arrival , and nobody had a clue about him then . My biggest fear after his tough and controversial rhetorics is that if the rest of the world should decide to gang together and run Iran against the walls , as a reaction to the crisis the ultra-conservatives in the Government would take over , and the plight of the women would instantly worsen .
Iran's population has more than doubled since the revolution , 75% of the population now live in the cities and 55% are under 25 years old . Literacy is high in the cities , Iranians put high values on their children's education and I saw many "cramming schools " with huge posters featuring students they claim to have helped pass exams hung outside their doors ; but brain drain is severe in Iran : 150,000 students per year leave for higher education aboard and the majority never return.
During my surgical internship my SMO was an Iraqi, a medical officer in Sadden 's Army, sent on a 2 year training program in England . We were on a 1 in 2 roster and consequently spent a lot of time together . He was a quiet dignified man ; a conscientious , diligent doctor and a quintessential family man . He was recalled back before he finished his term when the Iran-Iraq war started . I told Mahmood about him and he sighed : " That was a senseless war between brothers ! "
Mahmood , a self proclaimed pacifist , was 18 when the Iran-Iraq war broke out . He was conscripted against his will and was put to load bullets into M16 tanks at the frontline . The weaponry of the Iranian army was a joke, bought by the late Reza Shah from the Americans : for the billions of oil-boom dollars he was given archaic outmoded left-overs of the Vietnam war , with which the Iranian soldiers were expected to fight the modern Iraqi war-machines , sold to Sadden at exorbitant prices by, you guessed it , the Americans . ( The same maneuver is being used by the US in Taiwan today , and the US under Bush is the only country in the world which rejected out right the ban on international arms sales proposed by the United Nations )
Mahmood was saved from certain death by a twist of fate . A few weeks into his tour of duty he was stung in the foot by a desert scorpion . For 3 days he ran a high fever and went in and out of consciousness , when he was finally saved by a vial of anti-venom he was too weak to be of any use so he was sent home . Mahmood was the lucky one, an estimated 500,000 people were killed on each side in the 8 year war , all because of the selfish ambition of 2 paranoid men , fearful of losing their grip on power .
Iran has the second largest storage of oil in the world , and oil at 7 litres per US dollar , is cheaper than water . Air pollution is quite bad and the Government has imposed mileage quota on the vehicles , and throughout our trip we had to stop at specific check points and had our mileage recorded .
Mahmood had been to China a couple of times and loved it . Mutual good-will between Iran and China is perhaps not surprising as trade between the 2 countries dates back 2000 years , since the days of the Silk Road . Even now there's a living Parsian Village outside Yungju town in Jiangsu province in China , built by an Iranian merchant 600 years ago and boasts a population of over 27,000 today . Its main street is called Fars, after the province located in southern Iran . I met quite a number of Chinese businessmen in Iran , and the official figure of Iran-China trade hit 9.2 billion dollars in 2005 and growing .
I developed acute laryngitis a couple of days after arriving in Iran and lost my voice completely , which persisted until the last day when we were ready to board the plane to leave . By writing in my notebook I managed to communicate reasonably well with all the people I met .
Mute Little Mermaid ( Hans Andersen's fairy tale ) reluctantly cast , the good was I was forced to listen more . My experience of Iran has been positive . The food and architecture's wonderful. The Iranians were warm, charming , surprisingly tolerant , welcoming and hospitable ; we were constantly invited to share their food , their photos and visit their homes . They were as curious about us as we were of them . I was touched by their genuine love of poetry , the pride for their culture and the fervor for their country .
If we could only differentiate between the Government and the people and put aside our prejudices , we'd find there's good in all people ,
Then we can finally and truly establish the brotherhood of man .