Iran has two very wildly diverging reputations in the world.
To the Western powers and its media, Iran is the enemy. A state sponsor of organisations deemed terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel. Located smack in the center of the Middle East, stoking up conflicts, secretive with nuclear ambitions. Anti-women, forcing all of them (whether local or foreigner) to wear a hijab, enforcing gender segregation. A theocratic regime enforcing Islamic principles on all its people regardless of religion, with “religious police” running around.
To virtually any traveller you meet, Iran is the nicest country in the world, hoping to break free. The sights are beautiful, the country safe, and the locals keen to counter the ridiculous claim that they’re terrorists: in welcoming foreigners with legendary friendliness, helpfulness, and hospitality far beyond what you’ve ever encountered elsewhere; in the youth pushing the limits of Islamic dress and straining against the theocracy, partaking in banned social mores (drinks, drugs, sex) behind closed doors; in the wishes for reform and aspirations to be friendly to the West.
And so, my first impression was confusing.
I had a rough entry into Iran. Being quoted an incorrect exchange rate beforehand led me to baselessly accuse some well-intentioned people of being dishonest. That’s all on me. But I also met several bad people who genuinely cheated me out of money — from a money changer to a taxi driver at the border to a refreshments stall in Mashhad. The currency is confusing: 1 USD is roughly 36000 rials, but people usually talk in tomans. 1 USD is 3600 tomans, or simply “36” in parlance. Simply put, some people saw my confusion, borne from exhaustion rushing through Turkmenistan, and took advantage of that.
And yet at the same time, I saw the depths of hospitality others went through.
Crossing the border was like flicking a light switch: I could no longer communicate. All the Cyrillic (Russian language) and Latin letters (Turkic languages) were gone, replaced by Persian, written in the Arabic alphabet, a rather difficult script I had yet to understand and still don’t. The only things I could understand verbally were random word cognates that Hindi (a language I am sadly beginning to forget) borrowed from Persian, which is pretty useless without knowing sentence structure. I was no longer able to talk to people in Russian either, and at least around Mashhad, I found virtually no one able to speak English.
(There’s other stuff too: turning the clock back an hour and a half meant the sun was now setting before 4 pm instead of after 5:30. The streets are more narrow, traffic is chaos, but there’s more life in the city and everything feels more modern. Everyone looks completely different (Persian versus Turkic), both in terms of facial features and manners of dress, as all women were veiled. And most difficult of all, in a place where international sanctions mean I can’t withdraw money at all, while prices are still cheap compared to the West, transport, food, and accommodation are still much more expensive than in Central Asia.)
I met Armin and his wife Elohim on the bus from Dargaz to Mashhad. Noticing my hunger after basically fasting all day trying to get across the border in time, they showered me with snacks, and we had a fun conversation for hours using offline Google Translate. But upon realising that I had absolutely nothing arranged for me in Mashhad, and sharing that information with “Mrs. Mohammedi”, the passenger sitting behind them that they didn’t know, an insanely large series of phone calls to friends and relatives led them to send me off upon arrival in Mashhad with a friendly taxi driver, Reza, who proceeded to treat me to dinner, help me exchange money at a fair rate, and hook me up with a cheap, central, and incredibly nice hotel I’d never have found to stay at. And then the next day, the owners of that hotel then proceeded to treat me to a homecooked lunch and ceaselessly offered me fruit! None of these people spoke any English, and had no obligation to go so far out of their way for a stranger like me, and yet they were all deeply caring, friendly, and just genuinely happy to accommodate. It’s incredibly moving.
But then… the next day, my impressions flung the other way again.
The first thing I saw in daylight in Mashhad was a gathering of black-clad people, chanting “Marg bar Amrika!” and marching down the streets, being the center of attention. They were all waving flags and banners with something written in Persian, and “Down with USA” in English. Seniors, adults, teens, children. What initially looked like a small group turned out to be thousands once I rounded the corner, finding the main streets closed with police escorts.
This was one of those infamous “Death to America” protests (the direct translation of the Persian phrase used) you’ve no doubt heard about from the news.
Amidst the carnival atmosphere, with probably a hundred smiling selfies happening every second, I saw an American flag being stomped on and burnt by teenagers; effigies of Binyamin Netanyahu, what I think is King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and “Uncle Sam” carried on a float; and what I think was a call-and-response Persian “Death to America” chant led by a mullah on a truck.
I felt uncomfortable. I felt unsure of my safety, though no violence was going on. I hid behind my skin colour, not claiming to be from Canada when approached by curious, beaming teens looking for a selfie with a foreigner. (They went back to the protest after the selfie.) I snuck a few pictures and then stopped, unsure whether people were judging me for it as a foreigner. And I left, shaken.
The one primary sight in Mashhad is the shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th out of the 12 in Shia Islam. Assigned a free English-speaking guide at the entrance, I learned that the imam was martyred when the shah of the time poisoned him for speaking out against the shah’s behaviour. Still believing in the religious clout of the imam, the shah buried his father alongside Imam Reza, hoping for people to pray for his father while paying respects to the imam. Instead, people come to pay respects to the imam while denigrating the memory of the shah’s father.
The shrine dominates the city of Mashhad and is the largest mosque in the world, after Mecca, at a whopping 600,000 square metres (6 million square feet)! With seven courtyards, plenty of minarets, and ornate façades that dwarf anything Uzbekistan has, mostly constructed in the last 70 years and well-maintained, it’s simply an overwhelming place to take in, and for me, impossible to focus on the details when there’s just so much going on. All of this was done without modern construction materials or methods!
Being Iran’s holiest place and city, the rest of the crowd is all Iranians, with many domestic tourists snapping selfies. My guide told me that roughly 2-400,000 people visit the shrine everyday, while Mashhad has a population of 3 million; an estimated 18-20 million visit the shrune every year.
I was invited to chat with a friendly, English-speaking mullah, who gave me a primer on the Sunni/Shia split from Iran’s perspective. It all comes down to an argument over the successor of the prophet Mohammed. In Shia Islam, there are 12 capital-I Imams, as revered as saints, starting with Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali and continuing with his descendants, and all considered to be the only ones able to perfectly interpret the Quran. According to the mullah, the Sunnis “went against” the prophet’s plan for succession and selected their own, choosing Mohammed’s close-confidant Abu Bakr and a few other successors after each were martyred, then flipping back to Ali. (Thus Ali is Sunni Islam’s fourth Imam/caliph.)
Ali’s sons Hassan and Hossein followed, but Hossein and his followers were massacred/martyred, furthering the schism: while Shiites adhere to the divine inspiration of the 12 Imams, the Sunnis adhere only to the divinity of God. Shiites also await the return of the 12th Imam, who is supposedly still amongst the people but has chosen not to make himself visible, after disappearing as a young boy sometime in the 800s.
While the mullah not-so-subtlely called Sunni Islam for being wrong, he did respect their faith differences and acknowledged that at the heart of it all, they believe the same thing.
He also explained to me that it was now Muharram, the period of mourning over roughly two months — both Imams Hossein and Reza were martyred in that time of year, as were several other prominent figures. Because of that, black and red dominate the landscape: flags hang over the streets, mosques, and shrines, and everyone is dressed in black. Add in the fact that Mashhad is likely the most conservative city in Iran: every single woman is in a black chador — those tent-like full-body coverings that leave only the face and hands visible.
Because of new government regulations for Muharram, as a non-Muslim, I was also not allowed into the interior spaces of the shrine, save for one, where my guide took me to an elegantly mirrored and painted prayer room, laden with symbolism. Even an innocuous-looking painting of a tree symbolised a horse returning home alone, without the Imam Hossein (3rd one) who was also martyred. He glowingly translated several quote from the imam.
But my guide further explained to me that along with this Muharram period, my visit coincided with the anniversary of the crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, and that this was the reason for the anti-America protests. Treating the matter casually as if brushing it off, he did not elaborate any further, nor did I push him to. (Already a bit shaken from the protest, I revealed my origins only as from Hong Kong.)
So why does Iran have this antagonism towards America?
Long story short, Iran and America used to be close friends. In the 1940s, Iran’s shah Mohammed Reza was basically controlled by the British, after his father and predecessor Reza Shah was pressured out for supporting the Nazis. Though he and his father significantly modernised Iran, bringing in educational, transport, and health reforms, while banning the chador and other outwardly-religious clothing in favour of something more westernised, much of Iran’s resource wealth was being given away. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now the infamous BP, or British Petroleum) was a particularly prominent culprit, and in Iran’s first-ever democratic elections in 1951, the people voted in Mohammed Mossadegh, who campaigned on nationalising the oil company to bring revenues back to Iran.
Enraged, the British set about behind the scenes to orchestrate change, setting an embargo on Iranian oil, blockading its ports so that it couldn’t sell oil to others, and freezing Iranian assets in British banks, doing major damage to Iran’s economy. After finding American resistance to its anti-Iran sentiments in the Truman government, the British found an ally in Dwight Eisenhower, who agreed to help organise a coup. In a CIA scheme only admitted to in 2013, 60 years after the fact, they fomented unrest by playing up the spectre of communism, paying people to pretend to be communists and complain loudly to religious leaders that they would be punished if they opposed Mossadegh, and using that reverse psychology to get the religious segment of the population to *actually* oppose Mossadegh. They also bribed politicians, reporters, and thugs to whip up more anti-Mossadegh and pro-Shah sentiment.
They succeeded, and the shah regained control, pressing ahead with his rapid liberalisation agenda, while being cozy with both the UK and US. But the people weren’t happy with the pace of change, and many religious people were unhappy about the suppression of their freedom to express their beliefs. In addition to that, the shah became increasingly out of touch with the people, throwing lavish parties, providing immunity to American troops, and concentrating power amongst himself. Not only was he alienating the religious right, but those on the left as well, and this led to the Iranian Revolution, which suddenly rose up and overthrew the shah in 1979.
Initially united in their common goal to overthrow the shah, cooperation went out the window as Ayatollah Khomeini, a prominent critic of the shah exiled from the country, returned and gained enough popular support to hold power. He consolidated that power, reshaping the narrative of the revolution to an Islamic Revolution, disappearing those who opposed it (including those on the left who wanted to see faster westernisation and democratic reforms), converting the state into the world’s first Islamic republic — one that replaced the ban against hijabs to one that required all women to wear them, along with other hardline policies.
Meanwhile, America was seen as supporting the shah, which made them the enemy in the eyes of the locals. This all came to a head when the exiled shah fled to the US for cancer treatment. Iran wanted the shah back to be put on trial, but the Americans harboured the shah instead. In anger, on November 4th, 1979, conservative university students took 52 hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, enduring a failed America rescue mission and relenting only after a pact was signed. The “Death to America” protest I saw, on November 3rd, turns out to be an annual commemoration of this event (and a national holiday!), which is encouraged by the current Ayatollah Khamenei, following similar sentiments from his predecessor Khomeini. Khamenei claims that the quote absolutely isn’t about death to the American people, but death to its “policies and arrogance”, which isn’t really a great explanation when they could really use a different word than “death”…
The Americans closed their embassy and broke off relations after the hostage crisis. But in a further American foreign affairs bungle, when Saddam Hussein of neighbouring Iraq chose to invade Iran in 1980, the Americans sided with him (removing him from the list of state sponsors of terrorism!), providing arms (including biological weapons such as anthrax) for Iraq in a bloody eight-year war that they would ultimately lose to the Iranians. Of course, these weapons would later be used against the Americans in their own Iraq War…but that’s another story. (More American hypocrisy can be found in the Iran-Contra affair during the Ronald Reagan administration, where weapons were covertly sold to Iran and the proceeds used to fund the contra-revolutionists in Nicaragua, another piece of history I learned a few years ago. And yet again, when the Americans shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988 with no justification and never apologised for it, just like Russia and the KLM flight over Ukraine a few years ago.)
So… all in all, it’s just a huge mess, and Iran has every right to be angry. (Although that hostage crisis… yeesh, way overboard.) Yet they’re not blameless, not in the slightest: in addition to heavy suppression of human rights, their government, particularly under previous prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been critical of Israel’s right to exist. Combine that with their insistence on development of a “peaceful” nuclear programme, along with unwillingness to comply with international monitors; and even the populace’s belief that since Israel has atomic bombs, Iran also should; and you’ve got America leading the world into imposing even more sanctions against Iran, which has only further antagonised America in the eyes of many of its residents, while giving the government further ammunition to entrench itself. (Many signs I saw during the protest were against the sanctions.) Barack Obama organised a new nuclear deal with current moderate Iranian prime minister Hassan Rouhani which will stop nuclear enrichment and also ease sanctions, but given the new government coming up in the US, it’s hard to say where this will go in terms of Iranian-American relations, or whether this newly positive direction in relations will last.
Seeing people take selfies on their smartphones — both very much American-invented cultural concepts — during the protest felt quite ironic. And then they’ll upload those pictures on Instagram or Facebook (which they all access via VPN, since it’s blocked). But it shows the contradictions and complications in the Iranian psyche — drawn towards America culturally, yet so egregiously wronged historically. Nonetheless, after so many years have passed, does America deserve to continue to take the blame for Iran’s problems?
As I would find out very quickly throughout the rest of Iran, many wish to embrace America again, recognising the good in it and its people and its (outward) respect for human rights and freedom of religion, repudiating their own government and its strict imposition of Islamic ideals and beliefs. (And indeed, underground Iranian arts and culture come from expats who have left, many to America.) Even without America in the equation, many want Iran in a more progressive direction — and the disputed re-election of hardliner Ahmadinejad in 2009 that led to the Green Movement and the massive subsequent crackdown, then the actual election of reformist Rouhani and continued pushback against the ayatollahs are clear signs of that. But while their claims line right up with those other travellers have told me, that the people are against the repressive regime, it’s clear that there’s a big divide in Iran: between religions, between generations, between East and West, between liberals and conservatives, and between the future of the country. The loudest voices on either side insist on speaking for the entire populace. Sound familiar?
I can’t deny that what I saw was ugly. As I’ve been travelling through the rest of the country, every time a well-meaning local asks me what I think of Iran and its people, I give a genuinely positive response — yet this incident continues to colour my thinking, for better or for worse.
I returned to the Imam Reza shrine that night, and again the next day — without a guide. Able to walk around freely with no restrictions, but also completely lost without someone guiding the way, I did manage (somewhat accidentally) to enter the inner sanctums without anyone so much as batting an eye at me. Amongst incredible mirrored rooms amplifying the light to a dazzling level, crowds of pilgrims squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, inching towards the golden-caged tomb of Imam Reza, openly weeping as they brought their deepest prayers with them, kissing and tying ribbons to the cage in hopes of a divine answer. Hundreds of others prayed alone at any empty space they could find on the floor, or found a corner in which they could read the Qu’ran undisturbed despite all of the commotion.
Outside, surrounded by lights, fountains, minarets, and portals of gold, I witnessed thousands of black-clad pilgrims, gender-segregated, listening to sermons in each courtyard, prostrating themselves in coordinated prayer. I happened to be there on a Friday, the day of worship. There was never a moment of quiet, as the mournful songs of the leaders echoed in the large space. Perhaps this is what catharsis feels like for them. During the day, there were mourners self-flagellating for Imam Hossein.
I remember what the guide said to me: they believe that I didn’t visit Mashhad and the shrine of my own volition, but that God and Imam Reza brought me here. However you interpret it, I’m certainly glad I had the chance to visit. I may have left with a somewhat negative experience that I didn’t want (and I’m not clamouring to return to Mashhad anytime soon), but rather an experience I may have needed to gain a better understanding of Iran.