Op-ed: Iran – a country they call home

In March 2008, I traveled to Iran with some Iranian-American friends. After news of electoral fraud broke in the summer of 2008, I felt compelled to write this op-ed piece that was published, unedited, in The Straits Times, Singapore’s flagship English daily on June 29, 2009, page B8.

View my photography portfolio on Iran here.

I WONDER if Reza was part of the massive turnout that took to Teheran’s streets, angered by what they thought was to be electoral fraud during the presidential elections in Iran two weekends ago.

‘So many things are wrong with this country,’ Reza, a man in his early 20s, said in his Farsi-accented English. ‘Where are the petrol dollars that Ahmadinejad promised to put on our dinner tables?’

This was in March, when 22 of us embarked on a spring trip to Iran. Our Iranian-American friends wanted to show us a more comprehensive Iran, a country their parents still call home.

Who better to target than students from Columbia University, ground zero of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s public disgrace in 2007? Highlighting that incident, our Iranian guide, Peyman, said to us: ‘Iranians are a proud people. Ahmadinejad said there were no gays in Iran, because homosexuality is a disgrace here.’

From bountiful natural resources to a millennia-old Persian civilisation, Iranians have a lot to be proud of.

Iranian youths wear this pride. Seeing that we come from America, they would often engage us, at times asking why the United States intervened in Iranian domestic affairs during the Cold War, indirectly precipitating the Islamic Revolution, and brought into power a theocratic regime.

‘Let us be,’ they argued cordially.

Iran is not an Orwellian state. As restrictive as laws go in Iran, satellite dishes, though illegal to own, dot Teheran’s rooftops, beaming foreign news channels into middle-class households.

This post-Revolution generation is free from the shackles of history; to them, Iran has multiple symbols to crystallise its identity to: mosques, Farsi, headscarves, ghelyoons (water pipes), Zoroastrianism, nuclear bombs.

I found all of these (save the bomb) in a conversation with an Iranian in her mid-twenties, on a rooftop cafe overlooking some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, in Isfahan, a city located in Iran’s conservative heartland.

She donned a colourful headscarf that betrayed her dyed-brown hair; she sported an Ahura pendant, the deity that Zoroastrians pray to.

‘The hejob (headscarf) and chador (veil) are the least of our worries, we cannot focus on mere symbols,’ she said in a low voice that only I could hear. I was smoking a ghelyoon I could not offer her – Iranians could not smoke in public, more so if you’re a woman.
Reza and I never exchanged contacts, but I wouldn’t be surprised to spot him in one of the countless videos of rallies in Teheran that have been flooding websites. In the videos, I hear Reza’s grudge, and in his disappointment, I see the passion in those young faces.

Soon Weilun, 26, is a second-year student in a Master of International Affairs and Master of Science in Journalism dual degree at Columbia University. He and his schoolmates spent 12 days in Iran in March, visiting Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Persepolis, and ushered in the Persian new year, Nowruz, with some Iranian friends

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