Culture clash

"Honestly, most Americans -- when they think of Iran -- probably think of 3 things," my brother said. "Desert, oil, and nuclear capabilities."

And it was true.

Before our road trip across Europe and Asia last summer, we didn't really have much of an idea what to expect. We knew of course that women in Iran had to cover their heads, and we'd seen the propaganda footage of angry demonstrators chanting "death to America," but what was it really like?

It only took a few days of being in the country for us to realize that many of the perceptions we had were oversimplified or wrong, and that Iran was a place where thing aren't always so black and white.

Persian hospitality that was unlike anything we had ever experienced in all our travels quickly won us over. Random strangers were excited when we told them we were visiting from America, and after chatting for just a few minutes, they'd often invite us to their homes to meet their families and come for tea or dinner!

Then there were the amazing beautiful, ancient mosques and World Heritage Sites.

While Iran is far from a free and democratic society -- with the government censoring social media and parts of the internet -- nearly everyone knows how to circumvent the restrictions. And women forced to wear headscarves have rebelled by showing their beauty through plastic surgery in such large numbers that nose jobs are now more popular in Iran than anywhere else in the world!

Everywhere we turned, we saw this nuance and tension between sticking to the old way of doing things and forging a new path. As The New York Times reported recently:

Largely under the radar, Iran has changed a great deal over the years, in some ways resembling many Western societies. After roughly 20 years of the internet, satellite television and affordable foreign travel, Iranians have grown more sophisticated, educated and moderate, and less pious.

But even though moderate voices are gaining ground -- as evidenced by the just-announced reelection of President Hassan Rouhani -- religious conservatives and political hardliners continue to wield a strong influence in the country, as we witnessed during our visit to Mashad's Imam Reza Shrine, the country's holiest site and one of the largest mosques in the world.

Standing near the entrance were shrine volunteers serving as moral police. They watched closely for anyone violating the shrine' strict dress code, and they used feather dusters to tap anyone they saw committing an infraction.

On the latest episode of my podcast, we experience a more conservative side of Iran and ask difficult questions about where to draw the line between respecting a foreign culture and acknowledging fundamental disagreements.

Also, our car problems come back to haunt us, as we overheat in the middle of the desert, and our radiator tank melts from the heat.

Listen to episode 10 here:


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Thanks as always for listening!


photos by Drew Gurian