Day 3 – Kashan & Isfahan

The road to Kashan
We are on our way to Kashan, a city 250 kilometers south of Tehran, known for its traditional architecture and craftsmanship. The vast and desolate landscape that we cross is the mirrored version of Iran’s mountainside capital city; a buzzing wonderland awash in color of countless LED lights and propagandistic murals that sprawl the city. In contrast to Tehran the desert provides a necessary break from navigating the tumultuous city.

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On the road to Kashan I reflect on my first impressions of Iran. Before coming here I had imagined a society at the brink of religiosity/tradition and secularism/modernism, a strong resentment towards ‘the West’ and a dichotomy of man versus woman. I thought we would see social struggle and oppression. But these ideas fall short of what actually is. In this complex, multi-faceted society nothing is what you think it is.

Ancient tradition, religion and Western-style modernity merge in a complex way. I am told that the religious law is tangled up in an impossible marriage with a state run court system. In public spaces Qur’an ‘rules’. Beautifully groomed, mundane woman pass signs in Farsi, Arab and English (Google Translate) that remind them of important verses from the holy book. Later however, within the confinements of a living room, the Qur’an would be very out of place between the booze, short skirts and weed.

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The relation with the West is also not as black and white as one would think. Explicit anti-American propaganda is omnipresent (and so is the famous Apple logo promoting perfume and grilled chicken). The nuclear deal has been welcomed with cautious optimism but hasn’t relieved the deep distrust of the United States. Then again, after talking with some of the people we met, I start to believe that aversion towards countries from the region surpasses the hatred of the USA. Some people signal a growing nationalism amongst the Iranians: a pride and confidence that is colored by a sense of superiority towards the neighboring countries.

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To me one of the most impenetrable issues of Iran is the position of women, which is full of contradictions. The dichotomy of man and women is widely displayed in public space. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979 women are forced to wear a veil. I consider this to be a sign of repression and an implicit assumption of the control of a husband over the physical appearance of his wife. (Here I should mention that women are subject to increased legal subordination in marriage.) But the forced veiling did not result in seclusion. On the contrary, veiling has brought into the public space women from devout Muslim and traditional families which let to a significant increase in their participation in the labor market and education.

I was shocked to learn that the law prohibits women to sing and dance. They are not entitled to these basic human forms of expression! However, in comparison to the pre-revolutionary period Iranian woman have substantially increased levels of education, economic power and political participation. Many women have found there way into the highest ranks of business. There are several female political ‘heavyweights’ and even an all-female political party. What I didn’t expect is that most of the women active in politics are religious hard-liners.

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Iran is a country in a state of transition (at least, this is what is propagated in ‘the West’) and as such its future cannot be easily predicted. Amongst the unpredictable aspects of such a transitional phase is the situational malleability of its political – and in Iran’s case also religious – leaders, who might modify their positions, sometimes overnight. Perhaps the looming presence of a watchful eye, the fear that the status quo will be altered by factors well beyond the Iranians control is the reason why we hear so many contradictory stories and never seem to be getting the full picture. Politics is everywhere, intertwined with ancient history, but when I ask for more details our hosts are hesitant to explain how things really work here. Many of the people from the Iranian art scène say the same thing: “We are strong under the radar”.

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Just before I get fully caught up in my thoughts we arrives at the beautiful Fin Garden. We are mesmerized by Iran’s oldest and lush garden. Our large group of Westerners equally fascinates the local visitors of the garden.

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The next stop is Kashan, where we visit beautiful examples of the cities famous Persian residential architecture from the 18th and 19th century. One of them is brought back to live by architect Marco, who invites is into this magnificent home. Like the other historical buildings in Kashan, his house has a modest façade, which is a deceptive prelude to what lies hidden behind the doors: an architectural gem, a hidden paradise. The traditional homes are built this way to prevent outsiders from looking in. Perhaps these houses are a good metaphor of what characterizes this magnificent country: so much stays hidden behind what you get to see on first sight. One thing I know for sure though; the hospitality and kindness of the Iranian people is unprecedented. In contrast with the impenetrable political and social tissue of the country, the doors to the homes and harts of its people are wide open.

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Nathanja van Dijk