Persian Portal: A window into life in Iran

Staff Writer Report

As Americans, we take for granted the rights we have in this country and the laws that keep us safe. Recently Iran’s government announced they are holding an American tourist in prison with the intent to put him to death because they believe he is a spy. It led me to question how the lives of people in Iran differ from those in the United States? Beyond the differences in government, society and culture, I wondered what sounds and sights Iranians experience day to day.
Before I had the opportunity to interview various citizens of Iran, they made it very clear that their names could not appear anywhere on this publication. Because Iranians do not have the same freedom of speech that we do in America, it is necessary to keep them anonymous. I will refer to them as either Participant X, Y or Z.

In some ways, our two countries are incomparable; the United States is such a new and modern country while Iran is a 5,500-year-old civilization. Participant X sat across from me at a wooden table and a translator sat between us. “For the U.S., everything was established based on a group of educated people. Iran was and is a third world country, and a very old civilization,” X said. He tells the story of how developments have been added inconsistently to Iran throughout the years, but in no way are they comparable to the program-establishing, goal-oriented way as in the United States. Iran’s street structure and city blueprint are nothing like the United States. “It is mostly based on narrow streets and tall buildings, in a curvy, hap-hazard structure that has been continued since the old days,” X said. The cities’ designs were purposeful; they were used to confuse the enemy so that they could not enter the heart of the city. This building style has continued into the modern era. “Only recently, in major cities, are there the wider streets and skyscrapers, similar to a westernized city,” X said. Another western influence, malls have sprung up in a few big cities throughout Iran including Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz and Isfahan.

Transportation in these cities is just as complicated as their structure. Tehran, Iran’s capital, is a busy and congested city with mass transportation buses, subways and taxis.

“There is barely room for the people and the cars, buses and motorcycles. Vehicles and people are all competing for the same space,” Participant Y said. Sitting face to face, atop high bar stools, he reveals to me that his own mother fell in the road once when a bus was coming. “It wasn’t going to stop for her. Luckily, a man picked her up just in time, or she would have been gone,” Y said. In order to reduce the overcrowding and the pollution, during main hours of the day, private cars are not permitted to drive in the center of big cities. “Even so, the amount of pollution is still extremely high in a city like Tehran,” X said. “Recently, because of high rates of unemployment, people are using their private cars as taxis as a source of income.” Unfortunately, there have been cases of passengers getting into unmarked taxis and being killed. Traffic laws in Iran are not enforced as they are in the United States. “I always feel that I am taking my life into my own hands just simply walking on a sidewalk because a motorcycle will go down the sidewalk to avoid the traffic on the road,” Y said. X told me that the traffic violation ticket was raised to an incredulous amount in the last month, but still nobody follows the laws.

X asked me how old I am and what I want to go into in college. In Iran, the liberty does not exist to choose a major. “In Iran you take an entrance exam. The major you get into is dependent on the score you get, not necessarily what you like or want. After graduation many cannot find jobs,” X said. Even the individuals who do acquire a job are not paid enough to cover a low rent in an impoverished area. At the poverty level, the government intervenes. “The government has a plan to pay a monthly aid for each member of the family under a certain income level. But at the same time they raise the rate for water and electricity to the point where the family cannot afford to have more than a single lamp on,” X said. Most people in Iran end up working a few jobs. For example, a teacher would teach during the day, which pays a low salary, and in the afternoon drive a taxi until late at night. “People are stressed because there is high inflation and the prices on everything seem to go up on a daily basis. Most people work two or three jobs and are always looking for side business deals to be able to survive,” Y said.

A cultural difference I noted is that in Iran most people have their extended family involved in their day to day lives and decision making. Generations live together, and a middle-aged woman will often be taking care of her mom and children in the same household. Grown children live with their parents until marriage.

The marriage rate in Iran has gone down significantly in relation to the increasing unemployment rate. The expectations for a male who is eligible to marry are that he has a job, steady income, a house and a car. “There is a high rate of young women who cannot find men their age to marry. In very wrong ways, they are married to older men who are rich. These girls are being used and mainly subjected to prostitution based on their financial needs. This is definitely not the norm, but compared to what Iran used to be, it has increased significantly,” X told me.

Lacking a job and money may leave one single in Iran, but a more life-threatening matter is medical care. In Iran the hospital’s first priority is payment; after that they will help the patient. “Even if you come to the hospital by ambulance, before anything is done and before you can be admitted, there is a down payment you must pay in cash,” X said. Only the people with the lowest income have insurance, but they have to use government hospitals, and even then, major procedures aren’t covered by the insurance. In the case of an emergency, there is a small payment (in cash) at registration, which covers the emergency room. Then, based on the doctor’s assessment, the bill will be approximated and all of it is paid before leaving the emergency room. In cases that do not require the emergency room, at the time of admission into the hospital, 50 percent to 60 percent of the total bill is paid.

Before discharge, 100 percent of the bill is collected. There is no mailing of bills, and there are no credit cards.

The easiest and most lively discussion was about the bazaars, the central marketplaces in Iran. “People are busy and always seem to be running from one thing to another. Also, just feeding yourself or your family isn’t as easy as just going to the grocery store,” Y said. At the bazaar there are grains, fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. There is also the bread bakery and the butcher shops. “If you don’t know the butcher, you get the worst cuts of meat,” Y said. At the crowded bazaar there is a line for everything including shoes and clothing. “Every line has a special smell,” X said.

Although people see each other in passing, whether on a train or in line at the bazaar, the conversations they have in public are not a true depiction of what is going on in their lives. “Right now in Iran, the environment is not good. You don’t want to talk to people you do not know because maybe they are government,” Participant Z said. Friends do not talk about politics out loud in Iran, not unless they are in the privacy of their own homes. On the trains it is easy to overhear people talking about Iran’s oil, houses getting expensive and inflation. “I am not scared because I’m not talking about politics. I show I’m religious. I’m good. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Z said. In Iran, I am told, citizens have to be careful about what they say and who hears them. “Like in the U.S., with friends and family that think alike, you openly discuss government wrongdoings. But you don’t have the same liberty of freely discussing your views with people you don’t know,” Y said. “The concern being they could be government officials that could cause you harm. We don’t have free speech. The idea is more of a western idea.” For the majority of people in Iran, there is a huge difference in what can be said publicly and privately. “Most people are frightened even to say anything about the high cost of living or the high rate of unemployment because it indirectly insults the regime. They refrain from anything that might get them into trouble,” X said.

I wear my dark brown hair loose and wavy down my back and have been twirling a section of it throughout the interview. Women in Iran wear the roosari which covers all of their hair. Before the shah left the country, women could pick if they wanted to cover up their hair or not — they had the freedom to choose. Now it is the law that all women must cover up or be put in jail. “For me it doesn’t make a difference. It shows respect to the country. It is a problem for some people, but they have to wear it. Iran is an Islamic country,” Z said. “In the U.S. you have the freedom to not cover your hair, but every country has some rule like this, like drugs. But in Iran it is the clothes.”

The government in Iran also controls the media. “The main source of government news is the Islamic Republic broadcast by the regime, which also controls all other television and radio stations. Even the newspapers and magazines are heavily monitored,” X said. Phone calls are not monitored, however. Often the margin of truth found in the government propaganda is limited. “The government [has been known] to put a political spin on a certain situation and use it as a pawn for further negotiations to fit their agenda,” Z said. The Internet access in Iran is slow and in many places nonexistent; nothing compared to the high speed access we have in America on our phones, iPods and other handheld devices.

“Any young Iranians who have been able to hack into computer systems or establish websites to acquire news have been easily detected and been taken to jail by the government where they are punished severely,” X said. Movies and music have to be approved by the Islamic Regime before the public can watch or listen to them. Also, the government enforces that women are not allowed to sing or participate in any form of art or musical activity. I think about the song I was singing along to on the way to this interview — “The Last of the American Girls.” In Iran I would be put in jail. Elections are in April for Iran’s Majless, similar to the House of Representatives in the United States. However, new elections do not bring hope to Iran’s citizens as the caucus process does here. “It is all rigged,” Z said.

The American public has misconceptions about Iran and the Iranian government. However, before trying to understand Iran’s government and its problems, X wants Americans to understand their own government and what it is capable of doing. “The U.S. has had ulterior motives to go into third world countries. As a very recent and obvious example … the Taliban are the most terrible regime who could ever rule a country. They have killed women and burned down schools just because they were for females. They are the biggest drug cartel in the Middle East. Yet now the U.S. is talking about negotiating with them and recognizing them as an official government,” X said. “These are the worst criminals you can possibly think of. They are not even in the spectrum of democracy, and they never will be.”

As far as the relationship between Iran and the United States goes, it will heavily depend on the political choices each nation’s government makes in the coming months. “The people of Iran want help from the U.S. in some way, but not war,” Z said. “The biggest concern would be they could possibly end up at war, but likely it won’t happen. I think the U.S. will bomb nuclear facilities if Iran was to make a nuclear bomb,” Y said. Another factor in the relationship is the oil Iran has. “The relationship has always been and always will be based on our rich oil-producing country. Always we have been kept behind in technology and everything else. The U.S. will always be using Iran for its oil,” X said. However the Iranian people think of Americans differently than their government. “The Iranian public very much likes Americans and views them as very straightforward, honest, hard-working and law-abiding people,” X said. I wish I could have told X that Americans view his people in a positive way, and separate from the Iranian government. Being aware that the average citizens in the United States and Iran are more alike than different may ultimately save both of our nations from war.

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