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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Yes, They've Heard of Ricky Martin--and More Answers to Your Questions
April 1, 2000

I can't believe we finally made it, but here we are in Iran! We have stepped into a new and exciting land. This is not a country that many classrooms cover in World History class, so to most people, including me, Iran is a mysterious and somewhat frightening country. Usually the pictures that we do see of Iran are people protesting and holding up signs demanding the death of the United States, or the "Great Satan." Some of you may have learned of the siege of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 or the revolution that founded the Islamic Republic of Iran that same year. Since then, the culture of this country has been obscured from the world by strictly controlled borders and a government that wishes to minimize exposure and influence from the Western world.

Now that we are here, you probably have some questions. What are people really like in Iran? What do they like to do? After a week of travelling here in Iran we have discovered a country and a culture that is very different from the intimidating pictures on television. I will try to share some things with you--simple things about which you might be curious.

The Clothes

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Have you seen pictures of women in Islamic countries that are completely covered in black from head to toe? If you have, there is a good chance that you were looking at photos of Iranian women. According to the law, every woman in Iran--including the trekkers!-- must cover their body in public except for their face and hands, so style is not really an issue here in the ways you might expect. Many women wear a chador, which is a large black cape that covers the entire body. Now that all the Trekkers(except me) are wearing chadors, I often lose them in a crowd. When we go out in public, they have to cover their heads while I just get up and walk right out the door. Women in large cities such as Tehran or Mashhad do not dress as conservatively as those in smaller cities and villages. Men are required by law to wear loose fitting trousers and shirts, but they are certainly not subject to the same strict standards as women.

The dress code is very strict in public, but within their homes people dress as they please. Women in long chadors step into their homes and reveal beautiful outfits that they were wearing underneath. It is a complete transformation!

The Food

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The food here is amazing! I'm sure I have gained ten pounds since we crossed the border. There is not a lot of variety. Most dishes include a large portion of rice and meat of some kind, usually beef, lamb or chicken. I was happy with the food in Turkey, but the food here takes the cake! While Turkey enjoyed the tradition of serving food right on the street from restaurant windows, the restaurants here are more traditional sit-down restaurants.

Last night we went to a restaurant that was outside under the stars. We sat on raised platforms with carpets on them, and large fires kept us warm in the night air. I ate abgusht, which is traditional soup that is like a meat stew. It was a popular hangout spot; young people sat outside while families and groups of adults sat beneath a huge tent that was warmed by a raging fire. Most of the visiting families were large groups of at least eight people, and the men and women ate at separate tables. People eat dinner much later here than what I consider "dinner time." We left the restaurant last night at 10:30 PM and families were still arriving for dinner!

The Cars

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During our first few days here, I often had to remind myself that it was indeed the year 2000. The streets were crammed with cars that I did not recognize, and they all looked like they were made in the 1970's. They are called Paykans and they are manufactured here in Iran. You won't see many American cars here and few European cars because of the trade embargo that was instituted by the UN for Iran's alleged funding of terrorist groups. They all look the same, and I often feel like it really could be 1979. Take a look at them and see what you think. Have you ever seen one before?

The People

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Before we arrived, we heard from several travelers that Iran had been their favorite country because of the friendliness of the people. All of us were nervous about entering Iran but also curious about all these glowing reports from those who had already passed through the country. We have only been here for a week, and we know that we will also leave with glowing reports of our own. Persian culture has always been known for its sensuousness and fine hospitality; a reputation which has been overshadowed by the strained relations of Iran with the West. We have been treated so well here, and when people hear that we are from America they respond with curiosity and friendly questions.


Population of Iran in 1996: 69,975,000

Estimated population by 2015: 110,000,000

Population under 15: 46%

Number of televisions in Iran: 7,000,000 (1999 est.)

Percentage of children in school (schooling is non-compulsory): 95%

Literacy rate: 77%

Religions: Shi'a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 10%, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i 1%

National Language: Persian

Music and Television

Believe it or not, they do have Ricky Martin in Iran! You won't hear him on the radio, however. The music that we hear in public is traditional Persian music and some Iranian pop, but people often have Western music in their collections at home. We visited a family on our first night, and after dinner we all boogied to Ricky Martin and Madonna tunes.

The government in Iran controls television, and there are only five TV channels to choose from. Most of the programs are pretty boring, at least in my opinion, and several times a day there are messages broadcast by President Khatami or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These are in support of the religious and political direction of the country. Satellite dishes are illegal, but many upper-class homes purchase them in order to receive Turkish television programs that are not subject to the strict controls of Iranian TV.

The Land

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Iran's landscape is mostly brown, brown, and brown. Spring has just begun and some flowers are beginning to bloom on the trees in the cities. But a great portion of Iran is rocky desert. We have driven across the country from the Turkish border in the west to the city of Mashhad in the east, and along the way we have passed through long stretches of rocky desert soil marked only by the road that we drive on. Beautiful snow-capped mountain ridges are often visible in the distance. There are three mountain ranges that stretch through most of the country--the Sabalan and Talesh range in the south, the Zagros range, and the snowy Alborz range lining the north of the country.


obscured - hidden
embargo - an order by a government prohibiting trade with a foreign nation
alleged - stated without proof
sensuousness - appeal to the senses

Iran is HUGE! Look at a map and compare Iran with its neighbors, and you will see that Iran dwarfs most countries in the Middle East. We thought Turkey was big, and it looks tiny next to Iran.

We haven't been here very long, so remember that these are merely my first impressions. But in just one week, my fears have been put to rest and I am looking forward to my time here in Iran. We all feel safe here, and the team is having a great time so far. There is a whole country to discover and bring to your doorstep; I just hope we can cover it all!

Related Links

For more historical information and facts about Iran


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Trekking the Silk Road
Jasmine - Spring Forward! Into the Year 1379?
Kavitha - Persian New Year Fun
Team - Purim: An Ancient Story Not Soon Forgotten
Monica - The Hejab in Iran: Don't Leave Home Without it...

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