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Psychological Musings: An Iran Travel Diary

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

Sometimes when I go into a therapy session, I feel blank. My head feels heavy, and an underlying low mood swing keeps me from putting coherent thoughts together. So, I speak incoherently for the first twenty minutes until the psychiatrist coaxes more organized thoughts out of me. And then, by the end of the session, I might still be feeling and operating in the same blank way; or in some instances, I have delved into deeper, thought out issues that I never intended to bring up in the first place.

When I returned from Afghanistan, I felt purposefully manic; something, my psychiatrist reminded me of today. I actually felt jittery and on a high from the whole experience. And, I felt an intense urgency to internalize all the feelings from those travels, and put together thoughts and ideas on paper immediately. Right now, in comparison, my mindset returning from Iran feels like the incoherent scenario described above. I feel unintentionally tired, and it feels very difficult to write. And well, that is the sad part, because when I cannot write with intensity and it feels a bit forced, I know I might be back into a low swing again. That, combined with the fact that I have cried every single day since I have been home.

And, in truth, my neuroses did not go away throughout the entire trip. I got unnecessarily irritated and irrational, and I let the isolated actions of one or two rude people dominate my thoughts and ruminations. At points, my neuroses very incorrectly even shaped my thoughts about the journey, country, and travellingin general. I think long and hard often about ‘taking a walkabout' to travel for a while, and based off of this, I am not sure I am mentally capable of ever handling such a challenge.

Case in point, woman cusses me off using “not sure what your country taught you – references” in the airport because at 4am in the morning, I groggily see a ‘free’ scanner path to put my baggage through, while said woman is still organizing herself, paperwork and bags at the side of the scanner. She says I cut the line – fair point from different points of view, and I could have just apologized if she even let me speak. But, she calls me a stupid idiot, and berates “my country for not teaching me to act civilized”. I am too shocked to respond, and she walks away in a huff probably still swearing at me. I had zoned out already while holding back tears and keeping it together for a pat-down in the women's security area. So, I ruminate about it on the 20 hour journey back to Canada, including developing different scenarios of fighting back viciously so I am not actually the better person. I was not actually the better person; I was just too caught off guard to fight back. Truthfully, I was still ruminating about it a bit a few days ago because I hate confrontations with strangers. I am not a ‘mean’ person. And so all of that adds to the growing list of frustrations – towards my mindset, my emotions, and myself overall as a person. Inner critic – exploded!

I have a long way to go. I do not have a good mindset. I let negativity get the best of me. I build all these monsters in my brain that allow me to think that I should actually just not exist. I am not quite sure what I have been doing in therapy for the last few years, but for some reason, I am not sure that this can ever go away. I think too much, and I wish sometimes that my brain could just stop. People talk about controlling their mindset, but I feel like it’s this impossible task. But if I really think about it, maybe it is because I am controlling my ability to control my own mindset - control over control. I do not want to think differently. I am not sure. I am not sure about lots of things. I am still not sure whether I actually want to live most days.

Anyways, let’s stop talking about the psychological stuff. Let’s talk about Iran.

And, well, let’s talk ‘surface-ish’ about Iran, because I should probably be just a little censored. Mind you, I am all about "voice" given I never shut up about mental health, and I will never downplay an opinion; but, I think that there are just some things that need to be left in one's own memory, and do not necessarily need to spark unnecessary controversy by being said out loud.

I mean, I am not going to lie. I, like the rest of some sub-set of a biased world, have held a "Not Without My Daughter" kind of mentality unjustly against Iran here and there. And, a part of me wanted to go in to the country to dispel that bias. For the most part, the bias was dispelled, but I travelled in with eyes not completely wide open, so I am not sure I am in my right view to say I have completely 'shaped' views. But, I will get into all that later.

Once again, my intention is not to be a “travel blogger”, but just to give insight on some more unique things I experienced and learned, and maybe how it affected my psyche along the way. If there are questions about what we did specifically, where we stayed, what we ate, etc, I am happy to have those conversations offline, but this is not meant to be a “tips guide”. Iran is becoming well-travelled in some parts, it has a burgeoning tourist infrastructure, and so there are plenty of great travel blogs out there already. The history and “facts”, current political diatribes (from either end of the polar spectrum) are all somewhere out there, or at least in someone’s brain who will know the issues and topics much better. There is no need for me to re-iterate things that are not even fully well-baked in my own brain.

Because I know I am not thinking very coherently right now, I am going to pull out the list of observations that struck me as “different”. All around the world, travelling overland somewhat feels the same; eating out feels the same after a while (since Toronto is a melting pot after all); being in a hotel room feels the same after a while; the pictures you take feel the same after a while; and truthfully, the timeline, history and everything you hear feels the same and to be quite frank, a little muddled after a while; so, the real difference in travelling experiences is in your honest encounters with people in the moment, the truthful conversations you have about the past and present, and your own conscious take-aways. It's the truth; well, at least it's my truth.

Note: There were some interesting and chilling things we noticed on walls or billboards from a political perspective, but I think I am going to leave those out, and keep this a bit more PG. Once again, not repressing my own voice, but sometimes, some things just need to be left in memory.

Travelling as a Canadian is really quite restrictive, and I hope that over time that changes because I would really like to go back under a different pretense. Because of sensitivities (past and present) with diplomatic relations and my one and only loose mention here now of ‘spies’, Canadian, British and US passport holders need to book a thorough program and itinerary though a registered Iranian tour agency – i.e. someone needs to know where you are at, at all times. Further, a registered trained guide (someone who studied Iranian tourism in university, and took the requisite accreditation to guide said ethnicities) is with you throughout all your travels.

If you want to eat, the guide eats with you, which is novel and friendly in the beginning. If you want to shop, your guide watches your every movement and pretty much facilitates the transaction. If you want to hike a mountain, the guide hikes the mountain with you (and according to our trekking architect, who coordinated the hiking leg of our trip, it was near impossible to find a trained cultural guide who had mountaineering experience). He or she escorts you to the airport, and makes damn well sure you get on that airplane back to your home country, and you do not disappear off the face of this earth to do something 'unsavoury'.We got some free time, but in some ways, I feel like we manipulated the situation, and it ended up being a free pass in our favour.

While kind and sometimes unnecessarily too generous, our guide was pretty scripted, and we got the sense that she was very much trained that way. She could list off all the dates and names of leaders and all their henchmen throughout the times. She could describe which pillar or tiled ceiling was made of what, and the associated religious influences. She read the signs to ensure she got the centuries right for each of the pottery pieces. But, there was something unnatural about how she interacted with us once we left each museum or religious shrine.

We asked a lot about modern Iranian regular-day life; and while she always answered with something, her answers still were always cautious and "to the point", with nothing really too substantive to follow. It was pretty anti-climatic. You pretty much had to ask very specific leading questions to get the witness to answer. And, she did not seem very interested in us either. Pretty much only on Day 16 did she re-confirm whether we were Canadian.

If you are invited to someone else’s house, it’s an automatic “no” because everyone may get in trouble if the wrong person sees; so, all those wonderful stories you hear about local-at-home-Iranian hospitality or local-hosted adventures become faraway daydreams for said Canadians, Americans, and Brits without dual passports. I am being a bit dramatic, but there was definitely a bit of a ‘big brother’ undertone throughout the entire almost three weeks. And I mean, Jon and I have travelled with agencies before in countries where we felt we lacked time and needed structured coordination (or because Jon was certain I was leading us both to death), but we never felt this ‘mothered’. I felt 'suffocated' a bit by the end.

We had to hide our cultural identity unless we were with the guide. For the purposes of walking outside on our own on the few occasions, we were both based out of Hong Kong, and after some confused looks as to why Jon did not look Chinese, we noted he had some German in there. Oh, and jokingly Jon was a nuclear physicist (really a joke) since accountant seemed to receive blank looks. Nobody seemed to really care at all what I did. I think after all of this 'monitoring', I actually felt very content to be home with my liberal freedoms - to have dinner without being watched, to do things freely on my own. I spoke with my psychiatrist about this, and she noted that maybe perhaps this was not a bad thing because it gave me a sense of appreciation for my freedoms.

Iran is more than the cultural cities. Do not get me wrong, I loved the places we visited on the typical circuit – Shiraz more so though than Tehran, Yazd and Kerman; and well, I flat out decided to skip Esfahan (and Kashan) because the influx of tourism I had read about. Shiraz though, even with large mainland China tourist groups blocking every which way, is just this stunningly romantic place breaming with imagery of long-remembered lines of quoted poetry and roses, which we experienced with all our senses. Islamic architecture all across the country stops you in your tracks, and the history of the Persian civilization is absolutely fascinating if you get beyond all the pottery on display. But, the element of surprise is somewhat taken away because these places are so ingrained in the growing, flourishing tourist infrastructure which in some ways has exploded. I saw enough pictures of the Pink Mosque in Shiraz to know what I was going to get from the mirrored glass room. I knew I was going to get intricate alleyways in Yazd like out of a high-speed chase scene. I knew Lut desert was going to be unreal (and it really was; it was very surreal to be such a small ant among these towering structures). So, I wish I had taken the effort to look at the lesser known, lesser photographed - Iranian Kurdistan, Golestan, Lorestan, all as examples.

We were lucky enough though to visit first the colourful Aladaglar mountains in Tabriz (recommend), and then Mazandaran and the Alborz mountains (absolutely recommend). In comparison to the touristy parts, these areas were remote, pristine, and felt completely untouched. They felt like the big reveal and the big surprise. And lucky for us, with the latter, this was the last stretch of our journey, so being able to trek through these really soulful villages, heart-stopping panoramas of nature, and to be above the clouds looking at endless valleys, gave us our final long-lasting impressions of the country, its culture, its people and what they survive for.

Younger people in Iran are more liberal – Gen X and millennials are not so hard-fast to religion or the traditional ways. If people want to practice religion strictly, they practice religion strictly. If they make that informed choice not to, then they do not. Not everybody fasts during Ramadan, and those that do not are discrete and considerate about it. People travel to “less savory” places, but keep it low key. Mind you, all of the above is family and situational dependent. And once again, these are very broad observations from a controlled outsider.

Women wear their headscarves really freely and loosely – i.e. hair sticks out the back, and most of the time, the scarf is pushed all the way back. Similar to in Afghanistan, the more traditional or older women will wear traditional clothing (black chadors). But, nobody really forces anybody to wear anything; it is of their own choosing. I write that though with an extreme grain of salt and slap of my own hand, because of course, the hijab is still a requirement and most of your body needs to be covered conservatively. Girls start wearing the hijab at the age of nine, and as already noted, women are still required to dress in a certain way. Defiance results in arrest; I am not going to describe that in more detail. Anyways, the point is, it is not a colony of black chadors.

I thought we would be able to buy some local traditional clothing, and "try" to blend in. Our guide laughed at the thought, and said "nobody really does that". It made sense since none of the younger generation really wore local clothing. Even at the religious shrines, there was disappointingly a "tourist" version of the chador, which you slip into, both arms out, like with hospital scrubs. The explanation-to-follow was "to make things easier".

Ironically enough, I found myself (here and in Afghanistan) resonating with how the women dress. I actually love that the clothing hides curves. I have had body image issues my entire life, and covering myself for three weeks felt almost weirdly comforting at times. But yes, there were also times where I felt really hot in a head scarf, and it made me angry. And, I felt literally like doing some sort of cliche "liberation" yell. And so then, I was self-reminded that there are gender disparity issues still running rampant everywhere, and it is still really difficult to be a woman in these parts of the world.

But, Jon did point out the irony of how women are fighting to not wear the hijab in the Middle East, while back in Canada, there are opposing arguments and desires to be able to cover your head religiously in the workplace without prejudice. But, if you think about it rationally, these are different individuals, living under different circumstances and rights, with different religious beliefs and values working at opposite ends of the spectrum in opposite parts of the world. Everything is circumstantial, but it all revolves back to one's own values and what is worth fighting for.

Throughout all the history lessons in the cultural cities, we learned that in the ancient civilizations, women ruled the world. They were symbols of fertility, purity, and cherished to the ends of the earth. And up until certain pivotal events happened, largely because of shifts in politics, and in some ways, the linkage of state to church, the country took a few steps back. But, there was freedom, modernism and progression at points in time.

I do not want to comment too much more, but I can say with the perceived liberalism, that it appears to be slowly shifting back that way again. I guess that would be dependent on how politics and the economy shift again over the next generations to come. Good to know - women (from the opinions we were able to get) are cherished and minorities are tolerated. These groups can get jobs to a certain level, and they are fighting for their rights. Things like social media help slightly with projecting one's voice (though commonly known, you need a VPN to access a lot of things on the Internet). "Not without my Daughter" did happen a long time ago - things change.

We found it hard to have ‘more difficult’ conversations with people because of the aforementioned watchdog; her presence may have limited peoples' willingness to ask us questions, or answer questions in return. But, in speaking with her, in her opinion, gender disparity and the associated lack of voice were the most frustrating issues that Iranians face. Also, in the villages, we learned that a lot of kids turn to drugs (i.e. opium at the borders)because of lack of funding for sports and recreation. These were (at least the former two) somewhat transparent issues without having a conversation though, and I guess both Jon and I were holding out for something more hard-hitting, not that gender disparity, lack of voice, and lack of resources for children are not important issues. These are extremely important, IMPORTANT issues that affect many pockets of the world. But that's it, these are issues affecting many pockets of the world, so maybe we did not get as much of a revelation as we would have wanted?

We definitely understood (maybe solidified more, because we knew that going in) by the end that Iran's suffering is largely right now at the hands of economic swings and politics. It is extremely difficult and stressful for the middle and lower class to experience hyperinflation while their salaries do not adjust accordingly; and watch desperately still, as increased imports pressure many long-standing local family businesses to close down.

But, perhaps still, maybe I wanted to hear someone say that they do not like being ostracized by the rest of the world, or being perceived as a number of negative adjectives. Iranians, in many ways, I could perceive, are prevented from showing the rest of the world how special of a place their country really is, and how great they are as people. There is this imaginary 'barrier', just as much as I felt an imaginary 'barrier' around us as we tried to learn about the 'gory guts and insides'.

The focus around the country is primarily on its negative aspects - what a 'few' people are doing wrong, and actions of its past (once again, due to specific perpetrators), and the same themes popped up over and over. I found this paralleled a little to Afghanistan, but for some reason, I felt like it's harder still in Iran for people to say that they are ostracized out loud, and what they really want to change (perhaps, out of fear).

But, the good thing, is that the outside world, for the most part, really wants in and wants to visit and discover, and open their eyes - even if under a 'big-brother' pretense. We will take whatever we can get to connect to a place like Iran.

Anyways, of course, it’s pretty hard for someone to just say all that off the bat to privileged strangers coming from somewhere that does not actually contribute to helping the situation. Maybe we would have gotten that opportunity if we were allowed to have dinner with someone without the fear of us being spies.

I do not want to give off this impression that what I am looking for whenever I travel is utmost suffering to appease my mental health shit. But, I do want to get a sense of ‘real’ issues being perceived by the people experiencing them, and the 'why' behind them. For example, what ticks the Iranians beyond what I can read in biased news media sources? I am not sure we really got the answer to that given our limited conversational sample size. But - and I am literally contradicting myself - did I just not mention above that I felt more free back at home immediately upon leaving Iran?

So yes, there is repressed suffering going on, and it's tied to the voice aspect. The voice is a hushed undertone. But you know, right now it feels like I am perhaps making unnecessary generalizations; so, I will stop.

Shifts in marriage - With a more liberal generation comes less arranged marriages. Similar to back at home, in your 20s, there are a lot of choices. When you are in your 30s, there are much less choices. But, there is not much deference to arranged marriages, in the cities at least. More common now is marriage to foreigners – for example, to Afghanis who uprooted to Iran because of the war.

Young girls (starting at 9) in more traditional settings can still be forced to marry, and to men quite their elder. Similar to in a lot of other countries, the older generation loves to tell you that children "are the light of the household". Case in point, our friendly farmer host was in shock when we told him we did not have children. He promptly told us basically to go get the deed done in the room we were sleeping in. We laughed nervously.

Divorce is also pretty common. Given Iran’s ‘place’ in the world, the country and its people has suffered economically and socio-economically, and so that has resulted in the “unhappy wife” syndrome.

Further to that, mental health issues are a thing! While there probably is stigma (I am not sure I got that question answered fully and completely), people are depressed because of the aforementioned budgetary stresses, career limitations, gender disparities and lack of voice. People are treated for depression (though access to good public or privatized healthcare is difficult), but suicide rates are high. That being said, while I have yet to read into actual research further, I feel grateful that I was able to push myself to ask the question. I after all wanted to know, because all I knew going in is that it may or may not be taboo. But, hearing people say that 'mental health' is something in another part of the world (where I may have perceived a taboo situation) is a really big step forward, I would think, for eliminating stigma.

You cannot see the politics and conflict in people. People are not necessarily defined by politics or religion. It's the same at home. But, for Iran, at the end of the day, from what we could see, there is a constant seen and unseen ‘battle for power’ between religion and politics. When one group rises to power, the other does not account for different groups’ needs or wants collectively, and vice versa, so people perpetually feel like they are suffering, and rightly so. As previously mentioned, I wish we had more of a chance to talk to more people about how they viewed the Western world, and their overall place in the world; but the people that we did get to talk to did not espouse hatred or intolerance. Iranians are not scary people; they are very much the opposite. Mind you, we never talked to really traditional hard-liner people, and maybe it is best that we did not, except for one clergyman Jon almost started a two-hour tea break with; he was given a “letter for you” as we left the mosque. Let's just say it's a "pretty interesting letter'. I found overall the entire country to be this odd-mix of orderly, yet fairly laid back in nature all at the same time.

We did get the chance to talk with this family at a park in Tabriz, and they were welcoming, kind, and so interested to learn about us and why we wanted to visit Iran. The parents wanted their one shy son to practice English with us, and wanted to drive us all over the city. That was probably our one glimpse of the famed Iranian hospitality we had heard about, but unfortunately could not get our grasp on (in the cities anyways; we received wonderful, kind hospitality in the villages). Pretty much everyone, despite their place in life, their situation, or if everything was falling apart around them at the moment, smiled at us widely and was really friendly.

I am not sure if the people we met were really “outside looking in”. I guess we will never know until we go back. I just hope the situation between Iran and Canada changes one day; and we at least become more disassociated with this US grouping we have been bracketed into. I would hope for a day where it does not take half a year to get a visa.

Okay, so...that was not so, so bad for people under 'big brother' watch? I think we still compiled some interesting perspectives for sure. Overall, it was a good trip to see and experience a country with many wrongful misconceptions and labels.

I am pretty sure I have more to say but these are kind of the resonating thoughts in my head right now, at least while I am trying to force myself to write so all these memories do not leak from my brain. I hope that I did not actually paint a negative picture of Iran at all, because I think it is certainly a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It is blessed with diverse geo-landscapes, boundless culture, heart-stopping architecture and depending on who you can access, extremely kind and interesting people. Also, the food is just really good. It just felt really tough in the end to experience this almost unexplained 'repressive wall'. And I mean, locals might know that as 'life', but that reality is still kind of hard to experience and process.

Anyways, I wrote in the beginning that my mind is stuck in a bit of a negative rut versus positive, positive being where it usually is when I return from travels. I am not sure where my mind is at exactly right now. I guess I need some time to ‘think’. I do not ever want to say that a trip to Iran would turn my head off from travelling, but right now, I am kind of ‘happy’ to be home, away from airports, and to be in Toronto for what appears to be a mild summer. And maybe that’s a good change for right now, and something I should relish in.


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