At my home on the last Friday of this month (Friday September 28th – which is in six days time), Michael Jennings will be speaking about Iran, and in particular about how he recently spent some time exploring its capital city, Tehran. The easiest link to learn more about Michael’s amazing globetrottings is to this list of his Samizdata contributions.
Each month, I solicit a few words from the speaker, to email to my list of potential attenders. A few days ago, Michael sent me rather more than a few words about what he’ll be speaking about, more words than I need for that email. But I don’t want all these words going to waste, so, with Michael’s kind permission, here they all are. In the email I send out tomorrow evening, I will be quoting from this, but will include the link to this posting, so that all who want to can, as they say, read the whole thing.
So, Michael Jennings on “Exploring Tehran”:
In recent years, I have done quite a lot of travelling in the Middle East.
From the western perspective – and particularly from the perspective of the western media – it is very easy to look at the Muslim Middle East and see something homogeneous. If you are inclined to see militant Islam and related terrorism as a threat, it is easy to see it as a single threat. However, there are two main strains of Islam, Shia and Sunni, and these are centred in two quite different cultures and civilisations: the first in Iran and the second in the Arab world.
These are two of the three largest cultures in the Muslim Middle East – the third being Turkey. These three cultures speak three unrelated languages – Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish – and the history and differences between these three cultures go back thousands of years – long before the time of Mohammed. These cultures are tremendously divided today. Iran fought a truly ferocious war with Arab Iraq between 1980 and 1988, the memory of which hangs over the country the way World War 1 probably hung over Europe in 1935. Much of the wars of the past 15 years in Iraq and Syria have been about Shia Iran (Persia) and Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia jostling for position in the Middle East. As to where Turkey stands in all this – I think Turkey is trying to figure this out.
I am not remotely an expert in any of this stuff. I have, however, spent a considerable amount of time travelling around the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. I love to explore cities on foot. I have done this, or attempted to do this in many places. Slightly less than two years ago I spent 10 days exploring Tehran on foot. Despite the fearsome (justified) reputation of the regime that rules Iran, I found – from my perspective as a Christian westerner – the most culturally familiar and welcoming culture that I had found travelling in the Middle East. Despite the fact that Iran is the only country in the entire world where all women are required to wear a headscarf at all times, I was struck by the fact that the role of women in public life was clearly much higher and that women are clearly much better educated and have a far more prominent role in the economy than in any Arab country I have been to. The Iranian middle class is substantial, and it is a very westernised middle class. At times in North Tehran I found myself in cafes and restaurants that easily could have been in hipster areas of Los Angeles, apart from the lack of alcohol.
I also found something that I should have known already – Iran is a trading, commercial nation. In South Tehran I found myself in shopping streets and bazaars that resembled East Asia – possibly commercial districts of Bangkok or Hanoi – more than anything elsewhere in the Middle East. I found myself sitting in stores being made tea (and being offered illicit alcohol) by merchants who wanted to tell me all about their trading trips to Shenzhen. It was fascinating.
And yet, this is a country that faces sanctions, and is cut off from the official system of international trade. What happens when you cut such a country off from the official system of international trade, and international academia, and international everything and so impoverishing the country, even though this is a culture that wants to participate? Come along to my talk, and I will speculate. Or possibly just show you my holiday pictures.
The basic point of my meetings is for people to attend them, but another point of them is for me to spread a gentle wave of information about people who have worthwhile things to say and interesting stories to tell, even if you do not actually attend. This posting now means that, this month, that second mission is already somewhat accomplished.