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Our Man in Tehran Answers Your

Questions About Iran


By THE NEW YORK TIMES MAY 15, 2015

After more than a decade reporting from Iran, Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau
chief for The New York Times, says he’s slowly starting to understand the country where
nothing is as it seems. Here, he answers questions about Iran submitted by readers.

Q. What is one thing that Iranians are most curious about the outside world? —
Lawrence Ciulla, ​@lawrenceciulla on Twitter

A. I think that, deep down, many Iranians are curious whether the rest of the world is
really that different from their own country. People here do travel, often to places such
as Turkey and Dubai. Inexpensive travel opportunities have been one of the reasons that
Iranians are less isolated than they were 35 years ago. The increase in foreign travel just
over the past 15 years has changed Iran as more Iranians become familiar with how
people in other countries live.

Q. Do people in Iran have a sense of humor? What is the best way to


describe that? — Tom Zee, Netherlands

A. Iranians seem to make fun of everything in life, especially their worst


setbacks. If they did not have this outlook, I don’t think I would have stayed
here as long as I have.

Translating humor is always complicated, but Iran, like other places in the
world, has a vein of humor that plays on regional stereotypes. People from
Isfahan are considered to be stingy, so they are the butt of many jokes, as are
the people from the Caspian Sea city of Rasht, where they are known for their
liberal ideas.

Though Iranians often exhibit a great sense of humor, they are also very
concerned with keeping up their “waterface,” or their honor. Jokes are often
made behind people’s backs. At the same time, many Iranians here take great
pleasure in joking about important public figures.

Q. I would like to learn how gay, lesbian, and transgender Iranians


navigate their public and private lives. Also, about tourism, and women
traveling alone. — Heidi King, Westport, Conn.

A. Heidi, you might be surprised to hear that gays and lesbians do not always
have to navigate their lives that differently from heterosexual Iranians. Here,
everybody seems to keep up different faces in their public and private lives.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once infamously claimed that


there are no gays in Iran. But last year the Iranian Parliament issued a report
saying that 17 percent of the population is gay.

Contrary to what some might think, there is no law here against


homosexuality.

Transgender Iranians can have sex change operations. Ayatollah Khomeini,


the former supreme leader, had said that transgender people are sick and that
those people born in the wrong body must be helped.

Now, Iran is no easy place for gays, lesbians and transgenders. But any
perception in the West that people are hanged regularly on every street
corner for their sexuality or gender identity is far from reality.

Q. What aspects of Iranian culture and life do Iranians wish Westerners


knew more about? What is the biggest misconception the West has about life
in Iran? — Alexandra Brinker, Suffield, Conn.

A. When a foreigner visits Iran, many people here would likely try to convince
her of all the country has to offer.

“Look at our climate,” they might say. “In Iran you can ski in the mountains
and swim in the blue Persian Gulf waters on the same day!”

“​Visit Isfahan​,” another unofficial Iranian tourism spokesman might say. “It
is truly a magnificent city.”

Iranians will remind visitors of the many physical splendors of the country
then spoil them with their hospitality. There will be food, music, fruits, tea
and, at the end of the evening, one’s Iranian hosts will offer you a bed to stay
the night only so they might repeat for you the entire ritual the next day.
The goal is to make sure visitors leave loving Iran — its culture and its people.

This might seem a bit much, but Iranians worry that Westerners often think
this place is one big desert where Iranians ride camels to work.

Also, Iran can be a lonely country, surrounded in the region by neighbors


with different cultures, languages and religions. Iranians have learned that a
good way to survive in this hostile region is by being so hospitable that
visitors become allies and emissaries. If the hosts can be really convincing,
some guests may just stay.

Q. Has the government of Iran set any limits on what you can and cannot
report? — Matthew Doherty, Tewksbury, Mass.

A. Matthew, thanks. That is, of course, a very valid and good question.

Journalists who work here for foreign news media companies are not
censored. We are not required to show our articles to the Iranian authorities
before we publish them. But after an article is published, the authorities or
ordinary people might get upset or claim that our stories contain lies or,
worse, are part of a campaign by the enemy to achieve this goal or that
objective.

There are many sensitivities here, and pressures on reporters. Not only is the
government extremely careful about how it is portrayed abroad, but ordinary
Iranians are also very sensitive to the way the foreign news media reports on
their country. A foreign correspondent here must navigate a minefield of
sensitive issues because, no matter the concerns, readers of The New York
Times rightfully expect objective, verifiable information.

Do not forget: Iran is a lonely country where people feel as if they are
surrounded by enemies, including the United States. They are as suspicious
of a foreign reporter as some Americans would be suspicious of an Iranian
reporter in the United States. In fact, journalists working for Iranian state
television at the United Nations in New York are not allowed to travel beyond
a 20 mile radius of the city. Here, I need a permit every time I want to leave
the capital. Tourists, however, can travel the country freely.

Q. What effect will the Internet have as it exposes Iranians to modernity? —


Pat Marron, Sandpoint, Idaho

A. The Internet is changing Iran as it has changed the world. ​Even the clerics
here are online​, and Iranian ​politicians have active Twitter and Facebook
profiles,​ despite the fact that those social networks are among many websites
that are officially blocked here.

Still, Iranians are avid users of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which are
hugely popular here. People circumvent official firewalls by using illegal
software that is widely available for purchase from Iranian websites that are
not blocked.

There are several tech companies in Iran, and there is even a local Amazon. A
large part of the public debate here takes place online. Iran is not as closed off
as, say, North Korea.

Q. When young Iranians think about their country, what makes them feel
proudest and most optimistic about the future? — Will Raynolds, Brooklyn

A. Young Iranians — and there are many — mostly find their pride in
education. The country has a complicated acceptance process for the state
universities, which charge no tuition and are free to attend. The screening
process, called the concourse (it’s borrowed from the French, spelled and
pronounced as “concours” here), is a nail-biting nationwide event in which
hundreds of thousands of boys and girls compete to be one of the top
200,000 students to be accepted. They are ranked, with one student earning
the celebrated top spot. It’s very competitive.

Some candidates are so talented that they do not have to register for the
concourse. Maryam Mirzakhani, who became the first woman and the first
Iranian honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in
mathematics, was accepted right away. She now lives in California.

Education is a way for Iranian students to advance in Iran and abroad, by


winning scholarships from foreign universities. Every year, 150,000 highly
educated young people leave Iran to pursue their studies elsewhere, often in
the United States.

There are around four million university students in Iran, with most
attending paid universities.