Ever since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been at the center stage of controversy — from the embassy siege to the nuclear deal. Today, the US government considers the country to be the world’s “leading state sponsor of terrorism” due to funding networks and operational cells globally. So, it’s not surprising that coverage of Iran in Western media is far from positive.
Yet many independent journalists and writers have traveled to the country to see the daily lives of Iranians firsthand. As they’ve discovered, life is dramatically different from what Hollywood and Fox News tell us.
One of these journalists is Stephan Orth, a German author who wrote “Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World,” based on real-life encounters inside the country. The book, which was published in 2018, details his 62-day journey in Iran.
Orth is an award-winning journalist and author who, for nine years, was the online travel editor for Der Spiegel in Germany. In the 304-page book, Orth narrates his interaction with Iranians, the intersection of religion and secularism, and the ways that people try to expand their civil liberties. He notes that Iran is a misunderstood country with a young population that is at odds with the state’s interpretation of religion.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Orth about his adventures in Iran. The transcript has been edited for clarity and the interview took place at the end of 2018.
Kourosh Ziabari: You spent 62 days on the road in Iran to experience the different aspects of life in the country. I know it was your second trip to Iran. How did your preconceptions change after visiting the country? Were there certain stereotypes attached to Iran in your eyes that were debunked after your encounter with the country?
Stephan Orth: In general, a trip to Iran is the perfect antidote against prejudices and wrong stereotypes. For example, I expected to meet more people who are strictly religious. I expected to see more men in long robes and turbans on the streets, and more women in traditional black dresses. The chador is less common than I expected — many women have very colorful outfits. And also in conversations at home, people revealed very critical opinions about the state religion to me.
Ziabari: Were you discouraged by friends and family when you first revealed your plans to travel to Iran? How did you assuage their concerns and convince them that traveling to Iran would be safe and not a tragic idea?
Orth: One friend warned me against looking women in the eyes, another suspected I would meet terrorists on every corner. So, yes, many people have a picture of Iran that is far from everyday reality. After my first trip, I knew already that traveling around Iran is far less dangerous than most people think, so when I did my second trip, I could tell people that I knew what I was doing. The critical situations I had were connected to my job as a journalist and writer. I was afraid the authorities would find out that I’m working on a book, and that could really have gotten me into trouble.
Ziabari: In your book, “Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World,” you write about Iranian politics and leaders who appear to be oppressive and uncompromising. What about the people of Iran? How is their universe different from that of their leaders?
Orth: First, I should mention that I met a special group of people because I used the Couchsurfing website. Members there are normally more open-minded than average people, and most of them [in Iran] are educated, speak decent English and are interested in the Western world. Many of them told me how much they hate this government, how much they despise being forced into a religion they didn’t choose for themselves. More than two-thirds of Iranians are younger than 35. I got the impression that most of them want more freedom than they currently have.
Ziabari: One of the notable discoveries of your book is that there are “two Irans” that coexist side by side: the “theocracy” and the “hide-and-seekocracy.” What do you think has created this dichotomy in the daily life of Iranians?
Orth: In every autocratic society, people find their secret ways to be more freer than the government wants them to be and to break the rules when nobody is watching. Everything that is forbidden outside happens in Iranian apartments, as soon as the door is closed. People drink alcohol, celebrate parties, go on dates. They dance and sing and discuss very openly about the political issues. I think it’s just human nature: you can’t take away basic freedoms from people — they will not accept it and will find ways to get around those laws.
Ziabari: What do you think about the portrayal of Iran in the mass media? The entire coverage of Iran in the mainstream media revolves around reports about sanctions, Iran’s nuclear program and its tensions with the United States. The human face of Iran, its rich culture and arts are almost absent in the stories run by major newspapers and TV stations. Do you agree?
Orth: I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, the rich cultural heritage or the hospitality of people don’t make a sensational news story. Still, it’s important and right to report on sanctions and tensions. News reporting focuses on catastrophes, disasters and scandals, therefore Iran is not the only country about which people don’t get a full picture from the big media outlets.
We live in a time of information overload, where every kind of information seems to be available online. That’s an illusion — you still don’t get a clear picture of this world unless you travel to places with an open mind. I actually see this as my mission as a writer: to tell about the 90% of a country’s reality that doesn’t get much news coverage, and to do this in such an entertaining way that readers realize how interesting it is.
Ziabari: You’ve traveled to different countries. What is the most special and unique thing about Iran and its people that you might want to talk about? Is there anything that makes the country stand out among the different places you’ve been to?
Orth: I’ve been to more than 70 countries, and Iran is the most hospitable of them. Meeting the people was a very touching experience. At some points, it made me even feel ashamed how we sometimes treat foreigners and guests in Western culture.
Ziabari: You talked to many random people on the streets, in cafés, on buses and trains and elsewhere in Iran while traveling across the country. What was the most moving and inspiring story that Iranians told you about themselves or their aspirations?
Orth: A very sad story was a young guy who said that all he wants is to take his girlfriend to a nice bar and treat her to a fancy cocktail. How can such a small thing be illegal, he was asking, and he had tears in his eyes?
A very inspiring person was a host in Tehran who organizes three or four meetings per week where people recite poetry and discuss about the arts. Iran has such an amazing heritage with poets like Hafiz, Sa’adi or Omar Khayyam, and it’s a wonderful thing to keep this heritage alive with events like this.
Ziabari: Iran is not the only Muslim country, or the only country with an official religion. However, it’s referred to as one of the world’s most closed societies and, for some, the reason is down to how religion is interpreted to influence the daily life of people. What do you think?
Orth: In public life, you have to play along the masquerade that this Islamic Republic has become, even if you don’t believe. Criticism of Islam in public or in the workplace can get you into serious trouble. But besides that, people find their ways to have more freedoms at home, and Christians or Jews are more respected in Iran than most people think. My travel experience was that, in everyday contact with people, it doesn’t feel like such a closed society.
Ziabari: Do you recommend traveling to Iran to your friends, family and colleagues? Will you come again?
Orth: I recommend it to anyone who likes to travel and anyone who wants to have some stereotypes in his head rearranged. My father, who is a university professor for ancient history, went one year after me with my mother on a group tour and absolutely loved the ancient sites and architecture. Unfortunately, for North Americans it’s not so easy to get a visa, but they will be surprised at how many new friends they will make on the trip, even if the Iranian government is totally anti-American.
I would love to fly to Tehran tomorrow. I have so many good friends in this country. But after publishing a book that talks about many illegal experiences, a book that led to some controversial discussions in Iran, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to apply for a visa soon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.