Iran is a country with a rich culture. Those who know about its ancient history probably agree that it shouldn’t be judged based on the events after the 1979 revolution. Indeed, there are many people across the globe who simply know Iran through the mainstream media’s portrayal of the oil-rich nation and the stereotypes associated with it: a theocratic, anti-Western country with a controversial nuclear program.
This negative view has discouraged many people — mostly in the West — from visiting the country. Yet there are travel connoisseurs who have explored Iran, a nation associated with names such as Persepolis and Avicenna.
Reinier van Oorsouw is a filmmaker and photographer from the Netherlands who has a keen interest in travel. He often visits places that are not common to the average person. In a five-episode documentary titled “Iran: Is It Really That Bad?” Reinier sheds light on the unseen aspects of life in the country. He tries to figure out if the mainstream media’s depiction of Iran is realistic and engages with Iranian people to understand what their ambitions, interests and worldview are.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to van Oorsouw about his documentary and his observations of the country.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and the interview took place earlier this year.
Kourosh Ziabari: Where did the idea of making a documentary about your trip to Iran come from? How has the feedback been from both an international audience as well as Iranians?
Reinier van Oorsouw: Whenever Iran is in the news, it is about something negative. That made me skeptical — can a country be as bad as the media depicts it as? I wanted to investigate for myself if Iran is open to foreigners and if it is a safe place to visit, and also share my travel experiences with the world.
From Iran, the majority of feedback is positive. People are happy that a different light is being shone on their country, though some say I don’t show enough from real life. From international audiences, I had a mixed response: Some people are genuinely surprised, while others think I’ve been hired by the Iranian government.
Ziabari: You might have received warnings about traveling to Iran from friends and family members before boarding the plane. What were the reactions of your relatives and colleagues when you first raised the idea of traveling to Iran?
Van Oorsouw: Yes! The responses from my surroundings were quite negative. But their cautions were all based on what they had seen in the media, rather than their own experiences. And that was exactly what I wanted to find out. Then again, I had obviously done some research by reading other travel experiences, which all seemed to say more positive things than the general media, hence my expectations were quite mild.
Ziabari: How strong are the stereotypes about Iran in your community and country? What are some of the most notable misconceptions that you think are not representative of the reality of Iran?
Van Oorsouw: The general public thinks Iran is “unsafe,” a sandy country at war. But that’s just based on bias. The most notable misconception is that people think everyone is a religious fanatic. But I experienced that to be the other way around. Sure, there is a group of people who are very strict in their religion, but that happens in every country. The difference in Iran is that these people have a big say, compared to other countries.
I found people on the street to be warm, friendly and interested, rather than the “angry Western-hating” stereotype people might have in mind. We were invited into people’s houses on almost a daily basis. Overall, Iran was one of my best travel experiences.
Ziabari: Why do you think Iran is misunderstood internationally? Is it something that has to do with the Iranian government and needs to be fixed by the authorities?
Van Oorsouw: Well, the news coming out of Iran, which is reported in international media, is quite negative. If I look at the bigger picture, I feel this is how the West wants to showcase Iran in politics, and the media plays along. The Iranian government might be too strict for Western countries to understand. Generally, the divide between Christianity and Islam is misunderstood from both sides, and this is what politicians “play” with.
I feel that people — whether in Iran, Europe, the US or any other country on this planet — all want the same thing: a good life for themselves and their families and friends. Politics is just a game being played on all ends, but that doesn’t represent the general reality on the ground in a country. Most people have an association with a country — if they have ever heard that there has been a war, then this image sticks for a long time. That might also be imprinted in the memory of people.
Ziabari: What is the most remarkable characteristic of Iranian people in your view? Why do you think they’re so keen to paint a better picture of their country in the eyes of foreign observers?
Van Oorsouw: Whenever I said to people in Iran that I was on holiday, the response I got was a very surprised one. It’s a bit like people feel inferior due to the image that’s portrayed about the country. Some asked me, “Weren’t you afraid?” If you feel you are misunderstood, you try to correct the misconception. I feel that is what a lot of people want to do. The “most remarkable characteristic,” in my opinion, is hospitability — people tend to take that very seriously.
Ziabari: It was evident in your film that young Iranians are eager to have a free, comfortable and enjoyable life, have fun and make contact with the outside world. Can you talk more about your observation of Iranian youths and their desires?
Van Oorsouw: True! I feel that most young people are looking for more freedom. These were the people I came into contact with easiest. Of course, there might also be another side of people who have different desires, but I didn’t manage to really get in touch with those people, so that might be a bit unbalanced. However, the majority of young Iranians are modern, have an open look at life, are well-informed and have a good education. I feel there is a desire to make more out of life, especially culturally and in entertainment. Hence, a lot of things happen underground and people push the limits.
I met people fully covered in tattoos, with colored hair, etc. This might be a way of rebelling within the boundaries of the law. In my country, youngsters experiment as well, but mostly with other things. In my experience, this is a phase for most people. A guy who had a mohawk at my [high] school now works as an accountant and wears khaki trousers.
When I see the rich culture that Iran has in terms of old architecture, music and food, I feel there has been a lot of space for creativity in previous times, and what was culturally appropriate at the time but that is lacking now. If people get more [freedom] to express themselves in “modern” themes like sports, music or arts, I’m sure Iran could be a hotspot.
Ziabari: Iran is not the only Muslim-majority country in its region, and it is not the only conservative society in the world. Do you think religion and religiousness will prevent Iranian youths from fulfilling their desire for a better life and enjoying greater civil liberties?
Van Oorsouw: The boundaries set by a government and religion is never to everyone’s liking. I feel in every country, a [balance] is being tried to set. Maybe [some] people think it is too liberal [while others think] it might be too strict. Politicians have the job to keep their ears open and fight to maintain this balance. However, from my personal experience of people I met in Iran, this balance is a bit off. Then again, I mostly met people who would like more civil liberties. So, whether this balance is accurate might be better judged by inhabitants and political observers.
The people I met would love more liberties to express themselves. People who agree with everything the government does might live a very complete life. But as there is a movement to more liberties, I feel there is a growing number of unhappy people who feel restrained.
Ziabari: To what extent is Iran’s public image influenced by its blemished relations with the West? Do you think the portrayal of Iran in the mainstream media in the West will become rosier if it improves its foreign relations?
Van Oorsouw: I feel that the politicians in the West are sticking with the negative image of Iran as it favors them. This resonates in favor when the West put restrictions in place or does other things that might be felt as unfair if the public wouldn’t provide support.
The Iranian government could also play its part by showing how reality is on-the-ground and debunking myths or stereotypes. This is happening in small portions — like a Dutch reporter who has been living in Iran for about 17 years who’s done a documentary series about Iran — he’s called Thomas Erdbrink. A very good insight into the real daily life in Iran. More of these things would be good to shape a more accurate view of Iran.
Ziabari: What’s your advice to your fellow citizens who either plan to travel to Iran or have thought about doing so? Do you recommend Iran as a must-see tourist destination?
Van Oorsouw: Iran is a perfect destination to travel to. Travel is comfortable. Traveling between cities is well-organized and car rentals are also easy. Visas for a lot of European citizens can be arranged upon arrival, flight connections are plenty and the food is great. Iran is full of culture and history, nature comes in many shapes and sizes, and people are all very friendly and warm. There are plenty of reasons to visit.
*[Click here to view the photo essay.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.