David Burns and Limerick Leader columnist Maghnus Collins are continuing their epic cycle in aid of Self Help Africa. Here he writes about the warmth they encountered from the people of Iran while passing through recently.
I write now after 2,800km and five weeks in Iran. That time can be summed up in a word; people.
I could tell you about Mahdi Milani, his sister Homa, brother Hahdi and parents Achmed and Fatima. I could tell you how they took us into their home for two days and treated us as if two returning siblings.
No, I should write about a night in a gym owned by Kazim, the mixed martial arts Iranian and Central Asian Heavyweight Champion. Or the following day when he unexpectedly turned up at the door of our guest house in Tehran having driven for an hour with his friend Sepihr simply to show us the city.
But then I couldn’t fully explain how two paramedics cooked us dinner in a prefabricated hut having offered us refuge from a storm. You’d also never know of how a small village seemed to collectively organise a loft on which we could sleep.
Perhaps, it was in the chance and brief meetings that the magic is best expressed. The countless pieces of fruit handed through car windows or offers of homes in which to stay, too many to feasibly accept. Maybe you would understand if you saw the faces. The indescribable but unwavering openness and welcome.
When you couldn’t see the faces you still heard the shouts; ‘welcome to Tabriz’, ‘welcome Yazd’, ‘welcome in Iran’. It never felt forced or feigned. The welcome has substance and its consistency was overwhelming.
Still, this is no utopia. The warmth of the people cannot prevent the chill of censorship and propaganda. The kindness cannot disguise the anti-semitism and bigotry of the state sponsored media. Crucially, a public who seem to crave peace are steeped in a climate where war is celebrated and propagated.
All this to say nothing of the status of women. Better than the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Sudan but still, as dictated by the Koran, inferior in every practical sense.
It is difficult to reconcile this dichotomy in my mind, even now. I keep returning to a single thought. Lions led by lambs. The petulance and bravado of Iran’s leaders, to me, is borne of fear.
In light of past action, current rhetoric and a long history of Western self-interest the fear is not without basis. It’s manifestations, though indisputably crude and contemptible, are hysterical. All bleating and bluster, yet hollow and terrified. The people, however, who’s sons and husbands died in their thousands less than a generation ago fighting Saddam Hussein’s army, display a resilience and pride that cannot be taught or pretended.
Iranians know how they are perceived. They have told us, again and again. Yet those we have met are determined to refute it. The generosity and happiness with which we have been met was not based on our nationality. It was displayed before we spoke.
The people of Iran have encountered mistrust, defamation, and accusations of malevolence. Rather than react with bitterness and hate they wish simply to be seen as they perceive themselves. Peace-loving, welcoming and proud of their heritage.
I am not naively suggesting that anecdotal evidence of this kind is authoritative, but nor should we naively accept the single all encompassing narrative we are fed. Accept or reject what I have expressed but do so with open eyes and treat western media accounts with the same scepticism and distrust.
For our part we are tired. The last 800km in Iran was spent cycling in heat of up to 50 degrees Celsius. Skirting the edges of the Kavir desert before passing through the Lut desert meant at least seven hours cycling a day in temperatures over 40 degrees.
Heat stroke resulted in nausea and vomiting, and ultimately, two days cycling without any solid food. However, any difficulty we experienced was more than made up for by the people. Iran was the most welcoming country we have ever experienced.
David Burns and our columnist Maghnus Collins continue through Iran in aid of Self Help Africa. See www.sand2snowadventures.com.