by Sara Masry
Sara Masry moved to Tehran this September to pursue her Master’s degree in Iranian studies. After a couple of months there, she reflects on her experience in her new host country and on the social, cultural and political relations of the region.
The Middle East has long been undergoing a period in which inter-governmental relations are becoming ever-more strained from above, while less critical thinking is employed from below. As tensions between various states are reaching pinnacle after pinnacle, it has become more common for people across the region to take national politics as a benchmark for how to perceive and in turn, treat those of different backgrounds, leading to a great deal of bigotry, chauvinism and generalisation towards entire populations. As politics and diplomacy in the Middle East may leave us wanting for some time, it is worthwhile and even vital for the region’s residents to start considering matters in a more constructive way, from the ground up.
It is undeniable that while such views may not be shared by all, there is a fair deal of stereotyping and generalisation originating from certain governments and individuals in the Arab world towards the people of Iran and those of the Shi’a faith. The sources of this harmful phenomenon may vary among different groups, but they are doubtlessly buttressed by the sour relations between governments in the region and that of Iran. Common stereotypes may and do indeed exist on the other side, however that is an issue for the Iranian people to consider. Having been privy to such dangerous, divisive modes of thoughts from compatriots and others in the region, I believe it is extremely necessary to give adequate attention to this issue, which threatens to drive ever-larger wedges between the peoples of the Middle East. For that purpose, instead of focusing on the negative stereotypes attributed to the country and its people, this piece will present a brief outline of my experiences as a student living in the Islamic Republic so far, specifically the positive socio-cultural aspects.
The first point, which was clear from the moment I arrived, is the overwhelming sense of community evident in the country. From my experiences and observations, people in Iran not only see it as a duty to help others, but are grateful for the opportunity to be a constructive addition to one another’s day. Although there exist clear class divides, as in most other countries, this does not supersede the kind and generous spirit with which Iranians generally conduct their overall relations towards each other. This is not just the case for those of their own nationality: as a foreigner, I’ve been made to feel completely at home, able to settle in with incredible ease despite being in a different environment. This is first and foremost due to the good nature of the locals and the abundant help and generosity I’ve received, ranging from my neighbours to complete strangers on the street going out of their way to make sure I don’t get lost.
While prior to my travel many expressed concern that I would be subject to prejudiced attitudes due to my Saudi heritage given the history and nature of regional politics, this has in no way been the case; on the contrary, I’ve been welcomed with interest and sincere kindness by Iranians from all walks of life. Moreover, I’ve found the local culture to be a diverse and tolerant one, which doesn’t impose any ideal or value at the expense of others. Although there is an arguably monolithic view of Iran in the rhetoric of countless international media and official sources, its population encompasses radically different social groups co-existing seamlessly. This strong sense of community among the people of Iran, regardless of social, religious or economic background, is something to be coveted. Continue reading