Neither East Nor West: One Woman’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran
© 2001 Christiane Bird
Christiane Bird didn’t have an ordinary childhood. Her father was a doctor attached to a Presbyterian mission a world away, in Iran. They focused more on healing bodies than converting souls, but the Iranian revolution still forced them to return to the west. Despite all the negative news about Iran in the decades that passed, however, Bird remembered her time in Tabriz fondly and wondered (as an adult) which parts were true, which parts were merely disguised in the haze of childhood nostalgia, and which parts had disappeared or endured. So, contacting one of her father’s former colleagues in Iran, Bird requested a visa and set about touring the country, living in the homes of Iranians and talking to them in her rough Persian about their lives. Neither East nor West is a travelogue through Iran, but Bird’s previous experience and emotional ties to Iran produce an memoir that isn’t just another wide-eyed tour through an ‘exotic land’, Combining her travels with reflections on Iranian history and culture, she has produced a balanced look at Iran much needed in the west.
Bird’s journalist visa gave her more freedom of movement than an ordinary tourists’s, but she remained under the watchful eyes of the tourist-management of the Iranian government, and was required to find local guides. As time wore on Bird suspected this was done out of genuine concern for her protection, as Bird encountered several potentially volatile situations. (She also actively courted them, as she visited a shrine in Mashdad that strictly prohibits non-Muslims) Bird toured Iran throughout 1998, when a bombing in Saudi Arabia had cast a darker-than-usual pall over DC-Iranian relations, and President Clinton was answering charges that he had lied under oath regarding his kennedian antics in the Oval Office. Bird’s interviews with Iranians — from liberal Tehranis to orthodox Qom clerics — involved both give and take. Bird’s various guides encouraged her to live with them and their families during her stay, and she often did, bonding with their daughters and friends. Bird queried her new friends about their life before and after the Iranian revolution, probing for its effects on their lives. They in turn asked her about America: was it really so violent? Were the women really all so skinny? And why did it hate Iran?
Most of the people Bird spoke with had cautious praise for the Iranian revolution, which ousted the Shah and led to its present mixed-state, theocracy and democracy intermingled. While she encountered many young students in Tehran who scoffed at the ‘morals police’, outside the capital other people took Iran’s status as an Islamic republic more seriously; these included women who believed in the hijab and were frustrated that Americans seemed to view the entire middle east as if it were Saudi Arabia. Iranian women run and vote for office and own businesses, for instance, and many would wear the hijab even if it weren’t legally required. She often found wariness about the pervasive moralism of the new Iranian state, a belief that the country had gone too far in the reverse of the Shah. Bird was similarly conflicted by Iranian traditionalism; she delighted in the lack of consumerism and the closeness of Iranian family life, in the fact Iranian men regarded their family and not their jobs as their first priority — but didn’t like how old women on the street would regard any young woman and man talking together on the street as evidence of decadence that needed to be checked.
The Iranian people’s relationship with their republic has undoubtedly changed in the last twenty years; during the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s young people did more than scoff at authority, they challenged it. Many aspects of Iranian culture that Bird encounters here are still present, however: for instance, the overwhelming hospitality she encountered was likewise commented on by Niall Doherty when he found himself in Iran with nothing but $10 to his name. (Another common aspect is the double lives that urban Iranians live; circumspect behavior out in public, and relaxed rules behind the familiar walls of home.) Because it combines travel with history so smartly — reflecting on Iran’s Shi’ism during a visit to a shrine, or on the durability of Persian while visiting the home of a legendary poet — and shares a land that western news presents only as a villain, Neither East nor West could serve well as an introduction to a fascinatingly rich culture that has endured for millennia.