Iran open for business
After nearly forty years of strained international relations, the 2016 Iran nuclear deal marked a triumphant step in diplomacy and skillful détente. It seemed, finally, that this mysterious – sometime notorious – country might finally be fully open to foreign business and travel.
When Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi received the second Oscar of his career in February, his response was a thoughtful, measured middle finger to the Trump administration. He’d decided in advance to boycott the ceremony, in response to the The Donald’s executive travel ban on refugees and citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, Yemen and Iran. In his stead were two American-Iranians, US immigrants with dizzying qualifications: Anousheh Ansari, the first self-funded woman and Iranian to travel into space, and Firouz Naderi, a former NASA scientist and Mars exploration project manager. Explaining the symbolism of their presence, Naderi said their professions gave them an appropriate perspective; ‘if you go away from the Earth and look back at the Earth you don’t see any of the borders and the lines, you just see the whole beautiful Earth’. It was an elegant incitement to open minds and bridge boundaries in a time of uncertainty.
After nearly forty years of strained international relations, the 2016 Iran nuclear deal marked a triumphant step in diplomacy and skillful détente. It seemed, finally, that this mysterious – sometime notorious – country might finally be fully open to foreign business and travel. And the world would benefit: the Middle East’s second largest economy is rich in natural resources, historical treasures and ancient culture. There are still catches – restrictions on UK, US and Canadian visitors, as well as deep suspicion of potential spies and subversives. To state your occupation as journalist on a visa application is a no-no, for example. But, to insert my own catchy version of a worn-out expression: Mutual-Respect-and-Peaceful-World-Cooperation wasn’t built in a day…
As the new US President closes borders and threatens to back-pedal reconciliation, it’s more important than ever to push the boundaries of travel, experience and exchange of ideas. Intrepid travellers willing to set aside preconceptions will discover a creative, dynamic Iran on the move from foreign stereotypes and economic and political restrictions. It’s also a deeply hospitable country, young (60% of the population is under 30) and highly educated, with impressive rates of university education amongst both men and women. This new, post-revolution generation is urbanised, tech-savvy and world-wise, beneficiaries of the Internet’s boundary-breaking exchange of ideas – and easily able to overcome the regime’s cyber filters.
Travelling around Iran I’ve been surprised by the number of young people keen to distance themselves from the politicisation of their parents’ generation. They want to tap into Iran’s capacity as an emerging market. I’ve heard plans for hotels, app start-ups, coffee shops (coffee culture is no joke in Iran’s urban centres), festivals, smoothie and burger bars. Yet in many ways Iran’s young head stands on old shoulders – millennia old, to be precise.
Iranians of all ages sing the praises of traditional food, teahouses, carpet making, music and the beauty of Ta’ziah, ancient passion plays that chronicle the 680AD martyrdom of the Shi’a Imam Husayn, still performed today. An enduring pride in Iran’s classical literature – often irreverent, erotic and hedonistic – also says much for the fierce strength of pre-Islamic Republic cultural identity. The authors – Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Rumi – live on in lush shrines, street names and statues, reaching through the centuries to defy the regime’s conservatives. Iranian children still learn their works by heart; Hafez’s Divan is used for fortune telling at family celebrations. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – a 10th century epic chronicling the mythical and historical creation of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire – is a storytelling staple in homes, its tales of magic, romance and derring-do at odds with government criteria for ‘acceptable’ literature.
Iran’s contemporary creators and producers also know a thing or two about navigating boundaries. Penalties for offending or subverting the Islamic Republic’s hardline authorities can be severe, so to operate and publicly air work requires determination and imagination. Public funding for the arts is low and a poor economy has hindered private grants. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – this, the resulting culture is a subtle reworking of the restrictions, rich in talent, celebrated heritage, defiance and national pride.
Iranian cinema, grande dame of the contemporary arts, has particular international reach, with Farhadi, Panahi, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf amongst its most famous practitioners. Their films hang on distinct philosophical themes of dark tragedy or black humour, examining the absurdities of human existence and life in Iran in all its messy contradictions. One example is Jafar Panahi’s 2011 ‘This Is Not A Film’, a rough assemblage of footage of the director’s time under house arrest, awaiting the result of an appeal against a jail sentence and filmmaking ban. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, the USB containing the film was – allegedly – smuggled out of Iran in a cake before previewing at Cannes.
Elsewhere in the art world the effects of the deal promise to project Iran’s shining stars onto an international stage. Some have already broken through, such as the award-winning Magnum photographer Newsha Tavakolian (famous for her frontline war coverage and artwork addressing western media stereotypes and the status of women in Iran) and Farhad Moshiri, a Pop-art influenced mixed-medium creative who in 2007 became the first Middle Eastern artist to sell a piece of work for more than $1m. Gallery culture is strong in Iran, with pioneers such as Nazila Noebashari’s Aaran Gallery and Hengameh Moammeri’s Homa Gallery in Tehran frequently showcasing cultural boundary-bending exhibitions. Gallerists and artists from Tehran to Shiraz told me that competition for exhibition space and promotion was fierce, particularly since the increase in visits of groups of foreign buyers for galleries in Europe and the USA.
Iran’s fashion industry is on a similar trajectory. Considering the government’s strict ‘Islamic’ dress prescriptions, you’d be forgiven for thinking fashion culture might sit on the back burner. Not a chance. There’s certainly an appetite for typical ‘high-end’ international fashion – Roberto Cavalli opened a Tehran boutique in February 2016 and affluent north Tehran’s leafy streets are runways for imported designer brands. But there’s also an exciting new generation of native designers, carefully adhering to regime dictation whilst creating unusual, attractive and subtly subversive clothing that appeals to Iran’s young demographic. Reza Nadimi, who describes his designs as ‘middle-east goth’, produces surreal, monochrome, clean-cut creations that would look at home on the streets of Paris or Stockholm. Anousheh Assefi’s Anar Design focuses on colourful, patterned variations on the manteau – a loose robe worn by Iranian women as an alternative to the cloak-like chador. She incorporates vintage prints and pre-Islamic artwork into her designs, an ironic twist on the staid, dark stereotype of everyday fashion in Iran.
To be blunt, matters of isolation and economy mean Iran has a dated tourism infrastructure. There are of course exceptions – such as the magnificent Zein-o-Din Caravenserai in Yazd’s desert or the lavish Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, a 300-year-old complex of lush gardens, restaurants and luxury suites – and warming international relations have signaled heavy private and government investment in hotels and other infrastructure. The extravagant Haft Khan complex in Isfahan, built by a millionaire pistachio merchant, features seven floors of restaurants and coffee shops, a showcase of traditional and modern architecture and culinary excellence. Development of Kish Island, in the Persian Gulf, aims to create a luxurious resort destination and an attractive free trade zone. With 5.2 million visitors in 2016 and more expected this year, Iran is relying on tourism to become a mainstay of the economy.
In any case, from the jaw-dropping 6th century BC-built expanse of Persepolis to Tehran’s 2014 cutting-edge Tabi’at Bridge, from the Caspian Sea to the deserts of the south, Iran’s jewels are compensation for any outdated plumbing or lack of beach resorts. To travel to this country in the initial wave of visitors post-deal and pre-development is an extraordinary experience. Ignore that chest-beating and fake news – it’s time to forget about macro-politics and take an intrepid jump into a dazzling, approachable culture.