I recently spent nine days in Iran. It was my first visit to this mysterious country. I gave six talks on creative leadership in three cities and had plenty of time for sight-seeing and meeting people. Here are some of my impressions.
1. The people are hospitable and friendly. Everywhere I went people were keen to talk. They were friendly and curious. Men and women wanted to show off their command of English and to ask what I thought about Iran. ‘What is your idea of Iran?’, they asked. They know that media coverage of Iran in the West is generally negative and they are keen to show the positive, friendly side of their nature. Iranians are not arabs – they are much more western in appearance and they are more open and sociable.
2. The traffic is horrendous. For anyone coming from a country with some degree of road discipline Iran is a shock. Iranian drivers disregard many of the rules and conventions that we take for granted. They drive through red lights, they disdain indicators and switch lanes at will, there is no right of way or gracious giving way – they drive at a space and play a game of chicken with other drivers to see who will concede. At one stage our taxi driver was driving with a mobile phone in one hand and gear stick in the other – no hands on the wheel. You sometimes see three or four people on a motorcycle and none has a helmet. Crossing the road is extremely hazardous – though Iranian pedestrians have learnt to shimmy across multiple lanes of fast moving traffic. It is little wonder that Iran has the highest rate of road deaths per capita in the world with some 25000 fatalities a year.
3. The ancient cities are beautiful. Some of the places I visited had wonderful Islamic architecture and fascinating sights. In particular I was amazed by Imam Square, Imam Mosque and Chetel Sohun Palace in Isfahan, Golestan Palace in Tehran and the Haram and shrine to Imam Reza in Mashhad. These are wondrous places that you should see before you die.
4. Women are highly constrained. For a western observer the role and appearance of women in Iranian society is a fascinating topic. Women make up a majority of graduates from Iranian Universties but only a small minority of professional or managerial workers. They have to conform to strict and restrictive dress codes. They must cover their arms, legs and hair so that only their faces show. We observed that a policeman saw a young woman whose tunic (over her trousers) was judged too short. He reprimanded her and phoned her mother to report her misdemeanour. As a westerner you can talk to Iranian women, who are often highly articulate, educated and opinionated, but you should never touch them or shake hands with them. My impression was that they are repressed by a male dominated society and they mostly resent it.
5. There are no dogs. People think that it is unclean to keep animals in their flats or houses so you never see anyone walking a dog.
6. It is a cash society. No-one uses or accepts credit cards. People carry huge bundles of Iranian notes and pay with cash.
7. You feel safe. Unlike in London or New York, I felt that I could walk anywhere at anytime safely. I never felt threatened or in danger (except when crossing the road!). You do not see beggars or tramps. The people appear fairly prosperous and at ease, without the gulf between rich and poor that we have. Obviously there is no drunkeness because alcohol is banned.
8. Freedoms are limited. You can get onto the internet but sites like Twitter, Facebook, BBC, CNN, Guardian etc are blocked. Gambling and drinking alcohol are banned. It would be unwise to criticise the government in a public forum – though many do in private.
9. There is not much to do in the evening. You can enjoy a good meal in your hotel or restaurant but after that there is not much to do. I went for a stroll, chatted to people, enjoyed an ice cream or a cup of tea, played a game of chess or backgammon and then went to bed. The TV channels are very limited and there is a fair amount of anti-American propoganda.
10. Muslims and Christians happily co-exist. I met some members of the Armenian Christian community. They live entirely peacefully alongside the Muslim majority though there is no inter-marriage between the two groups.
Despite the restrictions, Iran is a fascinating place to visit. It makes you think about the freedoms that we take for granted and the excesses that our freedoms lead to. I look forward to returning to Iran.
Paul Sloane writes and speaks on lateral thinking and innovation. He is the author of The innovative Leader.