Iran is in the spotlight again thanks to Mr Trump’s measured and articulate twitter comments over the past few days. Not really. And no, I have no public opinion on that except to say that I was in Iran during a similar situation a few years ago that involved British/Iranian confrontation in the Persian Gulf and, let’s just say, I witnessed the story from both sides through various media outlets. I’m not a political commentator nor an academic and generally keep my thoughts to myself regarding all things troll-inducing, so I’ll leave that for others to argue between themselves as to the merits of the hot potato opinions this might induce. Let’s be clear – I’m just a retired teacher and sometimes writer and poet, who aches to see some kind of balance when the word Iran appears on our screens. In this I admit a personal interest, as my husband is Persian and I have actually been to Iran many times with the family, feeling it essential that our children have knowledge of their cultural heritage on both sides. Equally, I feel that it gives me a better perception into the lives of ordinary Persians rather than being speculative from the outside. In some ways I compare it to how commentators used to be/still are (?) about us. Northern Ireland, over the years, received nothing but negative press but gradually, as more folk started to visit our shores, there came a better understanding of how we actually tick and how unhelpful it is to put us into selective boxes (name your own). So, in an effort to redress the balance a little, I am including here a piece I wrote about an experience I enjoyed while visiting an ordinary school in Iran a while back. I have no reason to believe it might be any different now.
A few years ago I visited a primary school in Tehran. I went under the invitation of the school’s headmaster who was interested to know how my own school might compare to his and what they might learn from us. It was an eye-opening experience.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Iran. Tehran. A city school full of suppressed youngsters strictly supervised by women in crow-like outfits. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint. It wasn’t like that at all.
From the moment I set foot inside the school building I wasn’t thinking of what the differences were but the similarities. The walls sang with the pupils’ work. Poster painted self-portraits. Landscapes. A themed project on spring. I could’ve been walking down the corridor of any primary school in Northern Ireland.
I suppose, if I’m honest, I might’ve been expecting something else myself. Glum-faced teachers. A cane above the blackboard. Something rather extreme perhaps or a bit more tightly disciplined. It’s amazing what perceptions we have about people and places until we experience them for ourselves.
So, as I entered the first classroom of six-year-olds, their cheeky faces welcoming me through the door, I felt completely at home. Yes, they all stood up respectfully when I came in but after that it was business as usual. “Miss, can you help me with this sum?” “Miss, where’s our visitor from?” or “Can I go to the toilet now please?” All in Farsi of course, but it didn’t take a translation to get the gist of their needs. For, after all, what is it that children actually need to make them happy? Encouragement to learn – yes. Guidance to help them make better choices later in life. Love. Laughter. A hug every now and again – definitely. And the fact that they come from Iran, Ireland, China or wherever, just doesn’t seem that important.
Towards the end of my visit I spotted a painting by one of the boys which stopped me in my tracks. It showed Mount Damavand, Iran’s highest peak; a blue river flowing below, the black scattering of crudely drawn birds in the sky above. It could just as easily have been the Mournes. Even geographically it seemed, there were comparisons that I couldn’t get away from.
Okay, so I needed to cover up my hair loosely with a scarf. I had to make sure my jacket was long enough to cover my bottom. No big deal as it happens. Funnily enough you’d probably be disappointed at how ordinary the people are over there – that they’re really not as different as you might like to think. It took the children of a Tehran Primary school to remind myself of that.
So, I can imagine that for those of you reading this with your political hats on, you see only naivety and a simplistic view of what is, of course, a complicated and highly controversial subject. Again, I won’t be drawn on that, but for the rest of you who can open yourselves up to an honest account of those aspects of Iranian life not much talked about or observed, then I am thankful for your time. Hopefully it encourages you to find out more.