Identity and traveling

When I went to Iran for the first time, I met a lot of worried responses, mainly because of how skewed and plain wrong the media portrayal of Iran is. Especially my parents had a lot of worries on my behalf. On one account they might have had a valid concern, on the worry that merely because I’m danish I could be met by anger and negative reactions. The primary reason to think that this could happen is fueled by how Iran, and the middle east erupted in violence and anger back in 2006 when a danish newspaper printed cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Amongst others, the danish embassy in Tehran was attacked and attempted torched. This also sparked mass protests and boycuts against Denmark, and it will forever taint our image in the muslim world. In the years immediately after 2006, I know that a lot of danish travelers opted to not say that they were danish, but rather some other north european nationality to avoid a negative reaction. While it might definitely be true that there could be some negative reaction from the most devout believers, it is just absurd to believe that anybody would actually blame a single traveler, and take their anger out on them. This is not something that each civilian is responsible for, and just like we shouldn’t generalize muslim people, they wont generalize foreigners either, and recognize that by coming to their countries, we are most likely not supportive of those ideas, and are allies more than anything.

Hopefully all of these thoughts should be fairly obvious. Of course the possible danger should not be entirely neglected, but it is ridiculous to fret too much about it, especially now more than a decade after the fact.

So when I traveled to Iran, and other majority muslim countries for that sake, I don’t have any second thoughts about telling people my nationality, and I’ve only met good reactions so far – people love our cheese especially! People also know about Lego, and funnily enough our beer is also widely known and appreciated in this part of the world, even in Iran where alcohol is very illegal. I can only recommend traveling to this very misunderstood and stigmatized part of the world, where people are amongst the kindest and most welcoming out of anywhere.

So the need to change ones identity as a danish person while traveling is not existent. There’d be no country in which I would not tell people that I am danish as this time.

But actually, I did have one single encounter in Iran, the second time I was there, where I choose to alter my identity due to safety concerns. I didn’t alter my nationality, but I had a very quick conversion to christianity, which might have been excessive even.

It all happened in the town of Kerman in south-east Iran. It is a fairly large town, but it is out of the usual tourist route, because it is relatively close to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a lot of drugs are funneled through this part of Iran, leading to increased levels of criminal activity, law enforcement presence and general lesser development. People here are also a lot more conservative than what you experience in cities like Shiraz and Esfahan. It is still a generally safe city, but it might be worth paying a bit more attention to acting and dressing conservatively. But since it is pretty much deserted of tourists, it also offers a great possibility of authentic experiences where you see the real Iran.

Anyways, while I’m in Kerman, I made my way to the Malek / Imam mosque, one of the main mosques of the city. This mosque is run by some fairly conservative and extremist people, probably related to the revolutionary guards. It was a bit late into the afternoon, and there wasn’t anybody else around, and what appeared to be the main entrance was shut. Not willing to accept defeat I walked around the building and found a back-entrance into the main courtyard. There were some of the tenants there, and I approached them asking if it was ok that I walked around taking some pictures. They didn’t understand english, but still understood that I wanted  to look around. I had just hoped to walk the courtyard taking pictures of the impressive portals, but they asked me for 100k rials (2,5 dollars), and thinking that it was a fair tip to let me go around in apparently after-hours I gladly paid. But this tip also made them unlock the door to the roof of the mosque, giving a much better view of the complex and surrounding area. In that sense it was very nice of them. But. In the inner courtyard there was the first signs that this wasn’t a regular mosque, as there was banners featuring hezbollah fighters, and slogans calling for the defeat and destruction of the US and Israel. Despite what you might think, this is not common to see in mosques in Iran, at the very least not in the touristy areas. When I noticed, I wanted to leave as quickly as possible, a little ashamed of having given money to these people, but they invited me in for tea before I could leave. In Iran it would be very disrespectful to decline such an offer, so I willingly followed them into the tea room.

In there, there was a small group of men, headed by an elderly guy who was most likely the Imam. They started out talking to me, through one of the guys who could speak english, about my trip and how I liked Iran, but the talk quickly turned to them talking about their hatred of the US and Israel, and how they prayed for victory for their mujahedin brethren. I didn’t know how to react to this, so I essentially just kept quiet and smiled, trying not to provoke them. Then they asked where I was from at long last. Still not intimidated enough I replied that I am danish, and suddenly the mood started changing and the elderly man immediately spat out “cartoons” in broken english, and then I knew that ok maybe this could be bad after all. So I broke my own principles and quickly apologized on my countrys behalf, which is just absurd. But they seemed to accept it. In any case they hadn’t shown any particular aggression towards me. Then the natural follow up question was whether I was a muslim. Reading the mood of my audience, I didn’t think it wise to tell them the truth – that I’m a non-believer, so instead I told them that i was christian, and did the sign of the cross. They seemed to respect that, since I was obviously one of the people of the book, and they mentioned how they highly regarded and respected Jesus, as muslims do. So somehow what at one point seemed like a rather volatile situation that could have evolved had I made a wrong move, turned into a somewhat absurd respectful exchange. But I still felt very uncomfortable, not least because of the crazy political conviction of these guys, so I quickly finished my tea and insisted that I had to get going, and then I almost ran out of there.

That is the only time my identity was even close to having been problematic. Normally people are very respectful of your beliefs and (lack of) faith as long as you treat other people with respect as well. People don’t represent their governments, a fact which obviously goes both ways in an encounter between nationalities.

It is also important to note that this one incident was only a fraction of my entire stay in Iran, and at no other point did I meet the slightest bad reactions, or people even caring about my religion at all. Because the matter of fact is that most Iranians are not particularly religious themselves.

It might be important to think about these things, and come to terms with your own convictions, and how seemingly menial things like your nationality could be slightly problematic, even if in real life you’re probably never going to be antagonized based merely on your nationality.

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