Jonathan Lundqvist is a Swedish blogger who visited Iran and shared with us his travel experience in his blog. By reading this we discover many interesting things about Iran such as how western magazines are censored in this country:
Q: Please tell us about your thesis about Iran and your trip to this country?
A: I went to Iran to research my masters thesis on Iranian blogs. The project was funded with help from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, who are promoting democracy in the world. I stayed for around six weeks in Iran.
In short, the thesis (to be published after peer-review, later this fall) is about if and how blogs can help Iran to move towards democracy. I do this first by redefining the concept of what is considered political action to better adjust it to the Iranian situation, and second to relate it to western theories of democratization.
I met and interviewed twelve bloggers about their motivations to participate in the public sphere – some in English and some in Persian using an interpreter.
Q: Is there any difference between reality in Iran & image that we have about country through our media?
A: There’s a huge difference! Although Iran is very close to Europe in terms of geography, the media portrays it like completely different world – and mainstream media often try their best to polarize it according to the simple, easy-to-chew good guys/bad guys dichotomy. This isn’t true – we all know this – but it’s really overwhelming when you get there. I found people to be very interested in, and open-minded about, western culture. Very different from the simplified version the western media presents. Sure, there are the official anti-usa wall paintings, but at the same time young people are wearing t-shirts with the American flag printed on them!
Another interesting angle on this is that a lot of Iranians watch western satellite-TV, and are indeed very conscious about how they are described. And they can’t recognize themselves. One of the more common things people I met said to me was “Please, when you go back to Sweden – tell them about the real Iran. How it really is!”
I’m sure there are fanatics in Iran, just like anywhere else in the world. But the people I talked to – some I just met briefly in a store, others at museums or over a cup of coffee – were not gun crazy Hezbollahs. That’s the real Iran. There might be reasons to fear the Iranian government. But do not fear the Iranian people.
Q: What was your experience of Iranian cafe net/cyber cafes? How are people cope with filtering?
A: I spent quite some time at internet cafés since they are a great place to meet people, and I got the feeling that most people knew ways around the filters. There was a lot of interest in proxies and more secure solutions such as the Tor onion router. The biggest fear among bloggers was to be included in the – often very arbitrary – filter, since it effectively removes a huge chunk of their audience.
So in a sense, since a lot of people knew how to get around the filter when they really wanted to access a certain site, the censorship seemed to strike harder at someone who wanted to speak, then those who only wanted to listen.
Interestingly enough I also discovered what appeared to be uncensored internet available at a certain library in Tehran. I didn’t dare to check a lot of sites (nor porn sites, for obvious reasons) but political blogs that are normally filtered were accessible from the library's computers. Obviously I couldn’t really ask the staff if this was a technical oversight or if it was left uncensored on purpose. It intrigues me to this day.
Q: You have published very interesting photos about Iran and you wrote about your trip in your blog. What were your readers’ reactions to them?
A: First, let me just say that I had to take certain precautions while in Iran. It’s not unheard of that the authorities get upset when foreigners poke around in what they consider being “their business”. So, my strategy – to protect myself, and perhaps more importantly the people I interviewed, I decided to stay as far down under radar as possible. Better safe than sorry. This meant two things: no blogging (I even erased the posts I had already made before going), and very little photography. (Dr. Jahanbagloo was arrested a few days after I arrived, and there were rumors of more crackdowns.)
But, I still managed to snap a few shots with my conveniently sized (and very touristy) digital camera. Some of the pictures I took really showed how ordinary Iranians use the public sphere to fight back. There was for example graffiti with web addresses to blogs in meter-high letters on walls in Tehran. I doubt that they were left there for very long, but they still show the dramatic effect blogs can have on the society, I believe.
Q: Did you chance to talk with some English speaking Iranian youth? Something interesting about these conversations to share?
A: Yes, I met a lot of wonderful people who really made an effort to make me feel right at home. The hospitality and curiosity seems endless. Once you get closer to people though, you realize the double-nature that people are forced to live with. On the surface everything is fine, but look closer and everyone has something to say about the government: “inappropriate” jokes and one-liners are extremely common once you get off the sidewalk and into a more comfortable and private setting; deeply rooted fears about the consequences of the Iranian government’s foreign policy are found in most people. One important thing for my research was also that I met quite a few people who explicitly said that they did not dare to operate a blog.
Also the society itself is very different from what I expected it to be. The people I talked to before leaving basically told me that I should give up on the idea of finding female interviewees, for example. This was in reality no problem at all. I found it very easy to mix with girls, and only a few days after I arrived I found myself in a “hidden” backroom of a restaurant in northern Tehran celebrating a girl’s 25th birthday! I ended up with just as many interviews with women as with men – something I’m very happy about, since women’s participation in politics is an interesting angle.
And everyone is dreaming about leaving for another country.
Q: Do you want to add an experience, souvenir, idea from your trip?
A: Maybe this is expected of me, but I would really like to emphasize the greatness of the internet! Globalization is not an easy matter and can be discussed at great length, but one aspect of the borderless internet is really clear – it is a wonderful tool at bringing people together. And I’m not saying this only in an academic sense, but also from a personal point of view. I have great faith that we can indeed get closer to one-another across seemingly huge geographical and cultural differences. I hope we can bypass the traditional media, and get directly to the source: don’t wait for the editor of your local newspapers to tell you what’s in the minds of Iranians; read up on the blogs. Don’t wait for Discovery Channel’s documentary about life in Mashhad; go to Flickr and see for yourself.