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American Blogger in the land of “Down with USA”

View from Iran has always been a very attractive blog for me. An American blogger based in Iran writes about her daily experiences in the land of “down with America”. Tori Egherman, the American blogger, has now left Iran. She and her husband have just published a book of photos and essays about their four year experience living in there. I spoke to her about her blog, book and real and virtual life in Iran.

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Q: Would you introduce yourself, your blog and your book?

For the past four years, I lived in Iran where I found myself in need of creating new identities for myself. Online, I became Esther Herman, the American who wrote the blog View from Iran and for Mideast Youth. To others, I remained Tori Egherman. My husband and I spent almost four years living in Tehran where we struggled with day-to-day issues, the problems of running a small business, and got to know his family better (he had spent his entire adult life in the Netherlands and in the US and had not seen the bulk of his family for almost 22 years before we went to Tehran).

Our blog started as a way for us to communicate with family and friends and soon became a more public forum. Our book Iran: View from Here is a book of essays and photographs that Kamran and I took while we were in Iran. The photos tell the story of our experiences there and present an Iran that can be hard to imagine. Kamran and I were interested in the public aspects of daily life in Iran. Many books deal with historical Iran, beautiful Iran, and ethnic Iran. Ours is a look at day-to-day Iran. (Click here for a Flash presentation of the book)

“A stranger in Tehran”

Q: How was it to be American and live in Iran where “down with America” is almost it's state slogan?

I can count the times I was made to feel uncomfortable about being an American on one hand. The Iranians I met were just so unfailingly polite and kind. Everywhere I went, people were genuinely excited to meet an American. During my stay in Iran, I met Iranians from all walks of life: from the religious to the secular to the revolutionary and everything in between. During that whole time, I met one person who scared me. When I told Kamran that the guy scared me, he said, “That guy? That guy scares everyone, so don't worry. It's not because you are American.”

One time my husband, a British friend, and I travelled to Bandar Abbas: an ethnically Arab part of Iran near the Persian Gulf. “I am not going to tell anyone that I am American,” I told Kamran and our friend Kate. The chaos that ensued after the US attack on Iraq made me nervous about revealing my nationality to Arabs. At the airport, we got a taxi. The driver, quite predictably, asked Kamran where we were from and Kamran answered, “Our friend is British and my wife is American but she wants me to tell everyone that she is from Canada.” The driver laughed, explained that we were all brothers and sisters, and then launched into an anti-regime complaint. So the only time I decided to be Canadian instead of American my talkative husband foiled my plans.

There are many people in Iran with anti-American sentiments, and my husband Kamran met quite a few of them. The thing you have to understand is that in Iran hospitality almost always trumps ideology and belief. I always say that hospitality is Iran's first religion. If I did meet people with anti-American sentiments, they would have repressed those feelings rather than insult me.

That said, I hate the “Down with America” chanting. I remember watching Iranian pilgrims at Mecca raising their fists and chanting “Down with America!” When I would complain, my Iranian friends would say, “It means nothing, why does it bother you?” I told them, “When I go to religious services, we don't chant “Down with Iran!”. We don't go into the streets to chant against your country.” It's a different world. In Iran, these kinds of slogans have very little weight. In America, they mean a lot.

Taxi Talk

Q: In view from Iran you have a category called “taxi talk.” Can you explain it a little bit?

We, like many people in Iran, did not have a car (or a driver). Everyday, Kamran and I took at least two taxis. Sometimes more. Sometimes we took private taxis and sometimes the public taxis. Public taxis have a set route and pick up passengers along that route. In both cases, you could find yourself involved in conversations on a myriad of issues: politics, society, culture, sports, health… A friend of ours speculated that Iran's taxis were a kind of informal polling system.

Drivers will tell you that one in three of them works for intelligence. Most people I met in Iran would confirm this figure. While one in three might be high, there is no doubt that many drivers do report to intelligence services. The taxis are an informal network that is, in many ways, Iran's most effective communication net. Rumors and news are discussed, jokes are passed around, juicy bits of gossip come out. During the recent crackdown on women's dress, for instance, the taxi drivers were the ones with the most information. They knew where women were being spoken to gently (but firmly) and they knew where women were being physically harassed.

Blogs humanize Iran

Q: How do you evaluate blogs influence in Iran?

The main influence of blogs is to allow people to have a forum for ideas and experiences that cannot be discussed in public. In Iran, there are few opportunities for public discussion or and for meeting strangers and making new friends. The blogoshpere has offered this opportunity to many Iranians.

I think that their influence on the political sphere in Iran itself is limited. On the other hand, I think the blogs offer a valuable insight into Iranian life for people living outside of Iran. They humanize Iran.

Image vs.Reality

Q: Do you think in the West, do we have an accurate image of Iran? Do you think blogs can play a role to make a bridge between west and Iran?

No I do not think that we have an accurate image of Iran. I do think that blogs can play a role in linking the two. I would caution that Iran is an extremely class-based society. The Iranians I met seemed to use their own experiences of Iran to extrapolate about the whole of Iran. Here is a story that exemplifies this: It is common for travelers to meet Iranians who say something like: “In the West you think we are a country of deserts and camels. We are not. You won’t see camels in Iran or very much desert.” Well the fact is, much of Iran is desert and there are wild camels living all over that desert. I've seen them! Iranians tend to travel in Iran to see family… they rarely break out of their own social class or social circle, and they believe that everyone else in Iran shares their views.

Q: Do you see any similarity between Iranian blogs and American ones?

Yes! Iranian blogs are amazingly diverse, just like American ones. You have political blogs like Kamangir‘s, Abtahi‘s, even Ahamadinejad‘s … our nieces and nephews in Iran read blogs about Harry Potter and David Beckham. There are blogs from people of all walks of life. Think, when Iraq had one blog (Salaam Pax now blogging at Raed in the middle) Iran reportedly had 70,000!

Filtering Hurts

Q: Can you tell me the names of some English sites that get filtered in Iran?

Many English sites get blocked in Iran. My favorite, The Onion, is blocked. I think that is so that Iranian reporters do not unwittingly use it as a source the way The Beijing Evening News once did. A design site called Boxes and Arrows is also blocked. I sent in protests every day for about a year, but the site was never unblocked. Women's health sites are blocked. This, I am certain, is the accidental side effect of the regime's over-protective filtering policy.

And even though most women's health sites are blocked, you can still read Savage Love. (don't tell anyone though ;-) ) At our site, I have a list of a few of a few of the sites that were blocked when I tried to access them. Just scroll down the to “Filtered” on the sidebar of the site.

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