Nadim Siraj: Secret Notes From Iran

Based in Noida, Nadim Siraj is an author, journalist and columnist. He’s one of the Founder Editors of Empire Diaries, a current affairs website he jointly launched a few years ago, after spending over a decade and a half in mainstream media, working with The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, The Statesman and Muscat Daily. As a journalist, he covered the economic collapse in Greece, poverty in Kenya, life in Egypt, post-Apartheid South Africa, and Nepalese life under Maoist control. He also writes columns for Chinese media outlet, CGTN. Nadim spent three weeks in Iran in the summer of 2017, a time when US-Iran relations were tense. Based on this visit and his observations there, he wrote Secret Notes From Iran: Diary Of An Undercover Journalist, which was published by Mumbai-based Leadstart Publishing. Here at BooksFirst, we have a perpetual fascination with Iran and the way things work in that country, so we caught up with Nadim for an in-depth conversation about his book, life in Iran, what older Iranians think, and what younger Iranians want.

What is it that really goes on in Iran? Nadim’s book, Secret Notes From Iran, has some answers, which go beyond the Western media’s usual narrative

Tell us a bit about your interest in Iran? What is it about Iran that you found most fascinating, and what was it that inspired you to write Secret Notes From Iran?

Iran was on my radar ever since I moved to Muscat, Oman, in 2010 for a few years as a journalist. Iranian films such as The Wind Will Carry Us and The Song of Sparrows and filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi were close to my heart. Besides, the country is perpetually painted into a corner by Western mainstream narratives as an enigma, as a rogue nation. Just as I was planning to explore the country, US-Iran tensions reached an all-time high. As journalists, we started getting feelers that the US was mulling an invasion, and I made up my mind – it was time. I needed to pack my bags and head straight into the heartland of Iran, and catch the pulse from right inside before things turned uglier. Thankfully, the rumblings didn’t escalate into a conflict. But the entire Gulf region was tense at that time when I left for Iran for a three-week-long adventure.

At the time I was visiting Iran, I was frankly in two minds about whether I would write a full-fledged book, or a series of investigative articles, or produce both. A couple of days into the tour, I decided that the experiences deserved a focused book through which I could tell the world about Iran and Iranians from ground zero, and shatter a few misconceptions. Apart from the urge to demystify Iran’s enigmatic image that was manufactured by the Western press, another reason why I decided to write a book is that there are tons of work out there on the country, but none of them present Iran from a neutral standpoint. Readers can either grab books slamming the Supreme Leader’s regime and championing the need for a fresh Western intervention. Or you have books blindly praising the clerics and cursing Western designs. Both views are one-sided. With that in mind, I wanted to put together a picture of Iran and the geopolitics surrounding it, by critically looking at all the belligerents involved without taking any sides. I wanted to give readers a book that tells them about the devious inner workings of the clerics, a book that sheds light on what was wrong with the Shah years, and a book that also exposes the past and present of American imperialist moves against Iran.  

Most people outside Iran probably have some thoughts or pre-conceived notions about the country, even if they have never actually visited Iran. Did your own view of Iran – its cities, its people, and how things work in that country – change in substantial ways after you went there and spent a few weeks going around the country?

You hit the nail on the head. It’s only when you visit Iran that you realise how terribly off-the-mark the global perception is. When I was going in there, some of my friends and colleagues had cautionary words of advice for me: ‘Watch your back.’ It was as if I was walking into a minefield! But as I landed in Tehran and began to explore the country, crisscrossing Iran on bus, cabs, domestic flights and walking trails, I learnt new things about the place every single day – incredible things that countered the manufactured narrative. It’s a long list of revelations, so I will mention just a few of them.

One, there’s nothing to be worried about the so-called secret police and shadowy surveillance etc. It’s a Western fabrication. Yes, if you look closely in crowded places, you will sometimes notice members of the moral police walking around, keeping a quiet eye on women’s headscarves. But the streets generally never looked like I was in some Orwellian police state. The situation at anti-clergy protests is messy, of course, but then that’s the case anywhere on the planet where protests take place, like here at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on protest days. One reason why there’s a general calm on the streets of Iran, as I noticed, is that most women, albeit reluctantly, follow the rule of covering their hair with scarves, at least loosely. Very few of them rebel against the diktat – and it’s the laudable acts of the rebels that make it to the western media headlines.

Two, I found that Iranian people are extremely fond of Indians because they are absolutely crazy about Bollywood. They look at Indian cinema as musicals that they don’t get from anywhere else. Indian travellers are rare to find on the streets of Iran. But when the locals find one, they just pounce on them – especially the chatty Iranian women. I lost count of how many Iranians wanted to foot my bill at the laidback teahouses of Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz – just so they could impress me with their knowledge of Bollywood flicks and Indian movie trends, and hear my opinion on Hindi film stars. More than the men, it’s the Iranian women who walked up to me at crowded places to exchange pleasantries so that they could discuss Bollywood. I remember one breezy afternoon at the surrealistic Naqsh-e-Jahan Square in Isfahan, a young Iranian woman firmly rebuked me at a teahouse because I told her I didn’t follow Ranbir Kapoor films!

Three, in contrast to India whose economy relies on foreign products and foreign brands, Iran has a very robust and independent domestic economy, and they wear it on their sleeve. I backpacked through so many marketplaces and down busy high streets. Very rarely did I find banners and neon lights advertising foreign goods and services. It’s mostly local products and local brands out there, including their cars, bikes, clothes, and street food. For three weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were almost no KFCs and McDonalds, no Samsung and Apple stores, no Coca-Cola and Starbucks, no Adidas and Nike outlets. No Walmarts. No Domino’s. No Pizza Huts. From fast food to gadgets to fashionwear, Iranians prefer to buy and sell Iranian. It’s something laudable about Iranian culture that the world outside doesn’t know about. Their economic self-sufficiency is something to learn from, for countries such as India where foreign products dominate the marketplaces. I realised after the trip that this economic resilience could be one of the reasons why some Western governments don’t like the Iranian government.

Four, I was stunned to find the impeccable maintenance of the heritage sites and the streets in general, barring a few nooks and corners in Tehran. For all its foolhardy religiosity, the government has a lesson for the world in how to maintain heritage locations – especially because most of the sites were built by the clergy’s rival faction, the Shah family. The Naqsh-e-Jahan Square and Chehel Sotun Palace in Isfahan, Vakil Bazaar, Eram Garden, Pink Mosque, and Persepolis in Shiraz, Grand Bazaar and Golestan Palace in Tehran, the coastline along the Strait of Hormuz – these places are so well looked after that they look like they were built only in the last few years.

In the context of petro-dollars, an issue you’ve spoken about in the book, would you say that the US and other Western countries have exploited Iran and have dealt with the country on unfair terms?

Oil politics is at the heart of the Western world’s conflict with Iran. Tehran is one of very few oil producers in the world that perpetually defy using the mandated US dollar for crude oil sales. The mandated system is called petrodollar recycling, which I have tried to deal with in granular detail in my book. Noam Chomsky, too, touched upon this petrodollar system in the interview I had with him in the book. The irony is that had Iran not been doggedly pushing back at the US diktat over how its crude oil business should be run, it wouldn’t have suffered interventions and vengeful actions from the West. Some civilisations come with a firm spine! That’s how Iran is. Hence, all the bloodletting between Iran’s regressive but economically independent clerics on one hand, and the liberal but hegemonic US-led West on the other.

Oil politics has taken a dramatically different turn in recent years. There’s a fast-growing pushback from an increasing number of countries around the world, including India, Russia, China, and Brazil, which want to end the US dollar’s hegemony, and thereby, snuff out the petrodollar system. The current Iranian regime has gained remarkable leverage over the US due to this global turnaround. As a result, Iran is now flexing its oil muscle more than ever before, freely getting to sell its crude oil for currencies other than the US dollar. This situation was unimaginable a decade ago. US invasions of dollar-defying nations such as Saddam Hussain’s Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya are now a thing of the past.    

What does the ‘common man’ in Iran have to say about their country’s political leadership, the ‘Supreme Leader,’ the patriarchy, unjust treatment of women, the frequent executions (more than 200 people this year have been executed, according to a Reuters report…)? Does the older generation (those who were around in the 1970s) feel that things were better during the Shah’s regime?

During those three weeks, I discovered that unlike native populations of the Arab world, especially the Gulf countries, Iranians openly love discussing the state of affairs with foreigners. So, it’s like this. There’s a sharp divide among Iranians when it comes to how their government works and American interventionism.

The older generation – as I found in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, and Qeshm – are highly supportive of the Supreme Leader and the theocracy. Elderly people, 50 years old and upwards, ignore the government’s rigidity and poor human rights record. Instead, they’re highly critical of Western narratives about Iran and the American push to overrun the country, like it happened in the past during the Shahs. Elderly Iranians hate the West because they feel Iran’s economy should remain as independent as possible.

The younger generation, meanwhile, openly told me – especially many with whom I interacted with in Isfahan and Tehran – that they dislike the cleric-led regime, and are eagerly waiting for the country’s society and economy to open up. Young Iranians are charmed by the American way of life. Even though they are possessive about their traditional lifestyle, they have a soft corner for Western trends and products, which they say they miss at home. In fact, in Shiraz and Isfahan, I came across young girls who I saw boldly taking off their mandatory headscarves in public glare, taking selfies, and instantly posting their daring acts online. It’s a trend that has been raging in Iran’s big cities for a few years now, of young women challenging the clergy’s headscarf mandate. The trend got me so interested that after the trip, I contacted Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad and interviewed her for my book. The activist is in exile in the US, and will be arrested upon returning to her homeland. She runs an awareness campaign to get Iranian women inside the country to click selfies without headscarves and share them on a Web repository.

Some Iranian youngsters I caught up with in Isfahan told me they wanted their basic social rights at all costs, even if it means Western democracies should help bring about regime change. It’s not just Western brands that young Iranians are fond of – they are also culturally attracted towards the West, despite having their own vibrant indigenous cultural values to flaunt. Here’s an amusing story: During my tour, I noticed a few instances of young women in Tehran walking around with bandaged noses. At first, I wondered if Iran had a domestic violence problem. But later, I learnt from some locals in Tehran that young Iranian women with high-bridged noses are very fond of nose shapes popular among Western women, and in a bid to ape their look-and-feel, they go for surgeries to get Western-looking noses!

So, you can see the deep divide in opinions between elderly Iranians and young Iranians. Aged Iran dreads the West, stands by the theocratic system, and doesn’t have a high opinion about the Shahs because of their historical proximity to the West. Young Iran loves everything American and wants to get rid of Ali Khamenei’s regime. They want Iran to go back to the days of the Shah and they want to enjoy their basic social rights.

Glimpses of Iran
Photo Copyright: Nadim Siraj

What were some of the most challenging, most difficult things about going to Iran, meeting people there and writing a book about the country?

I had anticipated that it would be challenging to get people to talk on sensitive matters, so I went in on a simple tourist visa, not declaring myself as a journalist or as someone visiting Iran to write a probing book. While I was surprised to find that Iranian people actually enjoy chatting up with tourists and they love debating current affairs, they naturally avoid going deep into the problem of religiosity, and how the Supreme Leader’s administration works.

Let me share two interesting experiences. As a social experiment, I had made up my mind that during the visit, if I get asked about my faith, I would spill the truth – I would confess that I’m an atheist. So, there you go, on a few occasions, Iranians walked up to me, exchanged pleasantries, and dropped the big question: ‘What religion do you follow?’ And every single time, my answer was: ‘I don’t follow any religion.’ While the answer left them surprised, which I could see from their expressions, they never made me feel intimidated at all.

One day, I visited the decommissioned US embassy in Tehran. During the Shah era, the site hosted a full-fledged, clandestine CIA operations hub. That CIA facility was busted when the embassy was shut down when the 1979 Iranian Revolution took place. The current government has left the busted CIA spying centre as it is, allowing people curious about the subject to drop by and take a look at the secret gadgets that CIA once used to spy on the Shah regime itself! It’s so interesting that I have dedicated an entire chapter to the visit to the ‘Den of Spies,’ as the Iranian government calls it.

So, while I was wrapping up the CIA site visit, having taken a good look at all the spyware, the woman heading the security unit at the site said hello to me. After exchanging pleasantries, she straightaway asked me about my faith! When she heard my standard answer, she was surprised, but very politely she told me that there was no need for me to hide my faith, and there was no need to lie about it! She said that and walked away, leaving me confused. Moments later, I realised what she meant. Basically, she presumed I was Jewish, and that’s why I was afraid to reveal it to her, since Israel, home to Jews, is a bitter rival of Islam-dominated Iran. It was a hilarious conversation. She really thought I was faking atheism, and that I was an undercover Jew who dared not say it aloud.

There’s another experience that actually left me a bit rattled. It so happened that one afternoon in Tehran, I was walking down a street adjacent to the Iranian parliament, and I was clicking pictures of the seat of administrative power. A pot-bellied man intercepted me and began interrogating me. I realised that there could be trouble ahead – he was a plain-clothes security guy. Taking photographs of parliament buildings from close quarters isn’t allowed in most countries. In Delhi, too, I would be ticked off if I tried getting too close to the parliament building with an SLR camera. But when you bump into this kind of a moment in Tehran, where the security is always extra suspicious of foreigners, you’re bound to feel a bit tense.

Thankfully, the security guy didn’t escalate the matter. He made me open the camera’s display and I had to show him the recent series of clicks. When he sensed that there was nothing suspicious about me, he somewhat angrily asked me to stop shooting the parliament ever again, and that I should immediately scoot away – which I happily did!

People from ancient Persia as well as more contemporary Iran have migrated to India for centuries. Today, what is the Iranian people’s view of India and of Indians? As an Indian, were you made to feel welcome in Iran?

Iranians are really fond of Indians. And it’s not just because they love Bollywood. Many of them told me that they feel some kind of connection with Indian culture and tradition, especially art and craft, musical instruments, and classical musical forms. Except for my testy exchange with a plain-clothes security guy near the parliament in Tehran, I was literally adored and welcomed by the average Iranian on the streets. During my walking trails through the serpentine, timeless bazaars, I could hear locals following right behind me calling out: ‘Hindo-staan, Hindo-staan!’ That’s what many Iranians call India, I realised there.

And many of them would rattle off names of Hindi film stars after a brief introduction, eagerly waiting for my reaction. At a restaurant in Shiraz one evening, when a waiter was rattling off the usual names – SRK, Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, etc. – I interrupted him and teased him, saying, ‘These are common names that everyone knows. Tell me one rare name from Bollywood that will convince me that you really know Hindi cinema well.’ So, this guy took a meditative pause, went into deep thought, and came out with a winning answer – ‘Sridevi,’ he said with a victorious look on his face! He passed the test – the guy knew his stuff. That was indeed a fun moment.

I also learnt another thing. Many young Iranians, mostly affluent, in their mid-20s, and living in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan, regularly visit Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru for exotic and extended yoga and meditation trips. It’s quite a trend among young, educated urban Iranians. They have a thing for yoga and Indian yoga gurus.

As for the food scene, I personally relished Iranian dishes because despite being an Indian, I’m not a fan of spicy stuff, and Iranian cuisine is delicious and yet not spicy. Iranian mixed grill platters, coupled with saffron rice, is the ultimate foodie’s experience there. Those who are always on the lookout for spicy food may find that element missing, but the aromatic saffron rice and the variety of grills will make up for that loss. As engaging as the food is Iran’s average teahouse – as traditional restaurants and inns are called there. They can mostly be found in the bazaars. The best ones can be spotted in and around Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, Shiraz’s Vakil Bazaar, and Isfahan’s Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. The traditional ‘shai,’ or tea, is served in transparent glasses and copper pots, along with mint leaves and fancy sugar sticks. Milk tea is not popular there.

There’s another thing about Iranians that caught my attention. They love to hang out in families – and large families. Compared to India, where people are generally family-oriented, Iranians are even more fond of their family-centric lifestyles. At any time of the day and late into the nights in Tehran and several other cities I walked around as a backpacker, I could always see families, and large ones at that, hanging out – at Shiraz’s Eram Garden, Vakil Square, and the night-long footpath markets; at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar; at Isfahan’s public squares and along the banks of Zayandeh River; and along the coastline of the port town of Bandar Abbas.

Despite the restrictions placed on them by their leadership, Iranians have been able to find ways to live life to the fullest. Today, Iranian authors and filmmakers are doing world-class work. But what do young people in Iran want? What do they desire most? Are young Iranians happy to embrace their own culture, or do they want to ape the West?

As I discovered from conversations with youngsters, mostly in Isfahan and Tehran, and while travelling around on public buses and ferries, Iranian youngsters are perpetually caught up in a tricky situation. On one hand, they love flaunting their own cultures, their own lifestyles. At parks, squares, and along busy lanes, you can see young people showcasing their own artforms, from music to paintings to craft. You can see young people selling authentic Persian products such as carpets, miniature art, and Iranian kebabs, instead of manning Westernised, branded stores. In fact, believe it or not, you will also bump into taxi drivers playing chess on the bonnets or backs of their cabs, while waiting for passengers. I felt guilty when I asked a cabbie to drop me off to a landmark in Shiraz, and he and his friend hurriedly wiped the chess board clean midway into a game in order to take the ride!

Iranians, especially the young people, are trapped in two worlds. In one world, they love their own culture. But on the other hand, they’re increasingly leaning culturally towards the Anglo-American West and its brand-centric, stylised lifestyles. Some youngsters hanging out at the beautiful Khaju Bridge on Isfahan’s Zayandeh River told me that they are fond of Western brands, and wish that Western goods are someday available in Iran. I figured that they basically are fond of Western cars, movies, pop music, fashion wear, and fast-food chains. And this tendency to yearn for Western, especially materialistic American lifestyles, comes largely from two sources. One, due to the influence of smartphones where they freely get to see the hyped Western world; and two, due to the constant and suffocating religious policing of their own regressive government.

Tell us a bit about your own reading preferences. What kind of books do you like to read? Any favourite genre? Favourite authors? Would you like to name the three most memorable books that you’ve read in the last 1-2 years? Any books that are on your must-reads list for 2023?

I’m mostly into reading non-fiction. I prefer picking up books on geopolitics as it’s my core interest area. I jointly run a contrarian current affairs website called Empire Diaries. I love reading the stuff written by Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Vijay Prashad, and John Pilger. I also have a thing for anthropology, and I’m a big fan of Desmond Morris’s maverick books. And I try finding time for reading up on experimental philosophy, such as the lovely works of Robert Pirsig and Albert Camus.

Some books I loved reading in the last couple of years are William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, Utsa Patnaik’s The Republic of Hunger, Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest, and Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record. As for my bucket list, I just got hold of a pair of books by Rajiv Malhotra – Snakes in the Ganga, and Breaking India. Eager to find out what they have to offer.

Secret Notes From Iran is available on Amazon. Also see Into The Sunset: Rediscovering Greece, which Nadim has co-authored.

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