Why there’s more to Iran than you think
An extract from a little interview I did with Stylist magazine about contemporary Iran – read the full article here
Luscious landscapes, hipster hangouts and a flourishing foodie scene – these are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Iran. British-Persian writer and cook Yasmin Khan explains why that’s about to change
In my mind, Iran has always been the most magical place. As a child growing up in urban Birmingham, it represented a completely different reality – a beautiful, green idyll where we’d go hiking up mountains and swimming in waterfalls on family holidays. It was the place I’d go to connect with my relatives on a small family farm, which provided an enchanted playground for my cousins and me. We’d spend our days running around the rice fields and picking pomegranates to eat down by the stream, popping the ruby seeds between our fingers and relishing its sweet, sticky juice. In among the fruit trees, laden with figs, apples and walnuts, a few chickens ran around. There were also several cows that we milked so as a young child my grandmother taught me how to churn butter.
In fact, the majority of my memories of Iran revolve around food. To this day, I can’t smell the scent of saffron without imagining I’m there. Whenever I’m in need of comfort food, I’ll ask my mother to make Loobia Polo – a rice dish made with lamb, green beans, saffron and cinnamon that quietly steams away on the stove for ages and smells like home. Cooking has always been an important part of spending time with my family, so much so that whenever I picture my grandmother in my head, I always envisage her chopping vegetables. We would sit outside on the open veranda, preparing the main meal at lunchtime for 10-20 people. All the generations would get involved – my gran, my aunts, my cousins – and together we’d prepare the most sumptuous feasts. Everything about life at the farm felt safe, lush and serene.
In the UK, however, the image most people have of Iran is very different. Growing up in the Eighties, Iran was seen as a country of conflict and horror. I became acutely aware of the difference between the country I knew and the country my friends saw portrayed in the media. I remember, at 16, hearing Labour MP Tony Benn speak positively about Iran during a school trip to London. It was the first time I’d heard another British person talk about it in a way that reflected how I felt, who recognised that the unrest reflected the regime [in power since the 1979 revolution which established an Islamic Republic] and not the people. It was an amazing moment to find out someone else understood.
Today, Iran is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ask the average person what springs to mind when they think of Iran and they’ll likely mention chador-clad women, angry mobs or nuclear weapons. Reports depict a narrow political prism of the Iranian government and religious clerics, oppression and struggles [the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to where the country borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, far away from tourist regions, due to ‘political unrest’]. But there is so much more to the country than this: reports don’t represent ordinary Iranian life or the overwhelmingly progressive values of Iranian people.