As an international leadership speaker, I get to travel to many places both near and far, some familiar, some not so much. Being the kind of person that I am and the work that I do, I would consider myself a fairly international thinker. Recently I had the opportunity to speak at the 9th World Business Conference in Tehran, the capital of Iran. This is a country I’ve always wanted to visit, but I wasn’t prepared for what I would find.
What comes to mind when you think about Iran?
Terrorists? Oppression? Poverty? Burning hot desert?
If so, you aren’t alone. A lot of people, especially in the West, have strongly-held notions of what this very ancient country, originally known as Persia, is like.
I was shocked to learn that virtually all of the ideas we carry around about this country are flat out wrong.
Here are my top 12 mind-blowing misconceptions about Iran.
1. We are much more aware and interested with what’s going on with them than they are with us.
Not by a long shot. I was offline during the nearly 24 hours of travel it took to get from Vancouver, Canada to Tehran. When I landed I had no idea about President Trump’s latest tweets, but that was one of the first things I was asked about. The Iranians are keenly aware of what is happening in America, perhaps more so than some Americans I’ve meet. And certainly the average American knows next to nothing about what is happening politically or socially in Iran—beyond what makes the occasional headline.
I also assumed that because the government controls the TV, all they can watch are religious shows and the Iranian equivalent of Fox and Friends. Moreover, because the government has banned Facebook-Twitter-YouTube etc., I assumed the Iranian people weren’t on social media. The fact is that with Internet work-around apps, every Iranian I met was fully aware of the top Western TV shows and movies, and were regular consumers of every type of social media. They explained to me how it was done quickly and easily and within minutes I went from having no access to full access.
2. They hate Israel/Jews and Christians.
Synagogues—and Christian churches—are regularly attended. Of course, Iran is a Muslim country so the majority of people practice Islam, but you will find—as I did—practicing Jews and Christians. As for hating Israel, more than one person expressed confusion as to why “Israel hates Iran” so much when Iran didn’t have it in for Israel… I guess propaganda works on both sides.
3. Everyone is very poor.
Although the average salary in Tehran is about $500 a month, rent is about one third of the average person’s salary. Like most places in the world, there are both rich and poor people in Iran. However, there was no shortage of wealth. I saw Ferraris and Lamborghinis along with Louis Vuitton heels and Coco Channel dresses. Certainly there is poverty, especially in the rural areas, but the entire nation certainly doesn’t consist of beggars and the destitute.
4. Iran is very underdeveloped.
I was there to speak to business leaders so I was very interested to see where this country was economically. While the state does control much of the economy, in 2009 Iran was in 28th place internationally in annual industrial production growth rate. Iran Khodro is the largest car manufacturer in the Middle East, producing more than one million cars in 2005. Iran has a growth rate of over 20% in telecommunications and its airline industry is robust with Iran Air transporting 6 million passengers in 2016. Sure, there are problems, but Iran is not a backwards nation.
5. They are just another group of Arabs.
Iran is a multi-ethnic, non-Arabic Muslim nation. Historically, Iranians prided themselves on their Caucasian blood. They are insulted when you lump them in with the Saudis and other Arabs. Today Iranians consist of Persians, Azeri Turks, Kurds, Baluchis, Armenians, and many other groups.
6. The food would be too weird.
If you consider beef and lamb kebobs, rice, stews, eggplant, pomegranate, walnuts, lime, prunes, dates and grapes weird, then yes, the food would be weird. Matter of fact, the food was delicious (and if you think it was spicy, think again!)
7. A religious Iman would never listen to the ideas of secular leadership speaker/expert!
The images we are given of the religious men of Islamic countries are often limited to that of some radical ranting and raving. During this recent presentation at a venue that resembled the UN, an Iman (religious leader) sat front and center listening to an interpreter though an earpiece and taking copious notes. At first I was concerned he was vetting me for correctness, but afterwards he came up and very genuinely thanked me for my presentation and for my message on the importance of leaders finding, fulfilling, and doing business from a place of purpose. He did the same thing with each and every one of my fellow speakers—including all the Western progressives.
8. They don’t concern themselves with terrorists, because they grow them there.
Shoes off, belt off, everything in your pockets and bags shoved through the x-ray is something we’ve all gotten used to. However, to my surprise, my bags and I were screened twice after landing in Iran. This on top of the screenings in both North America and Europe. If Iran didn’t care about terrorists, why do they screen everyone coming into the country as well as leaving it? Before I left for Iran I heard from many of my Western friends who all told me to “be safe.” I can say that there was never a single moment where I felt anything other than totally safe.
9. No one would go there for a holiday because there’s nothing to see.
No, you are right, nothing to see. That is unless you are interested in 19-Unesco-registered sites; the oldest mud-brick city in the world; the ancient Persian capital built by Persian emperors from Darius to Xerxes; the city of Isfahan, considered to be the pinnacle of Islamic art and architecture; the highest mountain in the Middle East; countless monuments, mosques and historical buildings as well as vibrant markets, restaurants, and hiking trails.
10. They hate Westerners.
Imagine being in your local coffee shop when someone walks in. Just by looking at them, you can see they are clearly “not from around here.” Do you imagine that anyone in your coffee shop would stand up, put their hand on their heart, take a mini bow and say to the stranger, “Thank you for visiting my country. You are welcome here. We welcome you”? No? Well that happened to me at least five times. The hospitality of strangers was deeply moving.
11. They are greedy, selfish and money-oriented.
I have rarely been treated with such generosity. When one of the members of our group was curious about a dish someone had ordered in a restaurant, the woman who was eating it—a complete stranger—got a spoon and offered a taste. When I asked if soymilk was available for a latte, the coffee shop owner went out and got some just for me. When was the last time either of those happened to you in America?
Final misconception (for this list):
12. Iran is a hot, desert country.
I was there in February and it was -4 C (Or about 25 F) with snow on the ground. In fact, Iran has several very popular ski resorts. Far from being a desert, Iran is a four-season country with January temperatures generally ranging from 40 to 50 F and 70 to 90 F in August. If you are planning on visiting, the nicest months are March through May.
Would I go again? Absolutely, and if possible I would encourage you to do the same.
In order to be better leaders we are forced to examine and potentially correct any the false bias we carry. Iran did a great job of that for me. May it do the same for you.
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