Disneys capt jack sparrow in iranian bedrooms iran mall tehran 1

Is Iran safe for travel? (Part 4)

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Is Iran Safe for Tourists?

One of the things tourists often mention is the gargantuan chasm between the reality in Iran and what the world thinks of it.

You think you’re risking life and limb going to the land of hostile radicals. And then 24 hours later you’re surrounded by teens clamoring to do selfies with you. Why?

Aren’t you guys supposed to hate me? Don’t you remember, “Death to blah blah”? What the heck is going on?

I know because I’ve been there myself. Actually, just 14 months ago, I was bitching about Iran before flying back from Europe – although my fear was about being paralyzed by the crappy Internet and stress wrought by the traffic and the pollution.

If Iran is safe for travel – why then all the fear?

The problem is that we think we know people and places but we really don’t.

This clip of Diane Morgan’s character finding out Aristotle wasn’t into dancing cracks me up. It exemplifies of how we develop emotional attachments to our beliefs, even when they are bonkers. Follow our YouTube channel here.

It is easy to confuse facts with impressions – particularly when it comes to foreign people and places we only know through news clips.

In previous articles in this series, I explained why I feel safer living in Iran, that almost none of the headline-grabbing arrests apply to tourists, and why I take with a grain of salt what foreign diplomats and travel advisories say about unfriendly countries.

Decide on Iran’s tourism safety based on facts not hearsay

The huge gap between reality in Iran and how it is perceived is constantly on my mind because I face polar extremes: I have friends who gratefully visit and I also have friends and family who think I’m wacky for even suggesting travel to Iran.

First: Fear of Iran is not a product of bigotry or conspiracy or malice toward Iran, like some Iranians claim.

In fact, Western news media’s reporting on Iran is almost always accurate. NYT and BBC face real competition. They have their own reputations to protect, not those of the bureaucrats who’d love to control what’s reported.

But what’s missing is balance and context.

Repetition of news media warps our opinions about whether Iran is safe for travel

For almost everyone, information about Iran comes exclusively from the news media. But the news media are not a balanced source of information. They’re not supposed to be. They report the negative because that’s their job. 

And the news is reported without context. The news media are like sports announcers yelling out the latest volley simply because it’s new, not because it’s relevant to our lives.

News reports what they said or did to us today or yesterday. But there’s never enough space to explain why (and the nasty things we did to them decades earlier that triggered the conflict.)

News is also engineered to sell: flashy, shallow, to be consumed addictively in large quantities with the least amount of thinking. It’s to the mind what sugar is to the body.

Dailybeast graphic putting a manovelant shade on iran article
Example of ignorance about Iran. This is a graphic used on DailyBeast.com to illustrate another Iran-is-bad story. But the outfit of the supposed bad Iranians depicted is Arabic. No one dresses like this here. The sunglasses, though, are very accurate. Bad Iranians always wear dark shades.

News media’s warping effect is subtle and quick

News media’s bias for the negative warps our perception of foreign people and places. And it happens very quickly. 

Years ago, during a long period of unemployment, I became a fanatical reader of The New York Times – in lieu of doing something rational, like searching for a job. 

Rain or shine, I got up early to grab the paper at the end of my driveway. That and coffee often occupied entire mornings.

Oh, those glorious days of the world coming to me on paper. If NYT could ship me the smell of that paper in a bottle, I’d buy it.

But there came a day that I heard myself say that the Japanese, of all people, are “different” and not in a good way. 

It came from reading just a few stories about Japan’s lack of charity toward immigrants, its refusal to stop hunting whales and the denial of some WWII atrocities.

I was clueless about the internal politics that rendered an acknowledgment of the past political suicide, the same way Bill Clinton was pilloried for suggesting an apology for CIA‘s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s government.

I knew not a single Japanese person and had never visited the country. But, hey, I was a prolific reader of all the news fit for print and confident that I knew plenty.

Warped ideas about unseen people (really their governments) gel into emotions

What’s more, we develop emotional certainties on who is bad based on the actions and rhetoric of their governments and notorious personalities. Eventually, even the occasional good news is filtered by confidence that this place and these people are dangerous or at least innately incompatible with us.

After all, our brains are perfect victims for the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias.

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.

Warren Buffett

Shortly after 9/11, the wife of a dear friend sat in my kitchen and swore that Islam turns people into terrorists. The woman has two Master’s degrees.

The visceral beliefs of the masses are the critical fuel for unspeakable tragedies. They’re what politicians rely on to trumpet violence – until corpses of soldiers chasing non-existent WMD’s start piling up.

Many good people aren’t aware their false impressions on whether Iran is safe for tourists

I stopped inviting a Spanish friend to Iran because every time I did, he’d throw up his hands and say, “Come on. There’s always war over there.”

The last time there was a war in Iran was in 1988. The number of terrorist attacks here since then, including those from Iran’s archenemy ISIS, is a tiny fraction of the attacks in Europe and North America.

But I don’t blame my friend. He is convinced by decades of negative headlines gelled into a seemingly trustworthy heuristic.

Iran safe for travel? Positive depictions of Iran are hard to find

There’s a lot of negative news coming out of the West as well. Just the count on the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean is sickening.

But the deluge of bad news is balanced with the positive depictions of Europe and the Americas in our social media feeds, movies, books, even the fairy tales we grow up with. Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter speak to hearts of Iranian kids too.

The West’s cultural hegemony is a huge advantage.

Disneys capt jack sparrow in iranian bedrooms iran mall tehran 1
Hollywood myth of Captain Jack Sparrow part of the décoar of a children’s bedroom display at furniture store in Iran Mall, Tehran. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Imagine if all your news from America were broadcasts of Donald Trump rallies.

But no matter how much xenophobia the orange man spouts, the world’s knowledge of America is balanced with depictions of normal decent Americans in the media we consume.

Normal, decent Iranians don’t appear in Hollywood movies or any other movies outside Iran save for the Iranian Oscar contenders, which typically appeal to the arthouse crowd. Hollywood tells us Iranians beat their wives and take hostages.

Is Iran safe for travel? Definitely not according to Hollywood. Source:Argo (2012)

The people who do visit Iran are special 

I don’t argue anymore with people who are dubious about whether Iran is safe for travel. I just say come see for yourself, which, of course, could draw more heat. 

But the invitations are worth the bother because the people who do come are often exactly the kind of people I cherish: insightful, educated, multicultural, tolerant seekers who yearn to see the humanity in others.

I cherish them almost as much as escaping the insane traffic here for the desert. 


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3 responses to “Is Iran safe for travel? (Part 4)”

  1. Soko Avatar

    Your opinion of the “news media’s” bias rather suggests the source might be too limited and I dare say American, but then I assume, in consideration of your content your target readership are Americans ? Nevertheless & further to “Is Iran safe for travel ?”, considering Americans, British and Canadian tourists can only visit Iran as part of a tour group and/or individually with an authorised/officially registered guide, at all times their safety would be guaranteed & as you have pointed out far safer than many other countries.

  2. Ali with Saeideh Avatar

    Hi Solo, 🙏 for your comment. You got a point that I didn’t consider about Canadians, British and Americans being accompanied by a tour guide. A competent experienced guide is worth their weight in gold when it comes to resolving misunderstandings with locals and keeping visitors from doing risky things. Costs more but is great insurance. And pisses me off how guided are often abused by the agencies with low pay and pressure to perform unrealistic itineraries.

  3. Ali with Saeideh Avatar

    Hi Solo, 🙏 for your comment. You got a point that I didn’t consider about Canadians, British and Americans being accompanied by a tour guide. A competent experienced guide is worth their weight in gold when it comes to resolving misunderstandings with locals and keeping visitors from doing risky things. Costs more but is great insurance. And pisses me off how guided are often abused by the agencies with low pay and pressure to perform unrealistic itineraries.

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