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The Pol-e-Tabiat bridge in Tehran. The bridge, designed by Iranian Leila Araghian, made the writer ask: How did a woman build this in an Islamic republic? FILE PIC

To end 2016, I spent a week in Iran. In line with my mission to discover more of the world and the differences that exist between cultures and peoples, I came home from the week-long trip with a different view of the world, myself and my religion.

I always thought how lucky I was to be able to immerse myself in the English culture and learn principles that allowed me to become a better woman. Going to Iran meant pushing that envelope further. After all, you only learn when you push yourself out of your comfort zone. And, my comfort zone was the highly Westernised lens that I viewed the world through.

Growing up in Malaysia, we are heavily exposed to — and adopt without realising it — Western culture. Our history with the British, too, further consolidates the Western influence on our society. Not that it is negative, but it’s a lens that has become a permanent fixture on our view of the world. Or at least, in mine.

But, my Persian tale taught me a lot — it shocked, confused and scared me. It also made me question: For 24 years of my life, what did I believe in? I realise that in this world, we are always taught to view the world through a certain type of lens. But, my trip to Iran and exposure to the Persian civilisation has made me question some of my thoughts, beliefs and understanding of the world, while consolidating others. It made me understand my Sunni Islam faith more, and the differences between Sunnis and Shias were made more apparent.

I attended lectures at the University of Tehran on my first day by a lecturer who insisted that the Americans were Muslims’ No. 1 enemy. While in Qom, I was told that the Jews, and not Satan, were Muslims’ No. 1 enemy. It also taught me that I should not abide by, and subscribe to, American culture. Immediately, in that lecture hall, I became conscious of my American choice of a phone — an Apple iPhone. However, being a foreign policy and history enthusiast, it was a lecture that I had longed to attend to get an idea of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that happened before my parents were married.

As I walked around and roamed the streets of Tehran, the spirit of the Revolution was still alive and well. The graffiti decorating the walls and buildings were well-maintained to highlight the slogan “Down with the USA!”. But, nothing could compare to the sight of the former American embassy in Tehran.

With aid from watching Ben Affleck’s movie Argo about the 444 days of the “guests of the Ayatollah”, I could only imagine the situation in 1979 that witnessed the breaking of relations between the United States and Iranian governments then. I stood there amazed at an anti-America museum that was once the American embassy. The fresh paint and good maintenance of the paintings that condemn the US reflect the thriving spirit of the revolution — the Iranians today are still clearly reminded of it.

More often than not, while in Iran, I faced confliction. Witnessing such philosophical and intellectual advancement, which is very much translated into a culture in their society, was unexpected. Iran, after all, had sanctions imposed on them. But, that did not paralyse them. The Iranians did not allow it. That itself was a merit of respect to persevere and survive. (For one, instead of a “Subway”, I spotted a similar food franchise that incorporated the aesthetics of “Subway”. It was called “Freshway”.)

The absence of skyscrapers and fancy buildings boasts of a kind of development that made me question my Malaysian understanding of development. “How can you call this development if there are no skyscrapers?” It had contradicted the teachings and lessons I received about shiny new buildings being equated with modernity, development and intellect.

Later, I stood on a bridge built by a woman and was shaken by a sense of realisation. Pol-e-Tabiat, a bridge designed by Iranian Leila Araghian, has won awards and recognition not only in Iran, but internationally, and befittingly, in New York.

In that moment, I realised the complexity of the world and questioned my understanding of it. How did a woman build this in an Islamic republic? Are Iranians not going backwards, due to the sanctions?

I was lucky enough to be in the company of intellects who explained to me and showed me the complexities of the world and the facades of many, and the importance of making well-informed decisions and judgments. They told me I should not believe the description of “Islamic republic” entirely, just as I witness a nightlife come alive after 10pm. They also told me development did not mean skyscrapers or fancy buildings, but having a deep understanding of one’s rich history and culture. But, most importantly, a recognition of a national identity.

I must admit that I have been exposed to certain a society that did not live like the typical Iranian. Some would frequently travel to the US and identified more with American culture than the “submissive” Iranian culture, as some have called it. I cannot help but notice that the majority of those who shared these sentiments were my peers, those who have lived past the “struggles” of the revolution against the Americans. While the sentiments shared by the older generation — those who took pride in sharing tales of their involvement in the revolution — told a different story.

In terms of politics, one can only wonder. But, many are the wonders of Iran and the great Persian civilisation. Despite not having material development and “advancement”, Iran does not lack, but is instead quite advanced. I found the society highly admirable. The people were pleasant and proud of their culture. They were proud of their history, their intellects and their poets — Avicenna, Hafeez and Rumi were the few names that came up. They were the influencers that helped shape and create the world we live in today. Poetry readings over tea at night were common. It was a sight I treasured.

While I still wonder about and try to grasp the complexities that challenge my perception of the world, I cannot help but wonder the impression that Malaysia gives others. Beyond the skyscrapers, food and “shopping haven”, what culture can we call uniquely ours that sets us apart?

Tengku Nur Qistina Petri, a granddaughter of
former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, is a law
graduate trying to find her place after spending time in northern England at the University of Manchester. She is also the daughter of the Tengku Temenggong of Kelantan

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