Exactly two Sundays ago, an episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown aired and it was all about Iran. As an Iranian-American, it was an episode that I couldn’t wait to see, but was also one that prompted me to hold off on posting a review. I really wanted some time to allow the episode to set before I went off firing my opinions about it. Since it is a topic that impacts me personally, this review features pictures from my grandfather’s visit to Iran in 1999.
I haven’t been to Iran since I was a child, but Iranian is a label I’ve been intricately tied to since birth. At different times in my life, I’ve felt like an outsider to both Iranians and Americans since I’m not just one of these things. Sometimes, the people I deal with are amusingly befuddling, such as the girl who once sat next to me on a flight and couldn’t figure out what I was saying until I switched from saying E-rahn to I-ran. I later learned that her boyfriend back in Kansas was half Eye-rain-ee-an. Clearly I just wasn’t pronouncing that well enough for her….
However, there have been just as many times when people have been rude and judgmental for absolutely no reason. I’m an ‘other’ and there are people who aren’t going to like me without even speaking to me. In high school a kid joked that he didn’t want to sit next to me in class because I might blow him up. I didn’t think that was okay and I did not hesitate to stick up for myself. Dislike me because I’m sarcastic or because I talk to much or because I’m self-absorbed, but don’t dislike me because you think I come from bad people. I come from great people.
Whether or not people want to believe it, I’ve experienced much more hate from Americans than I ever have from Iranians because of my dual identity. That’s not to say a majority of people in the United States treat me poorly, it’s just to point out that more of them have due to their preconceived notions about who I am.
Given the troubling articles I’ve read and the opinions I’ve come across towards Iranians, I will admit that I was nervous to watch this episode. Even though I like Bourdain, I didn’t know how Iran would be approached nor how people would react to it, and that was a scary thing when it was set to portray my often demonized culture. As I watched an admittedly simplified version of Iran’s history begin the frame for this episode, I could feel some of that nervousness turn into anticipation for what was to come.
‘Balanced’ is the one word I would use to describe the show from the offset. Bourdain and the people he works with clearly don’t want to trash Iran, but they also don’t want to glamorize it to the point of minimizing the issues the country faces. From the absolutely stunning imagery and the people who greet Bourdain with enthusiasm usually unknown to those above the age of five to the tragic story of reporter Jason Rezaian, both the highs and lows are highlighted throughout this episode. He focuses on everyday life like car races, singing, and bread making to underscore the humanity and passion that fills Iran, but also brings up larger political issues to show how complicated the country is. There’s a difference between extremism and the majority who don’t have those leanings, and Bourdain superbly fleshes out these differences. It’s a topic that could use more than an hour of discussion, but for the time allotted, this cliff notes version to Iran is well worth a viewing.
Though the show is about culture in all the ways it can be found, it does emphasize the culture through food a lot, and Iranian food is some of the best there is. Kabobs that are enjoyed with buttery rice, the famous tadig, and fesenjoon are just some of the many dishes that Bourdain samples throughout the episode, leaving me with some drool on my mouth. The dishes of Iran are almost always made with care and are meant to satisfy through both taste and comfort. Food is inherent to Iranian culture; my cousin makes about five completely different entrees for a party of seven, and she is just one of many who take hosting so seriously. They want to feed you until you burst and this episode, with its stews and biryanis and mounds of rice, illustrates this attitude well. The peek into the homes Bourdain is invited into is a glimpse of this outlook, but it’s enough for any outsider to realize how Iranians throw a dinner party. They care about the people they’re hosting, and they want everyone to feel welcome. If you take away nothing else from this episode, take away the importance of food and hosting in everyday Iranian life; it will probably lead to you realizing how kind Iranians are as a whole.
As I looked through the Twitter feeds that night, it was generally filled with people passing on words of praise for the episode and expressing wishes to one day visit Iran. It made me wonder if public perception was really changing though. There were still stinging messages on Twitter and most of the people watching were those who were already open to separating the ideas of Iran, Islam, and extremism that some view as mutually inclusive things. If you reach a market of people who already believe in your cause, what are you really accomplishing?
While I don’t have answers to that last musing, I will say that the racists I came across that evening were not going to be swayed no matter what the show illustrated. What was even more troubling was how convinced they were that they knew everything about Iran and that it was all worth putting down. How can any American wish the death of a whole country because they all allegedly scream “death to America” without seeing the hypocrisy? How can multiple Americans say these things and somehow still see themselves as superior to all of the Middle East? I like to phrase my views this way: I’m tolerant of everything expect intolerance; I don’t condone what extremists do on either end of the spectrum, no matter their nationality.
I could go on for days about this incredibly complex issue, but I’ll save some opinions for future posts. Today, I’ll just end by saying that Bourdain manages to capture an unbiased view of Iran that highlights both the good and the bad, and it is certainly worth a view for anyone interested in seeing a culture through a new lens. There’s not one thing that Iran can be boxed into; it’s a culture of contradictions that deserves both praise and criticism. For me, if this feature sparks a positive attitude about Iranians in just one person, then Bourdain’s time in Iran was more than worth it. As an astute Iranian on the show said: “We are not the axis of evil. We are just regular evil like everyone else,” and I think it’s time for everyone else to realize that.