“So that is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing – as only one thing – over and over again, and that is what they become.”
I recently watched a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie called The danger of the single story. If you haven’t already watched it, I would highly recommend doing so. In a voice rich with both strength and humour, Chimamanda shares how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
This video reminded me of one of the reasons why I recently chose to travel to Iran. It started with a friend and a crazy plan to backpack from Africa through to China. But what allowed it to happen was something entirely different. As the list of countries got predictably smaller, and we settled on a modest four, one of them remained persistently challenging to most people when they inquired about my route: Iran.
I had for some time been aware of the divide between reality and what gets presented via the news and other forms of mainstream media. And it’s not just the news: it’s the collective idea of something; what I now choose to call the single story of a thing. For Iran, I had never heard of any good or positive association with it. In fact, I’d never met anyone who had been there or had anything real or first-hand to say about it. All of my information was second-hand, and largely based on a collective societal idea: Iran = Iraq = Middle East = terrorism = war = danger.
I started to do research and collect my own information from a variety of sources. I researched statistics, articles, blog posts from travellers (include single female travellers) and finally, I discovered people in my life who had in fact travelled there themselves or had relatives who had gone. The results were consistent and positive: Iran is a relatively safe and friendly place which is often misunderstood and misrepresented through mainstream media. People I knew who had gone there all spoke highly of their experience. And yet this was at alarming odds with the single story I and many others had come to know.
Here in Australia, we get told a very basic single story about Middle Eastern countries. The single story is that they are dangerous and a threat to civilised, peace-loving nations (i.e., ‘The West’). They are different to us. Their religion is violent. They are terrorists.
Because of the single story we have been told about The Middle East and all countries in it, those who knew me were naturally concerned. I would get raped. I would get stoned. I would get beheaded. Etc, etc, etc.
People thought it would be like this:
Actually, it was more like this:
I didn’t get stoned. I didn’t get raped. And I obviously didn’t get beheaded.
I did get photographed a lot. Consensually. By locals who were so excited and gratified to have a westerner in their city that they wanted to document the experience to remember forever. I did have people ask if I would hold their baby whilst posing for a photo. And people who wanted to pay for my meal, my bus fare and have me come to their family home to eat dinner with them.
I had people tell me that I look like Nicole Kidman, who they adore. People would politely introduce themselves to me on the train, bus, streets and restaurants and ask where I am from and whether they could assist me in any way. People gave me sweets on public transport. I got preferential treatment at airports. People I stayed with told me I was now a part of their family and would always have a home with them should I choose to return.
Iran is filled with normal people like you and me doing normal, every day things. Surprisingly, they are the plastic surgery capital of the world. Every day, you will see both men and women with protective plaster over their nose jobs and chin jobs.
Iran also is the seventh largest consumer of cosmetics out of approximately 196 countries in the world. A family we stayed with owned five franchise makeup stores, and were generous enough to give me and my friend gift bags with free stuff. Thanks for the blue nail polish, assorted facial cremes, coloured lip gloss and sample perfumes Ali!
In the prestigious 2015 World Countries Awards, Iran won the following:
- Best Country in the World: Iran
- Most Beautiful Capital City In The World: Tehran
- Best Food in the World: Iranian food
- Nicest People on Earth: Iranian people
- Smartest people on the Planet: Iranian people
- Most Handsome Men in the World: Iranian men
- Most Beautiful Women In The World: Iranian women
- Most Humble Human Being on the Planet: The Iranians
Another thing which surprised me was Persian women. They are feisty. And beautiful. And decidedly not repressed. At least, not in the way that we think. They are repressed by their government, just like everyone else. But not by the men. The men, I found, were paternal, gentle, responsible and endlessly yielding towards the women. And generally (all of this, of course, is general) very respectful. In instances where men addressed themselves to Jesse (my male friend) and not to me, it was out of respect to both of us. If I chose to enter into the conversation, I could do so at any point and be welcome.
Maybe by this point you’re feeling a little skeptical, because the single story you’ve come to believe about Iran doesn’t marry up with what you’re reading here.
This stands to reason, and goes a long way to reiterating the nature of the single story. The single story is one view point; one very coarse and overly simplistic way of looking at a person or thing; a thing that has untold and complex layers that otherwise lie rotting for want of further exploration and understanding.
There are 77 million people in Iran. 77 million. A month ago, a immigrant man of Iranian descent committed an act of terrorism in Australia. One man. That man represents 0.0000012987 of the Iranian population. And yet he and his actions are what many people will use to base their judgements of Iran and all Iranians by. All Iranians are terrorists. All of them are dangerous. Let’s just kill all of them.
Well, if all Iranians are dangerous terrorist (that’s 77 million people) how is it that there is still anyone left alive on this planet at all?
“The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Stereotypes. Not always untrue, but incomplete. Australians love the beach. Well, a fair portion of us do, but the sun-drenched, perfectly-formed surfers amongst us are the decided minority. Most of us are content being pale and flabby office-dwellers, sometimes proclaiming, “I love the beach,” and maybe visiting it once or twice a year. The stereotype of bronzed Australians looking like Elle McPherson or the male equivalent is really only applicable to Elle McPherson and the male equivalent.
I once had an American friend tell me that she would never visit Australia, because it was simply Too Dangerous. Her biggest fear were the cassowaries. Cassowaries? I was 25 and had never even heard of a cassowary! She had to explain to me what they were. I pointed out to her that I had lived in Australia my whole life, as had my family and friends, and not only had we not been mauled by cassowaries, but we we were all still alive and well! But she was adamant in her beliefs, fuelled by a handful of second-hand anecdotes. She would never visit Australia. It was simply Too Dangerous.
And yet, her reasons were not entirely without basis. Cassowaries have been known to attack and injure humans. The only recorded human death by cassowary, however, was in 1926. A single story had been formed in my friend’s mind, although not one without basis. She was basing her views on a stereotype, which is of course a story that is incomplete.
“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different instead of similar.”
We were hosted by a lovely young couple at our last couch surfing place in Iran. They were so normal it was stupid. They had a modern upmarket apartment with all the mod cons. The wife was a rebellious artist and volunteer social worker. The husband was cheeky and charming and worked at his Dad’s business. Both of them were super smart. They hosted couch surfers whenever possible and loved meeting foreigners. They smoked weed most days and had friends over. They hung out in hip cafes and discussed their government. The women pushed the boundaries by wearing their hijab as loosely as possible in public without getting arrested, and the dudes supported it. They talked about alcohol, partying and all of the things that weren’t available to them yet they longed to have. You get the picture.
On our last night we hosted a small dinner party at their house and made Australian food for everyone – pumpkin soup, vegetarian spag bol (appropriated from the Italians, I know) and pavlova with fresh fruit. There were probably a dozen or so of their friends who dropped over during the course of the night. Most of them bought sweets or chocolates or something edible to contribute. There was a lot of weed smoking and heavy political discussions.
Everyone was well-dressed. In fact, Jesse and I regularly looked like complete dags around the Turks and Iranians. At one point, a young guy started a conversation about racism. It went like this: a friend of his had told him that apparently, in South Africa, racism is rampant! That people have been known to shoot black people based on the colour of their skin! That, in fact, black people have in the past been separated from the whites! Can you imagine something so appalling, so ignorant?!
Jesse and I were silent, not knowing how to proceed.
The man telling the story continued, and now had tears in his eyes. He was eloquent in his distress. How could people be so ignorant? How could they be so blind, so cruel? His friends nodded along seriously. It was clear that this was a kind of ignorance and racism they had no familiar footing with.
It was my host, fortunately, who pointed out to him that Iranians are also often at the receiving end of racism. The man was skeptical. Why? Why on earth would people hold such archaic views about Persians? They are the oldest culture in the world! They aren’t black! They are evolved, educated, refined. Everyone there (referring to his friends) had a bachelor, Masters or Ph.Ds in their chosen fields and were respected professionals! Excluding their conservative religious government (who everyone knows is not representative of the people), what could anyone possibly object to?
It was tough breaking it to this guy. It was tough telling him just how he and his great culture are perceived in many Western cultures. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is a stereotype; an incomplete story. This incomplete story that time and time again morphs into a single story. The single story of Iran and Iranians. Of their love of war and terror, their fundamentalist values and their cruel, brutal treatment of dissenters. Their use of capital punishment. The way that women are forced to cover up in public. How they are violent and distinctly unevolved. How they are blinded by Islam and seek to enforce it upon the rest of the world.
He was shocked. None of this was representative of him or his friends, or the Persia he knew. It didn’t take into account him, and the compassion he had for the victims of racism in South Africa, or the chocolates he’d brought to share or his love of refined yet open conversation. It was not his story. And to be lumped into such an crass, brutish category which was clearly offensive to him. And I’d hazard a guess that it would be offensive to the majority of Iranians, as well as .
“…when we reject the single story, when we realise there was never a single story about a single place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
I believe the key to cultivating a more balanced view of people and things is curiosity. And curiosity is aroused when we use our own gifts of critical thinking and start to question the validity of certain overarching beliefs or popular view points.
This isn’t a post about defending the actions of certain individuals, groups or religions. I am as saddened and frightened as the next person about the unfolding acts of terrorism in our world. What this post is about is recognising when there is a single story about a person or place, and then asking yourself whether or not you believe it to be conclusive, or could there possibly be more to it. More that you aren’t being fed or more than is commonly being discussed by your peers.
When we reject the single story and refuse to simplify an entire race or country or religion (or bird species), we open ourselves up to the possibility that there could be more. That is when growth and understanding is allowed to happen. And maybe empathy. And then we can start humanising people by not lumping them into pointless, one-dimensional categories. And when we humanise people, we start to understand that we have far more in common than what separates us. But most importantly, we give ourselves the gift of understanding that the world is actually a better and more diverse place than what we ever imagined. Sullied by a dangerous few, certainly. But not sullied by dangerous millions or billions.
Why am I blogging about this?
I feel compelled to share my first-hand experience of a country and its peoples (albeit one of many) which is currently the object of fear and in some cases misunderstanding by Westerners. This too is my first-hand experience. This is not an apologist blog or a attempt to rationalise extremist behaviour; rather, it is offering something which I believe is unique, unexpected and much-needed in the current presiding dialogue and view-point of Iran, and by extension other Middle Eastern countries. It is offering a different view-point, and a different set of stories from those you are probably most familiar with.
If nothing else, it is an attempt to tell more stories, and to be open to different and more diverse stories. I love this quote especially: “…when we reject the single story, when we realise there was never a single story about a single place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
For me, seeing that just one place, Iran, was not the frightening land of nightmares that many believe it to be, was a step towards regaining a kind of paradise within myself; it was the first step on a road filled with not one, but trillions of colourful, diverse and never-ending stories of life and humanity. It was a reaffirming experience: one which, from the beginning, said to me: “Hey. You have more in common with these people than anything you think is dividing you.”
And I truly believe it to be so.