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The people of the Middle East, just like us in Northern Ireland, are much more than their depiction on the nightly TV news

As the crisis between Washington and Tehran deepens, Co Down writer Lynda Tavakoli, whose husband Sam is an Iranian Muslim, says our two countries possess more in common than we realise

Lynda Tavakoli with husband Sam
Lynda Tavakoli with husband Sam

Lynda Tavakoli

A number of years ago, my husband, Sam, was asked to give a presentation in Lisburn Library as part of their Community Relations Week. It was billed as 'An illustrated talk - Iran, the country, the people and its culture', but when I asked my husband what exactly he planned to do, he wouldn't say.

I was quite surprised, because we were normally quite open about most things that involved our separate heritages, but I let it go. So, on the actual evening of the event and sitting among the audience with everyone else, I was as uninformed as they were as to what was about to transpire.

The presentation began and the first slide appeared - a photograph of the Iranian, or Persian, flag. This was followed by a photograph of a burning American flag and then a third slide depicting a mass gathering of angry, chanting men and women protesting on a Tehran street.

A couple more negative images appeared on the screen and I looked at my husband, wondering if he had suddenly lost his mind. You could tell that there was a sense of anticipation in the room and then my husband said: "This is the Iran that you know. And now I want to tell you about the Iran I know."

The mountain caves of Candovan
The mountain caves of Candovan

Then, for the next hour or so, he enthralled us all with images of the land of his birth, with explanations about the diversity of its climate, people, culture and religions that do actually exist there.

Who knew that Iran gave us the first international charter of human rights? Or that from Iran came some of the earliest ceramic glazes, the windmill and watermill, the world's first postal service? And the scenery - breathtakingly beautiful, from the shores of the Caspian Sea, or the icy peaks of the Alborz mountains, to the magnificent Si-o-se-pol bridge in Esfahan, Persepolis in Shiraz and the mountain caves of Candovan, near Tabriz.

It was an evening of great pride (as well as revelation) for me and, for the audience, it was an educational, inspiring and measured presentation by someone speaking from his heart and his own experiences.

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Too often these days, we form our opinions through the media and, depending on which particular news channel we watch, or which newspaper we choose to read, we are persuaded to think in a certain way.

It's not always easy to tease out the truth about things and I, personally, try to fact-check a lot of the articles I read, or explosive headlines that are specifically designed to attract attention.

But I've actually been doing this for a long time now, because, being married to a Muslim Iranian man, I've been on the receiving end of some shockingly ignorant and cruel comments from folk who should have known better.

Someone once said to me that my husband might appear to be a really nice and decent bloke over here, but what sort of person would he turn into when he went back home? Or the classic one more recently was that my husband is "not like them", inferring that, although he is a Muslim, he's different somehow from those other Muslims (even though he really isn't). It's insulting, of course it is, but better to try and educate people by discussion and tolerance than to get all steamed up about it.

I've travelled to Iran many times now; been a resident of both Bahrain and Oman and presently have both my children working in the Emirates. All of these countries have their individual challenges and regulations, but without exception they also have a true and deep pride in themselves that we can recognise here at home in our own imperfect little country.

I love Northern Ireland. I was born and brought up here and, although I try not to be involved in politics, or make political comment in my writings, that doesn't stop me feeling frustrated much of the time.

A temple in Esfahan
A temple in Esfahan

We are so much more than the bitter exchanges and displays of unkindness and intolerance that come across on the television news beaming out to the rest of the world. Yes, we are so much more than that.

And the people of the Middle East are so much more than how they are portrayed, as well. Most are ordinary folk getting on with their ordinary and often tedious lives and I imagine that they seek the same kind of existence that we do, with the hope of decent education, adequate healthcare and a living environment free from physical threat and danger.

The recent turn of events in the Middle East is so highly complicated that it's virtually impossible for a lay person like me to understand, but I know I need to go beyond accepting everything I'm told in the media. I know that the only positive differences I can make to the world are small ones, so I'll try to concentrate on those.

The Persepolis in Shiraz
The Persepolis in Shiraz

These days, I generally only write about things that I'm really touched by and are important enough for me to want to put my head above the parapet; and what is happening in the world at large at the moment is important to us all. Life should not be played out like a video game, as though it were some casual entertainment in someone's sitting room and I feel it's important to acknowledge that.

Meanwhile, I will count my many blessings and hope with all my heart that the weeks and months to come will shed a positive light on all of us.

protests in Iran after the US killed Major General Qassem Soleimani
protests in Iran after the US killed Major General Qassem Soleimani

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