Milad bounded up the final steps to the fort’s highest lookout and I followed with the cautiousness befitting a man three times his age. There, standing alone at the top, we were welcomed warmly by one of our fellow passengers from our short Land Rover journey. He was a cheery Iranian man with a shining bald spot wearing a sun visor, smiling broadly and admiring the view. He turned his smile to me and greeted me in Farsi and then delivered a torrent of words I couldn’t understand. It was an Iranian welcome – incomprehensible but which conveyed all of the warmth of a friendship despite us having only shared a bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive
We were in the Azarbaijan province of Iran, a few hours drive from the city of Tabriz, where a fort known as Bābak’s Castle sits atop a hill. It is a symbol of Iranian Azeri nationalism, remembered as the stronghold of a Zoroastrian Azeri, Bābak Khorramdin, a hero who galvanised Iranians and fought the Arab Muslim Abbassid Caliphate in the 9th century AD. It sits 2200m high above the village of Kaleybar and offers sweeping 180-degree views into two forested valleys below. I’d hastily arranged with my travel agent the day’s drive in a taxi from Tabriz, along the borders with Nakhchivan and Armenia, then up to Bābak’s Castle via Land Rover at first, finishing with an hour’s hike to the fort. My driver Zahir was a happy and eager Iranian Azeri man whose Azeri-Turkish was better than his Farsi, and both were far, far better than his English. He had decided to skip the journey to the top and instead left me with his son Milad, who had no English and hiked with me in silence except for the occasional coo-ee echoing across the valleys.
So our new companion’s gushing Farsi was a welcome change and I did manage to catch the word “Lorestan”, the name of a little-visited region I was lucky to see last time I was in the country. His bad English and my terrible Farsi were good enough to establish that this man and his friends were from the very same Lorestan town that I’d been to, Khorramabad, and from that moment we were friends.
We lingered a little longer to admire the view and breathe the cool mountain air above the baking plains, and then began our descent. At the makeshift tea shop just below the fort we shared a tea with his group of friends, one named Abbas who spoke very good English. With communication lines open now with the Lorestanis, Abbas said he was, like me, an engineer, working for the Iranian national oil company (only one company controls all Iranian oil and gas) on rigs based out of the southern city of Ahwaz. He is one of those specialist oil and gas engineers, the kind who in Australia make a great deal of money spending roughly half their time working on rigs and the other half back in the city chucking their money around and driving up the cost of living for everybody else. He asked me what salary an engineer might earn in Australia and I answered, conservatively, 150,000-200,000 per year in his industry. “I earn seven thousand US dollars”, he said. “Per month?” I asked? No, per year. The oil industry is a global industry always in need of specialists, so Abbas is getting paid less than 5%, or one twentieth, of his worth.
While I’ve been away from Australia, our Prime Minister has called an election and the campaigning is mercifully nearly over. A bare-faced anti-muslim party has nominated to cash in on the xenophobic hysteria that usually accompanies our election campaigns (see Muhamed Haneef, Children Overboard, etc, etc), and the two major parties have reached new highs (or lows) in the auction for who can be the cruelest and harshest to desperate people who, if we take them at their word, deserve our protection and hospitality. Our government has spent large amounts of public money printing advertisements in English, in Australian newspapers, assuring us of just how cruel they intend to treat anyone foolish enough to sail for Australia and seek asylum. The justification for this treatment is that people who pay a large sum of money to risk their lives on a leaky boat aren’t desperate at all – they’re just cynical economic migrants making a choice – as if they checked out Qantas prices on kayak.com first and instead plumped for the 5-day cruise to Christmas Island. Until now, the idea that even one person would choose that option voluntarily seemed unthinkable to me, and the suggestion that all 70-80 on a boat are just shopping for a good deal still seems scurrilous and dishonest in the extreme. But here I had met an intelligent man who could do some simple maths – $150,000 minus $7,000 equals $143,000. If he could do his job in Australia, it would take only 1 month of working as an engineer to pay off the cost of a $25,000 journey – after that he’s a free, and rich, man.
The regime in Iran makes it very difficult for ordinary Iranians to leave the country – they cannot easily take their wealth out of the country and can expect to find it very hard to return if they leave on their own terms. The government’s main income comes from its monopoly on oil and gas, and it does all it can to stop those with the requisite skills from escaping to the west or the Arab countries chasing better pay. So someone like Abbas would obviously need a very good reason to leave. But a 2000% pay increase would tempt anyone, anywhere in the world, to consider their options. With such an income disparity between a closeted country like Iran and a booming, skills-hungry country like Australia, for the first time it made sense to me that someone might just opt for the unthinkable.
It’s unlikely that this was the first Abbas and his colleagues have heard of just how much money they can earn outside Iran. Iranians watch a much broader range of television than we do, the government has been fairly unsuccessful at limiting their access to the internet, and there’s a booming oil industry just across the gulf that they all know about. But there was one crucial thing missing from our discussion about Australia – he never asked me the cost of living. He doesn’t know about the $5 cups of tasteless tea. Or that it costs more than $10,000 to buy a tiny, crappy Korean car, which needs more than $50 each time you want to fill the tank. Or that a small bottle of water, on special, is over $2. And then, if you’re earning good money, you’ll be tempted by the $50,000 German car, and that inexplicably expensive water in the tall glass bottles. He doesn’t realise that his $143,000 gets fairly well taken away by tax, rent, food, electricity and other essentials, and at the end of the year there’s not nearly as much left as he first thought.
So, in the interests of the desperate people seeking asylum in Australia, the real ones, of whom there are many, escaping genocide and ethnic and religious cleansing and whose claims we must hear instead of ignoring them and shipping them off into depression and an uncertain future in a prison in the Pacific, I propose the following: stop trumpeting the cruelty of our policies to Australians and stop trying to appeal to the worst in us. Instead advertise in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the real cost of living in Australia. Send them the price list for Gloria Jeans. Offer samples of their coffee. Promote the on-road cost of vehicles in Australia and publish the average petrol price. Educate them about our incomprehensible personal tax system. Send them the receipt from an average weekly shop at IGA. Tell them how much it costs to buy one watermelon. Because economic migrants from Iran and other countries aren’t stupid, they aren’t lazy, and they can do the maths. They are connected, and they know a lot about the world. But they probably don’t have any idea just how expensive life is in Australia, and that is a big factor for the kind of cynical economic migrant our government wishes to demonise and discourage.
And maybe then we can get back to welcoming people as the Iranians do – with care and hospitality, and treating asylum seekers with the dignity they deserve.