Tag Archives: Iran

Economic Migrants

On the path to Bābak's Castle

On the path to Bābak’s Castle

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.

The entrance to the Kordasht Bath House, in the Aras Valley

The entrance to the Kordasht Bath House, in the Aras Valley

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.

Milad and his father in the Kordasht Bath House

Milad and his father in the Kordasht Bath House

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.

The view from Bābak's Castle

The view from Bābak’s Castle to Kaleybar in the distance

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.

The Colour Mountains, just outside Tabriz, in the setting sun

The Colour Mountains, just outside Tabriz, in the setting sun

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Iran

My Tehran friend's cousin's dog Shanti. He's about 12 months old. He's only a little shih tzu but my friend's rottweiler is scared of the little guy. Dogs are popular as pets in wealthier parts of Tehran.

My Tehran friend’s cousin’s dog Shanti. He’s about 12 months old. He’s only a little shih tzu but my friend’s rottweiler is scared of the little guy. Dogs are popular as pets in wealthier parts of Tehran.

Shaman, my friend's 9 month old rottweiler, who came to my room with this face each morning. They didn't choose her but they've fallen in love with this little girl. In Iran you can have your dog seized for simply walking them in public. They take the dogs to Evin Prison (seriously) and leave them to die. So, with a typically Iranian solution, they have worked out that they can train her to be a rescue dog in an earthquake, and then they can take her for long walks and the government can't take her away.

Shaman, my friend’s 9 month old rottweiler, who came to my room with this face each morning. They didn’t choose her but they’ve fallen in love with this little girl. In Iran you can have your dog seized for simply walking them in public. They take the dogs to Evin Prison (seriously) and leave them to die. So, with a typically Iranian solution, they have worked out that they can train her to be a rescue dog in an earthquake, and then they can take her for long walk and the government can’t take her away.

In the Caspian province of Gilan, my friend Zia's friend's daughter Vanusheh plays with dolls dressed in typical Gilani dress. The dress (and Vanusheh) show that Iranians are far more lively, colourful and cheeky than the Islamic Republic would like us to believe. Iranians in general don't feel part of the Islamic Republic  - at best they have learned to work around the government's entrenched corruption and criminality in the name of god - but a great many despise it and wake up each morning wanting it gone.

In the Caspian province of Gilan, my friend Zia’s friend’s daughter Vanusheh plays with dolls dressed in typical Gilani dress. The dress (and Vanusheh) show that Iranians are far more lively, colourful and cheeky than the Islamic Republic would like us to believe. Iranians in general don’t feel part of the Islamic Republic – at best they have learned to work around the government’s entrenched corruption and criminality in the name of god – but a great many despise it and wake up each morning wanting it gone.

A boat on the Caspian Sea. The sand is dark and sometimes pebbly, and the waves aren't great. But this lush green region in the north is where many Iranians come to get away from the dry heat of the country.

A boat on the Caspian Sea. The sand is dark and sometimes pebbly, and the waves aren’t great. But this lush green region in the north is where many Iranians come to get away from the dry heat of the country.

Diners at a popular foodie's destination in Gilan - Khavar Khanum. Word about the restaurant's kebab spread on the internet and they now do 2000 meals a day and are hurriedly constructing an extension.

Diners at a popular foodie’s destination in Gilan – Khavar Khanum. Word about the restaurant’s kebab spread on the internet and they now do 2000 meals a day and are hurriedly constructing an extension.

The kebabs at Khavar Khanum on the grill. This was the best meal I've had in Iran. The Gilani taste for sour food extends to the sauce they use on the meat and chicken kebabs.

The kebabs at Khavar Khanum on the grill. This was the best meal I’ve had in Iran. The Gilani taste for sour food extends to the sauce they use on the meat and chicken kebabs.

A frog on the edge of a lake near Lahijan in Gilan. The lake was quite dry and it was hot and very humid so there was little evidence of wildlife until this guy popped up.

A frog on the edge of a lake near Lahijan in Gilan. The lake was quite dry and it was hot and very humid so there was little evidence of wildlife until this guy popped up.

The village of Masouleh, a couple of hours drive into the deep green mountains from Lahijan, is built into a steep hill. So steep, in fact, that they built the houses so that the roof of one house is the front yard and street for the one above. It's popular with Iranian tourists.

The village of Masouleh, a couple of hours drive into the deep green mountains from Lahijan, is built into a steep hill. So steep, in fact, that they built the houses so that the roof of one house is the front yard and street for the one above. It’s popular with Iranian tourists.

Tea wasn't grown in Iran  until the late 1800s. Now it is a permanent presence in daily life and Lahijan in Gilan is where the finest Iranian tea comes from.

Tea wasn’t grown in Iran until the late 1800s. Now it is a permanent presence in daily life and Lahijan in Gilan is where the finest Iranian tea comes from.

My friend Zia introduced me to his friend Afshin who has a tea factory in Lahijan. Even with the sanctions, he sell tea to Lipton in the Netherlands because the quality is so desirable.

My friend Zia introduced me to his friend Afshin who has a tea factory in Lahijan. Even with the sanctions, he sells tea to Lipton in the Netherlands because the quality is so desirable.

Afshin the tea man and his son pose outside his offices in Lahijan. His office is like a meeting place, with friends always passing through for a cup of tea.

Afshin the tea man and his son pose outside his offices in Lahijan. His office is like a meeting place, with friends always passing through for a cup of tea.

Zia outside the fish shop in the port of Bandar Anzali, where we tracked down some caviar. The signs in Gilan are all like this, large and colourful, and they brighten up the sometimes grubby and down-at-heel streets. Farsi script is very attractive and because I can't read them, simple words like "Shilat Fish Restaurant" look like art to me.

Zia outside the fish shop in the port of Bandar Anzali, where we tracked down some caviar. The signs in Gilan are all like this, large and colourful, and they brighten up the sometimes grubby and down-at-heel streets. Farsi script is very attractive and because I can’t read them, simple words like “Shilat Fish Restaurant” look like art to me.

The dam at Manjil, on the drive back from Lahijan to Tehran. This is the watershed, the point where the lush, greenery of Gilan changes into the dry, brown landscape where Tehran sits.

The dam at Manjil, on the drive back from Lahijan to Tehran. This is the watershed, the point where the lush, greenery of Gilan changes into the dry, brown landscape where Tehran sits.

A caravanserai, sits by the Aras River near Jolfa in Iran's far north-west. The Aras forms the narrow border between Iran and Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan province here, and between Iran and Armenia to the east.

A caravanserai, sits by the Aras River near Jolfa in Iran’s far north-west, with the mountains of Azerbaijan in the background. The Aras forms the narrow border between Iran and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan province here, and between Iran and Armenia to the east.

The Armenian Orthodox church of St Stephanos near Jolfa and the Nakhchivan border. The church is pre-1600s and has only recently been restored. This part of the world has been racked by war since the early 90s, with Armenia and Azerbaijan pitted against one another and Iran having to maintain relations with both.

The Armenian Orthodox church of St Stephanos near Jolfa and the Nakhchivan border. The church is pre-1600s and has only recently been restored. This part of the world has been racked by war since the early 90s, with Armenia and Azerbaijan pitted against one another and Iran having to maintain relations with both.

Along the Aras, across from Armenia, there was a sign saying "Kordasht Bath Room". My driver stopped, I thought because he needed the toilet, but when I followed him I found it was beautiful old defunct bath house in the middle of nowhere.

Along the Aras, across from Armenia, there was a sign saying “Kordasht Bath Room”. My driver stopped, I thought because he needed the toilet, but when I followed him I found it was beautiful old defunct bath house in the middle of nowhere.

Many of the interesting stops in the Aras Valley only seem to have opened up since a peace has been reached between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. But there are still regular military posts along the road and the tourist needs to be wary about where he chooses to take photos.

Many of the interesting stops in the Aras Valley only seem to have opened up since a peace has been reached between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. But there are still regular military posts along the road and the tourist needs to be wary about where he chooses to take photos.

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21 August, 2013 · 16:10

The Value of Things

1,010,000 rials - enough for 5 long distance bus trips. Or about 30g of caviar.

1,010,000 rials – enough for 5 long distance bus trips. Or about 30g of caviar.

The currency in Iran seems at first to be one of those things deliberately designed to deceive tourists into parting with their money. Then you remind yourself there are few tourists to confuse, and no one seems to ever rip you off. But as a foreigner, no matter how confident you get with the place, you still find yourself at a shop offering far too little, or far too much, and a shopkeeper will, embarrassingly, reach into your wallet and pull out the required notes himself. It takes a solid 10 days in this country to go through the process of being thoroughly and completely confused.

The gold bazar in Tabriz, where they'll quote US Dollars without asking.

The gold bazar in Tabriz, where they’ll quote US Dollars without asking.

The 5 steps to currency confusion:

1. Check xe.com for the Iranian rial (IRR) to US dollar (USD) rate. Then ignore it. The real rate is 3 times that.

2. The rial is the currency, but no one quotes rial prices. People talk in tomans, an unofficial unit. One toman is 10 rials.

50g of caviar, roughly a week's wages for a professional here.

50g of caviar, roughly a week’s wages for a professional here.

3. The currency is so low, that very few things can be bought for less than 1000 tomans, or “hezar toman”, so often “hezar”, the word for “thousand”, is omitted when they tell you the price. Sometimes they leave out the “toman” too and just quote a 1-, 2- or 3-digit number.

4. This would be manageable if you knew the rough value of whatever it is you’re buying. But the relative value of things here is nothing like in Australia. A 6-hour air-conditioned bus trip (with complimentary snacks) costs 18,000 tomans (5-6 USD). Adobe Photoshop photo editing software costs 1000 tomans (30 US cents). But a flashdisk, to save Photoshop on, still costs about 150,000 tomans (~40 USD). A full tank of petrol – 40,000 tomans (~11 USD). A cup of tea from a chaykhaneh (teahouse) is usually around 1000 toman (30c), but in upmarket parts of Tehran you could be charged ten times that in a European-style cafe. Just 50 grams of locally-caught caviar costs 150,000 tomans, or the equivalent of nearly 4 tanks of petrol.

5. Finally, it’s possible that if they know you’re a foreigner, in certain places like carpet and jewellery shops, they’ll quote prices in US dollars without making it clear.

The lads at the olive shop in Rudbar, between Lahijan and Tehran.

The lads at the olive shop in Rudbar, between Lahijan and Tehran.

On the long drive from Lahijan near the Caspian Sea to Tehran, we bought 1kg of olives, 4 boxes of cookies and a bottle of water. The man behind the counter simply said “si o panj” – “thirty five”. Thirty five what? What’s the value of a kilo of olives and locally-baked cookies? Thirty five rials? No way, that’s a fraction of a cent. Thirty five tomans? Doubt it, that’s only one cent. Must be thirty five thousand tomans, then. Three hundred and fifty thousand rials. Ten dollars. Is that cheap? I have no idea any more.

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