As part of the elective titled ‘Politics and Social Change in Iran’ a group of sixteen excited second-year students, accompanied by PPLE staff members Peyman Jafari and Elmar Jansen, visited Iran in June 2016.
The trip was an extension of the course, designed to see the academically described developments in practice and get an inside view into Iran’s culture and character. Classes had been divided up in four sections: 1) Iran’s domestic politics and power structure, 2) Iran’s foreign policy and international relations, 3) Iran’s social policy and economic turmoil and 4) Iran’s society, culture and contemporary arts. Each student chose an area of interest and delved into their subject in order to eventually hand in a topic-specific yet interdisciplinary essay.
Although the module itself was quite short (four weeks taking place in semester 3, block 6 of PPLE), the students were taught about Iran’s history and political, psychological, legal and economic background intensively. In the first two weeks, lectures by PPLE lecturer Peyman Jafari and several guest lecturers essentially gave students a crash course into all four topics. The students visited the Clingendael Institute in The Hague to hear Iran’s Dr. Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour, a senior advisor to Iran’s foreign minister. Two guest lectures were organized at the University of Amsterdam, on the Iran Nuclear Deal and another on Iranian cinema, music and art.
Each group of pupils gave a presentation on the assigned literature regarding their subject and depicted how the plentiful social changes influenced the country at large. In the third week of the course, students travelled to Iran to develop their ideas and do research at the many academic events organised by Persian-speaking Peyman Jafari. After that, students were left with a week to finish their essays and conclude the course, and with it, their second academic year.
After being informed on the basics of everyday cultural practices in Iran and getting travel visas approved, the group left to Tehran on 9 June 2016. During the flight from Istanbul to Iran’s capital city, all women on the flight put on their headscarves or ‘hijabs’.
On the first full day, they visited the renowned Golestan Palace and its mosaic and mirror covered walls, the local bazar with its Persian carpets, immense amount of spices and traditional Iranian dishes, and live music. The day after, the group went up the mountains to see the city from above, followed by a visit to Shahid Behshti University’s law department. Here they received a presentation on the Iranian legal system by senior faculty members, followed by a presentation from students from the PPLE law major on European Union law and its legitimacy. Afterwards, an interesting and critical discussion took place between the Iranian and international students and staff on various issues, ranging from Iran’s constitution and democratic character to political and economic tensions in the EU.
The following day, they visited the Azadi (meaning ‘freedom’) square with its famous monument, Azadi Tower. This was formerly known as the Shah or King’s Memorial until the 1979 Revolution. As the holy month of Ramadan had just started at the time, the group ate their lunch in the bus. Back in the city center, they visited Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
In the evening, the students met the founders of an independent think tank in down-town Tehran, who discussed issues surrounding urbanism, women and the public space, neoliberalism and gentrification. Furthermore, the students went to visit the Dutch embassy to hear about the Dutch political perspective on Iranian and Middle-Eastern matters. It was also interesting to hear about the practical sides of diplomats' work and daily life in a metropolis like Tehran.
On the way back, they took the (gender separated) bus while spotting many pieces of street art and graffiti of historical martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, considered Iranian heroes. Back in the mountains that were all lit up in fairy lights and colourful carpets at this point, the group had dinner with a special guest: Thomas Erdbrink, writer for the New York Times and one of Iran’s few Western journalists, came to tell his story and answer questions.
The next day, the bus took the PPLE group to UNESCO’s regional cluster office. Here, the bureau's director, Esther Kuisch Laroche, told them about UN and UNESCO goals, projects and their respective impact on the region. Afterwards, they wandered around the Sa’dabad national park and its many royal and extravagant palaces and museums. They visited the Imamzadeh Mosque and the nearby bazar.
The following morning, the group left towards Kashan, in the middle of Iran and its desert. On their way they stopped at the Persian Fin Gardens from the 16th century, and since recently also a UNESCO world heritage site. In Kashan it was even warmer than Tehran, located in between large mountains and with houses made of clay. Here they saw the first open air mosque, called Agha Bozorg and the Tabatabai traditional baroque merchant’s mansion. In the evening, the group went out to the main square where public readings of stories from the Qoran were held as part of the Ramadan events and they received a beautiful version of the book from the local Islamic youth association.
On the way further down south the next day, they stopped at an old red clay-made Persian village, Abyaneh, where people proudly showed off their traditional clothing and customs. In Iran’s former capital and relatively more religious and conservative city Isfahan, they marvelled at the enormous Masjed e-Jomeh Mosque, the Jameh Mosque, the Blue Mosque and the Shah Mosque. They met a cleric who explained his view on life and religion to them, and answered questions on the compatibility of certain issues such as evolution theory and Islam. The group walked down the Marnan bridge dating back to even before the Safavid rulers’ era, which used to run over the Zayanderud river but was now an example of Iran’s issues with water shortage as the river had fallen completely dry.
On their last day, students visited an orthodox Armenian church, more famous Mosques and the Chehel Sotoun gardens that housed 16th century frescos. Everyone bought their last memorabilia, such as hand made copper pots and pans, mosaic tiles, traditional herbal tea and turquoise jewellery. After a long bus ride back up to Tehran together, they flew back to Amsterdam and went home to rest, read through their notes and write their respective essays.
The course was concluded with very positive feedback and is expected to be repeated next year, for PPLE’s new second-year students of all major tracks within the degree.