TitleAbout the double identity of Iranians

The Big Lie of Iran

4 May 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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‘So tell me,’ he said, ‘what do you believe is the essence of Iranian identity?’ He was stirring his cup and coffee and looked at me with a smile that was both amused and nervous. ‘The essence of Iranian identity’, I told him, postponing my answer somewhat by taking a slow sip of my tea, ‘is lying.’ The sound of his roaring laughter filled the entire restaurant. ‘Unbelievable,’ he sighed, acting as if he was deeply shocked, ‘finally a European understands the Iranian soul.’

I was in Iran for three weeks in June 2009, and although I had thoroughly studied the country before I finally got there, I was only able to understand something about the Iranian identity once I had actually been there. I do not want to start a lengthy exposé about the problem of identity and I do realize that a question about the essence of an identity might have multiple answers. But to me, and to my deep regret, lying is definitely the essence of Iranian identity today.

Never have I heard people telling so many lies as in Iran. Never have I myself lied so much as in Iran. And never have I felt at times so torn between personalities as in Iran.

In the train from Qom to Arak, I met four young Iranian women who unveiled part of the Iranian identity for me. Maryam (19) lived in Qom and was wearing a chador, but she hated it. ‘I’m only wearing it because I have to. My heart wants something else entirely. The chador actually sums up the essence of Iran: underneath it, many women wear sexy lingerie – just as Iran looks Islamic on the outside, but if only you knew how things are really like underneath. All Iranians have a split personality.’

If only you knew, Maryam said, and I do know now. During my three weeks in Iran, I spent a lot of time in people’s houses, and I came to realize that a double identity is indeed the essence of daily life in Iran. The Islamic Revolution lead to a theocracy but also to a widespread way of life that goes against Islam: lying is the absolute condition for survival. Most Iranians lead a double life. There is the private life inside the house and there is the public life outside. In the streets, you can hear people saying that yes, they do attend Friday prayer, don’t listen to western music, have no satellite television and love ayatollah Khomeini. Behind closed windows and doors, I have heard people cursing Khomeini to death. Schizophrenia is not only embedded in the structure of state government of the Islamic Republic – a theocracy that wants to be a democracy by organizing elections – but also penetrates countless aspects of daily life.

The first time that the big lie of Iranian life hit me really hard was when visiting the grave of a descendant of Iranian Prime Minister Ghaemmaghami Farahani at Arak’s countryside. An Iranian friend accompanied me to the grave. He was an atheist and had ventilated his anger with Islam and the Iranian regime many times already. While we were standing by the grave next to some other Iranians, my friend put his hand on the Quran that was on the tombstone and loudly recited an aya from ‘his’ Holy Book.

Schizophrenia penetrates countless aspects of daily life in Iran

I could not believe what I had just witnessed. It was an amazing theatrical performance. When I told my friend how uncomfortable it was to see a friend so blatantly lying, he laughed: ‘This is Iran. We all lie. And we all know that we are lying, but we don’t know exactly when.’

I myself have found it at times very hard to lie in Iran. In Tochal, the police briefly arrested me after having interviewed an Iranian journalist wearing a green scarf. They asked me what I thought about president Ahmadinejad. Obviously, I did not tell them the truth, because I knew it meant I would get into trouble. I hated myself for this lie. That was the second day of my stay in Iran. Some weeks later, I had gotten used to lying and did not feel so guilty anymore – a realization which shocked me.

It is dangerous if lying becomes a habit. Fiction and reality constantly blur into one another. If you partly live in a fabricated world, then the switch to the real world can be very hard. I have seen many Iranians lying even when it was not really necessary. If you learn at a very young age that lying can help you achieving your goal, this influences your psyche. You forget that lying is wrong – on the contrary, it turns into something that makes life better and easier. Whereas children in democratic countries only have to worry about learning how to ride their first bicycle, Iranian children have to worry about how to tell their first lie as convincingly as possible.

I believe that the schizophrenia this has caused is the biggest crime of the Islamic regime against its people. It is tragic that all Iranians have to create a fake copy of their true self. The Islamic Republic is very far from the ideals of King Darius I, who is the author of the following inscription at Naqsh-e Rostam:

By the will of Ahura Mazda, I am of such a sort, I am a friend of the right, of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak. The right, that is my desire. To a man who is a follower of the lie I am no friend.

King Darius and King Cyrus would turn in their grave if they saw what a big lie the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran has become. Their theocracy is a lie. Their democracy is a lie. The most blatant lie of all is that under the banner of Islam, they have been forcing Iranian people for 30 years already to be fulltime liars. I have given away my robe for a lie, Rumi once said, I would give my life for the truth. One consolation for King Darius is that today, Iran is full of people who think the same.

Tehran Review
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  1. Alborzi says:

    Brilliant article., and, ironically, very true 😛

  2. BB says:

    I remember when I came to the UK all my friends told me never trust the British. You can never know what is behind their smile. I came to understand that with my personal experience. It is clear that there is a cultural difference. Now I some how know what is behind any smile. I can understand friendly gestures and racist attitudes although they are both hidden under ‘politically correct language
    But that does not mean the British are schizophrenic. The same is for Iranians. Cultures have their very complex mechanisms of implying messages. You cannot judge the entire population by only two weeks of tourism.

  3. Hashemian says:

    The writer suffers from tunnel vision, and lacks organs of perception for an objective assessment.
    What she calls a” lie”, can be more properly rendered to: “adaption for need of
    survival” which unfortunately includes lying
    her statement: “Never have I heard people telling so many lies as in Iran”, can be likened to the words of an advocate against racism saying: ” Never have I seen so many niggers as in United States.” Like the matter of blind people and The Elephant in Rumi’s Masnavi, she has felt only a part of the Elephant.!

  4. Ula says:

    Anyone who deals or tries to deal with Iran issue should learn one thing, which obviously the author of this article completely missed – one can not associate our meaning of the word ‘lie’ with iranian behaviour. In our culture ‘lie’ is associated with pejorative connotations whereas there it is a matter of survival. You can’t call people liers only because they try to survive.

  5. Ann says:

    Dear Ula,

    That is exactly what I have written in my article.:

    The Islamic Revolution lead to a theocracy but also to a widespread way of life that goes against Islam: lying is the absolute condition for survival.”

    So it is not true that I have called them liars without mentioning what the cause of their lie is.

  6. Mea Voce says:

    From my point of view there’s nothing wrong with this article. It’s the way of interpretating by some readers which causes unnecessary friction in themselves:

    1. The word lying itself is being misinterpreted because of missing the social context the author does mention. Lying is a very functional and in this case even necessary way of selfprotection. It is social behaviour to survive , not te be compared with lying as evil behaviour.

    2. Lying as a habit (even when selfprotection is not an issue) also cannot be typecasted as bad of evil behaviour. When you have to protect yourself by lying, a person’s behaviour starts adapting this way of communcating as a kind of standard reflex to his environment.

    3. Taking things to personally or starting to protect one’s motherland is a kind of natural behaviour you can see all over the world. In stead of accepting the sad but inevitable truth people suddenly seem to be triggered by that truth because the effect might be that others see them als notorious, evil minded liars without conscience.

    And off course Iranian people are a bit proud . . . 😉
    They see (the) (what) ‘lies’ beneath, but hearing someone else saying it . . .

    Conclusion: Lying is a very common social behaviour, especially in countries where the truth itself is a lie and where saying so is a crime.

  7. rezvan says:

    This looks to me like an exercise in character assasination of the national kind. I have lived in the UK for over 30 years and like one of your contributors above have experienced the British with all their sweetness and lightning effect but big back stabbers and racists once your back is turned. .But I have also come across some wonderful and truly sincere British who truly live the values they espouse but like in every society these are becoming few and far between. Iranians that she interviewed at least had the humility to admit their character inadequacies and laugh about them whereas the Brits and the Gringos do not like it when a character like Ahmedinejad tells them in clear terms that actually it is they who are walking around parading naked whilst they accuse others of doing so. They are the ones who protect and sponsor int’t law breakers such as Israel and Saddam too and then pretend that they are upholders of ‘civilised’ standards. Iranians need to learn to relax a bit and get out of the guilt complex and be their normal self. A little bit of lying after all gave a job to the writer above and got me to say my tuppence worth of commentaryg

  8. Ann says:

    @Mea Voce: exaxctly . To my regret, I see that some people misinterpret my text and only focus on the pejorative connotation of the word ‘lying’. I have indeed mentioned that lying is a condtion for survival in Iran. And I have said that TO MY DEEP REGRET, lying is the essence of Iranian identity today. I love Iran very much. Which is why I have written this text. Not to insult anyone. If you love someone or something, you are honest and try to tell the truth.

  9. Ann says:

    @Rezvan. Of course other nations also lie. I have not written that Iran is the only country where people lie. I have said that because of the nature of the regime, people are FORCED to lie so much. Do I never lie? Of course I do. But I don’t have a government which forces me to create a different ‘me’ in the public sphere.

  10. Ben says:

    Well, where in the whole world, lying is not an instrument of surviving? In Europe and worse in America you cannot even think about certain things, let alone lying about them. You did not publish my previous comment because you even do not dare to approach the H word question.
    Please don’t boast about your honesty. The myth of ‘untrustworthy native’ is a very old, worn out racial stereotype.

  11. Kaveh says:

    Thought provoking article, Ann, thanks. Thanks for your responses to the comments too. I can sense your love of Iran, and I admire your expressing your thoughts, despite the risk of offending some of your readers. Don’t worry about it, I say. That said, I think your comment about Iranian vs. Western kids, bicycles, and lying was a bit harsh and simplistic, despite the grain of truth in there.

    No doubt, as you said, the cruelty of the regime forces people to lie. Yet the cruelty is perpetrated within a cultural context, where extreme dogma and survival and ambition urges causes some to inflict harm on others who challenge their belief or the establishment that feeds them. This is not unique to Iran, obviously, but it IS a feature of Iran. I think as an Iranian I also have to admit that often times the culture encourages us to lie, in order to not ‘offend’ relatives or friends, for example, in order to preserve fragile social connections. Sometimes we take offense easily: why did so and so not return my call right away, why did they not come to my house, etc. This insecurity ‘forces’ the other party to lie the next time they talk to you. One thing that you can add to the picture IMO is the flip side of the coin: often we are too honest, too direct, by western standards. When we are comfortable with a bond, or if we don’t care about it, we tell another person exactly how we feel, exactly what they lack, etc., not couching it as a westerner might. Anyway, complicated subject, and I’m glad you wrestled with it.

  12. Ann says:

    Thanks, Kaveh. I’m glad you noticed my love for Iran. I did not intend to offend anyone. I intend to try to explain people what is going on in Iran. I’m very much aware that other cultures ‘lie’ as well. Thanks for your balanced comment.

  13. Kaveh says:

    You are kind, Ann. Please keep writing without fear of offending. BTW, if you get a chance to read (or have someone translate) the farsi comments posted, you will find slightly more sophisticated and honest self-examining (and amusing) commentary by some of my Iranian brothers and sisters. I suspect some of those readers have more recently lived and intellectually matured in Iran.

  14. Ann says:

    Thank you. I will definitely keep writing about Iran. I read some of the Persian comments, as I know some Farsi myself. 😉 BTW, tomorrow there’s a new article of mine on this website. 😉
    take care,

  15. Kioumars says:

    Almost all those commented on the article have blamed the Islamic regime as the main culprit. However, the fact is that the phenomenon of lying has not much to do with the established clerical autocracy. This is an integral part of Iranian culture and its roots can be traced back in the history of the nation. What we can do with such a national figure as Ferdowsi and his Shahnamah the emplotment of which draw for the most part on the acts of bravado by such a liar hero as Rustam? What is more, we Iranians have to think or even rethink about our thinkers-cum-poets and the members of dynastic bureaucracies, of their ranks the majority of Iranian litterateurs and historians have arisen. Almost all of these writers or cultural agents contributed directly and actively to the established tradition of lying. The problem here is not that the other peoples in other countries are also crafty liars. This approach is very similar to the logic behind Ahmadinejad’s tirades in his interviews and public addresses. The incontrovertible fact is that the Iranians have a written and well-documented history of lying and it is against the backdrop of this history that the lying has become a national mark of Iranians. It remains to all Iranians to deal with the pile of the evidence pertaining to their well-documented history of lying and find a way to get rid of their disastrous influence.

  16. Mashad says:

    I think you have hit the hammer on the head of what ails this country. As long as people are unwilling to stand up and tell the truth regardless of the circumstances, it matters not who is in charge of the government. Once set of lying governance will replace another.
    The point was poignantly made by Roxanna Saberi in her new book about how easily she gave in to the demands of her interrogators and “confessed” on paper that she done some spying for the US having only suffered 2 weeks in solitary confinement. She figured once she is free, she’ll simply recant those confessions and relieve herself. Only later after spending months in jail with some very brave women including 2 members of the Baha’i leaders along with other prisoners of conscious and learning that these women refused to lie even under more horrendous situation that her soul was awakened to the true nature of her imprisonment and she recanted all the “confessions” in front of the judge knowing full well that it will lead to longer incarceration.
    How was it that such a large group of the leaders of the green movement so readily marched in front of the cameras and “confessed” to crimes they had not committed? What is about these women who are still being held in Evin for still telling the truth than the recognition that the ailments of the Iranian society does not go away with a change in regime. Their situation has only brought to light the long and hard learning curve for the entire Iranian society.

  17. Mazhar says:

    Dear Ann,

    I am sure that the King Darius was one of the genuine liers as well. The Iranian essence has not been formed recently, it is as old as Iran.

  18. S. Mostofi says:

    Well said, Ann. It’s sad but true and unfortunately I don’t think this habit of lying is only caused by the Islamic regime though it certainly hasn’t helped. It’s a cultural and social issue. I put your article on my blog and linked back to it. We need more articles like this. Take Care.

  19. Ann says:

    Thanks a lot, and thanks for linking.

  20. Fatemah Kareem says:

    This is a great topic, i really agree with this i am from Saudi Arabia and even though Iran is quiet different than Saudi but they are using Islam to destroy every thing. Islamic regime unfortunately derstroying people and this is not because of Islam itself but the way they forcing people to behave and believe in proper way. I really like this blog and as am i interested in this topic ( the case of Iran and Saudi) i hope you continue writing in English cuz i dont speak Persian unfortunately..
    Thanks have a good evenig

  21. Fatemah Kareem says:

    I dont know i saw many people here against the idea of the generalizing lieing idea on Iranian, but i guess the writer used the wrong word here and i think he meant “double standards” . this what i see in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia too, people forced indirectly to lie and be someone else just becuase of fear from gov., relegious police in case of SA or even as protecting thier reputation and image infront of other people. Ofcourse, this is found in many cultural even westeren countries but it is more likely occures in this kind of socities.

  22. Dusta Besar Iran | Disversion says:

    […] Ann De Craemer 4 Mei 2010 (Sumber: http://tehranreview.net) […]

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