How many Muslim countries have you travel to? Which one has been exceptional to you and it what ways?

So far I've traveled to Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and UAE. I've enjoyed Lebanon and Turkey a lot, their history and culture, but probably the country I feel closer to is Iran. Close and challenging at the same time. Close because I've always found Iranians very similar to Italians, so even though I didn't understand the language I would grasp what they wanted to communicate and always felt very familiar. When I say challenging I don't mean for travelling the country as much as defying the idea we have in Europe and the West in general, beliefs caused by the constantly distorted information from the mainstream media. This is also why I like to go to Iran often, I always strive to report as honestly as I can to give my little contribution in trying to show the country as it is, a diverse and complicated society impossible to describe in a few words.

What is the difference between traveling to Muslim countries and Western countries?

The first difference we notice is the way we dress, as we don't abide by the principles of Hijab, so you will see women wearing sleeveless tops, shorter skirts and without headscarf. Naturally you will also see different traditions, landscape and cityscape, but truth be said especially when I traveled to Iran I never felt too far from Italy. The two countries, as well as their people, bear many similarities, and as long as there is human courtesy and willingness to share moments and experiences, the only reason I would talk about differences is to see how we can thrive on them instead of using them as a reason for conflict.

What did you experience in those countries that was unique to you comparing to Western countries?

I wouldn't consider the Western countries as single unity, the same Europe is very diverse when it comes to culture, languages and traditions, so traveling around Western countries is always a different experience. In all Muslim countries I've been I've always found a warm hospitality, that type of hospitality that doesn't need to be declared, so genuine and instinctive that it comes effortless and always manages to make you feel comfortable. It's probably because the family is perceived as part of a larger community as opposed to a more individualistic lifestyle in Western societies, and this is what determines the difference when it comes to gathering and sharing of the private spaces.

Something else I've witnessed mainly in Muslim countries, although not only there, was a more visible separation between men and women, from the public transport to specific social habits that involve occasions specifically for women and for men, to the practice of dating that especially in conservative families is not permitted, which leads to arranged marriages.

When it comes to Iran specifically, something unique I haven't experienced anywhere else is their ta'arof practice, the elaborate Persian courtesy rituals. We do use to compliment in Italy too, but with much less fervor!

How do the corporate media portray Islamic nations? Does it relate to the real life of Muslims that you witnessed?

Same like for Western countries, also Islamic nations are not all the same, so it depends on the media agendas and interests towards the different nations. In general, however, I see a failure not only in understanding the different cultures, customs and traditions, but in even just trying to do so. I see no effort in learning Islamic values, no willingness even in explaining that Muslim countries have a vast range of traditions and cultural customs stemming from their own history and past. Every country has different clothing styles for both men and women, different Hijab, different wedding rituals, languages, festivals, it's a whole multifaceted world that media insist in portraying as a single unity thus distorting the reality.

Before traveling to Islamic countries, what did you think of those countries?

I was mainly curious to learn something from a culture different from mine. My main concern was probably about what to wear in order to respect the local sentiment, hence what to pack, as I was worried I could get it wrong, but once there I've always found it more relaxed than I thought. I wasn't expected to wear strict Islamic attire but just to keep modest, and that wasn't much of an effort.

How do you see Hijab and the way Muslim women are supposed to appear in the society?

The principles of Hijab is keeping modesty and applies to both men and women. Also, it's not just about headscarf but involves the whole attire. While the covering of the head can probably be left to personal choice rather than imposed, I think modesty should be encouraged everywhere. Media play a big role, and especially in Italy, where I come from, TV and some glossy magazines never miss the occasion for sending out a message of women objectification, where women body is seen as a commodity and shown in a degrading and humiliating way. As a Western woman, I find this extremely insulting and having negative effects on the society as a whole. While real life is, thankfully, still far from media representation, always more often in the West we see women, also very young ones, scantily dressed. In my opinion this shows very little self-respect and in order to make things better we shouldn't need to refer to religious principles but to normal common sense.

What do you think about Muslim women and their rights in Muslim-majority countries?

While I can't deny there are discriminatory practices towards women, I think many stem from age-old local traditions that depend on the country, or even a specific region or a particular ethnic group or tribe, all dynamics that the same central governments often find it difficult to oppose. I'm no expert on the legislation of the different Muslim countries, so I can only speak for personal experience and refer to the women I personally met. I know many women in Iran who are either PhD students or professionals, independent women who travel for pleasure or for work, some live with their families some on their own, while others are married and housewives. Women's rights is a vast and complicated issue, but trying to impose a solution from outside ignoring the different dynamics each country has is nonsense, changes must come gradually and from inside by the same people who live there.

You have special interest in Iran and has traveled to the country several times; how would you describe Iran as a tourism destination?

I think Iran has a great potential to become an established tourist destination popular in every season. Whether you are interested in art, architecture, food, history, nature, Iran has something for everyone. Also, each regions has different climate, culture and landscape, and this is why it's a never-ending source for tourism. I think the Iranian government is working hard to make it a more tourist-friendly destination, and Iranians are so welcoming that tourists always love their experience there and come back to their own country enthusiastic and eager to share their stories with friends and family.

Earlier this year you wrote an article titled "The open wounds of Iran’s Khuzestan"; what was the point you were about to make?

Visiting Khuzestan was an extremely interesting experience for me. The tourism industry was not very developed at the time, and locals were just starting to see foreigners wander the streets. This is probably why they were very keen to share their story and that's what I found most intriguing and heartbreaking at the same time, to be able to learn modern history and the terrible events of the Iran-Iraq war, still very vivid in their memories, directly from who lived them.

Further comments

As I've traveled and written about Iran quite a lot, it's pretty clear that I enjoy it more than others. In no way I'm saying that it's the perfect country, but in all the years I spent traveling, I haven't found the perfect one yet. Iran is constantly under attack from Western media and too often I see superficial and misinformed articles clearly written by journalists who have very little knowledge of the Islamic Republic. While we are used to this attitude and mainstream publications have lost their appeal and reputation of "seekers of the truth", I think our media should make more effort in studying and researching the complexities of a country such as Iran and in being more honest towards their readers.

 

Angela Corrias is a freelance travel writer, blogger and photographer. Born in Italy, she left her home country after college and since then she has lived in Dublin, London and Shanghai, alongside traveling around Asia, the Middle East, Brazil and Europe. Among the others, her work has appeared in Chinese newspaper Global Times, Forbes Travel Guide, Literary Traveler and GoNomad. She writes about her travels in her blog Chasing The Unexpected.