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The real Iran... as I saw it
I WAS both excited and anxious to attend the Third Iran International PR Conference in Teheran on Nov 12-16. Some friends advised me to skip the country, whispering that it may not be safe. Why not wait for another conference in London or Washington, they suggested.
However, the attractive invitation to speak and seemingly interesting programme were difficult to resist. The Iran calling through the Kargozar Public Relations Institute, which is Teheran’s oldest PR institute, was strong enough to land six of us in the small delegation to the conference with the theme "Transparency, Social Responsibility and Accountability".
As we boarded the Iranair plane, someone whispered: "The United States does not sell any aeroplane spare parts to Iran, you know."
My stomach turned. What’s that supposed to mean? Never mind, I consoled myself. Many of my Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese friends have flown Iranair and spoke well of their experience. Que sera sera.
The economy class was spacious and comfortable, the stewardesses courteous, helpful and beautiful. The take-off by the Iranian pilot was efficient and we comfortably cruised the skies even at some turbulent points.
Seated in front of me was a beautiful Iranian woman, Zahrah, with two gorgeous baby girls who kept me awake throughout the flight. After about eight hours, we landed at 5.30am in what I found to be a very peaceful Iran. The weather was cold. Autumn was coming to an end and winter creeping in.
My first impression of the Iranian man was formed when I met the charming, pleasant-looking Haidi, the tour guide employed by Kargozar Institute, who met us at the airport. "Salam and welcome to Iran," he said without a handshake.
From then on, we were introduced to everything Persian, much to our delight. We learnt that Iran, known as Persia till 1935, became an Islamic Republic in 1979 after the ruling monarchy was overthrown and the Shah was forced into exile.
According to Professor Ehsan Yarshater, the suggestion for the change of name came from one Iranian ambassador to Germany who thought it was fitting that the country be called by its own name "Iran". This would not only signal a new beginning and bring home to the world a new era in Iranian history, but also signify the Aryan race of its population, as the name "Iran" is a cognate of "Aryan" and was derived from it.
We had an official welcome ceremony at the Azad Islamic University hosted by its head, Dr Jasbi, who supports the important role public relations plays in Iran’s progress and development, at its huge main campus of over one million students.
We were then taken for a six-hour drive through Iran’s scenic countryside to the beaches of the Caspian Sea. Along the way we stopped to sample delicious Iranian cuisine at two restaurants, including special kebabs, briyani rice, lots of yoghurt and salads.
Our visit to a serene highland amid greenery and waterfalls called Masauleh (meaning the pious one) was unforgettable. Here we met mostly elderly Iranians producing simple handicrafts for sale. They spend much time "communicating with God", according to Ali Tangshir, our incredibly disciplined "caretaker" who checked on every little detail to ensure our comfort. We brought that peaceful feeling out of Masauleh as we waved them goodbye.
Our two-night stay at Aseman Hotel in Isfahan, known as "Half of the World", was too short but most memorable. We were treated to the best lamb briyani dinner by the mayor of Isfahan who reminded us that "public relations begins and ends with people". On two occasions, helpful Iranian passers-by helped us speak to the cabman and negotiated a good fare for us to be driven into the city.
One can find almost everything in Isfahan — good food, friendly people, shopping malls, beautiful architecture, beautiful girls with make-up on their faces walking together, young men taking the bus to college, Chinese, Japanese and French businessmen and tourists, and even a big Armenian Christian church.
The conference proper clearly showed the rich Persian cultural heritage and Iranian modernity.
Conference sessions were opened with "in the name of Allah the most merciful and most benevolent" and a recital of the Holy Quran.
The session chairman, Dr Hesamudin Bayan, a top scholar, took the delegates through a most interesting conference.
We met and heard from Iran’s well-spoken scholars in various fields, such as Dr Isa Jalali and Dr Mitra Hajizadeh, who spoke on the psychology of public relations; Dr Abolfazl Beheshti on the role of think tanks in public relations; Dr Ali Akbar on public relations in the third millennium, to name a few.
I had a marvellous experience when the hall of about 600 participants loudly sang the Selawat Nabi (Praise of the Prophet) at the end of every five Quranic and Hadith quotes read as part of my presentation.
Mehdi Bagherian, secretary-general of the Kargozar Institute, and his team worked very hard to put the international conference together where foreign participants from countries such as Malaysia, Australia, France, India and Arab nations experienced Iranian generosity and classic hospitality seldom seen before.
We signed a collaborative agreement between Kargozar Institute and the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia for greater co-operation and negotiated for Datuk Hamdan Adnan’s book Government Relations: Persuasion, Personality and Power to be translated to Persian for public relations learning in Iran.
In Iranair on the way home, we agreed that this is the Iran we never saw through media reports. Today we pray that Iran will continue to prosper in peace and harmony with the world, and the world with Iran, and that more global citizens will have the opportunity to see the real, peaceful Iran.
The writer is director of corporate communications, Public Bank, and president of the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.