Impressions from the visit to Iran of a Bulgarian visual artist who builds bridges through her art
Petya Ilieva holds a PhD with the dissertation “Bulgarian Art and Folklore as International Bridges and Cultural Diplomacy” and an MA in Painting and Aesthetics. Her exhibitions have been shown in a number of galleries in Bulgaria and abroad, on sixt continents – for example at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London, at the Bulgarian Embassies in Paris and Delhi, at various venues in USA (New York, Washington, Chicago), in Vienna, Brussels, Prague, Bratislava, Valencia, in Japan, Lebanon, Qatar, China, Sultanate of Oman, Antarctica – Livingston Island. Petya Ilieva is also a restorer of frescoes and author of scientific publications in the field of cultural heritage and art. She is the founder of an annual festival of cultures of nations called Art4Diplomacy and works with all foreign diplomatic missions in Bulgaria.
Ms. Ilieva, you visited Iran this year as part of a forum of influential women in the world. To what extent were your expectations about this country confirmed and what of what you saw surprised you?
I travel a lot, in different parts of the world, and I can say from experience that for some “more special” countries what is said in the media or published on the internet is conditioned by the political situation. Economic and religious issues are subject to it. So there are often objective discrepancies between reality and how it is presented. People who travel for a trip or holiday see popular places, tourist areas, museums and hotels and their impressions are selective and subjective. So when I travel to a country I have not been to I have no preconceived expectations. My job allows me to interact with different local people, see their daily life and lifestyle up close, take a peek into their homes and thus get my own impression. I can divide my trip to Iran into two parts. The days when I was a participant in the international congress of influential women organised by the highest level. Hosted by Dr. Jamileh Alamolhoda, wife of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and by the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs. And the days walking alone with a chatty taxi driver, going to the Tehran market, street food and tea stalls where locals gather, observing and talking to people. So, for a week I managed to see Tehran and Qom from both sides and I can say that I am not particularly surprised. To a large extent I found similarities with Bulgaria from earlier times.
Iran is a country under mighty international sanctions and is relatively difficult to reach because of the expensive passport and visa regime. How do the Iranians you saw feel about the sanctions and economic problems in Iran?
Iranians, like us Bulgarians, find our own ways to survive. A big plus for them is cheap fuel and cheap and good quality food, as well as their own production of most of the goods for everyday use. 90% of medicines and cars are locally produced. It is well known that Iranian (Persian) hand-woven carpets – wool and silk – are the finest and most beautiful in the world. Iran is among the largest producers of pistachios and saffron. These are commodities and products that are precious and expensive everywhere, while there they are produced and offered at no price.
The forum to which you were invited, influential women around the world. To what extent are Iranian women in Iran themselves influential?
Currently, in universities, the percentage of girl students is higher than the percentage of boy students. We attended a national exhibition of small and medium-sized businesses run by women (in various fields – fashion, cosmetics, medicine, dental and orthopaedic implants) as well as large companies run by women. I was surprised by the education and positions of women in complex engineering fields related to technology in the electrical and oil industries. There are many women working in the Ministry of Petroleum. Women are also actively involved in the country’s governance. Iran’s Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs is, of course, always a woman. The former Vice President (in the previous cabinet) for Women’s Affairs is the current Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights. Shahindokht Molaverdi, scholar, academic, lawyer, feminist, who was indicted and convicted in 2020 for leaking information. She appealed and was acquitted of all charges in 2022.
How did you feel as a Bulgarian in Iran? To what extent do Iranians view visitors from Bulgaria positively?
First of all, I would like to say that it is quite normal and safe for a foreign woman to walk the streets of Tehran. Even in the evening, after dark. And there and in the city. I saw an open friendliness and kindness towards foreigners from the locals. In the Iranian women I met quite genuine joy and curiosity. I cannot count the number of times girls and women, both official from the forum and at the largest women’s Islamic university we visited, and journalists who interviewed me, hugged me quite spontaneously and expressed their human love.
What could be interesting to see or experience in Iran for a Southern European tourist?
Iran is a country with a large territory and diverse nature. Four different seasons can be observed in different parts of the country in one day. There is also the Louth desert with the highest measured temperature on Earth. There one can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the Persian Gulf in the afternoon. I will only talk briefly about Tehran, because one could write and talk about Iran for hours. Just as Sofia reaches the slopes of the Vitosha Mountains, Tehran in its northern part rests on the Alborz or Elburz Mountains, with its highest peak, the extinct volcano Damavand (5670 m). The only way to get to the ski resorts of Alborz (road transport is forbidden in the mountains) is by cable car from the very edge of town. The longest boulevard in the Middle East starts from there. The one that crosses the capital from north to south and along it one crosses the city of 14 million and finds oneself from the snow-capped mountains into the sandy, desert-like plain of the southern part of the city, where the oil refinery is. There are a few things to see and they are an experience for everyone, not just the man from southern Europe. These are:
– Golestan Palace , a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built between 1524 and 1576 during the Safavid dynasty. From 1794 to 1925 it was the official residence of the royal family. A complex of 17 buildings in a magnificent Persian garden and a “water mirror” fountain;
– The palace with the entire complex of parks and buildings of Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. A place full of history, art and cultural treasures;
– Azadi Tower. Freedom Tower, built in 1971 to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian kingdom;
– Tabiat Bridge or Nature Bridge – an extremely impressive bridge designed by Leila Aragian and built in 2014 while she was still an architecture student;
– The Carpet Museum;
– the museum of Islamic art;
– the Milad TV Tower, whose 302-metre panoramic terrace is reached by elevator in 6 seconds and from where, in addition to viewing the entire city, one can also practice bungee jumping, sky swinging, and walking on the edge (in a glass box);
– the jewel museum;
– the covered market.
Your cultural diplomacy project, in which you place photos from different countries on the bus stops in Sofia, is supported by various embassies, including the Iranian Embassy. To what extent does the idea of a bridge between the West and the East, which countries like Bulgaria periodically try to realise, have potential in relation to Iran?
The photographs from different countries on the bus stops in Sofia are another initiative of my Art4Diplomacy project “Art for Diplomacy”, which I have been developing for the fifth year now.
The meaning and purpose of my work is to build bridges between nations and cultures. To convince people that we are all more the same than different, and to look for and see fascination, not contradiction, in what makes us unique.
Physical bridges are built strong (by engineers) but do not always remain stable over time from the stresses of exploitation and nature.
Cultural bridges are invisible, built slowly, but they do not succumb to the pressures of time and change.
And if the one is built of steel and concrete, the other of culture, art, tradition, shared emotions and smiles. It is these, the spiritual bridges, that connect people and help to bring peoples together. And they have the potential to develop everywhere. They are the props between the West and the East.
(I will mention here that the artist can do with ease what the career diplomat cannot do without the tools of art. A tool of public diplomacy whose action is both in the moment and in the long run. I work on this project equally well with the embassies of all countries in Bulgaria. In one initiative I bring together Iran, Israel, Palestine, China, USA, Cuba, Kosovo, Serbia, South Africa…).
Photo: An Iranian female scientist (source: khamenei.ir)
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