Home Perspectives Opinions A holiday in Tehran, or Pyongyang?

A holiday in Tehran, or Pyongyang?

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Tehran, Iran FLICKR PHOTO
Tehran, Iran FLICKR PHOTO

It’s that time of year again. Our blustery Canadian shores have heartily welcomed the sweet (albeit temporary) embrace of summer.

From happy children ditching their schoolbooks with gusto, to the entrancing aromas of barbecued food on a warm night, many Canadians enjoy this season. There will be lighter clothing, ice cream and lemonade stands, overflowing movie theatres, busy shopping malls, baseball games, buses for summer camp – and, for some people, a well-needed vacation.

Which got me thinking.

We often hear about trips to usual destinations at home and abroad. But every so often, you learn about an excursion to an exotic and/or far-flung destination that you’ve never considered going to – or decided to avoid.

These are the memorable stories that stay with you for a lifetime.

Here’s an example. A Canadian lawyer I know, Paul Beaudry, went to North Korea in 2011. While it’s not a big secret that small groups of Westerners have been going on tightly controlled trips to this Communist nation for years, it’s still an odd choice.

As Beaudry wrote in a Jan. 16, 2014, Ottawa Citizen op-ed, “Travelling to North Korea was a dream come true. Having long had an interest in the history of the Korean Peninsula and the North Korean regime, I wanted to see the place for myself.”

Alas, what he witnessed was, predictably, disturbing.

“The most distinguishing feature of North Korean society,” Beaudry wrote, “is not its architecture, but the personality cult that has elevated its leaders… to godlike status.”

He only travelled to the capital city, Pyongyang. He could only speak to tour guides and powerful political and military officials. His dream of “going off the beaten path and visiting a country mostly devoid of western influence” was immediately shattered.

Moreover, “western tourists who believe that they are ‘instruments of change’ by visiting North Korea are either hopelessly naïve or grossly ill-informed.” He points out they “should not be blind to the fact that when they bow before statues of the Kims, or pay their respects to the country’s founder by visiting his grandiose mausoleum, they are making themselves tools of the regime’s propaganda machine.”

Beaudry now realizes, in hindsight, that North Korean tours “should be discouraged because it sustains the Kim regime.” He regrets having taken this trip.

Let’s contrast this disillusioning experience with Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s intriguing journey to, of all places, Iran.

The Swedish Jewish columnist visited the roughly 12,000-member Iranian Jewish community earlier this year. She quickly returned to participate as an observer during the country’s general election.

What were her observations? 

In a March 23 op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, Hernroth-Rothstein wrote, “Thirty-seven years after the [Islamic] revolution, the Jews of Iran have developed a culture unlike any in the rest of the Jewish world. With negligible assimilation – no doubt partially due to the ramifications of intermarriage under sharia law – the Jews of Iran are highly religious and intensely Jewish in the heart of an Islamic state.”

Regardless, she acknowledges, it’s “a careful life within a closed and oppressive system and it creates a version of coexistence based on need rather than want.”

Iranian Jews are a “recognised minority” who can purchase alcohol for religious ceremonies. The Persian Constitution of 1906 created a designated seat for the Jewish community in the Iranian Parliament. (Siamak Morsadegh has held it since 2008.) But the vast majority of residents keep a lid on political discussions – for their own safety – and stay busy with religious study and traditions.

As Hernroth-Rothstein told Israel Hayom’s Steve Ganot in an April 6 interview, Jews in Iran “are not persecuted, but they’re also not free.” This sums things up pretty well.

So, after reading this, if you want to take a trip to Tehran or Pyongyang this summer, please raise your hand. Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

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Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, Washington Times contributor and TV/radio pundit, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.