I don’t know how to ride a donkey!

By August 9, 2011Recent Posts

I don’t know how to ride a donkey!One of the most bizarre experiences I had during my stay in Australia was being asked by a European housemate whether it was difficult to ride a donkey. Huh?! How could I react to this question when on the one hand I have no clue about donkey riding and on the other hand I knew that my housemate’s question was an honest question. As he told me, his question was the result of leafing through a book chapter. In order to understand what he was talking about, I asked him for the book’s details and dashed out to a library to find it!

In point of fact, what he had in mind was a chapter titled Iran written by an American anthropologist in the four-volume set Countries and their Cultures. The text touched upon various demographic, socio-economic, political and cultural aspects of Iran. However, the written text, no matter how accurate, had been mediated by the images with which it was associated. A picture is worth a thousand words, as the adage goes, and my housemate clearly had remembered the images rather than the text.

Having been born and raised in Iran and having travelled widely across the country, I dare say the pictures seemed rather outlandish even to me, let alone to my housemate! The pictures showed either far-flung villages or people riding donkeys and driving trashy cars. For a foreigner unfamiliar with the country, the association is clear: Iran is a backward place.

As a matter of fact, anecdotes of similar intercultural miscommunication experienced by Iranians in the West are not uncommon. Several friends of mine have told me of being asked similarly misguided questions. Taken together, such anecdotes are evidence of stereotypical views based in media representations.

But why are such backward pictures used to spruce up the text while Iran’s modern life as evident in its major cities, where the vast majority of the population live, is totally absent from the pictures? The answer seems to have already been provided by Edward Said. In Orientalism, Said describes the features of the body of knowledge which was produced not only by poets, novelists, or travel writers but also by learned scholars especially in the 19th century. These people almost unanimously represented the Orient as a repository of Western knowledge, rather than as a society and culture in its own right. In this connection, the Orient was described in terms of the way it differed from the West. Eastern countries have often been described in ways which denigrate them, which produce them as a negative image, an ‘other’. Over time, these representations have accrued truth-value to themselves through constant usage and familiarity.

The pictures presented in this recent encyclopedia suggest that Orientalist ways of thinking and writing are too established to die out.

Orientalism is not just a mis-depiction of the East; rather, as my encounter shows, orientalist representations are the basis of ways of seeing that inform mundane interactions between “Easterners” and “Westerners.” Uncovering the orientalist tropes of texts is thus much more than a hermeneutic exercise. It continues to form the basis of lived experience and daily interactional challenges “Easterners” have to contend with.


Beeman, W. O. (2001). Iran. In M. Ember & C. R. Ember (Eds.), Countries and their cultures, Vol. II (pp. 1057-1077). New York: Macmillan.

Author Vahid Parvaresh

Vahid Parvaresh is an assistant professor of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Isfahan, Iran. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Isfahan and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Tehran. His research interests are in discourse analysis and cross-cultural pragmatics.

More posts by Vahid Parvaresh
  • Giti

    Thank you for your entry.

    If I were you, i might just laugh and told my housemate” oh…its interesting, would you like to experience it. come to my country and we will” but I am delighted to see your perseverance in finding the source for such a bizarre question!
    You are definitely right regarding media effect. as you pointed it out, although it is a recent encyclopedia, but there are pictures like this in it!!!
    I as an Iranian person living in this country have never seen something like this!!!!! How can they show it as a way of life in Iran!!!!

  • Jean Cho

    Thanks for such a perceptive post Vahid. I particularly like the way you expanded on the bizzare question to find a link to Orientalism.

  • Golnaz

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh ,

    It was exactly last year while my vacation to the Uk , I was asked this question also ! Our British friend said , Iam really starving to visit Iran, beacuase there streets are not ” asphalt ” and people ride motor cycle and bike ! She also told me it’s AWESOME to ride horse , but do you really know how to ride horse ? beause you are a girl and girls mustn’t ride horse !

    I was all shocked to … , but as you know it’s all politicals propagrations . I opened my laptop and showed her the pictures of cars , houses , streets in Iran .She was shocked to believe that people in Iran spend 77 ,000 $ on Sorento instead of 34 ,000 $ on it , because we here love to enjoy our life if we have money and we also love to taste new technologies . But I tried my best to tell her that ofcourse ,it’s not common every where , as we have modern life and modern streets in some parts of city and we don’t have it in some other parts . and she accpted all my words .

    Best ,

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Vahid
    Thanks for the excellent post!
    In the place (in Sydney) where I work, there’s an English gentleman who has recently joined our team. When I introduced myself (meaning I’m Iranian) he was really eager to talk to me about Iran. At first, I thought he would be talking about the same stuff pointed out in this blog and honestly wanted to avoid talking to him. However, when he started his conversation, he said “I’m very pleased to have learned that history has seen such great men like Cyrus the Great and Darius the great”. He said we (he meant Europeans) are greatly indebted to you (Iranians) for your great leaders and their humanitarian purposes. He went on to about the rights of women at the time and Cyrus cylinder and how this affected the United Nations declaration of Human Rights. When I asked what he thought of the current situations in Iran, he said he never believes what he reads or watches in the media. He also said he knows that people in Iran now drive the most expensive cars and achieve relative prosperity.

    • Golnaz

      Dear Mr Izadi ,
      Nice post . Well it’s true and the reason he doesn’t believe these ways of news and media propagration is because we have still real and great Iranians all arround different countries, that care to their nationality , that is , some days ago a real real gentelman has asked the mayor of Los Angeles to put the already built sculpture of Cyrus the great in the center of one the known squres of the L.A . You see , media is bad , the other countries due to many reasons don’t show our real face , but some times it’s also our fault as Iranians to let such misinterpretations happen .I believe that the fact that Iam an Iranian and I know all about my History and culture mustn’t stop me from exploring the truth , so that when a foreinger ask me sth , I just get blushed .

      Thanks ,


  • Dariush Izadi

    In addition, he mentioned he knows women in Iran do not wear veils irrespective of what we see in the media, referring to a documentary he had seen on TV a while ago.
    I believe because of his nodding acquaintance with Iranians and not paying much attention to media and to political propagations gave rise to speaking up for Iran and Iranians.

  • Thanks for the post , Vahid, very interesting. I would like to make a general comment about man/woman tendency to be taken in by the text .

    Textual analysis are a good entry point into ideologies, histories, politics etc, but lived experiences are something else. Perhaps it is time consuming, therefore, does not fit in with the preferred methods of knowledge construction by transnational agencies etc

    You are so right in your observations that meta images permeate the everyday discursive spaces.


  • Banafsheh

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh,

    Thanks for your post. It was so interesting and insightful like your previous posts.
    I have a friend in California. Once she wrote me ” Is it right that women cannot drive in Iran?”
    I did not write her anything but attached some photos,especially Laleh Sedigh and Zohreh Vatankhah photo(Iranian Rally champions).
    “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So let us choose the best pictures to introduce our culture all around the world.