Iran's young people used to obstacles, following nuclear talks closely

There is a very modern, urban side to Iran that the West doesn't always see, Nahlah Ayed reports. And its young people don't all like the way they are being portrayed abroad.

There is a very modern, urban side to Iran that the West doesn't always see

25-year-old Nilofar Moghadam and teammate Milad Yazandoost, 22, practice the urban sport of parkour, a combination of acrobatics and obstacle courses, in a park in Tehran. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

Team Stout, as its members call themselves, has an image problem. Their chosen sport, parkour, is considered dangerous by some in authority here in Iran, even inappropriate when it involves women.

This team has two female members. And Nilofer Moghadam looks fearless, in hijab, as she jumps headlong into one of the group's practiced somersaults, nailing the landing with a grin.

"I like the excitement and the energy it unleashes," says the 25-year old management student.

"Because we adore it, and the passion I have for this sport makes me fight for it."

Parkour — the urban sport of running and vaulting through an obstacle course — isn't a passing fad in Tehran, and if you visited, you would understand its appeal.

You would also understand why Iranians — especially young adults — are so fed up with how they're portrayed abroad.

Everything about doing the sport here defies the images long beamed to the West about Iran. Parkour is modern, urban, inclusive and it's done in public, pulling in appreciative crowds and potential recruits.

Contrast that with the "very negative and gloomy image of our country," among foreigners, says Hamid Afrasabi, a 22-year-old animal sciences student.

And recent polling does provide a grim picture. A Pew Research Centre survey just last week suggested majorities in 31 of 40 countries hold a negative opinion of Iran.

This, even as Iranian negotiators sit down for the final days of talks with Western powers on resolving the impasse over its nuclear capability.


That negative image of their country doesn't sit well with Iran's majority stakeholders — its citizens under 30, who make up 60 per cent of the population.

That's a group that includes Team Stout who are mainly university students in their early 20s.

Like many Iranian young people, Hamid Afrasabi, 20, is upset with the way the West views Iran. Here he is practising a jump in a park in Tehran. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

Though critics abroad blame Iran's rulers for that, Afrasabi blames the image problem on deliberate misinformation — propaganda, he calls it. But doesn't entirely absolve his own countrymen, either.

Last Sunday, a good number of Iranians chanted "death to America" inside the legislature, even as they appeared to generally endorse the nuclear talks.

Though Afrasabi says it was U.S. behaviour that sparked such chants during the Islamic revolution, "I don't like it. Iranians are a very peaceful people."

You might expect a different sentiment from someone like him, the children of the sanctions era who have had to contend with double-digit unemployment — even for the educated.

But these young people seem to expect the talks to change their lives.

"This is important for Iran and for Iranians because the sanctions will be lifted, and the relationship will be normalized," says Moghadam.

Disaster for the West

However, this optimism by young people like Moghadam could be easily deflated if these talks fail, says Fouad Izadi, a professor at the faculty of world studies at Tehran University.

"Yes, there are young people here that would like to see better relations between Iran and the West," he says, adding "this new generation is following the negotiations very closely."

But if the talks fail, he says, it would be "a disaster for the West's interests in this part of the world for many years to come."

For the parkour practitioners, though, there is little that seems insurmountable at this point.

They, too, are part of today's Iran, and just like the local park they practice in, they want to own it.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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