It is no secret that the Middle East, in particular Muslim nations like Iran, does not have the best global image. Politics and the media in West have not only failed to allay fears, but have fueled them.
This has understandably led to a certain level of prejudice against Iranians in the world, creating a gulf between people that it really shouldn’t be there. So, what can be done to address that?
Well, for one Swedish woman; the answer was simple: Run across Iran see for herself whether Iran was safe and its people kind.
Kristina Palten, 46, decided to run through Iran in 2015 to combat xenophobia and break down her own prejudices.
“I was terribly tired of all the fear between people … I wanted to see Iran’s beautiful nature and people, but most of all I was tired of xenophobic forces rising in Sweden, Europe and elsewhere,” she told PersiaPort.
“What is the opposite of fear?” Kristina said she’d thought, “That’s trust. It could be love, it could be peace, but for me it was trust.”
At its core, xenophobia “is people being afraid of other people who are different”, which doesn’t sit well with her because she believes being different should be celebrated.
“When we meet each other, when we learn from each other, we become better people,” Kristina reasoned.
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Trust in Strangers
Knowing that trust is exchanged, Kristina set out to run through Iran and, as she put it, “place my trust in unknown people.”
Being a Westerner and a woman, she said, would help send an even stronger message to the world that Iran is not at all like what it has been portrayed in the media for years — that is, if her trust in Iranians was returned.
Kristina wasn’t immune from the prejudice against Middle Easterners, but she knew she had to overcome them.
“As a woman, I was afraid that I’d be harassed or worse, but what I found was a beautiful country with kind people,” she said. So kind, in fact, that by the end of her journey she’d spent less than half her budget because families kept inviting her to stay at their place overnight.
“I came to Iran with 25,000 Swedish Krona and only used 12,000 … I slept in 34 families’ homes and they gave me so much food and fruit!” she said. She spent 34 nights out of the 58 days she spent running at people’s homes, a testament to Iranian hospitality.
She didn’t even use her tent; she spent other nights either at Red Crescent aid stations along roads or at guesthouses.
Once Kristina decided in March 2015 that she wanted to run across Iran, it didn’t take her long to get ready. She was in Tehran by August.
She flew to the bustling capital city with an Iranian friend who helped her provision for the journey, such as a SIM card and gas for her picnic stove – the latter she wouldn’t use thanks to all the food people would give her along the way.
“Before he left, he had arranged for a friend of his to drive me to Bazargan Border Crossing (on the Iran-Turkey border in the northwest),” she said.
And that’s when her journey officially began.
From Bazargan, Kristina went southeast toward Marand and Tabriz before going slightly northeast to Ardabil and Astara. She then ran on the southern edge of the Caspian Sea, going through Amol, Babol, Sari, and Gorgan. She then ran east toward Golestan National Park, Bojnurd, Quchan, before going north to Bajgiran Border Crossing on the Iran-Turkmenistan border, where her nearly two-month trip ended.
Her only companion was her Baby Jogger stroller which she used to carry her 25 kilos of luggage.
“I had 40 kilos of luggage when I left Iran,” she said, laughing. “I was given books, flowers, scarves, even a glass swan!”
The main challenge for Kristina was overcoming her fears; 22 of them to be exact.
“I graded my fears from zero to 100 … but as soon as I came to Iran all the prejudice I had about being beaten, imprisoned, etc. went from 80 to almost nothing,” she told me.
The one qualm she had about Iranians was, well, too much hospitality.
“In Iran they view guests as a friend of God, and you never leave a friend of God’s alone,” she said. “Everyone wants you to stay longer, to eat more; so the only problem I had was that I didn’t have any time to myself.”
Sometimes when she stayed at someone’s home, one of the women in the household would sleep beside Kristina as a way of showing her that she’s safe, which might seem a bit intrusive.
“But they were all so friendly to me that I just couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to seem rude,” she said.
“The thing is, in Sweden people aren’t social in that way so for me it was just unusual to be surrounded by people all the time,” she conceded, adding that in general, the “incredible friendliness” of people she crossed paths with was the most surprising aspect of her trip.
“It felt like everybody wanted to adopt me,” she joked.
Kristina said she had been approached by an Iranian diplomat at Iran’s Embassy in Sweden about returning to Iran and helping with government efforts to use sports for reforms.
She’s also got a book in the pipeline, due to be released in March 2018 in Sweden. It will be available in multiple languages, including Swedish, English, and Persian.
Entitled Den rädda löparen, which roughly translates to ‘the scared runner’, the book chronicles her experience of running through Iran.
“I doubt [The scared runner] will be the title in English, though,” she said.
Kristina has chronicled her journey in video format, the trailer of which can be watched on the website www.alonethroughiran.com.
Bringing People Closer
The main purpose of Kristina’s decision to journey alone across Iran was to bring people from different cultures closer, but she was surprised to experience that her run had an effect on the Iranians as well.
“In Iran, families don’t trust each other. Now they saw a woman running from family to family, being safe no matter where she was. That spread a lot of pride and joy in Iran,” she said.
“One family whose home I slept in rented a restaurant in the city of Karaj and invited every family whose home I’d stayed at- to celebrate their own friendliness,” she said welling up. “It was just a beautiful thing to do.”
Kristina was given a letter, which read, “If you as an outsider can trust us, then we can also trust each other. You gave us a better world and we are grateful for that.”
“I cry when I read it at home,” she said.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Kristina said the epitome of trust she was shown was when one mother handed Kristina her two-month-old son to put to sleep.
“You just don’t put your child in a stranger’s arms if you don’t trust them!” she said and rightly so.