Most think of travel as a means of experiencing the world and broadening the mind. But the mindset when one travels affects the outcome more than you’d expect. In Revolutionary Ride, Lois Pryce, a British travel writer, receives an anonymous invitation to visit Iran. This invitation comes in the form of a note pinned to her motorcycle back in 2011, when the diplomatic tension between England and Iran was at its peak.
The British media at the time is playing up the fundamentalist forces in Iran, painting the whole country as one of the most dangerous places in the world. ‘Habib’, the writer of the note, is clearly distressed about Iran’s public image in the British media, and requests Pryce to visit his country in person and see the truth.
Pryce takes up the invitation. Getting the visa to enter Iran itself turns out to be a suspenseful process. But eventually, Pryce travels with her motorcycle to Turkey, from where she loads the vehicle into a train for Tabriz, over the Iranian border. From Tabriz, she bikes on a month-long zigzag route across Iran, ending at the ruins of Persepolis and finally Shiraz.
As a Caucasian woman on a motorcycle, she’s a rarity and is stared at, but equally frequently helped out by the people she meets on the way. She passes through both polluted, smoky, crowded city streets and isolated mountain roads. Pryce enjoys every minute of the driving, and as willing co-passengers, we enjoy the ride, too.
Along the way, she meets a cross-section of people, from businessmen to clerks, from students to housewives. The usual topic of conversation is the Iranian Revolution—the ouster of the Shah of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 70s. Everyone she meets is displeased by the Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, and hates the regressive laws related to clothing, women’s rights, and religion. Again and again, she’s told that the people don’t support the government, that life under the Shah was better, and the revolution misguided.
Pryce repeatedly concludes that the people here are almost “normal” people and that they have the same interests, and passions as people anywhere else. It’s strange how she’s able to make this out purely on the basis of a single hot-button topic, to the exclusion of the myriad things that make up daily life.
The Orientalist mindset creeps through in these interactions with “the natives”. Iranian history, for Pryce, seems to begin only a century ago, when the British-partnered oil company was set up. People with a Western mindset seem the most “normal” to her. Revered Persian poetry is reduced to a fortune-telling game with a parrot. And the one man who airs a grudge against the British for the outcomes of Colonialism is portrayed as a grumpy, deluded man even though he makes a very strong case.
As a travelogue, this book is an engaging read. But as an “exploration of the Real Iran”, it feels way too shallow and blinkered to have real value.