The headlines shocked Sara Masry: Hard-line protesters had stormed Saudi diplomatic compounds in Iran. The alert came to her cellphone during a brief stay in the Saudi city of Jeddah while visiting family and friends. Masry, 25, wasn’t just another rightly distressed Saudi citizen; she had spent the past 18 months studying toward a master’s degree in Iranian studies at the University of Tehran.
Saudi-Iranian relations were already tense, but Masry sensed that things were about to escalate. “I was upset and disappointed; I felt this development was going to set everything back between the [two] nations. At the same time, I knew a section of Iranians weren’t representative of all Iranians. It’s just another thing that is allowing this stereotype of Iran to blossom. It destroys any potential for rational discussion or common ground,” Masry told Al-Monitor.
This is exactly the premise of her popular blog, A Saudi in Iran. Masry has written extensively about her various encounters with Iranians as a means to break Arab stereotypes of the country. “As the political scene got more and more tense over the past few years, I felt there’s just one narrative of Iran — and it’s mainly a political one. There’s no disconnect between political and human aspects ... politics is one thing, but from my [Iranian] friends — the people I know — other things I see on social media is not how Iran is,” she said.
Masry said this view is mutual. In her telling, many Iranians see Saudi Arabia solely as a puritanical Wahhabist state. Confronting these mirroring stereotypes was what compelled her to move to Iran in the first place. “I felt going there would be the ultimate thing, to see it in person and actually live there and at the same time [see] how people react to me as a Saudi. Obviously there’s this whole thing between Saudi Arabia and Iran — or Arabs and Iranians. I felt like this is something that should be put to the test. I was really happy with the results that I got.” She added, “It’s very important that we tap into our common ground and stop viewing each as the ‘other.'”
Initially, Masry didn’t intend to write a blog. It took her about eight months before A Saudi in Iran came into fruition. This was not only because she was busy settling in, but because her Iranian friends were vehemently against such an initiative since blogging in the Islamic Republic can sometimes land you behind bars.
“It’s not always OK in Saudi Arabia either; it obviously depends on the topic. I’m staying far away from anything political. I was a bit worried at first, but if everyone is too scared, nothing will change. I wanted to be an alternative voice. So I just sucked it up. I’m having a great, life-changing experience. I have a unique insight and vantage point, so I might as well use it,” she said.
The most common question Iranians asked Masry while in Tehran was, “Why are you here?” This very question later became the title of one of her blog entries.
Since most Iranians only interact with Saudis during the hajj pilgrimage, Masry said some people she encountered were surprised to find a lone Saudi woman in Iran. This prompted her to explain that not all Saudi families are conservative, as others give their daughters independence. Masry said, “Then they say, ‘But I’ve never seen a Saudi woman with her face uncovered [without niqab].’ I say, ‘It’s not true. The majority in Saudi Arabia don’t cover their faces, just certain cities.’ And they’re like, ‘Really?’ You can just tell they had no idea.”
Masry said she gets similar reactions in Saudi Arabia when she brings up Iran. “Any Saudis I meet, they do a double-take after I tell them I lived in Iran. Suddenly they ask all sorts of questions. ‘What’s it like there?’ ‘What are the people like? Then I get, ‘I had so many good friends in America that were Iranian and we were so close.’ I hear that so much. It’s kind of like a qualifier that you have to say because of how bad things are and how many stereotypes are flying around.” Masry added, “I would’ve never imagined going to Iran. It’s kind of like a Narnia, something they can’t imagine — that’s how polarizing it is [right now].”
Despite the stereotyping, Masry said she hasn’t experienced any discrimination from Iranians. On the contrary, she said that she enjoyed Iranian hospitality even when her hosts were made aware of her nationality.
The cut in relations between Tehran and Riyadh has left Masry in limbo in Saudi Arabia, and her studies in Iran at a standstill. Saudi Arabia has issued a ban on travel to Iran. Meanwhile, some of Masry’s family members have reservations about her returning. As a result, she said she is unable to complete her last semester or dissertation research. She left many belongings at her apartment in Tehran, but that what hurts her most is being unable to say a proper goodbye to her local and foreign friends in Tehran.
“People are telling me to wait it out or maybe ask them [University of Tehran] to defer. I’m in contact with the faculty, but the thing is that it’s a bit hard to put my life on hold, especially since there’s no indication of when things will [get] better.”
Masry said she’ll miss the walks back from university, the snowcapped Alborz Mountains and traveling with her friends. Someone recently left Masry a comment on her blog, “Not very long ago, the French and the Germans saw each other as their sworn enemy. Today, as a German, I speak French, I have friends over there who I like very much, and I am genuinely mystified as to why it has taken so long for us to finally get along. Maybe, in the not too distant future, Saudis and Iranians will get along just as well, appreciate each other, and be the next example of how friendship and cooperation are so much better than mistrust and confrontation.” Perhaps history is a reminder of how things can change for the better — but also for the worse.