Shortly before lunchtime on Monday, August 3, a van emblazoned with a large “Iran Is Great” banner pulled up and parked directly outside the Natural History Museum. Out came a family of four: Romanian father Cristian Ivan, French mother Audrey and their two young, home schooled children, or “road-schooled” as Cristian calls it, Lucas and Emilia. Having been on the road for the past five years, visiting museums plays a big part in the kids’ education. But this time would prove to be particularly memorable.
Unbeknown to the family, as they wandered around the museum, their van and the large banner adorned on it had caused chaos outside. Police cars, sniffer dogs and fire engines were called to the scene to investigate a “suspect car on Exhibition Road.” Then the road, which is a major one, was blocked off and the museum and the hundreds of people inside it were evacuated “as a precaution.” Slightly later on, the Ivan family would go outside to find that their van had been broken into and its window smashed, though nothing was taken from it. There was no explanation as to why.
IranWire spoke to Cristian Ivan about the "Iran is Great" campaign and the dramatic events in one of London’s busiest tourist areas.
Can you tell me what happened outside the Science Museum in London yesterday?
We parked our van outside the Natural History Museum to go to the Science Museum, which is directly next door. When we came out, the window of our van had been smashed. We approached the security staff at the museum and they told us that it was the police who’d done it. Security said it was because of the message on our van, “Iran is Great” and because we have foreign number plates, so they couldn’t check our identity. But that’s not true. On our website, you can see our location and it actually says that on our van as well. Later on, we saw on Twitter that people had posted pictures from the incident, that Exhibition Road had been blocked off, and that about six police cars and two fire engines had surrounded our van. It was a big event. We also found the doors to our van unlocked, but nothing was missing, so it was definitely the police. Eyewitnesses told us they came with dogs and checked for bombs.
Did anyone explain to you why your vehicle was broken into?
No, they didn’t even leave a note saying who they were. It’s fine to break our window for security reasons or whatever, but not telling us who it was or apologizing for the damage they’d caused is totally unacceptable.
So the British government won’t be paying for the damage caused?
No. I wouldn’t even know whom to ask. I mean, should I go to the police? Surely not. They’re the ones responsible.
Why do you think the banner caused such a commotion?
It’s obvious. We’re carrying a message about a country that is frequently demonized here. But the fact is that doesn’t make us dangerous. What’s more, there were ways of opening our van without damaging it. They could’ve come to us. We were just 100 meters away inside the museum.
Has something similar ever happened before?
No, nothing. We’ve never experienced something like this in any other country.
Did you expect Iran’s reputation abroad to improve after a nuclear deal was reached?
Well, I hoped so, but yesterday’s events suggest otherwise. It takes a lot of work to change the reputation of a country. Iran needs to put more effort into its PR in order to improve its image. It needs more people like us. Many other countries do it so why shouldn’t Iran? Events like yesterday could, I believe, be avoided if people like the police that broke into our van were better informed about Iran. If they were, they wouldn’t have acted the way they did.
Can you tell me about the Iran is Great campaign? Why did you start it?
Five years ago, during an overland trip to India, we had to cross Iran. We were afraid to do so because we’d only heard negative things about it, but we did it anyway. The original plan was just to spend five days there but we fell in love with the country and spent two months there instead. So we went back again two years ago and we stayed even longer. We kept asking ourselves how such a great country could have such a negative image abroad. So we decided to change it as a family. It was also a way to thank Iranians for their hospitality while we were in their country.
How does it work?
We promote the country in two ways. The first is in a passive way, by displaying the banner on our van. The second is an active one: we go to gatherings where travellers meet and we talk about our experiences in Iran, encourage other people to go there, or just read and learn more about Iran. There is a severe lack of information available about the country.
Who funds the project?
Principally ourselves, but also from small donations from Iranians, both inside and outside the country, who admire our work and want to support us by donating. We don’t receive donations from the Iranian government.
How long will you keep the campaign going and living on the road?
We’ve been travelling for the past five years and I hopefully we’ll never stop. As for the campaign, we will do it for as long as is necessary.
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