1. 9 Jan, 2022

    Street vendor with a neon sign that reads “corn”, a common street food in Tehran
    Street vendor with a neon sign that reads “corn”, a common street food in Tehran

    There’s just a handful of countries where the word sanctions has a personal meaning to everyone. These are countries like Iran, Cuba, and Syria. The rest of us see sanctions as something abstract: like one country punishing another for bad behavior. Usually, a democracy punishing a non-democracy. It must be a good thing, right?

    But in a conflict between two states, it is always ordinary people who are caught between two fires. With international sanctions, they deal with double pressure: of their own government and of other countries, which in many ways is not less significant.

    I visited Iran four times to learn about Persian design, meet entrepreneurs, architects, artists, and learn how they live. I saw how international policies on Iran, the same policies democratic governments issue over human rights violations or alleged hostility, end up harming ordinary people in brutal, unexpected ways. Like the import ban that has left Iran with one of the oldest air fleets and one of the highest airplane crash rates in the world. Other restrictions make it hard for people to work, travel, study, use digital services, and build relationships with the world.

    There’s little empathy for people in isolated states because the world knows little about them. But looking into what international sanctions mean to ordinary people is a crucial part of the conversation on discrimination and privilege.

    Here’s the complete guide on the US, EU, UN sanctions on Iran from the perspective of an ordinary person.

    What are these sanctions in the first place?

    The sanctions imposed over Iran are among the world’s strictest, influencing almost all industries from international trade, energy, shipping, to banking, healthcare, and travel.

    It all started in 1979 with the the Iran hostage crisis, but the sanctions were expanded multiple times since then. Latest sanctions were added by the US and the EU in response to Iran’s uranium enrichment program and human rights violations.

    One would expect sanctions to target the government officials, with an aim to influence their policies. In reality, economic sanctions on Iran put maximum pressure on the population. They have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy and continue playing a defining role in the people’s lives.

    In 2021, the official inflation rate in Iran was around 45 percent, with at least half of the population struggling below the poverty level. Inflation is impossible to attribute solely to international policies, but they clearly correlate.

    💸 Banking: bye-bye to Visa, Mastercard, and cross-border payments

    Iran is disconnected from SWIFT

    Essentially, cross-border payments are banned by the sanctions. People who work or study abroad have no legal means to send money to families back in Iran.

    I bought a 🖼 painting from a street painter in Tehran two years ago. As there was no way to pay him directly, we asked local galleries for help. The bank transfer had to go to London and then to Dubai, from where somebody delivered the money to Iran in person.

    Visa, Mastercard (and other providers) are banned from operating in Iran

    The US bans these companies from operating in Iran. International debit or credit cards don’t work in Iran, and it’s not even possible to withdraw money from them. Even tourists have to bring money in cash.

    Even outside of Iran, bank accounts are being shut down

    The only way for an Iranian to access international payment methods is to open a bank account abroad. Many go to nearby Georgia or Armenia for that. In recent years, many of these accounts are getting closed. This is due to the agreements of these countries with the US to limit access to international banking for Iranian citizens.

    Going abroad is a nightmare

    Paying for accommodation on Booking.com or Airbnb or using services like Skyscanner to purchase flights isn’t possible as international payments methods are not available to Iranians.

    A couple of years back, I had architect friends from Iran visiting me in Europe. They couldn’t pay for anything from Iran, and I had to book hotels, flights, and even buy bus tickets for them to be able to travel.

    No legal way to get paid from abroad

    It creates a curious situation where most teachers and translators of the Persian language on websites like Upwork, Fiverr, or Italki do not live in the country of its origin.

    🛠 Infrastructure: how flying in Iran became unsafe

    Years of sanctions have left passengers with one of the oldest air fleets in the world. The average age of a passenger airplane is more than 25 years. Sanctions prevent importing airplane parts and inviting international crew for airplane maintenance.

    When the US sanctions were about to be lifted by the Obama administration in 2016, Iran announced their intent to order 100 Boeing airplanes, a deal worth billions that would be one of the largest orders for Boeing. The Trump administration reversed the agreements.

    The ban on importing airplane parts produced in the US has left Iran with no choice to modernize its fleet. In 2017 Iran tried to purchase Sukhoi airplanes from Russia, but the US blocked the deal last-minute due to some airplane parts being manufactured in the US.

    In 2019, a technical error forced a Norwegian Air jet to land at Shiraz Airport in Iran. It needed technical assistance. Neither experts nor parts could be imported to Iran. It spent nine weeks grounded in Shiraz before it managed to return back to Norway.

    🌎 Software privilege: Slack, Coursera and others ban users with ties to Iran even if they have left the country

    Many apps and services we use every day are owned by companies based in the US. Most of these companies are banned by the US government to provide services to Iranians.

    On many websites out there, Iran is just missing from the list of available countries.

    Even Coursera, a company pioneering accessible education, explicitly bans Iranian users from the website.

    Coursera banning Iranian users

    With Iranian users being a small fraction of the user base of those services, most of them don’t bother checking if the accounts blocked are actually based in Iran. Slack goes as far as to block and remove accounts of users who have visited Iran, even if they are have long left the country.

    Slack shutting down accounts of teams linked to Iran

    Binance, in response to one of the users, says that “service won’t be provided to Iranians by blood” (which is illegal no matter how you look at it).

    Binance refusing service to Iranians even if they have long left the country

    Cloud services like Google Cloud or Amazon Web Services are also unavailable to Iranian developers, although it’s not required by the sanctions.

    💙 Health: limited access to drugs and medical equipment

    Sanctions, despite the humanitarian exemptions, limit hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment for critical medical care. It also has affected the coronavirus situation in Iran.

    Human rights watch reports that the worst-affected are Iranians with rare diseases and conditions that require specialized treatment. They are unable to acquire previously available medicines or supplies.

    🚌 Travel: US student ban and highest visa refusal rate in the world

    In 2019, the US banned Iranian engineering and science students from studying in the country. Hundreds have faced deportation and visa refusals.

    The refusal rate for Iranians applying for visas to the United States was about 89% in 2020. Only one out of ten applicants gets their visa approved, and the application fees are not returned to the rest.

    📦 Secondary sanctions: a whole new mess

    All of the above are sanctions imposed directly on Iran. The concept of secondary sanctions employed by the US makes everything more complicated.

    Essentially, the US reserves the right to put penalties on any country or company that doesn’t follow the same sanctions as imposed by the US.

    Here’s an example: a friend of mine is an Iranian teacher in Vietnam 🙋. She went to the post office to ship a 📦 parcel to her family in Iran. She couldn’t do it, even though Vietnam has no sanctions on Iran. The shipping company was forced to refuse service to her to avoid secondary sanctions. Yes, it’s that crazy.

    Born in the wrong place?

    Can access to goods and services be denied based on place of birth? It feels absurd to say how access to Slack and daily banking are fundamental human rights — until you see how millions are denied access to them. It’s not about apps and banks though, and for some goods in question, sanctions leave people with no real alternative — as with airplane parts, placing Iran’s air travel among the most dangerous in the world.

    The situation where the passport you’re born with defines your access to goods creates inequality that’s impossible to bridge. Like with discrimination by skin color or gender, it is a mark one carries their whole life. But it’s often not seen as such. When two countries are involved, it’s not called discrimination anymore; It’s international relations.

    This article is being updated all the time. I thank Sina Fakour and Armita Nemati for their contributions. Feel free to reach out at roman@musatkin.com with comments and suggestions.

  2. 28 Dec, 2021

    Wes Anderson, Juman Malouf “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
    Wes Anderson, Juman Malouf “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

    In 2021, museums still bring mummies for exhibitions in Tokyo and Helsinki. There they stay, on lease for three months, encased in glass, under surveillance, with climate control, insured for millions of euros, for a leisure visitor to look at them, at best, for a couple of minutes. Is this the way to share knowledge about cultural heritage?

    These exhibitions entertain populations of big cities, but are inaccessible to everyone else. One has to be in the right place at the right time to get access to knowledge.

    An exhibition that involves objects of high value won’t ever come to a medium-sized non-capital city in Siberia, Romania, or anywhere else in the world due to costs involved. So how can museums become more accesible?

    Here’s how I see the museum of the future.


    In the future, the museum will continue to be primarily a research institution. It will also become a media, creating and publishing narratives that tie its collection together.


    Museum won’t be limited to the physical space and the collection on display. Exhibits will be complemented by their accurate digital representations. These can be projections, accurate 3D models, videos, holograms — it doesn’t matter much.

    I avoid calling those “copies”, as they are not inferior to the original but offer a different angle for considering the objects. Sometimes, they’ll provide better access to those objects. At the very least, for the lack of plexiglass.


    Repeatability will enable the creation of various contexts and stories around the same collection, online and offline.


    Museum will issue licenses for its digital collection. Sell NFTs if you wish. In fact, such “tribute” experiences already exist.

    It will become easier to make exhibitions across departments and museums, making connections and telling stories that weren’t possible to tell before.


    This will allow the museum to go beyond its actual space. The same exhibition will go live in many cities at once, reaching places it has never come before. Think of the museum as the new cinema.


    The entire experience will be mirrored online, but not in the way we think of it today.


    “I’ve been to Tate in the Metaverse, but it’s even better in person.
    Let me show you my favorite room”.

    The value of the museum as a physical space, and the collection within, will only increase over time. Everything real will inevitably have a higher value as we think more about the Metaverse.

    The new digital experiences will enable learning about an object, a time in history, or a place without actually being there — making an actual visit feel more familiar and intentional.

  3. 12 Dec, 2021

    Last week, I spent a day at Più libri Più liberi, one of Italy’s best-known book fairs for small and medium publishers in Rome.

    Book fairs are where culture is highly concentrated. Seeing what’s being published, what book covers are in fashion, one gets a better sense of what characterizes our time.

    Small publishers are a particular kind. Mainstream publishers select titles based on the prospect of commercial success. But for a small independent publisher, each book is a decision. It reflects the reason the publisher exists.

    Recently, I visited a book store in Rome where books were arranged not by author or genre but by publisher. It’s especially curious to see non-fiction and fiction put together this way. But it describes well how I see the role of the publisher: the publisher is the curator.

    A friend of mine used to say that you should pick up a book you’ve heard mentioned from at least three friends. A publisher can very well be one of these friends.

    Più libri Più liberi (wordplay: more books means more freedom) is a big deal in Rome. This year it’s being held for the 20th time. Weeks before the fair, the ads were on every bus stop in the city. It was impossible to miss. Rome and Warsaw’s mayors opened the fair with a talk on city development.

    The gigantic convention center in a business district south of Rome was full of journalists, politicians, writers presenting their books, young illustrators, and translators looking for a job.

    It took six hours to go through the 400 publishers participating in the fair — knowing Italian helped a big deal. Here are the Italian case editrici to follow.


    Lazydog book stand

    I saw Lazydog in bookstores around Europe before, but it has never occurred to me it’s an Italian publisher. They publish a small number of high-quality books on design, illustration, and typography.

    This time, what caught my eye was a collection of book designs of Katsumi Komagata, a bi-lingual edition in Italian and English.

    Komagata creates books for children blending Japanese visual style with the tradition of the Italian artist Bruno Munari: with signature transparent pages, choices of textures, and distinct illustration style.

    Corraini Edizioni

    Corraini book stand

    Bruno Munari had worked with Coraini his whole life, and even now, their catalog is highly influenced by this collaboration. Corraini makes books for children and adults of extraordinary visual quality.

    Munari believed that most books made for children, those colorful ones with silly, overtly primitive images, are created not for the child’s needs but to appeal to the parent who believes those are the qualities a child enjoys in a book.

    Children are capable of comprehending more than that, said Munari. His books, with simple narratives of sincere curiosity, do not look primitive. Their visual quality is of books on art and design, sparking interest in adults and children alike — and this seems to be the guiding principle for everything that’s published by Corraini.

    Corraini book stand

    Besides Munari, Corraini publishes many Italian and international authors. They also publish beautiful books on design and architecture.


    Fazi publishes a wide range of literature, in that sense being closer to a larger publisher. But every once in a while, there are some astonishing finds, like the Night Roads by Gaito Gazdanov, an author little known even in his home country, translated from Russian to Italian by Claudia Zonghetti.


    The name of this publisher with a two-decade history comes from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. The geography of Voland is curious. They started by publishing Tolstoy, Gogol’ and Emilijan Stanev (a Bulgarian author I wasn’t familiar with). Nowadays, their collection includes translated titles from modern Russian writers and writers from the Balkans, Romania, as well as some contemporary Italian authors.


    Nero book stand

    Nero is focused on pop culture, and I passed by their stand searching for visual inspiration. They publish books on memes, graphic stories, as well as poetry books, and modern essays with screaming book covers.


    Treccani Antlante Geopolitico 2021

    Essentially, Treccani is the publisher of The Enciclopedia Italiana. Every Italian family has one at home. What’s curious through is how far their influence stretches beyond that. They also run an institute, a cultural foundation, and publish books and maganizes about culture, arts, social issues, and geopolitics.

    Other notable publisher include Quodlibet, Adelphi (they published Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov in Italian), Edizioni del capricorno, La vita felice (they have a funny logo) and Else edizioni.

    See the complete list on the website of Più libri Più liberi.

    Find books I read on Goodreads.

  4. 8 Dec, 2021

    Lately, my preferred way to travel has been following expat communities on social media. I’m literally everywhere.

    In Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the EU holds an event dedicated to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

    Meanwhile, in Moscow, a conspiracy theorist posts a 20-minute video of himself in front of the Iranian embassy on Pokrovsky blvd explaining how Iranian copyright law lays the first brick in the inevitable collapse of the US.

    In Bishkek, military retirees are invited to sign up for FREE 6-week courses to train for in-demand civilian professions (Signed: American regional office in Kyrgizstan).

    A new Persian restaurant opens in Tirana, Albania. A group member has been selling delicious Persian meals to other members for months before deciding on opening his own place.

  5. 13 Jun, 2020

    Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori

    In March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori had held his first press conference in English, addressing the city’s international community. Behind him the word Helsinki is written in Swedish, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and Russian — for those 2% of the population that speaks Russian there.

    It is a great an example of the world I believe in. Where everyone who lives and works in the city is equaly respected. Where 1.5 millon migrant workers from Central Asia in Moscow alone stop being invisible and get recognition for their work they deserve. It’s the world where the mayor of Moscow speaks against a background that reads Moscow in Tatar, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Tajik languages.