“First time in Iran?” the immigration officer asks.
“Yes”, I answer.
(After a few nervous seconds that seemed like hours) “Welcome to Iran!” he exclaimed.
We were through immigration, baggage claim and customs in 25 minutes. Delhi Airport has nothing on Tehran. Imam Khomeini trumps Indira Gandhi!!
I had my apprehensions about this trip. I was ignorant about the state of Iranian politics and worried about the country’s proximity to war-torn Iraq and Syria. I freaked out about being kidnapped or bombed by terrorists (yep, total ignoramus) until I saw a New York Times infographic showing India with more IS-linked terror cells than Iran and we’d been living there for 18 months. I was sold.
So why would you want to go to Iran?
I’ve never been to a country so opposite to its portrayal in the global media. It is a land of ancient civilisations, of culture and the arts, of beautiful landscapes, of some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
History and the arts
As the birthplace of the first global empire established by the Persians, Iran’s history stretches back 6 millennia. The usual itineraries take in Pasargadae and Persepolis, seats of Cyrus’ and Darius the Great’s empires. These ancient metropolises are now in ruins, some better preserved than others, but still magnificent to behold. Mosques and caravanserais dot the desert oases towns, all with their own secrets and untold history.
Ingenious ancient innovations, such as the yakhchal, a giant fridge cooled by blocks of ice collected in winter, and the badgir, specially designed and constructed windcatchers that provide cooling to the air conditioning standards can be found across the arid, desert land.
There is a dazzling array of attractions for architecture buffs, ranging from pre-Islamic stone structures, the Khorasani, Razi, Azari and Isfahani styles of the Islamic era and contemporary styles not unlike brutalist architecture
Before Iran was conquered by Islamic rulers in the 7th century, its people were Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, founded by the prophet Zarathustra in ancient Iran approximately 3500 years ago. It was the official religion of ancient Persian from 600BC to 650AD and one of the most powerful religions for a thousand years. Sadly is it now one of the world’s smallest religions, with barely a presence in Iran and a dwindling Parsi population in India, to which their Persian ancestors fled.
Zoroastrians live by the creed of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds” and believe that fire and water are agents of purity. The two elements are always found within the precinct of an atash (fire temples). The mud-brick city of Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian long after the Islamic conquest and many symbols of the religion are still found here. The Yazd Atash Behram continues to be one of the most significant fire temples in Iran.
Zoroastrian principles for laying their dead to rest is that the environment – land, air, water and fire – should not be polluted and no living beings should be harmed in any way. Towers of silence, or dakhmas, are squat circular walled stone structures, inside which the deceased are exposed to scavenger birds. The remaining bones are dried and disintegrated to powder by the hot, dry climate.
The majority of Iranians are now Shia Muslims. Shia Muslims believe that following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632AD, the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin Ali was the rightful heir to the caliphate. In Sunni Islam, the belief holds that Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr was the rightful successor. The rift is still prevalent today and underpins the continually violent conflict in the Middle East.
People and culture
So what were the people like?
Hospitality and civility is deeply ingrained in Iranians and is sincerely and generously issued. They were courteous, standing to let us sit and giving way at every opportunity. Smiles and greetings were shy but quick. “Welcome to Iran / Kerman / Yazd / Isfahan. Where are you from? What do you think of Iran?”, we were asked. People walked up to us wanting to chat and practise their English.
Iranians distribute sweets for special occasions, even to strangers; we were included in this communal giving everywhere we went – at airports, mosques, restaurants – so we accepted gratefully like everyone else. Out went any deep-rooted caution against accepting food from strangers.
Was it safe?
It is perfectly safe and the people are warm and friendly. I felt most unsafe when crossing the street in Tehran but if you have been to India, I can honestly say it was a walk in the park compared to crossing the street in India. During the day we had an English speaking guide but as we were travelling on non-US passports, we were able to roam on our own in the evenings. I traveled with my husband which gave me more freedom. If you’re a solo female traveler (we met a few of these), you may want to avoid the night walk, or meet up with fellow travellers. Many people spoke some English and people are generally willing to help.
Schools teach Persian, English and Arabic. Persian is the mother tongue, English is considered useful and Arabic is forgotten at the earliest convenience. Many Iraqis pop over for short breaks, both governments are friendly and visas are issued on arrival. The language of communication between Iraqis and Iranians is English.
Iranians are resourceful and resilient. Ali, our companionably good humoured guide was an ex-colonel in his late 40s. Captured by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s made made good use of his long stint as a prisoner of war by studying English, French and Arabic, now immensely useful for him in his current undertakings as a tour guide and as a liaison at large for various business.
Iran in the global media does not equal the Iran we experienced. Look beyond it, dispel yourself of any preconceptions and you will find a thriving, flourishing society, poised on the brink of an economic boom thanks to newly lifted sanctions. It has a social welfare system and civic amenities (good roads, drinkable tap water, waste collection, LAW ENFORCEMENT!) that we sorely miss in many countries.
The people we spent the most time with were comfortable discussing politics and religion in private and though guarded at the start, opened up with honest opinions on government and military policies. There is also an underlying feeling of affront at the United State’s vilification of Iran. But mostly people wanted to know about politics and government in other countries.
Women’s rights have a long way to go but the hijab has enabled women to move around freely and unaccompanied, seeking an education and a living. Enrolment ratio in universities is two-thirds females to a third males; women are are highly educated and a significant social and economic force.
Although all social media is outlawed, many people have social media accounts anyway; Instagram is wildly popular and the democratically-elected president of the country has a Twitter account. Iranians can’t get many Western goods but there is a flourishing black market for a number of items, including illegal downloads of the Oscar-winning movie Argo, which our guides were keen to discuss.
Iranians aren’t at home plotting attacks on the West. They are most likely in traditional chaykhanehs (tea houses), where men, women and families socialise, drinking tea sweetened with sticks of sugar crystals and eating delicious Persian food. Or at home watching illegal downloads of their favourite American TV series.
What did I wear?
No burkha or chador required but every woman has to practise hijab, so a headscarf is mandatory. On some Iranian women, this was pushed so far back as to render it almost completely pointless; a mini personal rebellion against the strict Islamic dress code. Iranian women are super-stylish and make great effort to personalise their regular uniform of trousers, coat and headscarf. The more fitting the manto (coat), the skinnier the jeans and the thicker the makeup, the better. Colour is an absolute must.
I spent hours researching what Iranian women wear before the trip. To fit in I wore loose, flowing tops that fell past my derriere and skinny jeans. I felt outclassed many a times. Nevertheless, here’s a selection of my OOTD.
Would I go back again?
Hell, yes. And I don’t say that about many places. Everyone should go so we can educate ourselves on the dangers of propaganda and to remind ourselves that our perceptions can, and should be challenged. But one the most fabulous things about Iran is the lack of tourists, so maybe best if they don’t.