I walked out of an Iranian restaurant one afternoon with some fellow tourists in the desert city of Yazd. It was the same place where I had sipped a lemon and crushed ice drink in the early evening two days before with a view of the city’s Jameh Mosque lit up in blue. On the steps we ran into a tour guide who wanted to know the name of the village we had visited before arriving in Yazd. We had slept at the home of a Qashqa’i family, part of a nomadic tribe in central Iran. We ate dishes like chicken with apricots, eggplant and tomato and the much coveted crispy rice called tahdig as we sat on the floor on which we later spread out mattresses for sleeping. The guide wanted to take some guests there and needed contact information. I offered the name of our guide but was sweaty and wanted to move out of the sun. As I walked down the street, I turned to say khoda hafez (meaning “God be with you,” though it is used to say goodbye). “Please tell people Iran is not like it is shown in the media,” he said while holding his hand to his heart, which touched mine. “We will,” we said.
It was a common sentiment I heard in my 17 days in the Islamic Republic of Iran. At dinner with an Iranian family one evening, a woman looked at me with large brown eyes and a smile. “So, has Iran been what you thought it would be?” she asked. I told her about a day in another small desert city near the Zagros mountains called Eghlid. We had come to a mosque and shrine during Sacred Defense Week, which marks the anniversary of the start of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Unlike in other cities where women were wearing colorful and even somewhat figure-hugging hijab to cover hair, torso and bottom, these women in Eghlid were dressed in the full black chador–a word meaning “tent” that describes the loose cloth that is worn to cover everything but a woman’s face and hands and gives no hint of any shape or curve underneath it. I worried that my hijab–a loose white headscarf and a green manteau that covered my torso and bottom to about the mid-thigh over pants–might not be accepted in this more conservative environment. Instead, people welcomed me with warm smiles, offering me ash soup, made with noodles and dill, and asking for multiple photos with me. As I told my dinner host the story of their hospitality, her face brightened in a wide smile.
It struck me how much Iranians yearn for outsiders to know the heart of their country rather than its villainous reputation. And that, for me, was one of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Iran–to learn more about this place that is such a mystery to me. So what is the real Iran? Something, of course, much more complex than I could unearth in such a short period, though one of the richest cultures I have experienced.
In my time in Iran, I saw ancient art and architecture; the sun piercing stained glass window panes to leave reflections of red, green, yellow and blue on a nearby wall or floor; intricate yet simple mosaics and tiles; glittering mirrored walls. I craned my neck several times a day to study domed, decorated ceilings often surrounded by Islamic windows whose wooden latticework allowed rays of sun to fill pockets of a room. I felt so rooted and moved by the beauty of the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque that I made a return visit. The visceral feeling made sense to me when I later read that its colors of blue and sand represented the connection of earth and sky.
I observed men and women at the tombs of the revered poets Hafez and Sa’di. Many took a moment at each tomb to close their eyes, hold a hand to the tomb and recite words as if in prayer. Some Iranians apparently use Hafez to divine the future, flipping randomly to a page and letting the words speak to them. At the mosques, the museums, the tombs of these poets, and in moments like the day I listened to a man sing mystical songs under the Khaju bridge in Esfahan to the applause and called-out requests of other men, I sensed something I later saw in words at the Chehel Sotun Palace: “the culture of a nation who has blended life with art and beauty.”
I saw bits of flair in men’s moustaches and sideburns, people wearing bandages on their noses after a recent surgery (nose jobs are nothing to hide in Iran and are, in fact, so popular that our guide described a university acquaintance who wore the bandage for a year), highway signs for prayer rooms at the next exit, images lining the streets of people killed in the Iran-Iraq war, men and women leaning on cushions on a takht (a daybed) to smoke qalyan (sheesha) in teahouses, some irritation from male customers one day when I unknowingly walked into what was apparently a men-only teahouse, and women riding in the women-only cars of the metro and buses. All day, I got lots of smiles and curious glances in my direction, nearly all of them innocent, save a supermarket worker who blew kisses at me in a very un-sexy but somewhat amusing come-on.
I ate soft lamb in Iran and endless kebabs–fish, chicken, lamb or kubide (mincemeat)–as well as tahchin morgh, a meal of tender chicken, saffron, thinly sliced almonds, barberries (a tiny, tart red berry often added to rice) and rice baked together. I learned to flavor spinach soup by squeezing lemon into it and discovered a new food love–dates. One afternoon as I walked through a bazaar in Esfahan I stopped to buy some of the sticky fruit at a small stand. The smooth, rich texture and caramel flavor was the best I have ever had. In Shiraz they made a dessert of them by drizzling tahini and sprinkling sesame seeds on top.
Some days were wild. On one of my last days in Iran, I ambled through the Park-e Honarmandan in central Tehran with a British traveling companion. We passed a building housing art galleries and a restaurant, eventually coming upon a man pulling out badminton gear on a bench. As we smiled and said hello, he invited us to play with him. He said he was Arab and then said “Hussein” as he made a slit across his throat. He had thick silver hair and wore an Ambercrombie & Fitch shirt along with aviator sunglasses rimmed in gold. As he swatted the shuttlecock in my direction, I would return it to his delight. “Yes!” he called out, “I love you!” The day had begun early, with a stop at the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini. Women dressed in the black chador kissed and held on to the silver railings surrounding the tomb as their shoulders shook from their sobs. Workers used puffy feather dusters to shoo away men or women who inadvertently veered into the section designated for the opposite sex. The guide mentioned that many believed Khomeini had a magic to him, though also many Iranians who did not approve of him still have not visited the shrine. The large and lavish complex suggests a huge construction budget, a sum the guide said the government has not disclosed. Women are required to wear a chador in any shrine, which you could rent or borrow at the entrance. The hood of mine slipped back a bit, and a worker admonished me for letting too much hair show. (This was the only time in my travels in Iran that anyone corrected me on my dress, as not only have the hijab requirements relaxed, but as a foreigner I was clearly not held to the same standards as Iranian women.) After, we drove to the nearby Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, the largest resting place for Iranians killed in the Iran-Iraq war. As I walked the grounds, people offered sweets they had brought to share as part of honoring their loved ones. We then drove to Tehran, and I joined some fellow travelers to visit the former U.S. embassy, now called the U.S. Den of Espionage, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days starting in 1979. A 10-minute walk took us to the surprise badminton match. Riding back to the hotel in a taxi that evening, I shook my head at everything historical and cultural I had witnessed that day.
The heart of Iran struck me in its art and poetry, but in particular in its people. It was in Iran that it became most clear to me how much of travel is about sharing moments with people, and I found myself penciling in “talking to people” as an activity as much as visiting any mosques.
Some days we talked with people as a group, such as the stay with the Qashqa’i family in Kahkaran. In the morning we woke to roll out thin bread with the mother, eat apples from from the trees around the family’s home and watch a local boy balance on high branches of a walnut tree in the front yard to knock them to the ground like pieces of hail. We climbed to the roof of the house to see walnuts and cut up bits of apples left to dry in the sun. The host described how the Qashqa’i people in the village live primarily in a sharing economy. For instance, one family may have lots of apples, so they use those to trade for wheat. The host’s father, who was a teacher, had built the home in the village 50 years ago after nomadic life became too difficult. In rain or snow, they use a wooden roller to get the moisture off of the flat roof. As we drove away, we happened upon a Qashqa’i wedding. This was a several-day affair, and they allowed us to stop and dance with them. The bride and groom had not arrived yet that day, but men played booming Persian music from large, black speakers and women danced in a circle wearing multiple layers of colorful fabrics, flinging scarves in a rhythm I tried to match without much success.
Other moments I was able to meet people one on one, and I was often touched by people’s warmth and affection. As I tried on a necklace in Esfahan a woman I came to know as Fatimeh came up behind me and said, “It is beautiful.” After some conversation, she invited me to visit her in Shiraz. “Come to my home,” she said. “I love you.” A few days earlier–in Shiraz–I had met a young man at a mosque who called himself Mike. He had lived in America and proudly noted that people have told him he looks like President Obama. He asked if I had any postcards of the U.S., and I regretted recently having thrown out a New York City postcard in an effort to declutter my bag. As I left, he called out to me, “Send my regards to your president! I love him!” That same day I shared sweets and photo-ops with a group of university students at the tomb of Hafez. We used one student’s basic English and my Farsi phrase sheet to learn as much as we could about each other’s families and work. One woman (half-) joked that she wanted to have an American husband, posing for the camera with her hands on her hips and a coquettish sideways glance. I met a mullah at a mosque who said with a laugh, “Iran–good; America–not good,” but more often I heard genuine expressions of “I am glad you are here” and “Welcome to Iran.” I asked people about music and television and heard that many are exposed to western culture by way of virtual private networks on the Internet. Along the same vein, one man said to me, “We do all the same things as you do–gambling, drinking.” He laughed as he added, “We just do them in secret.”
Language barriers prevented me from having in-depth conversation with the many young women I met, but when I asked them whether they wanted to get married, the most typical response was to shake their heads no. I could never be sure if that was simply youth, perhaps wanting to appear independent or something else, but I may have gotten more of an answer one night at the home of a middle-class family in Shiraz. The mother, a nurse, spent most of her time in the kitchen preparing a feast of chicken; rice with barberries; eggplant and curd; dugh (a sour drink made of yogurt, salt and water); pickled vegetables; Shirazi salad of tomato, cucumber and onion; and barley soup. Iranian food takes a long time to prepare, and as was the case with the other home-cooked meals I ate in Iran, the women prepared the food and had been cooking since the morning. The father, who owned a small supermarket and would have been the only vegetarian I met in Iran, was still at work. The daughter, Saeedeh*, was a 30-something pharmacist. She was also a talented artist. Her colorful mosaics and pencil drawings decorated the walls, and at one point she pulled out some glassware she had designed. She talked excitedly about always being full of energy, taking my hand in hers to compliment me on how nice I was or saying “awww” when I mentioned how tired I was that evening. We sat in her living room on a brown crushed velvet couch with a plate of apples and grapes on the glass table in front of us. Her uncle, a drummer and singer, and his wife, Nazireh*, joined us. They spoke English fluently, and I took the opportunity to try to learn more than I had been able to in my conversations so far.
In response to a question about how women felt about wearing the hijab, Nazireh said, “You see how far back women wear their headscarves?” Her large, brown eyes looked directly into mine. “That’s how much they hate it.” Like another woman I had talked with, she thought the hijab would not be required in 10-20 years. The Internet has exposed people to other cultures that people want to explore, they said. The government wants to stay in power, so they are loosening the restrictions, in particular over the past year. Indeed, some women’s hijabs were much more colorful and fitted than I had imagined they would be. Our Iranian guide arrived on day one wearing a hot pink manteau with blue and yellow flowers that covered skinny jeans. Her fake nails were painted a deep red, and she wore tasteful makeup. Her headscarf exposed her hair to nearly the crown of her head. While at one point in our travels she changed the color of her nails to beige in preparation for a potentially difficult highway checkpoint, she and many other young women clearly enjoy a more relaxed approach to the hijab than in years past. (That said, I recently read this story of an actress banned from her craft for not wearing the hijab in a photo.)
Even if the hijab requirement eventually goes away, the women at the dinner in Shiraz agreed with another woman I spoke with that the hijab is not the biggest concern for women who live in Iran. One woman I had talked with in Yazd referenced “masculine” rules in the country that she said made things like getting a divorce difficult. Nazireh brought up another issue, which she called “traditional Iranian male thinking.” Her husband had left the table, and she seemed to speak more freely now than when I first brought up the subject, once again looking directly into my eyes as she said that “my husband is a traditional Iranian man.” I had watched them laugh with and lightly tease each other all night. It was clear the love was there, and it was also clear that this was a sore spot. “If a man doesn’t want his wife to work,” she said, “it’s his call.” She continued that if a woman went to an employer and said she wanted to work, but the employer knew the husband did not want it, the employer would not hire the woman.
Nazireh then used Saeedeh to illustrate further how she believes some women’s life choices can be restricted in Iran. Saeedeh, she said, still lives at home and cannot live on her own as a single woman. (While one woman I met came from a progressive family and had an aunt who lived on her own, tradition still dictates that most women live at home until they are married, as also seems to be the case for many young men and women in Jordan. I have since met a Jordanian who said the custom makes sense both economically and socially. That may be at least part of the thinking in Iran, too.) On the surface, this might not appear to impact Saeedeh. Earlier in the night, she had shown me photos of her with her friends on a night out together. She is pursuing a new career and loves making art. Still, she made a sad face and nodded her head as Nazireh talked about this issue. It struck me how limiting it could be for someone so curious about the world to be expected to live under your family’s–even a very loving one’s–roof and rules until you move in with your husband, at which point he may also restrict your choices.
*I opted to change these women’s names and a few descriptors to protect their privacy.
Traveling to Iran: American tourists in Iran are required to be with a private guide or to travel as part of a group tour (I believe this is also true for Brits and Canadians). I chose a group tour with Intrepid Travel. We had a good mix of visiting larger cities and smaller towns. I also appreciated that we had plenty of free time to explore places and got some genuine local experiences on the trip–the Qashqa’i family visit, the day in Eghlid, various local restaurants and a great teahouse in Esfahan with walls covered in old black and white photos of things like men wrestling. Still, the local contact could be hard to reach and the guide was good but not outstanding.
The visa process was in stages. First, I had to book the tour and then send an application to a local contact in Tehran, who worked with authorities there to get my travel plans approved. Once the plans were approved, I got an authorization code by email. I took the authorization code to the Iranian consulate in Paris (it could be any Iranian consulate; this was where I was traveling at the time), where I applied for the visa. One week later I picked up my passport with the visa officially in the book. It was a process, but there was nothing particularly difficult about it. In all, it took a little under two months from the time I sent in my initial application to the time I picked up my passport with the visa pasted in it.
As you may be seeing, Iran is getting much more attention these days as a travel destination. When I was in Iran, I met a guide who mentioned that an annual conference for tour guides from around the world will be happening there in 2017. I also saw a sign at one museum referencing the “billions of opportunities” in tourism. I could almost see the tomans–the form of currency most commonly referenced in Iran, though the official Iranian currency is the rial–lighting up in the eyes of the planners. While this may be good news for Iran (at least, economically), as a traveler you may want to go sooner than later.
“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi. Funny, touching and with great artwork. It is the best book I have read in a long time.
“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi
“Lonely Planet: Iran” I used this as my guidebook and found it helpful for general history and cultural information (including how to dress as a woman), as well as the usual restaurant and “things to do/places to go” tips.