One has just left Iran. He is on an Emirates flight leaving Tehran and heading to Dubai and is approaching 30,000 feet. Wi-fi is one of the standard perks of this airline. The flight time is 1 hour and 52 minutes and it is hoped that one completes this ramble within this time.
Prior to venturing to Iran, a land of such magnificent culture and history, both ancient and modern, many questioned one’s sanity. Given the usual media portrayal, which tends to lack balance, acknowledgement of nuance or context, this is not surprising. An image reigns supreme of an anarchic hotbed of dangerous, benighted, fundamentalist, Western-hating, women-oppressing, terrorist-supporting fanatics. As expected, one concludes that this is a load of bovine faecal matter.
On the contrary, one finds a hospitable, urbane, engaging, enlightened, largely educated and tolerant people that has welcomed one with nothing but warmth and openness. In fact, one would conclude that they are the most hospitable people that he has come across, bar none. One cannot think of too many places where total strangers would invite one into their homes to break bread, or shopkeepers onto their premises to drink tea and chew the fat. Far from finding a dystopia of anarchy and chaos, one finds a country that is stable and above all, safe. In fact, it is probably safer than most of Europe.
Take Tehran for instance, the capital, which is a sprawling, manic, bustling, crowded, chaotic concrete jungle of a conurbation. In most cities of this ilk, one could find what could only be described as an “edge”; or an undercurrent of criminality to which one could fall victim should one fail to keep his wits about him. This tends to go with the territory. Not Tehran. Despite all the factors that are indicative of the blight of modern urban living, one did not perceive this “edge”. One found Tehranis in general to be courteous and helpful, who will actively go out of their way to assist – and unlike some countries not because they expect some financial reward. A case in point was when one asked an individual for directions to a metro station. Soon enough, he was joined by three or four others chipping in with assistance. A debate then ensued amongst themselves as to the most efficient route, before one of the group grabbed one by the arm, hailed a taxi and took one to the platform himself. He even refused to take payment for the taxi. Now, this individual did not have to do this. However, this is an example of the type of courtesy typical of Iranians.
One spent his first two days in Tehran before taking an internal flight south to the city of Shiraz, the city that allegedly gave birth to Shiraz wine; which is rather ironic given that Iran has been dry for over 40 years. The flight was rather cheap. When one reached the airport apron to board the plane, he could see why. Lying in wait was what could only be described as a flying dustbin that should have been consigned to the great scrapyard in the sky years ago. An Emirates aircraft it was not. It was one of these Soviet-era contraptions, whose evident rust and faded decals betrayed a lax maintenance regime. One does not particularly like flying at the best of times but, needs must, and one boarded this death trap on a wing and a prayer.
On arriving in Shiraz, one was struck by the stark difference in weather conditions between Tehran and Shiraz. Tehran was freezing, snowing at times – albeit light flakes that did not settle. In contrast, the weather in Shiraz was warm and clement – t-shirt weather. Given the vastness of the country, such contrasting climatic conditions should be expected, though they would be quite a shock to the uninitiated.
Shiraz is Iran’s second biggest city. It is much less of a rat run compared to Tehran and less of a concrete jungle. It is also cleaner and rather more kempt – or perhaps the sun gave the place an extra sheen, I don’t know. However, there is a perceptible difference between the two cities. Like Tehran, it has a plethora of bazaars, stunning mosques and some museums worth a visit. However, the highlight, I guess, is the tomb of the poet, Hafez – a national hero to Iranians. Apparently, every home contains a book of his poetry, his subject matter being love and wine. His tomb and the opulent surroundings are what could be considered particularly befitting for a national hero.
It was from Shiraz that one’s Iranian adventure inadvertently turned into part road trip. One randomly became acquainted with a jocular Iranian and his rather mellow middle-aged French mate with a penchant for ‘herbal substances’. They happened to be heading to the next three cities north of Shiraz that one also intended to visit, and thus invited one to join them in their Peugeot 405 circa 1998. They were rather engaging company, though the Iranian’s habit of taking his hands off the wheel to either clap to his music of choice, or to attend to his phone, did raise a concerned eyebrow.
From Shiraz, we headed to Persepolis, Esfahan and Kashan. All three cities have their own unique charms and points of interest too numerous to expand upon. Persepolis is a city of magnificent ancient ruins from when the Persian Empire was at its zenith; the remains of the structures are, indeed, breathtaking. Esfahan was one’s favourite city, which showcases the finest in ancient Persian architecture; the mosques are a sight to behold which stand their ground with such splendour and grandeur. Esfahan is also a great city to explore on hired bike, which on one day of the week is free due to “Clean Air Day”.
One decided to stick around in Kashan for a couple of days, and from here one’s new found companions departed. Kashan is a desert city, notable for its “traditional houses” built by noblemen in the days of yore. They tend to share common design features, such as a compound design around a central pool, as well as remarkable geometric symmetry. In what is quite rare today, they are also a marrying of efficient engineering and beautiful architecture, built in an orientation to make the most of heat and light whilst maintaining a stable indoor climate throughout the year. Rather interesting if one is an engineer.
Iran is probably one of the better developed developing countries. Travelling from city to city, one noticed the excellence of its roads. The cities also have a level of municipal organisation that others of its ilk lack. The Tehran Metro is modern, decent and efficient enough, though it is a bit of a mad crush at rush hour in which pushing and shoving to make one’s way onto a carriage is accepted practice. The concept of waiting for passengers to disembark before boarding is an alien concept. It is every man for himself. I say man, because buses and trains are segregated into male and female sections, thus one was not privy to see if this free-for-all happens at the female end of the train.
Women in Iran are mandated by law to wear some form of head-covering, though it is observed the degree to which women cover their hair varies, with some showing more hair than others – very often revealing a dyed rust shade. Some women wear the all-encompassing chador, but this tends to be more prevalent amongst older women. From what one is told, women can wear what they want as long as their hair is covered and do not show “the shape of the body”. It may be a surprise to some that many women in Iran are quite stylish and well presented, in a particularly classy manner. Like most women across the world, much attention is paid to the beautification of self. It is noted that the hands of most Iranian women are particularly well manicured along with a penchant for the sculpting of eyebrows. It is not uncommon to see women with a heavy layer of plaster stuck to the nose, the result of a recent nose job. Apparently, this is a nation that has the world’s highest rates of this procedure.
It is often alleged by outsiders that women in this part of the world are “oppressed”. One cannot speak on this matter as one is not an Iranian woman. However, one does not see women here in a state of purdah. Women are as present in daily life as one would see in the West. 60% of university graduates are apparently women. Indeed, one met many women who are educated and have a career. Beyond what one can see on the surface, one cannot vouch for. It should be noted that the edicts on dressing are not restricted to women. For men are forbidden from wearing shorts – a fact that one discovered when one accepted an invitation to play football from a group of lads one became acquainted with.
The hospitality of Iranians allowed one the opportunity to interact with them and to get to know them. One gladly accepted invitations into homes to eat or drink tea. Many had no time for the edicts stipulated by the clerics that run the country, who they saw as self-serving and hypocritical. However, the vast state apparatus that enforces such edicts mean that such criticisms are made in private and in lowered tones. Those one interacted with all had varying degrees of religious practice, from practicing to non-practicing, but all were tolerant and none were fanatical. Those one met on an everyday basis, through random interactions on the street and public transport, were genuinely interested as to why one was visiting their country. They were curious as to what one thought of their country and Iranians. As a people, Iranians are proud of their country and have a keen sense of self-awareness as to how they are perceived in the West, much to their evident chagrin and hurt. As one woman over dinner affirmed, “in your country they think we’re terrorists, we’re not terrorists.”
One cannot deny that some Anti-American sentiment was noticed. This was largely due to the effect of American imposed sanctions have had on everyday life. When the cost of food and everyday goods rises rapidly, and hospitals are short of essential equipment that is difficult to import, such sentiment is not really surprising.
One has been to Asia enough times to know what to expect given the rareness in presence of one’s particular stock and chosen coiffure – these two factors make one a point of curiosity for the local populace. Iran is no different. Hence one received much attention from the general public – stares of curiosity and requests for photos. One could barely walk 20 metres through town without being stopped to ask for a photo or someone calling out any famous black man with long hair that springs to mind, usually a footballer, sometimes a musician – Ronaldinho, Drogba, Ruud Gullit, Bob Marley et al; forget the fact one bears no resemblance to any of these particular individuals. Others would call out the name of a country in a bid to ascertain one’s origins – Brazil? Jamaica? Kenya? Tanzania? Zimbabwe? Sudan? – all rather disparate places, but all inquired of during one’s travels.
As touched on previously, Iran is a dry country. However, there is evidently an illicit trade in alcohol. On more than a few occasions, one has been approached in attempt to solicit his custom; very often by young guys on motorbikes who also tended to run a trade in weed in conjunction. One was also offered booze by a taxi driver as well as a carpet seller in a bazaar who, failing to flog one a carpet, took one down to his basement and attempted to get one to part with cash for what looked like some type of badly bottled moonshine; probably the type of concoction you hear about that causes blindness. One refused, more on the basis that time in an Iranian jail did not appeal
One’s final night in Iran was spent at a house party in Tehran, to which I was invited to by someone I had become acquainted with. Given what one witnessed, one could have forgotten that he was in Iran – girls in revealing outfits and booze galore. It is rumoured that this is the reason homes in Tehran have high walls!
Anyway, one will end it here he is about to land. Let’s see what Dubai has to offer.