For mine, one of the core attractions of the overall travel experience is having your pre-conceptions challenged, and no country I’ve ever visited has completely shattered my pre-conceptions quite like Iran.
I’d like to think that I had relatively realistic expectations for what I would experience in the Islamic Republic — something roughly equivalent to the look and feel of Morocco combined with Turkey, a strong Islamic culture, and a stripped-back, authentic tourist experience minus the tourist infrastructure — and while I was pretty spot on with some aspects I was dead wrong with others.
With our exposure in the West to Iranian culture basically limited to nutty announcements by the President and footage of deadly riots, it’s pretty hard not to subconsciously take it all on board and expect the place to have an oversupply of fanaticism and danger. I didn’t consciously expect such an environment but was surprised at myself for being relieved at emerging from immigration and customs at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport without having been interrogated and strip-searched. Consciously I knew this pre-conception was ridiculous, but clearly my sub-conscious had been expecting some difficulty. Sure, the Customs cop was surly, but aren’t they all?
Over the next 30 days I interacted with the people of Iran like I’ve never interacted with the people of a foreign country before. Nowhere in the world have I ever encountered a people so universally kind, friendly and generous. There are countries that come close, and a lot of it has to do with that Middle Eastern-style of hospitality common to all nations of the region, but the Iranians, with their proud Persian pedigree, take it just that extra step further.
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During my month in Iran I was invited to eat in several homes, frequently offered lifts by total strangers, helped to negotiate public transport and urban environments by countless citizens, and generally taken care of by the collective people of Iran. I was welcomed to the country by nearly everyone I met, even during the shortest, most superficial interactions such as buying a bottle of water, and everyone was unfailingly polite. In Iran, I felt like a valued guest rather than a tolerated tourist.
Almost every day of my trip I benefited from simple acts of kindness that would be extraordinary in Australia but are completely normal in Iran.
In Kerman, a young couple picked up a confused-looking tourist from the side of the street and drove me around town, helping me look for a guesthouse to which I’d been given sketchy directions, then insisted on negotiating on my behalf to ensure the best room rate, then gave me their mobile numbers and asked that I call them if I had any problems whatsoever.
In a teahouse in Mahan, a middle-aged couple sitting on the takht (daybed) next to mine cancelled a solo Westerner’s post-lunch order of tea without telling me, ordered themselves an extra-large pot, and then insisted I sit with them and drink their tea; they didn’t speak English but their hospitality didn’t require a language.
In Bam, a man spotted a bearded alien with a backpack on a quiet Friday afternoon (the Islamic Sunday) searching fruitlessly for an open internet cafe, so he took me to his friend’s closed computer repair shop/house and let me use the internet there, strenuously refusing payment. This man the next day showed me around the town’s Arg (mudbrick fortress) before taking me back to his sister’s house for an afternoon of watermelon and tea.
These are just three examples out of literally dozens but they perfectly represent, in my post-visit opinion, the people of Iran.
Travelling through Iran you’re very quickly persuaded to drop the defences that are usually critical to self-preservation while touring a foreign country. Business people largely haggle in good faith and readily settle for fair prices, tourist surcharges are only common at the most obvious of tourist-trap cafes and restaurants in the hearts of the big cities, approaches from strangers and offers too good to be true are almost always genuine, and even taxi drivers are usually half-hearted about trying to score extra pocket money from those unfamiliar with the system.
In fact, I felt so little threat in Iran that I fell for a mini-scam in Shiraz (losing a small amount of money) that I would’ve spotted a mile away in any other country. And it only took about 12 hours for my trust to return after the event. Sounds naïve but it’s really that sort of country.
Despite their agreeable nature, Iranians are very anxious about the place they occupy in the world and actively seek approval and reassurance from foreigners. They frequently ask, with worried looks on their faces, if Australians think they’re all terrorists.
Ordinary Iranian people feel keenly the Western world’s anger and suspicion about Iran and Islam in general, and wonder — with an awful lot of justification — what exactly it is they’ve done in their ordinary, day-to-day lives, to justify such an attitude. Iranians on one level know that their country is reviled and isolated in geopolitical terms but struggle to make a connection between that fact and the reality they experience.
Every country has a stereotype, and almost always there’s at least a grain of truth in that stereotype. But while most countries either partially live up to their relatively harmless stereotypes or even embrace them, the Iranian people are weighed down by a stereotype that is inaccurate and undeserved.
We should reserve our scorn for the Iranian government and the vast minority of Iranians who support its brutal and undemocratic actions, and see ordinary Iranians for who they really are — some of the most civilised humans on the planet.