The city was a vast, intricate, labyrinth of noisy, streets and alleys. You could hear the incessant foreign chatter of busy people everywhere you went. Impatient businessmen who had just finished work, mothers who were buying their children ice-cream after a long day at school, college students buying themselves falafel sandwiches before their evening classes. Cars whizzed by making crossing the road an ordeal and leaving behind the scent fof fumes in the air. After every person had reached their respective destination, the traffic congestions cleared significantly as if humungous snakes had eaten their fills and were retracting back into their dark and eerie caves. Walking down the street, I could smell the fresh batch of pickled mangoes made to sell to the evening shoppers. Despite the evening hour, to me, it was a clear sign of the city slowly waking up. I anticipated to see what the sunset would bring for everyone- new friends, sumptuous meals, business proposals, math homework, even hope.
Iran EXCEEDED any expectations I had. Not that I had many expectations but people were making me nervous before I departed. “Hope you don’t get detained!”, “Can’t wait to see you covered from head to toe!” were the messages I got on the morning of my departure… gee thanks friends! However, from arrival to departure, my trip was smooth; in a way I felt like I was “coming home” to a place I had never been before.
Let’s begin this post with a PPG- Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson because 1. I know you love these and 2. We NEED it for this particular destination!
Iran is in the continent of Asia. Before 1935, Iran was known as Persia. Persia was one of the greatest empires in ancient history. Over the centuries, the country has been invaded and conquered by many groups, including Great Britain and Russia. In 1921, a Persian army officer took control and ousted foreign control. He became the first “shah” and changed the country’s name to Iran. Since 1979, religious leaders known as “mullahs” have ruled Iran.
Now why does Iran have such a notorious reputation?
Iran has extensive oil reserves, but its economy has been hit hard by a trade ban imposed by the United States since the shah was ousted in 1979. You may have heard of the Iran hostage crisis, where militants in Iran seized 66 American citizens at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 of them hostage for more than a year. The crisis, which took place during the chaotic aftermath of Iran’s Islamic revolution (1978–79) had dramatic effects on domestic politics in the United States and poisoned U.S.-Iranian relations for decades. Allegations that Iran supports terrorism and a belief that it is developing nuclear weapons has led to further isolation in recent years.
Side note: Watch Ben Affleck’s movie Argo for more insight into the Iran Hostage Crisis… it’s a brilliantly made movie and will give you a general insight into the history of the time even if its not completely accurate (which period piece is though?).
Strong religious beliefs have been part of Iranians’ lives for thousands of years. Almost all Iranians are followers of Islam however, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians have long been part of the country’s narrative and as a result, they are officially protected and have reserved seats in the Iranian parliament. Much of Iran is cut off from the outside world by a beautiful but often lonely landscape. High, rugged mountains create a barrier with Iran’s neighbours in the west, and the eastern region is covered by a barren, salty desert.
So why visit this controversial region?
It is utterly safe. Yes, I said safe!
Living in the Middle East has taught me that its important to separate the people from its government and don’t always believe what you see on TV. The media is full of stories of the dominating regime and nuclear weapons programs, but like any country shrouded in complex history and negativity, this is a place you need to visit to decide for yourself. I never once felt threatened, unsafe, or at risk in Iran, even when I was wandering the SUPER CLEAN streets of Shiraz at MIDNIGHT. Would I do this in my home country of South Africa? HELL NO. In fact, the high police presence in Iran probably means you’re more likely to be protected. No stares from men, no need to zip up my handbag and I felt safe walking with my phone and/or camera in my hand. Truthfully, the exploration of Iran is more fascinating than it is frightening. The only danger is missing out on something that is picturesque and incredibly remarkable.
Oh its so exquisite… it will take your breath away!
Beyond Iran’s many dazzling mosques and jaw dropping icons, simple street ways and restaurants are also stunning. Bridges have artwork on them and streets have random murals. This is a country obsessed with art, architecture and beauty. The Europeans rave about beautiful cathedrals; in Asia people gush over Buddhist or colourful Hindu and Jain temples. Globally, the beauty of mosques doesn’t get much airtime. But come to Iran and all that changes.
Symmetry, Minarets and tile work have never looked so good — or so colourful.
As I stepped out of the mosque, humbled by the sublime beauty humankind can achieve, I am silent. I want a joulep milkshake in one of Shiraz’s charming cafés outside the bustling bazaar. Passing young lovers holding hands and families picnicking in the square, I mull over the beauty I have witnessed. Iran may be safe, but don’t expect to leave without your preconceptions dangerously challenged.
The people are admiringly honest and hospitable
The gentlemean at the hotel reception was so earnest as he informed me that the hotel was offering me terrible exchange rate compared to what I could get at a foreign exchange shop. He even referred me to a currency exchange store down the road and said he would only exchange my money there if I had no other option. When I asked him why he was being so honest, he looked at me with a shocked expression and said, “Mehman habibe khodar. Guests are friends of God.” His pure honesty made me want to tear up.
I thought back to all the people who warned me about the “dangerous Iranian people” as I sat in a taxi driven by a kind 60 year old man who offered me tea from the boot of his car and the gentleman who prevented me from buying an overpriced lotion at his store and instead referred me to an inexpensive body oil made from olives claiming it was better for my skin in broken English & stilted Arabic. When I stepped out of the shower and massaged that oil into my legs, I knew I was right to trust him.
Every SINGLE person I interacted with asked me where I was from and replied with, “Oh WOW AFRICA!! Welcome to Iran!” Iran’s modern history is complex, and its relationship with the West fragmented, but nothing shatters preconceptions of society and politics here like meeting Iran’s people. I have visited 40 countries, but honestly I never had such pure encounters with the locals in other countries.
Food, food, glorious Persian food!
From stews to sherbet to salads to soup, there is something for everyone in Iran. Persian cuisine pivots around the flavours of saffron, nigella seeds, cardamom, turmeric and, my personal favourite, rosewater—in other words, the kinds of ingredients that inspire people to write about food.
Of course my favourite dish is kebabs and I shish you not, this is probably the most beloved dish in Iran and ranges from super-cheap street food to stuff that only a Sheikh could afford. There are a ton of different varieties where the meat is spiced differently (turmeric for kabab koobideh, saffron for kabab barg) and it’s usually accompanied by doogh (a fermented milk drink similar to laban or maas).
In a traditional Iranian restaurant like my favourite in Shiraz called Haft Khan, you may be asked to remove your shoes and sit on the floor. I personally LOVE experiences like this where I sit on the floor and forgo cutlery (it’s the African side of me) but as you listen to the soothing Farsi music lulling you into a food coma, it becomes dangerous as I am so tempted to curl up on the carpeted floor and sleep right there and then!
Your standards are raised when you fall in love…
And fall in love you will. The scenery makes it impossible not to. Tourists gaze in awe at graceful mosques with minarets and domes; palaces with pictorial ceramic tiles, and dazzling stone and plaster carvings; and stained glass windows where bright sunlight shines though and falls in patterns on intricate Persian carpets. The country is safe, Iranians are truly friendly, and the country is rich in ruins, art, history, architecture, food, carpets, spices, and, above all, exotic ambiance. You can’t help but give in to the heady temptation of falling in love with this country.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about travelling in Iran is that you’ll find few places match up to the precedent it sets for future travel. With its culture, silk-route heritage, tasty kebabs, eye-watering mosques, buzzing bazaars and most of all, the friendly and hospitable people of Iran, you may just find yourself lamenting: if only more places were as welcoming as Iran.
Sometimes, it is our preconceptions and judgments that are in fact the most dangerous thing. Far from being a dangerous place, I was overwhelmed at the beauty, hospitality and friendliness I encountered from my time travelling in Iran. I only went for a weekend but wish I stayed for a month. I am privileged that Shiraz is only a 59 minute direct flight from Dubai meaning that I am already planning my next trip.
My next post will be about the intricacies of traveling to Iran… from obtaining the visa, obeying the dress code, dealing with a social media ban to my thoughts on traveling to a country unaffected by globalization. Watch this space pandas!