It’s the people that make the country

When I boarded the plan to Tehran, I took a deep breath. Although I was very excited, I also had these mixed feelings. So many prejudices, so many expectations. And even though I read tons of blogs that said Iran is such a safe and nice country, I still had this gut feeling that said: “Why am I going here?”. Well, curiosity won.

As soon as we spent our first hours in Tehran, many topics of what I thought were sacred cows, were already discussed with our guides. Alcohol, drugs, the suppression of women, LGBT-life, sex before marriage as we pass an unmarried caressing couple on a bench. And of course politics, the sanctions and the regime. Openly, on the streets.

It took just less than one day to vanish most of the doubts that I had. And although I kept skeptical during the rest of my stay, I quickly found out that Iran isn’t as black and white as you read in Western media.

In the week that followed I met and talked to so many random Iranians on our journey: from a simple “Welcome to Iran!” while we passed each other on the streets, to deeper conversations. Many of them took place at Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan. This enormous square, the second largest in the world, is a favorite hotspot to shop, have a picnic or watch people strolling by. Yeah, it’s busy. So it is for sure that you will be noticed as a tourist here. And sometimes they just only watch you, but some get off their bench or rug and come up for a chat.

To be honest, at first I thought most of them wanted to sell me a carpet. Or wanted the contents of my wallet. But none of that, they are just genuinely interested in why you are visiting their country.

There was one girl, about 15 years old, whose words and spirit made a big impression on me. Her English was flawless. Almost like a native. Learned from watching Disney movies, she said. Her grandfather was standing next to her and his smile was all pride.

She was so passionate about her country, she obviously loved it. She had nothing up with politics though and hated the way media give an incomplete impression of Iran. She asked us to tell everybody we know that Iran is a safe and beautiful country. That it’s the people that make it worth a visit. I couldn’t agree more. And this is me fulfilling her wish.

Iran has a proud and rich history. While the rest of us were still running around wearing bear skins, Iran was already quite developed and much more civilised. You can breathe in that history when you visit one of the Persian gardens in the dry desert. Where they perfectly knew how to canalize water to grow trees and create a welcoming oasis in the hot and dry desert. The cypress tree has always played an important role in Iranian history. You can find some of the oldest cypress trees in the world here. They can be over 4,000 years old. And its symbol can be seen everywhere: in cloths, carpets and carved into walls. It stands for life and beauty.

Or when you see the mosques that have been rising high above the cities for centuries. The architecture, the impressive tileworks, the colors. And in most parts of the world you have to share these gems with herds of selfie-stick-carrying tourists. But in Iran you can wander around pretty much on your own.

If I had to pick one place in a city where I want to be dropped, it would be a market. Or a bazaar, as they’re called in Iran. It’s like you’re walking on the movieset of Aladdin. You can find anything you need here. From Persian carpets, clothes to jewelry. But it’s also the place to buy spices or tea. Or taste noon shirmaal, a bread made with rosewater, saffron and kardemom. I don’t think I have ever had a more tasty slice in my life. 

And also on the bazaar the Iranian kindness shines through everything. Meet Reza Raei, the owner of a closed jewellery shop. His phone number was on the door so we called him. He had a day off, but didn’t hesitate. He got there in 30 minutes, especially for us. Or Okhovat Pour, a miniaturist painter. On small and thin camel bones he paints with a pencil made out of cat hair. With great precision, the most beautiful and detailed scenes appeared. He even turned the backside of his business-card into a piece of art. Within seconds he drew a portrait of an Iranian man for me to take home. I was in awe.

Meeting two nomad families also made a big impression on me. And although not every family lives as you see in the books (some have concrete houses), they live a life that we will never fully understand.

One of the women we met, Homa, laughed when I asked her if she could imagine a life in the city. Some of her children – she has 11 – chose such a life, but she has no doubts. Like one of her sons, Bahman, who just returned from the mountains with the goats. This nomadic life is their life. That means they have to move twice a year. Women and children go by bus, but men walk 400 kilometers with their herd of goats or sheep.

When I asked her to pose in front of her tent for a photo, she told me to wait. She went back into her tent and brought out her gun. Posing proudly. I don’t know if she ever uses it, but it sure made the picture more badass.

Sometimes encounters are more than just a “Welcome to Iran!”. We met Yasin (6) and Mohammed (10) near Yazd. In a desert with the most beautiful sand dunes. Not bad if you can call that your playground.

After we enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever witnessed, Mohammed’s grandfather insisted on pouring us a cup of tea with some fresh pistachio nuts. Straight from the branch.

While Mohammed taught us how to find the ones that are ready to eat and how to open them, his grandfather told us about the many date palm trees he owned on the other side of the village. He probably saw my face lighting up – you can wake me up in the middle of the night for dates – because he took us there right after the tea. We said goodbye and drove off with hands full of fresh dried dates. Iranian hospitality has no boundaries. 

Was a week too short? Just one word answers that question; yes. Would I go back? Same answer. Every doubt or worry I had while I got on that plane had been taken away. And I think everybody who is just a tidbit curious how life is in Iran, should find out. You’ll be amazed.

October 2019