I am posting this in the hope of reaching readers especially from the US, so they have a chance to reevaluate their opinions about Iran--the land of many misconceptions and one sided reporting. I have journeyed there last year and want to share my experiences with you in the hope that it will give you a better insight into the daily lives of Iranians and their culture.
A man getting Nazri (a kind of free food) from a mosque
When I first thought about visiting Iran I wasn’t sure what would await me. To be honest I didn’t know very much about this country located somewhere in the far east. The first ideas that came into my mind weren’t particularly pleasant. I had gotten used to the negative barrage of information coming from various news outlets about this country. Broadcasts about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or about the hate towards American or Jewish people regularly made the evening news here. There weren’t all too many good things I could name about Iran — in fact, maybe there were none. Of course this didn’t mean that there weren’t any, but it rather highlighted my ignorance toward the country and its people. Besides from watching a couple of documentaries (there are some good ones out there if you look) I hadn’t gotten much deeper involved with this subject.
Then, one day I decided to visit Iran. I thought it would be a good idea to broaden my horizon and meet a culture which was so different to my own. Although I had been to many different countries, I hadn’t really visited any country considered to be “non-western”. When I told my friends they expressed words of caution: “Are you sure it’s a safe country to visit?”, “Aren’t there always bombs going off there?”, “Isn’t it really easy to get thrown into prison?”. My mom of course had to swallow at least twice before she reassured me that it would be a good chance for me to get to know a new culture (although I could definitely notice from her voice that she wasn’t at all convinced of this herself and would have rather wanted me to visit Denmark or the Netherlands — countries, where the most dangerous thing that could happen to you was perhaps getting fined for parking in the wrong spot). But I was convinced that these reactions resulted from the same lack of knowledge that I had had to this point. So I wanted to find out what was actually going on. I wanted to see this rogue and supposedly dangerous country on my own.
As soon as I had gotten my visa from the airport I was good to go (prior to this there was a somewhat miniscule chance that I would have to return to Europe for not being able to acquire a visa on arrival (VOA)). When I took a taxi to the nearest subway station I met a German couple. They were also planning on staying for a couple of weeks in Iran and it was interesting to hear what they had planned. While I was planning on staying in Tehran for at least a week, they wanted to explorer the country and visit many of the cities normally highlighted in a tourist guidebook. In hindsight, it is quite strange that those were the only Germans I had met on my journey (as Germans are normally known to be traveling around everywhere). In fact, I can actually count on both hands the number of tourists I had seen throughout my whole stay in Iran. That, I find truly remarkable. Perhaps it was because of the time of year or because of the non-touristy places I had visited, but it was the first time that I hadn’t encountered hordes of tourists from all different kinds of countries on my journey. As I found out, the tours which are offered throughout the country (like visiting the desert or exploring the jungles or other natural wonders) are mainly taken by Iranians themselves. The reason, I suppose, is because it is hard for Iranians to travel to other countries. May it be for a lack of financial resources or the traveling restrictions laid down by other foreign countries. But fortunately it turns out that Iran has a lot of diversity to offer: There are jungles in the north, skiing areas on some of the highest mountains on the planet, access to the Caspian sea — the biggest freshwater lake in the world, an extensive shoreline with the Persian gulf, and of course, there are many different kinds of deserts made of rock, sand, and salt. So contrary to the image we “westerners” receive from our media, Iran is more than just a sandy desert.
Tehran with the setting sun in the background
Tehran, one of the largest cities in the world, turns out to be actually more advanced than most people would like to believe. There is actually electricity there. It’s literally amazing. At night, when the sun sets below the horizon, the buildings light up with all sorts of different signs and slogans. A foreigner should not be too harshly judged when thinking that he is on some alien planet. All the signs are in Farsi, the common language spoken in Iran (as with other languages there are also many different dialects spoken throughout the country making it sometimes hard even for Iranians themselves to understand them). There is a certain sense of beauty in the script that I have not found in the Latin writing system. To me even the receipt of a grocery store could be framed and placed in an art gallery. There is a real sense of beauty emanating from the letters which have condemned me to learn the script, to read and to write it. Although it is hard, I find it truly rewarding. The spoken language itself is hard for me to describe. At first the only words I could understand were the many French loan words that have been adopted by this language. “Merci” is usually the first word that a foreigner picks up. Of course one of the biggest misconceptions in this regard is that Iranians speak Arabic. Iranians kind of laugh at the notion because for them the languages are so different. And don’t look so surprised if they roll their eyes at you when you tell them that you just signed up for an Arabic language course and are wondering why you can’t communicate with them. Although I have heard that there about 20–30% of Arabic loan words in the Persian language the linguistics of the language are quite different and many Iranians will tell you that they in fact hate Arabic. So please don’t mix up the two — it’s essential for your survival there.
The rising sun in the desert
There are a couple of things which might come as a surprise in Iran. There is, for example, the mobile phone infrastructure which is very well developed. I think it might sometimes be even better than in France or Germany. In larger and smaller cities I always had a 4G connection and sometimes even in urban areas. I would definitely recommend any traveler getting a sim card as it makes everything a whole lot easier. Wi-Fi access isn’t as good, but some shops or restaurants offer it. Also, contrary to what I had thought, Germany isn’t the only country where faucet water is drinkable. In Iran you are good to go. It doesn’t even have that chlorine taste to it which other countries often have. Sometimes it just tastes a bit salty (especially in more rural areas). Considering that I had always lived by the rule of thumb “don’t drink faucet water in any other country except for in Germany” I was genuinely happy to extend that rule so it would include Iran from now on. Maybe this is just a big deal for me and other people wouldn’t even make a big fuss about it, but I think it is always much more convenient to travel in a country where you don’t have to think about the opening hours in order to have a drink.