Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Inside a mosque in Esfahan.

After we'd passed the last police check and had officially left Iraq and entered Iran, my French companion and I wondered how we would get away from this 2000m-altitude border crossing in the pitch black, freezing cold and deep snow. We didn't have to wait long: two locals gave us a lift in their car to the nearest town and drove us around to find a hotel. They expected nothing in return; this kindness was to repeat itself throughout my stay in this beautiful, hospitable and misunderstood country.

That night was marred only by our first encounter with Ta'rouf, the complex system of Iranian politeness. It goes something like this: you walk into a shop and try to pay for some items. The shopkeeper waves his hand and says, "It's nothing." You insist and try to offer some money; he raises both hands as if to push you away and says, "No really, I don't want the money." You insist for a third time and force the money upon him and he says, "Ok thank you," and charges you the correct amount. This is at first disconcerting, especailly for Europeans who (a) don't expect things for free and (b) are reluctant to force money upon people. It's designed to help those who really are in need and at the same time giving the other a chance to appear generous, whilst allowing him to save face in retracting the offer. We, however, did not yet understand this procedure so at the end of our first taxi ride our driver must have been very surprised when he said, "It's nothing," and we walked happily away.

We had completely underestimated the size of the country. Most of our second day was spent negotiating buses and share taxis to get to the nondescript town of Tekab. (Many towns in this region are nondescript for a very good reason: they were flattened during the Iran-Iraq war.) Here, many people spoke Turkish - the west of Iran is populated by people defining themselves as Kurdish or Turkish. It was snowing heavily and we wandered the streets looking for somewhere that might serve us food. We were directed to a small back-alley eatery where several teenagers took a great interest in us and chatted to us all night. At one point we were comparing political systems and one boy surprised us by saying that he was happy there was no democracy, because his "mind is free from distractions." As I started to question him on this when one of the older boys stepped in: "We should stop this conversation now."

But this support for the government was a one-off encounter. Every other person I spoke to (and many were happy to talk aboout it, albeit in hushed voices) explained in highly derogatory terms about their leaders, the revolution and the forced Islamic rules.

Takht e-Soleiman

From Tekab we visited Takht e-Soleiman - literally 'Tomb of Solomon', though it was only named this to confuse the advancing Arabs who fell for the trick and worshipped it as a holy site rather than destroying it. It dates from the Archaemenid period and although there's not much left, in the snow and clear blue skies its sheer age evokes a sense of serene contemplation.

We had aimed to get to Shush that day, but it took us the best part of 24 hours. We ended up getting a (sleepless) night bus from Sanandaj. This was the only bad experience of my time in Iran: we had made it abundantly clear to the drivers that we wanted to get off in Shush, but they failed to stop and drove on to Ahvaz, some two hours further. But they were very apologetic and even tried to pay for a bus back again. Eventually we found our way to Choqa Zanbil, a large pyramid in the desert that was forgotten about for 2500 years until it was rediscovered by the British during an aerial oil survey. How anyone could've forgotten is beyond me: it's huge. On the outside of it are some of the earliest examples of cuneiform, the world's first written language. The builders followed the Zoroastrian faith; there are still a few of these fire worshippers in central Iran.

Choqa Zanbil

More examples of overwhelming hospitality: a man in Shush began talking to me on the street, showed me somewhere good to eat, then ran to the bus station to find out times and reserve me a bus. And then upon entering a busy bank, I was waved to the front of the 100-person queue, sat in front of the manager and given tea and cake. These experiences continued unabated. In Esfahan I was taken for tea no fewer than three times in one day; in Tehran I didn't pay for a single meal or night's accommodation; and in Sharoud I was driven about and fed all day by a man I bumped into in a restaurant. Oh the life of a celebrity.

I took the night bus to Shiraz. This is the kind of city I love: there's no better feeling than wandering its streets, getting lost and having wonderfully honest conversations with shopkeepers over cups of tea. He talked of his life as an English teacher, how despite the constant post-revolution pressure on him to stop teaching he never gave up. He said the authorities had disapproved because English might open people's minds and make them vulnerable to influence from the West.

Carpet shop in Shriaz's bazaar.

The main site in Shiraz is of course the Shah Cheragh mosque, with its massive dome dominating the skyline. In one corner is the mausoleum of Sayyid Husayn, which is ostentatiously decked out with millions of tiny mirrors covering every square inch and jewels hanging shining from the ceiling. Men and women pressed themselves against the tombs in genuine sadness. All of the mosques stand magnificently over busy bazaars and square, but inside the atmosphere is one of calm, the mosaics and fountains refracting the sunlight in playfully mesmerising patterns in the courtyards. I didn't pray, but I felt as happy and satisfied as those who were knelt on the carpets look. Near Shiraz is the ancient palace of Persepolis, the seat of power of Cyrus the Great. He is venerated in Iran as the founder of the Persian empire. Persepolis is 2500 years old but its ruins of huge columns and giant bulls speak of a time where civilisation first came into being. It's no wonder the Iranians detest Alexander (whom Europeans call Great): he wiped out this Archaemenid empire.


On the way back I wondered why women have to sit at the back of the local bus. I find this tradition particularly confusing because on night buses and in taxis everyone squeezes in together. I'm equally confused as to why men and women must check in their bags at separate windows when entering mosques - are the bags not allowed to be together? No-one was able to explain.

Shah Cheragh mosque, Shiraz

I took another night bus to Esfahan, which is so beautiful it must have been done on purpose. (It was.) The massive Imam Square contains two of the most beautiful mosques in the world. It's said that when the gigantic Imam Mosque was being built, the then ruler became rather frustrated that it was taking so long. The designer refused to hurry and went into hiding. But he was eventually proven right and forgiven - this should be one of the wonders of the world.

Imam square, Esfahan

Through Esfahan runs the Zayandeh river, across which bridges of myriad styles span. People stroll across them, drinking tea and watching the sunset. In the shadows of the recesses hide young couples, sneaking an illicit held hand here, a knowing glance there. That evening I watched an ancient Iranian 'strong man' show, where men whirled heavy clubs around their heads and chanted well-practised verses while someone beat a drum and sang in an eerie tune. Occasionally someone would spin as if in a trance at an absurd speed in the middle of the circle of men.

Strong men in Esfahan.

More eye-opening chats over tea with locals. I began to build a picture of Iran in my mind: everyone I speak to is liberal, open-minded and not particularly religious but, as someone pointed out to me in Tehran, this is because I'm only exposed to those people, the ones who want to talk, the ones who can speak English. But there is a conservative, poorer majority in the background who don't have access to the same information and see things very differently. After a night train to Tehran I arrived on Revolution Day to see crowds gathering in support of the government.

My hosts have found ways around most of Iran's restrictive laws: they watch BBC news, use software programs to circumnavigate the internet blocks and drink alcohol. But in the rural areas, where the government's support is greatest, people don't have these privileges and therefore rely only on the propaganda fed to them. The point is not that the elections are rigged, it's that people aren't able to make a truly informed choice.

Tehran is crowded and polluted so we spent an afternoon climbing the snowy mountain area of Darband on the outskirts of Tehran. Tea houses and restaurants line the route and it seemed everyone had had the same idea. I tried the various delicacies on offer (salted beans followed by tangy cherry strips) but I prefer Iran's famous main dishes: that night I was lucky enough to have cooked for me ghomeh sabzi, a delicious stew of meat and vegetables. I was genuinely sad to leave Tehran and the company of some of the most fun and outward-thinking people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

A seven hour train ride away lies the town of Sharoud, nestled between the mountains and the desert. It sees very few tourists (my hotel said they hadn't seen one for two years), but the same friendliness was present. On my first night I decided to treat myself to a good meal, but when I asked for the bill I discovered it had already been paid. A man on the next table introduced himself and asked me to call him the next day. I did. He was the boss of a local company and said that showing a foreigner around was the perfect excuse to take a day off. He took me around the sights, the best of which was a waterfall in the mountains. To get there we had to drive until the snow became too deep and then walk one or two kilometres. He wasn't suitably attired and it was hilarious seeing him walking in his suit, tie and smart shoes. That night we sat in his flat, compared cultures and joined in that timeless tradition: drinking whisky.

Near Sharoud

And then it was to Mashhad in the east of Iran, my final stop before leaving. Here things are more conservative, where the girls tend to where black headscarfs rather than the colourful ones of further west, and they don't constantly test the law by revealing more and more of their hairline. I was lucky enough to drink tea with two such girls, and again the same progressive views manifested themselves. It was with great sadness that one showed me her drawing that can never be published. They depict women - tasteful silhouettes, but with too much hair for the authorities' liking.

Another thing Iranians are very proud of is their literature, particularly the poets. Arguably the greatest of all is Ferdosi. Speak to an Iranian for more than five minutes and they will gently ask, "Have you heard of Ferdosi?" Answer yes and you're in for a long, excited conversation, complete with quotes.

Ferdosi outside his tomb near Mashhad.

With my host I explored (in the heavy snow) the local stepped villages, such as Kang, where the roofs of houses form the yards of those above. Everywhere seems deserted; indeed, many people have left for the cities. Nevertheless we're welcomed into a small, warm home and fed tea and dried fruits as the kids played with my camera.

Inside a home in Kang, near Mashhad.

It was with great reluctance that I left Iran the next day. As I navigate the crossing into Turkmenistan, I ponder the rich cultural heritage, the warm, welcoming nature of the people, how safe I'd felt. Iran's international image prevents us from seeing this, and it embarrasses those that I spoke to. But Persia has a long, proud history and this phase is but a blimp on its map. I look forward to returning.


  1. "it's that people aren't able to make a truly informed choice."
    I wonder how much of this choise we have. I believe in most of the people doing their best, but I doubt that it always shows the bigger picture.

    Don't get cold feet in middle Asia! Go eat [Perushki](->for your pronounciation)(Meat in dough, fried in oil). And of course Pelemeni and Manti. Mhhhh. I'm hungry now...


  2. I would love to go there one day. I've heard it is a beautiful country.