Matador Network|Piia Mustamäki: For most western people Iran invokes images of violence. Of religious fanaticism, of anger against westerners, of a ruthless, hard-line government ready to punish the slightest digression, of travelers arrested and thrown in jail. But then there are the reports from people who have actually traveled to Iran, from Anthony Bourdain to amateur travel bloggers, and without fail they all mention how friendly and hospitable the people were and how welcomed and safe they felt, Americans included.
So what gives? No doubt the biggest possible discrepancy between the news and the reality.
I’m fortunate to have experienced Iran for myself and don’t have to rely on misleading news. Here’s why I can’t wait to go back:
1. The people.
Iranians are outgoing, fun-loving, and direct, which means that they won’t be shy about talking to you. And the famous Iranian hospitality is no joke. This means that you’re guaranteed to have plenty of genuine contact with the locals when traveling. Here’s a few examples from my two-week trip: In Isfahan, five cheerful women invited me to join them on a picnic because I happened to sit on a park bench by myself; one night I asked a passerby directions to my hotel and was given a motorcycle ride to the hotel entrance; a friend of a friend, before meeting me in person, booked me a hotel in Isfahan and Yazd, a ride from the bus station and credit for my phone; the southwestern nomads, who my new Iranian friends took me to meet on our road trip, treated me as a guest of honor and showered me with gifts.
I was even proven that such a thing as a free lunch does exist: I had finally found the famous lamb kebab place in the beautiful, early 17hcentury maze that is the Isfahan souk, but there being no menus I didn’t know how to put my order in. The place was crowded but I found an empty seat at a table with two women and decided to wait until a waiter comes. As I sat down, the women at the table offered me to share their food, while another woman from the next table asked in perfect English if I needed any help. Since I didn’t know how things worked, she suggested she put the order in for me on her way out. Soon she came back to inform me that my food will arrive soon and that it was already paid for. Dumbfounded, I tried to protest but the woman stopped me and said: “I paid because you’re a guest in our country. Welcome.”
2. The architecture.
While the people will always be the number one reason for me to return to Iran, the historic sites with their mind-boggling details are so beautiful and humbling that they managed to blow me, a seasoned traveler, away. Kashan’s merchant houses. Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan square. Yazd’s Zoroastrian sites. Shiraz’s beautiful mosques and Hafez’s tomb. Persepolis. Visiting these sites that are unlike anywhere else in the world, give you a strong sense of a unique, pristine culture with rich history, not overshadowed with western consumerist products.
3. The food.
Iranians take great pride in their cuisine and for a good reason. I know I’m not the only traveler raving about the traditional dishes — the tasty kebabs or the meat and vegetable stews, cooked with fragrant spices and fresh herbs, often with plums, apricots, walnuts or pomegranate sauce. Great news for foodies, too: while in recent years the inflation has raised Iran’s hotel and ticket prices, eating out remains inexpensive.
4. The mutual excitement.
Once in Iran, you’ll realize that your excitement about finally being there is not one-sided: the Iranians are equally excited about your visit. They’re aware of the distorted image the western media has created of their country and are pleased that you didn’t believe the negative news and decided to come. They’re eager to show you that they haven’t bought their government’s propaganda about westerners by showing the best of their culture. In the era of mass tourism and jaded locals, who are often just after the tourists’ money, such mutual excitement is a rare situation, to say the least.
If you’re still thinking about the headlines of tourists arrested in Iran, go check and you’ll find out that they had always done something like hiking too close to a border to arouse the officials’ suspicion. My advice: don’t be afraid, but be smart and don’t take unnecessary risks by acting rebellious. Iranian people and the culture are friendly and overwhelmingly welcoming, but the fact is that the hard-liners run the country. Don’t give them an excuse to make you into an example and they won’t. Go see the sites, sip coffee and watch the crowds, eat your way around the country and most importantly meet the people, many of whom don’t agree with the government’s views any more than you do.
If any destination, Iran and its people deserve that visit and support. As much as the fear-mongering media deserves to be proven wrong.