By the time this post appears online I will have landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, but the subject matter is the month I just spent in Iran.
The country where you can’t use the ATM (and of course I brought far too little money), where there are no bars or clubs (alcohol is illegal), where the rate of people dying in traffic is the highest in the world. Where the secret police instills fear in everyone, where the internet is so poor it is impossible to make a video call even in an internet cafe, where live music is forbidden and where the people are so hospitable they will feel obliged make your stay an extremely enjoyable one.
Contrary to the view I had of Iran as per the western media, the Iranians feel isolated and threatened. Afghanistan is a mess and a breeding place for terrorists and smugglers, Pakistan is unstable and the border debatably under government control, Iraq hasn’t been stable for years and matters have gotten worse now that IS controls swathes of territory near Iranian borders. Russian influence is around the corner through Armenia and Georgia and the rest of the middle east is mainly Sunni, with the regional archenemy being Saudi-Arabia (Iran, since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the near-collapse of Bashar Al-Assad, is the main Shia power in the region). The economic and political problems this poses are compounded by stringent Western sanctions, forcing Iran to sell its oil under the table for an unfavorable price. The Iranians feel their ancient and proud Persian civilization is being threatened, and for this reason many do not directly see a viable alternative for the stagnating and debilitating regime of the Ayatollah: who knows who might grasp the opportunity of an Iranian revolution and ensuing weakness by threatening the borders?
I stayed and lived with menial workers, high-class socialites, musicians, local politicians, crime lords, petty drug dealers, creepy middle-aged men and the police. Few have ever left the country except for brief visits to Istanbul and command of English is correspondingly bad (though not as bad as in Turkey!). The Iranians are almost naive in their hospitality and interest in foreigners, and as a tourist you may just get your bread for free at the bazaar, be invited for endless tea or for sleeping over and dinner. Once an Iranian decides to help you, for whatever trivial matter, whether you actually asked for it or not, you are his guest and it is his nigh sacred duty to care for you. Ask where you can buy a Cola and he will whip out his wallet to buy it for you. Inquire as to whether there are any nice parks in the city and you will find yourself on a detour to visit the nicest parks around. This also makes it a very tiring experience, because you have to watch your words before you suddenly get something your host may not actually have the time or money for.
A related concept to take into account is Tarof. Because denying someone an asked favor is considered to be shameful, Tarof allows the denying party to agree verbally, thus saving face. The asking party is supposed to then decline the offer so that both parties have acted amiably and respectably. Stuff offered to you might (with a seemingly sincere smile) be given very grudgingly, with the blame falling on you for having accepted! At some point I asked my host whether I could stay another night. His reply seemed clear (of course my friend, no problem!), but in the morning he unceremoniously ejected me from his house, leaving me in the street on a public holiday.
Another interesting point is that stuff for tourists is much more expensive, even when proper haggling is applied. The government, the taxi drivers and the touristic trinkets salesmen try to get your money while the average Iranian on the street, when asked for help, will try just as much to keep your money in your pocket. They gladly and fanatically haggle down hotel, bus and taxi prices, try to sneak you into touristic highlights on a local’s ticket or scold a market salesman for shaming the entire country for trying to make money out of you, telling him what a mean-spirited grub and poor human being he is.
Because public life is strictly controlled, most of the interesting stuff is to be found behind closed doors. Yours truly drank a lot of booze (home-made or smuggled), smoked weed and hashish and saw the women toss of their scarves, change into shorts and (with an reflexive look at the door/window) proudly declare themselves atheists. The vast majority of the educated class (as soon as they feel comfortable enough to tell you this) sighs with pleasure at the memory of Iran before the revolution, hates the regime and its foreign policy.
The gap of misunderstanding deserves a few words as well. Meeting and going somewhere private is very difficult for Iranian youth, and as a result of this internet dating has boomed the last couple of years. Because boys and girls are separated at school, in the bus and in part of public life, they have very weird conceptions of the other sex. The guys I met who were my age or younger were either players trying to get laid most of their day or horribly inadequate at communicating, contacting and fornicating with the desired but completely covered opposite sex. As one guy explained it: getting a girl to go to bed with you yields many unexpected situations because you simply have no idea what she looks like beneath those clothes.
I travelled with the supremely cheap public transport (a few hundred kilometers may cost you as little as two euros) from Urmia near the Turkish border to Tabriz, staying a while in Tehran (trying, in vain, to get my Pakistan and India visa) before going south to ancient desert cities Kashan, Esfahan and Shiraz before heading for the verdant and lush north of the country at Rasht.
It was an exhausting month, as I relied on hosts to provide a place to stay for the night, and few things were arranged: I generally drove into a city without any plan or contacts. In their enthusiasm to give you the best time possible you cannot count on any private time, and often I had to smile my way through the more misguided of these attempts. More than one host hoped to entertain me by showing me the brand new shopping mall or seating me behind the counter of a women’s clothing store to leer at girls undisguisedly. The guy who treated me on the latter activity described his wife as very kind and simple, apparently grand words of compliment, while actively seeking a girl to have relations with: men can of course have multiple wives, not speaking of concubines.
It was certainly one of the most interesting countries I have visited so far, and a unique experience: a country that is off the beaten path with an ancient culture and the biggest contrast between Bad Regime, Good People I have seen so far. Next month will be spent in Kathmandu and I am really looking forward to another eight magical days with my love, who will visit me there.