Words By: Henry Squire
Standing outside the visa office in Iman Khommeni airport, I’m starting to sweat profusely. It’s been thirty minutes since they’ve taken my passport. I go over what the background check could possibly unearth. Will that misunderstanding with the Turkish military back in 2014 show up in their records? God I hope not. The airplane wine on the flight from Dubai has not eased my nerves as much as I would have hoped. While no one is looking, I duck into the bathroom to splash my face with cold water.
Another ten jittery minutes go by and I’m starting to think about how would I contest being blacklisted by Emirates when my name is called. I hesitantly approach the counter, where I’m handed my passport and dismissively waved on. Holy shit, I’m in! I scurry through passport control before they can change their mind. A couple of hours later I was perched on my hotel balcony in downtown Tehran, thankfully dragging on a cigarette.
Coming from a relatively isolated rural background, I was never exposed to people’s preconceptions of Iran. It was only when my interest in the Middle East started to grow later in my life that I read about the fear and mystery behind the second leg of the “axis of evil”. What made me curious about these ideas was how they seemed to have spilt over from the government and into the population. And it’s not only in Western countries you’ll find this. When I told my Arabic language teacher in Oman about my plan to travel to Iran for a week between my courses, she became quite worried. “Be careful Henry, please come back safe”.
Thirty years of isolation seems to have created the idea that Iranians are just as fanatical as their hardline government. Which is far from the case.
My first day in Tehran I wandered down in the direction of the Golestan Palace. Along the way I attracted the attention of a local high school teacher, who offered to show me around. My immediate thought was scammer, but I humoured him and allowed myself to be shown around a nearby market. He laughed when I nervously eyed the gold auctioneers bellowing at the gathered crowd and told me not to worry. He got me into the Golestan palace complex for the locals price, 10 USD compared the withering 40. After a tour inside I braced myself for the usual scammer riff but instead was invited back to his apartment for tea with his wife and daughter. This was my first taste of Iranian hospitality.
Later that night, while sitting in a grimy shisha cafe down an equally grimy alley, I continued to wonder about ideas of life in Iran. Is it hypocritical to heap praise on the locals and travel in a country while denouncing the actions of their government? Of course not. Enjoying Tel Aviv does not make you a Zionist nor does loving Istanbul mean you support Erdogan’s persecution of the Kurds. I would not want to be judged as an Australian by the government’s offshore detention policy. And yet, with the election of a reformist (by Iranian standards) president, the historic nuclear deal and Australia even lowering the travel advice of Iran, attitudes remain critically negative of the country as a whole. It was something that would continue to trouble me for the rest of my time there.
The next day I was in Esfahan, an eight hour bus ride south of Tehran. I’m a pretty terrible tourist at the best of times but I had drawn up an itinerary of the various sights of Iran, mostly so if the officials at the visa office had questioned why a wannabe journalist had shown up unannounced, I’d have some sort of legitimate excuse. It didn’t take me long to throw the idea of a set plan out the window. I spent the next couple of days exploring Esfahan with the help of some locals. I wandered around alleyways behind the beautiful Naqsh-e Jahan square, was taken to a session of zurkhaneh, a traditional Iranian sport, felt true fear while on the back of a motorbike navigating through Iranian traffic and enjoyed (mostly) a lamb’s head for lunch.
Before too long though I was in Tehran again, readying for the flight back to Oman. I stayed at a friend’s apartment and we hiked up to Darban for dinner on the terraced restaurants that line the road for my last night. Darban is a small village in the mountains north of Tehran and one of the more beautiful places I have ever seen. The road that eventually turns into a path follows a stream, in the midst of which sit heavily cushioned lounges with shisha. Colourful stalls that boast meats and treats nestle between the restaurants as you wander up the mountain to get a view of the sprawling city of Tehran. It was a spectacular way to spend my last night there.
On my way to the airport the next day I was confronted with the very real and turbulent history of Iran. The entire side of an office building was painted with a large American flag, with the stars replaced with bombs and the words “DOWN WITH THE USA” emblazoned upon it. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to see the old American embassy, better known locally as the “Den of Spies” while I was in Tehran, but this was enough of a reminder about the how the Iranian government has interacted with the West, in the past and the present.
You can’t walk down a street in Iran without every second person wanting to stop and have a chat with you. After they’ve asked you the usual questions they’ll also want to know what you were told to expect before arriving. Invariably, I would gush over the friendliness of the Iranians and they would smile proudly which often led to the offer of tea. And this is exactly my point. If you’re the type of traveller who is more interested in the experiences than the sights of a country, I couldn’t recommend anywhere more. Over the course of my time in the country, I began to get an idea of the people who live there. Through the often intoxicating, sometimes heartrending friendliness of Iranians, you are built a picture of people who, more than anything, want to be seen for who they are and not what they are perceived to be.