Last month, I embarked on a three-day journey by plane to a country I had longed to visit for many years: Iran. My decision to visit Iran puzzled nearly everyone I told. They could not understand why I would choose to vacation in a country synonymous with American-hating ayatollahs intent on building a nuclear weapon. Had I not heard about the hikers who were held for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on baseless charges that they were spies for the U.S. government? What about ISIS? What about the war in Yemen? Wasn’t Iran dangerous?
Those less hysterical, and less interested in recent developments in the Middle East, would simply stare at me dumbfounded: Why Iran?
I, too, may have thought of Iran as a peculiar travel destination if I had not discovered it several years back through a pair of films by Iranian director Majid Majidi. The two films—Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise—introduced me to a fairy world I had hitherto known nothing about.
Bucolic mountaintop villages set against verdant valleys with dazzling fields of wild flowers. Labyrinthine streets with winding canals and shadowy arcades from which cobblers and coppersmiths toiled diligently. Kind-hearted schoolteachers, adoring grandmothers, generous and obedient children. For a country about which I previously had only vague associations of violence and Islamic fundamentalism, the films were a revelation.
Eager to learn more, I delved into books, articles and films about Iran. They led me to Iran’s long and storied history of powerful empires and ruthless invaders, its reverence for poetry, roses and rugs and the fierce pride of its people in their unique culture and language. They also unveiled a more complex face to modern Iran, grimmer but more intriguing than the hyperbolic wonderland depicted by the Majidi films.
In Iran, I learned, nothing is exactly as it seems. Though the government is deeply conservative, the population is often willing and eager to rebel against the restrictive policies imposed on them. The result is a state of constant contradiction– women who don headscarves in compliance with the official dress code while flaunting bright red lipstick and designer jeans; families who profess loyalty to the state but eagerly watch prohibited television channels via illegal satellites.
For me, Iran became the epic travel destination— steeped in ancient history, unknown to outsiders, surreal. Tentatively, I began to research whether a trip there would be feasible. To my surprise, I learned that U.S. citizens are not prohibited from touring Iran, provided a licensed tour guide accompanies them at all times. In my own case, I could avoid the guide requirement by traveling as a citizen of Uruguay, the country where I was born. Still, the idea of visiting Iran seemed far-fetched and risky. Perhaps it was possible to travel there, but could it really be safe?
To answer that question, I turned to online accounts by foreigners who had been to Iran—bloggers, journalists, travelers who had posted their impressions on chat boards. Amazingly, not a single traveler spoke of harassment or ill treatment. In fact, they all swore they had never felt so safe and raved about the warmth and hospitality of the Iranian people. The Americans, above all, spoke of being treated like rock stars. Their descriptions of the places they had seen only fueled my intense desire to see it for myself– desert cities with beguiling wind towers and fire temples, refreshing oases and gardens, spectacular mosques and palaces, lively bazaars.
Yet, for many years, I wavered. I could not shrug my deep sense of suspicion towards a country I had been taught to distrust. I fixated, in particular, on the story of the American hikers. I knew they had been caught under unusual circumstances— illegally entering Iran while hiking through Iraqi Kurdistan—but their imprisonment on charges of espionage spooked me. Was it rational to fear that I too might be accused of espionage? Or should I trust instead the many reassuring accounts by tourists who had traveled to Iran without incident?
My uncertainty persisted until I finally set foot in Iran earlier this year. Only then did my paranoia seem laughable. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting entries about what it was like to visit Iran. Through my stories, I hope to dispel some of the myths that caused so many people– including myself– to worry I would be in danger there. I realize that many of you will not be fully convinced. I only ask that you keep an open mind—you will likely be surprised by what you hear.