The Amazing Hospitality of the Iranian People

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I had heard Iranians would be hospitable. Every account I read online by travelers who had been to Iran raved about their warmth and humility. My guidebook spoke glowingly of their generosity and advised that I pack a suitcase of gifts to repay their acts of kindness. Still, I could have never imagined just how magnificently hospitable they would be.

During our two-week trip, Jorge and I visited four major cities– Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan—and a sprinkling of smaller towns and villages. In nearly every place we visited, we would meet at least one Iranian, by chance– on the street, at a gas station, on a plane—who after a brief conversation, would insist on taking charge of us during our entire stay in that city, no matter the inconvenience.

The Iranians we met would treat us to lunch at their favorite restaurants. They would usher us through the labyrinth of dank corridors at their local bazaars and bargain hard for us when we spotted an item we liked. They would invite us to their homes to meet their families, shower us with candies and compliments, and beseech us to spend the night. Twice our hosts missed work on our behalf. Many others dropped their plans– from one moment to the next—to wander with us around their cities. And no Iranian we met—no matter his age or background– ever let us pay for anything.

Here are the stories of a few of the Iranians we met:

Ali and Najme

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Before I even met Ali, I was bowled over by his hospitality. A mutual friend introduced us over Facebook. We had hoped Ali, who lived in Tehran, might offer some advice for our upcoming trip to Iran. Instead, without the slightest hesitation, he insisted that we stay with him for as many nights as we liked in the Tehran apartment he shares with his wife, Najme.

When Ali detected a conflict with this plan—he and Najme would be returning from a two-week road trip the same evening we were scheduled to land in Tehran– he convinced an ex-coworker of Najme’s to host us in her home for that night instead. Then, in a last-minute, unexpected turn of events, we were bumped from our flight to Tehran and switched to another that would arrive 12 hours later, at just past 2:00 in the morning.

Not wishing to disturb anyone at that hour, especially on a weeknight, we resolved to stay in a hotel for our first night. But Ali would not hear of it. When I called to inform him about the delay, only hours before we were scheduled to land in Tehran, he was adamant that we not stay in a hotel and instead take a taxi from the airport straight to his apartment.   He and Najme would be returning from their road trip that same evening at midnight—perfect timing to receive us in their home in the early morning hours.

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Sheepishly, we arrived at Ali’s doorstep at 4:00 a.m. and were greeted by Ali himself, a tall, grinning man in silk pajamas who hauled our luggage to the spare room in his apartment. The next morning, I awoke to muffled voices and the shuffling of feet outside of our bedroom door. I looked at my watch and saw it was already 10:30 a.m. Startled by the late hour and certain that our hosts should probably be at work, I sprung from my cot.

In the kitchen, I discovered Ali and Najme busily preparing our breakfast—an aromatic spread of fresh flatbread, tomatoes, cucumbers, salty cheeses, sesame paste and date syrup and pistachio, rose and quince jams. In a corner, a gleaming stovetop samovar piped cheerily as it brewed our tea.

I thanked my hosts profusely for their kindness and then asked with alarm, “Don’t you have to go to work?”

They smiled graciously and brushed aside my question. “It’s nothing if we miss work for a day.”

Rather than go to work, Ali and Najme devoted the remainder of that day to meeting our every need– helping us locate a store that would sell us a SIM card for our cell phone (and then refusing to let us pay for it), feeding us a savory lamb stew and slew of sweets from their road trip to southern Iran, lending me clothing that would conform to the Islamic dress code, and answering my many questions about life in Iran.  It made no difference to them that we had never met before or that– until the previous day– they had not known we would be staying with them.

We parted ways later that day at the airport counter for our flight to Shiraz, teary-eyed and sentimental to be leaving our new friends so soon. Upon our return to Tehran, at the end of our trip, we spent three more wonderful days with Ali and Najme—this time, exploring their favorite haunts in Tehran, sampling the infinite delicacies that can be made from a pomegranate, meeting Najme’s family— and continued to be astonished by their boundless generosity.

Amin

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On our flight to Shiraz, we met Amin, a timid stranger in a rumpled suit, who glanced at us furtively from the window seat next to Jorge, before summoning the courage to speak to us. “Excuse me,” he ventured. “Do you have a place to stay in Shiraz?”

Jorge and I looked at each other with amusement. On our previous flight, from Istanbul to Tehran, our seatmate, Robby, had made the same inquiry, and then tried to persuade us to stay in his spacious Tehran apartment, rather than with Ali and Najme.

However, Amin had a different plan in mind. Once he heard we had already booked a hotel, he did not press the matter any further. Rather, he gently interrogated us about what we would like to see and do while we were in Shiraz, and then announced:

“Tomorrow, I will pick you up from your hotel and treat you to lunch at my favorite restaurant. Then, I will take you on a tour of the city.” Beaming, he handed me his card for his wallpaper business and instructed us to call him as soon as we had returned from our morning tour of Persepolis.

“That’s so kind of you, but don’t you have to go to work?” I asked, startled by the proposal.

“It’s no problem if I miss one day,” he said, reassuringly.

For the next two days, Amin dropped all of his obligations. Each morning, he picked us up from our hotel in a large silver SUV and drove us all over Shiraz, unveiling its palaces, gardens and the tombs of its great poets. As promised, he treated us to lunch at his favorite restaurant, a dark, cavernous establishment where we lounged on cushions on a raised platform layered with luxurious rugs. Amin ordered every typical Shirazi dish on the menu— slow-cooked lamb, tender eggplant smeared with tomatoes and lentils, buttery rice with a crispy golden crust— and then refused to touch any of it, insisting instead that we eat it all ourselves.

When he came down with a severe migraine headache, he left us only temporarily, placing us in the care of his niece, Mahsa, a tourism student with excellent English. Later that night, Amin called to report he was feeling better and available to show us Shiraz’s monuments at night, if we would like. No matter that it was already well past 10:00 p.m. and that he planned to rise early the next day to show us more sites.

During our final morning, Amin introduced us to the city’s ancient bazaar, a labyrinth of passageways and caravanserais brimming with spices, jewelry and rugs. In a courtyard rimmed by jewelry stalls, I spotted a bracelet I adored—a thick silver band embedded with red and turquoise stones. Amin, sensing my interest, asked for the price and then argued ferociously with the jewelry seller until he had agreed to lower it by half. Today, that bracelet is my favorite souvenir from Iran. Every time I see it, I think with gratitude of Amin and all that he did for us.

Mahla

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We met Mahla at twilight at a lone desert gas station, the midpoint on our bus journey from Shiraz to the oasis city of Yazd. As Jorge and I descended from the bus groggily in search of food, I scanned the crowd for someone who might speak English. Among the chador-clad mothers and grandmothers who hobbled off the bus, their husbands and children hanging closely by their sides, I spotted an elegant young woman, impeccably dressed in a formfitting manteau with flower trim and matching blue headscarf.

“Excuse me,” I called, rushing towards her. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” she said, turning to me with an attentive smile.

“Ah, great,” I continued, relieved. “My husband and I are going to buy food, but we are worried the bus might leave without us. Did the driver say how long we would be here for?”

She looked at me quizzically, having understood the first part, but not the second. “You want to eat? The food here is not good. I will go with you.”

Grateful for her assistance, even if she had not answered my question, I asked for her name.

“Mahla.”

Mahla led us to an empty diner to the right of the convenience store, where two men looking bored out of their minds stared vacantly at a TV screen. In a firm but polite tone, she informed them that we wished to order. Startled, they handed her a menu, which she scrutinized with a pained expression until she had selected a kebab dish that she deemed to be acceptable. As we waited for our food, Mahla told us she was a law student at Shiraz University on her way to Yazd to surprise her mother for Mother’s Day. She gave us her phone number and promised to take care of us during our visit to Yazd.

Though Mahla was only 21—over a decade younger than us– she exhibited an air of composure beyond her years. Upon our arrival in Yazd, she located a taxi for us and bargained skillfully with the driver until he agreed to lower his rate.   The following day, she whisked us to a large, airy restaurant trickling with fountains, ordered for all of us and then discretely paid the bill, despite our efforts to persuade her to allow us to treat her instead. Later, she accompanied us to the best shops for buying Yazd’s famed sweets and termehs (silky, intricately embroidered fabrics used as table runners and cushion covers), counseling us at every turn with her expert judgment.

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That evening, we met Mahla’s family, after Mahla’s mother—delighted to hear of us—invited us to their apartment in a squat three-story building near the city center. We were greeted effusively by Mahla’s parents and two brothers, especially her mother, a tiny, jovial woman, who hugged and kissed me excitedly before ushering us to a spacious living room, richly decorated with wall-to-wall Persian carpets and ornate cushions. There, we were treated to endless rounds of sweets, fruit, nuts and tea, while we chatted and laughed and took selfies together.

We closed the evening with a midnight dinner served on a lustrous red cloth on the carpet and, when it was time for us to leave, Mahla’s mother begged us to spend us the night.  Touched by yet another remarkable gesture of generosity, we declined regretfully, but promised to return some day.  We left their home amazed once again by the extraordinary hospitality of the Iranian people.

Ehsan

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We met Ehsan unexpectedly, amidst the crumbling mud brick fortresses and wind towers of the ancient desert city of Nain. We had been searching aimlessly for a rooftop from which to appreciate Nain’s domed mosques, which loomed all around yet were invisible within the maze of arcaded corridors and connecting courtyards that comprised the city’s street level. I had hoped a local might guide us to such a rooftop, but the chador-wrapped women and brooding men I passed on the street shook their heads apologetically when I approached to ask if they spoke English.

Crossing an empty courtyard, we noticed a white car swoop into a parking spot only a few feet from where we stood. A clean-cut man with curly hair and a crisply ironed shirt emerged quickly. He was about to hurry towards one of the nearby alleys, when he suddenly turned and flashed us a radiant smile. I smiled back. Seizing the opportunity, I asked in English whether he knew of a rooftop from which I could photograph the city.

“Hmmmm,” he said slowly, pondering my question. “No, I don’t.” Then, he paused. “Do you have a leader?”

We shook our heads, indicating we did not. “Leader,” as we had learned from other Iranians, meant “tour guide.”

He hesitated, glancing uncertainly in the direction of the alley where he had originally been headed. Then– apparently resolving that his errand could wait— he turned towards us brightly.

“Come with me,” he said. “I will take you on a tour.”

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And, with that, we climbed into the white car and our new friend—Ehsan—drove us all over Nain and the surrounding villages, introducing us to its many castles and mosques and even to a cave to meet a famous rug-maker.  At dusk, Ehsan excused himself temporarily to pick up his wife and two year-old daughter and then returned for us, taking us to the family’s garden house, where they grew pomegranates and raised goats.

If he was supposed to be elsewhere, he never admitted it.  Like so many of the Iranians we met, Ehsan had brushed aside his own plans, from one moment to the next, to show us his city and yet never made us feel we had caused him any inconvenience.  For that, and for all of their generous acts, we will be forever grateful– and in awe– of our Iranian friends.  Iranians are without a doubt the kindest and most hospitable people I have ever met.

Iran: Police State?

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I never thought that Iran would be dangerous in the way others assume it to be. That is, I knew that, unlike other countries in the Middle East, it is plagued neither by civil war, sectarian violence nor terrorism.   However, I did imagine it to be a police state where any slight misstep could have drastic consequences.

I had read about Iran’s dreaded morality police. I pictured them stalking the streets, ready to pounce any woman revealing too much skin or couple holding hands. In a country that forbids so many mundane acts—from using Facebook to touching someone of the opposite sex—I feared I might unintentionally break a law and incite the ire of the authorities. Only I—a dual citizen of the U.S. and Uruguay traveling on a Uruguayan passport—would likely wind up, like the American hikersin prison on charges of espionage.

To protect myself, I resolved to be as vigilant as possible. I had a seamstress make me several loose tunic-style shirts—known in Iran as manteaus—that would comply with the Islamic dress code. I rehearsed wearing a headscarf so that it covered every wisp of hair and inch of skin below my chin. I warned friends I would not be using Facebook or updating my blog during my trip so as not to access any websites blocked by the government. I promised myself I would refuse any illegal beverages and dodge any questions about my political views.

I also decided it would be prudent not to advertise my U.S. citizenship, especially while traveling on a different passport. When I contacted Iranians through the website Couchsurfing, as a way to meet people once I arrived, I made only indirect references to my nationality, saying I lived in Colombia, but had grown up in the U.S. One Couchsurfer, ecstatic to hear I had any link to the U.S., begged me to bring him an American flag in my suitcase. Horrified, I shunned his request and worried he might be a spy for the Iranian government.

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Reality set in once I arrived in Tehran. As I walked off the plane with my headscarf snugly wound around my hair, I caught sight of the snaking line of foreign tourists at the first immigration checkpoint. Nausea overcame me as I pictured the interrogation to which I might soon be subjected.

Trembling, I joined the line and watched with surprise as each foreigner passed mechanically through without any unusual questioning. When it was my turn, the immigration officer, jaded and sweaty, only looked up at me for a moment, apparently amused to discover a passport he had never before seen. He chuckled to himself and let me pass.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Only then did I become aware of the Iranian women gliding through the second immigration line. A few hobbled by in full-body black chadors secured by a wad of fabric between their teeth. However, many others flaunted bright-colored manteaus with tight sashes and headscarves that hovered airily around their necks, exposing lustrous locks of hair. Their faces glistened from thick layers of makeup, their feet adorned with outlandishly stylish shoes. These women exuded confidence. If their outfits violated the dress code, they did not seem to notice or care.

Their complete tranquility bewildered me. Shouldn’t they be terrified of breaking the law?

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Once in Tehran, I broached the topic of illegal activity with my Iranian hosts, a married couple introduced to me over Facebook by a Colombian friend. How is it, I asked them, that they have Facebook accounts? Isn’t Facebook illegal in Iran?

The husband laughed. “Everyone in Iran is on Facebook. Even the Supreme Leader!”

Now I was really confused. “Aren’t they afraid of getting caught?”

“No, of course not!”

When I asked his wife to preview the manteaus I had brought with me—each several sizes larger than necessary to ensure they would be wide enough to conform to the dress code—she laughed at me too.

“These are too conservative!” she cried out. “Why didn’t you bring something tighter and more fashionable?” I blushed, recalling the women at the airport.

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As the days passed, it became increasingly apparent to me that the rules I had been so concerned about obeying were regularly flouted by Iranians.

Despite the prohibition on satellite television, nearly every home we visited during our two-week stay streamed in foreign television channels via an illegal satellite. The preferred channel among the families we met was a Persian-language version of MTV broadcast from Los Angeles. Our hosts— among them timid chador-wearing mothers and grandmothers— seemed unfazed by the wild dancing and glittery halter-tops of the women on the screen.

Our home visits also revealed another common form of illegal activity: drinking alcohol. Many Iranians were eager to share with us the wine or arak they had prepared in their basements or procured from a smuggler. When I questioned them about the risks of consuming alcohol, they shrugged. Sure, sometimes people get arrested for it. But, then, the next day, they are let go. It’s not a big deal.  I thought back to my college days, when most of my friends under 21 drank without fear of arrest and wondered whether perhaps it was not so different.

Then there were the dozens of Iranians we met with I-Phones. While the Iranian government does not prohibit Apple products, U.S. sanctions forbid their importation into Iran. And yet, often, it seemed that, everywhere I looked, there was an Iranian texting or talking on his I-Phone or photographing with an I-Pad. Most had the latest models and ridiculed me for my outdated phone.

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Contrary to what I had imagined, I noticed no secret police lurking in the shadows scrutinizing my every move and saw no one get arrested. I was never questioned or even asked for identification by a police officer. The only time a police officer did approach me he asked if I felt safe and then walked away.

Still, I kept my promise to be as cautious as possible. I tried not to advertise my ties to the Great Satan, as the Iranian government calls the U.S., and, when politics came up in conversation, I would hold my tongue, despite my intense curiosity to ask Iranians what they thought about the political situation.

It was not until the end of our trip that I summoned the courage to ask some new friends the questions I had most wanted to know.

“Is it ok to talk about politics? Is it very sensitive?”

“Of course!” one replied. “Everyone talks about politics. No subject is taboo here.”

“What about the Couchsurfer who asked me to bring him an American flag? Do you think he was a spy for the government?”

“No!” another scolded me. “Iranians love the U.S.  I’m sure he genuinely wanted the flag.”

Then, he paused and said: “Why didn’t you do it? I would have done it. When I traveled to the U.S., I brought back a LGBT flag.”

I was stunned. In a country where homosexuality is punished by hanging, my new friend had no qualms about smuggling in a rainbow flag in support of gay rights.

In Iran, the surprises never end.

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Why Iran?

 

 

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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.