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.