Friends have always asked me where am I travelling next, and I’m usually happy to share and talk about my next destination. But there was one destination which I was reluctant to mention for I knew the questions coming my way, given the unusual choice of country. It’s the country that has a bad reputation in the West and there are not many news media releases that state the good stuff about the country.
That country is Iran.
You must be thinking, “but…why Iran?” Typically, I would have responded cheekily, “hmm…why not?” but prior to the trip, I gave vague responses like Iran was very rich in history, architecture, and that I had a deep interest in those topics. Because I hadn’t left to experience the country yet and coupled with the negative media publicity, I wavered a bit in explaining to my friends. Truth be told, I was curious about the country but fearful at the same time, wondered if I had done the right thing.
However, after spending eight wonderful days in Iran, soaking up rich Persian history, architecture, art, delectable food, and most of all, enjoying the generosity and hospitality of Iranians, I was able to share with great conviction that travelling in Iran was a positive experience.
There are many misconceptions surrounding this misunderstood country, and every preconception I had about Iran was challenged every day of my trip. Here are some of the common myths about the land of Persia, and the reality is that not everything you hear is true:
#1 Is it dangerous in Iran?
Iran borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, and Turkey and Iraq in the west.
Myth: Due to the geo-political instability of the Middle East, people have the misconception that Iran is at war, its streets are dangerous with suicide bombers and angry mobs pointing and firing rifles in the air.
Reality: Iranians go about their lives. They have jobs, and commute by car, bus or metro. Women in Iran are allowed to work and drive. In fact, the presence of women in the workplace and higher education has increased since the last decade, and women in Iran have been driving for many years.
Iranians send their children to school. They have gatherings with family and friends at cafes, restaurants or have picnics at the parks. The youths hang out at the mall, shop, go to the movies.
Sounds like the same things that we do at home, right?
As a female foreigner, I have never felt threatened or unsafe when I walked around in the streets of Iran. Theft is rare and crime rate is low but I would advise to keep your wits about you and take precautions against pickpockets in crowded places, just like you would in other countries. Overall, I felt comfortable wandering around and exploring the streets.
#2 Do I have to wear a headscarf?
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has made the hijab a symbol of its religious and political identity, thus the image of a woman wearing the black chador became a representation of a typical Iranian woman.
Myth: Stereotypes abound that the women are black-cloaked only and repressed victims.
Reality: While it is mandatory for women to wear a hijab in public and to dress modestly, it does not mean that Iranian women are unfashionable. In reality, they are fabulously chic with their brightly coloured headscarves matching with their form-fitting manteaus (long jackets) and tight jeans or leggings. They also wear make-up and dye their hair. Many of them are pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable by wearing three quarter sleeve tops or pushing the headscarves further back to show off their fringe.
When I was travelling in Iran, I wore a long cardigan over my T-shirt or a three-quarter sleeve Indian kurta, jeans, ballerina flats, and a bright-coloured shawl on my head. The dress code dictates that our shirts have to be long enough to cover our butts and thighs. However, as a foreigner, we are judged less harshly than local women. Showing a bit of your fringe or neck is common but it’s still best to respect local culture and laws by dressing conservatively.
#3 Are they hostile towards foreigners?
Iran has been depicted negatively by the media with scenes of the 1979 hostage crisis or stereotypical cries of “Death to America”.
Myth: Many people assume that Iranians would be hostile towards foreigners.
Reality: Iranians are well-mannered and soft-spoken. I love listening to them speak in Farsi for the language sounds wonderfully poetic, and just as well that the Persian culture is renowned for their poetry. Because of their genteel nature, Iranians despise poor behavior, as such, they speak gently and respectfully towards women and the elderly.
Offering hospitality is part of the Persian culture and national pride, therefore many Iranians are genuine, warm and welcoming towards foreigners. You will be surprised to learn that they love Americans! They are often curious and say, “How do you like Iran? I hope you enjoy Iran” and they feel embarrassed about their image portrayed differently in international news.
The one thing that I found absolutely amazing was the eagerness in young Iranians wanting to speak in English. I had been approached by university students to spend a few minutes to chat in English with them. Although they spoke haltingly, they were very happy to have that brief opportunity as a way to improve their proficiency in the language.
#4 Is there anything to see in Iran aside from the desert?
The desert makes up two-thirds of the country and the hottest place on earth is the Dasht-e-Loot desert.
Myth: The desert – is that all there is to see in Iran?
Reality: Not many people are aware that there are valleys and snow-capped mountains in the northern and western parts of the country, and there is no shortage of interesting sights to see within the major cities. You will be inspired, enthralled and amazed by the finest Persian-Islamic architecture and mosaics in mosques, glittering cut glass and mirror work in Islamic shrines, well-preserved frescoes in Armenian churches, beautiful boulevards brimming with maple trees, bridges with majestic arches and ancient ruins since 500 BC.
And for those who wish to indulge in local food, be prepared to put on extra pounds for Persian food is an absolute delight! Rosewater is heavily used and saffron is king in their cuisine!
Iran is a must-see destination that you have to see for yourself to realize that it is indeed safe, accessible and enormously fascinating. Cast aside your preconceptions and travel in Iran with an open mind, you will find that it is astonishingly beautiful and incredibly interesting.
*The edited version of my article was published in Zafigo in March 2017.