“We make the people happy and God makes us happy,” the singing man whispered, eyes twinkling. The thunder rumbled and lightning struck in the distance, signaling an upcoming downpour amidst the navy blue dusk.
We were standing underneath the Khaju Pedestrian Bridge in Isfahan, a bridge that’s over 350 years old which once passed over the mighty Zayandeh River. However, due to changes in climate and a lack of rain, the government decided to redirect much of the river’s remaining water supply to other cities in Iran. Now, the riverbed is dry and the locals are constantly awaiting the rain.
Meanwhile, about half a dozen Isfahani men sang and clapped under the bridge’s arches, the notes and rhythms echoing into the night. A centuries-old tradition, men gather and sing underneath this bridge to please passers-by and spend time together in the evenings. Their songs are often about love, heartbreak, and community. As we watched this special performance, I could hear my guide quietly singing along behind me.
Today, the singing men’s numbers have dwindled significantly, but a few loyalists still gather here every so often to attempt to carry on this long-standing tradition. They don’t ask for tips or try to sell things, they just do it for fun. When they do, dozens of tourists and locals alike crowd around to hear their beautiful, communal singing. A quick scan of the area showed an audience that was crying, grinning, and marveling at the beauty of the songs.
This, my friends, is Iran.
Why I Decided to Go to Iran
When I told friends and family I was planning to visit Iran, the typical reaction involved a quizzical expression and a subsequent, “Why?”
Traveling to Iran wasn’t an easy or haphazard decision. There’s a lot of misinformation about Iran that gave me – a solo female traveler – a lot of fear and hesitation. In addition to that, the relationship between the American and Iranian governments is sporadic and volatile at best. All media and political considerations aside, there’s also a meticulous and lengthy visa process for Americans with many restrictions on the way we can travel in Iran.
In the United States, we hear a lot about Iran in the news, on social media, and in movies like Argo. If I were to base my decision to visit off of those things alone, I probably would have gone somewhere else and would be writing about that instead.
However, time and time again I saw spellbinding photographs full of colorful tiled mosques, busy bazaars, crumbling ruins, and intricately-woven Persian carpets. The handful of friends who had visited in the past spoke wonders of the kind and friendly Iranian people… as some argued, the kindest in the world. After years of seeing and hearing things about Iran so opposite of what the world media would like us to believe, I couldn’t help but feel an insane curiosity about visiting this perplexing country. When planning out my travels this year, I decided to bite the bullet and go to Iran.
Up until the very last day before my trip, I got a lot of warnings from the people around me, especially when days before my departure, Trump announced his plans to back down from the nuclear agreement set forth by Obama in 2015. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, and these foreboding comments often made me second-guess my decision to go. However, when it came time for me to board my flight to Tehran, I started to feel excited at the prospect of finally understanding a place that felt so foreign to me for so long.
Expectations vs. Reality
My experience in Iran was quite the opposite of all of the warnings I had heard.
Iran is a completely safe country to visit, to the point where I could set down my bag in the middle of a busy square to set up my tripod and snap a few photos, and no one tried to take it from me. I could accept snacks and small gifts from strangers and I didn’t have to worry that they were scamming me. People on the street would say any word in English that they could remember just to make me feel acknowledged and welcome in their country. According to many other travelers who have visited in the past, it’s equally as safe to travel alone in Iran as a woman.
Moreover, even the most famous areas weren’t the average tourist traps filled with souvenir shops blasting American music and selling Jack Daniels shirts. There was no Khao San Road, and very few Westernized fabricated tourist experiences. The vast majority of the music we heard, the handicrafts we saw, and the foods we ate were completely Iranian. Sure, we occasionally heard bouts of Careless Whisper (a George Michael song that Iranians seem to love), and of course there was pizza and french fries on many of the hotel restaurant menus, but more so than most other touristed areas in the world, I felt like I was immersed in a completely different place, with little in common to my own home.
Even in places like the former American Embassy in Tehran (also known as the Museum/Garden of Anti-Arrogance), which is a clearly anti-American institution, I never felt uneasy. Our guide was hesitant to take us there at first, because he didn’t want us to start our trip feeling like these sentiments are widespread in Iran. As we walked to the building from our hotel, graffiti criticizing the United States adorned the outside of the garden walls. Even the museum ticket itself isn’t exactly in favor of America. However, the staff at the museum was courteous to us, and it was fascinating to see first-hand the other side of the Argo story.
Before leaving the museum, I left a note in the museum guestbook saying, “It is important to understand a story from all sides.” I realized that this sentiment was one of the main reasons I decided to come to Iran in the first place.
My guide later shared that many people in Iran are uncomfortable or outright disagree with the message that the museum shares, and that in general many people are actually in favor of a better relationship with America.
What surprised me the most about Iran, was the sheer kindness and hospitality of everyone we met. Not one person seemed to “hate” or show open hostility to Americans. In fact, most people were curious about what the United States is like, asking many questions and talking about New York City or alluding to relatives that live in the aptly-coined “Tehrangeles.” Because most Iranians know at least a few words in English from school, they always seemed happy to be able to practice it. While walking on the streets, people would often look me in the eye, smile, and utter one English word: “Welcome.”
Inherent Over-the-Top Kindness
Speaking of kindness, Persians have a unique, deeply-ingrained cultural code of politeness called ta’rof. It’s hard to explain exactly how this works (and I don’t claim to be an expert at all), but basically, it involves offering copious amounts of kindness to your neighbor at no cost and, in turn, refusing kindness politely.
Sound confusing? Let me explain.
Let’s say you have a Persian friend named Mo. Mo has invited you to dinner. You eat your first serving, and Mo insists that you have another. You politely decline. He asks again. You say you’re full. He asks a few more times until you “cave” and have another serving. This often goes on for 3-4 servings, or until you are literally so full you’ll vomit with a single other bite.
After dinner, you offer Mo a box of chocolates as a thank you. In the practice of ta’rof, Mo would decline your gift, explaining that he is not worthy of it. You try to offer it again. He declines. Finally, after the third time, he accepts the gift graciously, thanking you for your kindness and offering you something else in return.
This exchange seems perfectly typical of friends and acquaintances, but surprisingly, this phenomenon happens at cafes, shops, taxis, and more. Although Iranians are less likely to do this with foreigners (since we don’t quite “get” it), you’ll see it all the time between Iranians. When people go to pay, a shop keeper will offer the items to them for free. A cafe owner will ask if a patron really wants to pay for his coffee. Even my lovely tour guide, at the end of the tour, when I offered him a tip to thank him for his kindness, he politely refused. Only after insisting a few times that he really deserved it, he finally gave in and accepted my money.
In short, ta’rof is a sort of over-the-top kindness, giving the guest the upper hand while lowering themselves to show respect, even if they do have some ulterior motives. The details can get confusing, but the main point is that Iranian hospitality is deeply ingrained in the way that they put others before themselves. It’s obvious that this kindness infuses everything Iranians do.
It’s (Still) A Small World After All
Perhaps you’ve been in situations that make you realize how small the world really is. And, surprisingly, Iran is no exception to this. Persians are much more connected with the rest of world, despite what the media would have us believe. And this is something I got to experience first-hand while traveling in Iran.
While exploring Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square, we stumbled upon a small bus filled with books. The owner, it turned out, had recently returned to Iran from decades spent working as an engineer in the United States. His English was basically perfect, so I engaged him in conversation. It went something like this:
“Where in the United States did you live?” I asked him curiously.
“The state of Virginia,” he replied.
“Oh really, where in Virginia? I grew up there.”
“Really? I spent most of my time living in Richmond.”
“Wow, me too! I grew up in Richmond. Which part did you live in?”
“Glen Allen,” we both said in unison, looking at each other in complete, dumfounded surprise.
In what crazy, small world would I meet a Persian man (in his homeland of Iran) who lived for years in my own tiny suburb in the United States? Clearly, here. The world is small, it seems, even in a place as foreign to us as Iran.
We spent the remainder of the evening sipping saffron tea together and laughing about the commonalities of our lives. It turns out that we lived in the same county, likely within walking distance, at the same time. We shopped at the same shopping malls, ate at the same restaurants, went ice skating at the same skating rink…the list goes on. Two people from two very different places, meeting for the first time in a bustling square in Isfahan, united over a common home that we both shared for a brief period of time.
Thousands of Years of History
Personal history isn’t the only thing that surprised me about Iran. In fact, one of the center points of any trip to one of the most ancient countries in the world is the incredible history of it all.
Modern-day Iran was formed from centuries of Persian rule, up until 1979 when the Islamic Revolution occurred and the Islamic Republic came to fruition. This means that today, there’s a unique and well-preserved history that manifests itself everywhere in the country.
Back at home in the United States, the “oldest” buildings are, at the most, 200-300 years old. In Iran, an old building or garden can date back 2,500 years (or more). While I was in Iran, the oldest standing attraction we saw was a Cypress tree that is over 4,000 years old. The scale of history is much, much larger than we have preserved in the United States, as well as in many other parts of the world.
Whether you are walking through an ancient palace that belonged to the Persian dynasties or a mosque that has served hundreds of thousands of people through the years, you can really feel the deep legacy and culture of Iran. It’s a humbling feeling to be in the presence of places that are nearly 100 times as old as you are. If you get the chance to stand in the ruins of Persepolis, or walk the winding streets of Abyaneh, or listen to a hauntingly beautiful song in the Shah Mosque of Isfahan, you’ll see what I mean.
There’s No Place Like Iran
There’s a beautiful and complex Iran behind the tiny snippets we hear on the news. My experience is one of many, but if you ask anyone who has been to Iran, there’s a resounding sentiment of, “It was incredible.” Words don’t do this place justice. There’s really nothing like standing in front of some of the world’s oldest structures, or listening to the piercing prayer calls throughout the day echoing through the alleys of the cities, or sharing a tea with some fascinating and funny locals, communicating through common words and hand signals. Needless to say, there are few places whose locals rival the kindness, respect, and empathy that Iranians possess.
So, to my fellow Americans and Westerners: don’t take everything you hear at face value. The only real way to debunk the sensationalism and misinformation we hear on the media is by going and sharing our own real experiences of these places. After having been to Iran, met its people, eaten their food, and experienced their culture and history first-hand, I feel like my eyes have been opened so much more than if I’d simply read the latest heartache on the news.
And, for once, I urge you not to take my word for it. Plan your own trip to Iran to experience its kindness and beauty for yourself.
And to all of the Persians, like the singing man we met, who strongly believe in sharing kindness and happiness: keep it up. In a world where the uncertainty of politics and relationships governs much of what we do and how we act, be strong in your quest to spread compassion in the world. This is such a rare treat to witness, and is the best Persian souvenir I’ll take with me as I continue traveling the world with an open mind, an open heart, and a little bit of ta’rof.
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