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What I Learned From My Trip To Iran

23/11/2016 10:54

When I told people I was going on holiday to Iran, the most common response was: 'Why?' Some were more positively curious and some knowingly envious, but for many my holiday choice was downright perverse.

Iran - an Islamic state ruled by grim ayatollahs, a would-be nuclear power with a dubious human rights record, a country once dubbed by a US president (somewhat arbitrarily but these labels stick) part of an 'axis of evil'. And teetotalitarian to boot, with an enforced dress code for women.

In short, not exactly a fun holiday destination.

However, the reality confounded even my expectations. This is a country with varied and sometimes surprising cultures, with too much history and some rich contradictions, with ancient sites both imperial and humble, religious and secular, with mosques of extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, spectacular mountains and semi-desert.....

I was prepared for all that from what I had read and heard from Iranian friends in London. I was not disappointed.

But the guidebook had also told me that the very best thing was the people. I suspect my Iranian friends knew that but were too modest to tell me. My fellow-travellers and I - a group of mixed nationalities - were constantly stopped by people wanting to practise their English (or, sometimes, French or German) and ask 'What do you think of our country?' This felt like a real question, not just a polite icebreaker.

It is impossible to remain lost for long in Iran. Strangers go out of their way to help with directions, even to take you there. We heard their stories and half-stories. There was the guy who got chatting in a town south of Tehran. He had a biology degree from Leeds University and was now selling watches in a bazaar. I never got to the bottom of that.

We enjoyed meals in people's homes and were, without exaggeration, charmed. Even the most hardened travellers among us recognised an unusual generosity and honesty. In one restaurant, I tried to round up the bill to add an extra tip, but the cashier assumed I'd made a mistake and politely returned the change to me. Only one taxi driver was openly less than thrilled to have US and UK citizens in his cab. We got the message and opted for silence.

Admittedly tourists are still a relative novelty and Britons and Americans are required to travel with a guide. British Airways resumed flights to Iran this year (no direct flights yet from the US) and the consulate in London re-opened a visa office - all in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

This is a country that defies prejudices one moment and reinforces them the next. Despite the ubiquity of the two supreme leaders' portraits (the revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei) on billboards and in hotel lobbies, Iran has a decidedly secular side - with only a small proportion of the population attending Friday prayers.

And there is considerable freedom of worship; we visited a synagogue and a church, as well as numerous Zoroastrian temples. Only the followers of Baha'i, regarded as a threat to Shi'a Islam in a way that the older non-Islamic religions are not, suffer official disapproval (and worse).

Iran is a sophisticated country with an educated young population and a huge change in the opportunities open to women over the past generation. It's uncomfortably westernised in some respects. For example, there is an astounding market in nose jobs and other cosmetic surgery; on city streets you see young women (and men) sporting the tell-tale plaster on their noses almost as a fashion accessory

Above all, it's a proud country. Whatever her frustrations with some aspects of life, our very modern, highly educated and personable guide was keen to show off the best her country had to offer and desperate for it not to be misunderstood.

And this was the message I heard time and time again. Iran was not understood. Its reputation was unjust and puzzling. Why, almost uniquely in the Middle East, had it been unfairly picked on? Again this seemed a genuine and not merely a rhetorical question. Trying to answer it never felt appropriate and, anyway, I think the questioners have a point.

In fact, the politics is never that far away. This is a country always seemingly on the defensive. We were invited to a 'meet the mullah' session in a mosque - an interesting if not entirely successful experiment in cultural exchange. The mullah spoke excellent English and offered to discuss anything we chose to ask. He was perhaps more convincing on Shi'a theology than on freedom of speech; a question about the BBC got him unexpectedly exercised.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. Merging religion and politics is now anathema to many of us in the agnostic west, but there has been plenty of it in our own history and even now it's often not far below the surface.

We had also planned to visit a massive cemetery for soldiers killed in the war with Iraq, sited next to Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb. Iran lost hundreds of thousands of young men in that war and, although 30 years ago, the memory is still very raw in the collective consciousness, with posters commemorating lost heroes in every town. But when we got there, we weren't allowed in. There are new graves in the cemetery as Iran begins to lose soldiers in Syria. It is no longer a place for foreign tourists.

But for all its complexities, Iran looks set to continue opening up and that includes courting tourists. The US election result of course gives pause for thought - and the Americans in my tour group went home in some trepidation. Any backtracking on the nuclear deal and any re-tightening of sanctions will certainly present challenges to the moderate conservatives in power in Iran. But, as experienced observers have pointed out, there are six Western signatories and and the deal is bigger than the US.

I hope it doesn't fail. The people of Iran deserve to benefit from better international relations. I, for one, would like to go back to meet more of them.

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