Sep 2018 - May 2020
If there’s one place that has been in the news a lot lately, it’s Iran. As it happens, that’s where I’m currently based – as what’s known in diplomatic parlance as ‘the trailing spouse’. I haven’t commented much on Iran in my blogs, but I figure given the torrent of bad news lately, understanding a little of what life really looks like ‘behind the veil’ can sometimes help challenge misconceptions.
There’s probably few places that evoke more of a sense of mystery and misunderstanding than Tehran. What’s it really like? Surprisingly normal. Tehran has the feel of many big, developing cities – think Nairobi or Mexico City. It’s enormous, sprawling, and has terrible traffic and pretty bad pollution. But like most big cities, it is also a thriving, active metropolis with plenty to see, surprising pockets of beauty and, of course, plenty to eat. One of the things that often surprises visitors to Tehran is how diverse it is. In north Tehran’s cafes, you might think you were in a hipster district in New York (perhaps minus the hijabs), and you can get a flat white up there with any in Melbourne. Further south, you can wander in the enormous, ancient Grand Bazaar and be completely lost in wholesale trade of nuts, spices, children’s toys and knock-off undergarments without ever being bothered to buy (one of the pleasures of Iran is the lack of touts). Across the city, you find shah-era tiled palaces – many converted into restaurants and museums – contrasted against a thriving contemporary art scene. And of course, the carpet bazaars. Persian carpets come in even more styles than you might imagine – much different than the overseas sellers would have you believe! An Iranian carpet negotiation is an art form in itself, involving plenty of tea, beard stroking and sometimes even multiple days of debate (as happened with a visiting friend from Australia).
Beyond Tehran, Iran has diverse history, culture and landscapes. From Shiraz, home of the ancient city of Persepolis and the stunning Pink Mosque of Nasir-al-Molk (also the birthplace of the Shiraz grape, although you won’t find many these days…); to Esfahan, the former imperial capital with its awe-inspiring central square and to Yazd, a sprawling, mudbrick desert city with characteristic wind towers (an ancient form of air-conditioning) called badgirs. There’s plenty more beyond those famous sites – from the Shiite holy city of Mashhad, to the grand villas of Kashan or the mysterious desert formations of the Lut Desert (one of the hottest places on earth) and the Star Wars-esque landscapes of Qeshm and Hormuz Islands.
Iranians are also gracious hosts – for all the bad news in the media, most have little interest in the politics of ‘Iran and the West’ and are incredibly welcoming of visitors in a difficult time for their country. The traditional culture of civility (taarof) is still important in Iran. Sometimes you will be stopped in the street and told “Welcome to my country” – no more than that, just a gesture of thanks. They don’t get too many Australians in Iran – mostly they think I’m German – but we routinely get wonderful hosting experiences across the country, often in traditional homes converted into guesthouses with stunning tilework and architecture. The cuisines vary across the country but Persian food is often characterised by extensive use of mixed fresh herbs, saffron (in everything!) and stews, as well as various varieties of rice, Persian breads and fruits. That being said, one of the surprises of Iran is how much they love pizzas and burgers – you can find them literally everywhere.
The hardest thing for the average Iranian right now is the impact of sanctions. It can be difficult for outsiders to fathom what it is like to be entirely cut off from the international financial system – no foreign cards or banks operate in Iran, and very few mobile networks either. Living through that right now, I only know part of the impact – the rest falls on Iranians who have watched their currency plummet by more than 100% against the euro over the past year. This destroys the value of salaries, and has seen tripling, quadrupling and more in basic foodstuffs. Travelling outside Iran becomes even more difficult, with accessing visas difficult and the currency value making buying power even less. Whatever you think of Iran’s place in the world, the effects of sanctions on the everyday Iranian are very much real.
This blog isn’t a comment on the politics or rights and wrongs of the moment. Most of that happens way above the fray of the average Iranian, and they get swept along by those tides of history. But it’s always important to remember that much of the media focuses on the sensational, the sinister and the suspicious. Behind the veil are 6000-odd years of history and a proud culture. Now might not be the time to book your ticket – that is always something that should be considered in the context of events and travel advice. But whatever happens in the coming years, Iran will remain a country of huge economic potential and incredibly rich cultural heritage. Understanding a little more about Iran hopefully brings a little less apprehension and a little more nuance – always helpful during these tense times.
Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are my own and not as a representative of the Australian Government.