Photo: Bjian Tehrani
IN THE MINDS OF MANY PEOPLE, Iran is little more than a caricature; a nation of Islamic fundamentalists hell bent on the destruction of the United States. This portrayal has lessened in recent years with the Iran deal and a further opening of Iran to the West, but that hasn’t stopped right-wing politicians and media organizations from trying to retain the Iranian boogeyman. News stories about the country are often accompanied by photos of burqa-clad women walking past a mural depicting the Statue of Liberty with the face of death that graces the wall in front of the former American Embassy. But this is not the real Iran.
As with every country, Iran is far more complex than the biased image so often presented of it. It is an Islamic Republic whose most powerful government figure is a cleric, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions within the Iranian government about the way forward — and it certainly doesn’t mean that the Iranian people despise the United States and the broader Western world, nor that they agree with the strict Islamic morality enforced by the state.
My experience in Iran in late 2013, while the country remained under Western sanctions and before the Iran deal was signed, showed me a different side to the country than I’d seen represented in the media. Over the two weeks I spent there, the English-speaking Iranians I met were eager to help and to talk, as few tourists visited their isolated country. Indeed, a number of people came up to me expecting I was a fellow Iranian until they discovered I couldn’t speak Farsi. Clearly, I’m not one of those Canadians who travels waving the maple leaf.
When I arrived in Tehran, the first of four cities I visited in Iran, I encountered a language barrier like none I’d ever experienced. Walking around the airport, nearly all the signs were in Farsi, and there was little English in sight. I walked around trying to find out how to get a SIM card and change euros to rials, but was completely lost in the new environment — until I heard someone call to me from a small café.
A young man with bushy brown hair walked over and asked if I needed help. Remembering all the warnings I’d ever received about strangers, I felt like saying “no” for a quick moment, but the truth was that I really did need a friend. He proceeded to take me to the change counter, and advised me only to change a little because I would get a better rate in the city, then to get a SIM card. He told me to download an app to get around the government’s firewall before leaving the airport, then we shared a taxi into the city and he made sure I was able to check into the hotel, as I hadn’t booked in advance.
We remained in touch for the few days I was in Tehran, and one night we hung out in Tajrish, in the northern part of the city. After a while, we got a taxi a little further north to an opening in the mountains where a bunch of restaurants and food stands were perched on the sides of a river. We got hookah and tea, and talked for a few hours about our lives and about Iran. Later, back in Tajrish, we met two of his friends for dinner, and they told me about what it was like to live in Iran and how they hoped to move to the West until there was more freedom in their country. One thing in particular about our conversation stuck with me. They said that even though nearly everyone in Iran is a Muslim on paper, not everyone feels it in their hearts.
After hanging out with them a little longer, and heading back to one of their apartments – where the women immediately took off their hijabs — I bade them farewell, as I was soon to head off to a new part of the country.
The next morning, my bus pulled into Isfahan, the third-largest city in Iran. It has a wealth of beautiful Islamic architecture, historical buildings, and a river runs through its core — though it was dry when I visited, and an Iranian informed me it had been diverted for agriculture. While I enjoyed exploring the city, I had a more immediate need when I arrived: I needed to find a laundromat.
Only one person at the hotel reception spoke broken English, and he pointed me in the direction of one, but after half an hour of walking around with a plastic bag of dirty clothes, I still hadn’t found it. As I was leaving a building that I’d been checking for the laundromat, I ran into a young man coming from an internet café, so I asked if he spoke English. He did speak a little, and gave me some more accurate directions, so I thanked him and went on my way again.
A couple of minutes later I heard a horn behind me. Turning around, I found the young man on his moped. He waved me over and offered to take me. I hopped on without thinking twice, wrapping one arm around him and using the other to keep hold of my bag, we sped off in the direction of the laundromat.
It took only a few minutes to arrive, but the shop was closed, so he turned to me and offered to take me to another, a little further away. I nodded, wanting to get my clothes clean, and we took off again. Instead of going straight to the laundromat, however, he gave me a tour of the city, relaying interesting facts and pointing out landmarks.
At one point, while waiting in traffic, he turned to me and asked why I trusted him and didn’t think he was in the Taliban. I remember laughing at the question, but I can’t recall exactly what I said, except to let him know I did trust him and didn’t assume he was a terrorist.
After finding the laundromat and dropping off my clothes, he showed me how to get back by driving slowly to my hotel. When he dropped me off, he gave me his number in case I needed anymore help while I was in the city, and I thanked him before heading up to my room.
My next stop was the desert city of Yazd, one of the only cities in the world built almost entirely of adobe, and a centre of Zoroastrianism. I don’t usually use guidebooks when I travel, but I did pick one up for Iran since there wasn’t much information on the country online and I knew I wouldn’t have a good internet connection while I was there. It recommended a teahouse in a fancy hotel, so I decided to check it out.
Cushions on elevated platforms surrounded a fountain inside the teahouse. A young guy brought me over to one of them. He brought me tea and snacks, and somehow we got to talking while he wasn’t busy serving other patrons.
I was just as thrilled as he was to find another French speaker. He gave my some tips on what to see in Yazd, but as we talked the conversation became more personal. Over the course of a few hours he told me about how he’d fled from Iraq, learned several languages to do well in tourism, and was hoping to stay with a friend of his in France to continue his studies. I still think about him every now and then, and wonder if he made it.
These experiences, and the many more I had while I was in Iran, gave me a perspective of the country that few receive if they can’t visit it, and certainly not if they only pay attention to what the media tends to publish about the country. Iranians are not their government, and they’re some of the friendliest people I’ve met in my travels.
My time in Iran showed me how important it is not to stereotype a whole nationality, religion, race, or any other group, as it skews our ability to recognize the diversity that exists in all people, as well as our many commonalities. The people I met were proud to show off their country to a visitor, and to share their experiences, critiques, and hopes. Like all people, they were driven by the same desires to improve their lives, but also to make their country more open and a better place to live.
I understand that my experiences are skewed, as I only really interacted with English-speakers, but that doesn’t mean their views are a significant minority in Iranian society. If the Iran deal proves anything, it is the desire of Iranians to reduce tensions with the West and to become a more open society. The Iran deal coincided with a reduction in the visa requirements for tourists to Iran, particularly for European nations, opening the door for more interaction between Iranians and Westerners. I’m looking forward to returning, and seeing how it’s changed.