The name “Iran” alone may lead many in the West to imagine an enraged mob on the streets of Tehran, chanting scary slogans about America, Britain, or Israel. But this is an out of date view of a changing country. Recently, Britain reopened it’s embassy in Tehran, and with it an announcement came that “Iran is safe for travel” (with the exception of border areas, particularly with Iraq and Pakistan).
I couldn’t help but smile when reading that Iran is even set to be a “destination” for the upcoming 2016 year on some travel lists.
I smile because I traveled there in May 2010. I had gone to find out for myself exactly what Iran was like — despite all the poor coverage at the time — and to speak with people who had lived through the widely-reported protests of the previous year. I used Couchsurfing to arrange host families all over the country, then armed with a notebook and camera, I took the train from Istanbul to Tehran.
I did not find a chanting mob on each street corner, primed to tear me limb from limb. Instead, over the course of a month, I sought out encounters with people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs, none of whom said they felt animosity towards western people.
On one end, I met the highest-ranking Shi’ite cleric of the city of Tabriz, after he sent a translator to my train compartment to “request an audience” with me. He was the archetypal Iranian fundamentalist to look at — turban, gigantic frame, and bushy beard — yet he had nothing but a warm welcome for me, curiosity about where I was from and questions about what brought me to Iran. To this day I have his home address and telephone number, should I ever need it. At the other end of the spectrum, I met scores of good-humored university students who took me under their wing, spoke candidly about their lives and showed me a wonderful time taking tea, laughing on patios under the late afternoon sun, eating dolma or kebab.
Here’s a glimpse into one of the best months of my life, in Iran – a place I felt welcomed, safe, cared for, and befriended.