What Made me Love Iran?

Me and my friend Pepa travelled around Iran for the last eight days. We started in Teheran, then moved to Kashan, visited Abiane on our way to Isfahan and finished in desert city Yazd. We have seen only a tiny fragment Iran and I don’t think it was enough. But I’m still impressed, so I would like to share some thoughts and feelings about our trip with you.

How it Started

While in Argentina a couple of months ago, I was talking to my friend Pepa. He told me there were really cheap flight tickets to Teheran from Prague at the end of February. Without hesitation (it really took me only half an hour) I told him to buy them, anxious to see Muslim country for the first time in my life. I also asked my wife if she wanted to come with us, but she said no, scared for her (and subsequently for my) safety. At this point, I told her it would be ok, and that there was nothing to fear. But I obviously did not know – I could only read blogs similar to mine about how cool it actually was to travel in a country where women must wear hijab and have their own female sectors in buses and in metro trains.

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Women not allowed!

Flight tickets cost around 170 Euros and when we arrived, we had to pay another 75 for the visa (directly on the airport). It took around two hours. There were some people paying less (girl from Malta for 45 Euros) or even not paying anything (people from friendly countries like Syria and Turkey). But after that, we had no other reason to contact or deal with authorities.

People

So what is so great about Iran? First of all, people are extremely COOL, helpful, and relaxed. Being a white guy with almost two meters was one of the biggest advantages while travelling in Iran – people, or I should rather say men, spontaneously approached us (not in great numbers, but still on a very regular basis) and asked where we were from, and if we needed some help. Sometimes they even accompanied us, especially when they spoke some English. But even if they knew only a couple words, they still tried to engage in a conversation with us. And for no other reason than just for the pleasure. No begging, no selling, nothing. That’s not bad and it made me feel like I can trust Iranies (except for taxi drivers ofc). When has this happened to you while travelling around Europe or Americas? Not very often, right? And even less in Eastern Europe. Generally, people were smiling and only the most turistic places had something like professional sellers trying to convince us to buy something (usually overpriced handmade carpets). But they left as soon as we told them that our goal is not to bring 10×10 metres big carpet from Isfahan. Me personally I don’t like carpets that much. I don’t like to buy anything haha. If it wasn’t for my friends, I would not go shopping our last day to the Tehran Bazaar.

Women, on the other hand, were observing and only occasionally started talking by themselves. But when we talked them, they were always willing to help us. In some occasions, this led to  interesting meetings. We were invited to a dinner by one of our acquintances and could chat with a whole bunch of university students (mainly women). And they were all extremely nice, polite and intelligent. Their kind attitude almost forced me to behave as a normal person.

We felt dissapointed by some Iranians only a couple of times – especially when they wanted money after giving us a ride. We obviously had money, but wanted to hitchhike for the sake of the experience. But in Iran, drivers sometimes mistook us for passengers and wanted money – even when we told them the magic sentences: Ama na taxi, pul nadaram (meaning: No taxi, I don’t have money). On one occasion, chofer wanted five dolars for giving us ride inside of a small city Natanz. He became a little aggressive so we gave him something like 0,50 cents and abandoned his car in a hurry. One general rule – never put  your belongings into the car trunk. It can easily be used against you. And if there is some problem, just run into the desert. Majority of our hitchihiking experiences were positive, especially truck drivers proved to be friendly guys, able to maintain long conversations without even speaking English.

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Old truck with a big hearted driver

But after a while, we became more aware of the possible taxi price and paid more attention to the drivers. Our subsequent hitchiking was thus more succesful and we did not pay anything. Also if using taxi, we always stated the fixed price for both of us beforehand. On our last drive to airport, our taxi driver did not understand that and tried to get another 5000 thousand Toman. We used our middle finger instead. As my more experienced friend said, these are typical strategies of taxi drivers, so fuck them. Don’t hesitate, just get out of the car and bye bye.

Other means of transportation were absolutelly flaweless. Trains were fast and cozy, buses had drivers who were driving and not playing with their cellphones etc. Prices were excellent. For 10 euros, you could travel for some 8 hours by train.

Monuments and Historical Sites

Entrance fees are generally overpriced for tourists. Also, there is often nothing inside. Like for example Zoroastrian temple in Yazd – what a scam. We have dealt with that in our way – by paying somewhere, entering for free somewhere else or more often not entering. I can assure you that walking around the old neighbourhood in Yazd or the main square in Isfahan were much more interesting than paid entrances to some of the historical sites we have tried. So don’t get pulled in and rather spend your money on something else, especially if you are on a tight budget.

I noticed one strange thing – Iranians don’t care about their historical sites as we do. For them, it is absolutely OK to build a children’s playground next to old walls. Or they even repair damaged monuments, as for example in old abandoned village in Kharanaq or in old and still habitated village Abiane. Their concept of conservation of history is probably different from ours, but I have not inquired more into this topic.

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Kharanaq village – the abandoned and not reconstructed part

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Children’s playground next to old city walls in Kashan

Anyway, it is always interesting to go to the historical places, and you can find them almost everywhere across the country. Holy shrines, mosques, half destroyed settlements and so on. Everything available for you. If you have enough time.

One of the best surprises, more bizarre than real, was the Museum of Martyrs in Isfahan. There were almost no English descriptions inside, but it was visually impressive. Both in artistic expression and in political propaganda it provided. I cannot judge the accurateness of  it, so I will just post some pictures:

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Entrance to the Martyr’s museum in Isfahan

Obviously, martyrs were only men. All the women that died in the conflict with Iraq probably didn’t qualify.

Politics

I obviously can’t ignore the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Let’s skip the history lesson, everyone can find that on Wikipedia. So how does it feel now? As an etnographer, I became immediatelly alert when word politics was used. But the truth is, I was not very successful in developing longer conversations about politics. People usually stated they didn’t understand it and were not interested in it. What a pity, myself being a political scientist and not being able to discuss such an important matter. I was also discouraged various times by some of my fellow travellers to talk politics with locals. I did not want to cause trouble to anyone so I rather shut my mouth.

But I can at least try to make some analytical remarks. I noticed that when people evaded the topic, they did it in a way that left no room for further discussion. No opinions, no ideology, nothing about changing the regime to something that would not bare characteristics of a hybrid regime, dominated by a powerful military. On the other hand it was apparent that many of them want to leave the country – go to Germany, Australia or somewhere else (in Western world). Dissident information was widely available. Many Iranians are already abroad, broadcasting their own news, TV shows, and having a radio station called Farda (based in Prague). Everyone we asked knew about them. So something must be going on under the surface.

The not-ok-state-of-things is best observed on the women politics and the systemic violence that stems from it. At one point of conversation with one female friend, she said that she wouldn’t marry, because then she would have to obey her husband. WTF? My liberal self wanted to scream at this point, but I didn’t say anything. Islamic religion obviously works well to justify women’s obedience to men. Women can’t do speak with strangers (they do!) or laugh out loud in public, female university students have to go back to their dormitory before 9 p.m.,  and all have to wear hijab and so on. Stuff like this makes their lives less independent from the male world, which is restricted as well. Feminism is yet to reappear and cause some deeper stir in the traditional society.

There is a big potential in the Iranian women and I hope it will subsequently work in their struggle for equality with men. Right now, I see more of auto-censorship, and fear of punishment. Obviously, it is easy to be hero from my position, but it is much more difficult to do something as in (male or female) insider in a system based on a belief of inferiority of women both formally and informally.

I will have to read something more about that topic – do you have any suggestions, except for Bourdieu’s La Domination masculine?

future is female

Food

Being a vegan, it was extremely easy to find something to eat. I could easily avoid meat stuff all along and still eat extremely well. My biggest support was provided by Felafel, which was delicious and also cheap. For 50 cents, you could fill your stomach with delicious chickpea felafel. If not, there was the traditional soup called Āsh, providing you with enough energy for the whole day. We also tried some other meals, but I don’t remember their names. They usually contained eggplant, very common in Iranian cuisine. Also other vegetables are rather common for an average European – zucchini, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers, corn and so on. I also ate two pizzas in restaurants, both of them quite good, even without cheese. I don’t think there are enough vegans in Iran to support for a wider variety of products, but it seems natural that people eat meals without cheese, milk, eggs, or meat. Maybe a chance for a future investment?

One of the crazy things we have encountered were some kind of frozen noodles ice-cream with sweet sirup on them. We did not finish it and threw it away, because it tasted like shit. I have came across vegan shop only in Teheran, and it was a part of a big vegan restaurant, which was quite good.

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Pepa’s face while eating “ice-cream”

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Kebab in a vegan restaurant in Teheran

Enough for today, to be continued…

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