“What’s this song about?”
“Well, a woman has left him, and he wishes she would come back.”
“Like all the other Persian songs.”
It’s hard to get a true sense of an entire country in just three weeks and a handful of cities, but sometimes patterns emerge in even the briefest of encounters. There’s a common thread winding through the sights and stories of my time in Iran. It’s not one I was expecting to find, but once noticed, it’s impossible to ignore. Call it kindness, or generosity, or passion—it all boils down to something approaching love.
It starts with the constant calls of “Welcome to Iran!” that follow us through bustling squares, centuries-old bazaars and lush gardens. Taxi drivers, street vendors, random passers-by—everyone seems determined to wish us well. Curiosity follows:
“Where are you from?”
“What do you study?”
“What do you think of my city?”
Even the shop owners seem more interested in chatting than selling. If you buy a headscarf or some advieh spice mix, all the better.
Iranians know what the world thinks of them. Many ask us if we were scared to visit. A young woman declares us “brave”. You can sense the unspoken frustration behind the words: “We are not our government! We’re just like you!” On social media, the sentiment is writ large in the burgeoning #iranissafe hashtag. Just one day and countless friendly encounters into my trip, that’s pretty damn obvious.
There’s a ‘real’ Iran waiting in the shadows, and everyone here is clamouring to show it to us.
It’s our first night in the ancient city of Kashan, three hours south of Tehran on the fringe of the desert. We’re on a darkened street, our guesthouse’s 11pm curfew fast approaching. A mass of people begins pouring out of the shadowy alley ahead. The concerns of my family echo in my mind: “I hear you’re travelling to a very dangerous place?” I know we should be avoiding crowds. Wait, let me make sure my hijab’s on right.
A boy of about 8 breaks from the throng and approaches us gleefully. His grandma is close behind, beaming. Soon, a small crowd engulfs us. Amidst the welcoming looks and excited chatter, it’s our turn to ask:
“Where have you come from?”
It’s a special occasion; they’ve been commemorating a fallen religious figure. The styrofoam boxes they’re all holding are now being pushed at us eagerly from every direction.
“Here, ghormeh sabzi. Take it.”
We decline; we’ve already eaten. But they won’t take no for an answer, so I accept one, the food warming my hands in the cool night. A family invites us to their home. The grandma hugs me. Car horns honk in farewell.
Back at the guesthouse, we sample the fragrant, herby stew—Iran’s unofficial national dish—for the first time, scooping it into our mouths with a torn-off corner of styrofoam.
“I hear you’re travelling to a very dangerous place?”
We meet filmmaker Amir at a coffee house in the Armenian quarter of the famously beautiful Isfahan, after first connecting on social media. We talk of film and music, politics and culture. Over the following days, he plays the role of tour guide like his life depends on it. We’re taken for tea and faloodeh, an icy syrup of vermicelli, lime juice and rosewater. We’re introduced to his family and friends, and escorted to our next destination—the desert town of Varzaneh—and back. He tells us the secrets of the imposing Khaju Bridge: where to stand to see the arches coalesce into candle shapes (the light of sunrise and sunset acting as flame); the way the moonlight reflects across the eyes of the stone lions, bringing the statues to life.
On our last night in his city, Amir invites us to dinner. In the exquisite courtyard of the traditional Persian residence, he cooks lamb kebab over hot coals. We sprinkle za’atar over the smoky meat and eat it with fresh buttered bread and a side of homemade pickled eggplant. Later, he teaches me how to play my recently acquired daf (a Persian frame drum) while the others lounge on one of this country’s ubiquitous dining beds and drink tea.
For the rest of our trip, he calls daily to check how we’re doing, see whether he can help with anything. Weeks later, back in the daily grind, I think often of something he said: “If we believe in good, we should add something good to the world.”
Isfahan’s dazzling mosques are second only to the city’s stately Imam Square. But we’ve been encouraged to seek out less obvious pleasures and spend a night wandering beneath the bridges. There’s no water in the Zayanderud River, so we’re free to roam down there. I knew there’d be music, but I didn’t expect this: scores of men (yes, always men) huddled under the arches, singing classic Persian songs. A solitary voice starts off the next tune; the rest join in for the chorus. The wistful refrain reverberates across the dirt of the vast, empty riverbed.
In my hometown, halfway across the world, the only ones who dare sing in public are the hare krishnas, the clang of tambourines punctuating their dance through the city streets. In their wake, derision. In Isfahan it’s the cool kids, all leather jackets and trendy haircuts and I-know-I’m-hot-shit swagger. Old men watch on as these young folk run the show—stage-direct the vocalists, lead the rousing choruses and shush the disrespectful.
It’s a struggle to comprehend these men, out on a Saturday night contributing to the cultural life of their city. Preserving their storied musical history. Joining together in a most public display of vulnerability, not a hint of ironic detachment to be seen.
I could listen to them all night.
At the Isfahan Music Museum, our guided tour of Persian instruments culminates in a concert of traditional love songs and Sufi poetry set to music. There’s a tar, a setar, a kamancheh, a daf. Four professional musicians and three of us; how is this even financially viable?
The last notes of a plaintive melody ring out, and a sweet melancholia remains. My eyes are damp.
“Did you understand it, even without knowing the words?”
“Look at her! Of course she did!”
In Shiraz, city of poets and Iran’s cultural heartland, we hire a young guide named Mehdi for the afternoon. As we share tea in a sun-dappled courtyard of the labyrinthine Vakil Bazaar, he launches into song, unbidden. A hush falls over the surrounding tables. The cafe owner is grinning; it’s clearly an old favourite. Two wizened old gents agree: they pick up the song midway through, their voices accompanying Mehdi’s until the last note. Scattered applause. Nods of approval. Another sip of tea.
At Golestan Palace, a pocket of calm amid the bustle and pollution of Tehran, a young photography student asks if she can take our picture. A friendship quickly blossoms, and when we return to the capital later in our trip, Raha takes us out to experience ‘modern Tehran’. We meander through the nooks and crannies of Tabiat Bridge and past the myriad Iranian fast food joints. We spend hours discussing her life and ours. Relationships, career, hopes for the future.
Raha brings CDs of the Persian music we discussed the night before, a sweet parting gift that I hope will return me to this moment, long after the trip is over.
This country is disarming me with its charms. But I know it’s no paradise; the hijab on my head is a constant reminder. Being here at all is a result of weeks of uncomfortable navel-gazing: would visiting Iran mean compromising my beliefs? Am I prepared to feign respect for authority figures whose politics I abhor? As a feminist, and an atheist, and a human rights advocate with a penchant for asking “why”, what am I doing here?
We hear first-hand about this country’s dark side. The teenager accosted by morality police for her too-short manteau. The mixed-company parties gatecrashed by the authorities. The conscientious students desperate to see the world, obstructed by a costly and difficult visa process, penalised for the sheer accident of being born Iranian. “This is not living”, Raha tells us. “This is not life.”
So why am I so drawn to this place? Why do I feel so safe, so looked-out-for, so free to move through these cities with ease? I can’t ignore the privilege afforded me by my light skin and hair; the Australian passport I carry. But I’m convinced there’s something more at work here. What makes this country so seductive?
There’s no single answer. It’s the ancient architecture, radiating beauty. The Saadi poetry adorning the 100,000 rial note (“Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul.”) The saffron rice that arrives at the table moulded into a love heart. The hand-painted graffiti on a car’s rear window: “Ali loves Fatima”. The poetic aphorisms shared so casually by new acquaintances. The pistachio a seller hands me in the bazaar. The quartered pomegranate offered through the car window. The stranger accompanying us to our destination so we get there safely. The taxi driver doubling back to deliver a forgotten item. The shy camaraderie of the women’s only train carriage. The offers of assistance to order soup, to buy a movie ticket, to read a Farsi sign.
It’s the gifts bestowed on us over and over again by the people of Iran—of time, of knowledge, of friendship. Of song and poetry, generosity and kindness.
It’s the music floating up from beneath the bridges.
Why visit Iran now? Since UN sanctions were lifted in early 2016, Iran has witnessed a significant increase in international visitors. It’s shaping up to be one of the hottest destinations of the coming years, with the government aiming for 20 million tourists a year by 2025. In response to the US government’s travel ban and the demonisation of countries like Iran, it’s more important and rewarding than ever to uncover the humanity beyond the headlines.