Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guest Post: A Foreigner in Iran

When you hear or read the word Iran, it is likely in the context of a heated debate, a news broadcast on television, or headlines in newspapers and on websites. For years, it was all about ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric, almost always coinciding with ideas of state sponsored terrorism, nuclear threats, and quite generally a country full of religious fanatics. Certainly, if we, people living in the ‘free West’, were ever to fear a country, it would have to be Iran.

In the previous year, however, we have seen a massive turnaround in public attention. With different presidents in both the US and Iran, things seem to be changing rapidly, at least in the eyes of many a journalist. Whatever the intentions of both countries’ governments, Iran all of a sudden appears to be a much more friendly, welcoming place.

I was fortunate enough to travel through Iran exactly during the time when the much discussed ‘nuclear deal’ was being negotiated. What I found, was a place unlike most other countries I visited before, and surely a country that defied most stereotypes. Below you will find five of the (many) highlights of a month long journey across Iran.

1. The people of Iran

Much unlike what you would expect from a country that has been dubbed part of the ‘axis of evil’, the people of Iran actually proved to be among the most hospitable I came across on my travels. Whether you ask directions, chat about life waiting for the bus, or simply arrive at your hotel. Almost always you are received with a smile, and a healthy dose of curiosity. And when you’re open to it, chances are that you will be invited for a cup of tea, or if you’re very lucky, a family dinner at the home of the host. Beats any three star restaurant in Europe!

Two women walk the streets of Qom, combining the conservative black chadors with modern sunglasses and mobile phones.

2. Isfahan, ‘Half the World’

A much used phrase in guidebooks and on travel websites, is the 16th century rhyme ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’, ‘Esfahan is half the world’. While this remark seems slightly over enthusiastic to be real, the city actually does seem to breath ‘Culture’ at most corners of the centre. Whether it’s the majestic ‘Naqsh-e Jahan Square’, the beautifully decorated roofs of the mosques, or the picturesque bridges that used to span the Zayandeh river. If you love architecture and a general feeling of historic grandeur, this is the place you will enjoy most in Iran. For sweet tooths, don’t miss the extraordinary ‘gaz’, probably best decribed as an exotic variation to nougat. Mouthwatering stuff.

Families and friends have gathered at the immense Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan.

A veiled woman with a colorful headscarf and her two friends wearing black chadors marvel at the beautiful Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan.

3. Ashura

Do not type this word into Google Images. It will not make you happy. Unfortunately, the most popular search engine on the web comes up with horrific scenes of self torturing men when you do. In Iran, Ashura is celebrated very differently, in part because the government has banned the use of knives in the self flagellating rituals that are sometimes involved in observing Ashura en masse. Ashura marks the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, and is one of the most passionate dates on the Shia Islamic calendar. It is celebrated with religious parades, sombre theatre, and an overall feeling of togetherness and generosity that is hard to rival. If you can coincide your trip with the Muharram period (the 10 days leading up to Ashura), you will be rewarded with an extraordinary insight into the daily lives of ordinary Muslims in Iran. I extended my visa for it, and didn’t regret it for a minute.

Men have gathered at the central square of Zanjan to observe Ashura en masse. Two groups of men express their grief by performing 'sine-zani', beating their chests to the rhythm of a song.

Men are attending a ceremony in Zanjan, to mourn for the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, as part of Ashura.

4. Bazaar life

While there are many bustling bazaars across the globe, few will match the atmosphere of the narrow, winding alleys that you undoubtedly end up in when visiting a bazaar in Iran. From Tehran to Shiraz, and from Kashan to Tabriz, the Iranian bazaar can truly be called the quintessential Persian marketplace. Spices, garment, jewellery, carpets, decorative knives, you name it. Virtually anything that you can buy in Iran, can (also) be found at the bazaar. To consider these vast areas as ancient shopping malls is probably too narrow a definition. Instead, when strolling through these covered lanes, a completely different world seems to open up. Merchants, traders, and shoppers are joined by local bankers, religious men, and restaurant owners. The term ‘miniature society’ would very much apply here.

A salesman carries a small carpet on his shoulder, in one of the largest bazaars in Iran, in Tabriz.
Friendly shopowner in the Isfahan bazaar.

5. Qeshm island

Do not expect palm beaches and luxury resorts here. Located in the Persian Gulf, this place is actually best avoided anywhere between April and October. It can get ferociously hot, and humid. In the Winter months, however, Qeshm island should be on your itinerary if you’re interested in witnessing some of the traditional culture that has disappeared rapidly in other parts of the Gulf (think Dubai). A short boat ride from Bandar Abbas, the island offers a glimpse into the ‘Bandari way of life’. Many people continue to wear traditional clothing, ‘badgirs’ (ancient Persian windtowers, designed to cool the home) are scattered across the island, and wooden ‘lenj’ vessels are still produced by hand. I hired a car and driver for the day to get me around the island, but if you have time, there are a few nice guesthouses where you can stay the night.

Two enormous wooden lenj vessels at a shipyard on Qeshm island. 

A man is watching over the Persian Gulf, on the way to Qeshm island, passing oil tankers on the way.

Now, these highlights are based on personal experience. I’m sure that other visitors will come up with other ideas. It really all depends on what you are looking for, and what you are interested in when visiting Iran.

It should also be mentioned that Iran still faces an enormous amount of challenges, both in relation with Western powers, and also domestically. The economy, and therefore the people, are suffering tremendously from imposed sanctions. While religion can be a beautiful thing when practiced freely, some people question the necessity to have religious rules implemented in society.

These, and other, are important issues to keep in mind when traveling through Iran. At the same time, they should not be the benchmark from which you embark on your journey. The best way to start a trip to Iran is really with an open mind. If you manage to do so, then Iran might just be one of the most eye opening destinations in the world.

Stef Hoffer is a Dutch traveling filmmaker and stock footage producer, with a particuler interest in Greater Asia and the Middle East. He has been fascinated by other cultures from an early age and regularly travels to destinations afar. Stef holds a degree in International Relations, and enjoys combining the global perspective with the local. View more of his travels on Stef Hoffer's YouTube Channel. 


  1. Thank for your complete new's about Iran

  2. “… the picturesque bridges that used to span the Zayandeh river.”

    Laconic! Haven't heard it put that way before. No water since July 2013 — switched off at dam and kept off as levels too low.

  3. Hi, I am from India. I intend to visit Tehran October 31 to November 1 and Tabriz November 3-4. Could anyone kindly advise me if Bazars at Tehran & Tabriz will be closed because of Ashura Day?

    1. Hi, so great that you are visiting soon. The bazaar in Tehran is open except for the days of Ashura and Tasua. I assume it would be the same in Tabriz as well.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...