“Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,
Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door
My address is somewhere else.”
– Hafez, The Gift (Persian Poet)
When I posted pictures of Iran in social media, sharing opinions about how amazing the Iranians truly are, and the inaccurate facts of countries like Iran that potrays in medias, I received adverse responses by some friends. While most kind of agreed to my statements, a few started a debate and sent hyperlinks and news posted online of why I shouldn’t be kind towards Iranians. A friend, took it personally.
Iran is also known as Persia, and there are almost 82 millions inhabitants. 99% of them are Muslim (Islam) with nearly 90% Shi’a and about 10% are Sunni. The key theological differences between the two branches of religions are their beliefs over the successor of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
Sunnis dominate the Muslim world (more than 85% of the world 1.6 billions Muslim) and vast majority of the Shiites can be found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Although both share the holy book of Quran, they practice differently. Sunni Muslim mainly practice according on the Sunnah, and the Shiites rely heavily on their Ayatollahs (clerics, experts in Islamic studies).
In Shiraz, I was unexpectedly thrown a question by a stranger, “What do you think of Shia?” In my own personal opinion, our faith is what we make it, to say one belief is more evil than another is absurd. “There is no compulsion in religion” (Holy Quran Al Baqara: 2/256).
For decades, sanctions against Iran has jeopardised and hurt the core sectors of Iran economy. And despite being miserable and disgruntled, I only see smiling faces in Iran. To me, beliefs are made for humanity.
Three decades ago, the shah of Iran was overthrown by an Islamic uprising, the Iranian revolution. With the new government, the country was known as Islamic Republic of Iran. There were immediate and drastic changes to the way of life of the ordinary citizens. Women suddenly have to cover their hair while in public, regardless of their religion or nationality. Stricter laws were enforced.
Despite these laws, there isn’t much of a culture shock as I might have think before visiting this country. For example, there are more conservative Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia, than in Iran. Iranians, especially the youth, are trendy and stylish. As a matter of fact, I saw some beautiful ladies wearing sleeveless and hair uncovered in the plane. And like the tourists, by the time we landed, we had our hair and arm covered.
According to the international reports and social media, Iran’s human rights record is exceptionally poor and the regime is undemocratic. I was at first in fear when Nicola decided that we travel to Iran. However, after returning from this country, I find that my concern was baseless. Iran is one of the safest countries, and Iranians are kind and gentle. We were approach by many Iranians that were just curious, wanted to take pictures together, or strike up a friendly conversation with us. It was easy to take photographs everywhere we go, than for example, Morocco, and I remembered lamented, “If only more places were as welcoming as Iran.”
After oil, Iran is most famous for its Persian carpets. We make friends with an Iranian, Reza Abashi, who is an expert in carpets being his family business for years. He educates us about the different types of carpets and their values. Iranians have woven beautiful carpets for over 2,500 years and they often make mistakes intentionally. “There is a beauty in imperfections,” Reza said.
While in Isfahan, Reza brought us to a wonderful lunch at Malek Soltan Jarchi Bashi. The restaurant was previously an old bathhouse (hammam) and it was turned to a beautiful restaurant with an amazing atmosphere and delicious Iranian cuisines. For the total paid per person (500,000 IR = 3.30 euros), this is by far the best value meal of the whole trip, at least for me.
Iranian (Persian) food has much in common with middle-eastern cooking. Traditional Iranian food combines the savory of saffron, cardamom, turmeric, herbs, and merges it with the sweet of pomegranate, dried raisins and rose water.
We had almost the same breakfast routine every single morning. The combination of feta cheese, honey, jam, yoghurt, and Persian bread (noon-e sangak, noon-e barbari), served with Persian tea is unforgettable. In some hostels, we had boiled eggs and omelettes, salads and Haleem, a stew.
Nicola and I spent almost a month travelling Iran (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Varzaneh – Yazd – Shiraz), and we’ve definitely formed our own opinion. While we were overwhelmed at the beauty, hospitality and friendliness we encountered during our travels, that don’t put Iranians as superhuman. In Isfahan, a fellow traveller had his phone stolen. There is always a black sheep in every flock. Never let your guard down, anywhere in the world. That being said, Iran is an incredible place and I would love to visit again someday.
“The world is a book
and those who do not travel, read only one page.”
~ St Augustine
Tips & Suggestions:
Female : Wearing a loose fittings clothes, hair must be covered
Male : No shorts
Visa on arrival can be issued at major international airports in Iran. You cannot get this visa on the land borders. The passports of foreign tourists visiting Iran will not be stamped. During entry, you will be given a paper containing your personal details that you must keep with you and return it during exit.
|Countries whose Nationals do NOT NEED a Visa to Iran:|
|Armenia (90 Days), Azerbaijan (30 Days), Bolivia (30 Days), Egypt (20 Days), Georgia (45 Days), Lebanon (30 Days), Malaysia (15 Days), Serbia (30 Days), Turkey (90 Days), Venezuela (15 Days).|
|Countries whose Nationals CAN Apply for the Iranian Visa on Arrival (30 days):|
|Albania, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China (People’s Republic), Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea. Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam.|
|Countries whose Nationals CANNOT Apply for Iran Visa on Arrival:|
|Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka.|
Documents required for Visa on Arrival:
There are SIM card booths at the airport, but I bought mine at Seven Hostel for 150,000 rials (2 GB). As I did not access Facebook or Youtube, the data is more than enough to stay connected with families and friends.
Beware of “taxi drivers” that wanted to rip you off. Take the official Imam Khomeini Airport Taxi services just after you exit the custom. You can even book a ride in advance at this website www.irantts.com.
Hotel receptions will keep your passport and give them back upon checking out. Make sure you always have a copy of your passport printed with you wherever you go. We were stop by policemen at Taleghani metro station, and the passport copy came handy.
Do note that Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are blocked in Iran. You’ll need to install a VPN (virtual private network) in order to access them. Download multiple VPN before you arrive (OpenDoor, Hotspot Shield, Cloud VPN, Psiphon, Hide Me). We survived our stay with the minimal (Whatsap, Instagram).
We enjoyed the beautiful setting of traditional houses and guests house. Nevertheless, the hostels we stayed are equally wonderful. The cheapest room (dormitory) costs 5 euros per night. You can try negotiating with your host (smile and be nice).
Contrary to negativities portray in media, Iran is safe. I actually felt safer in Iran than some parts of Europe or Morocco. Iranians are kind, friendly and helpful, and random strangers would go the extra mile just to help you out. I never encountered people being so nice and helpful anywhere in the world. On this trip, we forged good friendships with Iranians.