My first night in Tehran, reeling from a 55 hour bus ride from Istanbul, I staggered into the closest restaurant I could find for some dinner. The waiter was very curious to see me and we chatted a bit. I quickly found my mediocre Arabic was useless in this Farsi-speaking nation and we got by in what limited English he could muster. After dinner I went up to the register to pay and the cashier said, “Never mind, your waiter paid for you.”
“Wow, that was nice! Where is he so I can thank him?” I asked.
“He’s gone home already.”
That was my first sample of Persian hospitality.
It’s a casual, instinctive form of hospitality. They don’t make a big show of it like in some countries. Instead the Iranians have an intellectual curiosity about the outside world and feel a genuine warmth to outsiders.
Wait. . .Iran? That country with the leader who denies the Holocaust and wants to build nukes? Yeah, that Iran. I’ve been to more than 25 countries and I’ve never seen such a difference between a people and their government. The regime is crap, no doubt about it (there goes any offers of a press trip) but the people are something else. In a month I never got an ounce of attitude, not even in the mosques and madrasas (religious schools). One director of a madrasa even confided, “I wish the government didn’t force Islam on people. It turns people away from the faith.”
To anyone brought up on Western television, Iran is a constant series of surprises. It’s quite safe and is home to ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites, easily accessible via an efficient system of clean, modern buses. Top sites include the old Persian capital of Persepolis (where the guard gave me a tour in Italian because it kinda sounded like the French I tried on him), medieval Armenian churches, and the mosques of Isfahan, simply the most beautiful Islamic city I’ve seen.
There’s a saying in Persian, Isfahan nesfe jahan, “Isfahan is half the world”, and it certainly gave me half of my best memories of Iran. The mosques, with their cool blue tiles and sleek minarets, are as soothing to the eye as the city’s lush gardens. Perhaps it’s because so many Iranian buildings are made of bare concrete that Isfahan creates such an awesome contrast, but I spent days admiring the architecture. Isfahan is also home to many traditional crafts, their stores divided into separate streets in the customary fashion of the Middle East. The carpet bazaar was as much of a visual treat as the mosques, but the coppersmith’s street, while having traditional appeal, is not a place to go while nursing a headache. A hundred guys hammering away at metal lacks any cultural interest at that point.
Oh, and the food’s good too, especially if you have a sweet tooth. The Persians are big on desserts. I wish I could remember the name of this one concoction made with ice cream topped with honey and walnuts, topped with whipped cream, and then another layer of ice cream topped with honey and walnuts and whipped cream. . . and on and on to the top of a dauntingly tall glass.
While there are no direct flights from the U.S. or Canada to Iran, there are numerous flights from all major European hubs. Or you can try that horrible bus route I took from Istanbul. It’s grueling, but you get to see many long miles of rugged Anatolian and Persian scenery on the way, and meet lots of dodgy money traders too. One guy offered me $7,000 cash for my Canadian passport. I have to admit I was tempted, but the idea of being without a passport and having to lie to Iranian cop kept me honest. It’s even possible for U.S. citizens to get visas to Iran from the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC. Read the website carefully, though, as there are lots of restrictions.