“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are” – Samuel Johnson
We all know expectations and reality are two different things, especially when we travel. And there’s pleasure in seeing how the two differ, to satisfy that need of discovery, to touch the world with your own hands. But as we build our hopes and expectations, sometimes, we feel some tricky instincts. What is reasonably safe to expect about Iran?
I almost missed seeing Iran because of this. And oh, what a loss it would have been! To be honest, while I am writing this, I just can’t wipe a funny smirk off my face because things are so different from what I imagined that I actually forgot what I expected! Funny that no?
I don’t want anyone to miss any good travel opportunity, so I set out calling my friends back home, back in Europe and asked them what they would expect Iran to be like. And in this article, for you, I am going to disprove or confirm the most common assumptions Westerners have of Iran.
Some of my friends mentioned the idea that due to the recent diplomatic tensions that Iran has been involved in, they would expect Iranians to be bitter and angry at Westerners.
Iranians have a huge heart and an impressive hospitality culture! As one of my French friends cycling through Iran puts it: “If I didn’t refuse some of the invitations, I would have to stay in every small village for a month”.
I myself have been cuddled and taken care of by these kind-hearted hosts at every step. In many cases just casually explaining that I had a problem prompted huge chain reactions: somebody would call a friend that would call his friends that would call others still until a solution to my problem would finally be found. Nuclear generosity! Lame pun intended…
Verdict: False expectation
Most of my friends back in Italy tell me they would not expect the locals to speak any English.
This is entirely wrong! While of course, not everybody here speaks English, I could always find people that speak enough of it, or even some French, in a matter of less than a minute when I need it. Even street signs are in English, so I never got lost. As a matter of fact, this had troubled me a lot in Turkey, where meeting anyone speaking some English was like finding a needle in a haystack. Phew!
Oh, and expect some great conversations!
Verdict: False expectation
Not enough tourist services
Since Iran is not often mentioned in the tourist forums and is not generally talked of as a travel destination in the Western world, many assume that the country is not prepared to offer basic services that travelers might need.
I remember reading that the international banking circuits do not work here, and my Mastercard would be useless. The idea of entering the country with hard cash on me was worrying, and not just a little. I relaxed as soon as I entered the country, though. I got myself a prepaid card that can be used in just about every shop, and I’m virtually safe from any theft. This is the only true annoyance for a traveler in Iran.
I had also heard that you cannot do online reservations because of the banking circuits, but the solutions to this are also being offered.
As for the rest, both the Iranian government and private investors have been consistently looking in these past years to attract more tourists. The benefits of this effort are already being reaped: Internet services can take care of your visa application; new hostels, traditional houses, and eco-lodges are being constantly opened, apps are now being used for transportation, you can find tours and activities for just about anything, and you can find tourist police in some cities. In just a few words, tourist services are aplenty and solutions are offered for any hard-cored inconveniences.
Verdict: False expectation
Dirty and polluted
I have never seen any dirt on the streets, and cities are very (!!!) clean. Walking the streets at any hour of day or night, you will find someone sweeping the roads. To be fair, though, I have been informed that in some remote and sparsely inhabited areas there are not efficient methods of waste disposal. This is, unfortunately, a problem I have encountered in many developing countries.
As for pollution, while other cities are within the norms, Tehran suffers from bad air quality. The reasons are to be found in the number of old cars and the sub-standard gasoline that is now being used in the country because of the international sanctions. This combines with the constant urbanization and influx of people migrating into the city, as is usually the case with capitals of big countries. The battle is not lost though, as the government is constantly devising new methods of fighting pollution as the city grows.
All in all, I have seen dirty cities and comparable pollution in south-eastern Europe, and have nothing to be surprised of.
Verdict: Partially true expectation
The hint is in the name. “Islamic Republic of Iran”. It is the first country I visited with “Islamic” in its name, and before I arrived I was scared witless!
What if I was arrested for something I did not know? Is this Sharia? As with all other fears I had, I relaxed as soon as I entered the country. First of all, the Iranian legal system incorporates some elements of religious law. Granted, some rules might sound uncomfortable for Europeans, used to the most liberal legal systems in the world, but the truth is every country has its laws and adapting to these is the compromise every good citizen of the world makes when traveling. Among these rules, there is a Iran dress code, no blasphemy, no alcohol, no drugs and no intimate touching in public. It is also useful to know that it is not a good idea to criticize the Iranian government or to take pictures of military premises and personnel. These are easy enough rules to follow, and after the first few days, you will be doing that unconsciously.
Also, remember that I said that the government is trying to expand the tourism sector? Well, unofficially speaking, local police is encouraged to offer some leniency to tourists, so you are more likely to get a warning than real trouble. Just be responsible about it.
After you get these rules straight, you are free to enjoy the marvels of this land and its friendly people.
Verdict: True expectation
The religiously inspired legal system does not mean there is any worrying level of religious intolerance. Iran is home to the very old Zoroastrian religion, which still lives here, and Shia Islam is simply the last of the many waves of religions that this land has experienced in its rich history. I found various active temples of fire and churches and mosques. More importantly, I found out quite happily that the contacts between these religions have resulted in some Iranians being self-educated about different faiths’ doctrines.
That being said, in some poor areas of the country, there are religious tensions between Sunnis and Shias.
There is a law prohibiting the conversion of Muslims to non-muslim faiths, so don’t go around spreading the Gospel.
Verdict: False expectation
Desert, ruins, and AK47
It is the literal answer of one of my European friends to the question “What does Iran make you think of?”.
I left this as the last point in my article as it is the most ludicrous and funny answer I had been given, although I must say many expressed similar opinions when I called from this cozy office in Tehran.
I and my Iranian colleagues laughed for a few good minutes when I told them.
Iran’s last war ended more than 30 years ago, the military’s rifle of choice is not the Kalashnikov, and the deserts in Iran is like nothing you might expect. It is important not to mix up countries just because of proximity. Iran is not Afghanistan, Iranians are not Arabs, and for God’s sake, Iran is not Iraq!
Iran is Persia, an ancient cradle of civilization, a multicultural country with a rich, diverse history, stunning landscapes, friendly people, good food and hidden treasures!
Expect the unexpected.
Verdict: Go see the Iran deserts!