I admit. Iran was supposed to be a trophy destination.
I wanted to be that admired intrepid traveler that could pepper my Instagram with hashtags like #liveauthentic, #yolo and #survivor. People whispered: Desert villages, religious fundamentalists, oppressed citizens, broken buildings, terrorist groups and hardworking camels. It’s a war-torn country, right?
The truth is – I didn’t even get to ride on a camel.
Iran did serve me constant danger – I was always in danger of staying there for good.
Azadi Tower, Tehran’s Most Famous Landmark.
Be afraid of the people
“Hello where are you from?”
“Welcome to Iran!”
“Enjoy your stay my friend!”
These are not lines from the service staff at your accommodation, but by strangers on the streets. Every ten minutes or so, I would be beamed a smile followed by this short exchange. If I didn’t know better, I would have suspected the whole country underwent tourism training.
Iranians are unfailingly friendly. Ever since the UN sanctions lifted in January 2016, the country has seen more tourists – 5.2 million in 2015, with goals to hit 20 million by 2025. The locals are ready to mingle, and are enthusiastic to interact with visitors.
At Si-o-seh Pol bridge in Esfahan one day, a young man was taking a picture for an elderly couple. I paused for them to take the shot, but it transformed into an invitation for me to join their extended family of thirteen on their picnic mat.
A young man invited me to join their extended family of thirteen on their picnic mat. I was offered chocolates and hot tea with nabot.
I was offered chocolates and hot tea with nabot, and a serious-looking uncle broke a smile to offer his water pipe – the rest chuckling and clapping when I took a puff. As I gave them a gift of our local Singaporean currency for their hospitality, my bag was sneakily filled with fruits from their basket.
If you are stopped on the streets, don’t worry – the shy request is usually for a photo with you.
I arrived in Iran as a solo traveller but left with a trove of friends. Warm, generous and curious, Iranians are truly a killer bunch.
Be afraid of the landscape
The sprawling lands of the Middle East are often reduced to sand dunes and oil rigs. And don’t forget those cute, dopey camels. When I sent the photos of Tehran to my father, he wondered, “when are you arriving?”
The truth is, he couldn’t reconcile the tall buildings, modern roads and subway (yes, there is one, people) with his image of a “war-torn country”.
And it wasn’t just him. When shared with others, eyebrows would raise when I mentioned words like “traffic jam”, “espresso”, “football match”, “observation tower” and “skiing”. Snow in Iran – it’s a real thing.
And the flowers; pink roses blossom in Kashan, purple crocuses in Khorasan, and yellow canola fields are everywhere on the inter-city highways. Iran’s natural flora is four times that of Europe.
One tends to forget this is the Middle East’s second largest land mass at over 1.6 million square km. There’s as much mountains as there are deserts. There are lakes white with salt and pink from algae bloom. And the flowers; pink roses blossom in Kashan, purple crocuses in Khorasan, and yellow canola fields are everywhere on the inter-city highways.
Iran’s natural flora is four times that of Europe, and is by far the world’s largest producer of pistachios and saffron.
The sand had no chance.
Be afraid of the food
For some reason, many thought I’ll be having a lot of lamb in Iran. And to a partial degree, this is true, there was quite a bit of kababs being offered there; but Iran’s cuisine is shockingly complex, masked by humble ingredients and appearances.
A typical platter of kabab in Iran.
Eating in Iran is as balanced as it gets. Every meal had a serving of carbs in the form of bread or rice, a main of chicken, beef or lamb, with plenty of salads at the side, ranging from fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce, to dips like hummus, yoghurts and soups.
Some dishes look unassuming, like the famous national dish dizi. If you order this, you’ll be thrusted a small urn of lamb, potatoes, chickpeas and beans. At the side, are some bread, a large pincer and a mallet. What one must do is to pour the “soup” from the urn into a small bowl, before using the mallet to mash the contents into a pulp. Bits of bread can be dunked in the soup to eat, while the mash can be scooped onto larger pieces. It sounds odd, but is one of the tastiest dishes there.
There’s also the famed fesenjan, a tart and sweet stew with chicken, pomegranates, and walnuts.
Fesenjan—a tart and sweet stew with chicken, pomegranates, and walnuts.
Another favourite is ash (pronounced aarsh), a thick soup made usually with some form of legumes, vegetables, herbs and occasional bits of meat. This usually comes with some local rice prepared the local way – by soaking it before cooking for long periods to produce a fluffy texture, and accompanied by some scorched rice known as tadigh. These crunchy saffron-flavoured thins may not look like much, but friendships have been tested over that last piece.
My personal favourite was khoresh bademjan. The simple formula of eggplant, tomatoes, some lamb and seasoning is hearty, savoury and perfect with rice.
So remember that Iran’s cuisine is a story not only of gamey meat, but also a culinary tapestry of nuts, legumes, herbs, vegetables and grain like no other.
Be afraid of the faith
I have to say, the word terrorist seems almost synonymous with Iran. What is popular may not be right.
Ever since Iran was labeled one of the countries in the axis of evil in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush, it has suffered greatly from the media’s portrayal. With the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, this seemed to further ingrain the region as a hotbed of terrorist activity.
Imam mosque (also called Shah mosque) in Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
Surprisingly, a quick check will reveal the reverse. There’s plenty to support that the country wants nothing to do with either group, and even contributes to fights against them. Of all the listed known offenders, none of them are Iranians, with plenty coming from neighbouring Iraq and Saudi Arabia instead. Don’t let that one letter fool you – Iran is not Iraq. Trump says otherwise of course, but you know – it’s Trump.
This Muslim country is beautiful beyond measure, and as a non-Muslim, I’ve been shown welcome and love. If anyone is a role model of their faith, it’s the Iranians. And the monuments say it all.
The architectural masterpieces take my breath away. From the shimmering Shah Cheragh, the kaleidoscope that is Nasir Ol Mulk, the kitschy Azadi Tower to the grand fountain-filled Naqsh-e Jahan square, sacred geometry, colours, light and sound reflect the message of peaceful worship and makes every visitor part of the all-inclusive divine experience.
The shimmering Shah Cheragh—Iran’s Emerald Mosque.
The UN’s decision to lift the sanctions has shown an increasing number of travelers how wrong popular belief is. Every visitor I met echoes the same – Iran is unexpected, and happily so.
The grand fountain-filled Naqsh-e Jahan square.
Yes, it’s far from perfect and it’s still a theocracy, but trust me, even with wads of cash on me (because cross-border financial institutions are still being set in place), I have never felt safer anywhere else – even in Singapore.
A typical day at a local bazaar.
Be afraid of the truth
So here’s the thing about Iran. It’s not what you think it is. It’s not desert, war, strife and depravity. It’s a country with a rich poetic culture, stunning monuments and sites, delicious food and citizens with an unfailing hospitality and smile.
Traditional Iranian souvenirs in a market.
Be prepared to be blown away, in the best possible way.
First published: Epoch Times, Singapore