Losing its Veil – 10 days in Iran

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Iran’s isolation from global society in the last few decades has largely rendered its society undefined and its people unknown, particularly amongst minds in the West. The process of moulding and shaping perceptions of Iran and its people has been left to the whim of western media, which has undoubtedly failed to depict Iran in its true light. As a result, first-hand, on-the-ground accounts of Iran and its people often bill themselves as expository pieces, typically with titles in the lexical vicinity of Beneath the Veil or Unmasking Iran.  

What I saw in Iran is a country in the incipient stages of economic, political and social modernisation. But for a country that, for so long, has been both voluntarily and coercively isolated from global society, it is inevitable that forces of change are being counteracted by forces of stagnation, fuelled by proponents of tradition and conservatism. With the lifting of sanctions and increased efforts to integrate Iran into the global community, from both the Iranian government and the global community itself, what is becoming increasingly apparent is that Iran is no longer cloaked by some banal, metaphorical veil, undiscoverable and hidden from sight. Iran is there to be known and learnt about, as long as you are willing to do so. And you should, because what I saw in Iran in the short period of 10 days is one of the most beautiful, fascinating, captivating, welcoming and intellectually stimulating countries I have ever visited.

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For many people, Iran conjures up scenes of angry mobs, embassy gates being stormed and the sounds of shrieking and chanting – Death to America! Death to Israel!

In the minds of many, today’s Iran is perceived as the Iran of a previous era – violent, angry, fundamentalist, chaotic – no more than a terrorist state with a invariably violent population hell-bent on securing weapons of mass destruction to destroy the West.

My recent trip to Iran has taught me that this common perception of Iran is simply, and undoubtedly, a false one.

The trip was organised by Grimshaw, the International Relations Society at my university, LSE. I travelled with 11 fellow LSE students, ages ranging from 19-25, from 1st year undergrads to final year postgrads. Degree programmes include IR, Development Studies, Government, A&F and Political Economy.

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Our group of 12 typified any LSE delegation in that 10 different nationalities were represented – from China to Belgium, Russia to Trinidad & Tobago.

The make-up of our group certainly enhanced the experience of the trip in that the cultural, social and ethnic diversity was conducive to truly internationalist, multi-disciplinary and multifaceted discussions about Iran and its plethora of fascinating issues. It was a privilege to share ideas with highly intellectual people in what was a hugely educational and enriching 10 days of my life. A Grimshaw trip is worth going on just for the amazing people you travel with.

Our diversity was also a frequent source of amusement, for both ourselves and the local Iranians we met. When asked where we were from (a common enquiry in Iran where foreigners are few and far between), we would have to point to each person and, one-by-one, whittle down the list of countries we each call home. Often, at the end of this exercise, the local asking the question would be wide-eyed, mouth agape, in disbelief at what probably feels like a world geography test at school.

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taxi driver + proud father

Our momentary rests in the middle of streets would often transform us from tourists into objects of study, akin to museum exhibits. Locals walking past would stare, unabashedly, eyes moving from one foreigner to the next. Some even studied us at close quarters, as if Martians have landed on the footsteps of their shops. For many locals, seeing any foreigners is surprising enough; seeing different types of foreigners in one viewing must be another level of surprise entirely.

Hijab in Iran

The most blatant difference, at least visually, between Iranian society and the societies we originate from lies in the fact that women can only reveal their faces and hands in public in Iran. Since 1979, the year of their Islamic revolution, laws dictate that women must cover up by wearing hijab – regardless of one’s religion, ethnicity or nationality. As such, the female members of our group had to cover up in public for the entirety of the trip, often a tough task to endure, especially during the hotter and more physically challenging days of our itinerary.

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women in chador (pic not mine)

There exists a huge diversity in levels of adherence to hijab laws in Iran. In Tehran, the capital city and the first city we visited, we observed the majority of women wearing colourful headscarves, often hanging precariously at the back of their heads to reveal most of their hair. This arrangement was often supplemented by, especially for young people, tight jeans, ¾ sleeve shirts and painted nails.

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Swag

On the other end of the hijab scale are women smothered in the traditional chador – a long black veil running from head to toe which envelops the entire body. We saw that this traditional adherence to strict Islamic law is more commonly found in Shiraz, the second city we visited, which is located in the more conservative south of the country.

Seeing a train of chadored women saunter across a street is like watching shadows in motion. The harsh and jarring black comprehensively covers the entire surface of the women, oft creating the paradox of emphasising the movements of the cloaked women rather than fulfil the intended function of concealing them, especially in bright sunlit streets. Locking eyes with a woman in a chador is a somewhat unnerving experience, their eyes being the only body part available to be seen, yet so commonplace in Iran that it loses its shock value quickly, almost out of necessity.

The disparity between strictly worded hijab laws and the reality of how women dress in their daily lives is enormous. This disparity between law and reality is a recurring theme of our experience in Iran. It exists too with alcohol and drugs, the consumption and trafficking of which are both punishable by death. Before the trip, at least for some of us, one of the chief concerns with a 10 day trip in Iran was the 10 days of sobriety it entailed. However, as it turned out, this concern was quickly rendered irrelevant. As our informed tour guide in Tehran, told us, if really desired, it would take him “3 minutes to get marijuana and 30 minutes for alcohol”. Inexplicably, his offers went unclaimed – though it was tempting, for me at least.

The Capital City

The first three days of our trip was spent in Tehran, home to 9 million people and the largest city in Iran. It is a smothering concoction of fast-moving pedestrians, smog-filled air, drab cubic buildings and unrelenting traffic. What it lacks in breathable air it makes up for with refreshingly welcoming and kind people.

An undeniable highlight of the trip was a taxi journey across Tehran, with five of us crammed into a small Toyota. Sitting in the front seat, I was made to engage in a typical taxi chitchat with an extremely loquacious driver – despite not having a common language to communicate in. My attempts to explain my inability to speak Farsi, the most commonly spoken language in Iran, fell on deaf ears. The driver never stopped talking to me, which proved incredibly amusing for my four fellow travellers in the back who found immense entertainment in my ordeal.

What we all learned on this taxi journey was just how much can be understood without a mutually known language. Merely using hand gestures and very broken English and Farsi, we succeeded in telling the driver where we were from, and even our names. Incredibly, when I and a compatriot on the trip told him our country of origin, he uttered his first words of English, and very likely the only three English words he knows: “Made in China!” In the midst of the incredible laughter that ensued, I thought: this really is soft power in action.

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made in china!

In the middle of our taxi journey, the driver stops in front of a young Iranian woman, who is hailing ferociously in the rain (it is common in Iran for strangers to share taxis). She gestures at me, I roll down my window and in perfect English, she says:

“Hi. I’m a Muslim, so I should not sit next to a man I am not married to. Can your male friend sit with you in the front?”

As such, our male friend Zo had to come to the front and sit on my lap, while the newly acquainted Iranian woman slides into the back. The total number of people in the small Toyota is now seven.

The woman’s name is Hoda. She’s a student at the University of Tehran, studying media. Her smile brims and her laugh infectious. She’s fascinated to hear where we all come from, what we’ve done so far and how we feel about Iran. She tells us about her plans to pursue postgraduate studies in America and a career in journalism. I love America, she exclaims.

Our taxi arrives at our destination, and as we say our goodbyes with Hoda, she gives us her Instagram name, and asks that we all add her on the image-sharing platform. She then insists on taking selfies with us, and asks that we tag her in any pictures we post. In our short encounter with her, I noticed a split identity, where her reluctance to be seen sitting next to men and her request that she sit just with females contradict the bright, confident America-lover eagerly advertising her Instagram page, whose propensity for selfies exceed even some of the most camera-friendly members of our delegation. In meeting Hoda, I saw a brief glimpse of the conflicts between forces of tradition and modernisation that exists in Iranian society today, and the contradictions that arises from these conflicts.

 

UNESCO

On our 2nd day in Tehran, we visited the UNESCO office in Tehran. We had a very interesting meeting with the director of the office, an inspiring woman named Esther Laroche, who gave us a presentation detailing the work that they do in Iran as well as in Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The meeting was interesting not least for the simple fact that it was allowed to happen by the Iranian government. The original plan for the trip included many political meetings and events, such as visiting the UK and Russian embassies in Tehran, the Centre for Strategic Research and meeting with UN Development Programme officials. None of these plans came into fruition, as we had to scrap them due to repeated warnings not to engage in political activities from the Iranian authorities. However, the one meeting that remained from the original itinerary was this meeting with UNESCO.

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We asked the director why she thought this meeting was given the green light, and she suggested that it perhaps has to do with UNESCO being a consultative agency that gives advice and specialised expertise to local policy makers, in contrast to UN Development Programme which is focused more on shaping and driving policy. Moreover, another aspect of UNESCOs work that perhaps favours UNESCO over their UN counterpart in the minds of the Iranian authorities is the work they do with regards to World Heritage Sites. Iran has 19 such sites and they are, rightfully, proud to have international recognition of their rich cultural heritage. What this means is that the Iranian authorities are keen to maintain a healthy relationship with UNESCO because of the fact that they want more of their cultural landmarks recognised as World Heritage Sites. In fact, the Iranians have close to 50 sites already on a tentative list they plan on nominating in the future.

It was fascinating to hear the director talk about the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are the set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states are expected to use as guidelines and blueprints for the next 15 years. A special point to note was her emphasis on the distinction the goals make between literacy and functional literacy, an especially important distinction to make for developing countries like Iran where the surprising statistic that 85% of its population is literate can mask deeper problems in terms of functional literacy, which is defined as literacy levels adequate for fulfilling daily living and employment tasks. Basic literacy is no longer a reliable measure of a population’s ability to cope with the demands of today’s world. Rather, efforts must focus on translating basic literacy into widespread functional literacy in order to give people the skills they need to flourish in today’s increasingly globalised, educated and interconnected world.

Furthermore, she emphasised the importance of taking into account indigenous knowledge and culture in the long-term process of achieving the goals. Culture is identity, she reiterated again and again, and hence it is important that efforts to improve local conditions and circumstances are done alongside efforts to recognise and celebrate local culture and tradition, as UNESCO does with their World Heritage programme. Culture, she posited, is the basis for peace and sustainable development; inter-cultural dialogue is the key to fostering harmony amongst people. I couldn’t agree more with what she said.

University of Tehran

The director of UNESCO revealed that the words Human Rights are nowhere to be found in the wording of the Sustainable Development Goals. She explained that this was for pragmatic reasons, because many countries, including most in the Middle East, believe that the term has been cynically politicised by the West to use as a tool to hit them with whenever it suits their political agendas. The topic of Iran and human rights is one that we further explored when we visited the University of Tehran, on the 3rd day of our stay in the city.

At the university, we had a meeting at the Faculty of World Studies with Mahdi Ahouie (Head of Iranian Studies), Mohammad Saeedabadi (Professor of British Studies), and a group of current students in the faculty. The faculty was established in 2007 as the first academic institution in Iran that provides postgraduate programmes focussed on countries and regions around the world. The degree programmes at the faculty are based on studies of individual countries or regions, such as British Studies, Indian Studies and North American studies. The mission of the faculty is to “bridge Iranians and the outside world”. Studies are inter-disciplinary in nature, which means that students not only study the politics of their countries but also the cultural, economic and social elements. It was nice to hear that they are planning to create a Chinese Studies programme, in anticipation of increased economic and political ties between Iran and China.

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a lot of countries being represented

Cleo, the compatriot in our group, asked the university professors about the future of human rights in Iran, highlighting the problems that China has with the issue. Saeedabadi, an extremely eccentric man, responded to the question by arguing that the issue of human rights has become too politicised, echoing the sentiments of the UNESCO director. Moreover, he also asserted that the West, specifically the UK and the USA, have been hypocritical in their advocacy for human rights improvements in countries like Iran and other Middle Eastern countries because they themselves have committed human rights abuses, highlighting the infamous examples of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo: “Before they tell us to improve our human rights, they must clean up themselves first!” He then went on to decry the blatant double standards being applied by the West, specifically with regards to the cosy relationship many western countries have with Saudi Arabia.

I agreed with almost everything he said. The West has shot itself in the foot by 1) not applying human rights standards consistently across all countries and 2) committing egregious human rights offences themselves, particularly the United States. However, none of this is of any relevance to the question of whether Iran commits human rights abuses, the question being asked by Cleo. Yes, the United States has been far from perfect in its human rights record – Abu Ghraib was disgraceful and Guantanamo is a national embarrassment – but Iran’s human rights record exists independently of the human rights records of other countries. To imply that Iran will only improve its human rights issues when the west improves theirs is to be dishonest and insincere. It was an extraordinary display of casuistry that I hope my fellow travellers could see through.

The Qashqai

On the fourth day, A 12 hour night bus transported us from north to south, taking us to the capital of Fars province, Shiraz, home to 1.5 million people. The city is known for its beautiful gardens and flowers, the jewel of its crown being Eram Garden which is a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, we were not able to enjoy fully the great scenery around us when we visited the garden.

My highlight of our time in Shiraz was our visit to a Qashqai tribe in the highlands of the outskirts of Shiraz. The Qashqai are semi-nomadic people who spends most of their summers around Shiraz, and winters close to the Persian Gulf. Not all Qashqai are, but the particular tribe we visited were pastoralists, meaning that they raise livestock such as goats.

Upon our arrival at the campsite, we were greeted by a woman donning a traditional Qashqai costume – a fluorescent mixture of yellow, green and red that sharply contrasted the dull colours in the streets of Iran that we had seen on the trip so far. As she greeted us, she circled a smoke-emitting censer around all of our heads. As we learnt later, this was part of a traditional Iranian ritual where Wild Rue seeds (or Esphand) are burnt so that its smoke can be used to ward off the evil eye, the malevolent curse that exists in many different cultures around the world.

We watched the herdsman direct their goats back to the pen, after a day of grazing. One of the herdsman was a very young boy, around 10 or 11, whose adeptness and unfazed demeanour whilst shouting at, hitting and commanding the goats was immensely impressive.

Subsequently, we watched on as these goats were milked. First, an elderly woman sits herself at a corner of the pen, with a bucket filled with a bubbly liquid which filters the milk. Then, the young boy and other herdsman would drag somewhat unwilling goats to the corner where the woman is located, and spin them around so their backsides face the woman. Finally, the woman latches her hands on to the two teats and proceeds to squeeze and turn, until the udder is empty. It really made for fascinating entertainment, so much so that I and others gave it a go too.

 

Isfahan – my favourite city

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On the sixth day, we left Shiraz for Isfahan, home to 1.8 million people. For many of us, Isfahan was the best city out of the three cities we visited in Iran, not just for its mesmerising Persian-Islamic architecture and riverside views, but also for the random strangers we met, the vast majority of whom were incredibly friendly and welcoming.

An example of the city’s infectious energy and spirit was found on our first night in the city, where we strolled along the riverbank of the Zayandeh River and took in incredibly captivating views on top of the beautifully designed Khaju and Si-o-She Pol bridges. In the seemingly perennial archways underneath the Khaju Bridge, families and friends were having dinner on carpets perched on raised platforms, just above the swirling water below. The ambient surroundings provided by the rich golden lights of the bridge made for a beautifully poised mixture of bustle and serenity.

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Shisha, food and drinks in the perennial archways of Khaju Bridge

Walking through these archways, we begin to hear music and the sound of laughter, and so moved ourselves in the direction of where the music was coming from. Bearing down on the source of the music, we found ourselves in the midst of an outdoor party, men only, where an old Iranian man is bellowing the lyrics of a song in the middle of a circle of men, singing and clapping along, whilst young boys run from one side of the circle to the other, excitedly and fervently.

A local, perhaps seeing our slightly perplexed expressions, comes up to us and explains that the gathering is a weekly celebration marking the beginning of the weekend. In Iran, the workweek is from Saturday to Thursday, meaning that they only have one day weekends, on Fridays.

The revelry was a joy to be a part of. It was completely contrary to what I had expected to see in Iran – the rich intonations of the singer, the ubiquitous smiles and laughter. I even saw some men dancing, despite public dancing being a punishable offence. All in all, it was an amazing night – the only misgiving I have is that there was no women involved in the festivities.

 

The Royal Square

A World Heritage Site and the one of the biggest squares in the world, The Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan boasts some of the most visually stunning architectural achievements in the world, including Shah Mosque, a World Heritage Site in its own right, where the biggest congregation for Friday prayers in the city is held.

An experience I will remember for the rest of my life is attending Friday prayers at the magnificent Shah Mosque. To be honest, I was initially quite nervous about the prospects of placing myself in the midst of several thousand Muslims, during Friday prayers, in the biggest mosque in Isfahan, in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As I and my fellow male travellers sat ourselves down in the middle of the vast space where the prayer was being held, I could feel the eyes of many directed at us. In fact, due to a lack of space in the crowded hall and perhaps a collective nervousness on our part which made us reluctant to ask already-seated people to make space for us, we chose to place ourselves in the one place in the entire hall where water was dripping from a leaky spot on the ceiling. Our socks and trousers were getting soaked. Typical of Iranian courtesy and generosity, we were soon rescued by kind men behind us, who tapped our shoulders and invited us to sit next to them. At once, my nerves were calmed. I cannot say how grateful I was and still am for the generosity of those men in that moment of peril.

The moment the prayer begins marks the beginning of a synchronisation of the bodily motions of thousands of men, who only moments ago displayed individual volition. It seemed to me a real life manifestation of the latin phrase E pluribus unum – out of many, one.

The prayer involves thousands of people standing, praying, kneeling and kowtowing in quick succession. Being in the midst of all this was immensely unnerving, the four of us sat conspicuously unmoving and upright in the middle of waves of intense devotion and submission. As such, I felt compelled to follow the actions of the people around me, copying their movements by raising my hands in prayer and kowtowing alongside them. As an atheist who has never kowtowed to anything or anyone before, the entire experience was an immensely fascinating and intellectually stimulating one. It has given me new ideas and thoughts about religion and Islam. But all that is for another post entirely.

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jameh mosque

 

The Food

Iranian food is amazing. Whether it be from fancy, high-class restaurants or from street vendors, what we put in our mouths was invariably delicious, and equally importantly, always cheap.

I probably had kebab in all 10 days of travelling around Iran. Koobideh and jujeh were my favourite dishes in Iran, the former being minced lamb or beef, the latter being grilled chicken marinated in minced onions, lemon juice and saffron.

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kebab 24/7

Speaking of saffron, it seemed to me that everything in Iran was either marinated, seasoned or infused with the spice. Saffron ice cream, saffron rice, saffron chicken – and my favourite, saffron tea.

Equalling saffron in ubiquitousness, Iranians also eat bread with every meal and at every occasion. The two most popular types of bread are called Sangak and Barbari, the former being slightly thinner than the latter. Personally, I was unable to eat plain bread for 10 days straight, but it was not a problem for other people in our group.

There were also some peculiar dishes. Our first meal in Iran was a big bowl of Haleem, a wheat stew. To say it was bland is an understatement. Another memorable dish is Dizi, or Abgoosht, which is a lamb and chickpea stew. The dish is presented with multiple utensils to allow for the consumer to mash the stew so that it solidifies, and is then served with bread.

It must be said that one of the best fast-food meals I’ve ever had was in Isfahan. It was a box of chicken strips and chips which was the best chicken strips and chips I’ve ever eaten. As a frequent patron of Shake Shack and Five Guys in NYC, I have to say that, for me, Iran trumps USA in terms of fast-food.

 

Iranians – the best part about Iran

Without a doubt, the best part about Iran is its people. Below are several anecdotes that I hope can convey to you just how amazing Iranians are. These anecdotes aren’t just mine, but also come from the other LSE students on the trip.

1) The missing shoes

On our first day in Tehran, we visited a small mosque close to Tehran Bazaar. As is custom with every mosque, we had to take off our shoes to enter the area for prayer. Zo, one of the two trip leaders, took off his shoes but, instead of taking them with him, left them in a bag at the entrance. As we prepare to leave the mosque, slipping our shoes back on at the entrance, Zo exclaims: “my shoes are gone”. I see however that he is clutching the bag he placed his shoes in. “The bag is the same, but the shoes are different.” he says, taking out a rather worn-out pair of brown slip-ons. Turns out someone has swapped their shoes for his.

As Zo searches other shoe bags to confirm whether his shoes have in fact been taken, his worried face draws the attention of several Mosque-goers, who join in the frantic search for Zo’s missing shoes. The search party grows in size, as word goes out that a tourist has had his shoes presumably stolen in a Mosque. Discussions are had between mosque leaders, men are sent to notify lost and found sections and people from all around the surrounding square circle in to console and apologise to Zo. In the end, Zo’s shoes were confirmed lost, and he had to resort to wearing the tattered brown slip-ons for the rest of the day. Despite this misfortune, the concern shown by the Mosque-goers and the people from the surrounding square who had heard about the missing shoes and came to help find the shoes was amazing. The generosity and genuine concern for the misfortune of a foreign stranger on display that day is something I won’t forget.

2) Ni Hao

For me and Cleo, Iran was especially memorable for the number of locals who would smile and greet us because we were Chinese. Walking through the streets of Iran, we were often greeted with loudly exclaimed Ni Haos!, people often pointing and shouting “China!” and “I love Chinese!” at us. Moreover, throughout the trip, we were often approached by Iranian locals who would strike up conversations with us in Mandarin.

For example, on the bus to Isfahan from Shiraz, a young man approached both Cleo and I and proceeded to speak to us in Mandarin. His proficiency of the language was not advanced, but nonetheless inspiring for both Cleo and I. Clutching his book of basic Mandarin phrases, he revealed to us that he is a teacher, who is also learning Russian, French and English. Very impressive indeed.

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linguist in the making

 

3) Wedding Crashers

Probably one of the crazier nights we had during our stay in Iran occurred, fittingly, on the last night of the trip in Tehran, just before we made our way to the airport to leave the country. Hungry and eager for food, our tour guide took us into a grand restaurant where the sound of music was blaring so loudly that it could be heard even before we entered the premises. It was reminiscent of a Friday night queuing outside Saucy.

Turns out, the restaurant was holding a wedding celebration. Peeking into the opulent ballroom, hordes of men, all impeccably dressed, were gathered in the middle of a dancefloor, arms in the hair, jumping and singing to what might be best described as a Persian-techno-dubstep beat. Our presence in the building was quickly picked up, and in typical Iranian fashion, we (the men) were rapidly ushered towards the centre of the revelry through an unrelenting process of dragging and pulling (someone even started carrying me), despite our protestations which were all courteously and politely ignored.

Placed on the dancefloor, and suddenly surrounded by dozens of Iranians whose euphoria contradicted the undeniable absence of alcohol in their systems, our shock and bewilderment at the predicament we were in translated into fits of nervous laughter and glances at one another – what the fuck do we do now?

All of a sudden, as if by collective agreement, we decided to dance. Our simultaneous spring into dance was met with cheers and applause – young Iranian kids began filming us with their phones, no doubt in anticipation of uploading the video of us onto Iranian youtube under the title of Crazy Whites and Asian Dance Funny. A moment of hilarity  was when an old man inexplicably grabbed my friend’s scarf, and proceeded to swing it around like a cowboy throwing a lasso. Also, in between all the Persian/Iranian techno beats, Gangnam Style made a somewhat surprising appearance.

All in all, it was a great night, and a fitting ending to what was a brilliant 10 days in Iran. I cannot recommend to you highly enough to consider travelling to Iran. The architecture is mesmerising, the people’s kindness is unparalleled, the food is exquisite and it is safer than many European countries today.

A word of advice: you want to go before the sight of foreign tourists starts to become common in Iran – by then, I don’t think Iranians will be nearly as kind to tourists as they are now.

 

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