Iran is a surprising destination in every way. Most people like myself probably grew up with visions of Iran being dark, unwelcoming and dangerous, and one of the last countries on our holiday list. If I listened to advice from family and friends who still have this perception of Iran, I would never have gone.
After having recently explored the country independently for 3 weeks, I have found that it is just the opposite.
Iran has to be seen to be believed. You need to be with the people to understand their incredible generosity and welcoming nature. Not to mention the magnificent mosques, domes and minarets dotted around the country.
I learned a great deal about this country by speaking with the locals and staying in their homes to gain a real insight into their culture.
Here are five of the most surprising things I learned from travelling in Iran.
Iranian people are among the friendliest and most giving people I’ve ever met.
Iranian people do not fit the stereotypical image that we are led to believe from the media. You will be stopped in the street to ask what country you are from and then in the next breath you will receive an invite to dinner. If this happens, my advice is to just say ‘yes’. It will enrich your experience and give you a different perspective of the Iranian people who are very curious to hear what you think about their country.
Plus, the food in their homes was the best I ate in the entire country. I was lucky to experience a ‘religious holiday’ in the city of Mashad whilst I was there. I was so humbled to see that people will rush over to you in the streets or in cars passing by to give you food such as cake, ice-cream and iced chocolate drinks. They call it ‘nazri’. I’ve never seen such generous acts of kindness.
Government ban on social media and communications
The government have banned online news sites such as BBC and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in Iran. This doesn’t mean that Iranians can’t and won’t access it to stay in the loop.
They use VPN software to hack these sites. Satellite television is also banned, but receiver dishes are seen everywhere on tops of houses and businesses so Iranians can watch TV series from America or other neighboring countries.
Alcohol is forbidden
Alcohol is banned in the entire country. There are harsh penalties from police if you are found consuming alcohol or are found intoxicated in public.
I met a young man at a dinner party one evening who showed me a photo of the outcome when he was found intoxicated by the police. He had a photo of his back with 18 lashes in total, handed out by the police. He had purchased some home made ‘wine’ from friends to celebrate a relative’s birthday. I learned that it is common for Iranians to make wine by distilling fruit such as grapes or plums to produce the very potent liquor.
Mandatory hijab for Women
While official dress codes are very strict, many young Iranians, particularly in major cities such as Tehran, push the boundaries of what is acceptable. Younger women wear the mandatory hijab (headscarf) on the very back of their head, and squeeze into super tight coats that barely cover the bottom. A full face of makeup is commonly applied to enhance features of the face as this is the only canvas left to display self-expression and beauty. I had several casual conversations with many women that I met who explained that if given the choice, they’d prefer to dress ‘western’ and lose the scarf.
It is a misconception that all women must wear the black ‘chador’. It isn’t compulsory and many women do so for several reasons including respect for others, religious devotion and cultural tradition. On a daily basis, I’d watch in awe as women would master the skill of wearing the chador while managing several tasks at once. Countless times I’d witness women jumping onto the public bus, re-adjusting the chador, tucking it under one arm, digging into their handbag (which is somewhere under there) to fetch a bus card whilst managing to hold a baby or child as well as cradle a basket of fresh flatbread.
The Nose-job Capital of the World
Iran has the highest rate of nose surgery in the world per capita. A Band-Aid over the nose can almost be classed as an extra fashion accessory. I noticed many women proudly displaying this look walking though shopping malls and downtown, I’m sure just hours after leaving the surgery.
Would you travel to Iran? Tell us in the comments!