Tehran, Iran

The past couple of days, I’ve talked about how my expectations were completely changed by visiting Iran. That still meant I needed to be alert of my surroundings and what was going on, but could relax into the culture more than I thought I was going to.

This was all made possible by some of the amazing things I saw in my three days there. Much like Buddhism and Bhutan, Islam is integrated into the very fabric of Iran. But where Buddhism was completely foreign to me, there are many elements of Islam that are similar to the Judeo-Christian culture that I’m used to. While a nation integrated with Christianity would be different in practice, it would be much more similar to how Islam is a fundamental foundation of Iran than Buddhism is with Bhutan.

Our time spent in Tehran broke pretty cleanly into three separate days: we saw many of the museums and history on the first day, we had a chance to travel outside of Tehran on the second, and the final day was spent with some of the more cultural aspects of the country.

We spent the majority of the first day looking at the history of the area and pre-revolution aspects of the country. We visited the archeological museum, saw the crown jewels of Iran’s previous monarchs, and viewed some of the glassware and ceramics the country had created throughout its history. All of this was inherently interesting to the history major in me, but perhaps what was most interesting was how little of this had to do with the current regime. After the revolution of 1979, Iran moved from a monarchy to an Islamic theocracy. The assumption of many westerners is that the current rulers have an iron clad hold on society and culture. While there are many clear efforts to erasing some of the more political aspects of the previous forms of government, it’s not been at the expense of the history.

The second day happened to be a Monday, when most of the museums were closed. I’d mentioned to the guide that I really enjoyed skiing back in the U.S., so he suggested we get out of the city, see some of the country, and head out to one of the 19 ski resorts in the nation. With only three days in Iran, we weren’t going to get to see Shiraz or Persepolis, so it was good to see something other than the constant sprawl of Tehran. This particular mountain was amazing. I’m used to skiing in the eastern United States, this one was reminiscent of the ones you see elsewhere. No matter how high we went up, the ski area just seemed to expand. While I wasn’t able to get out on the slopes for this trip, going to this ski resort alone makes me want to come back to Iran.

The third and final day we had an opportunity to not only see some of the current aspects of the culture, but got to experience some pre-revolution aspects, as well. We visited the palace complex of the pre-revolution kings earlier in the day and saw the grand bazaar and a mosque later in the day. After the history lessons of the first day (and morning of the third day) and the scenic views of the second day, it was interesting to get a better idea of how the Iranian people lived.

The one thing that subverted my pre-visit expectations the most was our apparent ability to move about freely within the country. While there were certain things we couldn’t take pictures of and certain places we weren’t allowed to visit, those felt more like the exceptions rather than rules. We couldn’t move absolutely freely, but it sure did feel pretty close to it.

Another thing I’d expected, but was happy to find, was that the Iranian people were very kind and decent. While visiting the tallest tower in Iran, we paused to watch the sun set over the western part of the city. While chatting with our guide, a family sitting near us had opened a package of cookies and brought them over to us. While we didn’t speak the same language, we all bonded over the beautiful scenery and the delicious deserts they offered.

In the markets, I felt someone touch my arm from behind. I turned to see a smiling middle-aged man asking where I was from. I told him I was from the United States and his smile widened. He thanked me for taking the time to come to his home country to see the differences between what was reported and how things actually were. He asked me to please come back anytime I could and gave me many well wishes before I left.

It doesn’t surprise me that individuals are this kind; I honestly believe that most people treat guests this way. But what surprised me was how outspoken and outgoing everyone was about it. They seemed genuinely happy that I was there.

Three days was not enough to see everything nor form a complete picture of the entire country1, but as may be expected, the feelings of the people do not necessarily reflect the policies of the government. Military installations with high barbwire fences and signs forbidding photography line the streets of the city. A giant mural depicting an American flag made of bombs and skulls enveloped the side of a building. Pictures of Obama and some of Iran’s most despised enemies filled giant posters. Nothing ever felt menacing and no direct threats were ever explicitly stated, but it was a sobering reminder of where we were.

The third day ended with Mike and I being taken to one of the local billiard halls. In another country, a guide may take you to a bar that locals frequent to give you a sense of culture. With the strict ban on alcohol in Iran, we were taken to play pool. It was one of the places where locals socially gathered on weekends. We were surrounded by some incredible billiards players (including a four-time world champion!) and were kindly, but knowingly given tutorials on how to play. Mike and I joined up on teams and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours laughing and trash-talking with some of the best billiards players in the world.

The day ended with our guide taking us back to our hotel amidst loud booms and fires being set around the city. It wasn’t anything nefarious, rather it was in celebration of the new year. The Iranian calendar is centered around the spring equinox; the Sunday-Tuesday we were in the country were some of the last days of the year. This night in particular was the fire festival, which occurs on the last Tuesday of the year. The festival consists of setting off fireworks and making fires around the city. This is done to let the angels know it’s time to bring the spring.

The new year celebration was a perfect ending to our time in Iran. It encapsulated the fears before entering the country, morphing into the joy of experiencing a culture that was legitimately happy to have us there. Any fear of the unknown was quickly swept away by the joyous demeanor of the people.

There’s a lot of things that are worrisome about Iran that I hope I haven’t glossed over in the past few days. There are still very legitimate problems with the government and the way everything is set up there. There’s a reason why I’ve chosen not to dwell on these problems. Not because I want to diminish the seriousness of the issues in play, but because I never heard the side of the story I experienced while in the country. While acknowledging the very deeply ingrained problems of the society, I want to shine a light on the goods things that are also happening there. Those are things that we never hear about.

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  1. I haven’t gotten into, nor am I remotely qualified to comment on, the treatment of women in Iran. But, it was apparent that Mike and I being men made things significantly easier

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Iran: Use the Spoon

Maps are an interesting concept. Their use and value are undeniable; when you’re in one place and trying to get to another, unless you’ve been that way before, a map is a necessity. But once you get where you’re going, a map is fairly useless. Sure, you can pinpoint yourself as being in this exact spot, but honestly, what does that get you?

Our culture pays a lot of attention to maps, mainly as a demarcation between areas. We’re conditioned to think of things as different because they’re on separate areas of a map, but drop someone in an unknown place, they’re more likely to look for similarities than differences.

After my expectations of Iran were shattered, I needed to reset how I was going to act in this place. Everything I’d expected, everything I’d been told, was different from the reality I was experiencing. I was used to looking at a map and being told that this area was bad and this area was good. But from where I was standing it looked a lot like what I was used to. Despite what my senses were telling me about the people I was meeting, I still needed to be aware of where I was. While the culture was different than expected, there was no evidence that the rules and laws I’d been taught were equally false. I needed to learn how to accept this culture, but at the same time, be aware of my surroundings.

The first decision I made, was to act as natural with the people as I could, but be weary of the details I was giving out. This meant I would interact with whomever and not be afraid to tell them I was American (if they asked), but not talk about the politics of Iran and not turn on any of my electronic devices. Instinctively, I knew that the feelings of the Iranian people were not synonymous with those of their government, but actual confirmation was a major turning point in how I expected my time in Iran to play out. As the euphoria from the previous day wore off, I needed to keep in mind that I was still in a country where I had to assume that my every move was being monitored. It didn’t mean that I had to suppress all elements of my personality, but it did mean that I needed to make sure to be careful of what I said or did.

Most importantly though, I could relax. Where I thought I would have to be on constant guard for everything I was doing, I could instead feel my way through this culture. That doesn’t mean I’m not alert, but it does mean that I can let it go a bit in my interactions, that I don’t have to adhere to the predetermined opinions I have; I’m free to go with whatever the Iranian culture dictates.

During dinner on the first night, I enjoyed kebabs and rice at a local restaurant. As I’d been taught to do in restaurants, I placed my napkin in my lap, used my knife to cut the meat, and my fork to relay the rice and chicken to my mouth.

Spoons are a weird thing. To me, their use is limited to soups and other liquids that don’t belong in a cup. Even ice cream is solid enough to use a fork to eat. That probably comes from our general cultural feeling that while spoons are useful, forks should be you go-to utensil while eating. About halfway through dinner, our Iranian guide told me that Iranians use the spoon to cut through the tender meat and to shovel it and the rice. As odd as it was, just using the spoon felt right and it was much easier to eat the food with it. Cutting through years of cultural reinforcement to use the knife and fork to eat, I let go of all I knew and was convinced: use the spoon.

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Iran: All Different, All Relative

It’s difficult to place Iran into context within the rest of our trip. Tourists visit Australia, Nepal, and even Bhutan, but the idea of going to Iran was completely different. We needed to reconcile not only our families’ and friends’ expectations for this swing of our trip, but also our expectations for it. When we have a leader that explicitly labels a place as evil, how do I even begin a conversation about going to that place? How do I reassure people that it’s OK to visit there? How do I reassure myself?

We scheduled a visit to Iran on this trip not only because it was a place we wanted to see, but also because it made logistical sense. Since the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, the process of getting a visa and booking a flight made more sense in the context of a larger trip, than one specifically for it. And to be perfectly honest, going to a place not that many people had experienced was particularly appealing to me. We have experiences for ourselves, but we also have experiences so that we can share them with others. The thought of being able to tell people– first hand– about life in Iran held some kind of sway over me.

Expectations are a funny thing. They exist, but only temporarily. And they’re neverendingly in flux. They’re constantly molded by new information, by changes in what we want, or by actually experiencing the thing we expect. Sometimes we place a false kind of hope into these expectations–think of the way that you rehearse talking to that girl you like and how you expect her to respond. And sometimes we expect the worst, so that when it happens our expectations are either met or exceeded.

The first thing we did when we entered Iran was wait; wait in a long line for customs. Several people stood in front of us with passports of different colors, but there were only two who held passports with that unmistakable dark navy color. One by one, people filtered through this bottleneck and one by one they all made it through. Until Mike made it to the front.

Things were immediately different as soon as Mike handed the customs agent that dark-blue passport. A different tone, a different timber took the air. I stood– next in line– watching the whole thing unfold. Everything was a bit more formal, a bit more deliberate. After about five minutes, the agent took Mike off to the side and asked if I could come up to the booth. Similarly, I handed him my documentation and similarly, he pulled me off to the side to join Mike in some kind of customs purgatory.

Different agents looked at our passports and each handed them to someone who was clearly more senior. Eventually the chain ended and we were asked to step into a small white room in the back of the area. In it, stood an older-model Windows computer attached to scanners that were clearly meant for fingerprints. An agent asked Mike to come forward. In a blend of English and Farsi, he was fingerprinted and his documents were checked, not only against every database the computer could throw against it, but also for every stamp in his passport.1

As the agent asked me to come forward, it was clear that based on the information he’d gotten on Mike, his tone had changed; it was a bit different, a bit lighter. He quickly ran through all the information he could find on me, but as he handed my passport back there was a kind of a knowing smile. A nod to the fact that he wasn’t sure why we would want to put ourselves through this, but everything had checked out, and he was fine with whatever it was we were doing.

We sat in a central waiting area as officials looked through the information that agent had gleaned. After several more minutes, the agent who was clearly in charge waived us over. With a big smile on his face, he gave back our passports and held out his hand:

welcome to Iran.

We filed out of customs, rode the escalator down to the main terminal and approached the exit. Waiting with a “Jordan Wadlington, Michael Turner”2 sign, a young, Iranian man, with rimless glasses and hair down to his shoulders waived us over

welcome to Iran.

What followed over the course of the next three days was stunning. Our expectations were completely shattered. We didn’t expect to be treated poorly, but we didn’t expect to be treated as we did: as old friends visiting after a long period away. The people we met, the people we saw, all greeted us with a mix of humility and wonderment; a general air of acceptance and awe. Who were these Americans that took the time to see how we lived?

I have so much to say about Iran, so many examples of kindness and goodwill that I could write another thousand words over it. But instead of doing it now, I’m going to support what I’ve said here with examples in the coming days. Any fear, any worry, I had coming into this trip evaporated when I actually met the people. I just hope that I make that clear over the next few days.

In 1954, Issa and Abdullah, two Iranian brothers, set forth on motorcycles from Tehran to see the world. After seven years of crossing the burning deserts of Africa, the dense forests of the Amazon, the harsh climate of the Antarctic, and the vast expanses of Asia the two brothers returned home to Iran. They’d seen everything, met with everyone, and came to a satisfying conclusion: “All different, all relative”.

  1. We were told going into this that we wouldn’t be allowed into Iran if we had an Israeli stamp in our passports. This was no joke. The first thing every agent did was skim through the stamps in our passports.
  2. Again, the misspelling of my name is culturally agnostic

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