Iran was not what I was expecting or anticipating it to be. What was the basis for my expectations? I have already alluded in another post to the travel advice concerning Iran from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which was negative. According to that advice, I was half-expecting to be chased down the road by an angry-looking mullah (آخوند /akh’und/), intent on berating me for being both British and a not-very-good Christian. I had a vision in my mind of people who would look at me suspiciously just for possessing a pocket camera.
These expectations, these assumptions, proved to be completely false. Instead I can state that no Iranian, on my first trip or any other, has ever shown me even the slightest animosity at all. Invariably they have been polite and friendly. They have been curious about me. They have asked me whether I like Iran. They ask me and tell me more about English football teams than I know, which is not difficult as I do not follow football and hence know nothing. Iranians seem to like Chelsea, Manchester United, and Alex Ferguson.
I saw some mullahs here and there. I passed one and could see that he knew I was obviously a foreigner, and he didn’t even blink. On later trips, when my Persian language skills were better, I talked to a few mullahs. I found them to be intelligent conversationalists. None has ever been impolite to me. None has ever tried to convert me to Islam, nor denigrated Christianity to me. On the contrary – they have always been very welcoming. At times they made sure I was offered a glass of tea.
Iran is not possessed of some bizarre culture. It is a different culture which has grown from one of the world’s oldest civilisations. But it is not an alien culture. It is a rich and friendly culture. Iran is a mixture of old traditions, Islam, and modernity. It is not just one of these.
On my first visit I enjoyed myself. I wasn’t quite at home mostly due to my poor Persian language skills. This is the inevitable result of trying to learn a foreign language in a two hour class once a week. Progress in such conditions is very slow.
Mass tourism is a double-edged sword
Not being an anthropologist I can hardly state this with certainty, but I sense that Iran has a unique culture, which by reason of its geography and history is between looking East and looking West rather looking between East and West. It is connected to both, but it is not quite either one or the other; it is separate. Iran is an Indo-European country, meaning it has both aspects in its history and identity, but it is neither fully one or the other.
There are things that can be done to improve and promote tourism in Iran, but I would detest seeing Iran change for the sake of tourism. I would not want to see a theme park version of Iran, where everything is sugar-coated and artificial and squeaky clean, with perfectly groomed staff offering insincere greetings to the next coach load of visitors.
Iran is such a large country that trying to visit all the great sites could easily take years. So one suspects that most travellers on organised tours go to the main tourist cities of Shiraz, Esfahan, and Yazd, and probably a couple of days seeing the major museums in Tehran. That is fine as far as it goes, but it really doesn’t go very far at all. Esfahan in summer in a dry year with a dry river, for example, loses some of its grandeur. Meanwhile in the northwest of Iran, near Tabriz, or in the north, around the Mazandaran (or Caspian) Sea everything is green like the United Kingdom. Consequently the ability at short notice to change an organised tour to something more pleasing is, in my view, important.
The one thing I didn’t like about Iran
… was the driving, or rather the way in which most Iranian drivers drive. On the whole it was bad, and that is my typical British understatement. It was actually on a scale from not too bad to obscenely bad, and the average was just bad. Even now, in 2019, this is far and above any other thing concerning Iran from which I take umbrage. So in the process of being fair I think I should relate some of the bad behaviour which I see multiple times on a daily basis.
Red traffic lights appear to be advisory, and that advice is barely accepted. If a light has just changed to red, well it’s only just changed so a few more cars through the junction. For motorcycles, red lights may as well not exist at all. Silly you for thinking they should stop.
Apparently it was Mark Twain who wrote that ‘a German joke is no laughing matter’. Pedestrian crossings do exist all over the place in Tehran (and elsewhere in Iran), but crossing them is a joke, and not a funny one. Pedestrian crossings are in truth places to be nearly run over, rather than safe places to cross. Approximately 99% of cars do not stop at pedestrian crossings, they sort of slow down by about 2 miles per hour. Pedestrians are expected to weave their way through a river of moving cars. This can be very disconcerting.
Pavements are for motorcycles too apparently, and if you are a pedestrian you will have to accept this. All kinds of light goods are delivered throughout Tehran by motorcycle dispatch riders called ‘peyks’ (پیک). This is a quick, cheap, and reasonably efficient way to get something delivered to you wherever you are. I have used them for books. Alas these peyks will use the pavement where possible or when it is more convenient. Although I understand it, it is also not good.
In 2019, to encourage Tehranis to ride bicycles, on certain wide roads there are now some bicycle lanes which have low barriers to prevent cars from ‘accidentally’ using them. This is terrific, though realistically Tehran is not an ideal city for cycling – it is built on the slope of a mountain, so going riding towards the north will be good exercise for cyclists but also somewhat hard work. But riding across the city is possible. I approve of the idea, and it perhaps long overdue. It would be excellent in a city like Yazd for tourists in the old part of the city. So it was to my dismay, but not to my surprise, that in Karim Khan Zand street where one of these bicycle lanes exists, I saw motorcycle after motorcycle using the restricted bicycle lane.
To better illustrate the scale of the bad driving, I will mention some relative figures. In the United Kingdom, with our population of about 62 million, we suffer about 2,000 road deaths per year. Iran, with a population of about 80 million has 16,000 road deaths per year. This means Iran has a road death rate about 6 times more than the UK with the adjusted figures. So the bad driving is not just my imagination and exuberance. It is a sad truth for all of those in Iran who have lost family members to bad driving. It’s not the fault of the roads, which are in general in good condition. It’s not the fault of the cars. It is the fault of bad drivers. It annoys me day in and day out, as I have to cross roads to reach my destination.
If one visits Iran with an open mind, one can truly experience a different and possibly unique culture. Relatively few Westerners visit Iran today, yet it is a country full of history and great tourist sites. That is a great loss, one feels, both for the West (in general) and for Iran. It is a tremendous mistake for Iran to become unknown (ناشناخته /na’she’nākh’te/) to the West, but one fears that is gradually happening.
One can always find a reason not to do something, and often this reason is based on the opinion or comment of somebody who has also not done that thing – they are not speaking from experience. My experiences in Iran have always been positive.