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Published: November 16th 2009
For more of my blogs about Iran, please visit Tourist Iran
and Fundamentalist Iran
In the Islamic tradition, guests are considered a gift from God, and must be treated accordingly. This might sound like yet another religion-based principle that sounds good on paper, but in the country of Iran, belief in this regard is put into practice. In the two weeks that I spent traveling across the nation, I was faced with daily examples of warmth and generosity to a degree that I have never encountered anywhere else in the world.
Iranian people are desperately hospitable; at least that is the impression that is left on the visitor, as you are practically fending off near constant invitations for tea, dinner, conversation, and even a place to sleep.
While normally a somewhat reclusive and solitary traveler who enjoys his privacy, for Iran I modified my travel approach. I followed a piece of advice given to me: just say yes. “Do you want tea”? Yes. “Join us for dinner”! Ok. “Where are you going? We will drive you there”. Sure. “Come sleep in our home tonight”. Well, I was on my way to see a few sights but…sure. “Stay two more
nights, and come to my friend’s wedding!” Why not?
The result was that much of my visit to the country was transformed into a people and not sight-based experienced. It is my desire that the faces you see in the accompanying images can attest to that. When you look at these faces, I hope the reader can glimpse a hint of what I did; that is, a window into the soul of a nation that normally is obscured behind a facade of political and religious stereotypes and false conceptions.
Hospitality is such a firmly engrained tradition in Iran that they actually have different words and even non-verbal ways in differentiating between when something is actually free or when they are just saying that it is free to be welcoming and polite, but do in fact expect you to pay. The latter case is referred to as ta’arof
, and it is one of the first things I encountered upon entering Iran from the overland border crossing with Iraq.
The Iraq-Iran border is rarely used by westerners, and so a few fellow Iranian travelers helped me through the formalities and even paid for my taxi ride into the nearest
city. Before continuing on, they delayed their journey to help me find my bus ticket counter and make sure I got on the right bus. After that, I had to wait several hours for my bus, so sat in an adjacent restaurant and had lunch followed with multiple cups of tea. When I finally went to pay, the owner smiled and shook his palm ‘no’ at me. It didn’t even occur to me to accept; I pushed the bills at him again. A third time I tried, and he reluctantly told me how much it was and took the money. It actually cost more than I had expected it to, but I left the encounter feeling uplifted and not ripped off. So this was my first encounter with ta’arof
, and without even yet knowing about it, I guess I did the right thing. I suppose in the west we ‘fight over the bill’ with friends or family, but in Iran this sort of aggressive generosity, but from complete strangers, is the norm.
Many people in the west are afraid of Iran or think it is a dangerous place. This means that few travelers turn up, and the difficulty of
getting a visa coupled with recent protests in the capital means that the stream of visitors on the ground as of late is even thinner. But what this also means for the few that are willing to make a few sacrifices (no shorts for men, enforced headscarf for women, no booze) and come is that there is an even higher ratio of local people to travelers, the latter of whom all want their turn to talk with the foreigner and take you in. Referred to by some travelers as ‘friendnapping’, it can actually border on overwhelming at times, and as bad as I felt for doing it, sometimes I just had to be rude and ignore people who were trying to start conversations with me if I ever wanted to get to the place I was trying to go to!
On top of the usual polite conversations, cups of tea, and free rides, I had a few particularly noteworthy experiences. One was in the famed traveler’s mecca of Iran, beautiful Esfahan. Arriving on the bus there was a bit of an argument between a passenger and the bus driver, resulting in lots of shouting, bad words in Farsi, and
in the end people physically removing the disruptive passenger from the bus. Throughout the incident I had no idea what was happening, and a local girl began translating to me. At one point the people were even arguing about me, the driver yelling to the passenger that he is going to make ‘the foreigner’ think all Iranian people are crazy!
However, I believed the other passengers when they assured me that this was not normal for Iran, and the incident also sparked a new friendship between the girl who had translated for me, Saba, and myself. In the normal manner she helped me to get on my way and find a taxi, but then we ran into each other again the next day by chance in one of the famous Esfahan mosques. It turned out she was (like myself) a photographer and teacher, in Esfahan for the weekend to take pictures and to teach her sister and two friends, students in a local photography program, more about the art of taking pictures.
I spent the entire day with Saba and her friends, visiting the famous sights of Esfahan, taking hundreds of pictures, walking the markets, stopping for them
to pray. The girls even had a streak of rebelliousness in them, ringing doorbells and running. No consideration was given on their behalf to the judgments and disapproving stares of local men, wondering what on earth these Iranian women were doing associating with a strange looking foreigner like myself. Ten years ago we might have been arrested (for being together in public and not married, not for ringing doorbells. Or maybe both). But times are changing in Iran, and in many regards it is women who are at the forefront of this progress, excelling in education, speaking English and approaching foreigners just as much if not more than men, and pushing the limits of clothing restrictions.
My second above-ordinary experience occurred in the capital city, Tehran. I had just checked into a crusty budget hotel, had lunch in one of the country’s two officially vegetarian restaurants, and was on the metro to visit the Shrine of Imam Khomeini, the deceased fanatic Ayatollah who lead the country through the 1979 Islamic revolution that spawned many of the conservative restrictions that exist to this day. On the metro I was approached by a chubby, sweating man named Iraj, another English teacher.
He invited me for tea in his home followed by a promised ride in his car to where I had been going.
He delivered on both fronts, but after visiting the shrine he refused to let me go off on my own. “My mother insisted that you must also stay for dinner, and she has already begun preparing it. After I will drive you back to your hotel in the city”. How can I say no to that? Back at home and dinner was served in the usual manner, sitting on carpets on the floor, the same carpets where the family sleeps and does pretty much everything. After dinner we walked the neighborhood and I got the impression that Iraj wanted to show off to all his friends and neighbors that he was hosting a foreigner. I met many people, shook many hands, smoked many cigarettes, and politely put off multiple offers from other people to come have tea in their homes.
We visited the home of some of Iraj’s relatives. When I entered, I forgot the local custom of keeping your head down as you enter the door (in case any women inside are unveiled and need
to time to cover up). The daughter of the family, perhaps 19 years, was sitting having dinner and for a split second she looked at me in horror and realized that her head was not covered. She ran away in embarrassment and refused to come out for the rest of the night, even with her parents telling her to come practice her English with me.
We proceeded to sit on the floor, drink multiple cups of chay, which is served in the Iranian manner (black, and with hunks of sugar that you put into your mouth and then suck the tea through), smoke cigarettes, and watch some TV. The mother couldn’t hold back from getting out her camera and taking various pictures of me. We watched a Spanish soap opera, and I noted with restrained laughter how the entire family recoiled with shock and disapproving shakes of the head when the women in the program cracked open a bottle of wine and discussed their sex lives openly, and one of them was even showing cleavage and you could see her underwear through her pants. For the average Iranian, this is on par to watching pornography, judging by the reactions
As you might have guessed, my host refused to let me stay in my trashy hotel that night. But he did drive me all the way in to get my luggage. I actually intended to hold my ground and decline; I am not used to this culture of hospitality, and in a strange sense I felt like a prisoner of his kindness and preferred to be alone in the manner that I am used to. But this is the type of rare traveler’s experience that most people only hear about, so I went with it. Eventually I became more comfortable with it, and ended up staying with them for three nights.
When I returned, Iraj’s elderly mother brought out a bag of beaded necklaces that she had acquired on her various pilgrimages, including the Haj to Mecca. She chose a green one that she had acquired in Karbala, Iraq, an incredibly sacred place for all Shi’ite Muslims, and gave it to me. I felt blessed. The mother continued to speak to me constantly throughout my stay, without ever taking note of the fact that I didin’t understand a word she was saying, as it was all in
Iraj’s two brothers soon warmed up to me too, despite their lack of English (and I would like to note that in Iran it is not abnormal for three grown men to live with and sleep in the same room as their mother). One was a crusty, eccentric mechanic who would certainly be an alcoholic of sorts if he lived in the west. The other was a biker, obsessed with maintaining his motorcycle. On my last day, the biker decided that he really liked me. He was convinced that I could secure him Jennifer Lopez’s e-mail address, and before I left he gave me a gift as well, the necklace from around his neck, which bears the name in Arabic of Fatemah Zahro, wife of one of the first Imams (descendents of Mohammad) of the Shi’ite faith. He kissed the name many times before giving it to me, and told me (without speaking English, but I can understand) that by wearing it around my neck it could protect me, and I can invoke her name for assistance.
In the days that I spent with Iraj, I was basically his sidekick in his daily routine, which involved walking
around, exchanging formalities with neighbors, and shouting obscenities at his friends in the street (things like “Hey Mahmoud! I fucked your mom!” and “Yo Tajik! I heard you have a small dick!”), and they typically replied by making fun of how fat he was. While in this regard Iranian men seemed to be the same as men anywhere in the world, Iraj’s neighborhood was otherwise completely different than my own at home. Life occurs on the streets here, and the neighborhood is a genuine community. Everybody knew each other, every passing encounter was accompanied with exchanges of concern over wellbeing, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of aggression or people hiding from one-another. Driving out of the neighborhood took forever, because we had to stop and talk to everybody, sometimes even getting out as cups of chay seemed to appear from nowhere, and we would stand and drink them with the car sitting idle in the middle of the street.
I also accompanied Iraj to some of his English tutoring sessions, and meeting his students was my first, but not last opportunity in Iran to exchange ideas and conversation practice with local Iranian women.
On my final day
of staying with the family, I was invited to a wedding of one of the young men in the neighborhood, and this proved to be my most difficult to understand (and embarrassing!) encounter with Iranian culture.
The wedding was difficult for me to comprehend, ideologically, because it defied everything that I believe weddings should be, in my western mentality. In the west a wedding ceremony is a celebration of love. The couple is together most of the night, posing for pictures, hugging, kissing, dancing, and basically everybody gets drunk. A traditional Iranian wedding is the complete opposite of everything I just said. Men and women don’t even see each other. The parties are completely sex segregated, and so I can’t even tell you what happened on the women’s side, except that I heard there was a sort of Henna ceremony, which I wished I could have been a part of.
The bride and groom do not even see each other until right at the end. This is not a celebration of love. Love is something which is assumed will come once they get to know each other. Rather, it is a celebration of coming together of families, as
well as transformation, from one life phase to another, and one celebrates with those people who will be with you in times to come; the men present will be the companions for life to the groom, and the women will spend their future working together in the new home. The husband and wife relationship, like all male-female relationships in Iran, is one that is entirely private, to be kept behind closed doors, and certainly not to be seen or photographed by eager party goers.
So what happened on the male side? Well, to put it in western terms, imagine an enormous, dry but highly energized, intimate, super gay dance party. Like in many parts of Asia and the Middle East, male-female contact is taboo in public but same sex touching, hand holding, and even intimate dancing is socially acceptable heterosexual behavior. The DJ blasted techno with spices of local flavor, Iranian classics, Kurdish hits, and Azerbaijani tunes that inspired an aggressive dancing frenzy. The way to go about it seemed to be this: men would sit all around the dance floor on carpets, until one of the dancers would attempt to get their friend to dance by aggressively trying
to pull him up on to the dance floor. The man sitting would continue to refuse, and then just about when it looked like it might turn into a fight, the sitting man would give in and jump up into dancing pose, mouth open with joy, arms way up in the air, wrists spinning gaily.
Somehow I avoided it for the most part, until suddenly the music stopped and hundreds of pairs of eyes turned to look at me. They all started cheering ‘dancing techno’; I guess they wanted the sole foreigner to show them how we dance to ‘our music’ (bad techno). A circle formed around me and the music came on, and I had to give it all I had. I was super embarrassed of course, but they seemed to love it. I also noted that a few women were peeking in on the man-party from a small window above.
Night two of the wedding was a more formal affair, with more man-on-man dancing, speeches, and sit down meal. The groom entered and had to circle the entire room, shaking the hand of every single man in attendance, as the men threw bills of money up
in the air over his head. At the end of the night a meal was served; whole cucumbers, bananas, oranges and apples as an appetizer, salad, rice, chicken and desserts, and the moment people finish devouring their food they up and leave, meet their wives and daughters in the parking lot, and the wedding is over.
It was at this point that I saw my only possibility to view the bride and requested special permission, which was granted, though I was disappointed to see that she was completely veiled. They also let me take a photograph standing beside them, and as I stood there beside the newlyweds, for a moment, I tried to imagine how awkward this must all be for them. Moments later, they got into their car and went off, I assume, to consummate the marriage (get laid for what is supposed to be the first time, with a person they have practically just met). I sensed their anxiety, and I also sense that, like most people in Iran, and most people in my country, and most people in the world, they are just acting according to the traditions that have been imposed on them by their
culture, they are freethinking individuals, like you and me, and if I had been born here, it would all seem completely normal to me too.
As I stressed above, things are changing in Iran. This was a traditional wedding, and nowadays they are not all sex segregated like this one was. Sometimes couples date for years before they get married. And as a local man informed me, they do pretty much everything except for sex; they just have to make sure the girl remains physically a virgin since her mother will check on the wedding night.
This was my experience of Iran, and I hope that my encounters serve to illustrate something about the character of the people of this country. I have spoken more recently with female travelers whose experiences in Iran did not match my own. They also encountered excessive hospitality, but as females they had to deal with some sexual harassment as well, and so I recognize that my experiences and perceptions may have been limited or defined by my gender. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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