When preparing for our trip to Iran, I made an effort not to read too many in-depth blogs or watch too many documentaries about the country. I wanted to experience that feeling of unfamiliarity, excitement, surprise of a first sight and a first impression. Our initial mission when landing in Imam Khomeini Airport from Istanbul, was to go through Iranian Immigration without any issues. Current geo-politics beyond us mean that smooth entry through different ports around the world is not a guarantee and we kept ourselves on-alert for the worst. We sighed prayers of relief as the Iranian Immigration officer checked our visas and authorised our entry rather uneventfully. We collected our bags and took turns praying in our first of a series of convenient Iranian ‘Namaz Khanehs’.
We then made our way outside, bracing ourselves for the cool Tehran temperatures and mountain air. It felt like a long taxi ride. As excited as I was to see my surroundings, I helped myself to the vacant back seat of the taxi, lying to my side and passed out from exhaustion, leaving Abdul Hadi to liaise with the driver.
We reached Azadi square metro, lugging our suitcases into the heavily populated station. We will never forget this first train ride. We instantly felt our foreignness in a sea of busy Iranians trying to get to work or school. After fumbling through the ticket machines and asking several questions in broken Farsi to the station staff, we plonked ourselves onto a platform bench and waited for what felt like two hours to catch a train to our destination. Train after train rushed past us on the tracks, with hundreds of commuters vying for space on the packed vessels. We decided to wait for the rush to settle before attempting to push our way onto a train. I felt quite self-aware as a female planning to board the male-majority carriages, and was thankful to have Abdul Hadi with me. I didn’t want to separate from him by sitting in the much more comfortable women’s cars of the train. When restlessness settled in, feeling like we had heard the same station announcements fifty times and realising peak hour wasn’t ending any time soon, we bit the bullet and decided to board a packed train.
Amidst the apprehension of getting squished inside, or worse, rejected from the carriage, the coolest thing happened. Some legend of an Iranian brother looked at us poor, confused and bewildered, luggage laden tourists and motioned for us to hop onto the carriage. Before I had a chance to refuse, Abdul Hadi held my arm and pushed me in, and away we went.
When we found ourselves at the right station, we looked out for the “Green Bus”, a mini bus that we could take to Lavizeh. A man with a cigarette in hand and a kind smile, greeted us and asked us where we needed to get to. With a hint of a British accent, he told us he was from the UK, visiting family in Iran and could help us get a taxi to our hosts’ home. This was our first taste of the intense, unparalleled kindness and hospitality we received in Iran. It was also the beginning of what felt like a scene from a comedic Iranian film. Our helpful Iranian-Brit sourced a couple who were driving by to give us a lift.
We were now fully attentive to our surroundings. We were determined to find this address, but our driver didn’t seem to know exactly where it was. Like Turkey, taking a taxi to residential areas will often mean you need to have your host available to direct the driver over the phone. The driver eventually arrived to what he believed was the street of our hosts. It was a very narrow street and he struggled to drive the car up. “Call your friend”, was what we managed to gather our driver was saying. Our plan for the first few days in Tehran was to stay with a couple we found on the Couchsurfers website, Zahra and Mobin. We tried to explain that we didn’t have a cell phone connection to be able to call anyone yet. Reluctantly, the driver used his phone to call our friend for us. “Please answer”, I thought to myself. Eventually when the driver spoke, instructions were provided for us to leave our suitcases with a neighbour and travel to our hosts’ office. Our driver appeared to have other plans.
Once they got a hold of the neighbour on the telecom, we saw a middle-aged Iranian lady come down the stairs with her home-chador on. After exchanging a few words with our driver’s wife, she disappeared. Our driver helped us take out our bags, and we were confused as hell. “I thought we were going to the office?”, I had tried to convey. The couple smiled and said a ‘Salom’ goodbye. We took this as a cue for us to pay them, and it dawned on us that we had no idea if we were at the right apartment block and what on earth we were going to do if it wasn’t. In our confusion, we lifted our heavy suitcases up the stairs, looking out for their unit. As they weren’t home, we decided to ask a neighbour for help. There wasn’t much we could do waiting outside their unit in the cold with all of our luggage. The middle aged lady answered the door opposite our hosts’. With a look of mercy, she allowed us to enter her home. We tried to communicate to her that we wanted to leave our luggage with her and come back to collect them as soon as our hosts came home. She motioned for us to stay, and called Mobin, our host. Mobin said he would come home at 1:00pm to let us into his apartment.
We spent the next few hours sitting awkwardly in this Iranian woman’s immaculate little unit, waiting for Mobin to rescue us from this awkward conundrum. I still remember this time vividly because it felt like the oddest set of circumstances. Being my first day in Iran, and ending up in a random woman’s little home drinking my first Iranian tea and eating sweets and fruit. She was incredibly gracious and kind, but I could tell that she had never dealt with such a random situation. She may not have dealt with many foreigners at all. Using our phrase book, we tried to communicate basic details of our life and plans for our trip in Iran. Dhuhr prayer arrived, and we she let us pray there as well. We noticed we were in the home of a very religiously devoted woman. During almost the entire stay at her home, she was watching the Islamic channel of Iranian television, which played surahs from the Quran and sermons.
I felt incredibly self-conscious of our imposition on this woman and her humble abode. In fact I found the whole situation quite stressful, from the congested Tehran metro, to our taxi ride and trying to locate the units, and the lugging our luggage up several flights of stairs. I wanted so much to get some sleep and also to relieve this woman of her accidental baby-sitting duties. In times like these, I felt so thankful for having Abdul Hadi by my side, forever optimistic, calming, clever and very helpful (mashaAllah). It was in such struggles and adventure that we drew closer, dependent on one another’s strength whenever we needed a morale-boost. I was incredibly happy when some time in the afternoon, our host Mobin turned up to the apartment, which was obviously quite an inconvenience for him, and let us into his apartment. He was a very generous host, making sure our needs were tended to and leaving us a pair of house keys. He then returned to work for the rest of the day. We were first-time couchsurfers at this stage, and the feeling of having a complete stranger share their home with you, trust you with a set of keys and all their possessions, was quite benevolent.
In our hosts’ absence, we took in the details of their apartment to inform our first impressions of them. Personal space can tell you a lot about people. The apartment was quaint and homey. A large lounge area, no TV, a cute little kitchen which was filled with pot plants, and photos hanging up from their travels as well as of other couch surfers they had hosted. There was, of course, immaculate Iranian decorations, most distinctively, the classic Iranian ornamental plates and a voluminous Persian rug. This rug was to be our bed for the next two nights, as well as the scene for many pleasant conversations, prayers and plan-making.
Lapping up the comforting warmth of their gas heater, we slept in that deep, jet-laggy way that you do as a traveller. After waking, Abdul Hadi insisted we go outside and try to find a shop or café to buy some food from. He was hungry and wanted fresh air. I thought it would be a bad idea since our hosts would be home soon and I wasn’t sure whether they had their own set of keys. I was also a little on edge since the morning and didn’t feel particularly adventurous. We walked down their street in the cool, drizzly night and sourced ourselves some chips and biscuits from a corner-shop. When we tried to open the apartment door to get back in, my heart sank and the edginess I was feeling crept violently back into me. “I told you we shouldn’t have gone out”. The keys weren’t working properly and we spent the next half hour taking turns to try different techniques with the keys. We ended up sitting on the cold staircase outside their apartment door feeling sorry for ourselves and chomping on the chips. Chips, glorious chips. Wherever you go in the world, chips will be an experience in themselves, with all their variety in flavour and style, serving as a reflection of what tastes are valued by locals.
And so we waited what felt like hours for our hosts to return, and at the moment I pleaded to God to let them come home soon, because I wanted nothing more than to be indoors and warm, I heard laughter and fast-spoken Farsi, trickling its way up the stairs. We saw two couples come up and introduce themselves. We explained our predicament of locking ourselves out, and with sympathy, they opened the door, teaching us how to use the keys for the troublesome lock.
After the tumultuous first day in Iran, the rest of our evening made up for all the difficulties. We had the most splendid time getting to know our hosts, Zahra and Mobin, along with the friends they had invited, Zahra and Meisam. They told us about life in Iran, their current ambitions, their love of travel and their love of being couch surfing hosts. We shared some perspective on life as Muslims living in the West and we connected over our faith, whilst asking a few questions about practice of Shiism.
They shared some fresh fruit and cooked us Iranian style Spagbol. We spoke mostly in English, but started practicing our Farsi with them. Our conversations and eating led us very late into the night before I crashed on Abdul Hadi’s lap, and the guests got ready to leave the house. We gifted our hosts a personalised ornamental plate we had purchased from Turkey, for which they were very grateful. They were very fun loving, warm individuals and we felt blessed to be hosted by them. It’s beautiful to connect with other Muslims while travelling. There is undoubtedly a genuine love and care that is engendered through such interactions, a sense that you will be taken care of, you are home, and that you are understood and accepted wholly for who you are. Sectarian differences that we are often told are the source of conflict, were not dwelled upon. What mattered most to us was our love of God, his Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and the same values we all shared. Our hearts were what spoke to each other, and their kindness is what shone most brightly. Zahra and Mobin told us the story of how they opted for going to Hajj instead of having a big wedding. They were incredibly humble and giving people, and till this day, I reflect on the amount of baraka I felt in their home. A sense of tranquillity I attribute to all the good acts they do in service of others.
The next day in Tehran was our final one before leaving to Isfahan. We kept a relaxed pace for our sightseeing and set the well-known Golestan palace as our main priority for the day. Golestan Palace was originally constructed during the Safavid dynasty and was further embellished with many western influences during the Qajar dynasty of the 18th century. It became the new home of the royal family, who made Tehran the capital of the Kingdom. As you make your way through the gardens at the palace’s entrance, you will notice the elaborate courtyard full of decorative tiled panels, classically Qajar in their design, which are quite delightful to walk past and observe. We didn’t visit all 12 museums inside (which require separate tickets) but we did tour the Marble Throne veranda, Museum of gifts and the Mirror Hall. We were amazed by the sheer opulence of the palace, still intact and well preserved. Its secular influences, which contrast to some of the earlier styles of Persian architecture evident in parts of the palace, were also very noticeable. It also stood as a stark legacy of a pre-revolutionary Iran that now seems so distant.
After visiting the palace, we strolled back to the main street and made our way to the beautiful maze that is Tehran Grand bazaar. The historic bazaar is one of the largest and within its walls you can find a series of shops selling all categories of items, along with mosques and guesthouses. I loved the traditional bazaars of Iran, there was always a surprise on every corner and they were excellent places to get completely lost in. The friendly locals will always help you find your way out, though.
We got back to Zahra and Mobin’s place just in time for them to take us along to Zahra’s parent’s house. They were the sweetest old couple. Zahra’s parents had prepared a feast for us and it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. The traditional Iranian cuisine is best sampled in people’s home, as you won’t find traditional dishes as easily in restaurants. Restaurants tend to have limited options as Kebab with saffron rice is the staple.
When you visit an Iranian family home enough times, you begin to pick up the order and etiquette involved both in hosting and being a guest. It’s universally appreciated to bring something to a person’s house, especially when you go there for the first time. Iranians will usually serve you chai and fruit on individual plates with your own special fruit knife, as an appetiser. This will be served casually, away from the main dining area. You’ll then all move to the dining table or sit on the floor and perhaps start the meal with a soup. Then come the mains. Oh the mains. We enjoyed the most delicious Iranian dish, Kofte Tabrezi, a beautiful mixture of mince, walnuts, lentils and herbs moulded into a ball and cooked in a sauce. You end your meal with a salad, which is eaten on a separate plate to your mains. Then sweets are served with a second round of chai. An all-round delight, which inspired us to incorporate some of these practices into our own entertaining back home.
The rest of our time in Iran was spent in other parts of the country, however, we did return to Tehran to get to other places including Rasht and Mashhad. These trips back to Tehran were mostly brief, but our last day and a half in Iran was spent there and we got a small chance to explore. We tried to visit Sa’dabad Palace, but ran out of time and only got to walk through a few parks and visit ‘Bame Tehran’, literally, the roof of Tehran. This was worth the steep taxi-ride up the hills, as you can take in breath-taking views of the Tehran cityscape and even take a walk up the Mount Tochal.
During other snippets of time we spent in Tehran, we got a taste of Tehran café culture, which mind you, is quite vibrant. Hundreds of trendy cafes populate the city and are heavily populated by Iranian hipster youth. A lot of cafes have a ‘bar’ vibe, but serve mocktails and alongside your chais and the cappuccinos. You’ll find these places contain some of the contrasting conservative vs rebellious energies which exist in Iran. Some women will quite comfortably remove their headscarves indoors while the eyes of the current and previous Ayatollah glare down from their frames, next to all sorts of other governmental and religious paraphernalia. Seeing all these edgy young people, far more cool than Abdul Hadi and I, made me think of all secret rave parties Tehran was infamous for, underneath the strong veneer of regime and religious enforcement. But I also found myself shaking off the often orientalist observations of Iran and Tehrani culture that are constantly and unforgivingly circulated.
The truth was that I had witnessed a wide spectrum of religious observance, affinity with the regime and views on international politics. We had spent time with people who were notably religious, dressed in different ways, served with the army but also leant towards reformist policies, wishing to open Iran up more on an International scale. Despite my Dad’s constant recommendations to spend time in the South of Tehran, as this was what he called ‘the real Tehran’, the working class Tehran that he had come to know well by being an Iranian film aficionado, most of our time was spent in the middle to upper-class North. These factors shaped our views of Tehran. Visually, the Tehran that I saw was artistic, dynamic, and traditional, with its classically Persian style masajid and other historical buildings. Tehran was equally modern, with its wealth, internationally-competitive infrastructure and its lively dining and café scene.
We enjoyed walking down the streets and eating where the locals ate, as well. A lot of take-away joints which would be labelled “fast food” basically contained KFC, Pizza hut and Mcdonalds all under one small roof. The places that served fresh, warm, traditional meals were the best. Tehran’s snow-capped Mountains were viewable from many parts of the city, standing tall and inviting, and lending their cool crisp mountain air to a city choking in exhaust fumes and fog. Tehran was all these things and more, and I would encourage people not to use it mostly as a basepoint, as we did, but allocate a decent amount of time to spend there. If I had more time in Tehran, I would have visited more historical palaces like Sa’dabad Palace, The National Museum of Iran, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Jewells Museum, Masjid-e Motahari, Masjid-e Imam and I would have also liked to fit in a small day trip to tour the town of Qom.
I’ll let my photos do the rest of my talking.