You likely have some nascent impression of Iran, probably aided by the occasional report that pops up in the media when something big happens in the country. The Revolution of ’79. Religious orthodoxy. Persepolis (the city, the graphic novel). Sanctions. Its nuclear ambitions.
Before our visit, we read a lot of current-news stories and followed a few blogs about the country to get some idea of what to expect. Despite this, we imagined that all the years of wars, sanctions, and religion would have resulted in mid-level infrastructure and a conservative public culture.
But the country turned out to be quite different. Yes, it lives up to some clichés, but it belies many more.
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A lot of Iran is unpopulated, hardscrabble terrain – either mountains or semi-arid scrubland – and dotted with lots of small towns and very few villages. And, most strikingly, few farms. But at least the highways were awesome.
The big cities however are a different scene altogether.
For starters, they’re quite modern. The buildings are well-designed, well laid-out, and spacious. There are swanky shops everywhere that stocking international brands (with an almost-zero presence of malls and hypermarkets, which made shopping that much more interesting).
Public transport is widely used (if not as widely available as it should be). There is new construction everywhere, but there are far fewer ugly-glass monstrosities than you would expect, and far fewer high-rises as well.
Most startlingly, the roadworks were some of the best we had seen anywhere in the world. Seriously, anywhere. Mostly because they’re well-thought out and, well, typically Persian – graceful flyovers, benches everywhere on proper pavements with ramp access, little drain-lines across alleys and roads running downhill to carry off excess water. As a bonus, the actual roads are also really good.
And most importantly, there’s an attempt to green whatever open space is available. You certainly learn to value plants and trees when you have a water crisis and desert all round. The riverbed in Isfahan was completely dry when we visited, yet the city somehow managed to cultivate lush gardens that looked like they were rained upon every other day.
And yes, there were lots of women wearing the full chador, but they were outnumbered by the number of women with gold-painted fingernails, leggings, floral Manteaux, and translucent headscarves. Fashion seems to have become the primary form of rebellion for women – to assert their identity, confidence, and a love for all clothes light and bright. It seemed that the future is at least orange and will expand to prints and other colours. With the election of the current government, women have become bolder and more willing to take fashion risks. The standard uniform for young Iranian women consists of tight jeans or leggings, multi-coloured sports shoes, an unbuttoned manteaux, and a headscarf casually flung over your head. Tops layered with cropped tees (yes, you read that right) have also started to pop up.
The manteaux is no longer that long, austere, shapeless coat designed to slaughter your inner temptress – it can simply be a long shirt dress, sometimes made risqué by its flimsy material or lace insertion that lets a viewer see what lies beneath. Or it can be a fitted trench coat style jacket.
Yes, most men are bearded, but these are beards that look like they were groomed for a fashion show in Milan. And yes, alcohol is officially banned, but there’s a thriving underground market and who needs it when there’s Istak Lemon. Besides, much as we hate to sound prohibitionist and pro-government, but not having to worry about leery and rowdy drunks made evenings in public places a far more enjoyable experience. And yes, there’s non-stop propaganda on state TV, but everyone has satellite dishes and is instead watching BBC and CNN on their giant LED screens.
Astonishingly, the thing that struck us most was that five days in, we realised how relaxed everybody – including ourselves – were in terms of worrying about the possibility of a public terror attack. For the first time in a long, long time, we found ourselves not looking over our shoulders, not scanning for exit points or keeping tabs on suspicious-looking characters, and not being subconsciously tense in expectation of such an event. And it wasn’t as if there was a heavy security presence. The whole thing was particularly surprising given all the chaos going in neighbouring Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
It was truly a moment of staggering realisation, that this country that is seen as such an unsafe zone was in fact the only country we had been to in decades where we were most at ease.
Yes, a lot of this is nascent liberalisation grown over the last few years, and Iran does remain quite conservative overall. And there was a sense that the momentum could shift back any time if the old guard feels too threatened, but Iran felt like it was at the cusp of a cultural shift.
What it needs is a lot more people from a lot more different countries and cultures to keep touring it and interacting with the person on the street. It’s the only way to break down the decades of distrust and misinformation, and perhaps encourage more of them to fight more for their liberties.
If you have ever dreamt of visiting the country, or were planning a trip, don’t give in to the fear – just go. Because a country is not its government.
Iran in pictures
Seema and Fabian Bhatia-Panthaki are the new parents of twin canine girls, whose demands mean long-distance travel is now a luxury. This Iran trip may have been their last joint foreign outing for some time to come. To keep their scampering scamps in the manner they have become accustomed to, Seema works in the field of International Development, while Fabian functions as an editor.