Before you read this, I ask that you please share this blog wherever you can. I’m not an aspiring writer, I don’t write articles or want to be a novelist, but honestly until I wrote this I could find NOTHING like it on the web to help me get an idea of what to expect from this perspective. So please if you could share, it will certainly help someone out there, likely a female, likely with an Iranian husband like me. Thanks for your kindness and please enjoy!
This piece is not going to talk as a center point about the religious or political objectives of the Iranian government. This piece is simply to help a westerner get an idea of what to expect upon their first visit to Iran, and especially an Americans first visit to Iran for the purpose of meeting In-laws and seeing the country of a spouse, and that is all. Also, the visit that this article is based on occurred in 2012. It is possible that views of desirability to come to the US may change for Iranians and the world over time, however my visit happened before the crisis in Syria reached its current proportions it now being the end of 2013, and when the US/Iranian international relationship was really “undefined”. So please excuse any opinions concerning topics that may have changed or are changing.
Getting into Iran
I think it’s very important to inform the reader of several things before considering a trip to Iran. This will also explain why my experience is different from the average Americans, and why this article may be of more help than the “Travel Iran” tour pamphlet you might see in some seedy travel agency. There are two ways to enter Iran as an American: As a tourist, and as an Iranian. Let me explain… As a tourist, you schedule a tour with a guide. You’re led around specific sites, specific areas, particular hotels that are nice and fit for a first world traveler to keep an element of comfort in a third world country. You’ll see ancient sites like Persepolis, and will be told where you can take your photos. You will be watched carefully and escorted to the airport when your tour is over and you’ll have had the standard Iranian tourist experience.
The second way I mentioned is as an Iranian and this can only be achieved by a native Iranian or a foreign woman who just happens to marry an Iranian man. Let me explain… Iran is an Islamic Republic and therefore men can do some things that women can’t in accord with Islamic rules. A good example is if you marry an Iranian man, the man has the power to instantly grant you (the wife) Iranian citizenship through the Iranian government in the same way that marrying an American would grant the foreign spouse American citizenship. The difference between Iran and America is that in the states there is a trial period where you have a Green Card which allows you to work and makes your stay in America more secure; however you don’t actually get your citizenship for a few years after your marriage to an American. In Iran, after a small amount of paperwork and a passport photo where your hair is covered appropriately, you’ll get your Iranian passport and citizenship. At this point, when you enter Iran, you enter as an Iranian. However if a western man marries an Iranian woman, she does not have the power to apply for Iranian citizenship for her husband. This is an allowance reserved only for the men. Since my husband is Iranian, I traveled freely in Iran as an Iranian citizen, from the eyes and culture of an American and so this article is a rare piece and will give information that not many Western travelers to Iran will be able to give. I hope it helps you in some way, and I’d love to hear your stories.
I’d stayed in Iran for two weeks when I decided to write this article, and excuse me if I repeat this as I can’t remember writing it elsewhere in this piece, but the total duration of my stay was two months, or just over eight weeks. It was actually only supposed to be one month, but then there was a situation with my husbands job back home in the west, so we had the choice to return and wait around for a resolution, or stay with his family which he had not seen for many years so we decided to stay. Upon preparing my trip to Iran several months in advance of my departure, there were many aspects of Iranian culture and life that weren’t easily found online and my husband who is from Iran originally hadn’t been back to his home country in over a decade and himself didn’t know the answers to many of my questions. So, I decided to write this piece particularly for people from the West like me, and particularly women, going overseas to meet their in laws or experience the country of Iran for the first time. I hope when you read it, it will help you find the answers to some of the questions you may have and I will try to answer any questions left in the comments section as accurately as possible. One last word: If you are one of these big headed Doctors of Philosophy that appreciate a good stirring of the pot (creating an argument for the sake of arguing), please for God’s sake… leave my comments section alone and go write your own article. Leave the comments area for those with genuine questions, comments and concerns. Thank you.
My Iranian Friends
Ok, so here’s where things get a bit more relaxed. I write like I talk. So in America, my husband and I have a group of Iranian friends that we like to hang out with. They’re all very highly educated which is common in the states since many come over on student visas to study and further their education. I realized they’re all also very proud Iranians. When they all found out we were going to Iran, I heard a lovely poetic list of wonderful things about the cities I would visit. I heard them all smiling, circling me saying ‘Oh this city is the city of art and culture, and this city is the capital, and this city is green while this one is very dry. They’re all so beautiful and lovely, you’ll just love Iran!” I’ve been overseas before but never to a third world country and never to the Middle East but all this enthusiastic optimism made me very hopeful that soon I would be walking down the ancient streets of Iran, seeing the sprawling masjids and hearing the Middle Eastern beats of music in the air. I imagined…. Aladdin. After all, the Islamic Republic of Iran only less than 50 years ago still carried the name of the ancient culture of Persia, which has a very colorful and mystic reputation in the states for fine silks, gold coins on the hips of beautiful curvy women and bustling marketplaces of fruits, spices and expensive carpets. My imagination ran wild with the images I would see entering the land of Sirus, King of the World. The Iranian people in America were very generous with their fantastical memories of Iran, and now looking back I suppose the lesson learned was that no matter where you’re from, home is always a beloved place.
We Traveled Turkish Airlines into Iran from Chicago. Turkish Airline is a good airline to travel, and I’ll tell you why, but first I have to tell a short story. So Iran has been under sanctions for quite a while and Iran Air, while a very busy local airline of Iran, has seen its fleet suffer. Many of its airliners are old, retired Russian aircraft that Iran purchased and repaired for use with Iran Air. My husband, an advocate of airline safety, would always joke about the sorry state of the fleet of Iran Air and tell me the gruesome details of each malfunction and fatal crash that happened, involving Iran Air. Knowing I am terrified to fly to begin with, I developed a particular crumbling fear of traveling via Iran Air. For this reason, when it finally came time to visit Iran, I forced him to find a flight directly from out of the country to our preferred destination without using Iran Air at all. Of course it cost a bit more money but that’s his fault! We still joke about it.
So Turkish Airlines is by American standards a nice airline. It’s still a commuter aircraft, still cramped and the flight was packed but each seat had a screen on the back of the seat in front of you to play games, watch documentaries or see the actual flight progress of your airplane. It showed a map of the earth and where your plane was and so I was able to keep track of just where we were which I really appreciated. I was able to say to myself, “Oooohh right below me is Milan, Italy…” I just love that kind of stuff. Plus I was able to know when we were no longer over the vast piece of ocean between the North American continent and Europe which helped with my flight anxiety. When I arrived to my seat, sitting nicely packaged was a single serving baggie containing a pair of little socks, headphones (they didn’t try to charge us for headphones), a little container of lip balm (I especially liked that as I’m a chap stick addict), and a little sleep mask. Also, Turkish airlines has one of those little fold-out foot rests secured to the seat in front of you so you can change your leg position which is especially appreciated on long international flights. They had a pillow and little blanket for each flyer. This is all in coach class by the way. We passed business class on the way to coach and I’m sorry to say it didn’t look any different than coach… the seats were the same size and quality as coach and leg room looked about the same. I’d imagine you’d have to get your monies worth in business class from the service which I’ll comment on in a bit. I actually was a little heartbroken to see the state of business class since to me having a really nice class to sit in as an alternative to coach is most needed on flights like the long one we were about to take.
As we flew Turkish Airlines, I’d have to say the best part was the food. Ahh… the food. How much better than American airliners it was. Presented in little white containers with lids and real metal silverware, little salads with fresh tomato and soft mozzarella cheese (we call it a caprice salad), fluffy rice and tender meats with saffron and a pickle, and a lovely chocolate mousse for dessert. You don’t have to worry about sneaking subway onto Turkish Airlines to avoid eating the stale, questionable turkey sandwich they might give you, but having some exposure to Middle Eastern food before you go would be a good idea. Also, note that once you fly any Middle Eastern airline, or go to any country founded on Islamic principles, you’ll instantly see any pork product disappear. No worries about specifying a “halal” (Islamic allowed/ Islamic slaughtered meat dish) meal on Turkish Airlines. They do not serve pork. Ok, now to the negatives… and I’m sorry all you nice Turkish people I really am, but 80% of the Turks I met were complete arrogant a$$h*les. In the airports, in society, or wherever I met them they were generally unapproachable. This didn’t exclude the airline hostesses unfortunately. They were snippy, in a rush, gave an energy that they were generally inconvenienced and forget about ringing the ‘hostess’ bell… you know the one where the little light turns on and an airline hostess comes to see what you need? Yeah, you’ll wait forever. In fact, several times the hostess walked by and just turned it off and kept walking.
This was my first introduction to the comparative of the work ethic between the United States and the countries of the Middle East. You really can’t make a comparison at all… Americans are more professional by far and have a sense of obligation and responsibility that I just never saw again once I left the US. So take note: Once you leave the states, you really are on your own. If you want or need something, you have to go get it and the system isn’t built to help you. In all aspects of life in the Middle East, where you were once part of a finely tuned modern society moving at a productive pace with a system built to lead you to your destination with helpful resources of directional information along the way, now you’re at the mercy of a culture that moves at the speed of cold molasses with no sense of responsibility and very little sense of organization or manners towards those who are not close family or friends. After you enter the Middle East you’ll know what I mean. There could be people at a pharmacy for example that have been waiting in line for hours including elderly and children, but if you happen to be good friends with the Pharmacist there’s a good chance you would pass the line of poor exhausted customer’s right by and likely even get your item at a discount. It’s a terribly slanted society where who you know far outweighs what you know. Although Turkish Air staff was short tempered and better off avoided, I have to say that they were some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Their combination of European, Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern features made the angles and proportions of their faces some of the most delicate and feline. To add to their beauty, they’re typically taller I’d noticed than those of Iranian women. Europeans are also in general much thinner and more delicately crafted than a western girl making them look like painted gazelles with their long torsos and limbs and the feminine saunter about their walk. Too bad they are not nicer, I just can’t appreciate the dis-genuine nature of a person that is only exceedingly kind to those closest to them and contrarily unpleasant when in general public or at the workplace.
My flight into Iranian Airspace
We were given an announcement when we entered Iranian airspace from Turkish airspace and then finally after many hours flying coach we were arriving at the airport in Iran. The captain gets on the speaker and speaks in 2 or maybe 3 different languages, giving the same message each time. The languages are probably Farsi (Iranian), Turkish and English. Also it’s interesting to tell you if you didn’t already know, that every airport and air control tower in the world communicates with its airplanes in English. English is the standard language used by pilots and airports in every major commuter airline in the world, so you can be sure that your pilot speaks English. This is why if you ever listen to an app on your iPhone that allows you to listen in to air control towers around the world, whether you’re tuned into JFK or some airport in Japan, the language is always English. So the pilot would say the general stuff, temperature and wind speed, flight speed, arrival time, local time vs. the time zone you departed from, etc. I arrived at night and so when the ground finally came into view, I took full advantage of my window seat and searched for any detail I could to formulate my first impressions of Iran.
The first thing I saw was actually quite unexpected… a fire billowing in a concrete courtyard that looked somewhat like a car burning. Someone told me later it was an oil refinery but I was never sure as there was no nearby factory or large complex so I doubt that was the case. I arrived to the airport and as the plane began to taxi, another interesting thing happened… sails of scarves began to catch the stuffy air of the aircraft as the ladies reluctantly covered their hair and put on shirts with long sleeves. I already had a headscarf on as I’m Muslim myself and wear a headscarf. The mood of the craft went instantly from that of a plane of chatty, smiling international travelers, to a solemn silent state. These were the first feelings I had entering the country of Iran.
Getting through customs as an Iranian
As an Iranian entering Iran with an Iranian passport, I wasn’t approached at all or asked any questions. Iran is a very large country and the Iranians in the north tend to be much lighter in color of hair, skin and eyes than those of south Iran near the Gulf region. The reasoning is that people of a particular region of a country tend to marry and interbreed with those closest to them and north Iran borders countries of Azerbaijan and Georgia which are bordered by Russia. So over time north Iranians breed with lighter people closer to the look of Russians and blue and green eyes and even blonde hair aren’t rare in north Iran, while in the south, Iranians have bred with darker Gulf Arabs and the people tend to be quite dark with black hair and eyes, though if you look you can find a little of everything in Iran wherever you go. My point is that as a white skinned American, I didn’t particularly “stand out” as a foreigner just because I’m light. It’s when I start speaking that I get all the attention. The second someone hears English with the American accent, they stare and ask my husband where I’m from. So customs was uneventful… needless to say I didn’t speak at all. My husband did all the talking. This won’t help those of you entering Iran on a traveler visa but your travel agent and Iran tour guide will most likely make everything very clear for you. If you have questions about anything then ask and double ask. In the states, people are responsible but it’s not uncommon for someone in Iran that you’re depending on to not show up or be very late and not call. Remember what I said about how people do business in the Middle East… lower your standards but secure everything you can in the US and get documents for everything you can. It’s just a learning process and can be disappointing or cause headaches if you’re not pushy about getting details and documents when planning your trip.
My First Iranian Hours
I was greeted by my husband’s family with tears and flowers. It had been a decade since he saw them and it was a very warm welcome. It’s interesting to note that for highly respected guests, usually family that has been away for a long time, it’s a very big gesture of respect and welcome to slaughter a lamb or goat when you arrive at the home you’ll be staying, and the guests should walk over the animal. yes, the guest should walk over the freshly killed and possibly still dying animal. It sounds gruesome and didn’t fare well with my western idea of what a warm welcome was. Luckily my husband’s family called us while we were in the states to ask of we wanted this and we had the opportunity to politely decline. The common sense it takes to realize you should probably ask a foreigner coming from the United States like myself if I’d want this kind of welcome is something I was lucky to find in my husband’s family, but I can tell you right now that this common sense isn’t so common in Iran. Make sure to let your husband know that you’re aware of this custom and specify if you want it to take place before you arrive in Iran. If you experience this ritual, then you should know that the animal was raised just for this purpose, and lived roaming freely on the mountain sides under the watchful eye of a real life shepherd. If you want to feel bad, then feel bad for the animals in cages in the states and appreciate the life of this clean, completely organic hormone free well-cared for animal which will feed many people. Also, buying a whole live animal is very expensive and often several families pitch in on paying for it as meat isn’t as plentiful as in the states, so just smile and be nice. Most people will most likely understand if you ask for any children to not witness the act of killing. If you’re vegan, best to avoid Iran or you’ll be living off rice.
Well, this is pretty much where I had to redefine what Iran would be like… when I left the airport. Leaving the airport in Iran and stepping into Iranian air was a personally crushing blow for my predetermined image of Iran based on all the praises my Iranian friends in the states sung about the city I arrived in. It was night time.. 3am to be exact, and the first thing that hit me was this choking stench. The smell was so bad that I lifted my scarf to my nose. My husband asked what it was and a member of his family said in a very leisurely tone, pointing over a brick wall that it was sewage. Apparently there was a sewage line break no more than a 50 yards from the Shirazi airport, just my luck I thought. I walked out and saw every car in the lot was covered in dust and wasn’t newer than something made in the 1980’s. They were all older, very small cars and once in a while a Peugeot 206 which is a newer French made car but still a very small hatchback automobile. Most cars don’t have anything over a 2L engine and struggle up steep inclines. The streets were silent. A wild dog ran past, and also one of the thousands of stray feral cats in Iran. I sat, taking it all in while trying to stay awake after over 24 hours of straight traveling as I can’t sleep on airplanes. I got in the back seat of a small car holding bouquets of fresh flowers savoring the smell contrast to the sewage outside the window, and silently listened to the tiny engine take four of us through what must have been the worst part of town on our way home. We passed someone pulled over on the side of the road washing his car at 3am on a main road in the dark which was really bizarre to me, saw many cats, passed many stone walls covered in spray painted letters and colors and piles of demolished concrete and went to my in laws home. Finally I carried myself, half asleep and barely functioning to bed and went to bed with all our belongings still in their suitcases.
Iran and Iranians
I never expected Iran to be a time capsule. I knew Iran’s cities would be far past the days of the clippity-clop of donkeys in the streets. But what I did expect was a degree of Persia not lost, still alive and palatable to the outsider. What degree of ancient Egyptian influence you can still find in current day Egyptian society proudly displayed on walls, in art and in the eyes of its people I expected to find likewise in current day Iran of the old days of Persia. It’s hard to describe what Iran is, but there’s one thing that Iran isn’t- Aladdin. (Yes I know Aladdin was an Arab not a Persian) There’s no chiming of coins, no incense in the air, no colorful draped fabrics secured between terracotta walls protecting you from the afternoon sun. You don’t see people hand washing their clothes in the street or see planted flowers outside their houses by the road. With the slant that the media can have in any country, I expected Iran to be at least a few notes better than the images of dusty roads and concrete that I’d seen so many times on CNN while Iran’s protests were happening. I was discouraged to find that in fact that’s exactly what the vast majority of Iran really is like and now honestly have grown a larger respect and appreciation for the news I see on TV in the states. Iran is not the romantic, old way that I thought it would be… infused with the thousands of years of beautiful culture that was Persia. Now, whatever beautiful, fantastical, inspiring things I thought I’d see that would make me want to write poetry and listen to stories of sword fights, saffron colored clothes, kings and princes and tragic love tales, are all forever encapsulated in Persia’s rich poetry and only there will you find them. Current day Iran is a clashing of Islamic fundamentalism condemning any western influence in a tug-of-war with a social and Cultural Revolution towards a way of life integrated with the rest of the modern world. You can of course see small remembrances of the Persian identity of Iranians when you see the occasional classic images in post cards or home decor that appear as replicated artifacts of the two-headed lion and the tall pillars of the great cities of Persia with two gazelle-like animals on their crowns. But those things are an occasional sweet treat, and now the majority of Iran’s identity is nearly completely overwhelmed in public and in private by the religion of Islam, and political propaganda. Everywhere you see fine calligraphy of words from the holy Qur’an and pictures of the past and present supreme leaders amidst backgrounds of peaceful colors of soft greens and blues or imprinted with the colors of the flag of Iran. After all the war Persia has seen to preserve its culture and protect itself against attempted invasion, it seems now in less than a generation all Persia has left is its language and the memories of the oldest living generations. Persia was once on its way to securing itself as a modern-day world power with close political ties to the west and Europe. The Islamic identity that the government of Iran has imposed on its country has all but snuffed out anything from Iran’s long and glorious past as the great empire of Persia that once stretched over most of the currently established countries of Europe and the Middle East. Iran has become a dish of fine and glorious meats spiced with far too much salt to taste anything else. The meats are Iran, fundamental Islam is the salt.
As can be expected with a nation in distress, Iran’s people, stuck in a bad situation have been forced to become experts at avoidance, misinterpretation, swindling and changing face. Not everyone is all of these things, but most everyone is at least a little of one of them when the need calls for it. A popular quote in the states says, “I don’t know the recipe for success, but I do know the recipe for failure which is: Try to please everyone.” The Iranian people have shown a great amount of social ingenuity and adaption to change this recipe in their favor, even if it is a day to day struggle and a careful balancing act. What Iranian society has become is a tragic tale, even to those currently living in Iran. Seeing pictures taken in Iran in the 1960’s and 1970’s makes your heart break for the potential this country had to harbor a vibrant, energetic, formidable nation taking its place among the leaders of the world into the 21st Century. But now, over 30 years of living under an oppressive Islamic Dictator has created a nation of tired eyes hidden under black chadors (large black pieces of fabric that cover the hair and body) and young people pushing Islamic dress to the brink of social appropriateness just to express some form of identity and sense of choice. The rest of Iran’s populace, the moderate middle class seem to be just surviving, or trying to educate themselves in order to find work outside of Iran. Those that seem to be religious yet moderate Muslims without having any invested interest in Iran’s government commonly chose a finely crafted and colorful silk scarf to tie fashionably around their heads rather than a chador. They tie it in a way to keep a lovely appearance while still adhering to Islam’s request that women cover their hair in the interest of modesty.
While I was there I felt it seemed all the imagination has been taken out of the Iranian people. All the imagination in love and any contemplation of the afterlife and its secrets have been lost to hopelessness, the redundancy of being trapped in a struggling country, and poverty. The government tells the people what’s appropriate concerning dating when observing Islamic rules, what makes God happy, what angers God, and what lies for you in the afterlife if you dare to defy Gods laws according to Islamic regulation. Even if people still contemplate the mysteries of things like God, there’s a general feeling that discussing them in an open scientific conversation in any public place has been abandoned. Maybe abandoned for the potential consequences of someone connected to the government reporting a discouraged point of view, or maybe abandoned because people feel as though they’re filling their heads with dreams, and dreams don’t pay the bills. The contrast of interests between these two polar sides of society are obvious every day as you walk down the street as see scores of women in black chadors passing groups of young fashionable girls wearing exceedingly large amounts of make-up and showing as much hair as possible with the tightest of jeans and highest of heels. Seeing this, I realized that although the streets weren’t filled with hundreds of citizens chanting anti-government phrases or raising banners on the horizon, I was in fact witnessing a walking protest against the oppressive demands of Iran’s government on its people with every young girl dressed in complete contrast to Iran’s strict dress policies. Iran has been trying to force its citizens to reform to the government’s dress code for some time, but as I visited Iran I felt a sense of victory in the air. It’s become obvious that Iran’s people will not be forced to relinquish their identities, and the progress that has been made will not be easily lost. The young people of Iran changing the face of society away from the hard line Islamic demands isn’t just a sign of steps in a new direction, it’s actually molding a culture.
Keep your Eyes Open and Mouth Closed
As an American in Iran, you want to spread your sense of hope and freedom to those around you but unfortunately it’s just not that easy. In Iran, coming from the west and talking about such things could be seen as trying to start a revolution or promoting western ideals, and you could be branded as a spy and executed or thrown in prison. It’s no joke. There are four topics you should generally try to avoid when visiting Iran as a foreigner. The four things are: Sex, Death, God and Politics. Don’t talk about these four subjects or your opinion of them as an American visiting Iran, and you’re good. Chose instead Iran’s culture, weather, food, traffic (a common topic of conversation)… there are all sorts of interesting things you’ll find to ask about in Iran besides getting in some conversation about your opinion on the government or religion with a person with questionable motives. Better safe than sorry.
One thing that it takes a week to get over when arriving from the states into Iran is the smell. Iran’s cities in general smell like rice farts and dirty feet. In the outskirts however, the air is clean and exotic and smells of earth. After about a week you acclimate to it like any other smell you’re around for a week, but you still catch wrenching whiffs of sewage often as you walk down the streets. Iran’s sewage is just under the streets and when the wind blows right it can be overpowering. After staying in Iran, you learn to savor anything that smells good… freshly cooked rice, your hair after a shower, flowers, anything. America by comparison always smells fresh, but it’s because of all our rain and trees, which keep the air clean and which Iran has a very limited supply of in some places. Also the horrible air quality can be blamed on the exhaust from the vehicles of Iran sitting over the cities like a cloud, blocking the blue sky in places like Tehran, Iran’s capital. One last thing… like any hot, Middle Eastern country with little water and a struggling economy, the smell of people’s lacking personal hygiene can almost make you cough sometimes. It’s one thing that was really offensive to my sense of smell… the smell of dirty people. In America, bad body odor can be so socially offensive that it makes you want to turn and yell at them to march right home and shower and wash their clothes. In the states it’s considered very sloppy, disgusting and rude to force others to have to tolerate a person’s body odor from not washing on a daily basis, but this isn’t my culture and instead of making me angry it’s made me grateful that water to wash everyday isn’t a problem for me in the states.
Meeting your Mate in Iran
In Iran, it is taboo to date, and courting a female is a long and tiring process that includes a sort of interrogation by families and chaperoned outings. The old way of two young people meeting used to be arranged by families, and although marriage between cousins in Iran isn’t as common, it still happens. Now however, modern young Iranian women saunter down the street in their nicest clothes and make-up hoping to be approached by a boy, where they’d exchange phone numbers and a short conversation. Young Iranians have found very inventive ways to meet each other, including driving side-by-side exchanging phone numbers or personal information while completely causing a traffic jam behind them. It’s really a funny sight as an American to realize why two vehicles are driving directly next to each other with the windows rolled down at no more than 20 mph. (miles per hour). Although dating and spending private time while unmarried is frowned upon, some unmarried young people are breaking the traditional mold and can be seen defiantly holding hands walking down the street. Iranian women, especially the vast majority of younger generations seemed to give the impression of materialism and arrogance. Although I’d love to give some excuse to why this is, I hate to admit that my impression is pretty accurate. Iranians have a really interesting mix of a superiority complex, coupled with turbulent self-esteem. When looking at Iranian women walking down the street, you can see in their faces the emotional peaks and valleys of superiority and jealousy as they size each other up. I can’t imagine this is any good for their emotional wellbeing and sympathize with them that this is their life on a daily basis while we in the states enjoy a very relaxed social lifestyle. It makes me want to share the love but unfortunately I can’t, Iran is Iran. Also, I think it takes a certain kind of attitude to look at others with an un-bias eye based on their appearance and Iranians are not this way at all. The idea of not judging a book by its cover doesn’t come naturally to Iranians. An Iranian woman once told me, “There are little kings inside all of us.” Trust me when I say that this is completely accurate of Iranians. I’m going to close the subject of dating with a bit of advice: If you’re a foreigner, please don’t date or have sex with any of the locals! It’s a popular tale, a western tourist comes to Iran and has sex with a pretty young Iranian girl who then blackmails him to marry her, or she’ll report him for “taking advantage of a good Muslim girl”. Having extramarital sex is a serious social offense in Iran and a love scorn girl with dreams of America can make your life miserable, or worse. Most Iranians are realists and know there’s no way they’ll ever make it to America though they dream about it. It costs money and takes lots of paperwork and getting a visa can be almost impossible. Iranians also know that anyone who marries an American gets citizenship, so if you’re an American trying to sew your wild oats in Iran, then you’re a target for single boys and girls all over Iran. These people can go from kind and accommodating to cut-throat in an instant if they’re after something, so please be careful when a young curvy Persian girl bats her obnoxiously long eyelashes at you.
Dolce, Gucci and Prada- Oh My!
There is an absolutely massive cosmetics culture in Iran, and as I’ve mentioned, women love their make-up. Unfortunately most make-up in Iran is very cheap and bad for your skin, especially in the mid-afternoon heat of the Middle East. And if you see “Clinique” products at a steal in some small store just off the road, don’t you believe it. It’s fake packaged as the authentic. The real deal is pricey, no matter what country you’re in so don’t be a sucker. Also, fake blonde highlights which fry hair to the consistency of straw is common and I was surprised to see Iranians shave rather than pluck their eyebrows so hair stubble on the eyebrows, upper lip area and even arms is very common. Hair removal is one of the key personal hygiene practices of Iranian women. I think it’s just so thick that plucking may be painful, but I honestly think it would give a better result and less grief to some of the poor women of Iran as plucking lasts longer and has a cleaner result. I truly feel for them and for the first time felt grateful that I have light, fine hair and go through minimal efforts to maintain it. Someone told me that brand-name, fake knock-off pirated brands like Dolce, Gucci and Prada were very popular in Iran, but something is interesting that I realized… most Iranians just see them as popular brands and don’t actually know the connection they have with the high end European fashion market. Most Iranians don’t have the ability to leave Iran for anywhere but Turkey and a few other places as the political relations with not only the US but other countries are terrible. Even if they can go to Turkey, most of them can’t afford the plane ticket which is a few hundred dollars US and amounts to a small fortune in Iran. So the women, while they understand the brand to be glamorous, because of lack of any sultry European magazines showing models in barely-there runway clothes or exposure to Europe’s fashion culture simply buy them for their local fashion value. It’s a common mistake to bring a high-priced authentic D&G purse from Europe or the states for a fashionable in law as a gift, as they’ll most likely smile and say thank you, and toss it with their collection of fakes at home that cost them a tiny fraction of the price. Truth be told, average middle class Iranians can’t tell the difference between fakes and the real deal and can’t appreciate the real thing so don’t waste the money unless you know the recipient to be of the elite class of Iranian society. Only those that travel to Europe on a semi-regular basis will understand the value of an authentic current season Coach handbag. If you want to impress someone in Iran without breaking the bank, bring a suitcase filled with authentic Nike, Levi’s or Adidas merchandise for the men, and a simple Tommy Hilfiger bag from TJ Maxx or Marshalls for the ladies. Also, if you have to choose between brown and black, choose black. They’ll drool and light up like a Christmas tree. Nike and Adidas (Especially Adidas) are so freakin popular here it’s just silly and young men often wear out their best Adidas shirt or shoes to impress the ladies. Also shirts with English writing are popular, though most time they don’t even know what it says. I saw a guy with a pink shirt on that said, “I’ll be you lover girl”, but it was in English and had some fun graphics so it looked cool to him. Most clothes in Iran come from China, so you see lots of Hello Kitty stuff and Chinese anime characters on kids’ toys with Chinese writing. Also, note that most Iranian girls are super skinny partly due to the fact that most of their clothes come from China where the sizes are tiny. For this reason, anorexia and bulimia are growing in the country of Iran. An American size 2-4 is common here, and most girls are only between 5’ – 5’2” tall. As a girl standing 5’4” myself, I’m taller than most and with 3 inch heels I tower over most everybody and my American size 6-8 clothing size are on the medium-large scale. Iranian girls are just tiny… not just skinny, but tiny. The clothes are cheap, cheap, cheap (and not in a good way) with glued on gems and bad stitching and terrible styles that only an 8 year old girl or maybe a hooker from the 80’s would wear, or your grandmother from the Philippines… so do not plan to update your wardrobe for pennies on the dollar in Iran. But the costume jewelry, fake designer bags that can be pretty nice if you’re into that sort of thing and the scarves are worth buying. Only a few kinds of Americans living in the United States fuss with high-end designer brands and the vast majority of them are Jersey Shore addicts. You know the type… the girl that was born in Jersey and wears light pink lipstick and thick liquid eyeliner with the Italian nose and dark tan. These are the only girls you’ll see sporting tons of Gucci in the states. Affluent international globetrotters buy the higher end fashion brands, but what normal person wants to spend $3500.00 USD on a handbag when you can get the fake for $20 bucks and it looks real. The knock-offs here aren’t the hot-glue-gun cheezy fakes you find in the states… but the fakes in Iran are actually pretty believable and in a variety of styles you don’t find in the states at all. I haven’t seen one of those popular LV bags with the green and pink print on the cream leather everyone identifies with in the states, but lots of other LV bags with different designs and lots of designers. I’m not into the huge tacky Chanel hoops but I saw some LV sets with the nice earrings and a finely crafted necklace I wouldn’t mind owning… they’re fakes of course but still nicely made and no one in the states will know. We as Americans don’t ever see fake merchandise unless you go to the seedy part of town and it typically looks like crap. Otherwise we see all the real stuff as we pass it by in Macy’s on the way to buy a new blender or pair of shoes or something. The scarves if you like scarves are lovely and many are made of silk and affordable in the small scarf shops all over Iran.
Whose NOSE in Iran?
Iran is the “nose job” capital of the world. It used to also be a very popular location for medical tourism for the purpose of cosmetic surgery, but since the recent flight of some of the country’s most talented and qualified surgeons within the past few decades for both political and social reasons, the specialization has narrowed down to one particular procedure that the Iranian people just can’t distance themselves from. There is a beauty culture in Iran coupled with one feature common to Iranians that separate them from the more delicate Europeans that Iranians so desperately try to replicate- the large Iranian nose. Iranians typically have rather large noses with a large bump on the bridge, which they get rid of as soon as they can afford it. Many can’t afford it, so having such a procedure done has become a status symbol. Many wear their nose bandages proudly. I’ve seen them on men also, and even bandages put on the noses of mannequins displaying fashionable clothes on the streets of Iran. It’s a strange counter from the extreme solitude one in the west seeks when recovering from any cosmetic surgery. I’ve also seen some horrible plastic surgery blunders while I’ve been here with fishy lips and thimble noses that are completely disproportionate to the rest of the face. I’ve also been in the waiting room of an ENT’s office as I have a deviated septum and wanted to get it fixed for $1500 USD rather than $4000 USD. The waiting room was packed and people flowed in and out of the doctor’s office in a manner you never ever see in the US. When I finally saw this famous nose surgeon of Iran, he was wistfully looking off into la-la land, sitting at his desk completely exhausted after hours and many, many patients with their concerns and demands. He took a look at me and said, “You don’t need nose surgery, your septum is only external and is not causing breathing problems.” I said, but one nostril is smaller than the other… can’t you fix it? Then he started explaining how they would cut my nose open and operate on the bridge of my nose and how it would make my nose look funny. I said look Doc, I don’t want the “Iranian Special”. I have no bump, but my septum is deviated and I want to Pay to have it fixed. He basically said no and sent me off for a second opinion. I never bothered as it seems these doctors don’t know how to do anything but remove the bump. Oh well, better safe than sorry.
By the way, doctor’s offices and hospitals… they’re not the gleaming towers of glass and architectural genius standing proud that make you believe that you will be cared after by highly paid, highly trained professional in a sterile and professional environment. Nope… hospitals in Iran slightly resemble the homes, but just bigger. They’re bunkers of concrete with iron bars on the windows to keep out thieves looking to steal medicine or medical equipment. Also the rubbing alcohol is Ethyl alcohol here and has had an additive added to it that makes it look and smell exactly like cheap tequila and will make you violently ill if you drink it. Apparently in an Islamic, alcohol-free country the size of Iran they’ve had to take these kinds of measures to make sure people don’t resort to drinking Ethyl alcohol in lieu of liquor. It won’t make you sick if you apply it topically, and we used it on my 2 year old after she got her ears pierced. Doctor office beds can be lined with newspaper instead of the nice roll out onion paper we find on the clinic chairs of the west.
Take a Seat!
In Iran, it must be obvious just by the fact that I’m American that more than a few things would strike me as odd. Customs from other countries are just that way… they surprise you in ways you never expected. However, one of the things I really didn’t expect, and soon came to both consider charming and a bit of a nuisance, were the hordes of Iranians just… sitting around! Ok, let me explain – I’m not talking about in chairs, in buildings or what have you… I mean, culturally, Iranians have this thing with just hunkering down anywhere and having a chat. You’re looking at the screen right now with a raised eyebrow like “what, there are people sitting in the isles of the grocery stores or something?” Well… not really… but, there ARE people sitting on blankets in the parking lot. And in the grass. And next to the road. Everywhere… people sitting around, full out camping on a blanket with friends or family, hot tea brewing, hookah bubbling, having a great chat and a laugh. This happens across the country yes, but it’s especially prevalent in the city of Shiraz and surrounding towns. The night life of Iran is amazing, and a huge majority of the people who make up that activity are simply covering any bare space you could find on the ground that isn’t in direct foot or road traffic. It’s incredible, but certainly causes you to keep an eye out every time you pull into a parking lot so that you don’t run over some poor girl or guy sitting on the ground, or their child who might be romping around somewhere. So a word to the wise: if… and that’s a big IF for the non-native visitor, you do happen to make it behind the wheel of a car in Iran, the quick paced buzzing around of traffic slows down in the parking lots and around where there’s heavy foot traffic for more than a few reasons and this is one of them. Iran has one of the highest vehicle related fatality rates in the world. I even saw a poor road worker laying on the ground surrounded by his co-workers and some pedestrians … and I’ll be honest, I really believe he was dead. In the states, there’d be ruckus over that kind of thing… people would circle round, cry for help… the cops and the ambulance would come roaring around the corner and there’d by crying and shock… but in Iran there’s just so much night activity, so many people and road accidents are so common… not to mention the fact that I was in Tehran and not some small little town, that sometimes horrible things just happen. People continue having dinner, driving by, etc. People care, but if you dare slow down to help you’ll likely become a fatality yourself, so you just go on with your life and pray for the poor person which was all I could do. I still wonder if he survived.
A Smile Says a Thousand Words
Seeing a lively conversation with smiles on the street is rare. I don’t mean in circumstances of elevated social activity such as the bustling night life I was just talking about, but more like during the day out in public. You don’t really see women standing outside a store chatting and having a good laugh. Conversations that inspire whole-hearted laughing has been, through the observance of modesty, considered something reserved for private conversations or possibly seen as a slightly inappropriate display. In private settings however, the wonderful and passionate spectrums of lively personalties, humor and wit are openly celebrated and a delight to be around. It is in public and especially professional settings where you will find things the most solemn. Whilst visiting Iran and meeting an Iranian friend whom I knew from the states, I was even told of a story of how she was taken aside and politely reprimanded for “laughing too loud” at work. One just has to understand the cultural landscape of Iran to fully comprehend why this may have been an issue at all. Even though all this is true, never the less the human need for social interaction and kindness lies just beneath the surface of Iranian society. Maybe it was because I didn’t look like a local, or maybe it was because a smile just for the hell of it was uncommon, but when I looked someone in the eye and gave a kind smile, I got one right back with a strong tone of curiosity almost instantly. I’m sure that the young generation of Iran and its infatuation with the west coupled with the fact that I’m American helped my chances of getting a good response from most of the strangers I smiled at, but truthfully it was all I could offer as I can’t speak Farsi. I would have had a thousand conversations by now if I could communicate with the people of Iran, because I am just as curious about them as they seem to be about me. When I smiled at any Iranian I saw, people seemed surprised to find kindness, and I can tell that they need more of it. Iranians are a lot of things, and what they are depends on who you are to them. The following format is the easiest way for me to explain to you what to expect, depending on who you are to a typical Iranian considering that you’re a typical white American. If you’re American and are a:
Stranger- If you’re a stranger to an Iranian, expect them to be distant and dismissive. If you’re light colored in your eyes and skin, you may get some very rude and intrusive staring. Iranians don’t have any shame when just staring at a foreigner that they’re curious about, no matter if you’re eating or having a private conversation, they’ll just stare at you. Don’t ask me why they never realized this is rude. It’s like a “deer in headlights” kind of stare, completely oblivious to the fact that you might not appreciate it, even if you flash them an aggravated look.
Shopper- If you’re a shopper, you should bring a native Iranian with you to speak for you. Speaking English and having a sketchy understanding of money will get the price of almost anything tripled or you may get back less change than you’re supposed to. Also remember that anything American like clothing or even Coca-Cola or Pepsi is much more expensive overseas than in the states because it’s imported. If I wanted an 8oz can of Coke in the Turkish airport, I needed to pay $5.00 USD (United States Dollar). That’s right… 5 bucks for a can of coke. It’s not so expensive in Iran but the labels have Iranian writing on them also so this makes me think that maybe the coke in Iran is produced closer to Iran than America to lower costs and increase sales. Also something else I thought was totally strange, is several times since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten back gum or some small item as change if they don’t have change to give me. In America not getting money back would be unacceptable but here it’s common, even if you need the change more than the gum you just gotta frown and accept the item. To clarify, what I’m saying here is that if you for example go to a store to buy shampoo and give them money, and they don’t have the proper exact change to return to you, you may get an item back as “change”. There’s no discussion really as to what you’re willing to accept in lieu of your money… they just chose an appropriately valued item in comparison to the change you should have got, hand it to you, and expect that to be the resolution to the transaction. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens and you should be prepared to know it’s fairly common, so you don’t think you’re being singled out and start screaming in the middle of the store calling the owner or cashier a crook.
Friend- If you’re a friend of an Iranian in Iran, expect them to be very accommodating. Iranian culture treats friends and family with much more care than strangers. Maybe it’s because in such a socially and politically turbulent environment not everyone can be taken in instantly as an acquaintance. Maybe you’d go meet a friend of your husband’s family or someone you think is nice, then they introduce you to others that are of like mind and you sit over tea and they “feel you out” and this is how you make friends. It doesn’t happen fast and takes time and often several outings and gatherings to allow others to relax around you. I know it sounds like a James Bond movie, but spies aren’t impossible in Iran and as an American you’re instantly looked at with suspicion. Also, until you really know someone, you’ll likely be told exactly what you want to hear. Iranians are experts at surviving in places where eyes and ears are everywhere so you can’t blame them. Really though, remember to avoid conversations about the four topics to stay away from. To recap: Sex, Death, God, and Politics. This way, if you are being lip serviced by someone in Iran, it’s not because the topic is a questionable one, but rather because they’re just being polite.
Family- If you’re arriving as a new family member that has married into an Iranian family, you will most likely be greeted with the warmest of welcomes. You should expect a very warm welcome, lots of invites to dinner and lots of people offering to take you around town and show you the sites, etc. When invited to dinner, it’s really difficult to say no as Iranians tend to be an emotional people and take such things very personally, coming to the conclusion that you don’t want to see them. It can be really a huge pain for an American as in the US it’s easy to come up with some small reason to not pick yourself up, get ready and go to someone’s house for hours. This was an issue for me and often the notice you get is only a few hours before you have to be there. To Americans this seems rude or pushy to ask someone to come to dinner last minute but It’s common in Iran to receive many spur of the moment invites so it’s just something you have to grit your teeth and bare. When going to someone’s house for dinner, it’s custom to bring sweets which you can pick up at any bakery. I’ll post a picture for you of what you should bring, and they sell for about $6.00 (six dollars) for almost 6 pounds of pastries. You just asked for a “mixed” assortment and there you have the perfect gift to bring to any dinner. Again, give these instructions to someone who speaks Farsi (Iranian) so they can go with you and purchase them so you don’t get ripped off.
The last paragraph on this topic that I have for you will make all the difference in the world when being befriended, accepted, or re-invited over to a home of someone you wish to make a good impression on. Consider this advice for communicating with people in general that you’re being introduced to, whether it is extended family or friends of people you know or are meeting. Behind the hustle and bustle of Iranian life, in the homes of Iranians lies a deep and layered culture that has lasted for thousands of years. The people of Iran have a long history of advancement in all ways of life, and the idea of social graces and formalities during social visits has been established for a long, long time. You should have a good understanding of how to carry yourself around elders, in-laws, parents and professionals. The observance of a good upbringing and clear understanding of respect and etiquette in mixed company is vastly important. I can’t over state how much others impressions of you will rely on the subtle nuances of body language and displays of respect and courtesy that you show as a grown and self-aware adult.
Learn how to sit, speak and act around men, women, and strangers. It’s a good start to note that no matter if you’re a male or female, you should never seem completely comfortable sitting directly next to, or in the company of adults of the opposite sex. That’s not to say that you should seem uncomfortable, however understanding the Islamic foundation of beliefs in Iran and how Islam encourages modesty seems to cause sitting directly next to someone else’s husband for example a bit uncomfortable as it can seem “immodest”. If you’re a female, make an effort to sit nearer to your husband or other women than other men in the room. If the sexes have taken to different rooms meaning men in one room, women in the other, then feel free to assume you can comfortably sit wherever you please. But still observe an air of “asking permission” by giving polite glances and seeming to wait for an invitation to sit. Don’t be overwhelmed by this last paragraph or two. If you’re already aware of good manners in the west and know how to impress for example your new beau’s parents, then these are the rules to follow when out in society. Imagine you’re a boy picking up your prom date from her house and her mother invites you in for pictures and maybe a chat. Those same, slightly stuffy bits of formality that you would practice at these times will get you far in Iran, especially if you’re looking to be accepted by your new spouse’s family, or something of a related nature. Things may relax over time, but never seem so comfortable that all formality is lost, or it will translate that you were being dis-genuine when you presented yourself in the past as a well-mannered and moderately modest lady or gentleman. If you’re lucky, there are people who you will be able to be “completely” comfortable around in time, and I hope that those people include your in-laws. I was lucky, as my in-laws are very down to earth people, and after I treated them (my new in-laws) with the respect that they deserved and displayed myself as a competent, polite, grounded woman, we were able to relax around each other with in about a week’s time to where I was wearing my jammies around the house and laughing at jokes about the un cooked lambs head they make me hold because they thought it would be funny to watch me squirm. Haha.
The Missing Lunchtime Hours
Ok, so you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about here. Do they not eat lunch? How is the lunch time hours missing? Well allow me to explain. The entire country of Iran pretty much shuts down between the daylight hours from around 1pm-4pm. Now, you’re probably raising an eyebrow right now. You’re thinking, “Wait… so when the rest of the world is wide awake, when the NYSE is in full swing, when movies are being made, deals are being done and my afternoon power drink is just kicking in, people in Iran are going home? To do what? Do they work from home? How does business happen?” I know, it was hard for me to wrap my head around too. I had a friend from a Gulf Arab country whose wife would take afternoon naps every day, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
Was she THAT lazy? THAT dismissive of her family that she just crawled into bed at 2pm and slept through the busiest time of the day? Well boy was I in for a rude awakening. So, here’s a rough explanation of what happens every day in the Middle East, and how it’s going to both be a relief and a major pain in the ass to you.
So Iran, along with its piping hot Middle Eastern neighbors is…. well, hot. It’s no secret. They may say there are other places hotter than Iran, and cite some of the spots on earth that are like an inferno, but due to the moderate climate us westerners come from, all of the middle east is pretty much an unbearable oven in the afternoons.
Even though Arabs and Persians grew up in this climate, they don’t want to go outside and work in a sweatbox either for 4-5 hours. The air conditioning is… sub-par to say the least in comparison to how cold an air conditioning unit can get a home in the west. The reason is just that there’s more moisture in the air here in western nations.
I’m not going to write two long paragraphs on how most air conditioners work, but just think of going outside on a hot summer day and seeing the puddle of water under your air conditioning unit. That is water that was pulled from the air as it was super cooled from hot and humid, to cool and a bit dryer, and that water plays an important role in cooling the air. So homes in Iran are rarely “crispy” cool, unless maybe you live in the mountains because Iran does not have the moisture in the air that the west does. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the air conditioners work all together differently overseas than they do in the west. In the states, the air conditioning units use the already present moisture in the air to cool the air, but the units in the middle east have to be filled with water, which saturates a “sponge” that the air is then pushed through via a fan. Over time, the water evaporates and has to be replenished. In a home, part of the water system moves through the walls and supplies the house with the moisture needed to make effective the in-home air conditioning unit. These units work ok on a larger scale in a home, but on the smaller scale, your room just eventually turns into a humid sauna.
Anyway, because of the heat, people retreat inside to have lunch, and then take a nap. Yes, some people go home, relax, eat a big meal, and sleep in the middle of the day. Well ok, allow me to correct myself – not some people. I’m saying this is a nationwide, culture wide, continent wide practice. I’m saying Arabs do it. Persians do it. Some north and perhaps central and southern Africans do it. Maybe even some Asian countries do this… they all shut down to a degree, and go nap off the afternoon during the hottest daytime hours. Driving through the streets of Iran at 3pm in comparison to noon or 7pm is just bizarre. Every business is closed and the streets for the most part are quiet. Then, around 5pm, restaurants open, stores open, and the streets are bustling with people on foot until around 10:30pm. What the Iranians miss during the day in life, social opportunities, shopping and eating, they make up for in the evenings.
However, I’m not the napping type. If I nap in the afternoon, I wake up with a terrible headache and no motivation to do anything. It’s pretty much the equivalent on my body of sleeping until noon. It’s just too much sleep, or the wrong time for sleep… or something. I would just watch the news or eat some pastries and tea. My husband however still naps, even though he’s lived in the US for a decade and now Canada for a while. His body grew up with afternoon naps, and he has to push himself to make it through a western work day without feeling so exhausted that he could just crawl under his desk and take a nap… and food (lunch in particular rather than snacks, etc.) seem to trigger the sleepiness. The psychology of it is very interesting to me, but the resulting sleepiness during the time of day when I wish my spouse would come roaring home from work ready to push through the rest of the day with a sense of energy and productivity drives me ABSOLUTELY INSANE. He always comes home so tired he can hardly move, and it’s crippling on any activities we could get used to doing on our rare days off together as a family. On Saturdays, if we’re out in town, he’s begging me to go home around 3pm so he can take a nap. I was raised to be up and kicking all day, and on the weekends I have a long list of things I want to do, so it definitely puts a kink in our lives… however I have to admit it bothered me a lot less after I visited Iran. Now that I understand the root of his behavior, I get down on him less, though it still drives me nuts.
Ok, here’s the skinny on driving in Iran. If you’ve never done it, or haven’t done it in years and years, don’t do it. You’ll most likely kill yourself and someone else. Iran has one of the highest mortality rates on the roads of any country in the world and the reason why is the cut-throat, ruthless, finely tuned driving style of the country of Iran. It’s the roller derby of driving. It’s the mosh pit of driving. You just don’t want to try it. Most cars are manual stick shift with a tiny engine so you need to be a professional at driving stick. Also you need to be a predator on the roads, and last, you need to speak the language of the roads of Iran. Flashing your lights in America means, “Go Ahead”. In Iran, it means the opposite… “Don’t cross me, or Don’t come”. The horn is an absolute necessity when driving in Iran. Honking the horn can mean anything from “Hi”, to “watch out I’m coming”, to “Start Moving”, to “You’re an *&$#@!$ *&%#*^ !!!”. Not having a functioning horn in Iran will in all likelihood get you into an accident on your first day driving. People will pull from their parking spaces with every intention of cutting you off until you honk at them, and only then will they give you the right-of-way. Not honking to tell someone you’re going too fast to slow down in time to allow them to merge with traffic will cause a deadly collision because these people don’t use good judgment on the roads. The only thing they respect is that you’re as much of an ass as they are, and you’re not stopping for them and you have to make that clear with the ‘Beep’ of your horn. Also, note that if you get the thumbs-up on the road, it’s the Iranian equivalent of the middle finger. So if your new mother-in-law cooks an especially delicious dinner, no thumbs-up, ok? One last thing, my husband and I went through the painful process of bringing the car seat to Iran from the states. It ended up saving our 2 year olds life in a car accident we had. Yep, that’s right… I was in Iran for only two months and had a car accident. Wear your seatbelts. American car seats far out standardize the ones you can buy in Iran, so if you have a toddler or small child, bring a car seat with a 5 point harnessing system and use it. If your new in laws have an especially small or old car, make sure the back seat has seatbelts as some don’t. If there’s no seatbelts, you can’t install your car seat. Reading this, you may be thinking to yourself, “Bringing a car seat to IRAN from the west is just unreasonable. My life will be miserable. My hands will be full the entire trip in the airport. It’s an awkward item to lug around. Where am I going to put it? Do I have to pay extra? And then I’m supposed to lug it all the way back? Can’t I just get one there?” Well here are the answers to your questions: No, it is not unreasonable. I can reason it easily, in that it will most likely save your child’s life. Yes, your hands will be full… but I was able to fix my car seat in a very crafty fashion with all its straps to my carry on, and roll it around with the luggage handle as support. So perhaps you can figure out a way to transport it without actually carrying it. You check the car seat just like a stroller. I don’t know if you have to pay extra, but my inclination says yes. I don’t know if it would be a full luggage charge, but it will most likely be extra. Don’t even plan on bringing it back. Just leave it there. Consider it a $200 peace of mind cost, and leave it with a family member or someone in need. Buying one there is not an option. Yes, they do have car seats, but they’re the lowest of the low on quality scale. You’re lucky if they have more than one across the lap belt though most don’t, and look like they’re built for your childs doll rather than your child. This is why no one uses them. It’s the difference between the three-wheeled jogger stroller you spend $300 bucks on, and the $10 dollar stroller your daughter has for their favorite baby doll. That’s no exaggeration.
Taxis are usually unmarked cars with a guy driving his own vehicle charging people to give them a ride. It’s often to see the car either empty with just the driver, or a few customers going to different destinations in the same car. People in Iran share Taxi’s. As you walk along the streets you’ll constantly have them pull over and honk to see if you want a taxi. Don’t use these alone if you’re a foreigner as the guy could take you anywhere and god knows what’s next. I’m not saying that’s common, or to be expected, but travel with a partner, and one of you needs to speak Farsi as most people in Iran are pretty behind on their English. Also, don’t speak if you’re American as they’ll automatically raise their rates. You’ll need a Farsi speaker anyway to give the address and talk about prices so just leave that to them and enjoy being whipped around town by an experienced Iranian driver. It can be pretty exciting, and knowing the amount of time they have driven on the roads, I felt the most safe in the vehicle of a taxi driver. Watching them graze past another vehicle with the distance of .10 of an inch at 20 mph without a second thought was pretty fun!
Typically buses don’t have air conditioning but have large windows that usually open. Most of them also have curtains on the windows. Women sit in the back, men in the front. Bring someone who speaks Farsi and knows the area before getting on a bus. You’ll need a guide to not get lost as many cities in Iran are huge and spread out and if you’re alone there’s no telling what can happen or how you’ll get home or even be able to explain where home is if you can pin point it in the first place. Tehran from the eye reminded me a lot of Mexico city… a huge, spread out labyrinth so don’t underestimate the importance of always knowing where you are, and how to get back home.
A short bit on the cats of Iran because they really deserve a spot in my article and have found a place in my heart. My mental image of Iran without its feral populace of cats just wouldn’t be the same. Part of Iran’s identity to me, is its cats. These guys are some of the truest survivors of Iran, living off the garbage of the streets. Finding old food, fruits and vegetables and bread is common on the sidewalks outside the markets of Iran. The cats take full advantage and live a relatively healthy lifestyle. This doesn’t mean they aren’t riddled with diseases because they are so don’t try getting cozy with the kittens you might see. They also have a reputation for entering homes in Iran through open windows and doors, especially at night. In fact, my father-in-law had an entire stack of bologna munched into by a cat who had enough balls to enter the house and hop up on the kitchen counter while we were at home, just not in the kitchen at the time. When in Iran, if your windows don’t have screens, close them to keep the cats out at night. Cats of Iran come in every color imaginable and if cleaned would be some of the prettiest strays I’ve ever seen. Spots, dots and stripes, colored ears, tails and paws, blue eyes, brown eyes and long whiskers, the stray cats of Iran have no problem keeping the population strong, and the endless color and pattern mixtures making you smile. You often see kittens roaming around, but don’t underestimate these little street cats. They’re wild as a mountain boar and cunning as a fox. I once saw one climbing a smooth steel pole. Don’t ask me how.
Exchanging money can be tricky in Iran. There are several factors that make money exchange a pain. Banks don’t exchange money here like most other places, but the places that do exchange money aren’t marked with clear signs in English to let the traveler know where to go. They are small, dark rooms filled with people hollering and negotiating. It feels somewhat like a tiny, third world version of the madness you see on the floors of the Stock Market Exchange on CNN when things are in full swing. If you’re exchanging a large amount of money, bring some trustworthy and beefy guys with you to make sure no one robs you or tries any funny business. There will be people in the street that you pass by first, saying they’ll give you the best exchange rate for your money. Pass them by nicely and make your way inside where you’ll find out what they’re offering inside. Exchanging money in Iran takes some shopping around for the person who will give you the best deal. In first or second world countries, there would be a nice booth for money exchange where you can see the current value of your money against the other currencies of the world in live time. But in Iran, the internet is so darn slow that you’ll never see a live rolling marques of stock information or anything that requires a fast internet connection and a pricey display board. These money exchange places can be scary and overwhelming, so bring a few natives of Iran to help out. Also, don’t exchange all your money at once if you don’t have to. Your money may be worth more tomorrow, less the next day, and more the next day. TV stations like Aljazeera have daily currency updates in English, or you can look online if you can find something faster than dial-up to keep up with your currency and it’s raising or falling value.
TIPS & ADVICE
The following is a list of tips and advice for traveling to Iran and wraps up this article. Thank you for reading!
Get a Chador so you can enter the Mosques. They’re covered with millions of tiny pieces of mirrored glass on the inside and are quite remarkable but you need a Chador to enter the nicest ones. No horseplay while inside and keep control of the kids to not disturb people praying or making Duuah’ (making a special prayer or request to God for someone or something).
Cover the majority of your hair when in public. As you stay in Iran you’ll get a feeling for what’s comfortable for you and acceptable in public. Arrive at the airport wearing a shirt that covers your butt and arms and have all your hair covered to avoid any authorities pulling you aside to talk about your clothing. Once you’re in Iran it may be more relaxed but airports are a government run institution so no pushing boundaries there. Same rule goes for police stations, universities, or places of religious significance or political significance. Imagine the clothes that Pakistani’s wear… you never see those here but they cover your body perfectly. I was told No sandals and Yes sandals by many people, but the truth is sandals account for 70% of the shoes sold in most shoe stores in Iran. However, a warning about sandals… over time the heat and low humidity and dust will turn your feet to sandpaper on the bottom, and after a year back I still am struggling to get them back to their original smoothness.
Bring everything you can from home, any personal hygiene products, hair or make up products, skin care creams, lotions, medications and so forth. Many cosmetic and hair products here are fakes sold in original containers. Don’t ask me how they do it, but you don’t want to suffer a reaction from some cheap Chinese make-up or skin cream that you thought was Este’ Lauder or Clinique or even Dove or something else. If you want to buy beauty products at a discount, once you cross into the international section of your airport you’ll see the Duty Free (import tax-free) stores. Go have a blast.
An adapter you can get here but make sure your hair dryer and things can go from the US voltage to the European voltage. Your laptop and iPhone should be ok to use with an adaptor. Just read the information for your electronics and what voltages they can take.
Borrow a cell phone from a family member that is active in Iran and make sure you can call family that speaks English in case of an emergency. Note that if you get too far out of town you lose cell phone signal.
Always keep your ID on you in a safe place whether it’s your Iranian birth certificate or US ID if you’re travelling with a tour group. Always make sure you can contact your tour guide or stay close.
NEVER take your passport with you out! Bring a color copy with you if you want, but leave the original safe at home, hidden well or locked. If you have to keep it with you, make sure it’s in the zipped part of a purse or zipped pant pocket. If you’re a westerner and in a tour group, you’re an automatic target for thieves and they’re experts and sliding in and out of your purse without you knowing it.
Try to only eat street food that comes from a somewhat clean street vendor.
Try the Pomegranate Ice Cream, and all the other flavors they offer!
Fruits and veggies are not spray-ripened or engineered so keep an open mind about spots on the fruit. They’re much more delicious here in Iran than the states. Rinse well before eating.
The tap water in cities like Shiraz are surprisingly delicious, as each tap is connected to a giant underground well which is filtered and supplied to the general populace. If you like Dasani, you’ll love Shiraz tap water.
Try the carrot juice and vanilla Ice cream drink that’s popular along side shops that also make an Iranian dessert originating from the city of Shirz, called “Faloodeh”, which is really just rice noodles in icy, sweet syrup with rose water. Any Iranian, and especially one that’s been to a city like Shiraz should know what I’m talking about.
Go to Persepolis and take photos.
Always ask before taking a picture of anyone, and never take pictures near or of military bases or soldiers. And don’t go gingerly snapping off photos of the leader’s picture either. (Duh.)
When offering something to someone, hand it to them with one hand, and extend the other hand out with your palm up next to the item at the same time, or hold an item with two hands rather than one if it’s too heavy or awkward. It’s a sign of respect. Do this especially for parents and elders.
Don’t flaunt that you’re an American and talk about how much Iran sucks or how much it smells, so forth. I’m not saying that I felt that way, in fact I really enjoyed my stay and now that I’ve returned to the west want to plan a return trip soon, however if YOU feel this way, please keep it to yourself.
Don’t give lots of details about anything that might be used against you about your life to people… even new family members. You just never know… pretend you’re in a James Bond movie. It sounds silly but it’s better than bragging about all the alcohol you can drink, pork you can eat and sex you can freely have in the west.
Stay cool in the hot weather by wearing very light clothing, and try to stay away from layers. Also, be open minded to doing your laundry by hand. The good news is when hung in the sun, it will be completely dry within an hour in the mid afternoon heat of summer as Iran is a very, very dry country with very little moisture in the air so any water evaporates in a very short period of time.
Always be prepared to remove your shoes when entering a person’s home.
And the most important,
Have fun, and bring back a bunch of wonderful memories!