If someone called up one day and asked you: “Do you want to go to Iran”, what would you say?
I would imagine for most, it wouldn’t be an instant yes. Iran is not exactly a window-card destination at your high street Thomas Cook. Most of what we think we know about Iran, is usually based around what the media tells us, what the government tells us (until recently, their advice was not to travel there at all), coupled with that natural level of ignorance which kind of combines all middle eastern countries into one big warzone sized heap of problems. “Iran, that’s ISIS right?”. Wrong.
It is perhaps odd then that when I was asked this very question a few months back, I said yes pretty much straight away. I certainly had the usual concerns one might expect. I never did the backpacking round the world thing. I usually plumb for decent digs, somewhere very much on the beaten track, and my holidays ordinarily revolve around a nice, easy, all inclusive package or city break. A destination to an Islamic country where you cannot drink, cannot wear shorts despite 40 degree heat, where there is no westernisation AT ALL, and where even your credit card doesn’t work… its an unlikely choice for me. So, why did I say yes? Well, I just thought, why not?
In truth, the opportunity seemed too exciting for me to pass up. It was to be an all-expenses paid trip, where I was asked to talk about using Big Data in Marketing, a topic I know lots about. It was the chance to speak at four different conferences across four Iranian cities. Being in-house, as oppose to agency side, there are not many chances to travel and speak about marketing, especially working in a law-firm that can only operate in England and Wales. I was also enticed by the enigmatic, interesting, friendly and slightly barmy organiser of the event, Hamid Sepidnam. Oh, and I have also never flown business class, so that was another good reason!
My experience was nothing short of spectacular. The true definition of a once in a lifetime adventure. Behind every corner was something surprising, amazing, unique or downright crazy. There was a decent number of us in our entourage, ranging from other European speakers, to local sponsors and organisers. This meant the trip had a real sense of camaraderie and togetherness and that made it even more special. There were so many great experiences, that I couldn’t possibly blog about them all. However, this is my Top Six takeaways and tips from my trip to Iran, which I share in the hope that other people can learn a little bit about the country, and hopefully be encouraged to go over there and check it out for themselves
1 – Iran is SAFE !!
One of the biggest fears expressed to me was that Iran was going to be an unsafe place to visit. This was led by the media impression of this country, and that of the region as a whole, combined with that perfectly natural fear of the unknown. The reality was that at no point during the trip did I feel unsafe (aside from the occasional car journey – the roads are pretty crazy!)
In all seriousness, it actually felt like one of the safest places I have been to. You could quite happily leave your luggage in a hotel lobby, go off and have a cup of tea and know that when you come back, it would still be there. I never had a sense of people resenting my presence as a westerner, I never felt like it was a bit ‘on top’ and I never felt uncomfortable in my surroundings. Indeed, the very opposite was true and we were welcomed and greeted in a friendly manner wherever we went. Like any city, you need to be sensible. Wherever you go in the world, if you are looking for trouble, you won’t struggle to find it. However, being respectful, sensible and self-aware when visiting strange lands is not difficult. I can say with certainty that Iran felt safe.
On one occasion, I walked alone at midnight down the main street in Mashhad, which is the most popular Muslim tourist city outside of Mecca. As I strolled down the road back to the hotel, I was pretty sure I was the only western white person on the block. The western media would have you believe I was in big trouble, but the reality was that it was just couples, families, and people going about their business. I was perfectly safe. That is how I felt for the entire trip. I certainly cannot say that about every western city I have visited. Everyone I met was keen to tell me that Iran is safe. Having been there, I believe them.
2 – There is no westernisation over there – nor much of a desire for it
Since the revolution in 1979 and various sanctions, Iran has essentially been cut off from the world. Therefore, it has not yet been taken over by the big western brands that one has been accustomed to seeing when visiting, well, pretty much anywhere. There is no McDonalds, no Starbucks. There are no Hollywood films, and no music from our neck of the woods. There is no real knowledge of western sports teams. This in particular surprised me: being from Liverpool football is usually one of the first things people will ask about. That or the Beatles. Neither seemed of interest over there. You might expect that the lack of knowledge or interest for western brands, films, music and sports would come from oppression or fear, and maybe over the years that has been the case. However, for me the reality was that there just wasn’t the interest there: their own music, films and food was what they wanted and all they needed. I rode in a car for 10 hours on a trip from Tehran to the Caspian sea, and every CD played was Iranian. There was no police in our car, its just what they wanted to hear. They are a proud, self sustaining, self believing nation. They’ve had to be for a long time. While the 5+1 deal probably means a McDonalds is on its way at some point, I am not sure they really need our culture. It is a very rare thing in life to walk the streets and everything be totally authentic. That was one of the lasting memories of the trip.
3 – The food is AMAZING – you will eat until you can’t move.
With me not being an adventure traveller, food was one of the things I was most worried about. However, it turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip. The event organiser and our host, Hamid, is actually a very famous food critic in Iran, known as Mr Taster. So armed with his knowledge of the best places to dine, we ate like kings. Every meal seemed to be a fully blown event. From the small local restaurants serving Dizi, a wonderful mashed up lamb stew, to eating freshly grilled kebabs sat on the floor of a Cabana outside of Masshad, the dining experience was sensational. The food is much more Mediterranean/north African than curry based. I loved it.
One thing to bear in mind, is the culture there seems to be to serve food until you are full and physically cannot eat any more. For me, that cut off point seemed to be well before the locals, and this sometimes left you feeling wasteful, or rude. I was never really sure whether culturally they wanted to get you to a position where you are full and refuse, ie, fully satisfied, or whether turning down more and more food was considered rude. However, this wasn’t a big issue, just one worth noting. A trip like this would always through up the odd cultural conundrum!
4 – You cannot dance in public, but the local music is made for dancing!
This one is self-explanatory, but still baffles me even now. The law is that you must not dance in public. I found this out when, at one of the conferences, between speakers, a violist played to the crowd. He was playing Iranian music (of course), sort of a cross between a Greek Taverna band and an Irish jig, with a little hint of an eastern /Bollywood feel to it. Perfect, for dancing. In the final song, everyone stood up and clapped along, and I started to tap my feet and move about a bit (the power of the music!). Thankfully, the person next to me nudged me and kindly shook their head. Afterwards I realised that its a big no no.
Sat in the car driving between two cities with the radio on, I noticed the local girl in the car next to me ‘hand dancing’ to the radio, keeping her hands below the line of sight of the car window. On another occasion driving through the mountains around the Caspian sea, we came upon a wedding car, parked on a quiet country road, the wedding party dancing to the radio, clearly enjoying the freedom to celebrate away from prying eyes in this quiet secluded spot. So dancing is clearly in the Iranian culture, in their blood, just dying to be free and come out. Something I am sure many of the locals hope may change in the coming years.
5 – The People are Iran – The people are amazing
Its somewhat a cliché to say that it is the people that make a city or country what it is. I guess though that if you have one impression of a country and then find the people to represent a very different sort of country, that really serves to shine a positive spotlight on those people. Iranian people are friendly. Like, super friendly. Everyone met us with a smile; from translators, to conference sponsors, to waiters, to businessmen, to government dignitaries. Everyone was pleased to meet us, and everyone was clearly interested to tell you about Iran. When they spoke to you, they did so with pride, respect and an overall tone of happiness. The welcome we received wherever we went was remarkable.
Clearly as rare western guests, there was a desire to impress us, and in-fact we were often quite a novelty to people, but that was ok. I think the our attendance in the country so soon after the 5+1 deal was signed, gave people an opportunity to really impress upon us the true nature of Iran. Their culture is for guests to be happy, to be satisfied, and content. As a guest of this county, almost at every point, I felt that way.
One trip in particular summed up the Iranian people. We visited the holy Shrine in Mashhad, the second largest Islamic pilgrim site in the world. Technically, as a non-Muslim, I am ‘not of god’, but when we asked if it was ok for us to go into the grounds and look around, they not only agreed, but sent for their English speaking volunteer to give us a guided tour. Half way around, the Imam came out to meet us, and freely answered questions about the religion as well as the shrine itself. It was super interesting. The architecture and ambience of the shrine was jaw dropping, just one of those moments that will stay with you forever. The welcome we received there was synonymous with the welcome we received right across Iran.
6 – Clothing – Its very hot and you’re very covered!
Iranian dress is very interesting, and again, not what I expected at all. In Tehran especially, it had quite a European, stylish feel to it. The Iranians are quick to tell you that they are Persian, not Arab, and this is reflected in the clothing. At times it had quite a cosmopolitan look to it. Not at all the white Arab robes and Burkas that one might expect.
Being an Islamic country, women do have to have covered legs, arms, and hair. However, this is something that I am told has relaxed a bit under the new regime. It seemed to me that the level of coverage seemed to correspond to how public the situation was. For example, when at the holy shrine, full coverage was expected. Up on stage speaking at the conferences, the headscarf had to be right to the forehead. However, walking around the streets, the headscarves seemed to be right at the back of the head, covering the back of the neck and any ponytail or bun they may have had. In more private situations around friends, the scarves would casually drop to the shoulders and no one seemed to mind. For me as a man, life was much easier, aside from not being able to wear shorts in 40 degree heat! T shirts were fine, thankfully !
Overall, Iran is an amazing country, and if you ever get the chance to go, I would highly recommend it. I am sure it helped that we had local people with us who could guide us around, so if you know someone or can make contact with someone through a tour operator who is from Iran, that would certainly help you get the most out of your trip. I don’t think its essential for safety to do so, I just think its good to have local people show you the wonders of this amazing, unique country.
There are not many experiences in life that are truly adventurous, or truly able to be described as once in a lifetime. However, I would have no hesitation in describing my trip to Iran as both of those things. I felt very blessed to be afforded the opportunity to go to this amazing place, meet so many amazing people, see so many amazing things, and come back with so many amazing memories. Thank you Iran.