Tom – It started at the border within about 3 minutes of being in Iran. A smart border guard bought me a hot chocolate as the paperwork for the car was processed. I sat drinking it wondering how much I would eventually be forced to pay for this “gift”. I then had to photocopy my documents. Another classic border guard scam because I obviously did not have any Iranian money so I had to change some with another customs officer. I’d expected this but not so soon. I was, however, totally wrong. The hot chocolate was indeed a gift and it turned out I had exactly the correct amount of money exchanged.
Iran if full of surprises but the biggest is the friendliness and honest kindness of the Iranian people. We had heard this before we came here but nothing had prepared us for the reality. Everyone is at great pains to communicate how pleased they are to have us in Iran. Passing cars beep their horns and shout out the window “Welcome to Iran”. Strangers often invite us to tea.ne family on a moped followed us through town to encourage us to come to their house. We were expecting a hard sell of something, but it turned out to be tea, biscuits, and fruit and they wanted nothing in return except our smiles and hand gesture communication. One
We have been royally entertained and spoiled by people we have never met before for the entire month we have been here. Everyone who has approached us (and there have been thousands) have been delightful and respected our space and privacy. We are told that half the population is not particularly religious and it is this half, the colorfully dressed, smiling half, who go to great lengths to welcome us and often tell us how embarrassed they are by their government. The other half are dressed in black, are polite and helpful but reserved and rarely approach us to talk unless we are on a bus sitting next to them when they chatter away and are just as delightful.
Iran definitely has a duality that we have not experienced in other countries. The conservative, religious side of headscarves, chadors and segregated buses, versus unsegregated public toilets and upmarket wedding photos where brides are in outfits that would make the girls in Newcastle Big Market blush. Alcohol is strictly prohibited but still drunk and drugs are widely available. Iran has a major drug problem and people have told us that 80% of Iranian families have experience of addiction either directly, or know someone close to them who is addicted. Some people have told us that the government almost encourages drugs as it keeps the large amount of educated unemployed youth in a state of apathy. Once it was pointed out to us we could not help missing the horrible scars on the arms of many young men. Apparently, they lacerate themselves when drugged up and we certainly saw plenty of evidence of this. By contrast, at the top end of society, the knife is also being used. Iran is the “nose job” capital of the world and young ladies sport with pride their nose bandages which, like train track teeth braces, have become a status symbol. We even saw the occasional man with nose bandages.
Another surprise is that in Turkey, every town village and hamlet has a shiny new, well-funded mosque. Minarets litter the landscape and like the rest of the Middle East, the call to prayer can be heard loudly amplified across the whole country. In Iran, we have only occasionally heard the un-amplified call to prayer and outside the big cities and towns mosques are discrete, somewhat impoverished buildings that are hardly visible in smaller towns and villages.
Political rhetoric has fuelled a lot of preconceptions about Iran in the West. Before we came here the kids looked up images of each country online. Petra had been keen to skip Iran after seeing lots of images of people being hanged! You can certainly get flogged in Iran. If unmarried teens are found in a compromising position it’s 30 lashes for the girl and 10 for the boy but we were told you can pay the lasher to stroke instead of lash. Certainly, not everything is perfect in the country but the people are about as close as it gets.
We are now about to leave Iran having been here a month and I have just been told that the thumbs up gesture means “up yours!” – another indication of the good nature of the people as I’ve daily given the thumbs up at every armed police checkpoint as they wave us past and we have no bullet holes in our rear door!