Iranian airspace: "Ladies and gentleman we will shortly be arriving at Imam Khomeini International Airport. Passengers are reminded to remain seated, while the aircraft prepares for landing." Anticipation runs through my body, as I hear the announcement. I look around me and I see women who have beautiful stylish hair reach into their bags, pull out a hijab, and wrap it around their heads. They are anticipating too, but what are we to expect upon our arrival?
This is my account of some of the things I found in this beautifully modern, but essentially ancient civilization and culture. A full account of my trip can be found here (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), but I wanted share with you six things that I saw and did in Iran.
Tehran is one of the most gridlocked cities in the world. You will get stuck in traffic jams at 12 at night, 3 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on a good day. It can take an hour to go 10 miles; a quick look at demographics reveals why. Tehran's residential population is 12-14 million and an addition 6 million people come into Tehran everyday to work.
Local driving habits turn an ordinary drive into a lethal sport. Once I was in a taxi on a busy highway and we missed the side road we were meant to turn into. My taxi driver, upon realizing that we had missed our turn, stopped the car and reversed it all the way down the highway until we reached our side road. Needless to say, I had the most intense religious experiences of my life while the car was reversing.
For a country where night clubs are illegal, Iranians do love to party. The north of Tehran is notorious for its house parties. Sexy young Iranians love to let their hair down and have masquerade balls, birthday parties, and Nowruz and New Years parties. There is almost always a party somewhere in Tehran — some people convert their living rooms and basements into discos with underground DJs, bootleg alcohol, and plenty of free love to go around.
Isfahan. The name alone denotes unrivalled beauty and splendour. Imagine the beauty of Istanbul and Taj Mahal and you've got Isfahan's Naqhs-e Jehan Square. Naqhs-e Jehan Square is the second biggest square in the world, with its lush gardens and fountains, bustling bazaars, and its extravagant series of palaces, mosques, and Islamic architecture. In the bazaars you can purchase handmade Persian rugs, ornaments, china, and glassware.
4. Social Etiquette
Iran's web of social etiquette, t'aarof, is so complex that I feel I would need to write a PHD on it just to cover the basics. T'aarof comes in many forms, from flattery and belittling, role-playing, to every kind of social interaction you can imagine. When you are hungry and offered food, it is polite to refuse the offer of food three times before accepting. You should also humble/belittle yourself before others. When I tried to pay for my taxi ride, the driver would refuse to accept my payment and say "Please, you're my guest. I am unworthy of your generosity." He would say this three times before accepting the payment.
Another form of t'aarof that I witnessed was when I was out with an Iranian girl. We spent the day together and she received over 20 phone calls that day, and she would have to show the same enthusiasm, shock, surprise, and delight for every phone call.
But where it really gets too much is at Persian weddings. When the registrar asks the bride do you want to take so and so as your husband, the first time he asks the bride's mother answers and says the bride is not here, she has gone to the market. And this repeats itself three times, after which the the bride finally says yes.
5. Valiasr Street
Valiasr Street in Tehran is reportedly the longest street in the Middle East and one of the longest in the world and is a great place to relax. It's full of American-style fast food outlets like McMashallah and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is also the local pick-up spot — young men in expensive cars cruise near the curb and if they see a girl they like on the pavement they will stop. And according to stories the locals told me, 8 times out 10 she will get into the car. Besides pickups, the street is where you come to do some serious shopping. It is full of expensive European brands.
6. Ancient Sites and Culture
Iran is full of museums and ancient sites, from the ruins of Persepolis to the National Museum of Tehran. But the biggest revelation was the abundance of art galleries, where you can find everything from Old Persian and Islamic art to modern Western art. There are plenty of Andy Warhols on display to keep you busy.
Something that really strikes you is that Iran is a very cultured place- beside art galleries, you can visit the Tehran street with a 1,000 bookstores on it. There you will find books on every subject from science, literature, and Persian translations of Western books. I saw Steve Jobs's biography prominently displayed in many bookstores.