Julie from Venus Adventures writes: “What! You’re going to Iran?!“ By the way my friends reacted to my announcement that I was going to Iran on holiday, anyone would have thought I had just flung a towel-cum-turban around my head and said that I was off to join Al Qaeda. I assured everyone it was probably an interesting country full of ordinary, nice people…and what if I rephrase that and say I am going to Persia, would that make a difference? Iran was formerly called Persia, but they both conjure up completely different images. Persia – land of flying carpets, exotic places and a certain untanglible Middle Eastern mystique. Iran – religious fanatics and women covered from head to toe in black. I had to see for myself. Thus began my travels accompanied by a Persian rug dealer friend, Nick, and a couple of his Iranian business partners.
My first cultural experience was the compulsory wearing of a headscarf. Now, my only experience with headscarves evolves from my childhood when my mother wore a scarf when she had curlers in. This was definitely not good for my image. On the streets, fashionable young muslim women wore attractive headscarves with quite a bit of hair showing and makeup – they looked chic. I looked like a 1950s Doris Day housewife. The more religious ones wore the black chador, which is kind of like a huge table-cloth thrown over your head and body – it covers all of you except for your face (which probably accounts for why Iranian women have the highest percentage of nose jobs in the world). Chadors are a hassle to wear, but great if you are having a bad hair day or haven’t shaved your legs in weeks – just toss one over your head, and voilà, you’re good to go! There’s something to be said for that, girls! The first time I had to wear one myself was to go to a mosque – I could not help but feel like I was dressed up as a ghost on my way to a fancy dress party!
Iranians, as with most Muslims, are hugely hospitable, and we were well-looked after wherever we went. Whenever entering a home we were always immediately plied with cups of sweet tea drunk from small glasses and a tray of fruit. The simplicity of a typical Iranian home is something I myself aspire too: the lounge usually consists of a room filled with beautiful handmade rugs, and cushions all round the edge of the room for sitting and leaning on. At dinnertime the lounge transforms into the dining room when a plastic tablecloth is laid in the middle of the room on top of the rugs. Out would come a banquet of rice, lamb kebab, plain yoghurt, bread and vegetables – and we would sit cross-legged (great for your stomach muscles) around the food, eating with our right hand from the communal dishes. Sharing food in this way seems to bond everyone – and somehow the food tastes better when eaten off your own hands!
Driving 5000 kms in 10 days we got to see a fraction of this vast country – we traveled through and across deserts, plateaus, and mountains. We visited wealthy urban Iranians in their plush houses and poor rural Iranians in their mud homes, and we saw Qashqaii nomads migrating with their flocks of sheep, goats and donkeys. We drank lots of tea, we bartered for rugs at the bazaars, we puffed on sheesha pipes as we chatted with locals. Western tourists are definitely a novelty, and we attracted a few curious stares, but heck, it was worth it to discover this beautiful and fascinating country.