A trip to Iran

This year we had the pleasure to have a bright young British intern in our Law Office for about a period of one month. John Macleod a student of Middle Eastern Studies in Cambridge University who speaks Farsi in such a way that you cannot believe your ears has shared with us his experience of living in Iran for five months. Below, you can read this short memoir in his own words:

Unfortunately, when people think about Iran nowadays, most will associate the country with ideas such as the American nuclear deal or its tense political relations with Saudi Arabia. However, studying Farsi on my year abroad I’ve had the opportunity to live in Iran for five months and experience Iran first-hand.

Although I spent most of my 5 months in Iran living and studying in the capital Tehran, what I enjoyed most was being able to travel throughout the country. Iran’s impressive and varied geography, its rich history and its culture makes it a great country to travel through. However, due to its international reputation and economic sanctions Iran’s tourism industry is fairly underdeveloped. This means that most tourist attractions will charge a foreigner ticket price that’s labelled in English and that can be as much as 7 times the price of the equivalent for Iranians. This lack of a tourism industry can also have its benefits, as was the case when I visited Chogha Zanbil. Despite Chogha Zanbil dating back approximately 5,000 years to the Elamite era and it being one of the only remaining Ziggurats in the world, there were no other tourists there and I was able to take in the ancient site without any other distractions.

Many Iranians will proudly state that Iran is a ‘four season’ country, not in the sense that there are four seasons throughout the year but rather if you travel throughout Iran you are able to experience all of the different aspects of summer, autumn, winter and spring. Scorching hot deserts, cool metropolitan parks, snow-topped mountains, and tropical humid forests. While I wasn’t able to see Iran in Spring, when its natural beauty is supposedly at its peak, I was still able to experience a decent amount of Iranian nature. Perhaps most impressive were the bioluminescent plankton in the Persian Gulf. These plankton glow at night when they are disturbed and leave a trail light as whenever the water moves. Sights such as these highlight Iran’s geographic beauty and it’s a shame they aren’t more widely experienced.

An important aspect of Iranian culture that will be very foreign to most first-time visitors is that of Tarof, a form of Iranian hospitality, manners and deference that is found in almost every part of daily life. In financial transactions the seller will initially refuse to give a price suggesting that ‘qaabel nadaareh’ it is worthless in comparison to you. In Tarof, the customer is supposed to then insist on paying for the item. In a similar way, when food arrives in a restaurant, Iranians will often offer it those sitting around them as a form of Tarof, of course not expecting anyone to take them up on the offer. This fairly unique cultural quirk comes in a variety of different forms and can often cause confusion but it is yet another interesting aspect of Iran’s rich culture and society.

Although Tarof is often criticised as being an insincere or superficial form of hospitality, many of the Iranians have a genuine passion for welcoming and being hospitable to guests, especially foreigners. Before I had even gotten off of the plane at the airport, I was approached by an Iranian who offered to help guide me through the airport security and offered to drive me to my destination. Couchsurfing, an app in which people offer to host travellers in their homes for free, is also widely popular in Iran. In one of my trips to one of Iran’s smaller cities, Hamadan, I received 10 different offers of places to stay within the two days before I travelled. My eventual host provided me with dinner, breakfast, a place to sleep and advice on where to go in the city, without accepting any form of payment.

From the experiences that I’ve had over these past five months in Iran, it would seem to me there’s a need to distinguish between a country’s international portrayal and what the realities of life in that country are actually like. While my experiences are obviously not a full and comprehensive insight into Iran as a country, neither are the often negative depictions that are espoused by leading figures and organisations.