Caveat: this is not an objective analysis of Iran, but the rather superficial observations of a tourist. It is very likely that life for Iranians differs grossly from what one sees and experiences during a 21-day trip through Tehran, Quom, Kashan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Sisakht, Kerman, Yazd, Khoor and Tehran. For the tourist, the effects of the authoritarian clerical regime are nowhere visible.
The Iranian People in General
The most striking experience is the friendliness, openness, curiosity and consideration of the people. They freely (also, and especially, women) approach foreigners, ask their whereabouts, test their own English, want to have their picture taken with the foreigners, interview them for school projects, giggle and are self-assured – in spite of their veils, their chador, their predominantly black outfits. Many younger women in the cities have their noses fixed, all of them their eyebrows plucked, many are heavily made up (maybe as a contrast to the chador?), and openly smiling at you. Young fathers carry their babies (no baby carriages are seen), children are invariably treated nicely, couples walk along (not holding hands), women walk alone in the evenings, also in parks – all in contrast to our European prejudice about suppressed Muslims.
A most moving experience, attesting to the deep cultural identity of the Iranian people, can be found visiting the shrines/graves of long deceased, beloved poets, e.g. Hafez and Saadi. These shrines are well-maintained canopied tombs in the middle of beautiful parks. Iranian visitors, mainly but not only women, many with small children, approach the tomb, put one hand on the railing or the tomb itself and murmur in deep reverence poems by these poets – which are part of the national identity and culture, and obviously deeply engrained in people’s consciousness. Where else can you see that? Yes, in some Christian sanctuaries in Europe’s South, people do that, praying to a saint of God. But here, they pay homage to a Poet!
Black veil and chador dominate, but depending on the person, are worn either assiduously or – especially with young, modern women – more casually. My impression was that in contrast to discussions in Europe Iranian women wear the chador and veil as an everyday garment, being used to it since childhood. Even though, the chador in its original form as a large black piece of cloth is an extremely cumbersome piece of clothing, since it requires both hands to hold together, thus restraining the usual activities, like shopping, baby-carrying, etc. Frequently, women liberate one hand by clinching a piece of chador between their teeth: also not all that practical.
In the cities, many women wear the veil very far back on their heads, but all women are constantly occupied by adjusting veil or chador. Many wear more overcoat-like chadors with sleeves – which gives them free use of their arms and hands.
Younger urban women seem to be extremely conscious of their hair and face. The cosmetics industry, both materials and beauticians/hairdressers must be booming. How much time they spend each day with their makeup and body hygiene I would not dare to speculate upon, but it must take a lot of time (and money). And this is obviously not only done for their husbands, but for all the world to see.
In the desert, in the mountains, in far-away locations you sometimes even see women „European style“, without their veils.
For the tourist, it is hard to ascertain whether the stories of the 1980s (after the Islamic Revolution), that in the cities Revolutionary Guards rode motorcycles lashing out at the legs of women without adequately moderate outfits, still holds today. Observing many street scenes, it would seem highly unlikely that these things still occur. I did not see anybody playing morality police.
Probably the outstanding feature of Iran which is covered more than half by desert and mountains. Most oft he country is extremely dry (exception around the Caspian Sea and along river valleys), stunning mountain landscapes border all kinds of deserts (reminiscent of Badlands, Monument Valley, stone deserts, sand dunes), with 4000 m plus peaks covered in snow. The contrasts between super-arid deserts and snow-capped mountains is striking, mountain shapes vary from Dolomite style to Cappadocian bizarrities. Much irrigation effort is expended, irrigation canals water agricultural production (pomegranate, nuts, figs, apricots, dates, grapes, etc.), quanats (aqueducts) bring water from the mountains into the cities: large water storage spaces underground, with wind-cooled high domes.
The vastness oft he country (20 times the size of Austria, nearly half the size of Kazakhstan) makes for a very varied landscape and different characters of the provinces – which is very refreshing and interesting. We conquered mountain passes 2.600 m high and descended into deserts at 300 m sea level, temperature differences of more than 25 degrees. Hikers would find a (dry) paradise, apart from the much-visited snow-covered Davanand, but the vast Elburs and other mountain ranges have no hiking infrastructure (huts, marked trails), apart from a few areas.
Iran has a GDP of more than 400 bill $, which yields a per-capita income of around 7.000 $, but around 17.000 $ on a purchasing power parity measure (World Bank Data), thus is classed a an upper-middle income country. Oil and gas provide 50% of the government‘s budget, prone to increase as sanctions are lifted, around 35% of GDP are exported, with more than 40% of GDP imported. Inflation runs at above 10%, the exchange rate has fallen from 14.000 rials per $ in 2012 to nearly 40.000 in 2016. Diversified manufacturing (cars, iron, building materials, machinery, textiles) and a high share of (personal) services, plus highly developed agriculture (under stress from lack of water). No energy problems, electricity nearly everywhere, gas pipelines into larger communities and factories.
As in many middle-income or developing countries, walking through the streets and bazaars one can observe a large variety of handicraft and artistic skills displayed in tiny and frequently, run-down workshops. Whether the government succeeds in raising taxes from these bazaaris is a matter of speculation.
Excellent cross-country road system, but still many dirt roads to smaller destinations. Roads in cities and sidewalks are amazingly clean, along the country roads, ubiquitous plastic detritus. Roads are well maintained. Unusual driving habits, in cities no honking of horns, very considerate millimeter-exact driving, surprisingly smooth if heavy traffic in cities, giving full attention and consideration to drivers who want to U-turn, double-park, getting into roundabouts: self-regulated chaos with considerable problem-solving capacity. In cities, pedestrians are the only ones not being given the right of way, thus crossing streets is challenging. During 21 days and 4.500 km driving we saw only one car slightly damaged in an accident. Motorcycles abound, sometimes carrying 4-member families (one baby on the gas tank, another, smaller one wedged between father and mother). Women drive cars, but no motorcycles.
Beautiful mosques, mainly from 17th-19/20th (some earlier) century with delicate tile exteriors, the stunning main square in Isfahan, beautiful palaces with „Persian Gardens“ (7 are denominated as such by UNESCO, featuring water systems, ponds, plants), many restored, some made into restaurants or hotels. The latter are to be highly recommended as tourist accommodation, even if sometimes the trip to the shower and toilet takes a few minutes.
The rokoko-like interior of some palaces and mansions might not be to everybody’s taste, but are stunning. Extensive use of mirrors, gold and silver inlays, tiles in 7 colors make to admirer look in awe. Beautiful prayer niches and steps for the preacher are topped by amazingly skillful domes with stunning visual effects (e.g. in Isfahan’s Sheik Losfallah mosque, the dome is done in color-changing cream tiles, where in the late afternoon the sun rays give the impression of a peacock’s tail), etc., etc. Beautiful calligraphic Arabic writing is a usual feature in many mosques.
The vast Imam Square in Isfahan (530 by 160 m) is adorned with some of the most beautiful buildings (mosques and palace) of Iran and leads directly to one of the largest bazar mazes. Iranians proudly tell you that it is the second largest square in the world, topped only by Tianmen in Beijing. Its perfect symmetry and beauty (also including phallic Polo posts) attest both to the richness and aesthetic knack oft he Safavid (16/17th cent) sheiks. The bizarre music room in the palace, where the room walls are hollowed out into the shape of musical instruments, attracts more photographing tourists (both Iranians and foreigners) than I have seen anywhere in the world.
Persepolis is one-of-a-kind, both because of its age (pre-Alexander), its vastness and impressive features (gigantic back-to-back mythological figures (griffon, bulls, etc.) as column capitals), gigantic columns and rock graves. A number of Zoroastrian fire temples in beautiful locations, and „towers of silence“ (where the bodies oft he deceased were laid out for the vultures to clean the bones, so that the corpses would not contaminate the soil), the bridges of Isfahan give this 3500-year old culture a very special and unique touch.
Many bud-brick old caravansaries dot the landscape along the new/old roads, some of them beautifully restored as restaurants or hotels, with wooden platforms to lounge and eat on (sitting cross-legged with the food down in front of you is something for the young-uns. Much potential for restoring more of the old buildings remains.
Many walls of City Apartment buildings, many houses, many roads are adorned with giant painted protraits of “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In this way, this bloody aberrration is kept in the minds of People: they see their dceased loved ones every day and thus the Image of the Satan ( Iraq as the chosen example) is kept alive.
The larger cities have a very European flavor, more dusty, more hazy, more smog, more traffic, many small stores, some supermarkets, bazaars and many modern buildings. Small cities and countryside show large income and development differences. Iran clearly is a country „on the move“, with very uneven development: very rich side by side with very poor. Many resources seem to go to clergy-related purposes (Khomeini shrine near the airport in Tehran is a gold-adorned monstrosity, as are other shrines to Imams, their wives and their sons). Income distribution must be extremely uneven (according to World Bank figures, the lowest 20% own only 4% of all assets).
However, clergy is practically absent from the streets. One rarely sees a Mullah, the guards in the mosques and mausoleums are all civilians, guiding the (non-)believers with brightly colored whisks (in order not to physically touch the women). Individual farmers in the countryside live in very poor mud-brick huts, some kids have no shoes, life must be very hard. Shepherds roam the fields with flocks of sheep and goats, in the desert in the East a few camels are seen, but in general there is nothing green, only brown and beige soil and sand, with a few dry weeds to nibble on.
Cleanliness is an important part of Iranian culture. In every hotel, in every flat, in every mosque, shoes are taken off, plastic slippers stand ready, extra ones for the bathrooms. In many traditional restaurants, where they have a takht (sort of daybed) instead of, or in addition to, regular tables and chairs, after taking shoes off, the guests sit cross-legged on a carpet, a plastic tablecloth is put between the guests – not to be touched by the feet, on which the food is placed.
Many washing facilities in the streets and the villages, not only in front of mosques, much hand and arm washing going on. Squat toilets are standard (few exceptions) with water hoses to clean yourself (instead ot toilet paper), something to get used to. Traditional houses (hotels) sometimes have communal bathrooms.
Our Eurocentric History Interpretation
Coming from a classical high-school education where ancient Greece was portrayed as the pinnacle of culture and the repelled Persian invasions an act of barbarism defeated by a superior culture, the picture one gets in Iran is quite different: there, the ventures into Greece pale as insignificant endeavors against the large Arab (Muslim) invasion oft he 6th cent. or the Mongolian invasion oft he 12th-14th centuries and the various other nations attacking and conquering Persia over the millennia on their way West. Being in Iran, one also learns of the resilience of this, one of the oldest cultures in Central Asia, maintaining its identity over thousands of years.
In a book on the Mongolian campaign towards the West, I read that when they reached the Balkans around the present area of Bosnia, the leaders turned back because „in Europe there was nothing to be looted and no arts and crafts to be learned“, because it was such a backward place relative to China and Persia where the Mongols found an extremely refined arts and science scene.
If there is one complaint about Iran, it is the plainness of its food. While all imaginable vegetables, grains, spices, fruit, fish and meat exist, the ubiquitous kebabs (frequently rather dry) with mounds of white rice (sprinkled with a few safraned rice kernels), the few stews (usually with meat, vegetable and pomegranates, or plums, or dates), the disgusting-to-look-at Gizi (a lamb-potato mixture which you grind into a paste), plus a few other local specialties make a rather poor variety of diet. Every morning peeled cucumbers and tomatoes with soft cheese are rarely enriched by a lentil or bean soup. Somehow, both Turkey and the other Central Asian republics provide more of a variety of the fruit, vegetables and meats than the much more cultured Iran. The food is not bad at all, but lacks variety.
The absence of alcohol makes Doog, a Yoghurt drink with different herbs, a good alternative, in order to avoid the Western soft drinks in cans. Sometimes a beer would taste great, but the offered non-alcoholic variety is worse than nothing, so Doog it is! Lots of (weak) tea is being drunk, spiced with all kinds of herbs, coffee culture is restricted to nescafe, only upscale restaurants and a few cafes serve espresso and other „real“ coffee.
Interestingly, the silverware at restaurants consists in most cases of forks and spoons only, rarely knives. This works, since the food is normally cooked until the meat falls off the bones, to be eaten with a spoon
For a tourist interested in culture, arts, landscape and people, Iran is a dream. Its variety, old history, buildings, and the friendliness and considerateness of the people make it an absolute must to visit, especially before mass tourism might spoil some of it. So far, tourism infrastructure still needs to be improved, accommodations upgraded, especially „traditional“ accommodation needs to multiply. Roads are excellent, public transport city to city is reportedly adequate, diesel and gasoline prices are low (subsidized) at 7 Eurocents for diesel and 25 cents for gasoline. Weather in spring (April, May) and October ist probably best for travelling, excursions into the stunning desert landscapes to be recommended. For pure architectural beauty, Uzbekistan might be preferable, but Iran is a „living“ country with all its beauties and weaknesses, combining an ancient culture, stunning landscape and beautiful buildings with what must be one of the friendliest people of the world.