At the beginning of this year I have backpacked with a friend around Iran for a month. Not many people I know have been here and the fact is that I was so astounded by the potential this country has. Therefore I have promised myself that I will share my experience with all of you. Unfortunately, it is a fact that due to media, many people think that Iran is a country strongly linked with war, nuclear armament and terrorism. Besides, lots of polls show that the West and even most of the Middle Eastern countries look poorly at Tehran’s rights record. While the truth is always somewhere in the middle, my distrust of the media made me visit this country and I can only say one thing – can’t wait to go back!
Culture and People
- The People
The people here are simply astonishing – they are so congenial and amicable- up to the point where you get a bit suspicious! Actually, I have come to realize that they really mean it when they ask ‘Where are you from’ and do want to know about your whereabouts because they have an authentic curiosity about other countries. I can wholeheartedly say that Iran is one of the best countries I have been where you will experience local life in an easy, spontaneous and fun way, and you will rarely be surprised by a comment such as ‘please come to visit my shop’ – following an inviting answer.
- The History
Now if you do a bit of a research before you go to Iran you will be aware of the fact that the inhabitants of Iran are not Arabs – but Persians. It is a mistake that will make you look poorly informed and will also be disappointing for the people you are talking to. After all, the Persian Empire is a prehistoric one and many take pride on their ancestry. Another aspect is the religious one. Just because it is called the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ does not mean that everyone is Muslim (after all, the country was named this way only after the revolution in 1979). Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion which was founded on the territory of ancient Iran. Other minority religions are the Baha’I Faith, Christianism and Judaism.
- The Customs
One of the most interesting cultural habits I have encountered in Iran is called – taarof (politeness) – which basically means that the local people will insist that you don’t have to pay or do something for them – therefore putting the other first. While it could be heavenly amazing to be invited for dinner always when you go out with a local, it is not always the case. So you will have to insist two or three times until they will accept your preposition/money. Another very important cultural aspect to keep in mind is shaking hands – while men shaking hands with men is perfectly fine – some (more conservative ones) prefer not to and they will place their hand on their heart to show respect and sincerity. A man will not shake hands with a woman unless she is the one that outstretches her hand first (it also depends on the company, situation, etc). My advice is that you simply bow and let the other person initiate a further handshake.
- The Dress code
I think it is not a secret that here the women have to cover anything than face, hands and feet (therefore the head too). I actually found that Iranian women use the scarf as a fashion statement (mainly in Tehran and big cities) therefore you will find it quite tempting to go shopping for some. The array of colors and designs is impressive and consequently you will find yourself wearing it with such pride! J In what is concerned the rest, it is generally acknowledged that the women should be wearing loose and long sleeved blouses & pants. However, while I was in Tehran I kept on being wondered on the fact that many women adopted much of the Western dress code and wear rather tight clothes. While this of course will change depending on the city and region – follow your common sense and pack more loose clothes (including lots of blazers and long sweaters) and avoid low-cut, see-through ones. Always remember it is better to look conservative. Men have nothing to be concerned of as short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable. On the other hand, shorts and three-quarter length pants are only accepted on the beach.
- The Money
Well, continuing with the technicalities – the credit cards here do not work so my advice is to take enough cash with you. There is also the option of a travel card that you could order in advance and pick it up once you arrive in Tehran. This is mostly done through Facebook groups such as ‘See you in Iran’. When talking about money – the currency in Iran is a bit confusing. They have ‘toman’ – with one decimal less and ‘rial’ however they normally use tomans. For example when people say something like 18 – they actually mean 18000 tomans. It will take you a bit to get used to it and you will constantly have the impression that things are cheaper than you think!
- The Internet
Install VPN before you reach the country as here basically you will not be able to access YouTube, Facebook or even CouchSurfing without it. I was really worried before reaching the country as I wasn’t sure how was I to communicate with my friends and family. However, I soon found the solution – VPN it is. Also, keep in mind that in Iran Couchsurfing is illegal therefore in case you have a couch – do plan and make a fake hotel reservation for the officials will check it for your visa (the visa is on arrival – it cost me around $80 and lasts for a month). Other than that, you would want to buy a SIM card as the internet is much faster than the Wifi in the coffee shops.
Hope this helps and do not hesitate to message me in case you have questions or comments! Khodahafez 🙂