Passport to Persia: Travelling in Iran

Passport to Persia: Travelling in Iran

journey to Tehran is long and convoluted. I fly from
London Gatwick to the bright lights of Istanbul‘s Sabiha Gökçen airport, complete with
its Starbucks outlets and designer stores. The departure lounge for
Tehran is filled with babbling Iranian families, expats going home
for a spell and huddles of quiet businessmen. The flight attendant
looks up in disbelief as he checks my passport – they don’t get
many British passengers on the Istanbul-Tehran leg.

I sit next to a quiet young Iranian man on the plane, a computer
technician coming back from his new home in Sydney to visit family. Iran’s diaspora stretches to
the furthest corners of the globe. Los Angeles, for example, has earned the
affectionate nickname of Tehrangeles for being home to the largest
Iranian community outside Iran. The country’s revolution in 1979 established the
world’s first Islamic republic, but also forced out many nationals,
and the effects of the subsequent brain drain have been
significant. The government can’t provide enough work for its
well-educated population, and less than a third of graduates find
jobs within a year of leaving university. My travel companion is
excited to return, he says, as he hasn’t seen his family for seven
years. I too am full of anticipation, and try to pull my headscarf
on early in the journey. “Leave it as late as possible,” the young
man reassures me. “Most ladies don’t do it until they step onto the

I arrive into Tehran at 5AM (it turns out Iran operates 24 hours
and no one seems fazed by doing business throughout the night) and,
against expectation, have no problems at immigration. The highways
in Iran have remained a law unto themselves – at some point someone
thought traffic lights might be a good idea, but you can almost see
people cackling with abandon as they run reds. I take a very
British attitude to all of this, anchoring myself in, closing my
eyes and smiling politely. Not that my driver notices – he is too
busy smoking, yelling into his two mobile phones and merrily
singing along to Madonna.

This trip has been long planned. When I started my Farsi degree
in 2010 Iran was in the grip of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
ultraconservative presidency. The West’s suspicion of Iran’s
nuclear ambitions increased diplomatic tension. In 2011 the UK
closed its embassy in Tehran, simultaneously closing Iran’s London
embassy, and I saw my chance of a year abroad evaporate. But in the
2013 presidential elections Iranians voted overwhelmingly for
Hassan Rouhani, who promised political change and an end to
economic sanctions imposed by the US, EU and UN. This year
negotiations led to a deal removing sanctions in return for the
curtailing and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activity. No guarantees
of course, but this could herald a brand-new era for both trade and

Which isn’t to say that I could walk straight in. There are
restrictions for UK, US and Canadian nationals who want to visit,
as mistrust of foreign ‘spies’ runs deep. These tourists must be
accompanied by a guide at all times and stick to a designated
trail, which means no visits to private homes or politically
sensitive locations. My best bet was to travel within a tour group,
organised through a UK-based travel company and facilitated by an
agency within Iran.

I meet my fellow travellers in Tehran. The group is small and
mixed, with individuals from Australia, Canada, the US, Switzerland
and Ireland. Everyone has different reasons for choosing this
unusual holiday: whether they are interested in the culture, food,
art and architecture, the antiquities or simply the thrill of
visiting a pariah state. In the West the media tends to depict an
Iran of ranting mullahs and angry mobs, public hangings, oppression
of women and madcap politicians who hint at nuclear armories and
proclaim death to the United States and Israel. But my journey is
to smash many of these stereotypes, and the trip kicks off with a
surprise. Our guide is young and, unexpectedly, female. A small but
ever-growing sector of Iran’s workforce is female, and women
consistently make up around 60 per cent of the country’s annual
university intake. They may not have it easy, but Iranian women are
educated, increasingly independent and slowly gaining prominence in
the public space. Three of Rouhani’s vice-presidents are female,
and he’s promised to improve opportunities for Iranian women. A
small but ever-growing sector of Iran’s workforce is female, and
women consistently make up around 60 per cent of the country’s
annual university intake. They may not have it easy, but Iranian women are educated, increasingly
independent and slowly gaining prominence in the public space.

Our tour route is scripted, focusing on ancient jewels and
wholesome traditional experiences. Iran’s tourism industry is
taking baby steps, trying to build itself up despite the challenges
of a lack of infrastructure (don’t expect much from the hotels) and
government restrictions. But the uncultivated beauty of the country
is breathtaking. Relative isolation from the wider world means you
can expect peace and calm at a wealth of ancient architectural and
historical sites; our access is unhindered and, by and large,
exclusive. From Tehran we fly to the southern city of Shiraz, set
in a dry plain at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Historically
the city was famed for its lush green gardens, poetry and romance.
This reputation has endured, judging by the number of couples
canoodling in quiet corners of the public parks.

Shiraz is the hometown of two of Iran’s most venerated sages,
Hafez and Saadi, ancient love poets whose verses on love, sex,
religion, wine-drinking and merry-making are still as treasured and
widely read as they were before the 1979 revolution brought
traditional religious values back to the forefront of public life.
We visit Hafez’s tomb, an oasis set back from a bustling street
that is popular with aforementioned canoodlers. Earnest devotees
take us aside to explain his significance, arguing with each other
about translation and meaning. This hospitable familiarity with
complete strangers is a recurring theme. We’re welcomed everywhere
with smiles and food, and interrogated with endearing curiosity
about our lives and families.

In the women’s section of the Shah Cheragh mosque in central
Shiraz I’m accosted and quizzed: Why am I in Iran? What do I think
of the country? Why do I speak Farsi? My experiences in these
segregated areas of the mosques are some of the most affecting of
my journey. I’m welcomed into intimate moments – women weeping at
shrines, gossiping after work, meeting for picnics and napping in
corners. I’m enveloped in embraces, my cheeks are pinched and
plenty of jokes are cracked about marrying me off to brothers or

The wearing of the chador (a semicircular cloak that completely
covers the head and body) is compulsory for women in most mosques
and religious places, although my best attempts are laughed off.
Many women still choose to wear the chador in all public spaces,
but younger women tend to wear the authorised alternative, a
manteau (a loose trench coat of sorts that buttons to the neck and
covers the arms, torso and thighs) along with a hijab. On the
streets women push the boundaries of the government’s prescriptions
with bright colours, hijabs resting on top of high-piled hairdos,
manteaus that barely cover bums and heavy make-up. Skinny jeans,
Converse trainers and high heels are flaunted, as is the trademark
plaster across the nose, which highlights the prized nose job that
nearly half a million Iranian women (and some men) undergo every
year. All this suggests that the authorities are taking a lenient
approach to the fashion habits of Iran’s youth. But the morality
police are ever-present and ready to swoop in extreme cases. In
Shiraz’s Eram Garden I’m berated by a policewoman for my sloppy
hijab and ankle-revealing trousers, although she softens when she
discovers I’m a tourist, and asks what I’ve got planned for my
holiday. The younger generations are well-educated, well-informed
and ready to shed the politicised image attached to their parents
by the events and consequences of 1979.

The next leg of our journey sends us east as we drive for long,
hot days through deserts and dried-up river valleys, then over cool
villages perched high on mountain peaks. We spend a day in the
sprawling ruins of Persepolis under a burning sun. This is Iran’s
historical pride and joy, a 2,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage
site built as a ceremonial capital during the Achaemenid dynasty.
The scale of the site and level of preservation is awesome. There
are the mandatory souvenir and food outlets – not to mention
loudspeakers blasting epic narratives from Iran’s history – but
Persepolis remains relatively undeveloped as a tourist site, other
than as a much-loved day out for Iranian families with picnics.
Picnicking is taken very seriously in Iran and occurs at all times
of day or night, and in any location (in parks, on highway verges
and even in cemeteries…)

In the dry, desert city of Yazd – a conservative heartland famed
for its seminaries and spooky, narrow-laned ancient town – we visit
the ancient Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, where the deceased were
placed in tall, open-topped constructions for vultures to pick
clean. The practice was banned in the 1970s and the site is now a
base for young men to race dirt bikes and flirt with schoolgirls.
Approximately 60 per cent of Iran’s population is under 30, and the
younger generations are well-educated, well-informed and ready to
shed the politicised image attached to their parents by the events
and consequences of 1979. But the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini –
founder of the Republic and spiritual father of its enduring
Islamic revolution – and Ayatollah Khamenei, his successor and the
current Supreme Leader, are everywhere you go, staring out from
shop windows, galleries, hotels and cafés.

We go on to spend a few days in Isfahan, a buzzing metropolis in
central Iran known as Maidān-e Naqsh-e Jahān (image of the world
square) and absorb its abundance of architectural beauty. In a
small coffee shop on a leafy side street, a twenty-something
Isfahani unravels some more preconceptions for me. Internet and
satellite television have schooled Iran’s youth in the weird and
wonderful world of European and American film, music and celebrity
culture; you can’t escape the Kardashians, even in the Islamic
Republic. But my new friend isn’t a fan of Kim. His passions are
Nirvana, photography and cinema, although not the kind of films you
might expect: “Tourists come here and they say, ‘hey, I’ve seen
Kiarostami! I’ve seen Panahi!’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, but talk to me
about David Lynch! Talk to me about Stanley Kubrick!'” He shows me
his Instagram profile, where his artistic photos have gained him
thousands of followers. While Facebook is banned (but easily
accessed through VPNs) Instagram has been a surprise hit in Iran,
encouraged by the government as a tool to show off the country’s
virtues. Accounts are operated with ruthless efficiency and I
receive pity for my shambolically small following. Rich Kids of
Tehran, an ostentatious account showcasing the hedonism and high
fashion of Iran’s upper echelons has nearly 100,000 followers. It’s
censored by the regime for ‘un-Islamic’ content but this seems to
have little effect on its popularity.

These government restrictions on ‘immoral’ behaviour (no drink,
drugs or nightclubs in the Islamic Republic, in theory) have forced
Iran’s youth to be imaginative in their creation of social spaces.
Coffee shops have become precious areas for chitchat over
espressos, or illicit meet-ups between couples over fruit
smoothies. Trendy restaurants serving burgers and non-alcoholic
mojitos are hotspots for nights out. Meanwhile sleek white
galleries and fashion boutiques are destinations for the cultured
and coutured to meet, think and play. Iran has a long history of
arts and culture (see Ferdowsi, Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Nizami,
Behbahani, Hedayat, Farrokhzad, Yusij, Panahi, Kiarostami, Farhadi,
Makhmalbaf et al) and while things have seemed quiet from the
outside since 1979, the producers, facilitators and consumers have
been quietly but fiercely enduring.

Back in Tehran I part ways with guide and group and go in search
of some of these producers. With a population of 15million if you
count its outskirts, Iran’s capital ranks as the third-largest city
in the Middle East. It’s not a beautiful place to the outsider (an
impenetrable jumble of concrete high-rises and traffic-clogged
highways) but you can’t help but be infected by its mad energy.
Mercedes and Jeeps jostle for spaces in the roads alongside Iran’s
staple white Paykan cars (mass-produced since the 1960s and
responsible for the constant haze of pollution over Tehran) and the
grey of the skyline is peppered with neon lighting and flashy
advertising. Street hawkers and food vendors flog wares outside
shiny shopping malls, where high-end stores sell the latest model
of mobile phone or games console. Most ‘Western’ products – iPhones
for instance – are available here, for the right price. The scale
of the city makes it difficult to know where to look for an arts
scene. Fortunately for me, Lila Nazemian, an Iranian-Canadian
curatorial associate for Leila Heller Gallery in New York, is home
for a holiday, and on hand to give me a whistle-stop tour.

Our first visit is to the Aaran Gallery in downtown Tehran.
Established by Nazila Noebashari seven years ago with a mission to
promote contemporary Iranian art, the gallery primarily features
the works of artists between the ages of 30 and 40. Nazila is
bombarded with requests to represent more creatives; Tehran, and
Iran in general, doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to support its
wealth of talent. She explains that she often sees families
supporting children through art school and beyond, while a poor
economy and unreliable public funding make it impossible for many
artists to make a living.

But there are success stories. Mohammad Ghazali is a 35-year-old
photographer who trained in Germany and Paris and currently works
with AG Gallery in Tehran. We meet at his apartment on the ground
floor of his family home in central Tehran. It is chicly furnished,
filled with light and – remarkably for this city of noise –
incredibly peaceful. Fluffy cats lounge on the chairs and sofas,
each with their own adoption back-story. Over tea and shirini
(sweet pastries) he shows us some of his work. Mohammad shoots in
analogue and produces eerie, suggestive images, using mixtures of
his own photographs and abandoned rolls of film found in old
cameras he buys. His work has featured in galleries across the
Middle East and in 2004 he won first prize at the ninth Tehran
Photography Biennial for his self-portrait. When I ask Mohammad if
he ever feels restricted by political twists and turns he explains
that Iranian artists operate regardless of the political situation,
adapting and searching out alternative funding in the form of
private foundations and donors. As Nazila explains to us in her
Aaran Gallery: “Iranian art is not a luxury, it’s a way of

An example of such adaptation is Peyman Shafieezadeh, a
33-year-old multimedia artist who recently completed a residency in
Hudson, New York with the prestigious Art OMI. Peyman’s work deals
with the concept of perspective, both physical – through collages
and 3D mixed media – and cultural, using emotive, popular images.
As he shows us around his studio he explains that his paintings are
about “paradigms, pattern, systematic thinking… routines,
behaviour, how behaviour is born”. Appropriately, our conversation
rests heavily on the idea of preconceptions. In the States he was
struck by viewers’ compulsion to politicise and orientalise his
work: “When they read my name, my country, they already had images
in their mind of what I was, what they wanted to talk about.” A
narrow stereotype of Iran, he says, has become entrenched in
Western understanding of the country, and this in turn has
reflected back onto the nation’s collective consciousness.

But change is in the air as Iran opens up to the outside world.
Nazila has received requests from eight international groups of
buyers (in USA, Hong Kong and Europe) who want to visit the gallery
next year. Meanwhile Lila cites the mere existence of an Iranian
pavilion at the recent Biennial in Venice as a huge step. It was
underfunded and many of the participants didn’t even live in Iran,
but the fact that it was even there was symbolic. Mohammad reserves
judgment, using a game of volleyball he’s just been watching as an
example; the game looked good on the television – Iran were well
ahead and set to win – and then suddenly they lost. Nothing is
guaranteed where Iran’s politics are concerned. Peyman emphasises
an Iranian tradition of overcoming oppression – be it ancient
invaders, British and US imperialism or unfair demonisation. He
references the ancient epic Shahnameh, a national treasure written
by the medieval writer Ferdowsi that blends myth and history, in
which the weak endure and good always prevails. It could be a
metaphor for the endurance and the identity of modern Iran. As the
doors swing open to international tourists, Iranians finally have a
chance to express this identity and culture to the outside world.
The reality is more nuanced than any headline suggests, and much
more compelling.