For an entire month I drove and Iranians tried to kill me … with kindness … and also with their cars.
Today is our first day back from a 4,000 km road trip from our home in Mashhad to Tehran and through northwest Iran and back home via the Caspian coast.
As I drag myself out of bed and to the laptop, I feel a mixture of …
- impatience for our next trip through Iran (we have at least a dozen more invitations and must-explore-more destinations),
- gratefulness for all the unforgettable hospitality I encountered and
- amusement at some of the false and exaggerated “facts” about Iran.
Reasons to be Grateful
Never have I been as grateful as I am now for the Iranian citizenship I inherited because it allows me to travel here without worry about the visa time constraints Saeideh and I always feel when traveling in Europe, forcing us to rush lest we overstay our visas.
In Iran, you never want to rush when you stop in middle of the desert and just start walking into total silence …
Or wait for the perfect time exposure after sunset …
Or watch afternoon sun shimmer on the leaves of poplar trees, like water pouring on ice …
Or wait in silent darkness of a lovingly-built, perfectly symmetrical, and rudely abandoned 400-year-old water cistern …
And you surely don’t want to rush when on top of a mountain in middle of nowhere Turkish-Iranian shepherds invite you to wood-fired tea …
And I am thankful for my childhood in Iran because despite a 37-year absence, I am getting better at connecting to Iranians with each passing day as my Farsi improves.
A huge part of our trip was meeting Iranians of all walks of life, often by simply asking questions and eventually getting invited to their homes.
Ragged Old Narratives / New Awareness
Visceral understanding gained from actual travel is incomparable to knowledge drawn from books and clips of Anthony Bourdain.
This applies particularly to Iran, whose international reputation Iran is teaming with fiction, perhaps like no other country on Earth.
Some oft-repeated “facts” about Iran that, after this latest trip, seem more like amusing stereotypes:
Iranians are Persians. (Actually some Westerners still think all Iranians are Arabs! I won’t even go there. Why tackle blissful ignorance?) But if all Iranians are Persians, who speak Farsi, why couldn’t we hear any Farsi from the very instant we crossed into the northwest provinces? People spoke Farsi to us, and usually in Turkish accents, only when they realized we can’t understand Turkish. We even ran into older people who couldn’t speak any Farsi, like the tea-serving shepherds pictured above. Imagine, Iranians who can’t even understand each other and the rest of the world thinks they’re all a bunch of camel jockeying Arabs.
Iran is a single nation. But that’s only on the world map. Walking the Tabriz’s Tarbiat Street and watching women go googly-eyed over high-heeled shoes for sale, I suddenly felt more like being in Istanbul than the biggest economic hub of northwest Iran.
When people in the northwest provinces spoke to us, they differentiated themselves from “you Fars people”. Culturally, they are almost exclusively Turks and proud of it (to the chagrin of Iran’s central government). These differentiations got far more frequent in and around the Babak Castle – the home of the 9th century anti-Arab hero of Iranian Turks.
In reality Iran is conglomeration of many people and cultures – Turkman, Azari, Kurds, Arabs, Baluch and many smaller groups and countless subgroups who speak myriad of languages and dialects – with the Persians smack in the middle.
Why do all these people still see themselves as Iranian is a thing of wonder for me. How did the Persians manage to conquer so much beyond their own and then instill this sense of single nationality that survives to this day? Assyrians, Medians, Sumerians – all kinds of empires controlled this part of the world. Today none are mentioned, save for academia or Old Testament Bible classes. But somehow the identity Persians propagated 2,500 years ago still grips the souls of millions, even though at home they speak Turkish or Armenian or Kurdish or Arabic or a dozen other tongues.
Go to Egypt or Syria or Libya and the locals say they are Arabs. What? The descendants of the magnificent kingdoms of the Pharaohs are calling themselves Arabs? You want to shake them and cry, “What happened?” But somehow the Iranian identity survived the Arab onslaught of 1300 years ago and that to me is amazing now that I’ve met so many Iranians who are not Persians.
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