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.
Travel in Iran carries the risk of going to jail – this according to the travel advisories issued by the brilliant minds in US, UK and Australian governments, who somehow equalize arrests of dual-national political dissidents to tourists going to jail. It’s a ridiculous conclusion that would draw outrage if it was done the other way around.
It’s in the middle of the planet’s most violent region but Iran is not only the safest place in the Middle East, it safer than many American and Western European destinations. No mass shootings here, or ISIS attacks or the hordes of pickpockets and scammers (enabled by mostly indifferent cops) roaming the streets of Venice, Paris and Barcelona.
No, the biggest risk of travel in Iran is not political. It’s getting your gourd smashed in a God-damned traffic accident! Or at least think you’re out of your mind when witnessing what Iranian drivers are capable of.
I used to think driving habits in Tehran and Mashhad are horrid, until I drove from comparatively placid highways of the countryside into round-the-clock pandemonium on the streets of Sabzevar or Qazvin or Zanjan. In Iran’s medium-sized towns – and I hear things get crazier the smaller the town – there’s not even the pretension that driving rules exist. Trucks, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians mix in such a stupefying manner that the unaccustomed driver is left gasping with exhaustion – because of the mental vigilance and muscular agility required for constant swerving, like you’re stuck inside a violent video game – and bemused wonderment that so many close calls don’t end in more tragedies (although Iran is a recent world record holder for traffic fatalities).
Thankfully, most tourists are driven to their destinations by experienced local drivers or the Western travel advisories would be grimmer: “Risk of Dissident Tourists Dying Before Even Getting to Jail.”
After nearly six months in Iran, I’ve yet to get into an accident. This is just bizarre considering what I’ve seen buzz by within millimeters. “Don’t keep saying you’re accident-free!” Saeideh snaps at me, fearing self-jinxing.
But I contribute to the mayhem too. I was fined not once but twice during this trip. Yes, there is the chaos and there are the cops writing tickets and the two genially coexist.
I tried to squeeze out of the tickets by claiming ignorance of Iranian traffic laws as I handed over, with a straight face, my Iranian driver’s license. But as dangerous as they are behind the wheel, Iranians aren’t idiots.
“You mean in your country they don’t have solid white lines in the middle of their roads?” asked with a knowing smile the sharply-uniformed officer stepping out of his Mercedes Benz.
So what’s ahead?
Everything in me says I’m in the right place at the right time. I’m in an incredibly beautiful land with people who are insane drivers but nonetheless have stolen my heart with endless kindness and generosity. It feels like my time here could finally serve a good purpose, to try to reduce even by a little bit the ignorance of the rest of the world about a complex people who defy stereotypes.