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 kilometer 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 …

  1. impatience for our next trip through Iran (we have at least a dozen more invitations and must-explore-more destinations),
  2. gratefulness for all the unforgettable hospitality I encountered and
  3. 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 from my parents because it allows me to travel here without worry about the visa time constraints Saeideh and I always feel when traveling in Europe, where we’re always rushing to the next destination 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 …

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Or wait for the perfect time exposure after sunset (and your spouse not watching) …

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Or watch sun rays glisten off the leaves of poplar trees, like water pouring on ice …

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Or wait in silent darkness of a lovingly-built, perfectly symmetrical, and yet rudely abandoned 400-year-old water cistern …

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The ab anbar at the Miandasht Caravansarai, Semnan Province.

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 …

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And I am thankful for my childhood in Iran because despite a 37-year absence, I can understand the hearts and the minds of Iranians better with each passing day as my Farsi improves and I relearn or learn for the first time how to effectively speak to Iranians.

A huge part of our trip was meeting Iranians of all walks of life, often by just asking questions and eventually getting invited to their homes.

Village of Zafaraniyeh
Village of Zafaraniyeh

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 Iranians are Arabs! I won’t even go there. Why disturb these souls’ precious bliss?) 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 knew we can’t understand Turkish. We even ran into older people who couldn’t speak any Farsi whatsoever (like the tea-serving shepherds pictured above). Imagine, fellow Iranians who can’t understand each other and the rest of the world thinks they’re all the same (and Arabs too).

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.

Tarbiat Street, Tabriz, East Azerbaijan, Iran
Tarbiat Street, Tabriz, East Azerbaijan, Iran

Shoe store in the trendy Tarbiat Street of Tabriz, northwest Iran.

When people in the northwest provinces spoke to us, they differentiated themselves from us “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 – home of the 9th century anti-Arab hero of Iranian Turks.

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At Babak Castle, near Kaleybar, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran. More about Babak Castle here.

In reality Iran is conglomeration of many people and cultures – Turks, 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 great empires controlled this part of the world. They are never mentioned, save for academia or Old Testament Bible classes. But somehow the Iranian identity Persians invented 2,500 years ago still grips the souls of millions of people, 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 identity the Persians created in Iran survived the Arab onslaught of 1300 years ago and that to me is amazing now that I’ve seen 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 and UK governments, who somehow equalize arrests of Iranian and 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 most violent region on Earth 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 eyeing you like hawks on the streets of Venice, Paris and Barcelona.

No, the biggest risk of travel in Iran is not political or from getting shot or ripped off. It’s getting your gourd smashed in a traffic accident! Or at least think you’re out of your gourd after 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 straight into round-the-clock pandemoniums 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 way that the unaccustomed driver is left gasping with exhaustion – because of the mental vigilance and muscular agility required for constant swerving, like in a 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 foreign tourists are driven to their destinations by experienced Iranian drivers or the Western travel advisories would be grimer: “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 millimeters from the vehicles I was driving. “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 are the pandemoniums and there are the cops writing tickets and apparently the two genially coexist.

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Waiting in my car and taking pics while the cop writes up my traffic ticket. Just outside Sari, Mazandaran Province.

I tried to squeeze out of the tickets by claiming ignorance of Iranian laws, with a straight face, as I handed over my very 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 these complex people who defy stereotypes.