These were a few of the attributes that friends and acquaintances slapped on the people of Iran whenever the topic came up. Unrequested opinions were offered, together with garbled memories of articles penned down by the same grub street press that loves to blame anything – from inflation to deflation to traffic to queue at the doctor’s – on foreigners. I was advised to bring a tin helmet and flak vest, that it wouldn’t be safe, that I – being a Westerner – would be a target.
You listen, politely nod, sometimes try and get them to understand that what separates “Iran” and “Iraq” is more than a consonant, give up and thrust everything you hear in the dustbin of your mind, the one labelled “Daily Mail opinions”.
Then you’re there, in the “here be dragons” if Sarah Palin and the likes of Katie Hopkins are to be believed. Your passport is stamped, a new visa anoints it with the promise of exploration and, inevitably, the promise of lengthy interrogations next time you’re Stateside.
Lotfollah mosque is like a beacon, an irresistible flytrap where it’s impossible not to spend hours, in spite of its lack of furnishing and seemingly simple geometrical form. Or perhaps it’s because of it. Whatever the reason, you sit cross-legged in a corner, watching locals alternating before the shutter of their camera, posing wide-armed in the mihrab. Idly you think that you’d never thought that ‘zealots’ would be doing that.
Two women approach you; soft, low-tone Farsi rolling in the silence. It’s the old drill: smile, apologies, don’t speak the lingo, do you want me to take a picture of you? No, they don’t. They are a mother and her grown-up daughter, all too happy to be using English to do some small talk.
A tiny corner of your brain, the backwards one, screams in disbelief you are speaking with two religiousfanatics inside a mosque, but you shut it down. The girl’s a dentist, trained in Belarus, and vacationed in Italy. Pisa, Florence, Rome, Venice. She loved it, and not even finding a pickpocket’s hand in her purse on Metro B could make her think otherwise. Welcome to Iran, welcome to Isfahan is their parting salute. The only other time you were greeted in such a way before was by an employee of the tourist board at Shin-Kyoto.
You walk the streets of the city. LED lights promise things you don’t understand; counterfeit and legit merchandise dangle elbow-to-elbow in shops; people come in droves, on foot and strollers, in wheelchairs and – more frequently – on Chinese motorbikes driven on the sideways. Ladies wear their headscarves with a plethora of styles, according to patterns you try and understand; religion, surely, but also class and dough play a part. English is the de facto language for T-shirt slogans. You start nonsensical raps in your head, their sentences as lyrics – you got to kill time somehow – and marvel at how the T-shirt Music save my soul and the tunic Life of Sin have made it off their container from Dhaka and onto a Chahar Bagh store without being sniffed by the censors. The Torygraph says there always is one.
You’re in Jolfa, caracoling in a bewildered state of mind, for you’ve just discovered that this borough alone contains more churches than the whole Arabian peninsula, and that one person in five seems to be having their noses patched up. Somebody in a café told you that no, they weren’t recovering from a Glaswegian kiss but from a nose job, and that plastic surgery is as big, in Iran, as wearing pink pants is in Chelsea. There’s a perfect church dome peeking out of the skyline, and from the angle you are is just spot on, but you can’t avoid a bundle of nasty power cables from entering the frame.
A man is busy dusting off his Mahindra SUV whilst you rush from one corner and the other of the street, up and down like a headless chicken. He immediately understands your plight and gets into what must be a well-oiled drill. Why don’t you go in his backyard – it’s there, open, with the space for the Mahindra to reverse into – and go next to the entrance door? You’ll have an unobstructed view of the dome. You do as your told, go next to the door – left ajar, you can see glimpses of a shoe rack and an iDock charger thingy plugged into a socket – and there, bliss, you catch it. You chat on, the Mahindra forgotten for a moment, about churches and their frescoes, and you part ways with a handshake and another Welcome to Iran.
A car goes past you whilst you walk a hot, dusty road. One of those Korean sedans, packed full of parcels and women. You capture a fleeting glimpse of a bag of pumpkin seeds before they shout at you something, while they stop; somehow you tricked them into thinking you’re Iranian. Usual drill – apologies, don’t speak Farsi, can’t help and the photocopied map courtesy of my 27$-a-night-hotel is half in Japanese – and expectations to be instructed to be sent to eff off. After all it’s a busy thoroughfare, full of traffic and horns are blaring. Which country? shouts the driver. Thirty-something, a youngish face under the scarf. You say it. Welcometo Iran they say in unison. The matriarch from the backseat waves a hand like Pope Wojtyła.
They sit under a sycamore, which is as biblical as a burning brush or being asked to sacrifice your only son. They’re a bunch of young guys and girls, of university age, out together on a jolly. Mister come here please says the one who’s got the most balls. It’s a touristy spot and, rare in a city where you spot the same foreigners three days in a row, it’s packed with overseas visitors. Some hear the request and look alarmed as meerkats at you.
They needn’t. The group is the nicest bunch I’ve ever met. Shy to the point of cuteness, genuinely curious about this sweaty fella coming from exotic Italy – and you don’t have the heart to tell them that your industrial homeland looks is quite the opposite of Siena or Venice – anxious about this sweaty guy’s opinion on their country. Welcome to Iran.
I don’t have the naivety to say that Iran is as squeaky-clean as a Scandinavian social democracy. Iran is and remains a theocracy, a dictatorship where homosexuality is illegal and where human rights are curtailed, a country that actively supports Hezbollah – which, despite its stance on IS remains a terrorist organisation. But, from the little I have seen, it is the most hospitable nation I’ve ever been to, and the one I’ve been the least fearful of being robbed, mugged or scammed, for I knew that someone would’ve listened to my plight and offered a helping hand.
But I’m not going to tell you this. I’ll tell you Iran is awful and full of maniacs and there’s no WiFi anywhere, so those who believe it’s full of terrorist can stay the hell out of it and don’t spoil it for me and you, who reach for a large pinch of salt when they read reports on certain newspapers and websites.