If we could describe our experience in Iran over the past three weeks in one word, it would be – surprise. With all the warnings from our government and the media images we have in our minds, we didn’t really know what to expect. We compiled a list of our biggest surprises:
1. We didn’t get killed: Seriously, we weren’t worried, but everyone we told we were going to Iran acted as though it were a war zone where death was a meaningful possibility. In fact, Iran is a developed, prosperous country with a per capita income higher than Brazil. Unlike Brazil, in Iran’s large cities violent crime and theft appeared nonexistent and we always felt safe. Can you believe it – before domestic flights Iranian airlines don’t feel the need to have passengers put their liquids in plastic bags or even check passengers’ IDs. And we didn’t see any terrorists either.
2. Women’s rights: From media images, we expected all women to be covered head to toe in black, but in reality Iranian law only requires that women of marriageable age (starting at 9) wear some sort of head covering. In less religious parts of the country it is common to see women wearing high fashion including heels and leopard print head scarves pulled down behind their ears. It is amazing how resilient the human desire to be different really is.
3. Same sex PDA: On several occasions we saw men in the military holding hands in public and in general there was a surprising amount of public affection within gender groups but not across.
4. No knives: None of the restaurants we ate in provided knives as utensils during meals – we had to cut using a fork and spoon. Apparently, Iranians rarely use knives to cut their food.
5. The same menu: Every restaurant we went to in more than a dozen cities and towns had virtually the same menu. Lamb kebabs, chicken with rice, chicken kebabs or rice with chicken. Of course we did find the occasional rare delicacy like roast chicken in walnut-pomegranate mole sauce, camel meat stew, or date milkshakes, but we were surprised that such an ancient culture would have a homogenous diet. In contrast, when it came to snacking, almost every corner store offered a wide selection of dried fruit and nuts. Our favorite was the juiciest, softest dried apricots we had ever seen.
6. Back of the bus: In conservative cities like Isfahan, women rode in the back of the bus and men in the front. Women can vote and drive cars and ride bikes but not motorcycles. If women ride on a motorcycle, it is in the back with a man or a boy driving.
7. Peeping: We were surprised and taken aback when young women openly gave us the eye and asked if they could take us to dinner or call us. Naturally, we were unsure how to respond and approach the situation in Iran’s conservative cultural context.
8. Unibrow: The unibrow- one eyebrow instead of two- is shamelessly on display by men, women, children and, yes, even paintings of Persian kings dating back 1000 years. We were surprised by its prevalence and its use as a fashion statement.
9. English: Iranians begin to learn English at age 8 (though how many actually make any progress is an open question). We were surprised that Iranian education policy would prioritize learning the language of the countries with which it has a long history of poor diplomatic relations. But it certainly made it easier to get around.
10. Police: We never got stopped, checked, asked for a bribe or had our visa reviewed. Given the trouble we had to go through to get the visa and the mutual distrust between our governments, it was a pleasant surprise to find that being on the ground in Iran was easy and smooth. An army officer in Kerman asked to talk to us and while we began to fear the worst, he asked in broken English if he could shake hands with us, the first Americans he had ever met.
11. America: No one had heard of the United States but they all knew what “America” was.
12. Squat toilets: Enough said.
13. Infrastructure: High quality roads, ample electricity and water you can drink across the country.
14. Tomans vs. Rials: All paper currency is printed in Rials, which are valued at approximately 9,000 to the dollar. But all prices and transactions are set in Tomans, which represent 10 Rials. For the first two days in Iran, we walked around feeling like we were probably getting screwed, until someone explained the difference to us.
15. Nose Surgery: A day spent in Iran doesn’t pass without seeing a woman who has had cosmetic surgery on her nose. A coup for plastic surgeons, no doubt, to have the prevailing cultural aesthetic favor small noses in a gene pool of big noses.
16. Iranians Like America: Most Iranians we met liked the idea of America, would like to visit the country and were intimately familiar with its pop-culture. Even though the US has invaded two of the Iran’s neighbors, Iranians consistently expressed hope for renewed goodwill between our nations. We can’t say that we would be as sanguine if we were in their position.
As we head across Central Asia, we are also not sure what to expect. Our stereotypes are that tea will be replaced with vodka, hospitality with corruption and succulent chicken with the unspeakable parts of a lamb. We remain optimistic.