June 25th 2013
“Salaam”, I heard as I trudged along a street in Tabriz, hitching up the backpack.
“Where are you from?” asked the young man who had materialized beside me.
“Please”, said his friend with a shy smile “Can I help you?”
We were in a crowded street and I had been trying without much success to find a room. They told me that rooms were hard to find in Tabriz these days; they were all taken by Azerbaijanis. Since the devaluation of Iranian currency, people from Azerbaijan come in droves to seek medical help here, which is better than in their own country and they take up all the rooms in hotels, sometimes for months. The two young men walked with me for more than an hour, taking me to places that I had not known of and calling their friends and contacts for possible places they did not know if. They insisted on carrying my pack. Eventually, thanks to their help I did find a room. They waved off my thanks, deposited me in the hotel and wishing me a good stay disappeared in the crowd.
That was my first encounter but I was soon to discover this trait everywhere in Iran. If I asked for directions, I would not just be told, I would be taken there. People, mostly young men and sometimes young women would come up to me in the street and offer a tentative “salaam”. This would open the gates for conversation, a conversation that many others invariably stopped to join. They are a curious people but here though it doesn’t end in conversation. More often than not, their open friendliness leads to being invited to their home.
“Please don’t stay in a hotel; welcome in our home” is a phrase I learned all too quickly.
June 27th 2013
Looking for a place to change money at the market in Tabriz, I asked a man sitting on one of the benches around the fountain. Kazem, as it turned out spoke some English, had a good friend who was married to an Indian and living in India. And he and his family visit India every winter.
“No, no, no” he insisted, waving aside all protests. I was to meet his wife and son, be ferried around the city and be taken to the bus station with explicit instructions to the driver to take care of me. A month or so later, in another part of Iran, when I met a couple of other European travelers and learned they were heading to Tabriz, I gave them Kazem’s phone number. He picked them up from the bus station and did much the same with them.
June 28th 2013
In Ardabil, a small town located at the shores of a lake, I had stopped at an eatery. The lunch hour was winding down and the only other people were four men at one of the takhts, concluding their lunch. We smiled and nodded our greetings and as happens all too often in Iran, fell into a conversation. Chatter over a late lunch extended to seeing photos of Taj Mahal on the web and stories of family members who are among the Parsi population of India. These men were a group of engineers and architects and the younger two, Babak and Ehsan both spoke good English. Babak and Ehsan insisted on driving me to a hotel they thought was appropriate. They were far more finicky than I! Over the course of the next couple of days they were my self-appointed guides and showed me the sights of Ardabil. They took me to a chaikhana where they have the best qalian, took me to their homes where I met their families and I was fed a meal fit for kings, cooked by Ehsan’s mother.
“Please come again and next time, stay in our home” she said as I left.
June 29th 2013
Walking along the shore of the lake, a young woman stopped me.
“Salaam”, she said hesitatingly “Are you a tourist?”
My reply was the beginning of one of those friendships that form in an instant. Shabnam introduced me to her sister, cousin, her son and nephew who were at the lake as well. And slowly over a day or so I heard her tale. Hers is a sad tale. She spoke of her husband, a professor at the university had been outspoken in his dislike of the government and consequently had had to leave Iran. He left and moved to Holland and the plan had been for Shabnam and their son to join him in the Netherlands. Shabnam had been learning English, eagerly looking forward to leaving. But despite several attempts to get Shabnam and her son out of Iran, they failed and soon after her husband committed suicide. She now drives a school bus and weaves carpets to make ends meet.
She would not take no for an answer and I ended up in her home and we visited the museums and mausoleum together. I met her mother and extended family and as before was fed to the gills. Her mother had been to Mecca and had bought a glitzy sari but had no idea how to wear it. There followed a hilarious learning-to-wear-a-sari session with vigorous input from the audience. We were literally rolling on the floor in stitches!
July 7th, 2013
Until I reached Tehran, I had not met any other travelers or foreigners. But in Tehran I met plenty as I did in Esfahan and Shiraz and Yazd. Wandering in the market, with a couple of other travelers, we met a family who came up and introduced themselves. All of us – Micha, Rafi and myself were promptly invited to dinner the following day. It was decided that we would picnic by the river, near the famous bridge called Si-o-se Pol. And so we did. They, the parents and their two daughters arrived, the picnic hamper groaning under the weight of food and we rolled out a carpet, sat ourselves down and ate and talked.
This is another Iranian trait – once the heat of the sun sinks into the evening, everyone it seems heads outdoors complete with carpets to roll out on the grass, picnic hampers carrying sumptuous dinners and enjoy the meal alfresco. The dinners may be elaborate or simple but are long drawn-out and the time spent is one of relaxation. So valued is this alfresco dinner on summer evenings that when all available spaces in parks and maidans, spots by the rivers or fountains are full, they converge onto the little patch of green in the traffic circles and traffic dividers!
July 9th, 2013
In Esfahan, walking around the immense square that is the Naqsh–e-Jahan, we were approached by what seemed like a family. They introduced themselves and we chatted. Farhang, who was most fluent in English did most of the talking. I was by then getting along in Farsi and chimed in. A bare five minutes of conversation and all three of us were invited to their home.
“But” said Farhang, “Can we pick you up tomorrow?”
“My house is not very big but my uncle’s is. We will all stay there and need to arrange it.”
And so it was done. Micha, Rafi and I were duly picked up from our hotel, driven to the uncle’s house, sat down to an elaborate meal and spent the evening dancing to music in the living room.
Mattresses were rolled out in the living room for the night and the revelry continued the next day. Their only regret was that we were heading out the day after and could not stay longer. Driving us to the bus station, Farhang’s mother gave each of us single note of 5000 Rial. A token, this is the traditional gift that is bestowed on family and friends.
“Go well” she said with a smile as we were all engulfed in hugs and goodbyes.
August 5th, 2013
I desperately needed a haircut and although there were plenty of barber shops in the bazaars, they were for men. I had learned it the hard way. I almost gave one barber a heart attack when I walked in, sat myself down in a chair and was about to take off my hejab.
“Na, na, na” he yelped in panic. “This is not for women” he said. “Please do not take off your hejab”.
He gave me convoluted directions to a women’s hair salon which I failed to find. Figuring a shop selling shampoo and hair products would be able to direct me, I stopped to ask. The shopkeeper turned to two women making their purchases and they promptly steered me to their car. Leila and Sakine were mother and daughter and they drove me to the salon they frequent, explained to the hairdresser, sat down to natter while I got a haircut and then, when I thought to thank them and say goodbye, drove me to their home.
I was invited for lunch, the phone call having been made in the meantime. I met Leila’s husband Heshmat and their other daughter as well as the youngest, a son. Sakine, the oldest daughter is studying medicine and spoke English haltingly. Between that and my now-not-so-bad Farsi, we chatted over a sumptuous meal. Heshmat, a financier said he used to use English a lot in his work but has now forgotten most of it due to lack of practice. After whiling away the afternoon, they drove me back to the hotel.
“Good journey”, they said. “Please come back”.
August 8th, 2013
Arriving at Dorud from Khorramabad, I was in a shared taxi with three others – two men and woman. Being an unaccompanied woman, I was given the front seat while they shared the back. The usual questions asked first in English soon dissolved into a five-way non-stop conversation in Farsi. The woman and one of the men were both lawyers and spoke good English and by the time we got to Dorud, they had appointed themselves my guardians.
“Please wait”, said Saadi as we approached a hotel. “We will go check the conditions”. And they did, nitpicking over this and that. Upon my insistence and to their dismay I stayed at a Musafirkhane but only after they had trooped in to see the manager, seen the room and deemed it passable. Saadi was going home to see her family for a couple of short days and this time she spent in assuring I was comfortable must have shaved hours off her short leave but there was no gainsaying her!
August 9th, 2013
Eating a kebab at a small eatery I smiled in response to a couple across the room. As is often the way in Iran, this exchange evolved into being bundled into their car and being taken to meet the family. A family re-union was in progress to celebrate the end of Ramadan and I apparently was automatically included. The only problem arose when it had to be explained to grandma that I wasn’t staying for the next couple of days but leaving after dinner. I had a train to catch the next day. Arguments and counter arguments followed convoluted plans of how to stay with them and still get to the train. She was most upset that it wasn’t to be.
“Next time you will stay” she told me in no uncertain terms, adding “arrange for it”.
August 19th, 2013
From Bam to Kerman I was in a shared taxi, with two other chador-clad women and a man in the front seat. As we said our salaams, Amir surprised me with his fluent English.
“Well”, he laughed, “I am British you see, and was born there to Iranian parents although Kerman still feels like home.”
His wife is a doctor in Bam and now he divides his time between Bam, Kerman, Tehran and England. He was on his way to a wedding in Tehran and would stop in Kerman for only a couple of hours. And clearly intended to show me whatever he could of Kerman in that short time. And so he did. I was treated to live music – a rarity in Iran. The venue was an old hammam converted into a chaikhana.
Later in the week when I was back in Tehran, we met again. This time he and his cousin took me to their favourite restaurant set in a lovely garden where they treated me to some of the best kebabs I have had. And we lounged on the takht and chatted over our qalians. At some point in the taxi I had mentioned that I wanted to buy CDs of some traditional music before leaving Iran. Imagine my surprise when dropping me off at the hotel, Amir produced half a dozen CDs and gifted them with a smile.
“Enjoy the music” he said “and think of Iran.”
They remain some of my favourite music. I wallow in them often and indeed think of Iran.
I meet people in every corner of the world I visit, and am lucky enough to be befriended by them. I am certainly no stranger to being invited home. But never has it been on the scale as in Iran. This story mentions just a few – a very few of the instances. I met with this open friendliness everywhere, literally every day, at all levels of society. There is a graciousness that is uniquely Iranian and a degree of warmth and welcome that to my mind, has no parallel. Come end of August I was dragging my feet more so than usual. I did not want to leave! But as someone more wise than I, told me “You came as a visitor but you will return as a friend”. I hope I will.