Minakari or enamelwork plates
The visions I had about Iran when packing for my recent visit, were a sordid mix of oppression from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and anti-American and Ayatollah Khomeini posters staring fiercely at me from every street corner. To add, the rule of "women need to wear headscarves" was nerve wracking. Would I be required to wear one as soon as I boarded the Mahan Air flight? What if it fell off? I was nervous. After all, we were headed to the same country that had put a fatwa on Rushdie.
To add to my anxiety, the visa process for first-time tourists from India was harrowing. I had to apply via one of the mandated travel agencies in India after completing a plethora of medical tests that take 72 hours and require three visits to the hospital.
Headscarf or not, I haven't heard of men and women playing football together in India.
While Iran and India share a common historical and cultural bond, recent media reports had affected my perception. But my 10 days in Iran over Nowruz--the Iranian New Year break--left me astounded, impressed, delighted and enriched. And a little frustrated too. Many responded to my social media posts (yes, there are ways to overcome Twitter and Facebook being blocked in Iran) saying Iran was "on the bucket list." If it is on yours too, here are things you need to know.
1. Iran is achingly beautiful
There wasn't a street, corner or road where I didn't stop and sigh. Natural beauty is everywhere, along with art and culture--from the well-kept secret of the Dizin ski slopes near Tehran to the world famous friezes at Persepolis near Shiraz. There are uncountable museums, mosques and astounding churches pretty much everywhere you turn and each is worth visiting. Also ubiquitous are public art installations, ranging from murals to elaborate structures.
Iranians pay special attention to their manicured gardens and I felt I was in the middle of a history book description of a prosperous city of yore, what with residential areas where I could quite literally pluck fruit right off trees. Sour orange trees were in full bloom.
Inside the Vakil Mosque in Shiraz
2. There's a strong literary culture
From what I learnt, everyone in the street can recite verses from the famous poet Hafez. His profound poetry is almost a religion. I visited his tomb in Shiraz on Nowruz when it is considered auspicious. People go there and randomly open a book of his poetry. They believe whatever the poem one opens to answers the question that weighs most heavily on one's mind.
An installation of light at a crowded junction in Tehran
3. The shopping defies expectations
Shopping leaves your mind in knots--and not just of the carpet variety, though these are indeed intricate and you can spend a lifetime learning about them and building a collection. I loved the detailed khatamkari work with camel bone, and the minakari work on metal. Their most famous gem is the ferozah--high-quality turquoise that comes from near Mashad. I bought a ring, and was immediately advised by the shopkeeper to care for this delicate stone, as well as told to donate money in one of the charity boxes (set up on practically every block by the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation) to bring good luck.
The women keep pushing the envelope. It is covertly demonstrated, for example, in the unwitting falling of the hijab from time to time...
The food bazaars are also cornucopias of delights and I could spend the entire day shopping for fruits, nuts, spices, teas of a hundred different varieties or more--all of which you can try.
Flavoured sugar at Shiraz's Tafreshi
4. The food is subtle and delicious
Iranian food is delicately spiced, and the people love their rice and their freshly baked bread. I learnt how to make their famous tahchin, a savoury rice cake. Bakeries on every corner often specialize in one kind of bread or another. People stand in line and wait for fresh bread to carry home. I saw a bakery in Shiraz doling out sangak--a large, thin naan-like flatbread made on a bed of hot stones in an oven. The other common bread I saw was baberi, which was thicker and smaller and often served with homemade feta cheese.
The main spice is saffron, which is usually ground before it is mixed in warm milk for use. The chicken, lamb and beef kababs are generously portioned but there is no concept of a curry or gravy. So as an Indian you may feel the zereskh pulao and kebab combo is a bit dry. However, it is delicious. I enjoyed their dolmas, dips, salads, homemade feta, blue cheese and a plethora of pickles.
Appetizers at Berentin in Shiraz
5. Iranians love the outdoors, especially for football and picnics
There are net-enclosed football parks in every residential area. My friend Neha who was on this trip with me, played football in a headscarf with a mixed team of 13 young adults one morning. She scored two goals. Headscarf or not, I haven't heard of men and women playing football together in India.
The football game--Neha in yellow
I have never seen more picnicking families! Iranians picnic everywhere--parks, tourist spots, camping sites, even on roadside verges and sidewalk benches. Families spread out Persian rugs and blankets, sit with their families, spread out elaborate tea sets, and tuck into pickles, nuts, boiled eggs and hot food served from Tupperware.
6. Noses are important
Don't stare if you see women and men with tape on their nose. Plastic surgery is big and getting a nose job is the first step to perfection. The most coveted shape is straight out with an upturn at the end of the nose like a ski-slope. Apparently it is a status symbol to be walking around with a taped nose since surgery costs are steep.
7. The women are highly educated, with a subversive streak
The women keep pushing the envelope. It is covertly demonstrated, for example, in the unwitting falling of the hijab from time to time, to perching their headscarf precariously on a little ponytail, thus effectively not really covering the head. I saw some torn jeans and blouses that were shorter than the required "butt-covering" jackets on the streets. Masih Alinejad would be proud of them.
Of course, once those jackets and hijabs were off in the privacy of homes, I saw crop tops, exposed shoulders and shorts. Some women chose to wear a chador but that was largely in conservative cities like Esfahan.
I felt safer on the streets of Iran than I do in Delhi.
In public what was telling is that women speak as equals to men, and men treat women with great respect. What I saw of the various local tourists in Iran, the families sat together, walked together (no woman at the back and man in front nonsense) and the men seemed equally if not more involved in caring for their children. From what I heard, 60% of women are in higher education institutes and most are in STEM streams of study. We saw science and tech institutes everywhere. I felt safer on the streets of Iran than I do in Delhi. There was no public segregation of women. We visited mosques freely and were not once told that certain areas were "men only" although they pray separately.
Musician Pooyan Farzin plays Bach
8. The "underground culture"
The underground culture exists but not to the extent it's been romanticized. It certainly seems like it is less today with the current government. Youngsters do seem to prefer the current President Rouhani, who is more centrist. Ayatollah Khomeini's great grandson, Ahmad Khomeini, is an Instagram star in Iran who is regularly seen dressed in Western brands. A social revolution is underway in Iran as we speak.
There are two big reasons that there is some "underground" activity. One has to do with bans and the other with complicated permissions and costs involved in holding public concerts. Iranian people have the same aspirations as most of us and they enjoy good music and art and want to be part of the global community.
That alcohol is popular in Iran is such an open secret, that the government has reportedly decided to open 150 alcohol treatment centres...Pragmatic.
Certain kinds of music like hard rock are not allowed in public. Men and women are not allowed to dance; art, poetry or literature that is perceived to be against the regime is not allowed. Even taking a modern dance workshop is not allowed. So, much of this happens either in people's homes or other private venues.
Alcohol is either home-brewed or smuggled into the country and traded covertly. Friends from Shiraz said when they shop for grapes, the farmers by the highways aske them if grapes are for sharaab and then sell them the right type of grape. Shirazi homemade wine is considered one of the best in Iran. That alcohol is popular in Iran is such an open secret, that the government has reportedly decided to open 150 alcohol treatment centres across the country. Pragmatic.
A corridor at the Shah Mosque, Esfahan
Bottom Line: Forget repeat holidays to the USA, London, Bangkok and other predictable foreign destinations. Book a flight to Iran and travel there in cooler climes (October-April). It's a once in a lifetime experience to be at the seat of an ancient civilization.
A quick guide of must-do places
Make sure to cover Grand Bazaar, Golestan Palace, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Ancient Iran Museum, Glass and Ceramic Museum, Milad Tower.
Walk down Valiasr street from the Northern end after the sun goes down.
Eat breakfast at Café Tehroon located in the 200-year-old Negarestan Garden. I also recommend Dijon at the Palladium Mall, Moslem at the Bazaar and DejaVu at Zafaranyah.
Visit the mosques at the Imam Square. Don't miss Vank Cathedral.
Eat at the traditional Nashq-E-Jahaan Restaurant and Arc in the Armenian quarter.
Persepolis, Vakil Bazaar, Vakil Mosque, Pink Mosque, Hafez's Tomb are essential stops.
Eat at Café Ferdowsi and Berentin.
Tips for Indians navigating Iran
Communication: Iranians are extremely civic minded and hospitable. They keep their cities and public spaces clean - a far cry from the cities in India. It is indeed difficult to communicate in English and you struggle with getting your information across to taxi-drivers (who drive like maniacs) Even hotel staff weren't aware of half the places we wanted to visit. Regardless, they do try to help as far as possible. However, Farsi has a lot in common with Urdu, and if you try a few words, you can get by. Indians are particularly welcome, and are greeted with references to Sholay, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Oh and Huma (not Hema) Malini.
Headscarves: It's annoying to wear a headscarf and I never got used to it, just learned to manage it. Indian women will do well wearing a loose salwar-kameez and covering their head with a dupatta. It's perfectly appropriate.
Contact HuffPost India
Also see on HuffPost: