I almost didn’t tell my family I was going to Iran. My mother and father worry for my safety, as parents do, and are sources of endless reasons why I shouldn’t visit certain destinations. They’d handled my ambitions to travel through Myanmar back in January 2013, and Mongolia that May. They’d done admirably well when I began planning my doomed-to-fail motorcycle trip through Central Asia. But Iran… I didn’t even want to think about that conversation. When I was planning that leg of my trip, I had it firmly in mind to only inform my friends of my itinerary.
But I suck at keeping secrets.
I told them, but before I did I made sure to do some preparation. I visited the sites of other bloggers, Goats on the Road and Heart My Backpack to name a few. These were people who’d been to Iran and had raved about it. When I told my parents, I passed along a few of the articles. “Read these before you freak out.” I told them. “Just give me that much.”
They did. I can’t say they were thrilled, but they handled it remarkably well. I know it was for my benefit, and I appreciated that.
Iran turned out to be as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. Never have I been to a country where I felt so welcomed, not even in Mongolia. I couldn’t even walk down the street without being greeted cheerfully, engaged in conversation, and offered friendship. When people found out I was American, they didn’t respond with hostility. They were curious, asking my opinions on their country and culture. Sometimes, they’d ask me what I thought of Obama or the Ayatollah. But not once did those questions turn hostile. Not once was I blamed for the sanctions which choke their economy and increase hardships the country over. Not once was I held accountable for my country as a whole.
The one time I felt uncomfortable about being an American was my last full day in the country. It started with Obama shooting an infant with the Star of David.
It sounds like a bad joke, and that was my first reaction when I saw the billboard. A sobbing man held aloft an equally distraught child as Obama stared impassively down the shaft of an arrow tipped with Star of David-branded nukes. We laughed at the absurdity of it, and I couldn’t help but think about all the right wingers back home who are convinced Obama is a Muslim impostor in the White House.
We were going to see the old American embassy, now known as the ‘Den of Espionage‘. Of course, I’d seen Argo by that point, so I was curious to see where everything had taken place 35 years before. I was excited and still feeling great after an amazing past 2 weeks. But then we walked down the street, and a feeling of unease slowly crept over me.
The graffiti covering the embassy walls was striking. It was well done, but the message behind it wasn’t a friendly one. Lady Liberty looked at us with dead eyes, her face replaced by a grimacing skull. A snub-nosed pistol, star-spangled and menacing. Whoever had painted these had hated America and what it stood for.
“Hello, where are you from?” he asked.
I grimaced and nodded at the painting. “America.”
He looked at the graffiti and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, gesturing helplessly; then reached for my hand. “Welcome to Iran,” he said earnestly as we shook, then smiled and walked away. The feeling of unease dissipated. That little bit of friendliness brought back all of the pleasant encounters and meetings from the past two weeks. Was I going to let some bigoted idiots with spray paint ruin my impression of a wonderful country? Absolutely not.
Alex, George, and I walked back towards our hotel, stopping at a promising looking cafe a little bit south of the embassy. The owners of Kafe Bakolah (Cafe Hat), Kaveh and Mehdi, made us some of the best coffee we’d had in weeks and served it to us with a generous slice of chocolate cake. It was one of my favorite restaurant experiences in Iran… they were both awesome. I ended up going back the next night before my flight. The best cafe in Iran!
We spent the evening talking, relaxing, and reflecting on the last 15 days. It had been a truly wonderful experience.
As with anywhere, there are good and bad people in Iran. But, if there’s anything I’ve learned in three years of traveling, it’s that people the world over are mostly good, and the thing that will most affect how someone treats you will not be what country you’re from, but how you decide to treat them.
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Wow, Nathan! This is a really powerful story and I’m sad that I’d overlooked it. That moment when you stared at those images and were greeted with welcome from an older gentleman really touched me. I feel like we’re overfed with lies and distortion, no matter the media source’s leanings. Places like Iran aren’t filled with America-hating people but only a portion of their societies have people like that.
Hell man, I remember feeling awkward in Vietnam when walking through the War Remnants Museum in HCMC but seriously couldn’t relate to being in Iran. Sure we caused all sorts of destruction in the latter but I think that’s a case of Apples and Oranges. At least my experience was in a place that’s viewed as a friendlier travel destination. Iran is barely on the map for mainstream travel and like you said, you were afraid to tell your parents about it.
Hopefully your trip there convinced them that it’s alright. Your post has convinced me that Iran should be more prominently placed on the traveler’s radar.
I really enjoyed this read, Nathan. Thanks for sharing with us. I look forward to more from your awesome adventures. Take care man!
mohsen saeedani ( the police soldier at hafez tomb in shiraz)
Im really thrilled and glad that you’re helping to show a different and real face of my country, regardless of what politicians have been digging in people’s minds through the past 35 years.
Very much appreciated.
It’s my pleasure 🙂 It was really nice to meet you at the Tomb of Hafez. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me! I would love to come back to Iran someday
I’m impressed that you actually told people. I met a lot of people in Vietnam saying they were Canadian and I have to admit we sometimes told people on Trinidad and Tobago we were Scottish. Studying slavery in the Caribbean for a whole year at university make us both painfully aware of the history. Looking back you can’t really blame Iran for being resentful of the West, but I’m glad the people can see past that for individuals.
Actually, in Esfahan our guide told us to say we were another nationality. We did it for a couple hours–said we were Irish–but I felt so guilty when we were meeting these super nice people. I gave up and started saying I was American… didn’t run into any problems.
I definitely understand the feeling, though! There’s a bit of collective guilt that goes on there. Like you said, I’m just glad the people I met were able to see past that 🙂
I loved reading it!
I’m glad! Thanks for reading 🙂