After a bit of soul-searching, we realised that part of the reason we felt so nervous was that the most common context in which we had seen Arabic script on a black banner or flag was in news coverage of ISIS.
Six years ago, my friend Anna and I sat down in her living room with an atlas and dreamed of going to Iran. We both had a personal connection to the country — Anna’s father had been on regular business trips there when her family lived in Bahrain when she was about ten years old, and some of my best childhood friends were Iranian. I had memories of crispy rice and sumac in their family dining room; she had her mother’s holiday photographs.
We were both captivated by the idea of Iran, but the realities of being a doctor and a graduate student respectively got in our way. This year, we finally decided to just do it — we blocked out two weeks in our calendars in September, and we booked our tickets. Our itinerary included the main tourist sites and cities: Tehran, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz.
We received mixed reactions when we told others our plans, usually falling into one of two categories: a bemused ‘but… why?’, or a flurry of concerns about terrorism and the questionable safety of two young women travelling alone in the Middle East. With such reactions lurking at the back of my mind as a hum of low panic, I was very nervous before my trip to the Iranian Consulate in London to apply for my visa.
I need not have worried. The staff were friendly, everything was very straight-forward, and three days later my passport was back in my hand, visa inside. I think this is an example of how a New Zealand passport makes things easier — if I had been British, Canadian, or American, I imagine it might have been a more drawn-out process. Of course, it pays to be aware that having an Iranian visa in your passport will make visiting other countries more difficult or perhaps even impossible — notably the United States and Israel — but we weighed this up and decided it was worth it.
On the plane, we were the only tourists. British Airways had recently announced that as of September 23, it would cease to operate its London-Tehran route, and it seemed our fellow passengers were all going home to visit family and friends before this came into effect. As we drew closer to touchdown, women visited the bathroom and emerged in loose trousers, coats, and headscarves, as the hijab or modest Islamic dress must be observed as soon as you are on Iranian soil. At the border, we anxiously prepared to show a variety of paperwork, but the border guard looked at our visas, asked if Anna (who is a mere three months older than me) was my mother, laughed, and waved us through.
Eye-opening cultural introductions
We hadn’t realised, but our visit coincided with Muharram, the month of mourning in Shi’a Islam for Imam Hossein and members of his family who were martyred after a siege at Karbala. The scale of mourning is enormous: motorways were flanked with enormous black flags; every bazaar was decked out in banners of red, black, and green; crowds of men in black gathered to chant and beat their chests with grief. At first encounter, this was a little intimidating, especially given our knowledge or Farsi was non-existent.
After a bit of soul-searching, we realised that part of the reason we felt so nervous was that the most common context in which we had seen Arabic script on a black banner or flag was in news coverage of ISIS. Once we had consciously realised this, logic kicked in — of course, we knew these ceremonies were about introspection and spirituality, religious belief and community, not terrorism. This left us feeling free to enjoy the rituals of Muharram, and locals were always eager to welcome us in and to explain the significance of various aspects of the traditions.
One of the most delightful of these was the many impromptu tea-stands which popped up outside mosques and in public areas, offering free refreshments to passers-by. Small groups paused to take a small cup of whatever beverage was there and would think of Hossein’s thirst as they drank, or simply chat with their friends. Nothing was more gratefully received than a glass of sweet lemonade on a hot day.
A warm welcome
The most overwhelming aspect about Iran was undoubtedly the kindness and warmth of its people. As we walked down the street, locals would welcome us to their country; if we were standing before a particular monument, someone would approach us to offer an explanation of its history and symbolism; young children were curious about where we were from; people invited us into their homes for tea and conversation.
We spent our three days in Isfahan in a homestay with Shima and Amir, occupying the ‘library room’ above their parents’ flat. They welcomed us with a full Persian dinner, showed us around the Armenian quarter, took us to eat saffron ice cream with faloodeh (a kind of sweet, lemony noodle), and texted to make sure we were safe and not lost on our walk home. I love these people, who went from strangers to dear friends in the space of a few days. Now I worry about them and their family, as they are expecting their first child amidst the tumult of economic crisis and insecurity.
As two women travelling together, the locals generally allowed us to set the tone of our interactions. A man in his mid-fifties wanted to make conversation and kept pace with us as we were crossing Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan. While usually, I would find this a bit creepy, when we politely said we were going on our way he simply thanked us and left. We were cautious around Ashura as well, as many of the mourning ceremonies involve large crowds of men, we thought there was some potential for testosterone overload. Heading back to our hotel in Yazd, a group of young guys in their late teens and early twenties approached us and said hello. We were a little wary, but stopped and said hello back. They stood there smiling awkwardly, and it was apparent they wanted to speak to us — to practise their English, or simply to engage and connect with these mysterious foreigners — but that they actually had nothing in particular to say. We exchanged a few sentences, then said we were going back to our hotel. They wished us a good night and dispersed immediately, something which I doubt would happen in many European cities.
We stick together
We were also comforted by the constant benevolent presence of women in chadors — the large piece of black fabric wrapped around the body in public, common in more conservative parts of the country but also in cosmopolitan Tehran. We often felt these women watching over us out of the corner of their eyes — especially if we were speaking with men — but never judgementally. Instead, we felt they were ready to swoop to our aid if any man decided to push the limits of ‘appropriateness’ with us Western women.
On the day of Ashura, the day of ritual mourning which marks the culmination of the month of Muharram, we climbed to a rooftop in Yazd to watch the ceremony. The rooftop was packed, it was 40 degrees, and we were the only foreigners in sight. But the women enveloped us: they made sure we could see, that we weren’t jostled too much, they explained parts of the ceremony in whatever English they had, made sure we had water, and shared their dried chickpea snacks. Then as the ceremony continued, they began to weep.
Author - Sasha Rasmussen
Sasha Rasmussen was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand. She has travelled all her life and is currently based in Oxford, where she is working towards a PhD in History.