This is, by far, the question that my khareji (foreign) friends and I get asked the most here by Iranians. It comes, I think, not from a lack of pride in or love for their country, but rather out of simple curiosity as to why it was chosen out of all others – and moreover, what we think of it now that we’re here. The interest is more acute the further away from Tehran you get, especially in more remote regions. Given the overwhelmingly negative media attention Iran receives from most other countries, as well as the relative decrease in tourism since the revolution, this is hardly surprising. I actually sometimes ask myself the same question (usually when waking up for my 8am class or during exam times). It never takes me long to find my reason again though.
Apart from the in-country travel opportunities, the unique experience and of course the culinary features, needless to say what makes a country is its people. Having had several Iranian friends in London, I already knew that friendliness and generosity featured highly among them, which encouraged me to go to the source and learn more about this culture. To state the obvious, you meet all kinds of people in Iran just like anywhere else. But I find a great way to observe and understand societies to be during the most mundane of tasks. The daily commute and inner city travel provide perfect opportunities for this. I’d therefore like to use these as an analogy for my hitherto impressions of Iranian society.
One of the things that strikes me the most, pretty much since my first week in Tehran, is how frequently people ask each other for directions. Pedestrians asking fellow pedestrians, drivers of moving cars rolling their windows down to ask an adjacent car, and so forth. This isn’t too significant in and of itself (Tehran is an enormous city), but what I find most interesting is the attention and care with which people respond. The majority of my experience has shown me that people are perfectly happy to stop whatever they are doing and provide the most thorough directions possible, indeed giving the impression that they find it valuable to help others as much as they can. I’ve also come across situations where, after one was unable to get proper directions from someone else (yes, I was the ‘someone else’ in most cases), another person would overhear what’s going on, join in and offer their help. Regularly being the enquirer myself, I’ve even been escorted to my point B many a time, when it’s within walking distance. Compared to a city like London for example, where although most of the time you’ll get the help you need but feel acutely aware that you’re wasting precious time out of somebody else’s day, I find this attitude and communal spirit really remarkable. It’s an outlook I’ve rarely seen in other places, and in my opinion is something that really adds to the charm of the country.
Another example of this shared compassion can be found on the Tehran bus route. While it can sometimes be a struggle getting on the bus, especially at peak times, small acts of kindness ensue after everyone is safely inside. Other than the customary offering of seats to the elderly, for instance, if a standing passenger is carrying seemingly heavy wares, often times someone else who’s managed to find a seat will offer and insist on holding the baggage on their lap. I’ve repeatedly had this encounter when I myself have a heavy load and am working hard not to sway as the bus navigates the Tehran traffic. While some might view this to be unexceptional, I myself have never seen such forward kindness and consideration between absolute strangers and find it truly endearing.
Moving on to the metro. When I’m alone, I don’t usually get curious looks or questions and am thought to be local. When I’m with foreign friends, however – especially when it’s just a couple of us – on many occasions I’m assumed to be their translator, and people proceed to ask me questions about them (where are they from; what are they doing here, etc.). In my first few months, I remember quietly chuckling at others’ horrified faces after hearing my level of Farsi and before realising that these poor foreigners thankfully don’t have to rely on my translating services. Nonetheless, it’s not only foreigners that get approached or contacted on the metro. The aforementioned communal spirit extends underground, as total strangers engage in conversation about any topic under the sun, sometimes prompted by a simple question or a random comment. To compare with London again, it’s the polar opposite of the perennial effort to avoid meeting each others’ eyes on the tube. Of course, even here, many tired commuters look like they would sooner jump off than have to engage in conversation. In my experience though and in line with the great emphasis on hospitality in Iranian culture, they would happily oblige if approached. Even though I’m sometimes so exhausted after a long day that I may fit into the jumper category, this is an aspect I genuinely admire about the culture here. The lack of boundaries can be intimidating to those accustomed to the sharp delineation of personal space (it took some getting used to for me to be perfectly frank), however at the core of this behaviour I find a very comforting, encouraging sense of camaraderie and communality.
When I was back in London and first came up with the idea, I made my decision to move to Iran relatively quickly considering the change it entailed. In my first couple of weeks here, faced with the teeming metropolis that is Tehran, the language barrier and lifestyle adjustment, and the feeling of isolation that came with my first time alone in a country where I basically knew no one, I must admit I second-guessed my decision on several occasions. Even before I started making friends, however, the kindness with which others welcomed me, and furthermore just observing the compassion and goodwill with which many ordinary Iranians treated each other, ensured me that I would soon feel at home and come to cherish this place. When people here ask me what I think of their country, it’s very hard to express all of this. But my favourite aspect, and what has truly made my experience so far, is the people.