Just as I thought I could achieve anything after my trip to Tibet last year, I received an email from an unfamiliar source. It was from a stranger. I didn’t recall myself subscribing to that but most importantly, it contained information about a trip to Iran.
The email said someone was looking for travel companions to travel to Iran together so I researched the source, physically visited the related shop which helped to promote this initiative and inquired about this trip.
I signed up.
Back in 2006, Iran was not a hot travel destination but before that, I had heard about this country and in fact talked to an Iranian who used to live next to my flat. We studied at the same university but in different faculties and he was a Master’s student.
I was interested in knowing more about his country so I asked him some questions. He came from the era when the war between Iran and Iraq was happening.
‘What was it like to live in Iran during the war?’ I asked.
‘Well, we were used to it. We sat in the living room and we could hear bombs flying in the air hitting the ground from a distance. And we would casually go, “oops, there it is. It hit somewhere.”’
‘That sounds terrible.’ I frowned.
‘Yes, life was like shxt…’ He said. And he started to recount what it was like when he left his very own country.
When he was finishing his story, he slightly turned his head toward an empty space of my flat. And then his eyes strayed away with his memories and were then fixed on an object far far away… could that be his home country?
‘What about now?’ I asked.
‘Oh, it’s really different. You learn what life is. You treasure it. You know the meaning of life.’ He said and his eyes brightened up.
‘I want to know what Iranian women look like. Can you tell me?’ I was like a little kid requesting for an ice-cream.
‘Do you really want to know?’ He asked with a gentle smile on his face.
‘I can show you photos of my female friends but they are in my flat.’ He said.
‘Yes!’ I nodded.
He returned to his flat to grab a few photos for me.
He was flatting with 5 other flatmates and they were from Iraq and Kuwait.
This only contributed to a tiny fraction of the many reasons why I decided to travel to Iran. The main reason was, I was fascinated by the Persian culture and Persian, the language. They sounded so exotic.
Weeks before we headed to Iran, the United Nations issued a warning to Iran (it had something to do with the development of their nuclear project) and set a deadline for Iran to respond otherwise the UN would ‘take actions’. The deadline they set was exactly 31 August 2006 – the date we arrived in Tehran, the capital city of Iran.
Our flight arrived in Doha at 3am local time. We had to wait for around 7 hours before we flew to Tehran. Hence, I suggested the organiser to take a city tour in Qatar which she gladly arranged. You can check out our 3-hour city tour in Doha here.
The organiser also booked another local tour in Iran. When we arrived at the airport in Tehran, we were greeted by the tour guide and a tour bus. We had around 10 people in our group. Little did I know that they all possessed a powerful DSLR camera and professional lenses. I had to hide mine away when I saw theirs. However, they were very kind to me. They even taught me how to use my DSLR camera.
At the time when the Master’s student was in Iran, women didn’t need to wear a scarf. After that, all women must wear one covering all of their hair. Everyone including the travellers had to strictly follow this rule. Men had to wear long trousers. I didn’t expect we had to put it on even when we were still on the plane. I was naïvely thinking, ‘I can buy one when I arrive and that will be my souvenir for myself.’
After our plane landed at the Tehran international airport and when we were queueing to leave the plane, an air hostess announced to all female passengers, ‘ladies, please wear your scarf.’ I froze.
One thing good about travelling with other people (although I don’t usually do that) is they may have something which you don’t have. A lady from the group offered me her spare scarf. Lesson learnt. I now have a few scarves at home just in case. Some were given by my students when I was volunteering in Cambodia and a couple of them were bought by me for contingency before I travelled to a Muslim country.
As I clumsily wore the scarf, a beautiful Iranian passenger came over and offered help. She apologized to me, ‘Sorry that our government makes you wear this.’
I wore the same scarf every day. It was pretty inconvenient because wherever I went, I had to wear it. It feels a little bit like it now in 2020. Before you go out, wear a mask. It’s like the standard procedure. The only difference is, what we are doing now is to protect ourselves from contracting the virus. For them, it is to protect the women from being harmed by the men, according to the tour guide. It could be essential for women to do that too thousands of years ago. The sun was too strong. Using fabric to cover their faces would help to protect them from getting a sunburn. We now have sunscreen.
Speaking of that, I recently developed a theory about why traditionally female was asked to stay at home and male worked to bring home the bacon. The reason men gave was they were stronger and they were more capable than women whereas women were physically weaker and less capable than men. Over the centuries, there had been evidence showing that women could be as capable as men. So why are women still being asked to stay at home (not because of COVID-19)? According to my own theory which I derive based on my imagination and a bit of common sense, if we go back to Stone Age, or even earlier, what men did was hunting, fishing, roaming in the vast forests to look for food. They literally brought home the bacon. All these tasks required strenuous physical work. If I put myself into those women’s shoes (if they wore any), I’d definitely tell my man (I believe there was no such concept as ‘marriage’), ‘I will stay at home and take care of our kids. You are such a strong man! I am sure you can find food in the forests for all of us (including the entire tribe). Thank you for your effort.’ That’d easily give an excuse for women to do the then easier tasks. It was actually a smart one. As humans like to follow traditions, especially blindly, women, one generation after another, followed and never questioned. Nowadays, raising a kid is not an easy task anymore. As we ‘progress’, we demand more from education providers and from the younger ones. Both men and women have the responsibility to raise kids. However, the status of women is still not the same as men. They are still being asked to look after the children and be a (an obedient) housewife. The reason? It’s too convenient to follow the convention. It will take a long time to eradicate a ‘tradition’ that has been in place for thousands of years, especially in some countries.
About the scarf that the lady from my group lent me, for the whole trip, I didn’t wash it. Iran was hot and it was extremely dry as well. I once joked with my group, ‘it’s good that we are wearing a scarf because no one can see how sticky our hair is and we don’t need to wash our hair or comb it at all.’ When I returned the scarf to the lady after we returned home, she hesitated and said, ‘you can keep it.’
Traffic jam was a serious problem in Tehran. It took us nearly 3 hours to go from the airport to the city centre of Tehran. Most of the time, our bus got stuck. That gave me plenty of time to see this city. Iran looked so much poorer than Qatar but we were in the southern part of the city. As explained by the tour guide, the south of Tehran was the poor area but the north was better. In fact, Iran was constructing many new buildings and it was, step by step, restoring its country after the war with Iraq.
I looked through the window, taking in all the scenery and wondered, ‘who wants to get involved in wars? It will be very sad to see all these buildings being destroyed again. It’s not just about the buildings, it’s about the hope that people are building.’
Joining a tour = hectic itinerary = waking up extremely early especially if you are travelling in the Middle East when you don’t want to walk around in the sun in mid-day.
In fact, many of these stalls sold books. Iranians respected their poets a lot. The two very famous ones were Hafez and Sadi. Other than Koran, Iranians also carried Hafez’s books with them. We would visit their tombs in the next few days.
Similar to Qatar, bottled water in Iran was also more expensive than petrol. In 2006, with around IR3,000 (approx. USD0.3), you could buy 1 litre of water whereas for petrol, it cost only around IR800 (approx. USD0.08) for 1 litre. But you could find tanks of drinking water in the streets and local people drink from those tanks. Clean.
Iranians were super friendly. Even now, some travellers still told me the same story, ‘they’d stop you in the streets, chat with you for a long while and even invite you to their homes for a meal.’ All these were true back in 2006. We saw a few painters outside the White Palace and they talked to us for a long time. They asked us about our country and what we thought about Iran and so on. It was only our first day. In fact, I got these questions a few more times in other parts of the country. Not only that, they loved taking pictures with you. They would stop you and politely ask if you could take a photo with them. This happened every day when we were there. At first, we were shocked and eventually we were used to it, like those celebrities. When I went back home, all of a sudden, I felt… so… quiet.
Note that the height of the king was the same as those standing behind him even when he was sitting down. The king deliberately made his chair higher so that even when he was sitting down, no one could be taller than he was. Those people standing behind him were all high ranked officials. The lotus in one of the king’s hands symbolized longevity and immortality and the spear in the other hand symbolized power.
3 languages were spoken in the Persian Empire: old Persian, Babylonian and Ilamit.
On some statues, we saw Egyptian hieroglyphics engraved on them too. Again, that was related to their political situation during that time.
Azadi means freedom in English.
It was built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. During that time, it was called Shahyad Tower. After the revolution in 1979, its name was changed to Azadi Tower. The design combined the Sassanid and Islamic styles and the whole Tower was covered in cut marble.
31 August 2006 – 1 September 2006
P.S. An Iranian university professor that we met in our trip told me what the Iranian Master’s student said was not true but he didn’t explain which part wasn’t.
In 2016 and the year after that when I was travelling in Georgia, I met a few more young Iranians. Their manners and behaviours were very different from the Iranian Master’s student’s. They were just like any other young people from anywhere in the world. History is apparently remaining in its era where it belongs. The only thing we don’t want is to see horrible history to repeat itself. Unfortunately, most of the time, it does.