Iran is one of the oldest civilisations in the world. It is a place with a rich, tumultuous and decadent history. From its fascinating monarchy, to its historical architecture and religious icons, this country‚Äôs story is a tapestry of rises and falls, wars and revolutions.
As the world opens its mind to Iran as a destination to watch out for, we hear from¬†Dalli Weyers¬†on what it‚Äôs like for your average tourist travelling through the country. He¬†recalls sitting on a train when a local introduced himself and asked where he and his friend were from. When he heard they were South African he greeted them in Afrikaans with a friendly, ‚ÄúHoe gaan dit?” which, after a double take, led to coffee in a carpet shop. Simply¬†sitting on a park bench watching children play brought eye-opening insights into our shared humanity.
Dalli took the time to talk to us about the art and architectural wonders, the hipster coffee shops and why there is more to the country than Western media would have us perceive. Iran is a place of the unexpected.
Interesting Reading Makes for Interesting Tourism
I have wanted to go to Iran for a long time. There is a Greek poet called Constantine P. Cavafy born in Alexandria, Egypt who wrote homo-erotic poetry about his experiences with young men in the streets of Alexandria and that was pretty intriguing. Of course this is super problematic, and lies at the heart of orientalism, but it was a small spark that got me interested in all the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran.
Then I really started getting into researching the pre-Islamic history ‚Äì the Persian Empire being the world‚Äôs first empire. It‚Äôs pretty remarkable having that claim to fame. I liked the idea of being able to see where the seat of that empire was. I knew most of the remarkable architecture came from the period after the Arab conquest and the arrival of Islam, and I also had an interest in the Islamic revolution, the build up to that ‚Äì the monarchy, the fall of the monarchy and the space that was created. So from a political angle and as someone who does politics that was interesting for me. I think slowly even Americans are cottoning on to the fact that Iran isn‚Äôt as awful as they might think it is and if it is awful towards Americans it is because America and the British helped depose of a democratically elected Prime Minister. So all of that makes for interesting reading and for interesting tourism.
You don‚Äôt go to a country with a well publicised record of gay men getting the death penalty without being aware of it.
We started in Tehran and then we moved down to Qom which is the second most religious Shia city in Iran, Mashhad is the most religious. In Qom there is a shrine to Fatima, who was the daughter of the seventh Imam. We stopped there for the day to visit the shrine and then we went onto Kashan, which is a relatively small village. We were there for the rose water festival and saw some of the roses in the desert. Rose water is a big thing here. We also went to a little village called Abyaneh, which is made out of red clay or red mud and kind of feels untouched in this beautiful lush valley, and we went to Isfahan where a lot of the most amazing architecture is. We travelled on to Yazd on the edge of the desert then on to Shiraz.
A History Lesson in the Architecture
The ruins of Persepolis are phenomenal and so you really get a sense of the extent of history and the absolute size and power that was required to build those spaces.
We went to a shrine in Shiraz, and the inside of that shrine was covered in billions of tiny mirrors so the whole room is reflective;¬†a disco ball covering the entire inside of the building.
Everywhere you walk you see beautiful buildings and interesting spaces.¬†The amount of detail you are able to get from chopping up tiles into tiny pieces and then covering huge spaces and domes was phenomenal. Inside the buildings there are geometric shapes, the Arabesque and calligraphy.
The Azadi Tower which means the Freedom Tower was built by the last Shah to commemorate 2500 years of the Persian Empire. It‚Äôs an amazing architectural monument with a Persian twist.
The Modernist architecture is also amazing. You had a Modernist movement coming into a country, as it did around the world, but where there is massive oil wealth. So you find that use of concrete, that clean design, used for all the government buildings.
Artworks of Duchamp, of Warhol, of Monet, The Girl with the Pearl Earring are advertised on massive billboards all around Iran.
A disappointment was that we couldn‚Äôt go to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. They don‚Äôt have a permanent exhibition there and so were busy prepping for the next one. On show recently was the art collection bought by the last Shah, an art collector. The art is from the late 1960s and 70s. Andy Warhol actually went to Iran and met with the Shah and his wife and made his iconic pop images of the Shah, his wife the Empress, and her sister. There were sculptures by Giacometti. For thirty years they were all just in storage. Artworks of Duchamp, of Warhol, of Monet, The Girl with the Pearl Earring are advertised on massive billboards all around Iran.
I did see one couple have a stolen moment, a quick kiss in the park.
The Western Perception
Not to diminish requirements put on women visiting Iran, but there was a whole lot more freedom than what we expected. There is no need to wear a full burka and not even a hijab. The requirement is just to cover your hair and wear a shirt over your pants so that it covers the majority of your curves. I think the west‚Äôs impression is that the treatment of women is very extreme but it doesn‚Äôt seem to be the case there. Not to excuse or romanticise things. Women can drive, 50% of the work force are women. I think very often that is overlooked in western media. We miss the sense that it‚Äôs a massive country, so not the whole country supports every view that the Imams believe. There is a sense that there is not necessarily full on support of the policies and beliefs of the leaders, in this case the religious leaders.
The public spaces are amazing. They feel old and settled and so are lush and green with lots of shade. You want to spend time there. In the evenings when it gets cooler, families come out and enjoy the public spaces. The fact that families do that is great. There is a sense of community, which is not portrayed in the media. Very often we forget this happens across the world.
I was aware of the fact that there would be restrictions on public affection. I did see one couple have a stolen moment, a quick kiss in the park. Older couples in the park scowled at the children running around being noisy and would reprimand the parents for that. So I think age may be a factor in making these determinations. Iranian women did approach us in the streets to ask to take a photo of them at the heritage sites, or even to take a photo with us.
A Safe Space Online
You don‚Äôt go to a country with a well publicised record of gay men getting the death penalty without being aware of it. In a moment of curiosity I downloaded a gay dating app and was surprised to find Iranian people on there. I was surprised by the fact that there was a sense of safety in that space. There were not that many people on the app from Iran but it still gave me a feeling that people felt somewhat safe in that space. This gave me an awareness that foreigners might be safer. Also, the men are beautiful.
Old men (and it is just old men) are determining the future of the country. So young people are trying to find a voice.
Making Space for Self Expression
Old men (and it is just old men) are determining the future of the country. So young people are trying to find a voice. It‚Äôs not very different from how young people try and find a voice elsewhere in the world and try to find an entry into the job market. We are quite disparaging of hipsters in New York or London or Cape Town but this movement is in Iranian cities as well. It‚Äôs young people trying to find a way to be financially independent but also creative. So you find your way into coffee shops and tea houses that draw on traditional elements but infuse those with hipster culture to create a unique experience. It‚Äôs very cool.
It‚Äôs always in the interactions with people that you have the best experiences. People were curious as to where we were from. There was a young fourteen year old boy who wanted to practice his English with us. We landed up talking to him for around twenty or thirty minutes while he translated for his parents in Farsi, and his parents posed questions to us. It was so interesting to talk to them.¬†We went into a carpet shop and had tea and conversations. We met a colleague of a man we met on a train who was a refugee from Iraq who was planning to go to Cuba in a few weeks. So you really get a sense of what life is like from these young people trying to see the world. They spoke to us about sanctions and how you can‚Äôt use a credit card if you are Iranian. You have to take all your money with you everywhere when you travel. It’s these moments of conversation that really give you a sense of a place and the people.
This interview was condensed and edited.