Iran: then and now

With Iran’s importance in the region becoming increasingly important, we relive Hilary Bradt’s memories of the country in 1996 and ask Maria Oleinik for her impressions of the country today. 

With Iran once again in the news – concerning their role in addressing Iraq’s ISIS crisis – we’ve asked Maria Oleinik, updater of the latest edition of our Iran guidebook for her thoughts on what has changed since 1996 and what has stayed the same.

You might have noticed that English language has effectively dropped the ‘Persian’ part of the Persian Gulf, which might not be accidental. Iran has perhaps never enjoyed a good press or recognition where it is due, which is a reason enough to admire the resilience, ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Iranians and most importantly come and see Iran for yourself.

You will be greeted with courteousness and generosity and you will be amazed to find out that Iranians rarely raise their voice and are softly spoken, which the Persian poetry tradition has a lot to account for. Bring with you a pocket edition of Hafez verses to share or simply enjoy. It is a great way to start a conversation, much appreciated by the locals.

Female visitors to Iran are required to cover their hair and lower part of the torso. Chadors have remained, however, only mandatory at holy sites and there these will be provided. Over the years since the Revolution Iranian women have got better at circumventing this rule by wearing bright coloured hijab and manteaux (Iranian-style above the knee-long female dress worn over the jeans) and jewellery. Iranians are fond of gold and prefer to keep their savings in the precious metal rather than currency.  

Another traditional Iranian weakness is cuisine in general and national regional specialties in particular. Have you ever tried beryani rice? Not yet? Well, make sure to do so in Esfahan because you will not get it anywhere else! And do not forget about the tea, but drink it the Iranian way, by sucking on the sugar cubes and drinking tea straight.

Most visitors to Iran avoid the capital, perceived as the concrete jungle with time better spent at historical sites in between Esfahan and Shiraz. While Tehran is indeed the city of high-rise apartment blocks and greyish buildings, it is also a city of numerous parks and beautiful skyline, that in 2007 was spruced up by the Milad Tower, sixth tallest in the world.

From its observation decks you will get a different perspective of Tehran, especially during sunset and with the snow-covered Alborz Mountains as the backdrop. Most importantly, Tehran is also the heartbeat of Iran and Iranian youth, educated and open-minded. And although Shiraz is still considered to be Iran’s most liberal city, it is Northern Tehran that offers the most diverse and alternative coffee and restaurant scene in the country.

Iranians are curious and exceptionally knowledgeable about their country, its history and its troubles. The years of disapproval from the West and most recently confrontational politics of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have, however, made some Iranians shy. Do not be surprised if you are asked about why you are even visiting Iran. The newly elected president Hassan Rouhani promises a better future for Iranians and expansion of tourism, but it takes both sides to lower their tones. The West unfortunately remains unselectively critical of the country.

Iranians have nonetheless managed to keep their society afloat despite the never-ending sanctions. Be what they may, Iranian made Khodro cars run well. Iranian engineering and marine engineering projects are to be applauded; even the controversial nuclear programme is nothing short of a miracle for the country that is not even allowed to buy a new Airbus.

When in Iran, do venture beyond Esfahan, Shiraz and Yard and visit at least Iranian Azerbaijan with its remote and secluded UNESCO-listed Armenian churches and the Caspian coast with its woodlands and secluded mountain villages and fortresses. I have travelled wide and far, but I will never get tired of repeating that Iran is the most beautiful country you will ever visit, the jewel of history, natural beauty and modernity.