In the world where prejudice and mistrust run rampant, I seek travel as the medium to bridge misunderstanding. To remove misconception. To see with my own eyes, whether the beasts whom they portray in media are misrepresentations of fellow humans with beating hearts like us.
This drove my impulse buy of flight ticket and travel in Iran during Ramadhan. “There is nothing to lose,” I shrugged .”Ramadhan in another Muslim country sounds interesting”.
Facing your own people’s preconception
The closer to my date of departure it was, the more excited I was. I researched the history of Iran to extend my knowledge beyond its soccer team and Rumi. When I shared my enthusiasm to my family and friends, most were surprised:
“Iran? Why Iran?!”
“It is a stronghold of Shia, and do you know what they will do to you as Sunni?”
“Who is your travel companion?Do you know they cannot be trusted?”
I didn’t respond to any of these speculations. It was best to experience the country on my own, and I have learnt the polarization effect well enough not to argue with skeptics. Luckily my nice colleague from Bangladesh connected me with an Iranian expat Yasmin. She was equally excited to receive me as a guest and provided me many useful tips.
At a first glance – Iranian architecture
After a confusing and expected bureaucracy process in the visa and immigration counters, which involves misleading instructions about type of visa (you can read about how to avoid this in the practical tips section below) at the airport, I took a taxi to my homestay in the middle of Tehran. There, I got my first taste of Iranian hospitality from an old couple of retired university professors who fed me with the biggest plate sahur as I planned to fast.
The next morning I roamed around the city and developed an appreciation of amazing Iranian architecture. The hand-painted tiles, intricate motifs, perfect geometry and muqarnas mirror the rich Persian culture and history.
*Muqarnas are the signature vaults or half-domes decorated associated with the Islamic architecture. Usually it is assembled from geometrical shapes and tiles such as stars and arranged in tiers.
In fact, with each town I visited, I began to understand there are more than just stones, marbles and the aesthetical aspect of the buildings and complexes.
I admired the ingenuity of the locals that imbued some spiritual elements of Islam or Sufism like light and water in the development (construction sounds so clinical!) of places of worship, museums, mausoleums and palaces which endure time and space. One of the best example is Nasr-al-Mulk Mosque (Pink Mosque) in Shiraz. We came really early to be the first to enter to hunt the famous kaleidoscopic sunlight.
Besides the stunning colors that light up the interior, the exterior of the building that was built during Qazar Dynasty is really mesmerizing.
If you are interested in pre-modern-Iran architecture, I highly recommend Persepolis situated about 60km northeast of Shiraz. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site built during Achaemenid Empire (515 BC).
Curious glances turn to warm welcome
When I was in Tehran, I stood out even as a Muslim girl.
First, because I traveled solo.
Second, my bright blue hijab and flowery dress didn’t scream typical Iranian lady.
Third, of course because I can’t speak Persian.
In a women’s section of the subway, everyone looked at me with either curiosity or with apprehension, similar the look that some of my closed-minded friends gave to something or someone unfamiliar. What a shame, I thought to myself: Fear runs at both sides of the coin. And since people do fear what they don’t know, I tried to smile and break the ice with little kids during the ride.
Outside of Tehran, people seem to be more welcoming, whether they are liberal or conservative.
Although they receive very few foreign visitors, it seems like Malaysia is a magic word here. When I mentioned that I was from Malaysia, all of them were singing praises for Malaysia and mentioned that they would like to visit my country in the future.
Some women even invited me to their house for Iftar after only limited time of contact, and I delightfully obliged. We talked about the differences between the Sunni and Shia practices, though in the end we agree to disagree on the way we practice the religion, as long as we subscribe to the essence of Islam which is peace and solemn submission to God.
There were some acting very motherly and advised me not to fast since I travelled and it was the peak of summer. But I did – and as soon as they discovered I was fasting, these women ordered their children to fetch water and food for me so I can break fast as I was traveling. Their kindness really touched my heart.
The mighty kaluts
Being a hiker, I insisted on visiting the natural wonders of any country that I visit. For Iran, I set my sight on kaluts at Shahad Desert, in the outskirts of Kerman.
*Kaluts are a formation of eroded rocks, carved by winds since the beginning of time comparable to the more well-known Monument Valley in the USA.
Little to my knowledge at the time, it is one of the hottest place on earth. The temperature reached almost 50 degrees Celsius when I was there, as it peaks in the middle of summer.
But the scorching heat, cracked lips and dehydration was worth it.
The kaluts were simply amazing in the afternoon, as the sun set down, the warm glow and the whispering sounds of gusts set my soul at peace. After I had Iftar with a local family, laid down to watch the stars as one by one they appeared in a clear night sky. With no light pollution from the cities and the lack of presence of human beings, I exhaled continuous appreciation of God The Almighty because it was the best stargazing experience I have ever had.
Ramadan traditions in Iran
From my impression during my travel, the way Iranians celebrate Ramadan is similar with other Muslims around the world, spiritually. The typical rituals, such as reading Al-Quran everywhere (for example, in subway), Iktikaf and spending more time doing supplementary prayers can be observed in all places I had been too.
Culture wise, Iranians prefer to have Iftar (breaking the fast) with family and friends in the comfort of their own home. There is no Malaysia ‘pasar malam’ style of market which is famous with Ramadan bazar that sells every food imaginable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, or Iftar at the mosque.
Of poets and spirituality masters
One thing I had learnt during my travel in Iran was that each town has its own poet, martyr or Sufi Master whom the locals are proud of. For instance, Isfahan gave birth to Hatef Esfahani, and Shiraz – to the great Hafiz who influenced the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
People flock to the shrines of these legends. Most visitors brought with them ‘divani’, the compilation of works of the poet, sat and read under the shades of trees. The wisdom of these poets is also etched in the interior of buildings.
When I was in Hafizeh (the tomb of Hafiz), I sort of regretted that I didn’t learn Persian as I am sure lots of beautiful nuances have been lost in translation.
Iran travel visa application: For Malaysians, no visa for a less than 15 days trip is needed, provided that you show a proof of return ticket on arrival. For other nationalities, you need to check with Iranian embassy in your country as the requirements might change from time to time.
The visa can be issued on-arrival at the arrival hall or online prior to your trip at http://evisa.mfa.ir.
On-arrival visa procedure:
To avoid further confusion at the Tehran International Airport, walk to the visa section and you’ll find two counters. One is for the application of visa and one is for payment. You have to get the physical form first from the application counter, fill up the form and make payment at the payment counter. Then return to the queue at the application counter and submit your proof of payment and application form for processing.
Iran travel insurance: I had contacted many travel insurance agents in KL prior to my trip, and none of them offered coverage for Iran. Instead, I bought my travel insurance in Tehran airport (the counter is next to visa counter); in August 2016, it was 15 Euros.
Cash: My ATM card didn’t work in Iran due to the embargo on the country. Be sure to prepare enough cash (euros or US dollars) and get your conversion rates right!
Transportation: The petrol here is amazingly cheap and the major cities are well connected. The bus service is one of the best I have experienced, after Turkey. But you need a local to buy you tickets. You can also rent a car, but I would advise you to get a personal driver who knows how to navigate the chaos of traffic in major cities. The flights are also quite reasonably priced, and Mahan Air and Iranian Airlines serve major cities.
Cellphone and wifi: Your best bet is to buy a local sim card. Don’t ever do roaming if you don’t want to be hit by enormous charges. Wifi is available at most airports, hotels and hostels but as far as I remember, the speed is not that great.
Common courtesy: Learn simple phrases like “thank you” because Iranians do appreciate even the smallest gestures to learn their language and understand them. For ladies, bring your pretty pashmina or scarf!
Thank you: Motesha’keram
Good bye: Khoda’Hafez
Do you speak English?: Shoma’ ingilisi sohbat mekoonid?
Excuse me: Bebakshed
Halal food: It is in abundance, because, duh. If you have any further restrictions and want to err on the safe side, please ask the restaurant owner and explain your concerns.
Itinerary: I visited Iran during Ramadan for 6 days 5 nights, starting with Tehran then flying to Yadz, then spending two nights at Kerman, Mahan and desert area. I took a bus to Shiraz, spent a day there and flew back to Tehran, wishing I had more time to spend visiting other cities of Iran. Hopefully I will be back soon!
Is Iran safe? For me, Iran like any other place on Earth, is a safe country to visit if you exercise common sense and courtesy to the local customs. Like you have to stay out of shady places, don’t parade your bling around, never get into a stranger’s vehicle and look after your belongings.
We are all humans, after all
Despite Iran’s ill reputation, in Western countries and Muslim countries alike, please consider not over-generalizing that all Iranians are bad. Each nation has its own wrongdoings.
So, the question to you who harbor a grudge towards innocent people who don’t have a say in the actions of their government and leaders: will you be part of the solution, bridging the understanding and, or you will simply leave the legacy of hate to your children?
I vowed myself to return someday to this country, explore other cities and recite as many poems as I can. It is nothing about Shi’a versus Sunni, us versus them. I hope that by travelling to a misunderstood nation like this we promote peace in the world, like the message in Shaadi’s poem:
Of one Essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.