The world is a scary place. That’s what I keep hearing anyway, and right now, the omnipresent threat to my personal safety, freedom, employment, and pretty much everything that’s important appears to be escalating into a terrifying crescendo. This tends to happen every four years, before US presidential elections. Luckily, a handful of elderly Americans are this minute arguing vociferously about which of them is best suited to protect me, and my very way of life… and I’m not even American.
I’m quite fortunate though to have no fear of ISIS, other terrorists, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, homosexuals, the unemployed, clowns, ghosts, zombies… apparently I’m highly ignorant or perhaps just wired wrong because these things just don’t scare me. Some things do of course. Perhaps most frightening to me is the rhetoric coming from people who are trying to convince me how scared I should be of everyone except them.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, I just got back from a quick vacation in Iran.
Reaction to this news from some friends and colleagues ranged from concern to disbelief, and could generally be condensed into something like, ‘Iran? …omg, why???’
‘Because it’s there,’ is my standard response… and more accurately because it’s close to my house, but won’t be forever, and the one-hour flight from Dubai to Shiraz was cheap.
Everybody’s different I guess. If you happen to crave the adrenaline rush borne only of true adventure; if you want to test the limits of your own capacity to survive a desolate, unforgiving landscape and a hostile, unforgiving people… well, Iran will disappoint.
Not long ago I had no knowledge of the city of Shiraz, and would have assumed it might be in France perhaps, maybe near Bordeaux. I had no idea of this ancient former Persian capital, famed for its literature and wine. I thought to do a bit of preliminary research, so as not to make any cultural faux pas. I’d been advised by a number of people that the wearing of jeans in Iran, and possession of other evil symbols of the western capitalist enemy are prohibited, which is, as it turns out, bullshit.
I’d been told that the Iranian women are strictly controlled by the oppressive regime, and must remain fully covered as not to show their hair, or commit other such immoral public acts, except… more bullshit.
My lanky friend
Borat Sohail and the other hotel staff were extremely helpful from the moment I arrived. They showed me how and where to get an Iranian SIM, tips on currency transactions, and directions to local places of interest. I set off on the first of many walks to get some local money and a bite to eat. Ten minutes later I was completely baffled.
The current official exchange rate is about 30,000 Iranian Rials to the dollar. The ‘real’ rate is about 37,000. Desperate for stable foreign currency after years of economic sanctions, you’ll get a much better rate on the street than in the banks, which makes everything even cheaper than it already was. It was a fun kind of novelty to be walking around with millions in cash… for a few minutes.
When you realise though that the huge piles of cash aren’t actually very valuable (the smallest denomination bank note (100 Rials) is worth less than US$0.003), things get confusing. Then I found out only the government talks in terms of Rials, but the people trade in the Toman, which just means all sums are divided by ten. There are still too many zeros though, so they often just leave those out. For the next three days I’d be attempting to pay far too much for everything, or far too little.
I ordered a hot dog at the fast food joint near my hotel. There are no western chain-franchise restaurants here. This place was called ‘Fast Food’. The guy asked me if I wanted a small hot dog, which I thought was weird. I ordered a normal one. It didn’t occur to me that the Iranians may not yet have mastered the intricacies of western fast food retail, and that the pictures on the wall might resemble the actual offering. Then I saw a burger being delivered to a table of young men. I remember seeing burgers like that in Australia, 30 years ago. I carried my hot dog in both hands, and the complimentary can of alcohol-free beer (?) back to the hotel.
The hot dog guy was the first of dozens to ask me where I was from and if I was enjoying Iran. The Persians are proud of their country, and everyone I spoke to was very pleased to hear I was enjoying my stay. Vendors helped me out, smiling and laughing at my cluelessness regarding their currency and, somewhat surprisingly I thought, they didn’t attempt to take advantage. Several people handed back the extra wads of money I’d be attempting to overpay.
I went out for another walk later to see the city at night. I’ve been warned in several countries not to go walking at night, but not here. People were out, walking, shopping, chatting in the restaurants, being normal… the axis of evil stuff is apparently happening elsewhere. Actually it felt safer than a lot of cities I’ve traveled to, from the moment I’d arrived. Even the airport taxi driver hadn’t ripped me off, which is almost unheard of.
It was getting late, but the hairs on the back of my neck continued refusing to alert me of any sense of danger. I set off looking for the famed Chah e-Cheragh shrine, which I’d heard was quite beautiful. I came across about 20 guys hanging out at a street falafel stand, near a large sign written in Persian with an arrow pointing down an alley, so I followed that. For the next ten minutes I wandered through a maze of dark alleys, and still… no sense of danger to be found.
I don’t know where those alleys led to, but it wasn’t the shrine I was looking for. Eventually I found it though, and was patted down by an armed security guard who smiled and apologised for having to do so. Admission was free.
The mosque and funerary complex was quiet and serene. Then I walked into the shrine itself. It was indeed quite beautiful. Jaw-dropping would be another way to describe this place, the name of which in Persian translates as ‘King of the Light’. Looking up at the glittering mirrored ceilings, I hadn’t noticed that I’d inadvertently walked into the women’s section, which, in the middle east, isn’t really the best idea. Two women very gently and politely alerted me to this fact and pointed me, smiling, to the men’s entrance.
The remainder of this quick getaway was filled with more of the same… walking around the city, chatting with people, eating street food, and finding out yet again that what the western media has to say, about a great number things, is wildly exaggerated if not complete bullshit. I found Shiraz to be friendly and laid-back, and one of the safer cities I’ve explored, except perhaps to anyone insane enough to put their faith in the city’s many pedestrian (zebra) crossings, which are purely decorative.
It’s a great shame that fear is such an effective and extensively used propaganda weapon of control. There’s a simple way of rendering that weapon useless. We just have to understand, in numbers, that the people of these shadowy far-flung, “evil” countries who wish us so much harm… they really don’t. They’re just like us. There are good and bad elements everywhere of course, but everywhere, the good are the overwhelming majority.
That means peace. It’s how you say hello in Iran.