A land full of wonder

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Evening News reporter and photographer Dave Barry, who has just fulfilled an old ambition by visiting Iran, tries to encapsulate the experience.

Last October, when I told a colleague I was going to Iran on holiday, she joked that she would look out for the hostage video.

She wasn’t really confusing Iran with its neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan, which westerners, especially Americans and Brits, are advised against visiting.

But the remark characterised many friends’ reactions: why Iran? As the UK government has been hostile to the Iranian government, aren’t Iranians liable to take it out on British tourists?

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

By and large, the Iranians are friendly, welcoming, honest, courteous, funny and curious. The kindness of strangers never fails to touch me, and I often felt a twinge of embarrassment and sadness when I thought about the way some shallow, misguided Brits treat foreigners here.

People I’d never met before went out of their way to help me, either by showing me where something was or by filling in the endless gaps in my understanding of Iranian life. An elderly couple in a compartment on an early train insisted I shared their breakfast, even though I could see they had only two of each item they offered. A young guy broke off from what he was doing to take me to a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, the sign for which was written only in Farsi. A young woman invited me to her family home, where I was given tea, cake, flower seeds and questions.

Western visitors stick out like a sore thumb. People approach all the time, wanting to both practise their English and indulge their curiosity.

“Hello, where from?” is the usual opener, followed by a barrage of questions on name, age, job, marital status, etc. “Where is your wife? Why is she at home? Do you have children? Why no children?” They usually wanted my phone number (I used an Iranian simcard) and email address, in case they ever made it to the UK.

But the main thing they wanted to know was the same thing friends wanted to know: why Iran? George Bush designated the country as part of his “axis of evil”, so Iranians are surprised that someone from a key US ally would want to visit. Iran feels misunderstood by the rest of the world, just as its arch-enemy Israel does, ironically.

I explained I’d wanted to go for decades. Sparks nurtured through childhood philately were fanned into flames by the friendship and encouragement of Iranians in Scarborough. A friend called Zabi kept telling me there would be no problems so I finally made it – and there weren’t. Well, maybe just one – the language, Farsi, but that was to be expected.

Another part of the appeal is that Iran is one of the few countries to resist the worldwide geopolitical hegemony of the USA, whose activity in Iran has often been malign, motivated by self-interest. An appealing aspect was the absence of McDonalds, Starbucks and any of the vapid, soulless chains that have insidiously colonised so many parts of the globe.

My love of Islamic architecture was well sated through visits to some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. In my opinion, Iran’s finest mosques are as magnificent as Europe’s best cathedrals, if not more so.

The highlights included two I’d read about before I left, the Sheikh Lotfollah and Imam mosques in Esfahan’s Imam Square (the world’s second biggest, after Tiananmen), each exquisitely adorned with tilework of breathtaking beauty. In the immense Imam mosque, I stamped on a slab of stone in the middle of the main sanctuary to produce a terrific echo. Scientists have measured 49 echoes, but only 11 are audible to those with good hearing. I detected about six.

The marble and stone in these hallowed buildings has been smoothed by countless feet, hands and bottoms over the centuries.

Just when I felt mosqued-out, I’d come across another cracker that filled me with awe, such as the Nasir ol-Molk mosque in Shiraz. The stand-out factor was the polychromic stained glass windows and the psychedelic patterns created by sunlight on the carpets.

Besides the hospitality and mosques, other highlights on a three-week trip included the desert city of Yazd, which contains the world’s oldest mud-brick area; the ruins of Persepolis; swimming in a pool with underwater music; and getting lost in ancient, labyrinthine bazaars.

Traffic in Iran is chaotic, to say the least. Tehran has been forced to confront terrible pollution and congestion by building a metro. Crossing the road in any of the places I went to is fraught with risk. Few of the drivers I saw would pass a British driving test and we might describe many of the vehicles on the roads as scrap-heap rejects.

Everybody I spoke to dislikes the president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and wants opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi to win next year’s elections. Ahmedinejad has just been given an ultimatum by ‘supreme leader’ Ayatollah Khamenei to allow an opponent into the cabinet or resign.

Khamenei’s benign image is everywhere, alongside a portrait of the late, revered, rather evil-looking Ayatollah Khomeini, who set up the clergy-dominated republic after the 1979 revolution.

I usually had to lie about my job, as journalists aren’t welcome; I put student on my visa application. In a sobering conversation, a Brit in the know told me that being an undeclared foreign journalist in Iran was a criminal activity, and that he knew of a Brit who spent six weeks in jail for taking a photo of an electricity pylon. I had to be very careful not to be mistaken for a spy by the paranoid authorities when taking photos.

But none of this overshadowed my overall impression of an intoxicating but trash-strewn country with generous, spirited people and amazing scenery ranging from the snow-capped Elborz mountains near Tehran to the bleak and barren Kavir and Lut deserts.

Although it was great to return to my wife and home comforts, and see England’s green and yellow fields from the air, part of me is still in Iran.