Travel to Iran. A Case of Unrequited Love?

People often ask what our most popular destinations are. I respond slowly waiting for the impact. First, Cuba. People usually respond how exciting – they rave about the music, the faded beauty of the country. I’ll throw in Colombia because I love it and can’t believe how few travelers have made it to the Tuesday market in Silvia or wandered through the mystical archaeological site of San Agustin. But then I pause knowing the response I will get when I say Iran. Nine times out of ten, it’s “Isn’t that illegal?” and “how can that possibly be safe?” I assure them that it’s absolutely legal. Unlike the Cuban Embargo which prohibits travel to Cuba unless specific criteria are met, travel to Iran is excluded from the Embargo making it not just legal, but one of the greatest travel opportunities out there.

And safe? Well, the media, who play such a strong role in shaping our perception of the world, love to portray Iran as inherently hostile with terrorists lurking at every corner and an anti-American sentiment that permeates all aspects of society. This could not be further from the truth. I would go so far as to say that probably no country in the world suffers from the absurd mischaracterization that the media lavishes on Iran. For sure, at the political level, our two governments, particularly right now, have fundamental differences but, and this is the part that the media never covers, Iranians love Americans. They feel deeply connected to America. With an estimated half million (and this number could be significantly higher) Iranians living in America, almost every Iranian in Iran has a relative living here.  Ask any Iranian which country they would like to move to and I can guarantee you, it will be the USA. Iranians watch more American TV shows than I do and they can provide minute details about the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

I have been to Iran many times but going last October, I wondered if I might see a different Iran. Would Trump’s Travel Ban have finally tipped the scales? Suddenly, Iranians used to visiting their families in the US can no longer get visas to visit and the Supreme Court ruling this week makes the likelihood of a visit even more remote. Given these circumstances, could they really go on loving us?   I was pretty sure that arriving at the airport would be full of bureaucratic posturing and I warned the all-women group I was leading to prepare for the worst and plan on being there at least four hours. How wrong I was. We sailed through in less than forty minutes with warm welcomes and lots of smiles all around. And that was just the airport. The next twelve days played out with story after story of kindness and connections that left us moved and trying to understand the disconnect between political rhetoric and real life in Iran.

Our first morning we headed towards northern Tehran for a cooking class which was to take place in a home in a residential area crisscrossed with tiny streets. Our driver, exasperated by streets too narrow to accommodate our bus, ended up hopelessly lost and having passed the same tea shop three times, I finally decided we should get out and walk. We must have looked a sight as we stood trying to navigate the chaotic traffic of northern Tehran where pedestrians rarely venture. Twenty American women hopelessly lost clinging to our scarves fearing that the wind might any minute reveal to the world who we really were.

I am a firm believer in karma and as I looked around for some kind of directive, I saw a woman walking towards us and hoped she might speak some English as my Farsi is most definitely in need of perfecting.  She was probably in her sixties and I was struck by her delicate scarf. It never ceases to amaze me how Iranian women can look so incredibly stylish given the dress code they are supposed to follow.  I could see she was carrying a tray and as she reached us, before I could pounce on her with questions, she removed the thin tissue paper that covered the tray and offered us a feast of delicate Iranian pastries. You have to understand the scene. We were in the middle of hugely chaotic traffic and here we were being offered pastries. Where had she come from? Where was she going? Had she seen us circling around and prepared the pastries? Through our wonderful guide, Farzaneh, I learned that no, she was walking to her son’s house for a birthday celebration but when she saw us, clearly American, she had decided to offer us the platter meant for the party. For a few seconds we hesitated – I mean would you eat from a tray offered to you in Times Square? But then we pushed caution to the wind and tucked in as if we had been deprived of food for days. In halting English, she said she wanted to welcome us to Iran and tell us she loved America. Drowned out by the sound of horns, we told her we loved Iran and crossing the street to our cooking class, I think we all knew we’d be hard pushed to find any pastry that matched those.

Our whole trip was filled with moments like this. The bags of pistachios handed out to us as we walked through Isfahan, the women who would come and hug us and then walk away. The intimate conversations with strangers in tea houses where we lamented the inability of our governments to find a way to work together. As I stayed up late one night at our luxurious boutique hotel in Kashan, I pondered the nature of Iranian’s love for America and wondered why the media was so disinterested in covering it. I promise you, if you come to Iran you will quickly understand that Iranians love us and to travel through this extraordinary country is to be bathed in a blanket of warmth and hospitality where what matters is the generosity of the human spirit, not the constraints of our governments.

What does it take to experience Iran with its feast of ancient cities, elegant monuments and a landscape pierced by glistening irrigation canals and sand-colored deserts? If you work with the right travel company, it’s no problem to get a visa but for better or for worse, if you want to visit Iran as an American, you must join an organized tour. You can design your own tour and do it alone, you can travel with two or six of your best friends on a private program or, if you are so inclined, you can join a group tour.