A thickly moustached man rolled down the side window of his Peugeot and yelled out ‘“Taxi?” invitingly. He was not the first to have offered us a ride in return for several American dollars since we arrived in Esfahan. I gestured with my two fingers upside down; indicating that we preferred to walk.
My brother had earlier wondered why the locals are so eager to cash on us.
“We are not Caucasians. And neither do we look like any of those fancy Koreans or Japanese.”
I muttered under my breath: “Our bulky travellers’ backpacks are good enough of a reason,” as we continued brazing through the sub-zero temperature.
It was only recently that tourism began to steadily pick up after Rouhani was elected President. President Rouhani has since toned down Iran’s previous confrontative approach on international platform under former President Ahmadinejad.
While at the peak of his power, Ahmadinejad had openly denounced Holocaust and was steadfast in defending Iran’s legal right to develop its nuclear technology. Having a hardline leader was the last thing that Iran needed after being propagated by the West as a ‘rogue state’ for decades long.
For the powerbrokers of the world, it did not matter what Iran’s nuclear technology was intended for. A nuclear-powered Iran is too ‘risky’ for the world (read: USA) with Ahmadinejad at helm.
Despite not having prior experience traveling in Iran, many had perceived Iran to be ‘dangerous’ to travel to when put against this political backdrop.
It gets more complicated as we factor in the religio-political aspect of Iran being the only legitimate Shia-majority country, which I personally think has more leverage in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East than the incessant threats of the Western powers.
Politics aside, perhaps the Iranian people are already tired from this endless political mud-slinging. Majority of the Iranians I met were able to treat each individual as just another friend, without giving much weight to his/her backgrounds.
Likewise, Iran’s younger generations are hoping for the world to be more accepting for who they are, rather than what their government is perceived to be as.
One could see in the locals’ eyes that they are both excited and curious to have ‘guests’ coming over.
I described ourselves as ‘guests’ as the locals are genuinely welcoming and friendly to outsiders without expecting anything in return. Bowing slightly with delightful smiles from playful kids and elderly alike, it did not take long before getting ourselves accustomed to conversations in passing — even in our short walks to nearby Bazaar or ‘Kabobi’ (Persian kebab joint).
“Salaam! My friend, where are you from?”
“Ah, beautiful, great country! Welcome to Iran!”
The impression was akin to hosting long-lost relatives during festivities where warm embrace and friendly gestures are expected.
Throughout my conversations with Iranians while at hostels, chaikhanehs (tea houses), or during our short taxi rides, it was always a struggle to contextualise the answer to their favourite, golden question: ‘What do you think of Iran?’.
It may have sounded simple, but not until their piercing, beautiful Persian eyes came staring at your heart; yearning for an honest answer.
Their question was not meant to be a typical, conversation-starter question that a Westerner would usually pose to strangers to “break the ice”.
Especially after bitterly referred to as part of the “Axis of Evil” by George W. Bush, this was an opportunity for the day-to-day Iranians to know what the ‘world’ thinks of them; considering that Western media portals are blocked, and access to social media platforms are limited in Iran.
It is problematic to be a subject of an outspoken and non-conformist government—against the interest of the world’s superpowers—as Western media would often equate it as the sole identity of the entire population. For those who have had none or little exposure to Iranians, it is no surprise if their first impression on Iranians are “terrorist-friendly” or “nuclear-crazy”.
Despite the shortcomings, the locals are more than happy to converse with foreign travellers. It provides them with an opportunity to go beyond a two-way conversation, but as a dialogue to link similarities and to disengage common misconceptions on Iranians. Couple that with their approachable and friendly attitude, their hospitality to fellow ‘guests’ are beginning to shine as the jewel of Iran’s attraction.
I had finally reached my hostel after walking for a good two kilometres from the old Armenian town of Jolfa near south Esfahan. I could see my brother’s steamy breath in the air as he complained of exhaustion.
“We should have taken the taxi…”, lamented my brother as he rubbed his two palms together for some extra heat. He had forgotten his winter gloves (and mistakenly underestimated the Persian winter).
I jokingly responded: “At least we now know that our Malaysian-Sunni animosity towards the Shiites are not mutual!” while briskly walking through the front entrance of our hostel.