This is me outside the former US Embassy. It is a huge compound in the middle of Tehran. You can get arrested if you take photos of Government buildings, or police officers, and I wasn’t sure whether this could get me in trouble, so did the photo quickly. Probably didn’t help that through a timing error with the laundry the only shirt that was dry was my Martha’s Vineyard shirt, which might have people conclude I was from the US. I made sure I kept my passport with me at all times.
The walls are covered with anti-US artwork.
And the compulsory reference to the Great Satan.
The above is probably what most people view Iran as being about. In fact most Iranians are very warm and hospitable I found, and I enjoyed my stay here more than some of the other countries – partly because the taxi drivers do not rip you off, no touts, and the merchants are not overly aggressive (they encourage sales but not harrass you – even in the bazaars).
But there are some downsides, which now I am out of the country, I should cover:
- The Internet is seriously filtered and almost as bad is dialup in most places. Kiwiblog is blocked for example (for politics). Amusingly Whale Oil/Gotcha is not. Cactus Kate is blocked (for sex). Many Iranians get around the filter through the use of proxies. They seem to be common knowledge and as they get blocked more new ones get circulated. They block almost anything relating to the old Shah, including some Wikipedia pages.
- No external cellphone coverage. Local cellphones work, but not ones from outside. No phone calls or text messages.
- No ATMs. Well they do have a few, but they only work with local cards for the bank they are located in. Combined that with almost no credit card facilities and you need a lot of cash. On the plus side you get 7,500 Rials to a NZ$ and a lot of things costs under 10,000 Rials
- The dress code is strict. Unlike every other country to date, all women must wear a hajib – including tourists. And all men must wear trousers/jeans. I was even a bit nervous about having a t-shirt as only saw one other person with short sleeves in my whole stay, but I am told they are a bit more common in summer.
- While most locals are not at all anti-Western, they are very anti-Israel (to be fair as is most of Middle East). I got asked over dinner which countries I had already visited on this trip, and I accidentally said Israel instead of Egypt, and they looked shocked. Of course if you have been to Israel, you are not allowed entry to Iran, so it may just have been that.
- The normal Police were quite helpful and friendly, but I am told you want to avoid the religious militia.
- Women have to travel on the back of the bus. Seriously. Even if you are married, men sit and stand in the front half, and women in the back half.
- Foreigners are relatively rare. I understand only around 200 Kiwis a year go into Iran, and you do feel very much the stranger at times. I was lucky Paul speaks some Farsi, which helps.
- The traffic in Tehran is terrible and their flights are often delayed, which makes internal travel challenging.
Again though, while I was a bit nervous at times, it was a very enjoyable experience. While I never heard any criticism of the Supreme Leader (and was careful not to offer any), many locals were happy to share their thoughts on the President (and generally very uncomplimentary).
Oh one amusing story. As you can imagine Iran can be a difficult posting for a diplomat if their partner is of the same sex as them. I got told that one Commonwealth country’s Ambassador (not NZ) had his partner officially registered as his butler to avoid any issues. All the expats knew they were a couple of course, and they went to functions together. One wit said to the partner, that he was the only Butler he knew, where it was spelt with two “t”s
If the Iranian Government stopped scaring people so much, I think Iran could become a great tourist destination. It’s a wonderful country, with a huge amount to see, and in many sense feels relatively “Western”. But I think it will be sometime away. If you are visiting the region though, I would advocate that you do try and get a visa and pay a visit – you will probably be pleasantly surprised by the experience. And the NZ Embassy is extremely friendly, professional and helpful.