Customs in Iran

Iran was what I expected it to be, in many ways, but I learned about some very strange customs. I always thought Iran was a safe, conservative society full of fairly well-off, educated people – atleast compared to the rest of central Asia. I learned about siga, a form of legal prostitution supported by the government. It’s a system where men can pay a woman to marry her, for 1 hour, 1 week, or even 1 year, and during this rental time, the man can have sex with her without her being called a prostitute or insulting the no-sex-before-marriage custom. For women that do this, or just any ordinary girl who may have lost her virginity to a boyfriend, she can buy her virginity back, through a surgical procedure that takes less than an hour, but has a woman bed-ridden for a week or more, and may take a month or more to recover from. This is probably more expensive than the rental wife, but I don’t know the figures.

Cheaper for women is to spend money on nose jobs, and I don’t know the statistics on that but a lot of women do it. A cheap surgery can be under $1000USD, and wearing the white bandage on your nose out in public during the healing process is like an honour badge, a proud mark of being able to buy a more beautiful nose.

The eyebrows are arguably the second most important facial feature. The natural uni-brow is embraced as a traditional kind of beauty, grown only by the lucky few in the history of Persia’s great empire. Women with detached eyebrows often paint them darker and thicker, sometimes in unnatural shapes or lengths that don’t really make sense to me. Also their lipstick often spills out of the natural boundaries, and then you’re left with a lot of women who have a brightly coloured mouth under their cosmetic noses and piercing eyebrows, all carefully framed by a scarf or hijab.

Food in Iran was amazing, but I was unlucky enough to have my two worst meals within the first 24 hours of being in Iran, and this was because they weren’t typical Iranian foods. My first lunch was a $3 Turkish doner, 95% comprised of an oversized loaf of bread, and %5 shaved meat, and since I’m avoiding gluten, I ate the few scraps of meat and decided to stay away from doners unless Im back in Europe. My first breakfast was a green tea latte (quite good) and a bagel with cream cheese – the bagel was dry, fluffy bread in the shape of a circle and the cream cheese was like those pie-shaped spreadable cheese you get at hotel breakfast buffets. After that I decided to stay away from any international foods and everything was fine, except for being unable to avoid the inevitable bread that follows all meals.

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

All the Iranian meals I ate had that home-cooked feeling, even in a restaurant, and the sauces, pickles, spices, herbs and tea that followed them were equally delicious. Bread is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the bread type varied from home to home and city to city. You are meant to eat with your hands, usually with a piece of bread in it, or else you’re only offered a spoon and/or a fork. Knives were not part of the dining experience, even if you had a lamb shoulder or steak kebab.

Most meals were followed by an offer of fruit for desert, and now was the time for mandarins, pomegranates and apples. Strangely enough the fruits were always served on a plate with a knife, and I’ve rarely eaten fruit so often or formally.

Iranians have a word in Farsi called ‘ta-arof,’ and it refers to the kind of hospitality they offer that you cannot refuse – they insist until you either admit you’d appreciate it, or just take whatever it is to avoid the argument. When offered fruit, you’re directed ‘Eat pomegranate.’ Noone asks or cares if you want it, just eat it. If you refuse taarof, its an insult. If it is a question, like “what table would you like?” or “would you like to sit?”, then your answer is barely heard, since your host quickly refutes “no, this table is better” or “please sit here its more comfortable for you.”

Another unbreakable custom was some men’s insistence on not smiling in photos. “Real men don’t smile” I was told, and everyone kept their stone face in my selfies. I also couldn’t understand their strict rules on public behavior – unmarried or unrelated males and females cannot walk in the street together, even if they’re a meter apart on the sidewalk, but on my overnight train to Mashad I shared a 4 person sleeper cabin with 1 woman and 2 men. I could not sit on the back of my friends motorcycle and move thru traffic, but I could get into his car and drive away to anywhere we pleased. I rode one overnight bus as well, and it was the most luxurious bus I’ve ever seen. They call them VIP buses, and a single, reclining leather couch seat was on the left, and basically a loveseat sofa on the right, complete with armrests and a steward that served us snacks and tea.

Traveling times and daily routines were always a little surprising. Overnight trains and buses began in the afternoon, before sunset, and would usually arrive at their destination in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, just in time for the first prayers of the day. The work week is Saturday to Wednesday, and staying awake til 2 am on a work day was normal, and waking up at 4 am on the weekend was also not unheard of. It’s the year 1395, and none of the months or days of the week are familiar.

I couchsurfed my whole time in Iran, so I often followed my hosts schedule or sleeping patterns. Sometimes I could nap or sleep earlier, but I enjoyed being awake from sunrise to sunset. There isn’t much to do in the evenings, since nightclubs are illegal, although Iranians are crazy about going to parks at night. The conversations I had with my couchsurf hosts were often the same, about my country, my family, my work, and my impressions of Iran. They talked to me about the same, but usually focused more on how they could get to my country, or a wife from outside, or a job in Europe, and shared their less-than-glamorous opinions of Iran. Everyone seemed to want a way out, to get any chance of escaping to the outside world, and had little hesitations about leaving Iran and never coming back. If they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain these feelings, they were still happy to use me as a means of practicing English, and then came more questions about me, my age, and my future plans for marriage and children – since every woman must have those plans.

In many ways, Iranian culture wasn’t so different from western cultures, and my first host in Tehran told me that women basically could act and do the same things we do at home. But after a few weeks of traveling alone in Iran, I realized the few things that do differentiate us are based on really strict, important customs, so it was better not to ask any questions and just conform.

Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only

There’s Something about Somaliland

I could have flown from Djibouti to Somaliland, but I had heard a rumor that the Somalian airline Jubba Airways uses old, refitted livestock transport planes to transport their current human passengers… and that they’re flights are notorious for being delayed or cancelled, so I decided because of the latter to go overland. It was a little over 400km, and all I knew was that the journey would take a whole night and the mode of public transport was (outdated) 4×4 Toyota Landcruisers. In the end it took nearly 19 hours and the road there was merely a sand track repeatedly followed by the same Landcruisers, but their tires had no traction and a little bit of rain had caused 3 to get stuck on the way.

The border sold Somaliland visas on arrival, but I had had mine from the embassy. The other 5 passengers in my vehicle were either Somali or Djiboutian, and they needed a visa too, which 4 refused to pay for. Instead of turning them back, we (I didn’t realize I was innocent and free to move) were held at gun point (one was foot-cuffed) to see how long it would take them to give in and pay. In the end we waited more than 3 hours and only 2 out of 4 paid, but somehow 3 out of 4 made it through and Im still wondering what happened to that last guy.

the cornerstore

the cornerstore

Arriving into Hargeisa was an anti-climactic relief. The roads hadn’t really improved, just hardened and gotten dustier, and getting local money meant bag fulls of notes worth between $0.07 and $0.70 (there weren’t larger bills or any atm’s – could you even imagine withdrawing $100 from one?). Besides breaking my back being jostled around for a whole night, the Somali music had kept my spirits up, and I was happy to see some live music and eat local food at a cultural village my first night. We ate goat and camel while sitting on goatskins, but I wondered what the fat-tailed sheep might taste like or how the hyde would look with their tails flattened.

At first sight, Hargeisa had taken me back to a super conservative, Islamic place, where some women covered even their hands in gloves and girls years younger than puberty had already started covering their hair (and it was around 40°c). Covering was a nuisance in such heat, but its camoflauging ability wasn’t worth abandoning. Instead of a Holy Bible in the drawer like a typical American motel, prayer mats were provided at all hotels. Alcohol and pork disappeared, though I hadn’t really noticed it in Djibouti even though I thought I missed them, and the calls to prayer got louder and closer no matter where I was. Courtships between men and women were very discreet, with walled VIP rooms, private tents, or separation partitions set up between tables at restaurants so that no one could see who’s dating who. At least the women here were allowed to go out alone with their romantic interests, and they seemed to enjoy more colourful clothing and henna tattooing than their gulf country counterparts. Still many men had multiple wives but not as many marriages were arranged as in Oman.

a woman waits for a bus at a gas station

a woman waits for a bus at a gas station

I managed to make it to Hargeisa and onwards to Berbera and back without hiring an armed guard. It didn’t seem to matter I you were covered and took a local bus, but I took a private car once and the guard in the next private car behind us had to pretend to take responsibility of me to get me through the regular checkpoints, turning a 1.5 hr drive into twice as long (even though the road was paved!). We often slowed for goats crossing or dodged a camel, and every village let their livestock roam free and only fenced in their trees to keep them alive.

It’s easy to get tired of this kind of travel: it’s slow, dirty, hot, and long, but the rewards become much simpler. The payoffs weren’t any major tourist attractions or natural wonders; they’re just simple luxuries like taking a normal shower (vs. bucket shower or cold water hose) or finding wifi and some cold water to drink. Someone explained that Somalilanders think cold liquids aren’t good for you, so they don’t refrigerate much or use ice. However, they go all out on telecommunications, with cell phone service and 4g available even in the littlest shacks and faraway places.

checkpoint

checkpoint

I left Somaliland with a tummy at war, disgustingly sick from an unboiled cup of coffee, but the memories of Berbera’s coast and endless beach still made it worth it (they happened on the same day). Las Geels ancient rock art on the road between Berbera and Hargeisa was also interesting, although it could be a lot better managed for the $25 entry the guard either pockets or you pay at the tourism office in Hargeisa. But that won’t happen until more people start traveling to Somaliland, so I encourage anyone with a different taste in tourism and a sense of overlanding adventure to try it soon. At the moment it’s the safest, most peaceful part of disjointed Somalia, but you never know how long that will last!