Making friends with Iran

by tkos on August 17, 2012

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‘Iranians are the friendliest people on earth’. That’s what the internet tells us and who are we to question the internet?

Not even a hundred kilometres passed the Iranian/Turkish border in the north west of the country and we get waved down on the side of the road by Dr Akbar on our second day in the country.

‘Where are you going?’ asks the good doctor.

‘Australia.’ I reply.

He looks at us and the bikes, yet does not crack a smile or hint that he is impressed.

‘That’s far. You will need some rest. You can stay at my house.  I am a doctor.’

He gives us some vague directions and indicates that he lives in a town some 20km down the road, then turn right for another 5km, hit the second roundabout then ask somebody for his practice. They will show us. We humbly accept his offer and with that, shakes my hand to seal the deal, gets into his car and drives off.

Kimmi and I exchange a glance to confirm that we will stay with this random guy and his random offer in his random house, in some slightly out of the way Iranian town. It’s about 3-4 degrees and it’s getting dark soon. We don’t have many other options.

After missing the right turn and cycling 10km too far and then 10km back, we find ourselves cycling in complete darkness, bar the dimly lit occasional street lamp, looking for the second roundabout. We are now over an hour late, which always stresses Kimmi out and we are cycling in the dark, which is like adding an aerosol can to an indoor fireplace.  Somewhere deep down, Kimmi knows none of this is my fault, but I don’t temp fate by stating such a claim and just try and get us there in one piece.

‘Dr Akbar?’ I ask one of the curious onlookers in the small town. Immediate recognition dawns on the kind strangers face as he marches confidently across the street ushering us with him. We approach a small window fronted shop, about the size of a small van, and notice that it contains nothing but a desk, a small couch with a coffee table and a sheep. A live sheep, that is. Just standing there, pissing and shitting all over the floor. It turns out that Dr Akbar is a veterinarian.

Dr Akbar welcomes us with open arms, despite us being so late. We park our bikes and remove our beanies, scarves, outer gloves, inner gloves, outer jackets, jumpers, outer trousers and one set of thick socks. We sidestep the puddles of sheeps piss on the floor, find refuge next to the radiator and try and thaw.

For the next two to three hours, we are treated like honoured guests. Bottomless tea is enjoyed as Dr Akbar’s curious friends come to talk to us, come to talk to the link to the outside world. It was our first real conversation with real Iranians and it was nothing like we expected. One of them, an English teacher, even declared that he did not believe in Islam, that he did not believe in anything. We were shocked with the brutal honesty. All of them detested the government and spoke of the good times, before the revolution some 30 years ago.

‘Unfortunately, you cannot stay at my house tonight’, Dr Akbar said. We were a little confused as this was against what he had said earlier. ‘I fear the government is watching us, and they do not like us talking to Western people. If we do, we get harassed and bad things can happen. But you can sleep here in the veterinarian practice.’ Now that we were warm, safe and comfortable, that was more than fine by us.

One of the main concerns that they had was our expectations and perception of the Iranian people, as Westerners. What did we think of them and why? They all truly believed that the reputation of Iranian people to the Western world is that they are all Muslim extremists and terrorists. We strongly protested that perception on behalf of the Western world and told them to check the internet to verify their reputation as friendly, but we knew in our heart of hearts that they were right. Most people we told that we were cycling through Iran thought that we would be dodging bullets and negotiating with suicide bombers and kidnappers to get from one side of the country to the other. But nothing could be further from the truth.

We spent 43 nights in total in Iran and of that, slept in 25 different homes. We met 25 different families and a lot more neighbours and friends. We rarely asked to stay in a home, we were always invited. Every day that we cycled, an average of five cars per day would pull over and offer us something, whether it be some fruit, water, biscuits, cash, a pen or a place to sleep. Nobody ever, ever asked for anything in return and refused with insult if we offered.

But they all had one thing in common, one common message, one common concern. Does the Western world understand that the Iranian government do not reflect the Iranian people. That they are different. ‘Of course they do!’ I would usually lie, when asked. But I know that the only people who truly believe that are the few people that have travelled through it.

It seems that the internet is right. Iranians really are the friendliest people on earth. Fact.


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