Thursday, 22 September, 2016

BBC World Affairs Editor: Iran is the Most Charming Country on Earth


All right, so I’m a travel extremist when it comes to holidays. Don’t come to me with your tales of fortnights in Dubai or the Maldives: it’s Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea that I’m interested in. The first thing I think of, when I hear of trouble in Egypt, is the Valley of the Kings emptying out and being able at long last to get a decent look at Tutankhamen’s belongings.

This being the case, though, please don’t simply disregard the country I want to suggest to you for a strenuous but immensely rewarding holiday: Iran. OK, now you’re thinking of seething crowds of angry men and black-wrapped women screaming “Death to” whoever it is this week. Stonings. Glowering ayatollahs.

These things exist, just as the danger of being hijacked in South Africa exists, or being randomly shot in America. But they aren’t the norm. They’re just what people like me put in our news reports.

So let’s start again, with a clean sheet. Think of a country, largely cut off from the outside world, with a lovely dry climate, sophisticated and charming people, superb archaeological monuments, mountains, deserts, the Caspian Sea. If recent history had been different, it would be the India of the travel business, only without the beggars and the chaos. Iran is, quite simply, the most charming country I know.

Until recently, it has been a complete secret. But in the past year or so it has opened up a little. I’ve started reading patronising little mentions of it in travel editors’ diaries. A few discerning people are coming back quite starry-eyed from their visits there. Of course, there’s a definite delight in shocking the neighbours, who have only been to Bali. But after the general intake of breath at the drinks party, yours will be a genuinely fascinating story.

What always strikes me in Iran is the normality of it. If you wandered down the street in Tehran – say Dr Fatemi Avenue, where the old and much-loved hotel, the Laleh, stands – you would find it suspended between West and East, between the modern and something altogether older and more attractive: the Persian past.

This is not Saudi Arabia: women drive cars, run businesses and often forget to cover their hair as they’re supposed to do. The systems of control exist, but they’re usually discreet. A westerner wouldn’t come into contact with the nastier side of Iranian coercion, as long as he or she behaved and dressed sensibly.

What you would encounter is a genuine delight to see you: a distinctly old-fashioned affection for westerners, who have vanished from everyday life in Iran. Eating in a Tehran restaurant can sometimes be a trial: so many people want to greet you and indeed pay for your meal.

I first became aware of this affection in the Eighties, when I ventured out to cover an anti-British demonstration in the city. I was a lot younger then, and accompanied by a charming, fatherly cameraman. The crowd pushed and shoved, and shouted “Marg bar Tacher” – “death to Thatcher”. I asked the cameraman to stand on a low wall and film me as I walked through the angry demonstrators. “I really don’t think you should do this, John,” he said, with a troubled look at the mob. But I’d seen it done before, by an American correspondent. I weaved my way through the crowd, smiling and explaining that I was a Brit, and they opened up a pathway for me, shaking hands and bowing.

I finally reached the ringmaster, a professional demonstrator who was beating his chest, the spittle shooting from his mouth in his anti-British fervour. “Welcome, welcome to Iran, sir,” he said, and actually kissed my hand. It went down well on the news that night, I promise you.

All right, you’re saying, that was decades ago. But, you see, Iran has been cut off from the West for so long since then that the longing for contact with westerners has actually grown. If you spend an evening wandering round Isfahan, the incomparable city of Shah Abbas on the Zayandeh River, with the distant foothills of the Zagros purple in the fading light, your main problem will be saying no to the kindly people picnicking in the parks and gardens who beg you to join them.

“Isfahan nesf-e jahan” the Persians say. “Isfahan is half of the world.” And when you’re there, perhaps drinking a little glass of tea in the courtyard of the Abbasi Hotel, I think you might agree it’s the finer half. You’re probably thinking I’ve been paid by the Iran Tourism Board (if such a thing exists) for saying this. Persians, with their habitual joy in conspiracy theories, certainly would. But I’ve been banned from Iran for five years now, and don’t know if I’ll ever be allowed back. Believe me, the loss is mine.

BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson



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