“Of all the places, of all the countries, of all the years of travel, it’s here in Iran, I am greeted the most warmly by total strangers.”

-Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown- (Iran)

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There is a small park near the City Theatre, right in the heart of Tehran’s business district. Located next to a busy road, a flyover and a Metro station, it provides respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Fountains and statues around the park give it an artsy touch while the trees provide the visitors refuge from all the heat and pollution. During the day, you will find people sitting on the park benches, chatting, reading newspapers and some, singing out a tune from time to time. Tea vendors are never more than a whisper away.

I happened upon the park the morning I landed in Tehran, while walking along the sidewalks of Ferdowsi Street, looking for a decent deal to change my Dollars into Rials at one of the unofficial money exchange offices. The light drizzle that had greeted me on my arrival in the country a few hours back, had stopped by then, leaving behind a maze of little puddles and cool breezes. I spent my first Rials to purchase a foot-long sandwich from one of the nearby stands, and found myself a bench to sit.

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Now, I never thought of Iran as “dangerous”, certainly not in the category of present day Syria or Iraq (otherwise why would I go there?), and had read enough articles on various travel websites to know that it was beautiful, but I would be lying if I said I was not nervous about coming here.

The things I was nervous about ranged from being kidnapped to getting pick pocketed to being mistaken for a spy. I was afraid of landing in prison by unintentionally breaking a law or some societal or religious custom. After all, this was Iran, a country that, along with Iraq and North Korea, was described by an ex-US President as the “Axis of Evil”. To put it in another way, if the world was a classroom and all the countries were students, you would not want your kid to mix with Iran. It has that sort of a reputation in the world.

But in that moment, sitting on a bench under a tree, across from a middle-aged man singing his heart out, munching on my delicious cheese sandwich while watching families picnicking on the lush green grass, I knew that it will be a great trip.

Though the charming ambience of the park was just a small window into the lives of the locals, it made me see the city in a different light. As they say,

Travel is at its finest when it changes the way you look at a place.

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Most of us have seen news pieces on TV with shots of some radical Islamic preacher, talking aggressively on a microphone in an indecipherable dialect, in a mosque somewhere in some war-torn country in the Middle East, casually sporting an automatic weapon across one of his shoulders while his followers cheered him on. The nicely dressed news anchor returns on screen a few moments later and asks one of her “channel experts” about his thoughts, which more often than not, explicitly or inexplicitly, revolve around the radicalisation of Islam.

With each such news piece, each such newspaper article, each such social media share, a false perception starts building in the minds of the people that all of Middle East is dangerous and their religion preaches violence.

Now, since I don’t consider myself qualified enough to talk about religion or international politics, we will avoid those topics and make a segway to one of my most cherished experiences from the trip.

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It was evening in Yazd. The sky was dark orange, the roads were busy with traffic, the flashy lights of the bazaar were playing tricks with my eyes while the evening breezes soothed the blisters from an incredibly hot afternoon. The sound of azaan rang in the air from all the mosques in the neighbourhood. With a rosewater tinged-vanilla ice cream cone in my hand, I was walking down a sidewalk, near the incredibly beautiful ChakhMaq complex, when I came upon this mosque, which had no mentions in my 2012 edition, Lonely Planet guidebook. It looked like the kind of mosque where you did not have to buy entrance tickets. People came here to pray and not to take pictures.

I stepped into the mosque compound to take a good look at the structure and its minarets. There was a water fountain in the courtyard in front of the main gate. The facade was intricately designed, lined with colourful windows at the top. It was beautiful.

Unsure and ignorant regarding the protocols of a mosque, I decided to take a quick picture and leave. But as soon as my Sony Cybershot made its first shutter sound, I felt a tap on my shoulder and before I even turned, my brain went, “Fuck, I broke a rule, didn’t I?”

It was an elderly gentleman, smiling at me, saying something in Faarsi. He waved for me to follow him into the mosque. I shook my head, trying my best to politely decline his offer. But he insisted, and soon curiosity got the better of me and I followed him inside. We walked through the spacious main hall, with walls decorated with traditional motifs and a gorgeous chandelier, to an inner hall where a man with a beard and a turban, dressed in grey and white overalls, sat in front of a microphone, reciting verses from the Quran. People sat around the room, cross legged on the soft carpet, listening to him, or quietly chatting in groups. Unlike what I had seen on TV, the preacher was not carrying an automatic weapon. And though I didn’t understand what he was saying, the tone of his voice was mellow and peaceful.

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The elderly gentleman, who by this point I had learned did not speak a word of English, led me to his group of friends and gestured for me to sit with them. He chatted with his friends, who were around his age, some of whom stared at me with smiles and curious looks. Soon, I was being offered tea, sweets and cakes, which no matter how I much I resisted, they insisted I take.

And, this will happen often throughout the trip. Just random strangers, greeting me, asking me about my life in India, Bollywood, where I planned to go next and where I have been, telling me about their lives in return, offering me tea, sweets and snacks. Meals even.

And they were like that to every traveller I met. No matter who I talked to in my hostels, across nationalities, races and political inclinations, no one had anything bad to say about the people of Iran.

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The beautiful landscapes, delicious kebabs, colourful bazaars, rugged mountains, ancient mosques and palaces that you may have seen on travel websites, they are all there, but it is the kindness and warmth of the Iranians that really is the magic sauce that made my time in Iran so memorable.

From the shopkeepers of the Grand Bazaar to the guides, from the taxi drivers to bus conductors, from one random stranger to the next, they all treat you like you are their personal guest. There are waiters who would not present a bill after a meal, passengers who would anonymously pay for your bus ticket, people who would offer to drive you to your destination if they see you walking in the hot afternoon sun and share their phone numbers with you, in case you needed any help.. they were all so amazing!

“When you go back to your home, we want you to tell your friends and family to come to Iran.” Mohsain, my cab driver in Tehran, answered when I asked him why people are so nice.

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So, the next time you are planning for a trip, take a chance with Iran. You do not have to agree with their politics or follow their religion. They are not all radicals or extremists like they are being portrayed on TV. They are not at war nor do they plan to be in one anytime soon.

In fact, they have not invaded another country in the last 250 years! How many western powers can you say the same for?

One of the Iranian hosts on Parts Unknown put it so nicely when he said,

“We’re not the Axis of Evil. We’re just normal evil, like everyone else.”

Just throw all those concerns out the window and go there with an open mind and maybe..just maybe.. the kid you wanted to avoid in class, will end up being your best friend.

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