Iran: A Kaleidoscope of Memories
Iran? Isn’t it dangerous? Will you be safe?
These were just a few of the typical questions my friends asked me when I mentioned my next travel destination.
My trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran was nothing short of wonderful, awesome, interesting, beautiful, fun, moving, mind-opening… I could go on and on about this unexpected land.
I might have known something about the history of this country and the Persian Empire, with its intellectual and artistic greatness, military glory and cultural sophistication dating back to over 2,500 years, but being exposed to its remains, visiting the archaeological sites, the museums, the palaces, the gardens and the bazaars revealed its true magnificence. The roots of that great empire are still embedded in people’s minds and hearts, and each person we encounter on the way is a king opening up his palace to welcome us. The hospitality, warm and kind, is beyond anything I’d ever experienced, and I just felt at home.
Of nomadic origin thousands of years ago, Iranian people are still nomads in their minds and hearts. They can set up tents to sleep at places we would think impossible, from parks to parking spaces, in sidewalks and in the middle of nature. They are indeed the “picnic kings,” with an amazing ability to “camp,” prepare tea (or a full banquet) and enjoy themselves almost anywhere permitted (but it is permitted in the most unbelievable places), just by unrolling a carpet or a plastic to define the space that will be used, and for which they always seem to be prepared. They simply remove their shoes to step onto this rug and into a world of human connections that take place inside the rug. And this includes inviting passersby like me to join them.
I received tea, coffee, biscuits, ghalian (the Iranian word for water pipe), water, an energy drink and candy, together with many more invitations I could not accept due to our programme, and countless smiles from “strangers.”
Where else in the world does this happen?
Iran is safe and clean. Its people are innocent, pure, kind. There is a beautiful sense of pride and a strong sense of community.
Many of the things that we visited are truly very beautiful, with craftsmanship that exceeds anything one could possibly imagine. Stone worked like lace; bricks used like embroidery; wood carved like filigree; metal worked so intricately that it defies belief; mirrors used like miniature tiles; gardens put together with perfection and balance, and food served like a piece of art. Take, for instance, a relic at the Armenian Cathedral of Saint Joseph of Arimathea: a single strand of hair with an inscription in Armenian that reads, with the help of a microscope, “Learn wisdom, follow advice and understand the intellectuals’ speech,” written in 1974 with a diamond tip.
Everywhere we look, things have been made beautiful with symbols to remind us of paradise. Isn’t it all about creating paradise here and now?
Noteworthy poets, scientists, astrologers, astronomers, engineers, strategists, artists, politicians and people who have made amazing contributions to what we are today crowd Persian history, and are honoured with mausoleums and tombs and monuments. People still gather around the tomb of Omar Khayyam to read his poems (he passed away in 1123) and his writings remain relevant to this day.
Another “weave” can also be seen in their human connections and history. Throughout the country, much bigger than I expected (around 1.7 million square kilometers), are people from different nationalities and religions. While predominantly Shia Muslims, there are also Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews (these three have seats in the current parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran). Several languages are spoken in Iran. Many of their traditions and their sense of identity have to do with their Zoroastrian past and, at the same time, take us back to the Mithraic beliefs. Sufi mysticism still exists in Iran and has existed for hundreds of years, its footprint indelibly marked in the life of this country.
Tea—and the sugar it is served with—is a very important part of daily life. There are samovars everywhere, teapots, thermoses. Tea is constantly offered, and served with different kinds of sugars, some sweets and always with a smile. There’s candied sugar (sometimes with saffron), crystal sugar, white sugar, sugar cubes and caramel-like candies that are eaten together with tea. Their black tea is infused with spices, giving it a very Iranian character. Or they make herbal infusions out of the most unbelievable things, always aware of their properties.
At gas stations, one can purchase a “hot water refill” to brew tea on the way with a thermos, and a greeting followed by a kind exchange of words leads to being offered a fresh glass of tea.
Rice is another staple. The Irani have elevated cooking rice to a new dimension, achieved with a very complicated process that yields wonderful results. It takes hours but the result is well worth the time and effort.
The Iranian concept of food blends health with pleasure. Everything is regarded for its medicinal properties and food is planned not only in terms of its flavour, but also in terms of its contribution to health and well-being.
Iranians have developed a spectacular approach to fruit- and flower-based drinks, which they call sharbat—rose water mixed with saffron and cucumber, sour cherry mixed with honey, willow with lemon or lime, a type of vinegar-based syrup mixed with seeds. The concoctions are colourful, refreshing, delicious and fragrant at the same time.
Iran is about beauty and reflecting this beauty, whether in the mirrors which they use abundantly in decoration or as symbols by the entrance or in ponds and fountains. Iran is about roses and orange blossoms and wall-flowers and jasmines and wisterias, whether as scent in the air or in drinks or as theme for art. Iran is about pistachios and dates and lamb and different kinds of rice. Iran is about amazing crafts, craftsmanship and seeking perfection. Iran is about depth and wonder and love and poetry. About meaning and growth in this path to making paradise happen here and now. Sharing and making you feel at home. Doubtlessly, their most favorite word, which we heard throughout our trip, is “WELCOME!”