It is easy to be filled with some anxiety when visiting Iran. One only needs to peruse a newspaper or surf the net to encounter phrases like “evil empire” or “top state sponsor of terrorism.” But what is it really like to visit Iran as an American tourist?
There are many reasons to skip your visit to Iran. The Iranian government does not make it easy to visit, including a lengthy visa process and a required guide to accompany you during your visit. It also seems that Iran has a predilection for imprisoning visitors on trumped up charges. Iran has brutally suppressed recent democratic movements in their country. Also, the leader of Iran, the Ayatollah, is quite fond of ending his Friday sermons with “Death to America!” And of course, no American will forget the attack on the US Embassy in 1979 and the imprisonment of 52 Americans for 444 days.
So, what would possess me or any other American to travel to this isolated pariah state?
Iran is one of the world’s oldest civilizations dating back to 3,200 BC with a rich culture and history. Iran is a multi-cultural society with multiple religions and languages. And as a visitor, there is a cornucopia of amazing historical sites; too many to visit on one single trip.
And the typical Iranian is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I was stopped numerous times by random strangers during my ten day visit with enormous smiles. “Welcome to Iran!”, the salutation was shouted after announcing my American citizenship. These were not the interactions one would anticipate after analyzing western media.
So, how can you square the circle? My first stop in Tehran, the sprawling capital of Iran, was the Den of Thieves. Also known as the former US Embassy of Iran. The walls are covered with anti-American graffiti. As I photographed the wall, two men sitting near me motioned over to me. They asked me where I was from, and I shared with them my American nationality. They smiled and shook my hand vigorously as they welcomed me to their country. The irony was not lost on me, as the three of us gathered in the shadow of a skull-faced Statue of Liberty.
The Iranians have their own valid frustrations with the United States. The U.S. engineered a coup in 1953 overthrowing the democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and reinstated the autocratic and freedom-suppressing Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi. And the U.S. with many other countries supported Saddam Hussein during the vicious eight-year war with Iran.
Anti-American propaganda is not limited to the Den of Thieves, but it can be viewed throughout the country.
The flip-side of the coin were my actual interactions with the Iranians I met throughout the country. Warm smiles, hearty handshakes. Multiple “Welcome to Iran!” I have traveled to other Middle Eastern countries where I simply lied to a stranger on the street or cafe. I would offer a Canada or Australia as my home country, instead of sharing the truth of my American nationality. In Iran, I always offered my true origin. I knew I would be met with a warm and welcoming response.