IRAN: THE DOOR OPENS

As re­la­tions with Iran thaw, a visit still re­quires cau­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Mike Dolan

“It is the dream of ev­ery woman in Iran to wear her hair free,” says Azadeh, as the plane rises above Is­tan­bul on its way to Shi­raz in south­ern Iran. When Azadeh boarded the plane in Lon­don, be­fore the brief Is­tan­bul stopover, she was wear­ing a fig­ure-hug­ging mini-dress, leg­gings and an­kle boots, hair cas­cad­ing over her shoul­ders. Now her ch­est­nut mane is piled high un­der a head­scarf and she’s but­toned into a loose-fit­ting frock coat.

“Ev­ery woman?” I ask, re­fer­ring to one sit­ting across the aisle in a black chador, a gar­ment that cov­ers her from head to toe. “Well, most women,” replies Azadeh. “About 60 Ira­nian women were wear­ing their hair loose be­fore re­board­ing this plane,” she says. “Now there isn’t one. Don’t tell me we have a choice,” she adds, be­fore turn­ing to check who is sit­ting in the rows be­hind her. “Is ev­ery­thing all right?” I ask. “Yes,” she replies, “but you have to be care­ful.”

Be­ing care­ful strikes a chord. When I told my Lon­don­based fam­ily and friends I was plan­ning to visit Iran, they showed con­cern. The Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice had still to change its ad­vice against all but es­sen­tial travel to the coun­try. Sev­eral days be­fore de­par­ture, I fret about whether to de­clare my oc­cu­pa­tion. No, ad­vise fel­low jour­nal­ists, you could be de­ported. Should I hi­ber­nate my Linked-in pro­file in case of­fi­cials Google me dur­ing the ar­rival pro­ce­dure? “That’s a good idea,” is the re­ply.

I get lit­tle com­fort from read­ing page 27 in the Lonely Planet’s Iran guide­book, “If you do over­stay, even by a few hours, ex­pect to be de­tained.” It all sounds a lit­tle threat­en­ing, es­pe­cially as my visa-on-ar­rival is for a max­i­mum of 15 days and yet my fixed flight times en­sure I’m in the coun­try for 15 days and three hours. Then there are the lit­tle anx­i­eties about pack­ing. Should I leave shorts and T-shirts at home? Is al­co­hol-based af­ter­shave for­bid­den when there’s a blan­ket ban on al­co­hol?

Sev­eral days later, I’m in Iran’s third largest city, Is­fa­han, ex­plor­ing Imam Square, a lit­tle be­fud­dled by the sum­mer heat but with a clear rec­ol­lec­tion of my ar­rival. I had blun­dered. Ev­ery over­seas tourist needs travel in­sur­ance and a cer­tifi­cate to prove it. I had left the pa­per­work be­hind. “You need the cer­tifi­cate,” the of­fi­cial said sternly. It was 3.30am and I was con­vinced de­por­ta­tion would be a whisker away. Ten­ta­tively I replied, “We can visit the cer­tifi­cate online.” The of­fi­cial nod­ded and smiled. “Welcome to Iran.”

The next morn­ing as I wait in the ho­tel lobby, I no­tice a man scru­ti­n­is­ing ev­ery­one who ar­rives and leaves the ho­tel. Maybe he en­joys peo­ple watch­ing? “Maybe he’s from the se­cret po­lice,” says a fel­low trav­eller with a wry smile.

But to­day, in Imam Square, women and chil­dren are pad­dling in an ex­pan­sive pool, where foun­tains cool the air. It’s 7.30am, 42C and ev­ery­one is laugh­ing as they dodge jets of wa­ter. Next to the pool, a group of school­child­ren and their teacher, all dressed in black chadors, ap­proach me. “Where are you from?” asks the teacher. “Lon­don,” I re­ply. Not miss­ing a beat, the chil­dren cho­rus, “Lon­don!” When an old man whose job it is to ser­vice the foun­tains walks by and says, “Lon­don good coun­try, my sis­ter live there,” the chil­dren re­peat, “Lon­don good coun­try.”

In the literature, Imam Square garn­ers all the su­perla­tives, from ex­quis­ite to in­com­pa­ra­ble. At 512m long and 163m wide, it is the sec­ond largest square on earth — only Tianan­men Square in Bei­jing is big­ger. Two 17th-cen­tury mosques em­bel­lished with blue tiles — the mas­sive Mas­jed-e Shah and the more in­ti­mate Mas­jed-e Sheikh Lot­fol­lah — adorn this mag­nif­i­cent space. Op­po­site the smaller mosque is the Kakh-e Ali Qapu, a six-storey palace with an el­e­vated ter­race that has views re­veal­ing just how beau­ti­ful Is­fa­han is with its tree-lined boule­vards and foun­tain-filled parks.

A lap around the square is equiv­a­lent to walk­ing 1.5km — enough to sharpen the ap­petite. And by noon, it’s time to re­treat from the heat into the nearby air­con­di­tioned Bas­tani Tra­di­tional Res­tau­rant, where the in­te­ri­ors have more stained glass than any art deco brasserie in Paris. Here, the din­ers sit cross-legged on car­peted di­vans and though it’s five days into Ramadan, the month when ob­ser­vant Mus­lims ab­stain from drink­ing and eat­ing be­tween sunrise and sunset, Ira­nian women are en­joy­ing dizi, a ro­bust stew of lamb, pota­toes, beans and tomato, flavoured with turmeric and lime. I’m puz­zled. Fa­tima, my guide, laughs. “Not ev­ery­one fol­lows Ramadan,” she says. “In fact, I would say only about 40 per cent of the peo­ple.” As a group of women din­ers leaves the res­tau­rant, they smile and ask if I would like to take their pho­to­graph. They pose grace­fully and leave.

“Did you no­tice their noses,” Fa­tima asks. “Four of them have had cos­metic surgery,” she adds. “They all have the same nose as [ac­tor] Ne­gar Foroozan­deh. You see it ev­ery­where.” Be­tween 60-70 per cent of Ira­nian women be­tween 18 and 30 years have had rhino­plasty, Fa­tima re­veals. “Look out for the lit­tle ban­dage on women’s noses. They are not ashamed; they wear it with pride. It also gives them sta­tus.”

Ten min­utes later in the bazaar, we spot a tell­tale plas­ter on the nose of a young woman, who hap­pily agrees to be pho­tographed. She con­fides the sur­geon charged $US2400 ($3260) — a con­sid­er­able sum in a coun­try where a World Bank re­port in 2013 es­ti­mated the av­er­age monthly in­come was $US570. When I ask Fa­tima for fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion, she says, “In Iran, women can only show their faces … it is our one win­dow.”

Later I re­turn to the ho­tel lobby and recog­nise the same man sit­ting in the same chair. But this time, he has a cage in which a small crested bird is singing. It’s a Per­sian nightin­gale or torghe. He feeds it a seed the size of a rice grain and I laugh at my friend’s ear­lier sus­pi­cions.

Is­fa­han, I sus­pect, is a city where many visi­tors would like to linger, but it’s time to re­turn to Shi­raz air­port and dis­cover whether my three-hour over­stay is a prob­lem. As I join the immigration queue, I chat with an Ira­nian fam­ily. The hus­band, an engi­neer, his wife and their 16year-old daugh­ter are fly­ing to Bri­tain to visit rel­a­tives in Manch­ester. I sail through immigration, but not ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily ar­rives in the de­par­ture lounge — only the mother and daugh­ter. “They’ve ar­rested my hus­band. He is their guar­an­tee we will re­turn,” the wife tells me, tears stream­ing down her face.

As soon as we take off, mother and daugh­ter re­move their head­scarves. Care­fully fold­ing them, the mother says, “Ev­ery day this scarf re­minds me of what I want most — the right to be free.”

Did I feel safe in Iran? Yes, even walk­ing the streets and parks at night. When I re­turn, will I be rid­dled with doubts? No, but I will dress as or­dained, re­mem­ber not to crit­i­cise the coun­try’s re­li­gious lead­ers in public and leave the al­co­hol at home.

En­trance to Sheikh Lot­fol­lah mosque in Imam Square, Is­fa­han, top; din­ers at Bas­tani Tra­di­tional Res­tau­rant, above left; spice stall at Is­fa­han bazaar, above right

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