14 Observations on Iranian culture and society (part 1)
We have recently spent a month in Iran, couchsurfing, hitchhiking and interacting with the locals as much as possible. It would be a huge overstatement, however, to say we are experts on Iranian culture and society. These are just our subjective observations and we would be very curious to hear what you think.
Iranian culture and society
– 1 –
The first thing that every visitor to Iran immediately learns about the local culture is the importance of hospitality. Treating guests with utter respect and helping them at every step is what all Iranians are weaned on. It’s not only the fact that whenever you enter a Persian household you are given a plate and a set of cutlery and are offered fruit, dates, biscuits and tea. It’s not even that you cannot walk the streets without being approached every 15 minutes by people greeting you and telling you “welcome to Iran” and expressing to you how happy they are that somebody decided to visit their country. It’s also that most Iranians, even strangers, will be happy to offer their service to you in any way, be it helpful advice, a lift, using their phone number or inviting you to lunch. You may protest all you want that you will pay for lunch or you will buy them some tea. If you are a guest, you are a guest and to most Iranians it would be a sign of bad manners to let you pay for yourself.
For this reason Iran is one of the easiest and safest countries to visit. Your status of a “guest” will help you in every situation and will give you extra privileges (e.g. If you are a girl you might be able to do things regular Iranian women cannot do, like enter “men only” places etc.). We were never intimidated in Iran as we knew that whatever happens Iranians would never let us get harmed.
Another point related to the above is the fact that Iranian people love foreigners and having foreign friends is prestigious for them. After being helped by a random Iranian person (even if it’s such a minor thing like showing you the way), expect that they will want to exchange contact details with you. You will be asked your name and your phone number, and you can be sure they will want to befriend you on Facebook. Many a time there will be a photo taken which will then be shown to their friends and family to prove your “friendship”. While hitchhiking we have been shown by our drivers so many photos they had taken with random foreigners telling us they were their long-term friends, even though they often didn’t speak a word of English.
As I have mentioned, Iranians love having foreign friends and often you will be shown off to their regular friends or even passers-by as a ‘trophy friend’. That applies to all nationalities, especially Westerners (Europeans, Americans, Australians) and especially so for British people.
Many Iranians hold this strange view that Britain rules the world. In their opinion it is not the USA, Germany or China that are the real world powers, but small Britain who can manipulate other countries like puppets. We’ve had many disputes with our Iranian friends about it, but their belief remains unshaken.
Being asked for your personal contact details is not considered bad manners in Iran. While in Western culture we often feel over-protective towards our personal details, in Iran it’s perfectly OK to ask somebody how much they earn and how much their rent costs. If you plan to interact with many Iranians during your stay there, be prepared to answer many personal questions and give out your contact and personal details.
There is one more reason Iranian people might ask for your telephone number or Facebook name. It’s called ‘bakhshesh‘. It’s the idea of being repaid for your good service to somebody. While most Iranian people would help you absolutely selflessly and not expect anything in return (as you are a guest after all), some of them might have this idea at the back of their minds that if one day they go to the West they would be able to expect the same from you. But don’t get me wrong, the imperative of being hospitable is much stronger in Iran than bakhshesh so have no fear!
Having met many Iranians during our stay there (as you would if you hitchhike and couchsurf for a month), we have noticed that most young Iranians don’t have much life experience. Both their religion and the law prohibit them living with their partners before getting married. For this reason most young Iranians in their late twenties and early thirties still live with their parents and it’s a very sheltered life. If you are a single girl in your late twenties chances are that you will have a bed time and wouldn’t be able to leave the house after 8-9 p.m. (it’s a bit more liberal for men). Living with your parents also means that most young Iranians cannot cook (why learn if you mum cooks you tasty food every day?).
To our utter surprise we have learnt that most of them are also scared of life and they don’t long for independence. They are comfortable in their parents’ nests and they see no need to leave it. Some of them even openly admitted being scared to stay alone when they parents left them for a couple of days on their own.
That’s also linked with the fact that most young Iranians, being so sheltered from life by their parents, experience many things later than a standard European, American or Australian. We have spoken to people in their late twenties who told us they had just experienced their first love or got drunk for the first time. They just seem to grow up later than we do and it’s not uncommon to see in Iran, girls in their late twenties giggling or men in their early thirties leering at the opposite sex in the way European teenagers would do.
Having mentioned alcohol, you probably think it’s normal for them not to experience getting drunk until they are quite old. You are partly right, as drinking alcohol is completely prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I say ‘partly’ because people drink alcohol anyway and they love it! In Turkey where most people are Muslim but alcohol is legal, we rarely got drunk, but after entering Iran it happened to us with almost every host.
It’s worth mentioning that alcohol in Iran is very expensive so having access to it (especially the imported stuff, not the home-made brew) is an indicator of your social status. We had a chance to visit the houses of some very wealthy Iranians and apart from an expensive car, a huge flat-screen TV, they also had a personal bar at home.
written by: Ania
Have you been to Iran? Do you have Iranian friends? Are you Iranian yourself? What do you think of this article? Do you agree/disagree? What things have you noticed about Iranian people?