The forty-degree heat was never enough to stop my family and I travelling to Iran every summer since I was born. I remember asking my mother why we didn’t travel to Iran in the winter instead to avoid the roasting weather, and she would always say that to visit Iran, a two week break is not enough. And it’s true: the six week summer never suffices, but knowing I would return a year later was enough to keep me excited to return to this country that somehow manages to change each time I visit, but simultaneously stays the same beautiful place.
Every time I go, people ask the same question: ‘is it safe?’ When I was young, I couldn’t understand what they meant. In Tehran, I’d go shopping until 11pm: the streets buzzing with cars, people and life. I couldn’t imagine, as a child, ever doing this in my English home town. As a child I was less concerned with the politics of the country which, I now know, is what my friends must have been referring to when they would ask me that question.
People ask me what Iran is like: I can barely begin to describe it. It’s different. Being an Islamic Republic, it is compulsory for women to dress ‘modestly’: this involves covering your hair with a shawl or headscarf, and wearing a knee length tunic, known as a ‘manteau’. This is the more liberal choice of modest dress: religious women choose to cover their bodies with a long black cloak, known as a ‘chador’. I have noticed how from my younger years to the present day, women, particularly young women, resist more and more the laws of Islamic dress that are enforced onto them. The headscarves get brighter, the manteaux get shorter and, in one case I witnessed last summer, women drive their cars without wearing their headscarves. I get the impression many westerners believe Iranians, especially Iranian women, are oppressed. Despite laws burdening their lives, Iranians are bursting with life and joy.
I will never forget the summer of 2009, however, where I saw this liveliness injected into protests and riots. The streets responded to the rigging of the presidential elections, where former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forged votes to win. Democracy had failed and the people were angry – passionately angry. This public display of anger was strange to see, as I was used to an Iran where people were largely joyful. For me, this was the first time where the atmosphere felt radically different. I was impressed with their rejection to be passive. I will never forget that summer and what it taught me: to resist injustice and be an active force for change.
But it’s not the Islamic Republic that defines Iran – the culture is much more important. For one, the cuisine is unrivalled. My mother describes the sweets and cream pastries as ‘dangerous’ – dangerous in their power to make you unable to stop at eating one. The food is so rich, and almost always accompanied by a mountain of rice that has been slow cooked and frosted with saffron. Street food is something to be experienced in Iran; a childhood favourite of mine being ‘balal’, which is a whole corn on the cob barbecued, slightly blackened, then dipped in salt water. My summers of Iranian food are paired with my auntie telling me to eat slower for my health. I can’t help it: nothing gets between Iranian food and me.
The people are unimaginably kind and welcoming. Any visitor will tell you of the Iranian desire to make you feel at home. Shopkeepers and taxi drivers are comically polite: there is a custom called ‘tarof’ where one person feels a strong need to not inconvenience another. If you go to somebody’s house and they offer you a drink, you must refuse two or three times – even if were to not have had a sip of water for three days straight – and then, after your host insists that you accept the offer, only then can you accept. As a child in England, I would go to a friend’s house and refuse their parents’ offer of a snack. I would refuse, ready to dance the ‘tarof’, but to my disappointment, the parents would stop there. No snack. Just a disappointed kid with an Iranian upbringing.
Iran is a changing country, my mother tells me. With confidence, she reassures me that during my lifetime I will see radical change in my lifetime, particularly brought about by Iran’s youth. As I write, I am thinking about plans to visit Iran this summer. I am not only thinking about change. I think about my childhood experiences – the food, the parks, the spirit – and I am reassured by the certainty that they will still be there for my return. As I think to my summers in the future, I can only hope for one thing: an Iran that changes in its politics but remains the same in its beautiful culture.