Iran: the friendliest people in the world


Mohammad Ala
by Mohammad Ala

Iran: the friendliest people in the world


The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.

I'd never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o'clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I've met in more than 20 years of travelling.

Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)

Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren't protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.

Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.

We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.

“Now this is a sad one,” he'd say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he'd look slightly hurt. “No, it's true, I'm telling you,” he'd reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don't mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.

In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa'di and Hafez - as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians - he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.

The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.

Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn't go inside the main shrine.

The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?

Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.

We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.

Back in the village, Mr Abbas's B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife's cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.

But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads - many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles - always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone's mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.

“How-are-you-I'm-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn't be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)

And what about America? “They think we're all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran's main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”

Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight - women offering tea as they tended a relative's grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.

The women didn't shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.

And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn't wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.

Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah's former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.

“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.

Magic Carpet Travel (01344 622832, www.magiccarpet offers tailor-made and group journeys to Iran. A fully inclusive eight-day trip taking in Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis costs from £1,545pp including flights. Two-week itineraries, including a visit to the Qashqai nomads, are from £2,395pp.
Bmi (0870 6070555, flies daily from Heathrow to Tehran from £501 return.

Iran (Bradt Guides, £14.99)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage, £7.99).
ijAlso see:


Shah Abbas - the Remaking of Iran opened this week and runs until June 14 at the British Museum (020-7323 8181, Tickets £12).


One of my favourite areas of Iran is around Shiraz. In addition to the wonderful gardens, the tomb of the poet Hafez is a must. Iranians recite his poems by heart around the tomb and you can begin to appreciate their love and reverence for their poets. The awe-inspiring site of Persepolis is near by, and around Firuzabad you can watch Qashqai nomads moving their flocks south - Neil McGregor, director, British Museum

Esfahan is a gem of the Islamic world: sitting in a café on Naghsh-e Jahan Square, looking out at the Safavid architecture, puffing on a hubble pipe, is to inhale centuries of civilisation. I once saw an old man sheltering from the sun under one of the famous stone bridges and singing a haunting mystic song that reverberated under the arches and sent shivers up the spine - Damian Whitworth, Times Feature Writer

One day when I was a child my father drove us through a crack in the mountain wall and around the back of Tochal, the 3,900m peak overlooking Tehran. The valley was flanked by steep mountains. Because we were nearer the Caspian Sea to the north, it was an ocean of blossom: pink, white, yellow - cherry, apple and apricot. The valley opened into a meadow with a couple of makeshift cafés. We got out of the car and smelt the view, taking in the ancient, sweet perfume of the valley. You could hear the cool wind, a subliminal hum of bees, and nothing else save distant waterfalls, high up the mountainside, where snowfields were melting. “This,” my father said, “is spring.” I hope to make it back to that valley to eat the cherries, apples or apricots one day - Darius Sanai, magazine writer who spent childhood in Iran.


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more from Mohammad Ala


by Majid on

We are the guilty bunch until proven innocent huh?

And OUR guilt is what? being misrepresented by IRI? reports by biased western media? or being judged by people who are too lazy to see beyond their noses?


Excellent article indeed.

by Ulysse (not verified) on

Excellent article indeed. I’m not jew, I’m not muslim and I’m not Iranian. I’ve been in Iran a couple of years ago as a tourist. Many friends thought I was mad, many stil doesn’t believe me when I say it’s a beautiful country with beautiful people. I had exactly the same impression as described in the article: I’ve never seen people welcoming you as Iranians do. Iranians are very very kind, intelligent, open people. I did not see intolerant people. I did not see violent people. The reality of this country is much more complex than what one’s used to read in the newspapers. Of course Iran is not a democracy and of course it’s not perfect but it is not the country “ready to go to war” that is too often and misleadingly described in the newspapers. It is not a black or white situation. It is not, for example, a pure dictature where people are left in ignorance; on the opposite, the educative system is very challenging. Truely, women are discriminated but also 65% of the university students are women and they get excellent jobs.
Understanding Iran is not always easy but the way it is described it is much closer to the reality than what I read in the newspapers.

Of course it is more “sexy” to say look the horrible iran, dangerous, scary etc but it is not the reality. I whish to highlights the fact that since the end of the Persian empire Iran never attacked a foreign country (it was attacked by Irak for that war). We should be more open to Iran.

So, I really thank for publishing this for what I think is a correct description of today’s Iran. Journalists should go there to see and make their own opinion before writing about this country: It is too rare to read something accurate about Iran.


To: Capitan a

by Reza Khaneh Mir Five (not verified) on

Good points.


Reza Mir Five

by capt_ayhab on

your wrote:[We do not have to apologize to anyone, since we have done nothing
wrong. Nothing. So, keep your Pounds and do not bring to spend it in
Iran. Sitting in a coffee shop in Isfehan and drinking tea is one thing
and taking Iranian oil and gas on the other hand is another.]

You do have a valid point, specially when you say [don't plunder my wealth], I could not have said it any better i might add.

However the amount of bad publicity about Iranian people have been so great, and the negative public opinion about Iranians have worked against any group opposing the akhund regime.Reports like this, in my humble opinion, MIGHT help people of Iran to gain some respect.

As they say in Iran[ Adame ahmagh aghlesh to cheshmeshe]. To paraphrase: Stupid people think with their eyes!!!



Red Wine

Ha ?!

by Red Wine on

You said : Iran: the friendliest people in the world . But ,about which Iran you are talking ?! Iran before 1979 feb or after ? Iran before islamization of society or after ? ...

We are not friendliest people and the rest is just ' kashk ' !


To: Q

by Reza Khaneh Mir Five (not verified) on

Dear Q: I am in general against any source that evaluates Iranians based on how " we went to Iran and no one beat us" or "I found Iranians so peaceful, and they all love western things". These are all b.s.. If by now in 21 century people are so stupid that have no idea about Iran or Iraq or Pakistan or Sweden, then let them be.

We do not have to apologize to anyone, since we have done nothing wrong. Nothing. So, keep your Pounds and do not bring to spend it in Iran. Sitting in a coffee shop in Isfehan and drinking tea is one thing and taking Iranian oil and gas on the other hand is another.

Don't give me any compliments and don't plunder my wealth, that is what I am asking.


Reza Mir5,

by Q on

I hope you are equally against the US/Israeli defense industry's "advertisements" about Iran being a miserable place, and a danger to the world.

That is unless you are just another partisan hypocrite.


in agreement with JJ

by Reza Khaneh Mir Five (not verified) on

yes, and if you would like to advertise for British travel agencies and the sentiments of the British people towards Iran, kindly do it somewhere else.

Personally I don't give S*** how bunch of British tourist felt in Iran, and I rather if they do not visit Iran.

We are the friendliest people? YES, and that is why "Ta dasteh be-ma cheppondan"....

Hope your new line of business is paying the bills, but kindly do not advertise here, unless it it's a paid advertisement or just do it like BBC does it -through GOOGLE....

Jahanshah Javid


by Jahanshah Javid on

Dr Ala,

In future please post news articles only in the news section, not in blogs.

Here's the link for uploading news:

Thank you


I agree.

by 2Be2 (not verified) on

I agree.