seen at UNIX Gallery . 520 W 24th Street . New York City
An Exhibition of female Iranian artists.
“If I were to say that I particularly liked the Iranian capital, it would be a lie, but I fell in love with the Iranians as people. Tehran itself is a somewhat exhausting city. Persia, on the other hand, is beautiful, magical, and almost fairy-tale-like.
I had the opportunity to get to know Iranians as open, warm, hospitable, well-groomed, and interested people throughout. Women in colorful hijabs, tunics, and long robes, ranging from deep black to green and red; men in silver-shining suits. And a whole nation that smells of delicious floral rosewater.
How often I was approached in English, asked questions, and greeted warmly on the colorful fruit, vegetable, or clothing markets that I visited alone. When it came to bargaining, complete strangers often spontaneously supported me, even though every seller was already very accommodating on their own. Strange women, young and old, invited me for a cup of tea or wanted to have lunch with me. I rarely felt as welcome in a country as I did in Iran. And that was every single day. And by the way, there, mangos, peppers, cucumbers, and so much more taste as they probably should.
I still remember to this day the freshly baked, flatbread-like, large rectangular bread that you dunk into creamy Iranian yogurt with shallots and salt, which I loved so much. For months, I couldn’t get enough of it and got so used to it that I still miss it. It’s called „Barbari.“ And before heading to the embassy in the morning, I would always stop by one of these special Barbari bakeries.
You can recognize Barbari bakeries by the long lines of people already formed there in the early morning. The bakers who hand out Barbari through a larger window to people on the street only sell this one type of bread: fresh and still hot, baked in open ovens, with a golden crust that’s gently crispy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. Few things taste as original, pure, and incredibly good. You could get these delicious breads for the equivalent of one euro, and I’m still crazy about them to this day.
While waiting for the „golden bread,“ I was always curiously observed. My very fair skin, light green eyes, and European features were quite noticeable among the Iranian crowd. However, I was never shamelessly stared at, approached in any inappropriate way, or looked down upon. I always tried to behave as inconspicuously as possible, keeping my head and gaze somewhat lowered. If I did happen to look up and our eyes met with those of an Iranian man, we both immediately lowered our heads and gazes. Often, the men were even more embarrassed than I was.
In general, I behaved very modestly in my daily life in the capital. I can recommend this to any woman traveling to Persia. For me, it was both a matter of respect and an interesting experience, a enrichment – a charming spectacle – to behave so differently from what we are used to. However, this is certainly a societal order that should be critically questioned.
My body was more than compliant with the regulations; it was covered except for my hands and face. It was only occasionally that, due to the headscarf loosely draped around my head, a blonde strand of hair would escape and fall into my face. Young Iranian women, in particular, were much more relaxed in this regard and willingly showed off their often light-colored hair.
The dress code for women in the countryside and other cities of the country appeared to be less strict than in Tehran itself. However, there were exceptions: Mashhad and Qom, as religious strongholds, are also known for their strict adherence to dress rules. The extraordinary culture, historical remnants, and sources of tradition more than compensate for having to be completely covered in the summer, even at 40 degrees Celsius. And you get used to it really quickly.
What I didn’t give up was wearing robes and loose tunics in cheerful, friendly colors. I often wore my favorite colors: pink tones ranging from raspberry red to rose pink, and that was, at least in Tehran itself, somewhat unusual and conspicuous. During Ramadan, however, I adhered to wearing dark, subdued colors when going out.
In Tehran, buses run through the city all year round, and a kind of „morality police“ collects girls and women who are not dressed properly. These collected ladies are released when their fathers or husbands pay a fine. These are the darker sides of the country.
During my year there, I was approached a few times by an Iranian man when I was alone on the train on my way to work or back home. The way they approached me was always the same: a single, often good-looking and well-dressed man would walk alongside me and try to hand me a note with his phone number. He would politely speak to me alternately in Farsi and English. One or two very friendly but firm „Merci!“ (thank you in Farsi) were enough for him to step back, and I could continue walking alone without a phone number.
I also traveled alone, even by plane, although the German Embassy strongly discouraged domestic flights for security reasons (I was in Iran in 2013). Nowadays, this may have changed as sanctions no longer prevent aircraft from receiving necessary spare parts, and flying in Iran is safer. A train or car ride in this vast country simply takes a very long time, and traveling without domestic flights means seeing far less than you’d like. I paid the equivalent of 20 euros for each round trip and saved myself ten to twenty hours on the highway.
During one of my trips, I was spontaneously invited to the home of two young girls I happened to meet in a park. They wanted to show me their home to their parents. I gladly went along, enjoyed great Iranian food, answered curious questions about Germany, and learned a lot about Iranian culture. Like many young Iranians, they were not studying in Iran but in India.
One rule I always followed was never to be outside alone at dusk. I did this in Tehran and on all my trips. If I was traveling, I would return to my hotel before dusk, and in Tehran, I was always with others when I was out and about. Unfortunately, a woman is considered a „loose woman“ if she is alone outside once the sun has set.
Looking back, the most unusual thing I did in Iran was probably skiing because Iran is not typically associated with skiing. I lived in the north of Tehran, which was ideal because Tehran is located at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, and the first ski lift was only a few kilometers away. Life on the slopes was much freer than in the rest of the country. The girls wore form-fitting ski suits in bright neon colors and cheeky helmets instead of modest headscarves. Loud techno and electronic music played on the outdoor speakers of the ski huts and could be heard on all the slopes.
In the summer, I practiced golf, not played. Women were not allowed on the 12-hole course in the heart of Tehran. So I got a golf instructor, and we hit balls on the driving range. Unfortunately, her English was not particularly good, which is unusual for Iran and Persians. Apart from „Nice shot,“ she couldn’t say much, and she couldn’t give me precise information about technique and mistakes. But the feeling of „playing golf“ in Iran was so special that I booked hours with her again and again. In a tunic and with a headscarf, of course.
Other sports I practiced in Germany were impossible in Iran. Only when it came to jogging did the embassy staff have luck: The German Ambassador had a residence with a huge garden surrounded by a wall over four meters high. There, we could run our laps in T-shirts, shorts, and without headscarves.
My favorite dessert in Iran was freshly squeezed carrot juice with two scoops of creamy saffron ice cream, which was available at almost every street corner in spring and summer, and I must have enjoyed about 50 portions of it within a year. Especially these days, I fondly remember it since the ice cream season is in full swing here.
Carrot juice as a healthy drink, with the saffron cream sensation inside. Admittedly, the Europeans I met and asked about this dessert found it to be not very tasty. In my opinion, everyone should at least try it and then pass judgment.
Overall, I had a wonderful year in Iran with almost exclusively positive impressions. I can only advise women to travel to Iran alone and independently. Some of my German acquaintances believe that my trouble-free travel experience may have had to do with having diplomatic status or a diplomatic passport, but I believe that it couldn’t be seen in my daily life, and I was always treated respectfully, never inappropriately, and always very kindly.
I was in Iran from 2012 to 2013, so my stay there is a few years ago. However, I still enjoy writing and talking about it. And from an Iranian woman I befriended and still regularly correspond with, I know that little has changed. So, if anyone has questions or needs advice, I am happy to help with the knowledge I acquired during my time in Persia.“
In 2012/13 I lived in Tehran, worked for the German embassy. The text above is one I wrote in German language a couple of years ago. The original: https://editionf.com/persien-erleben-und-verlieben/