In order to try and answer that question properly, I went there myself. I travelled for five weeks, met hundreds of wonderful people, ended up in close to a dozen police stations and fell out of a boat in a fast-flowing river.
I've written about what I saw in Iran, and I've released a film about it too. What I haven't done though, is articulate exactly what it was that surprised, impressed or downright confused me when I was there. So here, in classic no-particular-order list form, are the main things I learned from travelling to Iran.
Iran is huge. I hadn't quite appreciated that. Just have another look at the map - it's almost 7 times larger than the UK; nearly as big as Alaska. Inevitably this means there is a lot more to it than the desert many might imagine. From the extreme north to south, and east to west, Iran's climate and geography changes dramatically. In the South-West, where we travelled, we began at 3,500 metres in -15C, knee-deep in snow with jagged peaks all around.
Iranians are great - more on that later. Until I visited, though, I had no idea that the people who made up the country were just as diverse as the landscape. Linguistically, culturally, religiously - it's a real hotchpotch. Just 53% of the population are native Farsi speakers (Farsi itself is not what most expect, being Indo-European in origin rather than Arabic.) There are seven other major ethnic minorities in the country, and it has the largest Jewish population in the region outside of Israel.
3. There is a tribe called the Bakhtiari, who still make an insane annual journey
The Bakhtiari are one of the largest nomadic tribes in Iran, and there are still some who practice an incredible migration twice a year, trekking on foot for days on end over 3000m passes with flocks and families to move from winter pastures to summer (and back again.) It's of this world. We met some Bakhtiari, but didn't see the migration. Check out People of the Wind and Grass for what it looks like...
One, of course was a footballer. Roy Keane has made his mark in the pantheon of football history, and symbolises Ireland's sporting heritage. The second is a 'freedom fighter' (again, obvious!) There is even a Bobby Sands street in Tehran. The third was extremely odd. Regularly, when they found out where I was from, young Iranians would should 'Seamus, Seamus!' It wasn't until near the end of my journey that someone showed me a picture of 'Sheamus' - Ireland's latest offering to the world of professional wrestling entertainment, the WWE. Who knew...
It's important to remember that I'm offering all these thoughts purely as personal experience. From my journey, and the people I met, I sensed very little (perhaps almost zero) animosity toward westerners. Some Iranians we met disagreed with British and American governments...but then we all do that. The overwhelming impression I got was a sense of injustice - people wondering why they had been labelled pariahs by the Western world when they'd done nothing wrong. More than once we were asked, 'Do people in your country think we're terrorists?' It struck me how important it is for all of us to distinguish between the government of a country and the people that live there - they are entirely different entities.
In cities like Tehran and Esfahan, the cultural divide between Iran and much of the rest of the world doesn't feel all that great at times - there is a bustling, vibrant and liberal buzz to life there. In rural areas however, it felt much more conservative. We rarely met or interacted with any women, and there was an importance placed on the formality of the hospitality we received (important to note though that we were still exceeding well-received.) We were viewed suspiciously at times, and I'm not surprised - we were an odd sight. It was in these remote towns and villages that we were extra careful not to overstep any boundaries, and to be especially sensitive to cultural norms (for example, not taking pictures of people without their permission, or approaching women.)
Let's go back to the big cities for a moment. The big urban centres feel cosmopolitan and they positivly vibrate with energy. Suave men dash around in suits, and beautiful women march down the street at high speed between meetings. And, it seems, an improbably large percentage of these pretty women are in the process of recovering from nosejobs. I lost count of how many plasters I saw covering noses - it's huge business! Someone in Esfahan told me that Iran leads the world in production of three things - caviar, pistachios...and nosejobs. It represents, I suppose, wealth and social status - the post-op bandage is often kept on afterwards to flaunt this fact. It may even be a fake, to imply surgery was had...
Over 50% of the population is under 30, apparently, and it's not hard to believe. The cities feel overwhelming youthful, with tea shops and cafes overflowing with groups of young men with impossibly quiffed hair. There will almost always be at least one student on every street corner who wants to chat and improve their English.
We made a friend in Tehran who was educated firstly in Iran, and subsequently in England. Something she said stuck with me - Iran has some of the highest rates in the world for female enrolement in university, and the literacy rate is better than anywhere else in the Middle East. Education right through to undergraduate degrees is provided free, I'm told. This is not a country full of ignorant people - that much is obvious.
In fact, most social scenarios take place on the floor. I was expecting this, having travelled in the Middle East before, but I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is! So many times on this journey we were brought into a home where a large plastic table(floor)cloth was laid out, and an eye-wateringly delicious array of food spread before us. Iranians love to stuff their guests full of lovely food, which is perfect when on an adventure. Even with a prodigious appetite though, I soon learned to leave a little food on my plate when I was done to signal being full; otherwise it would be eternally replenished by a keen host. Overall, the dining experience is communal, inclusive and very, very tasty.
This is the culture of taarof - Iran's unique and (at first) bewildering etiquette system. When you attempt to buy something, the vendor will generally tell you it's free - they will accept no money. They don't really mean it - your role as the buyer is to insist on paying. It may take two or three goes, but eventually your money is accepted. This, oddly, is the norm, and it's quite endearing. The complication comes when you travel independently in remote places, where quite often people really do want to give you things (food, drink, accommodation) for free. Your role then is to initially refuse, and to do so enough times until it feels right to accept. If it sounds weird, it is, a bit, but it's good fun too and important to understand.
This doesn't need much explanation. Driving is a creative endeavour in Iran, as with much of the Middle East - lanes are often seen as guides rather than boundaries. The closest we came to any real danger on our journey was cycling along busy roads.
Iran is unique in the Middle East in a lot of ways, but perhaps most strikingly through its Perisan history - one of the greatest Empires the world has ever seen. There are remnants and reminders everywhere - the architecture of Esfahan is out of this world. My favourite of all was the city of Shushtar, a rarely-heralded place we passed by on our way to the Gulf. The picture below is the hydraulic system over the Karun of the Sassanid period - it's even better in person.
The official currency is the Rial, but most transactions are made in the defacto 'Toman.' That is roughly 10x the rate of the rial, making most things seem very expensive. It takes some getting used to.
If I took one thing away from this trip, it is that hospitality and friendliness are an intrinsic part of Iranian culture. It is, perhaps, the friendliest country in the world, in my opinion.
I made this journey to see Iran for myself, and to make up my own mind. I found a country vastly different from the general representations of the media (although, it must be said, anyone I've ever spoken to who has actually been to Iran has only the nicest things to say.) I would encourage anyone reading this to consider going for themselves - it's more than worth the visit. As a precursor, our film Karun can provide a good introduction to what lies in wait!