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What Happens When You’re An American Woman Backpacking In Iran

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Based on my solo backpacking trip through Iran from March 11 – March 25, 2014

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“EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT THE BLOG POST! IT’S ON MANY IRANIAN NEWS SITES. PLEASE, PLEASE TAKE DOWN THE PICTURE OF ME SMOKING A CIGARETTE AND THE PHOTOS OF ME HUGGING MY BOYFRIEND. I’M SCARED!!”

When I had first talked with Mina about posting photos of her and her family on my travel blog she had happily agreed. After all, it was only my friends and family who would see them, and Mina was excited for me to show people a glimpse of life in Iran.

“Maybe then some of your friends will decide to visit Iran as well!” Mina had said with enthusiasm, watching me type up a post about celebrating Nowruz with her family.

But over the coming months the small number of friends reading my blog somehow grew to thousands. Every day my inbox flooded with emails from Iranians thanking me for sharing stories and photos from their country and often inviting me to stay with their families the next time I visited.

When the third Iranian news site contacted me asking for an interview my boyfriend finally voiced his confusion: “your posts were really nice, Silvia, but… why do people care about them so much?”

Why was an American girl visiting their country becoming a top news story in Iran? A 25 year-old Iranian woman visiting the United States would certainly not be considered newsworthy.

But of course it wouldn’t – everyone dreams of visiting the U.S., right? But what American wants to go to Iran?

Actually, lots of foreigners visit Iran each year. In fact, it was some of these visits that inspired me to go in the first place.

While backpacking through Central Asia I met several travelers who had made stops in Iran. All of them raved about the country, telling me that nowhere in the world would I find such warm, hospitable people. That plus Iran’s reputation for stunning landscapes, historical sites and delicious food had me booking a ticket to Iran in no time.

American citizens can now only travel to Iran as part of a guided tour, so I considered myself lucky to have dual American and Norwegian citizenship. As a Norwegian the visa process could not have been easier – I filled out a short form at the airport, paid a sixty Euro fee and Iranian immigration immediately granted me a two-week tourist visa.

As I sat in the taxi taking me from the airport into central Tehran, I looked out the window into the crowded mess of cars and motorbikes and couldn’t help feeling adventurous. I was actually in Tehran! And I had been brave enough to come all alone!

But in reality, navigating Iran on my own didn’t take much courage. In fact, it could not have been easier.

With my bright blonde hair stubbornly peaking out from under my headscarf, everyone knew I was a foreigner, and people seemed eager to welcome me as if I were their personal guest. There was the shop owner who, when I was wandering aimlessly through the cold, rainy streets of Tehran, silently ushered me into his shop and sat me down in front of a stove to warm up with a cup of tea and bowl of pistachio nuts. And then there were all of my fellow passengers on the bus rides I took around Iran who would always lead me to the toilets during rest stops and insisted on buying me snacks for the journey.

But in particular, there was the university student who sent me a message on Couchsurfing inviting me to join her for lunch. Mina showed me a new side of Iran – her Iran. She took me to Tehran’s coffee shops – hangouts of Iranian artists and intellectuals – and her favorite restaurants. I would watch Mina on the streets of Tehran, modestly dressed in a long manteau and headscarf, pretending not to know me when we passed any policemen. Then we would return to her home, where Mina would go to her wardrobe, which was divided into clothes she could wear in public and the clothes she wore at home, and choose a tank top and pair of shorts to change into.

We would lie on her couch scheming up stories to tell her parents so she that we would be allowed to visit her Sunni boyfriend in Kurdistan, and laugh loudly as we watched Iranian music videos through one of the not quite legal satellite dishes that Iranian homes use in order to watch Iranian programs broadcast out of London and Dubai.

Over the few days I spent with her, I easily fell in love with Mina and her Iran.

But while my stay in Iran was problem free, I continue to be reminded of the difficulties Iranians face with government censorship. One day, among the usual flood of emails from Iranian readers, I received a panicked messaged from a reader who had commented, asking me to remove the link my blog had automatically set up to his website. He was terrified that his name would be linked to the website, which could put him in serious danger.

Then, as translated versions of my posts made it to more mainstream Iranian media, Mina’s family and friends started hearing from acquaintances that they had been in the news. Mina emailed me, and while I quickly started deleting photos and changing names she told me how happy she had been for me to write about our time together, but how scared she was that now the wrong people would read it.

“I wish that I didn’t have to hide this,” she told me. “I wish that everything could be open.”

And maybe that’s part of why Iranians were so happy to read my blog posts about Iran. Like Mina with her dual wardrobes, many Iranians seem to almost live two lives – one in public and one in the privacy of their homes. They live under a political system they hate, but in a country that they love.

Most Iranians I met seemed pained to see their home wrapped up in ugly politics that they wished they could change, and pained to see those politics define Iran in foreigners’ eyes. For while Western media might accurately report the political situation in Iran, it tends to miss the beauty, rich history, poetry and hospitality that define Iran to so many Iranians. TC mark

featured image – Jeanne Menj

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