With political conflict raging across much of the Middle East, stable Iran is emerging as one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations. Travel blogs and social media have helped propel Iran’s tourism boom, with intrepid travellers and digitally savvy diaspora Iranians documenting their homeland’s rich landscapes and attractions.
In a recent and vividly captured trip in that tradition, Omid Scheybani, a San Francisco-based business development manager at Google, recently took a group of friends on a trip across Iran. Born and raised in Germany, Omid, a skilled photographer and avid traveller, took three of his German frirends - Max, Olli, and Klöh – across the country and chronicled their adventure on Instagram. They travelled to Tehran, Shiraz, Kashan, and were enchanted by Isfahan. Everywhere they went, Iranians inside the country that Omid had connected with on Instagram met them on the ground, to show them their cities. They ate faloodeh, acquired poetic Persian phrases, and were impressed by the country’s sheer beauty, the ease of travel, and its people’s warmth. I talked to Omid about his trip, his Instagram travel diplomacy, and the Iran his friends discovered:
Have you ever lived in Iran? Do you consider yourself German or Iranian?
No never. Growing up in Germany I didn’t have too many Iranian friends around. We used to visit Iran every summer to see our family. I loved Iran and my family and always wanted to spend some time to travel across our country and get to know it. I don’t consider myself too German. I went to school in Argentina, lived and worked in Ireland, and now it’s been three years that I’ve been living in the U.S. I consider myself a combination of all of these but most of all, Iranian.
Why do you consider yourself so Iranian?
My parents raised me very Iranian. They always spoke Persian. We had Iranian food. They tried very hard to teach me Iranian culture. The fact that we visited Iran every year, that I really love my family. I would say it’s a personality and doesn’t really matter whether you live in the country.
Had you ever travelled in Iran before this trip?
We usually visited Tehran and Mashhad, where my parents are from. But in 2004 I travelled around Iran with my father. We visited Isfahan, Mashhad, Tehran, and the North. That year I filmed everywhere I went and made a short documentary about my trip. It was called Seven Days: A Travel Documentary Through Iran. My goal was to return to Germany and show Iran to my friends. It was the first time that I wanted to show my country to other people. I showed the film at youth festivals and our city paper published an article about it.
When did you decide to take your friends to Iran? Tell us about these three friends.
I have been friends with them for eight years since college. We were a group of 10-15 close friends that used to travel together. We had been to Africa, South America, Europe, and since then I wanted to go to Iran with my friends. It was obvious that I couldn’t take everyone so I knew I had to pick.
They are all German. Maximilian 29, Oliver 27, and Klöh 27. These three always insisted more than others that I take them to Iran. A few years ago when we all went to Rwanda to do social work, we became very close. So last year I promised them that we would go to Iran this year.
What did your friends think of Iran before? Were they surprised by what they found?
The good thing about this group was that they have very open minds and knew that the Iran they saw on media and television is not real. They knew the Iranian society is different and they came with a lot of interest to learn about it. They didn’t do much research and wanted to come with an open mind. They were very surprised by people’s kindness. That people spent so much time and energy for us. Even strangers would talk to them on the street. Here is a funny story: My friends got to learn the concept of ta’arof [Iranian politeness] and they became masters of ta’arof. We were eating once and Max not only would offer his own food to others, he would even offer Olli’s food saying: here try this, it’s delicious!
They were also surprised by how modern the youth are, especially Tehrani youth. In north Tehran you see women on the street and you can’t even tell where their Hijab is. My friends were very surprised.
Who planned the trip? Where did you go?
They really trusted me and I planned it mostly but didn’t have a strict plan and were really flexible. Obviously we had to see Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz and Persepolis, but we didn’t plan beyond that and were open to whatever happened. We started with a few days in Tehran. Then took an overnight train to Shiraz and stayed several days. Then a few days in Isfahan, one day in Kashan and back in Tehran for two more days.
We saw worlds of kindness, everywhere we went. People we had never met would come to the airport or bus terminal or train station at 6 in the morning and take us around. On our first day in Tehran 20 people gathered to take us to Negarestan garden and Cafe Tehroon. We thought okay, it was the first day. But all three days that we were in Tehran, they gathered and were so kind and showed us around.
How did you find all these friends in Iran?
I’ve been very active on instagram for a while. A few months before my trip I realized that there are a lot of instagrammers in Iran. These young people gather, go around Tehran, and take photos so I followed them and they followed me back. Then it all started from this photo. I said I am travelling to Iran and all these amazing people that I had been following for a while told me that they will gather and show me their cities. They were all young Instagrammers between 20-30. Some of them had not even met before and only knew each other from Instagram. I knew some of them on instagram. You know, I like their photos, they comment on my photos. In every city we met a group, they showed the city to us, helped us get tickets and go around. We had so much fun in Tehran with that big group that we canceled our plan to Yazd and went back to Tehran to spend another day with them.
What city did your friends enjoy the most? What was their favorite food?
They really liked Isfahan. They fell in love with Naghsh-e Jahan square, the teahouses, hookah bars, juice cocktails. Max fell in love with fesenjoon (stew with pomegranate paste), Olli with chicken kabob, Klöh with eggplant stew, and I love gheymeh (meat stew). We tried everything but kalleh pacheh (lamb’s head).
These are all sophisticated travellers, how did they find their experience of Iran?
They saw so much kindness in Iran and went back to Germany with really good memories. The last night we gathered, they said they couldn’t believe how easy it was for us to travel across Iran. Without any issues or complications. The only problem we had was that they tried to overcharge us a few times in shops or restaurants. Little things like that but no real issues.
We were at Azadi square in Tehran and two soldiers came over and asked if we were taking photos. I said yes but I was a bit scared thinking maybe we were doing something wrong. They said: “Oh we want to be in the picture too!” Then they posted the photos on their own instagrams and finally took us to the metro station and bought tickets for us. My German friends couldn't’ believe it. They kept asking: “What just happened? We met two soldiers and they bought us tickets?” They were really surprised by Iran.
What will they always remember?
My friend Olli really likes the language and how emotional and poetic it is. For example in Persian we don’t say you’re from Tehran, we say you’re a child of Tehran. Or expressions like “sugar melts in my stomach” [when you are very happy]. When Olli spoke to his girlfriend a week in she said to him even your German has become poetic.
You took beautiful photos and posted them on Instagram, what inspired you to make your journey so public?
This was another reason for my trip. I have been taking photos for a few years now and last time I was in Iran I didn’t have Instagram and didn’t go to take photos. So I wanted to go back to take really beautiful photos, show Iran to my friends and colleagues and tell peoples’ stories. For example I don’t just post a photo of faloodeh [Iranian desert] saying it’s delicious. I explain what shirazi faloodeh is, where it came from, etc. Or I’ll post a photo of Olli describing how he likes the Persian language. Through my photos I want to bring Iran closer to people.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist based in New York City.