By: Amanda Oei
My Unexpected Iran Immersed in the Magic of Khuzestan
After waiting seven years, my dream finally came true when I came to Iran in the summer of 2017. Why did you come to Iran?' is one of the most popular questions on everyone's lips no matter where you go and who you meet in this country. My interest in Iran was piqued when I watched Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi, an Academy award-winning Iranian film. The sense of nostalgia evident in the books by Iranian authors in the diaspora further triggered my interest and, since 2010,
made me want to experience the nuances of this beautiful country for myself.
Plucking mulberries from the trees during summer, climbing in the mountains to pluck herbs for tea, the smell of fresh vegetables welcoming you into the bazaars. Massive watermelons sold along the roadsides, delicious tahdig (burnt or crisped rice, pasta or potatoes; lit. from the bottom of the pot'), creamy Ice-creams. Beautiful carpets everywhere. Elderly folks getting into real, heated arguments because of Ta'arof, a form of paying respect to another person or people (without necessarily meaning it) in which both parties are expected to play a game of verbal badminton, often by repeatedly refusing until one is extra sure of which action to take Lively discussions on everything under the sun and the curious and gracious nature of strangers and friends alike. Above all, the extreme warmth of the lovely Iranian people: these were the main takeaways from my first trip to Iran.
One and a half years later, I returned home in the winter of 2018 to Tehran. After two weeks of enjoying tad catching up with my good friends and meeting new ones. I headed southwest to Khuzestan, mainly to see Tashkooh (fire mountain). And that's when my adventure within an adventure really began. I decided to try Couchsurfing even though I wasn't sure what date I would arrive. I also had no idea if I was going via train or bus, or how long I would stay, but I contacted one host in Dezful and thought "let's see!
Not only did the host, Shahin, accept my last-minute request, he also called me to find out where all the places I wanted to visit were and sent me the names of the best bus companies in Farsi and English along with the departure times and prices.
Shahin made sure I got the bus driver to call him at 5:15 a.m. so that I could alight at the right bus stop and he came to pick me up from the bus station even though I tried to insist I could wait until 8 a.m. to meet him. In Iran, the level of responsibility and thoughtfulness for others is sky-high and most people go out of their way to make their guests feel treasured.
After I had settled in, I got to know Shahin's marvelous aunty. She is in her 60s but so forward-thinking and very up-to-date with current affairs.
She surprised me with her well-informed opinions and insights into many world events and situations. While most people at this age busy themselves with gossiping and housework, she took up the sitar and violin, and she goes swimming and to the gym on alternate days. Instead of being fearful and averse to technology, she also keeps up with the times and is highly active on social media.
Why do I mention her in detail? For me, she is representative of the group of Iranian people I've met on my current and previous trips who want to improve themselves and aren't satisfied with their current access to knowledge. Given Iran's modern history and how information and the arts have been suppressed, I feel that, at the grassroots level and throughout recent decades, people have been struggling for their right to learn more, to get more information, and to progress in whatever way possible. This is heartening for me to see because in many other countries people have access to various types of knowledge-providing media, but instead, they use their time for frivolous matters.
While on a trip to Haft Tappe and Chogha Zanbil with some of Shahin's classmates, it became more evident to me that everyone was very genuine and excited to share their lifestyle and habits with me. They cheerfully tutored me in Farsi each day and made sure I got to eat different local food and try as much as possible. They were very responsible and I could totally relax, switch off and enjoy my time with them fully.
We headed to Susa (Shush) the following day. I loved visiting the archaeological sites and imagining what the palace was like in the time of King Darius the Great. It was a calm day and adorable foxes ran around the plateau while Shahin tried his best to explain the history of the place to me. Over the course of our chats, the layers of the Iranian youths slowly peeled back. I guess it does not matter which country you grew up in the behaviors and desires of each gender are consistent globally. The day we went to Pamenar village in Khuzestan was so exciting. After being in cities for so long, couldn't tear my eyes away from the velvety-green rolling hills. The mesmerizing scenery was very tranquil; the landscape was dotted with single trees here and there and meandering rivers in between. January is the best time to visit Khuzestan because everywhere is green after the rains, instead of the usual brown for most of the year.
My most favorite way of discovering a city is on foot - walking everywhere and chatting with anybody who wants to. I love how no one is bashful when it comes to taking photos and I find it endearing when strangers ask me to take photos of them. Sometimes, if I ask for permission to take a photo, they start telling me their life stories and making cute jokes. I love this vibe and the ease of a conversation between people, which is very prominent in Iran, not just with me as a foreigner but even when two locals who don't know one another meet and start talking nonstop, like long-lost friends. Finally, during the second half of my trip to Khuzestan, we traveled to Ahvaz, Tashkooh, and Shadegan. We got the chance to visit several Arab families. I was amazed by the first family because for the first time in my entire life I watched someone eat an entire fish, including all the bones, with gusto. My eyeballs nearly popped out of my head and it took me the next two days to entirely believe it.
At the second Arab family's home, we were treated to a lesson in the etiquette of drinking Arabic-style coffee and had a nice time chatting with the family. The family was very generous: they kept a steady supply of dates, cooked vegetables, and fruits coming non-stop to fill our stomachs. I began my journey alone on the bus from Tehran to Dezful, Khuzestan without knowing a single person. However, when I left, I felt I was leaving my family behind. Every day is a good day in this country. The people always make it so heart-breaking for me to leave. I admire their unabashed questions, the energy of the Iranians, and their heartfelt emotions. Until my next trip, khoda Hafez.