Being completely disconnected on holiday isn’t as romantic as some purist travellers may suggest. It might be fine if you plan to stay on a beach or spend your days snorkelling with dolphins, but if you have to navigate your way around a country, travelling without access to GPS-assisted maps, currency converters and email seems a silly restriction. Especially when travelling in a country like . Here, the private and public spheres are two completely different worlds and access to social media can make the difference between merely learning about heritage through visits to historical sites and experiencing the everyday lives of modern Iranians.
It was how I came to be at a party in Tehran among a crowd of good-looking, fashionable millennials: men, women, gay, straight. The obligatory hijabs were left at the door. On the kitchen table, there were unmarked bottles of aragh saghi – literally, dog alcohol – a moonshine made from raisins. People were dancing, drinking, and discussing whether it was time to call a drug dealer.
Before I embarked on my month-long trip to Iran, Iranian friends suggested I use social media to guide my travels through the Islamic Republic. Even during the first two weeks, which I spent on an organised tour, writing a feature for another publication, I was able to fill a few holes in the standard group itinerary with meaningful interactions outside the comfortable but limiting tourist bubble. It started in the city of Isfahan when I accepted an offer from Alireza, a 24-year-old auto parts dealer who had contacted me through couchsurfing.org, a social media platform for hospitality exchange. He invited me to dinner with his family.
When I arrived at his home, I was welcomed with a generous meal and curious questions from family and friends gathered around a fire in the leafy courtyard. In particular, they wanted to know about the image of Iran abroad. This had been the recurring theme from people who had approached us in the street, often stopping simply to express their gratitude to us for visiting Iran.
I had grown used to Iranians going out of their way to point out that any anti-western propaganda we encountered was an embarrassment to them. On a walk around downtown Tehran on the day of my arrival, I had paused to photograph a large sign on the side of a 10-storey building. It depicted Barack Obama on par with Shemr, the seventh-century villain who killed the beloved Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. “Please, nobody takes these things seriously,” said two passersby. This apologetic attitude continued on Instagram after I posted the photo, and applied the hashtags #seeyouiniran and #tehranlive. In the comments, Iranians ridiculed the sign and assured me that “only a tiny minority of idiots” thought this way. Along with their messages came invitations to show me around in Tehran.
After we finally cleared our plates, Afshin called friends who arrived in a car to drive us all to a mountain park, where we watched the shimmering city lights, talked politics and religion, and smoked weed. It was my first glimpse of a different side of Iran: the everyday reality hidden behind news reports and history pages. It was generous, warm, fun and defiant.
In the following weeks, I travelled independently, relying on the advice and generosity of ordinary Iranians through Facebook, Instagram, and the hugely popular instant messaging app Telegram Messenger, which many believe is better secured against government monitoring than WhatsApp. Of course, not all encounters were limited to instant messages and emails. Through Couchsurfing, people invited me to stay at their homes and show me around.
In Shiraz, I stayed with a poet and human rights activist who demonstrated how he, as with many others in the city that was once renowned for its wineries, secretly produced his own wine at home. “You crush grapes, leave them to ferment, stir every three days, and after 40 days, you’ve got wine,” he explained, pointing at a large glass container in the corner of his kitchen.
While he was at work, his friends took me to their favourite sites in Shiraz: the Nasir ol Molk mosque (also known as the pink mosque), where stained-glass windows cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the Persian-carpeted floors in the early morning; and the palatial Narenjestan-e Qavam, a 19th-century merchant’s house overlooking a lush garden with fountains and towering date palms. But they also showed me their favourite shopping malls, design boutiques, and Brentin, a busy restaurant inside an old, atmospheric villa. Before the mountainous chelow kebab arrived, I had already helped myself to a salad of pomegranate and lentils, a bowl of yoghurt with little rolls of fried courgette, vegetable samosas and bread with a dip of fried aubergine, onion, walnut and mint.
In Tehran, I was shown around the city’s cinema museum by a local photographer. Afterwards, we enjoyed a lunch of tagliatelle at the posh museum cafe, where a famous actress was interviewed under the cool gaze of a crowd with fashionable hairdos, who sipped expensive teas flavoured with saffroned rock sugar. This was followed by a quick walk though past the stalls of the old Tajrish bazaar, selling everything from framed carpets to Kalashnikov-shaped hookahs, after which we moved to the intimate Cafe Kooche in the Gheytarieh neighbourhood. Here, I was introduced to a blogger who would later take me on a tour to Etemad, one of the leading art galleries in Tehran.