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 Iran. 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 ancient Silk Road 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.
All this time, I was staying at the home of a pious Zoroastrian, who taught me about his religion, which was the state religion of pre-Islamic Persia, and took me to a ceremony at Tehran’s main fire temple. An avid foodie and cook, he also showed me how to cook mirza ghassemi, a Caspian dish of grilled aubergine, boiled tomato, turmeric, coriander and chilli in his kitchen. One morning, he took me to a nearby breakfast cafe to introduce me to the (rather intimidating) delicacy of boiled sheep’s head. On a Wednesday night, we attended the weekly music and poetry event that was organised by an extremely active Couchsurfing member who had already hosted more than 600 guests in an ashram-like setup at his house. In the cultural gathering space he had created in his basement, travellers and Iranians from all walks of life recited poems and sang songs in Farsi, Azeri, Turkish, English and German.
While Couchsurfing was an excellent way to meet people who welcomed me into their homes and lives, Facebook proved to be the best source of advice and inspiration. Whenever I needed a quick answer, I turned to a Facebook group named See You in Iran. Here, fellow travellers shared experiences and uploaded photos of the dusty desert town of Yazd, the adobe citadels of Bam and Rayen, the gardens of Mahan, the religious processions of Ashura in the ancient Silk Road city of Isfahan, and train rides through the hot void of the Kavir Desert. Meanwhile, Iranian members offered practical advice about bus routes, hostels, visas, virtual private network (VPN) services, safety concerns – and delighted in the posts of foreign travellers.
While I was trying to resolve the practical matter of staying online in a country where the internet was throttled and censored, it took less than half an hour to receive the necessary information about where to purchase a local sim card for data, and which app was used to circumvent the Iranian firewall. One of the Facebook group members even gave me her password to a paid VPN service.
Initially, this seemed an online extension of Iranian hospitality, which was the only form of “extremism” I encountered during my stay. But there is another, more political reason: a strong desire to battle cultural misunderstandings and what the group’s founder, Navid Yousefian, refers to as “Iranophobia”.
Clearly, Iran’s poor image abroad is an endless source of frustration to many Iranians. “I was surprised and saddened to hear that some well-travelled people think they can’t visit Iran,” wrote Yousefian, a expatriate PhD student living in California, in the Facebook group’s introduction. He called for Iranians in and outside the country to join the group to help visitors.
Today, See You in Iran has close to 45,000 Facebook members and has branched out to Tumblr, Instagram and Telegram Messenger. “What makes it different from the usual guidebooks is that all the input is directly from Iranians and former travellers,” says Sogand Fotovat, an American-Iranian repatriate studying Iranian history in Tehran, who is one of five active administrators of the group. “Because of our on-the-ground organising and networking efforts, See You in Iran is grassroots. We don’t dictate or control any of the content.”
Following this success, Yousefian is developing a dedicated See You in Iran app. “It will have two features,” says Yousefian. “Localiser, which will help travellers find locals to show them around and, if they want, stay with them for the night. And Travel Mater, which helps people find travel buddies while in Iran.”
One surprising aspect of Iranian internet censorship is that it seems oddly permissive in unexpected places. Facebook is blocked but Instagram, owned by Facebook, isn’t. Here, the Rich Kids of Tehran, an obnoxious yet fascinating band of spoiled brats, emulate the popular Rich Kids Of Instagram feed. Aside from the inane displays of wealth and excessive rhinoplasty, their posts are often provocative and pro-western.
While the popular dating app Tinder is, perhaps predictably, blocked, Grindr, a similar app for gay men, isn’t. Indeed, in a country where sharia law prescribes death to sodomites, the app hosts a thriving community whose members don’t seem concerned about persecution. Tellingly, even in Mashhad, a deeply religious city towards the Afghan border that rose to infamy a decade ago for the hanging of two gay teenagers, the men I spoke to were remarkably unafraid to show their faces on their profile photos. “As long as you’re not having sex in public, they’ll leave you alone,” one of them said. “The police have better things to do than to case us.”
Tinder is still used, of course, as people know how to circumvent the Iranian firewall. Through both dating apps, I received invites to underground parties in private homes and desert valleys.
This is how I ended up being offered dog alcohol at the home of someone who named her kitten “Coca”. I had not imagined taking such a risk – and it was a risk, considering Iran’s strict laws and customs governing music, dress codes, and alcohol consumption – but after a few weeks among young, modern Iranians, it was a risk I had grown used to. Even though sharia law prescribes 80 lashings for those caught drinking, partygoers remain defiant. “The risk of a raid makes it more exciting,” the friend who had invited me to the house party said. “In 95% of the cases the police just want a bribe. But, yes, there’s always that 5%.”