Firstly, a story.
When I was on a train in Morocco last November, I shared a carriage with a 24-year-old American guy who’d recently converted to Islam, and had travelled over from Long Island to marry this Moroccan girl he’d met over the internet.
The pair were on their way to the US Embassy to get the bride her green card, and although we had a long chat, I only remember the bits about the mess he gets into going to the toilet.
It turned out that he adhered rather too strictly to Islamic traditions and opted to squat instead of stand up when urinating.
Inexperience and the clumsy clothing meant that instead of aiming at the hole in the ground, it splashed all over his clothes.
I could never quite shake off that image whilst in Iran a few weeks ago, and often wondered just how many people’s urine I was stepping on inside a cubicle, whilst surrounded by flies.
Thankfully, no squatting for me so it was in-and-out in less than a minute. Often, I didn’t even bother touching the door.
Unfortunately, that – apparently – is a major, major faux pas; it took me ten days to realise that the door should have been firmly shut. Oops.
Well, at least I went into the right toilet every time though I did have a few close shaves; with no urinals as a pointer and only signs in Farsi without ‘pictures’, it was pure luck that I ended up in the correct toilet every time.
You’re probably wondering why I’ve spent a few paragraphs telling you this.
It’s very banal, but I hope it demonstrates the kind of things that I had to worry about during my 17 days in Iran. In other words, trivial things.
I spent ages researching into Iran, trying to dispel all these notions that it is a dangerous place to visit. I knew it wasn’t, and I was right.
In short, I’d never felt so safe in a foreign country before – and certainly not in Morocco or London.
When in Iran, there are only a few things you have to worry about: getting run over by a) cars on the lawless roads, or b) motorbikes on the anything-goes pedestrian pavement or c) both coming at you on the edge of the kerb and in any direction.
Having said that, crossing the road can be a most thrilling experience!
You could also spend time fretting over whether the impending apocalyptic earthquake will occur whilst in the country.
And, on a personal note, I had lots of rats to worry about. Big, fat ones which run along the canal sewage that dominate all major Iranian cities.
So, if you are not careful, you could get run over by a bike and end up in a ditch with rats running over you.
Otherwise, I had no worries whatsoever.
If some secret official was watching me, I wasn’t aware of him. I could go into any internet cafe and sent whatever I wanted though many websites were blocked, (most of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers but not CNN or BBC, both of which are also freely available in hotels).
Nor did I worry about muggings, pickpockets or major scams at any point. Taxi drivers, of course, want to rip you off wherever you are. Cue lots of arguments over the equivalent of 25 pence.
In fact, so carefree and liberal was the atmosphere that I frequently forgot I was in Iran.
It’s certainly nothing like how the west have portrayed Iranian society to be.
Yes, there are police and army officers everywhere but they are no different to anywhere else I’ve been to in the world.
As a tourist, it’s a blessing that the cities are so well patrolled: these officials really do look out for you, as do the locals.
Foreigners are still something of a novelty in Iran and if you enjoy being gawped at, it is the place for you.
And not only do they gawp at you, they stare – hard which, I’m told is quite an intimidating experience if you’re a white, blonde woman.
Iran is also the only place that I’ve ever visited where strangers would go out of their way to say, ‘Welcome to Iran’.
It can be quite touching and you do feel for the locals who are desperate to re-dress the wrong the impression about Iran that their president and the western media have created around the world.
Feeling liberal in Iran is, of course, a complete illusion.
You can’t walk ten yards without being reminded of who’s really in charge – the incumbent Ayatollah Khamenei and his more famous predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
I don’t hold much regard for the latter for it was he who prolonged the devastating Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s even after Saddam offered a ceasefire, costing one million lives in total.
Khomeini was also responsible for letting Iranians to ‘freely’ pursue whatever they wanted immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, only to monitor them in secret, and then ruthlessly imprisoning/rooting out/killing all those who were un-Islamic – hence a mass exodus to the West in the early 80s.
His successor Khamenei has maintained this brand of Islamic totalitarianism and steadfastly refuses to let the west corrupt his people.
He’s losing the battle, though, as internet and satellite TV continue to eat away at Iranian ‘isolationism’.
The Ayatollah is also the main protagonist in spreading hatred against Israel and the United States.
Make no mistake about it – whatever President Ahmadinejad says about Israel or whatever, they’re empty words.
It’s the Ayatollah who wields the real power; the President can be dismissed or defeated in elections – the Ayatollah is there till the day he drops dead.
It is he who decides whether to wipe Israel off the map, or whether to develop nuclear bombs.
He appoints the justice minister, vetoes legislation, decides whether to assist Hamas or to bomb disparate Sunni groups.
Khamenei’s also in charge of the mullahs who control everything – from dress code to what the news presenter says on television.
Presumably then, Ayatollah Khamenei ok’ed Mr Bean for broadcast at 7.30am, as well as that awful BBC show, Just for Laughs an hour later.
I spent a lot of free time chatting to the locals – whether it’s in the park, sharing a spliff (amazingly), in restaurants, in mosques or just in a taxi, and whilst many were discreet in their views, all said they yearn for change.
Inflation is at 20%, and the young have no money or visa to travel abroad to further their studies.
Strangely, it was the women who were often the most vociferous in their criticisms of the regime.
Only one lady I spoke to didn’t mind wearing the headscarf as ’she was used to it’ – the rest all hated it – especially those living in the Caspian Sea region.
When pushed, all pointed their fingers at the Ayatollahs and the mullahs, whilst few had much respect for their president.
Many had no time for Bush or Blair, and all hated Bin Laden.
Israel was also another unpopular subject, and the war in Iraq was good and bad for them as their loathing for Saddam remains undimmed thanks to the scars left behind from the Iran-Iraq conflict.
Yet amazingly, they all love America and American culture (Iranian-bottled Coca-Cola is freely available), so much so that they teach American English at schools and universities.
Some – well, many – are under the illusion that they have an ‘American accent’, which threw me slightly.
Nearly all harbour ambitions to move there, or at least find a spouse in the UK first, and then move to the States. This way of thinking was also very popular in the Anatolian region during much of the 1970s and 1980s.
You’ll also be amazed at how knowledgeable Iranians are at Hollywood films and celebrities – Sophia Loren and Scarlett Johanssen get the thumbs up every time, whilst the men idolise English football and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, partly thanks to the government’s insistence on Premiership matches being shown on national television.
They are not so au fait with music and quite a few had never heard of the Beatles which is refreshing, but they love the ringtones on their mobile phones which – like Europe – also translate into dreadful Iranian dance music.
The most amazing revelation though came from an unmarried 30-year-old woman (you’d be amazed at how many unmarried late-20s/early 30s women there are, and all want to study ecotourism in Australia, bizarrely) who had never even heard of Princess Diana! Rejoice!
Another surprising thing about Iran is that it is incredibly camp.
You only have to stand on the street for five minutes to see the number of metrosexual men walking around with the most outrageous hairstyles (makes Amy Winehouse’s beehive look tame), over-the-top perms and mullets (Billy Ray Cyrus springs to mind), blond highlights, pony-tails, weird-looking fringes, plasters on their noses after cosmetic surgeries.
Tehran especially is famed for all sorts of surgeries from nose-jobs to sexual realignments and lots of male bling-bling (though never on their ears).
Meanwhile, the women – those who dare to dress a little provocatively which is to say they wear more colourful headscarves, figure-hugging manteaux, tight jeans and high-heels but still covered up from the chin downwards – often resemble a cheap hooker, with very heavy and dodgy make-ups and silly hair.
Think Soviet-era women of the 1980s with their distinctive red lipsticks, or think Joan Collins in Dynasty.
You can’t help but feel that these women, beautiful though they are (and in most cases, they are – there’s the old adage that Brazil and Iran have the most beautiful women in the world; they aren’t wrong about the latter) – look dated, cheap and something between a tramp and a drag-queen. Sad to say, these people are the ‘trend-setters’ of Iran.
Underlining these ‘crimes against fashion’ is all part of the younger generation’s rebellion against the conservative regime, and is apparently only in season for eleven months a year.
That’s because for four weeks every year – at random – the government’s ‘fashion police’ swoop into the major cities and ‘arrest/caution’ those who don’t adhere to the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
Well, that’s half the city gone then as the majority of the population here is under 30 (the Ayatollah banned contraception after the Islamic Revolution in 1979).
For those who dress conservatively – men in dull colours, women in black chadors from head to toe – I’m sure they can afford to be a little smug whilst the rest get carted off to the police station.
Temperatures frequently top the 40-degree mark and what the women have to wear is, to put mildly, inhumane.
Those in power would argue that this is to protect the fairer sex from getting molested by men who can’t keep their hands to themselves, hence, segregation on the underground and on buses.
That is why I never saw a pregnant woman as anything which shows a lady’s figure is frowned upon. Naturally, breasts are out, too.
So imagine my shock when I saw a mother breastfeeding in the middle of a bazaar!
No outsider will ever fully understand what the Iranian mentality is.
You either have to live there or return time after time to appreciate the intricacies of this multi-layered society.
I definitely plan to return – possibly as early as next year.
There are only two or three months which are suitable for visiting – April/May and October, in between the extremes of summer and winter, and April 2009 is just a few months into the new US administration which should be make a bombing campaign less likely. I’ll be there then!
The last thing I want to say that if you’re a woman, travelling solo and fancy a trip to Iran – now is your last chance.
As the country gets more used to tourists, the more forward the local men will become, as they have in neighbouring countries in the Middle East.
Many European women travellers told me that they were harassed in Turkey because many local men assumed they were ’sex tourists’ – women who travel to the Middle East in search of a toy boy.
This, coupled with the wrong impression through watching western porn and on the internet that all western women were ‘easy,’ means Iranian men are also becoming more ‘predatory’ in tourist areas.
A Belgian girl told me that she got a phone call in her hotel room from the guy at the reception wanting to ‘make love’, whilst others blew kisses to her on the streets.
Perhaps these are just isolated incidents, and are not common in more conservative cities, but it doesn’t augur well for the future.
These contrasts are just some of those things which I find fascinating about Iran – there are so many strands to this historic nation from a fume-choked Tehran, with its swish metro system which puts the London underground to shame, to amazing landscapes, unrivalled history such as the ancient citadels of Persepolis and Takht e-Soleiman, along with incredible hospitality, fairly mundane food, amazing bazaars, annoying giggling school girls, dreadful television and serene, gorgeous mosques.
Our PinkNews.co.uk correspondent has asked we do not reveal his identity, as he would quite like to visit Iran again someday soon.