The closest I had ever come to Tehran previously was when I was nine. I was on a PIA flight to the UK and the plane had stopped in the Iranian capital for a few hours for a layover. And the only sight I got of the city then was from the aircraft’s window.
Several months after that, the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini had come to power in Iran.
Fast forward from that, a few weeks ago I was invited to attend a seminar in Iran. I wondered if it was even worth travelling to our neighbouring country given how I had begun to perceive it in light of how mainstream media portrays it.
But I wanted to go. And so with a few possessions in hand, I boarded the Oman Air flight to Tehran.
What I saw totally changed my perception of Iran and its society. Contrary to what we are told, Iran is not a country shrouded in chadors. As someone who has extensively travelled around the world, I can safely say that Iran is one of the best countries I have been to so far.
Let me explain why.
Much to my surprise, I wasn’t asked about my religion or sect by the immigration officer at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Outside the airport, we had a very energetic and good-looking driver waiting for us with our name tags. We were taken to our hotel, where we were warmly welcomed by the staff.
Tehran is a modern and a well-designed city, with mainly vertical living. It is very clean; unlike in Pakistani cities, I never saw garbage on the streets. I noticed that every night around midnight workers clean the streets and by morning everything is ready to go again. Our government can learn a thing or two from Iran about garbage disposal and cleanliness.
Traffic is organised and everyone follows the rules. One lane on the road is reserved for buses, which are a cheap transport option and take you prettty much anywhere in the city. You can also take the underground train, which is much quicker but just as cheap. The trains are air-conditioned and are at par with any modern underground rail system in the world.
There are guides and train maps available on smartphones and similarities between Farsi and Urdu make navigation even easier for a Pakistani who is able to read in Urdu.
How can anyone write about Iran and not talk about the food? Being a foodie, I fell in love with Iranian cuisine. I also learnt that cooking without spices and chilli is entirely possible.
The typical Iranian breakfast usually contains cottage cheese, honey, dates, olives, milk, eggs, and bread, with tea or coffee.
Iranians love lamb meat and you would be amazed at how good they are at making kababs. The kobideh kabab, which still makes my mouth water, is to die for, along with the joojeh kabab, kabab-i-barg and jigar kabab. My non-meat favourites were baghali pulao and gormeh sabzi.
To finish it off, you have doogh, which is the Iranian version of lassi.
The hygiene standards are really high and even roadside cafes had cutlery in sterilised packs.
Tehran has so many places to see that the eight days I was there for were not nearly enough. There are historical palaces, such as Golestan Palace from the Qajar period and the Saadabad Palace from the Shah’s time. Shrines and mosques are also steeped in history.
The city has numerous parks and gardens where one can walk, sit, and relax.
One of the central places is the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. It is spread over 10 kilometres, selling every product imaginable.
I thought the Milad Tower was a must-see; 435 metres in height, it was the world’s sixth tallest freestanding tower until 2012. Along with the Palladium Mall, it constitutes the modern side of Tehran, with stores with latest brands, food courts, and a revolving restaurant with two decks that have breathtaking views of the city. Watching the sunset from there was a wonderful experience.
Tehran probably has a museum for everything. To name a few, it has a carpet museum, a contemporary arts museum, a cinema museum, a glassware and ceramic museum, and a jewels museum. Iranians clearly value their history, which is something Pakistan can learn from.
My appreciation for Iran deepened after mingling with its people, who are full of warmth. Before travelling to Iran, I was warned that Iranians dislike Sunnis and Pakistanis. Not only did I find this to be untrue, but in fact, what I witnessed was a vibrant society with progressive citizens.
I have a few examples. Once, a taxi driver refused to take payment from me when he found out that I was visiting from Pakistan.
On one occasion, I got on the wrong train and a young man named Hamed helped me find my way by taking me to the right station and drawing a map to explain to me how to get back to my hotel. He even called later on to check if I had reached my destination.
At other times, a confectioner offered me free cream puffs and a shisha bar owner free shisha just because I was a visitor.
Once, a gentleman at a museum translated descriptions for me from Farsi to English and yes, how can I forget my hotel manager, who spent an entire hour helping me activate my phone.
The media will tell you different stories about Iran but once you interact with its people, you will come to know the country and its people for who they really are.
So the next time you are planning a vacation, put Iran on your list. I'm certain you will not be disappointed.
Nauman Afzal is a telecom engineer by profession, a bibliophile by choice and a traveler by compulsion. He lives in Rawalpindi and writes at nmafzal.com