Love’s labour’s lost in Iran

I went to fall in love with a woman – but instead I fell in love with the beautiful country and people of Iran

I was nervous. I’ve had many feelings while waiting to board a flight; anticipation, excitement, anxiousness. Even boredom. But nervousness? That was a first. The reason was my destination. The ticket said Tehran, Iran. I was going there to see about a girl.

A staircase in Tehran is covered with graffiti of roses – Tommy Nilsson Iran
A staircase in Tehran is covered with graffiti of roses – Tommy Nilsson

A few months earlier, I had yet to plan my vacation. I knew it would be in September, but by spring I still hadn’t decided on a destination. I needed a reason, an excuse if you will. The reason I needed turned out to be a woman. When we first met she was visiting relatives in Stockholm but lived in Tehran. Now, four months later, I was on my way to visit her.

Thinking back to my month in Iran I tend to go back to three places. First and foremost, Isfahan. The city was great but the Naghsh-e Jahan Square was where I spent every evening. The square, second in size only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, was fairly quiet during in daytime but crowded at night. People got there late afternoon and staying to late in the evening. I sat there for hours every night with my feet in the pool; a pool so big that the humidity was different on the square than in the rest of the city. I sat there, keeping busy just watching the kids running around in the pool, the teenagers chatting away, vendors selling soda or ice cream and people coming up to me to practice their English and take pictures.

I also go back to the mazes of the old town in Yazd, built using material the desert has to offer. When walking around there, the dry taste of desert and dust would only be temporarily washed down with chai or the ridiculously sweet sweets that come out of Yazd. The sweets of Yazd redefine sweet. It´s sweetened sugar. Yazd, along with the sweets, also brought those desert sunsets in orange and red and surprisingly few visitors.  

The Jame Mosque of Yazd is seen from the city's mazes – Tommy Nilsson Iran
The Jame Mosque of Yazd is seen from the city’s mazes – Tommy Nilsson

Lastly, Tehran can, quite objectively I believe, be described as an ugly city. I´m neither the first nor the last one to make that claim. Paul Theroux described Teheran as “a boom town grafted on to a village, is a place of no antiquity and little interest, unless one has a particular fascination for bad driving and a traffic situation twenty times worse than New York´s”. Theroux traveled through here for the first time in the seventies.

Well, Mr Theroux, traffic is still bad, but I’ve seen worse in many places. And the metro is always working well and, just as the city, constantly expanding. The Grand Bazaar defines Tehran for me. It may not look much or beautiful once you’re there, you quickly realize that modest is a word that just won’t do. The bazaar has more than ten kilometers of shops, and business here has a direct impact on Iran’s GDP. A big plus with Tehran is that the city is easy to navigate. When you’re walking uphill you´re heading north and when heading downhill you’re heading south.  

Apart from the places, Iran has another ingredient that makes it special. The people. Never – and I do mean never – have I felt so safe and well taken care of while on the road as I did in Iran. Every bus ride, everywhere I went, I was treated very nicely. If I looked lost, or simply was a bit disoriented, someone always made sure I was put back on the right track even if it meant rounding up 20 people as a reference group (yes, that happened in a park in Tehran).

Iran's relations with the USA are never easy – Tommy Nilsson
Iran’s relations with the USA are never easy – Tommy Nilsson

I had my doubts about the security in traveling solo in Iran, but those doubts quickly disappeared. Judging from the women I’ve met who have traveled solo in Iran have told me, women seem to be as safe as men traveling. Neither one of them had had a bad experience in Iran because they were women.

Throughout the entire month, I felt like I wasn’t just visiting their country, I was visiting their home. Always polite, always helpful. The sad and obvious exception to that turned out to be the woman I went to Iran to visit.  

During the last year or so I’ve been reading several articles claiming that now is the time to visit Iran, that it will soon be too late. I have always despised the notion that it could be too late to visit a country, thereby insinuating that a country is better at a certain time than another. In my experience, some people want to be able to claim that their experience of a country was more “genuine” or “real” than someone else´s.

Then let me ask this: When in time is a country more “genuine” or “real”? And what are the crucial factors? The notion of it ever being too late is stupid beyond comprehension. It’ll never be “too late” to go to Iran or any other country (as long as they don’t disintegrate, of course).

The Azadi Tower in Tehran was built with 8,000 blocks of white Iranian marble – Tommy Nilsson Iran
The Azadi Tower in Tehran was built with 8,000 blocks of white Iranian marble – Tommy Nilsson

However, I do feel confident in claiming that if sanctions are lifted Iran will quickly become very different country than it is today, with the pros and cons that goes with it. And I think those changes will be better for the people living there. I’m planning on going back in 2017. And I won’t be surprised if I’m back again and again in the years to come.

In hindsight, there are two things I can´t comprehend. I don’t understand why I needed an excuse to go there in the first place, since it is one of the best trips I’ve ever made. Secondly, I really can’t understand why I wanted to visit the woman I’d met. I do, however, understand that I went to Iran to see about a girl and ended up falling in love with the country.