Couchsurfing in Iran
I’m off to Iran, a country that tends to generate more wariness than curiosity in the West, as the media hardly ever mention it but to discuss the advances of the nuclear deal. I can’t wait to delve into Iranian culture and go beyond those stereotypes. In order to interact as much as possible with locals and to get a deeper understanding of the contrasts between repressive social policy and aspirations of the youth, I will hitchhike the whole way and try to use exclusively Couchsurfing to find a place to sleep.
There’s a slight hiccup though. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is in theory forbidden to host foreigners at home and the website couchsurfing.com is blocked. However, despite the ban and potential risks, the platform has been increasingly popular and over 170,000 members are registered in the country. As for other blocked websites such as Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, all you need to do is to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on your phone or laptop to be able to use them.
If you’ve recently tried using Couchsurfing in Europe and you’re a guy, you know how tricky it can be to find a host. It requires patience and you sometimes have to send several dozen requests to receive just one positive response. Truth be told, more and more members use the platform for similar purposes as those of Tinder.
A few days before coming to Tabriz where I am planning to make my first stop, I sent a couple of requests and created a public trip, an open request where everyone can offer to host you, show you around their city or go for a cup of tea. In sharp contrast to Europe, it’s dead easy to find a host in Iran. Within 24 hours, over 12 couches have already been kindly offered to me. Give it a go and you’ll be spoilt with choice.
I make it to Tabriz from the border with Armenia with three easy rides. Farhad and his housemate Naser (all names mentioned in the article have been changed) welcome me in their small house in the eastern suburbs of Tabriz. My new friends don’t have much but they greet me warmly and kindly show me around their city.
Farhad tells me that he first heard about Couchsurfing by word-of-mouth. I’m his first surfer! For him, it’s a good way to practice English and a good opportunity to get a taste of the outside world. Like all young Iranian men, he can’t leave the country until he has finished his two-year military service. Farhad is 23 and will start his service next month. He dreams of studying in Sweden once he is done and one day go exploring the world. Something rather trivial for many Europeans and other Westerners, but not everyone hits the jackpot at the lottery of birth. Even when Farhad will get his precious passport, travelling will not be a straightforward matter. Visas are difficult to get and the exchange rate of the Rial is not favorable.
Two days with Farhad and Naser are enough to understand that laughing is a real outlet here. “There are so many restrictions here you know, the only way not to get mad is to laugh about it”. So we laugh. About everything, all the time. And it’s contagious.
As if Farhad hadn’t been hospitable enough, he offers to take me to his parents’ house in Marageh, a smaller town south of Tabriz. After the student house, I can’t say no to an opportunity to witness family life. His family gives me a warm welcome. We don’t have any language in common but his mother’s bright smile requires no translation. His two sisters seem delighted to practice their English with me and tell me enthusiastically about their plans to study abroad in the future.
I had been told about Iranian hospitality but it’s something different to experience it yourself. After only a couple of days I’ve really come close to my first host family. I’m about to leave Marageh with a slight pinch in the heart. Under the amused looks of the family, I try my hand at some calligraphy to write “QAZVIN” in Persian script on a piece of cardboard, my next stop. Five pairs of eyes are riveted on my shaky hand, the pressure is high, and yet it seems I’m doing an alright job.
Hitchhiking in Iran proves extremely simple. With a letter written in Farsi by Farhad’s mother explaining who I am and the concept of hitchhiking, I can now easily get myself understood by drivers. My sign must be readable, a car pulls over within a couple of minutes.
I’m meeting my new hosts in the center of Qazvin. Farid and Mohammad are in their early twenties and are both nearly done with their IT studies. It’s the first time they’re hosting a foreigner through Couchsurfing. Right away the questions are flooding: “What do you think about the hijab? What do people say about Iran in France? Do they think we are terrorists?” Iranians are very concerned about the way they are seen abroad. As a result, they’re proving all the more hospitable with visitors to counterweight with Western media that often lacks nuances about their country.
Farid and Mohammad illustrate the different paths young people can follow in reaction to dilemmas presented by Iranian society. Farid will soon start his military service and plans to marry his girlfriend thereafter. Marriage still assumes considerable importance in Iran: for many, it’s the real coming of age, the threshold into independent adult life. Numerous young Iranians don’t move out of the family home until they have married themselves.
Mohammad’s plans are at odds with those of his friend. He speaks fluent English and has recently taken up German classes. He hopes to continue his studies in Europe and, should the opportunity arise, avoid “wasting two years” with the compulsory military service. “I haven’t told my parents as they would be mad but if I get a place for a Master’s in Germany and then a job, it’s very unlikely that I ever come back to Iran.”
I hit the road on the following morning towards Tehran. Once again finding a car is not an issue, my letter in Farsi is doing wonders! “Tehran terrafik kheli bade” (traffic in Tehran is very bad) my driver is commenting as we dive into a hellish traffic jam near the city.
The Iranian capital has had a tremendous population growth over the past century and is now home to over 12 million souls. Like numerous cities of this scale, it is a city of contrasts. You can easily realise it by exploring the neighbourhoods at both ends of the metro line number one crossing the city from north to south. More destitute neighbourhoods that happen to be often more religious and traditional can be found in the south, while the north of the city, around Tajrish bazar, is home to some of the wealthiest people in Tehran. And that’s where I found a host to stay for a couple of nights.
Newly graduated doctor, polyglot and very knowledgeable, Reza is the epitome of the higher echelon of society. Son of renowned surgeons, he studied medicine abroad and is now about to move to Denmark for his specialization. When I ask him about his military service, he laughs and tells me there are “ways around it”. He got away with it for the tidy sum of 10,000€. Bearing in mind the median wage in Iran doesn’t exceed 300€ per month, it’s obviously a luxury only a few can afford.
On the way to Kashan where my next host is waiting for me, we get stopped by the Sepah, a paramilitary group created in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979. They search my bag and take my passport while I’m told to stay in the car. I anxiously watch in the rear-view mirror the heavily armed brutes flipping through the pages of my precious passport. They seem almost disappointed not to find an Israeli stamp or any weapons in my bag. We’re free to go.
It’s nearly pitch black when I start looking for another vehicle to complete the drive to Kashan. I approach a driver who has just pulled over and he seems happy to help me out. He is on the way to Isfahan, which is not exactly the right direction, but after 15 minutes he lets me know that he’ll make a detour to drop me off in Kashan. I’m in luck, no need to hitchhike in the dark tonight.
Nami is hosting me for two nights in his flat near the bazar. He tells me that until last year he didn’t speak any English. His world was limited to his family, his friends, and the carpet factory. Encouraged by Ali, his childhood friend and frequent user of Couchsurfing, he registered and started learning English. “I soon realised what an amazing open door to the world Couchsurfing represents.” Since he joined, Nami has hosted about twenty travelers from a dozen different countries and has made tremendous progress in English. He also used the platform as a “surfer” (guest) during a recent trip to Kenya. He is planning to quit his job soon to explore Asia, visas are easier to get than for Europe.
Hitchhiking in Iran is dead easy, I’m not even slightly worried when I start waving down cars along the highway to Isfahan (you can’t show your thumb here, it’s considered a rude gesture in Persian culture). Without surprise, I soon get a lift. The driver: a trendy Iranian in his early forties who speaks just Farsi. On the bright side, spending so much time with drivers who don’t speak any English makes me improve my Farsi significantly faster. When you don’t have the choice and communication is at stake, you end up learning a lot more. Besides it’s surprising to see the wide range of discussions we can actually have with just my thirty words of Farsi, gestures, facial expressions and body language combined. After describing his family, my driver says he admires Macron, as he is keen on “milfs” as well; in Iran, the French president’s private life appears to be more famous than his foreign policy. We go on to discuss Iranian politics: “Khamenei [supreme leader, most important political and religious personality of the country] kheli bade…” (very bad) “Iran no alcohol, no dancing, no nothing” he tells me whilst frowning and throwing up his arms in the air. I nod and kindly suggest he should put his hands back on the wheel, it’s not worth ending up in the ditch. He shows me videos of illegal parties in his villa where you can spot alcohol bottles and unveiled women dancing to thumping oriental techno music. Is he not likely to get in trouble with the Bassidj, the religious police? Grinning broadly, he rubs his thumb against his forefinger and middle finger, universal symbol of cash. The message comes across, local authorities are not too hard to convince when you have the right arguments, never mind about religious morals.
Iran doesn’t have bars or clubs. However, young Iranians, like most young people in the world, like to hang out and party. Azad, my host in Isfahan, brings me one night under a bridge where people come together in the evening to sing, dance and have fun. Such gatherings are forbidden and the police usually shows up after one or two hours to disperse the crowd. Luckily, things have loosened up over the past decade. Partakers used to be liable for hefty fines or even prison terms but arrests are no longer made.
Kiana is putting me up for a couple of nights in Shiraz. While not very active on Couchsurfing, she sometimes hosts foreigners to break the routine and hear stories about abroad. She would love one day to move to a different country, maybe to England. Kiana’s parents don’t speak English but are most welcoming and I soon feel at home again. In the meantime, I’ve made good progress in Farsi and we can communicate a little bit.
We’re joining Kiana’s friends for a little party. A good opportunity to experience one of the hidden facets of this country full of surprises. One of her friends inherited a large house in the old town of Shiraz. The mansion is in a state of disrepair and requires some serious refurbishing but he is planning to turn it into an alternative cultural center within a couple of years. Until then, they can use it to party in secret. The doors are locked, the sound system is set up and the hijabs fall out, unveiling silky hair that is just waiting to be seen. Young men and women dance together, far from the moralising looks of conservative religious fringes of society. The atmosphere is festive, everyone appears longing to unwind and blow off some steam. One of the guests proudly takes a bottle of home-made wine out of his jacket. An occasional treat that could have him sent to prison if caught. We enjoy all the more each and every sip, and pass the bottle to the next person. After a few hours the music stops, reality catches up with the reckless souls, the hijabs are back in use and everyone vanishes in the night as if nothing had happened.
I reach Bandar-Abbas on the coast of the Persian Gulf with a last car. Nilophar and her cousin are hosting me for the night. Most of my hosts in Iran were men and I’m curious to speak with a woman active on the network to hear her perspective. She speaks flawless English and is thinking about leaving the country to start a new life in Europe. As an Atheist in Iran, she is often forced to pretend being Muslim to avoid troubles. She’s dreaming of a secular land where she could be herself.
I’ve got a few days left to explore some of the islands of the Persian Gulf. Omid and Tamid, my hosts in Qeshm, take me to sand dunes near the city for a bonfire. My new friends are very thirsty and brought a bottle of whisky bought on the black-market. You can find everything in Iran, you just need to know where to look.
What lessons can be drawn from the 3000 kilometers I hitchhiked through Iran and the time spent with my thirteen hosts? The country is safe, anti-Western hostility non-existent. On the contrary, Iranians have proved exceptionally welcoming and hospitable. Iran is fascinating in many ways and turns out to be a lot more complex than Western prejudice sometimes let us believe. Couchsurfing might only give access to a reduced sample of the population, members being mostly young and educated, speak English and have liberal views. Nonetheless, it deserves credit for highlighting the plurality of a rapidly changing society.