I Was Here: Untold Stories from Iran

When Assad Dadan told people he was going to Iran, one of the most common responses he received was to “stay safe.” Fueled by media narratives that paint the nation in broad, violent brushstrokes, many outsiders view Iran as a place of danger. The country that Assad explored couldn’t have been further from that image of hostility.

As the founder of the Medium & Rare blog, Assad has always been fascinated by the intersection of food and culture, preferring to experience new locations through the lens of popular dishes and hole-in-the-wall eateries. His “I Was Here” video series reflects this love and curiosity. As he puts it, the short films represent his “humble spin on cities and countries — their food, people, and everything that sews them together.” When Assad traveled to Iran, he started in the capital, Tehran, and made his way to the historic city of Isfahan, across the southern belt of Shiraz and Persepolis, and finally to Mashhad in the far east, all while learning about his host nation from the families and restaurateurs who welcomed him with open arms and steaming cups of tea.

Watch the video above and then read on for a behind-the-scenes look at Assad’s cultural journey.

Toward the beginning of the video, you say that Iran is a country that has fascinated you for a while. Why is that, and what inspired you to journey there?

It was the Iran episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” that ignited my mind. After watching it, all of my energy was directed toward learning as much as I could about the country. I tried local iterations of Iranian food in my hometown of Bombay, met new people at language centers, watched and became an ardent admirer of Iranian cinema and music, and analyzed the political and diplomatic goings on in Tehran. I took every opportunity to feed this obsession, trying to discern as many different perspectives and nuggets of information as I could and dropping them into my mental hotpot that was brewing.

In the years following the “Parts Unknown” episode, I knew deep in my bones that I had to get there myself — it was only a question of when. My partner and I landed in Tehran on Christmas Eve of 2017.

A big focus of the video seems to be the disconnect between how Iran is viewed and portrayed and how it is in reality. From your experience there, what would you say people tend to get wrong about Iran?

The Iran on the news and the Iran you set foot in are poles apart.

Iran receives a lot of prejudice from the rest of the world. The majority of news outlets — especially those from the West — don’t help this situation. They take the convenient path of labeling everyone with the same bold marker rather than spending time to understand the individuals of a culture different than theirs. Most importantly, differentiating a nation’s people from an existing regime that may not be the best is essential, but very few people care to do it. In 2019, it is our duty to discern the truth before we deem an entire country unworthy of interaction.

Iran is often portrayed as a hostile place, part of the “Axis of Evil.” People think that the nation is made up of fanatics pushing an extremist Islamic agenda when this could not be further from the truth. A lot of people, when they heard about my trip, became worried about my safety and said things like, “Stay safe out there.” I think most were confusing Iran with Iraq, which is yet another sign of how little effort people make in getting to know a place and its people.

So, it was important for me to use the little time I had there to capture my observations of Iranians and relay them to the rest of the world. There is a reason Lonely Planet describes Iran as the “friendliest country on Earth.” To simply say Iranians are extremely warm and kind is a wild understatement. They put everything they have forward for you, not because anyone asked them to, but because they truly love to give. They will do whatever they can to make your time in their home better. It’s just how they’re wired.

You’ll see this only when you shelve your preconceived notions and dive headfirst into Iran — you must see it for yourself. It’s a painful encounter, to look at all of these beautiful people who want to know so much about where you come from and your world, one that is increasingly tough for them to explore due to tightening sanctions that are a result of diplomatic rifts. I have this crazy idea of trying to repair these rifts and bring us all a little bit closer.

How were you received by the Iranian people?

Like an old friend. I didn’t know anyone in Iran until I arrived, yet I was received with open arms everywhere I went. Around the world, a lot of people have stopped believing in any kind of greeting — a “good morning,” or a “good evening,” or even a nod. It’s now considered normal to just be left unbothered. But not in Iran. Iranians will likely sing a “Salaam,” which is like “Hey!” whenever you walk into a store, start a conversation, sit down for a meal, or just run into someone, anyone. The “Salaam” itself is just so endearing.

The reaction to me as an Indian was also overwhelmingly kind. “Hindostan!” i.e. India, they would say before breaking out into “Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin,” a Hindi song from the ’70s about an undying friendship that became a global hit. I’ve never experienced simply being smiled at for my nationality. I noticed that Iranians express a genuine interest in people. Even if I contacted someone through social media for information or a guide to a particular area, they’d prefer to meet for a cup of tea and a conversation. People there don’t fear others; they welcome outsiders.

Can you talk about your experience with Massoud Mostafavi and his family? How did you meet them, and what did your time with them teach you about Iranian hospitality?

At this point, the name Massoud by itself is enough to bring me out of a rough mood and put a smile on my face.

My partner and I met Massoud in Tehran on Christmas Day. We had begun our exploration by strolling around, peeping into bread shops, sniffing into books laid out on the streets, and just taking everything in. Then we decided to pop into this place called Khoshbin for lunch. There were only six or seven square tables inside, and we sat next to a couple in their early 40s. Flipping through the menu, we ordered a fried fish, which was supposedly a specialty there. A piping hot rice dish arrived with a packaged block of butter resting atop. When I dismantled this little mountain, I discovered a whole fish hiding underneath. Somewhat confused, my partner decided to start by removing the butter from her plate. The couple observed this butter shunning, and with flushed cheeks and soft eyes the man said, “If you don’t mind, can I show you how to eat this?” He proceeded to snap open the little package and dropped the butter square back on top of the steaming rice. It began to soften and melt while he mixed the rice. He then pointed to a dish of mashed eggplant, squash, garlic, tomato, and egg on their side of the table and urged us to try it. ‘This is mirza ghasemi,” he said.

Toward the last bite of the meal, I started to crave tea, so I turned to the man and asked him for a recommendation of a place nearby. He thought for a second before replying: “Hmm, my home!” And just like that, barely 15 minutes after meeting him, we sat in Massoud Mostafavi’s car and drove with him to his home! When we arrived at his doorstep, his son opened the door and was unsurprised and welcoming. Even though it was only Massoud who spoke English (his family spoke Farsi), we had a wide-ranging conversation that spanned a couple of hours. It was like coming home after a long vacation.

Afterward, he took us to the iconic carpet district in Iran and showed us around while he and his wife found a new carpet for their home. We then drove to the very hip part of Tehran, Tajrish, where we explored a bazaar that boasted all of the wondrous foods, spices, teas, clothing, and Iran-ness a place could offer. A quick stop at a shrine was followed by another gorgeous meal, at the Hani Parseh. We went on a saffron ice cream run around midnight before he dropped us at our hostel, where we hugged one another goodbye and promised to stay in touch. This wasn’t the kind of promise you just make verbally and never follow through on. We truly meant it.

Massoud was our first friend in Iran, but his treatment of us set the tone for the entire trip. I feel like I’ve described our entire day with him, but I did so because I wanted to elaborate exactly what it means to meet someone you don’t know, bring them into your home, and spend an entire “day in the life” with them. We’d consider someone crazy if they did that with a stranger they just met, but this is what Iranian hospitality is. I can close my eyes and be transported back to the last time I saw Massoud: a frosty night bundled in his car with his wife Azam and son AmirAli, all of us having a sing along, the bumps on the highway matching the beat of “Yeh Dosti.”

Your work at Medium & Rare focuses on food and food photography, and that passion is certainly reflected in the “I Was Here” series. What sort of relationship do you see between food and travel?

Food is a very intimate aspect of life. Critical to this are the people you share it with: family, friends, and even the individuals you meet with whom you share a snack or meal or cup of coffee. By sharing, we give a little of ourselves away and get to know another person a little better. I definitely seek to understand the world through the lens of its food.

Food and travel are inextricably linked. In the simplest of terms, wherever we go, we need to eat. Some see food simply as fuel, but if you’re more of a romantic, like me, then you can see it as a window to an ocean and a million lives and minds. When you truly eat your way through a country, when you trace the origins and ingredients of your meals and adapt to the local dining etiquette, your internal chemistry gets attuned to this new style. You start living, to a certain degree, the lifestyle of that country. It not only feeds the hunger of my stomach, but also the hunger of my mind, heart, and soul.

I was in Isfahan on New Year’s Eve, sitting around a crackling fire and home-cooked fare with new friends from Italy, Turkey, Germany, and Iran. We weren’t remotely similar, but we were there for that meal, and I’ve never felt a stronger sense of togetherness than I did in that little courtyard that night. That meal was the thread that tied us together.

In today’s digital age, I think a lot of travelers simply resort to “Best Restaurants” lists and sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor when trying out the local cuisine. What tips do you have for better experiencing food in new locations?

Honestly, I don’t think glancing at lists for a new destination is anything to be ashamed of. Some of these lead me to at least one great experience, if not all, and the more I travel, the more I realize that these curated lists act as springboards when you’re learning about a country or city. In places like Iran, where Yelp and TripAdvisor are not even talked about, your best bet (as it should be with any destination) is to ask locals and find out where they like to go. When in doubt, start with hostel managers or homestay owners. Amid a bunch of touristy suggestions, you will always find one or two hidden gems.

I also like to dig and read personal blogs and uncommon accounts of journeys before my travel, which leads me to discover local snacks, dishes, concoctions, and more. For instance, I had researched so much about ghormeh sabzi, which is probably considered a national dish across Iran, but while looking for places that served it, I learned that it is a festive dish that must be homemade. Serendipitously, while searching for “the best ghormeh sabzi,” I chanced upon a few menus online and discovered a dish called dizi — a stew that is common in Iranian restaurants. After walking through different streets and alleyways, I started to notice that almost all restaurants had a deep, steel dish somewhere in their kitchen where something was always simmering and being served with a mortar and pestle. Since I had read about it in a few blogs, I knew that this, in fact, was dizi.

Also, believe it or not, Google Maps helped us in Iran because of the reviews you can find under its “bookmarks.” People like to keep it simple there. The most delicious Iranian omelets we had during our stay in Tehran were discovered by searching for “breakfast” in the Tehran area of the map. The search led us to a bookmark with a single photo of the restaurant’s outer facade above a review in broken English that said the cook made the best omelet in town. At 9 a.m. the next morning, we were at this hole in the wall, which appeared empty. We said “Salaam! Omelette?” and there appeared an older bearded gentleman, nodding. It was wonderful!

In the intro, you dedicate the video to Anthony Bourdain. As someone with a passion for culinary travel, what sort of influence did he have on you?

Anthony Bourdain never had a big smile on his face, and yet, by virtue of sheer honesty, richness of mind, and a beautiful heart, he made you feel like he was your friend — all from behind a screen, without even remotely trying. I know about a billion people say this, and I am certain they’re all sincere, but Anthony Bourdain changed the way I see the world.

I think that more people are going off the beaten path sans notions today, and that Anthony had something to do with it. I’m still processing the events of last year, so I may not be able to articulate just what Anthony meant to my existence, but he made me more curious about the world, about the meal on my plate — how it got there, and who I was sharing it with. He made people a little less afraid of one another. His work was a nudge to go out, to explore with meaning and philosophy, and, most importantly, to let go of resistance to change. There is enough of Anthony’s elixir to awaken, arouse, trigger, induce, persuade, and enthuse me for decades to come.

You say that you think Iran is on the verge of a tourism boom. Why is that?

I feel that the success of a country’s tourism is dependent on two things: the attitude of the locals toward the visitors and the value of foreign currency in that country. On the hospitality front, as I have reiterated throughout, Iran is unrivaled. The warmth you receive is incomparable.

As for currency, the U.S. dollar and the euro go very far in Iran. During our visit, both were accepted everywhere from hotels and hostels to souvenir shops and restaurants. The conversion rate was $1 USD = 47,000 rial (or 4,700 toman), which could easily buy a meal of rice, a couple of plump kebabs, and a whole lot of welcoming smiles. In fact, any decent meal could be had for just $2 or $3 USD. Accommodation in general was also very economical, as was traveling from province to province, even on a luxury bus or via first-class train.

Iran’s tourism business is already growing. CNN reported that roughly six million people visited Iran in 2017 — that’s three times more than in 2009! Where no hostels existed just a few years ago, they’re now popping up around every corner. In addition to the hospitality and currency value, I think this can be attributed to the way the nation offers something to every type of traveler.

Gastronomes, of course, will find endless delight. Culture and history buffs can literally explore the location and culture that civilized the world. If you yearn for poetry and literature that opens your third eye, writers like Omar Khayyam, Rumi (looking at you, Instagram captions), and Hafiz have changed the way the world thinks. Filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, and Samira Makhmalbaf are regulars come awards season. And the country’s art and architecture will amaze even the staunchest “I don’t understand art” types. In short, Iran is a country aching to be discovered.

In your conclusion, you state that what we often regard as mundane feels special in Iran. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

A few words describe why the mundane felt extraordinary in Iran: optimism, intention, mindfulness, wonder, and gratitude.

For a lot of us, morning tea or coffee is rarely a big event. It’s often messy and rushed. But in Iran, the humblest of homes prepare for the day ahead in a simple but special way. You can tell by the way they pace around the kitchen, waiting on their brew and eggs. You may not see Iran featured on any Global Happiness Index reports, but they do truly take time to stop and smell the roses. While we often find ourselves just going through the motions when doing things that take up the majority of our time — driving to work, buying groceries, eating a meal — Iranians instead stop and take note of why they are doing these things. When they clean their houses, for instance, they see it as a service for themselves and their family. As much as their family might bring them to their wit’s end, they love them wholeheartedly and want to care for them.

Iranians are mindful, grateful, and optimistic in everything they do. They give names to the dead-ends of streets and alleyways. They roam through the bazaar as an evening activity, unafraid to be a tourist in their own city. Food is prepared with love. They stop to enjoy the tastes, smells, and textures along the way. It’s not only the final result, but the process of cooking that allows them to enjoy the simple pleasures of being alive. And these were regular middle-class people who I engaged with throughout my trip. I wasn’t paying for any bespoke or special experiences. It was just life — except a little more intentional, and therefore, a little more beautiful.

To see more of Assad’s work, check out his blog, YouTube channel, or Instagram!

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.