14 things you didn’t know you didn’t know about Iran

Thumbs Up = Middle Finger

While some leeway is given for tourists as many Iranians understand that thumbs up means “good” elsewhere, giving a thumbs up in Iran actually is equivalent to giving a middle finger. Very entertaining to see in action (overly aggressive taxi drivers are your best bet).

Beautiful “Yes”

There are two main ways to say yes in Persian. “Are”, pronounced like “R.A.” means “yeah”, and the more formal “bale” means “yes”. The latter one is pronounced remarkably like “ballet”. So whenever I hear someone say yes, I get an image of stunning dancers in pointe shoes and tutus. It’s beautiful every time.

Tea for Two

Tea is made in two parts, and it’s ingenious. Since tea is served a bajillion times a day, rather than having a pot of tea sitting around, a sort of double boiler system is used. A larger kettle of water with a spout for easy pouring sits on the stove, and a small tea kettle with a super strong blend sits on top. To make tea, a small amount of the strong blend is added to a cup and filled up with the boiling water from below to the desired strength.

Sour Power

Plums, apricots and cherries are snacks of choice – the sourer the better. Plums are small, green, and hard. Apricots likewise. Two types of cherries are available – the ones I know from home, and small, sour ones. Sour fruit is often eaten with salt. I don’t think it’s even possible to buy ripened plums or apricots.

International TV

Satellite TV is the norm (though technically illegal), and programs from all over the world are dubbed in Farsi. The most common American series are 24, Prison Break, Dharma and Greg, How I Met Your Mother, and Reba. Other favourite shows include ones from Korea and Columbia. I’m currently hooked on a soap from Columbia in which a rich old man dies but he lives on in another (young and attractive) body and as he finds out who wronged him or truly respected him in his former life, he seeks revenge or protects them respectively. Opening credits involve him hosing down a horse with his shirt off and his Fabio-length hair blowing in some mysterious wind. Captivating.

The Many Faces of No

Rather than shaking ones head back and forth, a more common head gesture for no here is the single upward nod. The gesture in Canada, might mean “up there, ahead”, or when paired with a small grin and an eyebrow raise “hey, how you doin’?”, or with a snarl “what are you looking at, huh?” Here, however, it means no, and is my gesture of choice when communicating with taxis.


Ta’arof is kind of a artificial and often confusing form of nicety here. Like when you try to pay for your taxi or meal, you money will often be refused (the first time). Or when you comment on someone’s lovely new _____, Ta’arof indicates they should offer to give it to you, which you should then obviously refuse. Or when someone comes to your door to drop something off, you should invite them in for a meal, which they should naturally turn down. It’s hard to tell the difference between genuine generosity and Ta’arof sometimes, and more than once I have asked my host in Tehran, “Is this Ta’arof? What do you honestly think?” The Lonely Planet gives the funny rationale that it would be rude for a taxi driver not to offer your ride for free, but it would be even ruder for you to accept his offer.

Iran Exists Outside Iran

Many Farsi TV programs, movies, and most modern music is created and broadcast from outside of Iran. Since women in booty shorts in music videos doesn’t fly here, musicians and actors often live and work in the US, Germany, Turkey, etc. You may be living next to a Persian superstar and not even know it.

Noodle Ice Cream All the Rage

It may sound nasty at first, but my favourite cold treat in Iran soon became a lime ice bar containing vermicelli-like noodles. I admit it was weird the first time, but I’ve had dozens since. They are cool, refreshing and only cost 15 cents.

Iran is Economically Developed

The fact that you can drink the tap water almost everywhere should be an indication. Tehran (especially as you head further north in the city, which is also higher in altitude, cooler, and where people get wealthier and wealthier) is quite cosmopolitan. While there is poverty like any other country, overall, the infrastructure is remarkably great. A traveller I met compared Iran to a very well run prison. It’s clean, well built, the other prisoners are great, but there are a lot of rules.

Very Good Bad Drivers

By North American standards, you might think that drivers here are bad. They swerve in and out of traffic, go the wrong way down one way streets, back up on freeways, etc. etc. However, they can also squeeze through spaces barely a few inches wider than their vehicles, have quick reflexes to avoid other swerving traffic, and are generally incredibly aware of their surroundings. I guess you could say that they have good driving skills, but they obey traffic rules poorly.

Persians are not Arabs

If you believed everything you saw on TV, you might think that all Muslims are Arabs. However, there are Arab Muslims, Persian Muslims, Kurdish Muslims, Turkish Muslims, Bosnia Muslims, etc. etc. It’s like saying all Catholics are Italian. Or confusing Germans with French – what’s the big deal? They all look the same! Well, they don’t actually, and are proud of their ethic heritage.

And not all Iranians are Muslim. There are populations of Armenian Christians, where are generally left alone. And small clusters of Zoroastrians. However, newly converted Christians risk their lives.

Iran is Not Dangerous for Law-Abiding Tourists

As Iran is smack dab in the middle of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, you might think it’s a bit of a hot spot and forget that Iran is not at war. The main concern for tourists (as I learned from a chat at the Canadian embassy) is that if something happens to you here, it’s hard for the Embassy to intervene on your behalf. So, as I plan to avoid drug trafficking, spying, wearing slutty clothes or instigating any uprisings against the government, I figure I’m OK. I’ll take care as I do in any country I travel to.

Dress code

So what exactly is the dress code in Iran you ask? At a minimum, heads and butts are covered. I wore a pashmina-like scarf, and a long shirt called a manteau that went to my upper thigh. Because I’m a tourist I can get away with a bit of a shorter manteau, but it still covered the area where my legs met my body. When you go to government buildings, universities, and some workplaces, a special one-piece black headscarf similar to a nun’s headdress must be worn.

Women that are more devout will wear what’s called a chador. It means that they first put on a headscarf and clamp it underneath their chin with a pin, and then drape themselves in what’s little more than a thin sheet (usually black). It’s held in place closed in front with hands, or sometimes the mouth if the hands are busy. I tried it twice – once at a shrine in northern Tehran, and once trying to get into the main complex in Mashhad. It sucked. Niqabs, the full face covering “veils” that have recently been banned in France, are rare. They generally are only spotted in the more orthodox cities like Qom and Mashhad, and still rarely.

What I didn’t understand though, was the popular styles of manteaus. Most of them are almost like short, tight trench coats. Why aren’t more free-flowing, lighter fabrics used? It’s so freaking hot here!

Your Turn?

I hope I shed some light for you on what Iran is really like. I wish more people would travel here. One nice thing about travelling in Iran, compared to other controlled states like Burma and North Korea, is that you can travel around the country without directly financially supporting the government. So explore, couchsurf, sightseeing, eat, and experience Iran.