Going beyond the news headlines to the people, culture, land of Iran

Reporter's Notebook

The 1979 Islamic revolution, the U.S. hostage crisis, and the on-going nuclear negotiations: just some of the things that might come to mind when you think about Iran. But there is much more to this ancient land and its people than what’s portrayed in the western media.


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All photos by Cyrus Massoudi

That’s something a young British-born Iranian discovered on his own during a three-year journey to Iran. What he discovered: A rich culture, stunning landscape, warm hospitality, and delicious food. He wrote about the experience in a new book, “Land of the Turquoise Mountains.”

Here’s part of my conversation with Cyrus Massoudi.

Asieh Namdar: Why did you want to make this journey to Iran?

Cyrus Massoudi: A number of reasons: there were certain parts of my character that I recognized as Iranian without fully understanding; I wanted to learn more about my heritage and how it was relevant to me; I found the polarized portrayals of Iranians favored by the media confusing and contradictory – they didn’t square up with my own experience of the Iranian community around me. There was only one way to make sense of it all and that was to make the journey to Iran.

Was writing a book always part of the plan?

Yes. I have wanted to write from a very early age. My grandfather founded the Ettela’at newspaper so I knew I had writing in the blood but it was only after I started on this project that I found out how closely I was following in his footsteps. He had written about his experiences traveling around America and China and these popular travelogues were serialized in the newspaper in the 1940s and 50s.

What was the most memorable experience?

Looking back on it now, the first thing that comes to mind is undoubtedly the warmth and hospitality I was shown. Not just by family and friends but by complete strangers in remote villages, some of whom had never encountered someone from Tehran, let alone London.

What do you want people who aren’t familiar with Iran to take away from reading your book?

To see that things aren’t as black and white as the media might have you think. Hopefully they will also come away with a basic grasp of what the country is all about and a curiosity to find out more for themselves.

land of the turquoise mountains
What was the biggest surprise from your journey? Any disappointments?

The beauty and variety of the country itself really took me by surprise. A dusty wilderness can suddenly be replaced by rolling green hills covered in wildflowers. You never know what’s waiting for you around the next corner.

Many non-Iranians see Iran as a country full of contradictions. Do you agree and why?

I think the images portrayed of Iran are contradictory and that it’s hard for someone unfamiliar with Iranian history and culture to see them as two sides of the same coin. It is only once you get beneath the surface of things that the place starts to make sense as a whole.

How are westerners –- especially Americans — viewed in Iran?

I travelled briefly with an American and she was amazed by the warmth she was shown. Most Iranians, the younger generation in particular, are familiar with American films and TV shows and have a real affinity for western culture. I was a little concerned about the reception I would get as a westernized Iranian but 99 percent of my experience was positive. People were incredibly encouraging and supportive of what I was trying to do and went out of their way to make a good impression.

You travels in Iran lasted some three years. What city or place left the biggest impression on you?

Although Tehran can be quite a daunting city, especially to turn first turn up in alone and uninitiated, there is nowhere else like it. It doesn’t take long to make friends with a local eager to show you what the city is all about. The Gulf island of Qeshm also made a big impression with its combination of mangrove forests, secluded sandy beaches and otherworldly landscapes. As did the Turkoman Plain with its undulating green hills and ancient stones.

What are your observation on the young people of Iran? (Those under 30 years old.)

There is too much of a ‘grass is greener’ mentality. A lot of the young people who grew up watching western TV shows have an idealised vision of what life outside of Iran is like and it becomes an obsession – all they want to do is get out. They thought I was crazy for going back and for trying to convince them that their lives wouldn’t necessarily be any better away from their homeland. Having said that, I met some of the brightest, most worldly people I’ve come across – and these are people who’ve never left Iran. There is an incredible appetite for knowledge and self-improvement that can only bode well for the future.

What would you say to Americans whose first instinct is distrust of Iran?

Keep an open mind, put politics aside, and try to understand the place through its people and the history and culture that has shaped them.

What’s your advice to those who are thinking of traveling to Iran, but are worried or afraid?

Get out there. Iran is a much friendlier and more welcoming place than a lot of countries people don’t think twice about travelling to. As a visitor to any foreign country, you have to have some awareness of the local culture and use a bit of common sense not to offend, but you can rest assured that the vast majority of people will show you nothing but warmth.

Now that you’ve visited Iran, are you hopeful Iran and the U.S. can one day have normal diplomatic relations?

I am. I think there is still a very long way to go before relations are normalised but at least there are some encouraging signs.