If you Google the meaning of the word ‘Propaganda’, you’ll get the following definition ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’. We normally associate propaganda with totalitarian or rogue states but it is a political tool and strategy that is used on all sides and even the ‘good guys’ are not averse to the use of ‘misinformation’ if it achieves the necessary results.
I was recently honoured to spend 10 glorious days in a country that has almost everything that a discerning tourist could possibly want out of a foreign destination; glorious weather, world-class historical sites, first-world infrastructure, great cuisine, exceptionally low prices and some of the friendliest people on the planet — many of whom spoke impeccable English and who took every opportunity to impress tourists with their command of the language. My host country had a distinctly ‘Western’ feel to it; I felt utterly safe at all times and you’ll probably never guess where I was? I was in the ancient land of Persia — more commonly now referred to as Iran.
As I’ve already mentioned, Iran has a distinctly ‘Western’ look and feel to it and indeed if you ignore all the shop signs and other public signs which are in Farsi, a typical street scene in any major Iranian city such as Isfahan, Tehran or Shiraz could pass as an equivalent street in any southern Mediterranean country such as Spain, Portugal or Greece. Because of international sanctions, tourists enjoy embarrassingly high rates of exchange for their major currencies — so much so that although the official rate of exchange between the Iranian rial and Euro was approximately 48,000 rials to the Euro, the de facto rate when exchanging notes in hotels or in any other commercial transaction was closer to 135,000 rials to the Euro. To put that rate of exchange into some context: a room in a five-star hotel cost will set you back around €60 per night whilst a soft drink in the mini-bar of such a hotel costs the princely sum of 15 cent!
Costs aside, Iran is a fascinating country to visit if you’re a culture vulture or appreciate architecture as it boasts some of the most spectacular mosques in the Islamic world. The crowning glory however of ancient Persian history is, of course, Persepolis — the huge complex of ruins, located approximately 60 kilometres northeast of Shiraz. The name itself derives from ancient Greek and literally means ‘the city of the Persians’ and dates from the 5th century BC and was built by Darius, although the site on which it was built has been attributed to Cyrus the Great. Persepolis is a World Heritage Site and a must-see on any Iranian itinerary.
If your perception of Iran is that of a fundamentalist Islamic country similar to the likes of Saudi Arabia, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise! Iranians are followers of the Shia sect of Islam which differs in many ways from both its Sunni and Wahabi counterparts and, based on my experience, there is just one call to prayer each day, which is at sunset. The country is very secular and only a small proportion of the female population dress in the traditional Iranian chador — most preferring to wear western-style clothes (skinny, torn jeans, sneakers, tee-shirts under brightly coloured scarves which barely cover their hair. Alcohol is, of course, completely banned although you can purchase non-alcoholic beers which are fermented from a variety of fruit juices. The Iranian equivalent of an Irish pub is the Iranian tea-house and for all you tea lovers out there, you’ll be delighted to know that the tea is delicious and tastes just like at home — but without the customary milk!
As previously mentioned, Iranians are unerringly friendly, and it is quite common for locals to approach you and ask to have their photographs taken with you or for them to take photos of you with their young children. Iranians also love to picnic and you’ll see whole families out, not only during the day under the shade of some tree but also at night, enjoying some home-cooked food and chilling out under the stars. Nowhere is this phenomenon more magical than in the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square in Isfahan (where the first ever polo match was played) and it is a sight to behold.
Iran is also a shopper’s paradise — particularly if you have an eye for quality craftsmanship as Iranians are justly famous for their skills which extend far beyond their world famous Persian carpets and extend to ceramics, copper ware, jewellery, art (particularly miniaturists) etc.
The Iranian (Persian) tourist board will be in attendance at Holiday World in Dublin next January and I highly recommend that you speak to whoever is manning their stand as you’ll be impressed by what they have to tell you about this magnificent country. I’ve only just scratched the surface here but have hopefully whet your appetite to find out more!