Report from Iran: An Interview with Jean-Paul Tennant

GeoEx pioneered American travel to Iran, leading our first tour there in 1993. Through the ensuing years, our returning travelers have invariably enthused about the warmth of the people and the wonders of the sites. GeoEx CEO Jean-Paul Tennant recently visited Iran for the first time. We sat down with him to get his impressions of this alluring, often misunderstood country.

How long was your Iran trip and where did you visit? We were in-country for 12 days. We started in Tehran, flew south to Shiraz, then wound back to Tehran by car via Persepolis, Yazd, and Esfahan.

Why did you want to visit Iran? I’d heard that Iran has everything: a rich, layered history that remains in flux to this day; a dynamic, evolving culture that is very different from our own; kind, open people who are as fascinated by us as we are by them; delicious food; spectacular architecture, including some gorgeous mosques; and wonderful artists and craftspeople. Whether or not they’ve entered Iran with well-informed preconceptions, GeoEx guests have always come back raving about the country, with their expectations exceeded. I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to experience this for myself!

Did you have any hesitations about traveling to Iran before you went? Not at all. I was very excited about visiting a place so different from home. Having said that, I should add that upon hearing news of my travel plans, my son quickly asked, “Dad, are you sure it’s safe?” It felt 100 percent safe at all times.

How did people react to you and your fellow American travelers? They would approach us in a friendly way and ask, “Where are you from? Germany? Australia?” When we answered, they would say, “USA? We love Americans! I have a cousin in Los Angeles! Come to my house—I will feed you dinner!” A few people just came up to us and said “I love you” out of the blue.  The people were incredibly friendly.

What were three highlights of the trip? Esfahan: The vibrant square in this ancient cultural capital was filled with people at all hours. Evenings were especially beautiful, with the mosques and fountains lit up and the horse-drawn carriages circling around.

The artisans and artworks we encountered everywhere, from copper work to ceramics, textiles, and paintings: The artisans were highly skilled and eager to share their craft, often employing techniques that have been used for centuries.  

The Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz: This monument, built in memory of the beloved Persian poet Hafez, was brimming with people reading poetry and quotes, a daily ritual that continues into the evening. Our guide told us that Hafez’s poetry addresses issues of life and love that are as applicable (and loved) today as they were when Hafez wrote in the 1300s. It was tremendously moving to see the people of Shiraz showing their reverence now, seven centuries later, for a poet from their proud past. And the tomb itself is incredibly beautiful.

What was the biggest surprise of the trip for you? Learning that Iranians sometimes enter into marriages with an expiration date: The marriage license has both a start and an end! Iran is very socially conservative, and the only acceptable way for a man and woman to spend time together is if they are married, even temporarily.

How was your guide? She was outstanding. She clearly loved her country and transmitted that love to us. And she was full of stories! She loved to talk with us about everyday life for Iranians: work, family, romance, cooking, recreation. And she presented an honest picture. For example, she told us about the time she nearly lost her guide license—and so her livelihood—as a result of being observed with her ankles showing by a member of the “morality police” while she in the lobby of the Laleh Hotel in Tehran. All in all, we learned so much from her.

Did you have the opportunity to interact with Iranians? Yes, every day! More than in any other place I have ever been, the locals jumped at the chance to talk with Americans, to share stories, talk politics, and compare experiences in our respective countries. I should add that this was true of the Iranian men. Women still behave (and are treated) quite differently in Iran, but it was nice to see that this might be starting to change, especially with the younger generations in the bigger cities.

What was the biggest lesson you brought home? In addition to all the lessons I learned about the culture, history, and art of Iran, I was reminded how incredibly fortunate we are to live in a country that grants us the personal freedoms that we have in the US.

Based on your trip, who do you think should visit Iran and what's the best way for travelers to get the most out of a visit to Iran? Everyone should visit Iran! Well, anyone who is interested in looking beyond what is portrayed in the popular media, going with an open mind, and seeing it for themselves.

The history of Iran is so rich and layered that it helps to do a little homework ahead of time. Then, when you are in Iran, it will all spring to life.

One thing I would stress is that because Iranians are so open and friendly, and particularly interested in Americans, it is a wonderful place to leave shyness behind and chat openly with the locals. They will respond with unforgettable warmth, enthusiasm, and hospitality. 

Would you like to return? Absolutely!  As soon as possible.

 

If you’re interested in traveling to Iran, check out GeoEx’s Custom and Scheduled Trips. Please note that space on our Treasures of Persia small-group journey is going fast.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at [email protected]

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