People, Travel

No Bad Angles to Iran

No Bad Angles to IranNo Bad Angles to Iran

The art photographer Mandy Tay, a 33-year-old native of Singapore based in Dubai, recently spent two weeks traversing Iran by bus. From Tabriz to Tehran, Shiraz to Isfahan, she explored the country in the company of Iranian friends, and had what she calls the most amazing experience of her not unsophisticated life.

The two minute video she created from images of her trip has gone viral, a fast-paced, moving tribute to the warmth and beauty she encountered. By trade a movie trailer producer with MBC, Mandy’s photos are collected as art prints and exhibited in galleries. She talks to us about the friendliness and hospitality she experienced (“everyone had to introduce you to their best friend, their mom, and their cat”), and the visual glories of Shiraz. Iran Wire reporter interviewed Tay about her trip:

What were you expecting before you traveled to Iran?

I work in media and television, I know what bad press is, and knew that I’d have a great time. But it was way beyond my imagination, a lot better than I could have imagined. I had always wanted to go there, I work with some Iranians in the office here in Dubai, so it didn’t feel that foreign to me.

Did you tell your parents you were going to Iran? What did your friends say?

My good friends were really shocked and worried.  I didn’t tell my parents that I was going, but called them every two or three days.  The plan was that they wouldn’t know I was going, and then my uncle would show the video to my parents after the fact at a family gathering, and record their horrified expressions. Finally, when that happened, when they saw the video, my dad said, ‘When did you go to Iran?!” and my mom asked, “where is Iran?” It was a complete anti-climax!

What was your trip like?

I bought my ticket three hours before the flight, and didn’t even know that I had to wear a headscarf. Everything was a surprise. I went to Tabriz, Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan. My friends would send me from city to city by bus, and make sure I was taken care of all the way, checking to see if I’d arrived. I felt a bit like a pet, which was great.

Did you feel safe?

I felt very safe the whole time, safer than I did in Europe actually, which is remarkable. Maybe it’s because of very low tourist traffic, you don’t get the robbers and pick pockets you’d experience in Spain. I didn’t see another tourist for an entire week and couldn’t find a postcard.

How did people treat you?

People were very warm, especially in Tabriz. I hadn’t even heard of the place, but when I got there I stuck out a bit, I didn’t see any other Asians. I would find women looking at me and smiling, they’d whisper to their friends, and I would smile back and say ‘salaam,’ and they’d be so shocked and pleased. Everyone treated me like their best friend, I felt like a panda! It was crazy, I’d see women pointing and getting excited at me even in a car, I’d wave back, and then we’d wave at each other.

Your film is gorgeous and very moving; did you find Iran an inspiring subject, aesthetically?

I wasn’t expecting such amazing sights. That palace with the mirrors (Shah Cheragh) in Shiraz was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life. I wasn’t expecting so much greenery, it was very refreshing. Everything was surprising. I’ve recently started making videos on my recent trips, but this one surpassed all the previous ones in every way. It was such a great experience, filled with so many fantastic incidents. The film is really just a reflection of the generous spirit Iranians have showed me. Iran has left an indelible mark on my mind. Honestly, I think about it every day.

How worldly were young Iranians, how plugged into the world?

I’m surprised by how connected everyone is through the internet. Location doesn’t matter anymore, everyone is talking about and experiencing their way in the world.

Did anyone tell you they were angry with the West?

People weren’t angry or bitter. It was more as if they were hopeful, some had plans to study overseas, but they weren’t angry. And I think that’s great, anger doesn’t help anything. Most people had a positive attitude.

Did you feel safe? Were there any dodgy moments, did anyone tell you to fix your headscarf?

I was the only one concerned about my headscarf, my friends kept saying it was fine, but I was constantly patting my head to check it was still there. Everyone was really nice. People were mostly very curious about where I came from, why I was there. Once I performed eating rice for chopsticks in a bowl.

What has the response to the film been like so far?

I have been overwhelmed by the response. It’s been shared repeatedly on Facebook, and I’ve been trying to thank people individually. One person wrote to tell me that he was born and raised in Brazil to Iranian parents, but has never been able to visit Iran. He said because of my video he felt like he was there. It’s incredible to have helped in this way, Iranians who’ve never been, or people who have misunderstood Iran. Maybe it’s a small step in the right direction somehow.

How does Iran compare to the United Arab Emirates?

Dubai is a whole different chapter. No one stays here forever, so the mentality is transient. The first thing you ask someone is ‘how long have you been here, and how long do you think you’ll be here.’ But Iran is completely different. Everyone is from there, many will probably stay there, though there’s a great handful of people who plan to leave. I was surprised that so many people I met were highly educated, it was really impressive.

What was the nicest thing you ate?

Faloodeh, my God, I had it every day. My eyes would light up when I heard the word. At some point my friends started just saying ‘faloodeh’ just to see my reaction. I tried making it. I ordered koobideh, kookooh sabzi, and faloodeh when I got back, to try and extend the trip. I’m looking for faloodeh recipes, if you know of any.

Would you go back?

Hatman mikham bargardam (meaning I will definitely return!)