Tales of Iranian hospitality: Part I

If all you know about Iran comes from watching Western news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Iranians are all malicious missile manufacturers and turban-clad terrorists.

In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In our experience, Iranians are, without a doubt, the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world.

3 tales of Iranian hospitality

Sheep brains for sandwiches in Tabriz, Iran

Would you like some baa-rains with your sandwich?

Sheep brain sandwiches

“The Dutch, they are all tall, yes? The tallest in the world?”

We nod. We’re sitting in a fast food joint with a 21-year-old man named Behzat, giving our aching feet some rest after hours of walking and talking. We encountered each other in a bustling alley of the Tabriz bazaar, migrated to have tea in his father’s store deep within the bazaar, then walked all over the city as he helped us on a quest to find hiking boots and a tent.

He’s munching on a sheep brain sandwich. He lets us try a couple of bites, and laughs at our reactions. The brains, sickly yellow in color, have the texture of old scrambled eggs, with a dash of curry.

“Let’s put it this way,” he continues on, in-between bites, “If you are not tall, you are not Dutch. If you are not hospitable, you are not Iranian.”

When all is said and done, we make an attempt to pay for his lunch, as a small way of saying thanks for all of his help. He refuses. He can’t accept our money–that’s not the Iranian way.


People walking around Shahgoli park in Tabriz, Iran at night.

Shahgoli park in Tabriz is the place to be in the evenings.

I’m dangerous!

The air is chilly, but the atmosphere is electric. It’s evening time, and we’re walking through Shahgoli park, an amusement park and evening hangout space for many Tabrizians.

There are people strolling about in all directions, circling a central pond. Ice cream stands, cotton candy spinners, and sunflower seed vendors ring the walkway, all decorated with hot neon lights. Shouts and honking cars periodically puncture the background hum of city noise.

“The people go crazy! Because Tabriz football team, the Tractors, today they win. No city is so proud of team as Tabriz,” says our guide, a twenty-something Iranian girl whose name translates to “Butterfly”.

Walking with us is Butterfly’s family: a chipper younger sister, a shy but smiling mother, and an endearingly protective father. We’re walking off a dinner of ash, a hearty Iranian yogurt and noodle stew, compliments of Butterfly’s father.

Tales of Iranian hospitality: Ash, a traditional Iranian noodle soup in Tabriz, Iran

We had met Butterfly in passing during the day. After asking us just three questions: Where are you from? Are you alone? and Do you have a translator? she invited us to her home. We ended up spending the day with her and her ever-bubbly friend, Rozhan.

We watched as they worked at their photo studio, Shakira blasting in the background. We went along for the ride as Butterfly drove maniacally through the streets of Tabriz–“I’m dangerous!” she giggled at one point, veering through a narrow gap between two cars. We were entertained by Rozhan’s jokes in broken English, laughing as she mimed to us how much she enjoys whiskey, and how screwed she’d be if caught drinking. Whenever broken English and miming wasn’t enough, we’d resort to Google Translate, often with ridiculous results.

Tales of Iranian hospitality: Google translate fail.

… somehow I don’t think that’s what she was trying to say…

Late in the evening, we emerge from the family’s tiny Peugeot car, after a cramped-but-cozy ride from Shahgoli back to our hotel. The entire family tumbles out of the car, coming forward to take our hands and kiss us goodnight, and goodbye.

As the car pulls away, we can still see Butterfly and her sister, waving to us through the back window.

Visiting Iran? Check out our two-week Iran itinerary!


Children playing in front of Soltaniyeh dome in Soltaniyeh, Iran

Soltaniyeh dome, the largest brick dome in the world.

Hol-land! Harderwijk!

We’re stalking down the street in the small town of Soltaniyeh, ravenous and in search of lunch, when we hear a familiar call from the doorway of a shop:

“Hello sir! Where you from?”

Sebastiaan turns around, shouting “Holland!” in reply.

The curious caller, an old shopkeeper with a golf cap and several missing teeth, beams widely.

“Hol-land! Holland!” He pokes one of his friends, who is lazily lounging on a plastic stool by the door. “Hol-land!” he proclaims to him excitedly, in case he didn’t hear him the first two times.

He looks back at us, grinning. “Hol-land… Harderwijk! Amersfoort! Rotterdam!” He rattles off the names, holding up a finger for each name. Sebastiaan and I stop, immensely impressed and curious to know more about his knowledge of relatively obscure places in the Netherlands.

The reason is quickly revealed: one of the man’s closest friends has emigrated to Harderwijk, a small town in the middle of the Netherlands. Small world.

The shopkeeper evicts his now-curious friends from their plastic perches, and offers us the seats. Thanks to the wonders of technology, we converse with him for almost an hour, using “Harderwijk”, the man’s emigrant friend, as an intermediary, via voice recordings in Dutch sent through Whatsapp.

Using Whatsapp to communicate with a man in Soltaniyeh, Iran

After talking for a time, the shopkeeper procures a massive bottle of doogh, a yogurt-like drink favored by Iranians. He pours a packet of powder into it, the color of which is akin to the sickly greyish green of school cafeteria peas. As we listen to the latest voice message from Harderwijk, he shakes the bottle, mixing the concoction until it resembles a vessel of moldy milk.

We pose for a photo for with him and the doogh bottle, then accept glasses of it with smiles of thanks.

Tales of Iranian hospitality: death by doogh, a popular Iranian drink.

Say “doogh”!

Our time has come: we each take a healthy sip. It tastes just like it looks: like milk that has gone very, very bad.

We exchange darkly significant looks, each reading the other’s thoughts: this drink is toxic, and we need to escape. We shot our glasses of doogh like seasoned drinkers at a bar, but this only encourages the man. He grins broadly as he refills our glasses to the brim, insisting that it is a gift.

Our escape is prolonged until the doogh supply is fully depleted… by us. As we hobble out of the door, bellies sloshing with soured milk as we wave goodbye to our new friend, we reflect on how Iranian hospitality can, sometimes, be a double-edged sword.



Iranian people are undoubtedly the most friendly people in the world, and here's proof: 3 tales of Iranian hospitality from 2 backpackers traveling in Iran.

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Have you traveled to Iran? How did you find the people there? Did they live up to your expectations?

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Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

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20 thoughts on “Tales of Iranian hospitality: Part I

    distantobserver says:

    Rozhan was trying to tell you “it’s hot now, we’ll go in the evening”. Dreadful Google Translate gets it wrong because “asr” means things like epoch or age as well as evening. ًWhy it says “die” I can’t think: she has written “mirim”, we go, not “mimirim”, we die! Anyway, I tried the same message and Google translated “Now go warm evening”. Better, but wrong again! 🙂
    Oh, and very nice stories. Thanks for writing them up and the terrific photos.

    Ah, that makes much more sense now… and sounds much less threatening! Silly, murderous Google Translate.

    Glad you’re enjoying the stories and photos! We do our best 🙂 Are you from Iran? Curious as to your knowledge of Farsi and English!

    distantobserver says:

    I’m English, but am indulging a long-held ambition to learn Persian properly after spending time in Iran way, way back, before the revolution!
    You’ve done a great job on these two pages. Everything you say is spot on, and it’s so nice to read more confirmation that the true Persian spirit is alive and uncrushed after 37 years. I especially enjoyed the trip to the Gorgan woods with Mahsa (with her amazing free-flowing hair!) — though there the real star for me is the anonymous man. Yes, that is Iran.
    I also very much liked the separate story about teaching in Mobarakeh. What an interesting time you had!

    Ah, you got to wander over to Iran in the days of the hippie trails, perhaps? Very jealous! That must have been a very interesting time to explore the country 🙂

    The Iranian spirit is alive indeed, maybe even moreso because they’ve been so oppressed and cut off for the past decades. We’re definitely having the time of our lives, and Iranians continue to surprise us day in and day out!

    Pete says:

    Looks like we’ve walked in each other’s footsteps. I was amazed at the brickwork in the Soltaniyeh dome. A LOT of thoughtful work went into that. We were mobbed by about a hundred schoolgirls, all wanting to try out their English and take selfies – especially with the tall blonde women in our group.

    I’m heading back in April, and I can hardly wait!

    One thing I discovered is that if one offers to pay for a treat, the offer is refused three times before being accepted.

    Unfortunately the dome was covered in scaffolding when we were there, so it was a bit of a letdown. The people we met up with made it worth our while, though.

    Haha yeah, we know about the concept of tarof 😉

    Mohammad says:

    haha nice story. thats right! tall blonde women are attractive to my people.

    Sebastiaan says:

    I think tall blonde women are attractive to almost any people 😉

    Ali says:

    Just to clarify some points for the readers:
    – What you ate in Shahgoli was definitely not “ash”. It was “aash” pronounced /ɑːʃ/.
    – What was poured in the bottle of “doogh” was a mix of dried herbs, specially mint. It didn’t taste well because it was not the real deal. You should have tried some of the homemade “doogh” Iranians make.

    Sebastiaan says:

    Getting the right spelling is always tricky with these things 😉 As for the doogh, we’ve tried plenty, and never liked any of it. Tastes differ, I guess.

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