Notes from an author: Rebecca Lowe on Iran's compelling contradictions

A 7,000-mile journey of discovery through the Middle East by bike reveals a region of stark contradictions, notably on the road to Tehran. 

By rebecca lowe
Published 9 May 2022, 16:06 BST
Rebecca Lowe is a journalist specialising in human rights and the Middle East.

Rebecca Lowe is a journalist specialising in human rights and the Middle East.

Photograph by Rebecca Lowe

When I saw the bush, I could hardly contain my delight. It rose from the grainy sweep of sand before me like a towering will-o’-the-wisp, part-fern, part-wishful phantasm. Shade pooled from its roots in delicious, wasteful abandon. Could it be real? For several hours, I’d been cycling north through the exposed desert valleys of Hormozgan Province in southern Iran, searching for shelter. There were no buildings to be found here, no landmarks, houses or trees; nothing to ruffle the smooth brow of the horizon except featureless scrubland and thorn. Until now. 

Reaching the patch of undergrowth, I collapsed under its shadowed canopy almost mad with joy and relief. I removed my helmet, shook the sweat from my hair and stretched out on the bracken to sleep. “Hijab!” The cry startled me. Leaping instantly to my feet, I saw a group of heavily armed security officers approaching from the road. Behind them were two police cars, doors open, roof-lights flashing. I caught my breath. The cars were green and white: a familiar hue, and a forbidding one. It was the infamous Gasht-e Ershad, or morality police.

“Hijab!” the man repeated, more urgently this time, and I glanced over to where my headscarf was hanging limply across my bike’s handlebars. I knew it should officially have been on my head, but the brazen bigotry of the command infuriated me – not to mention its absurdity. Under the brutal glare of the midday sun, the mercury in my thermometer was touching 41C. That didn’t feel like scarf-wearing weather to me.

Resistance, however, was futile. And I didn’t have the nerve to disobey. So, as four pairs of eyes surveyed me, I walked over to my bike, picked up the hijab and wrapped it reluctantly about my head. It hung loosely, but its symbolic weight was profound. Fight, I urged myself. Resist. Yet the closest I could bring myself to insurrection was a peevish nostril flare and sigh.

Then, one of the men strode towards me and handed me a phone. “Salam,” a voice said from the receiver. “You’re English?” “Yes,” I replied, confused. “British.” “Ah, good.” The voice was curiously muffled. “And tell me, do you like koobideh kebab?” The question caught me off-guard. This wasn’t quite the ruthless admonishment I was expecting. Had I heard correctly? “Well… yes,” I said. “I do.” “Good! The officer is my brother-in-law, and we invite you to our home tonight. Please go with him now. We’re very happy you’re here!” 

The line went dead — and 30 minutes later, I found myself sitting on the carpeted floor of a cosy mud-brick bungalow, bathing under the icy gasps of a wall-mounted air conditioner, surrounded by a glistening banquet of watermelon, cucumber, chicken, lamb, rice, tea and nan-e barbari (flatbread). The invitation, it appeared, had been genuine.

As I continued my journey through the arid sandflats and stark mountain passes of central Iran, I soon realised this incident was far from an anomaly. Everywhere I went, the same searing incongruity was clear: the conflict between political ideology on the one hand, which viewed foreigners as a threat, and Persian hospitality on the other, which treated them as a friend. And time again, it was apparent which of the two would prevail.

I was delighted at every turn. There was the ex-Communist farmer who decried the “wily fox” Churchill while lighting me a qalyan (shisha pipe) and treating me like a queen. And the fiercely devout mullah who deplored the “treacherous” BBC while providing endless jugs of sharbat (floral fruit cordial) and hours of shelter in his mosque. To these people — and so many others — I wasn’t a walking Whitehall proxy called to answer for policymakers back home; I was merely a passing cyclist with an odd penchant for koobideh kebabs. For the locals I met, the line between citizen and statehood was clear.

Iran felt like a country at war with itself. A place of deep traditionalism and wild liberalism, of cold oppression and extravagant goodwill. It creaked under the false image imposed by its ruling elite, as if forced to inhabit a body it neither recognised or accepted. The further I travelled through this vast and inscrutable land, the more the Islamic Republic faded before my eyes. The country I feared wasn’t the country I found. Deep in the cracks, the brume and shadows bled away, lost in a warm wash of light.


A journalist specialising in human rights and the Middle East, Rebecca Lowe is the author of The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride through Europe and the Middle East, published by September Publishing, £18.99

Follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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