My first day in Iran was a bit hazy, as I had slept little in 24 hours. It was Friday and most things in Iran are closed. My roommate Zebiba and I walked down to find a manteau (the obligatory baggy overcoat) for her. She is Eritrean (we haven't seen too many Africans in Iran thus far), and since my ankles were revealed, we were quite a sight, apparently. It was clear we were not locals, but I think that Iranians are extremely observant people, especially the older women in their chadors (full black cloak that must be held closed with the hands or teeth). The young men and the older women were very interested in Zebiba's lack of overcoat and my bare ankles. The young men, because I guess it was mildly provocative, and the older women because we are young foreigners who are not quite adhering to the rules they hold to the highest standard. Yet, people were smiling and nodding towards us, inviting us into their shops.
We walked into one store and Zebiba haggled over the prices (she is very skilled) with the extremely polite and friendly man who ran the store. He told us that he had studied medicine but had not found a way of getting a job in medicine since he didn't have the right connections. I was a little skeptical, but it has been explained to me that it is very common to meet people (cabdrivers, waiters, etc.) with master's degrees and doctorates who have low-paying service-sector jobs just to get by and support their families. So Zebiba settled on a manteau after demanding that she pay "Iranian price" not the hiked-up "foreigner price". Her tactics seemed to work, because they kept lowering their price as Zebiba kept threatening to leave.
We only had American money, so they needed to go get change. Zebiba handed them $20 and one of the guys disappeared, explaining that he had to go get change. Zebiba didn't think this was suspicious. Growing up in Africa and Saudi Arabia, she knew that this was normal practice. The guy returned 5 minutes later with no change, but said that he needed a $100 bill. My brain was flashing red "SCAM! SCAM! Look out!". Instead, Zebiba calmly handed him the money and we continued discussing American and Islamic fundamentalism with the other shopkeepers. Another 5-10 minutes or so passed. I was convinced that we had been conned out of our $100. When the guy returned with the bill intact and an apology for not being able to change it, my jaw dropped. NEVER in the US would I give someone in a tiny little alley shop $100 and wait around for them to bring me back change. Puh-lease. Clearly living in Los Angeles has jaded me
And they returned the money with apologies. In that moment, my trust was restored. I was in awe. This point was reinforced as I repeatedly came to discover that this was not an individual action. It holds true for all Iranians. They are warm and friendly and very eager to talk and invite you into their lives. Even if just for a minute or two. We left without buying the manteau and when we passed by later, they waved and smiled.
Later that night, the extended family of one of the Iranian women in our group, Roya, came to visit us at our hotel. She was returning to Iran after 28 years. Her cousin had daughters who were 25 and 26 years old, whom Roya had never met. That being said, they came and brought us all candies and flowers and miles of smiles. The two young women spoke very little English (none really) but we all sat around forever, getting by with hand gestures, a little French, a little German and some translation from Farsi to English. It was great. They were so curious and eager to talk about EVERYTHING. The candies were delicious and we drank "na-na" (mint) and chai (spiced black) tea until midnight. Roya went back with them to their house and stumbled in the next morning half cross-eyed as she had stayed up all night talking with her family. She looked sleepy but satisfied. This is how I felt -- and how I have felt every night here so far.