Inspirational Traveller: From Alabama to Iran
Meet Pontia Fallahi, US-born with Iranian heritage, currently living in Tehran. Pontia is founder of a wonderful travel website dedicated to Iranian culture, My Persian Corner. Pontia’s journey before settling in Iran is an interesting one; born in Alabama USA, she has lived and worked in many countries before deciding to make the move to Iran, the country her ancestors, and now she, calls home.
Firstly - we need to ask about your upbringing. Alabama USA doesn’t immediately conjure up impressions of being a diverse state. How did you find growing up here, as an Iranian?
It definitely wasn’t a diverse state. Growing up, I was very aware that I was different. I always knew when the teacher wanted to call on me because there was a long pause before my name. But I can’t say that I had any bad experiences. I think if anything, I inadvertently introduced my friends to Iranian culture. For instance, they thought it was cool that I spoke another language (even if they weren’t exactly sure what it was). And when they would come over to my house, if my mom was cooking Persian food, they liked to try it. My next door neighbor used to make me sneak pieces of kashk (a dried yogurt product) out for her because she absolutely loved it! And whenever another one of my friends would come over, he would ask my mom if she had made any tadig (the crispy burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot).
Your parents were born in Iran. Despite a US schooling system and socialisation, how was the culture at home and do you think this influenced your connection to, and ultimately your journey to, Iran?
We celebrated all the American holidays and traditions because my parents didn’t want us to feel left out, especially in a place like Alabama. But they balanced that with Iranian culture as well. My siblings and I spoke English with each other, but we only spoke Persian with our parents. To this day, I can’t speak English with my parents because it makes them seem like strangers if I do. There weren’t any Persian classes to attend, so every weekend around the kitchen table, my dad taught us how to read and write so that we would be able to write letters to our grandparents in Iran. My mom mostly cooked Persian food and our house had lots of decor from Iran. We always set the traditional tables for Iranian holidays like Nowruz (the new year) or Yalda (the winter solstice). And then of course we would spend two months every summer in Iran, and that’s where all my best childhood memories are from. I think this cumulative effect definitely influenced me and eventually led to me Iran, especially since I always had such great memories of it.
Before moving to Iran, you’ve live and worked in Spain, Italy, Germany and Chile. What led you to move to these destinations first, before deciding to move to Iran?
Iran was a place I had been travelling to since I was a child so it felt really normal, the same way Alabama was normal. I wanted to experience other parts of the world, and my passion for languages led me to these other places. I majored in Spanish in college where I also studied Italian and German, and I wanted to improve my language skills. Chile came about because I found a volunteer teaching program there and figured it would be good to gain some teaching experience.
In between, I continued visiting Iran. At that time I didn’t have any interest in staying longer than a few weeks, though I somehow always knew I’d end up here. It was just a matter of when. When I studied tourism administration, I undertook all my projects with Iran in mind. It’s a place you have to be mentally prepared to come to - and after some time, I was.
When you did decide to move to Iran, how did your Iranian family in America feel?
They were a little surprised but fine with it. I think they thought I’d stay a few months, get it out of my system, and come back. It’s been nearly five years now, and really don’t think they expected me to stay so long. Quite frankly, neither did I. Once they were visiting, and as they were getting ready to leave for the airport, my dad just looked at me and said, “I can’t believe we’re going, and you’re staying.” But at the end of the day, they just want me to be happy.
How did your friends in America feel?
My best friend was all for it and so excited for me. She’s Serbian-American and, kind of like me with Iran, she moved to Serbia a few years ago where she’s been ever since. But other friends weren’t quite sure what to make of it. I think they’ve opened up to the idea more in these years, especially since following what I’m up to and seeing my pictures on social media.
And how did you feel before making the move?
I was nervous because I didn’t know if I was making the right decision, or what was going to happen. But I realised the worst case scenario would be that I wouldn’t like it and I’d return back to the US. So it wasn’t too bad.
How have you been received by locals since moving there?
I get mixed reactions. Some people understand and tell tell me I did a good thing, that this is my country, etc. But honestly, most people think I’m a bit insane and brush me off as naive. Many ask why I came here. I know that in general, no matter what you do or say, you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone and someone will always find a reason to talk. I’m living for myself and doing what makes me happy, so now I change the subject as soon as the whole “why did you come here?” question comes up.
Despite growing up surrounded by Iranian culture, did you feel a culture shock when you first arrived?
I wasn’t too shocked by anything; I knew what to expect as I’d been travelling to Iran with family for years. The difference was that in the past, I always had someone by my side to rely on. This time, I had to do things on my own. And it was the little things like crossing the street alone (which I had never dared to do before) or using public transportation (which seemed like a mess), and generally learning my way around the city that took some getting used to.
There were also some language problems. Even though I spoke Persian, some of the things they said here were different or new, and I didn’t understand them. So I had a few encounters where people were a bit rude to me because I didn’t understand something. And they were confused as to why I didn’t understand because I clearly spoke the language. Thankfully, those problems get fewer the longer I stay.
Does anything stand out to you as ingrained in Iranian culture, that you hadn’t noticed before living there full time?
Probably the concept of taarof. It’s the underlying foundation of Iranian culture, and it’s pretty complex. In a nutshell, it’s a form of politeness and polite refusal in which the person never reveals their true feelings. It’s also used to show social rank. I knew taarof was an integral part of Iranian culture, but since I’ve been living here, it stands out a lot more. There are certain words and phrases that I never use but that are just second nature for Iranians. It’s as if they can’t help it. It’s subtleties like these that are indicative of the fact that I did not grow up here.
You are based in Tehran now, have you lived elsewhere in Iran?
I lived in Mashhad for about 3 months before I moved to Tehran. Moving to Tehran was definitely the right decision.
You teach for a living; what inspired you to start My Persian Corner?
I teach (and have studied) languages, which really makes you more aware of them. It was this that got me thinking about the Persian language and all the funny sayings it has. I’d blogged before and really enjoyed the writing process. So one night, I started writing about Persian sayings as a way to explore it myself. I think the first post I ever wrote had to do with âsh (a thick noodle and bean soup commonly made in the winter), all the words that stem from it, and proverbs related to it. I was thinking about more things like this, searching online, and asking my parents tons of questions. I kept writing about language and culture, not really thinking anyone would read it. But then I started getting encouraging messages from readers which was awesome and really fueled my motivation. My Persian Corner turned out to be a way for me to explore my own culture and share it with others.
What we see about Iran in the media is so limited and one-sided that I wanted to show another side of it that was nothing to do with the world of politics - because that’s all people tend to know. I’ve been able to do this via both my blog and travel articles I’ve written about Iran for Culture Trip. Since I’ve been living in Tehran, I’ve started writing more posts about ex-pat life here, which has been almost cathartic.
You’ve obviously travelled Iran a lot, with many of your fantastic journeys and experiences highlights on My Persian Corner. Can you name a few of your favourite places, journeys, or experiences for anyone wanting to visit?
There have been so many! I’ll try to keep this short. My absolute favorite places that I’ve visited so far are Yazd, Qeshm island, and Khuzestan province. I absolutely love the culture in the south of Iran - the music, the people, the clothes, the nature, the laid-back lifestyle. And aside from Yazd being beautiful, I fell in love with the people there- they are so wonderful and exude such good energy (and I can’t get enough of their accent). Here are some of the foods you should try in Yazd, and souvenirs to take home. If you’re visiting Khuzestan Province, here is how to spend two days in Ahvaz.
For experiences, I would say that one of my most memorable was rafting in the Zayande Rud. Most people have only seen a dried-out version of this river in Esfahan, but in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, it’s roaring! At one point, I swam in it, but the current was really strong, and I couldn’t tolerate the near freezing temperature for more than about 20 seconds.
Another highlight for me was visiting the zurkhaneh in Yazd. The zurkhaneh is a traditional gym of sorts with many of the exercises having roots in battle that are intended to make honorable, ethical men out of those who train. Growing up, I had heard about it a lot. My uncles all had some of the equipment at home. But I was always disappointed that women weren’t allowed in such places; this sparked my interest even more. So when I found out that one in Yazd allows women, I had to go. I finally got to see the real deal, and it turned out to be an incredible, meditative experience for me.
Are there any absolute stand-out hotels in any of the destinations you mention that you’d recommend people stay at when visiting Iran?
Many historical houses (a few in Kashan, Esfahan, and other cities) have been converted into wonderful boutique hotels, so do check them out. Recently, I stayed in a 16th century caravanserai called Laleh Bistoon Hotel, along the old Silk Road in Bisotun near Kermanshah in western Iran that blew me away! Caravanserais were the original hotels, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the wayfarers who had passed through there throughout the years. It was just in front of Bisotun, an incredible rocky mountain. One afternoon, a flock of sheep came to graze behind the caravanserai, and along with the gently sound of their bells, the whole scene was nothing short of fairytale-like.
Let’s talk about food and drink - what are the ‘must-tries’ when in Iran?
Well, everyone knows about the kebabs, but there’s so much more to try! Dizi is a stew made with lamb, beans, and potatoes and is cooked in a stone pot. You eat the broth separately and mash the rest together to eat with bread. There are so many delicious stews eaten with rice such as fesenjoon (a pomegranate-walnut stew with chicken) or ghormeh sabzi (herb and kidney bean stew). And then every city has a local specialty to try. The city of Rasht has made it into UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, recognized for its gastronomy. Their mirzâ ghâsemi (an eggplant spread) and olives marinated in garlic, pomegranate molasses, and walnuts are among my favorites.
As far as drinks go, there’s plenty of fresh fruit juices. In the spring and summer, there are wonderful drinks made with herbal distillates that have various health benefits. Among the most popular are khâkshir (London rocket and rosewater), tokhme sharbati (chia seeds and rosewater), and khiâr sekanjebin (cucumber, white vinegar, lime, and fresh mint).
Is there anything a tourist should learn about Iran before visiting that might enrich their journey?
I would say to read up a bit on the history. Unless you go with a guide, unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of explanation at the sites themselves, so it would be helpful to have some background info.
Iran has a varied geography as well as many different ethnicities and local languages, so it would also be a good idea to learn about those things and what to expect in each city/region.
Any advice for tourists visiting who perhaps haven’t experienced Iranian culture before?
Go with an open mind. Most of what you think you know will be greatly challenged, and you’ll find a much different reality than what you see on the news. Iranians are a friendly, talkative, and inquisitive bunch, so be prepared to answer lots of questions and get invited to people’s houses. Most importantly, be prepared to eat!
Also know that everyone who comes to Iran, comes again. No matter how well-traveled the person is, deep down there’s some hesitation about Iran. But once they take the plunge and see the reality here, they are already planning their next trip even before the current one is over.
Sadly, much of what is shown in western-media can cause Iran to seem off-putting, particularly for female travellers. Of course, knowing the country from the inside often gives a very different perspective. Please give us your thoughts and advice for travelling in Iran, to female travellers specifically.
Speaking as a woman who was born and raised in the US, I actually feel much safer in Iran than I do in the US. Iranians are very family-oriented and it’s not common for them to see someone living or travelling alone - so locals tend to feel a sense of responsibility for you. I’ve travelled solo in Iran a lot, and every time there’s inevitably a family who takes me under their wing. They’ll take my phone number just to make sure I’m ok, invite me to eat with them so I’m not alone, things like that. This is especially true if you are a foreigner. If people stare, rest assured there’s no bad intention. It’s more of a curiosity and perhaps a desire to talk to this foreign tourist, ask where they’re from, and welcome them. If anything, you’ll feel like a celebrity. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons tourists love Iran so much!
Finally - you’ve mentioned on your website that as an American-Iranian, you’ve never felt either 100% American or 100% Iranian. Has the balance shifted since you’ve been living in Tehran?
I always felt more Iranian in the US and more American in Iran. But now, whenever I visit home, I feel even more Iranian than usual. Either the balance has slightly shifted or there was more Iranian in me than I realized.
Finally, How long do you plan to stay?
It’s hard to say. I didn’t even plan on staying this long, but I’m happy here. So I guess as long as that’s true, I’ll stay.
- Interview by Katie Silcox
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