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One Woman’s Instagram Captures What It’s Actually Like to Live in Iran

@storiesofiran illuminates a country that's shrouded in mystery for most Americans.

Born to Iranian parents in Northern California, lawyer Gilda Gazor posts to Instagram under the handle @storiesofiran. “My father lived and worked in Iran for most of my life, while my mother raised me and my two brothers in the states,” Gazor says. “It was important to my mother that I remain connected to my Persian culture, so she spoke to me only in Persian at home and cooked mostly Persian food. Growing up in a typical American town, my mother had me learning Persian classical music on the piano and santoor—a traditional wooden instrument with strings, which you sit on the floor to play and strike with a mallet. I didn’t exactly get asked to join any cool garage bands, but I balanced that stuff with American things like swim team and watching 90210.” After several trips to Iran as an adolescent to visit her father, and further visits in her 20s, she moved to Tehran in 2009 for a few years. After teaching Comparative Law in the U.S., she returned to Iran in 2015 because, she says, “I hit a point in my life where I needed to further explore my past and heritage to understand where I wanted to be in the future." Now, with her Instagram account, she aims to promote the true beauty and nature of Iran and its people. We caught up with her to learn more about her background, her experience in Iran, and her hopes for its future tourism.

Why did you decide to move to Iran?

It was an accident. I went back during the holidays to see my parents, who both live here now, and kept pushing back my return flight. Finally, after four months, I decided to stay indefinitely. I had visited my father in Tehran as a pre-teen and lived and studied law here for two and a half years after law school, but I had never really tried to build a life here. After sanctions removal became a reality, I thought it was a good time to stay and explore potential career opportunities where I could utilize my law degrees from the U.S. and Iran. What I have been most passionate about are the photographs and stories I post on Stories of Iran. After taking a 30-day road trip to 22 provinces, 36 cities, and three islands, I realized that Iran was just as much my home as the U.S.

Rural life in Subatan, Gilan.

What makes you feel at home in Iran?

Sometimes, I don’t feel at home. It can be hard to be away from my friends, and I definitely miss the little things like Sprinkles cupcakes, SoulCycle, and my Davines hair conditioner. But I’ve learned to make it my home. I know the local market owners, I drive all over town, and I’ve made it my mission to find which baker has the freshest Sangak bread, which is made of whole wheat flour and baked on hot rocks in a fire pit. It also helps to have my mother here and that she loves food as much as I do, always finding the best restaurants to eat perfectly grilled kebob (it’s all about getting the flame right to cook the meat.) In general, people are so familial that even if I am not related to them, it feels like I am. I bond with other women I’ve met here, sharing simple things like beauty tips—like where the best nail salon is, even though wearing nail polish is technically prohibited. Sometimes, these things are all it takes to make me feel at home. 

What challenges have you faced living in Iran as a woman and someone who grew up in another society?

Most Iranians love Americans, and because of that, they are curious about my background and ask me about life in the U.S. They are particularly interested in American culture and imagine life to be better overseas. For this reason, being an American in Iran actually gets me only positive attention. As a woman, the hardest part used to be expressing my personal style while being covered. For tourists, it is easy to abide by the requirements with long-sleeved tunics in the summer and coats in the winter and scarves covering their hair, it can even feel exciting to wear. Living with it was an adjustment until I realized that I could make it work by combining clothes I’ve brought from home, like Lululemon leggings and J Brand jeans, with accessories I buy in the bazaars, like beautiful handmade scarves and jewelry.

Traditional kooloocheh, a doughy pastry served in northern Iran

Why did you choose Instagram as the way to tell your stories?

Instagram allows me to share my experiences immediately and on a global scale. Interestingly, when I look back on photographs I’ve taken during prior visits to Iran, they are similar to the ones I post now. The difference is that instead of collecting dust in an album or on a hard drive, I can share them with others while fighting the misconceptions about Iran. 

What are the misconceptions you’re trying to fight?

That Iran is a scary place, volatile, and not welcoming to tourists, particularly Americans. But it’s very safe, and tourists are treated like celebrities and even welcomed into private homes. Also that women in Iran wear burkas. The required Islamic covering includes a headscarf and body covering, like a long jacket down to the knees. Some women choose to wear a chador, the long black cloak that in Western media typically has a negative association with radicalism. But the chador itself is merely a traditional cloth, much like the Indian sari. Some women wear it because they value modesty, not because they are oppressed, and they actually share the same desires, passions, and interests as many women in the West. Another great misconception is that Iran is an extremely poor country, but it has the second largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa region, after Saudi Arabia. Hopefully, once sanctions are removed and the economy is booming again, more people will come see for themselves.

A little Iranian boy enjoys his ice cream.

How long should a traveler plan to stay in Iran, and other than Tehran, what places are musts to visit?

Ten days is the minimum. Two to three weeks are ideal. The summers get extremely hot, making travel very difficult in some areas like the central desert, which should not be missed. But from September through May, most of the country can be visited, and the covering for women is less burdensome during this time. I found Hormuz Island, in the Persian Gulf, to be the most beautiful part of the country. It is an untouched island with stunning rock formations. The water is so clear that turtles can be seen swimming from hundred-foot-tall cliffs. The absence of cars on the island means that its nature is preserved in its purest state.

Shiraz, just a one-hour flight from Tehran, is my favorite city. It has been called “the city of secrets,” and rightfully so, because of its more than 600 years of history in poetry. Also, there are three historic sites located about one hour outside the city itself—Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire with the earliest remains dating to 515 B.C.; Naqsh-e Rostam, a necropolis of the tombs of Darius and Xerxes and also the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

Just outside the city of Kashan, between Tehran and Shiraz, is the Sialk ziggurat, where the oldest settlements date back nearly 8,000 years. Realizing that one of the world’s oldest civilizations sprang from Iran’s soil was a proud moment.

For something truly unexpected, in Yazd, central Iran, the Atash Behram, or "victorious fire," is a Zoroastrian fire temple that enshrines a special fire which has been burning continuously for more than 1,500 years. 

In addition to the historic sites, the beautiful nature, and shopping in old bazaars where one feels like they have traveled time, tourists can follow in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps and uncover the delicious foods that true food lovers covet.

A young couple, dressed in traditional Qajar Era costume, make funny poses for a photograph at Golestan Palace, Tehran.

How do Iranians welcome guests into their home?

Tables are set with fruit platters that vary based on the season (apples, oranges, bananas in the winter; cherries in the spring; and figs, grapes, and melon in the summer) but always include Persian cucumbers. Mixed nuts and dried berries called ajil—pistachios, walnuts, cashews, raisins, and dried mulberries—which are unique to Iran—are usually part of the presentation. Tea is the first thing offered to guests, served with something sweet like pastries, dates, or sugar cubes.

What last thought do you want to share about Iran?

Iran is not just one thing, but a varied country that has been shaped by its history, geography, and climate. People in Iran are made up of different nationalities in addition to Persians: There are Kurds, Lurs, Turkmens, Arabs, Baluch, and others who each speak different languages. Even among those who are Iranian and speak Persian, there are different accents and dialects. Climatically, travel between provinces only 300 km apart from one another can feel like traveling between different parts of the world, with snow in the northern mountains to sun on sandy beaches on the southern coast during the winter. Iran’s rich history and civilization are important for people from the rest of the world to see—not as a separate entity but because it predates their own societies and provides context for their own history and culture as well.