Stephan Orth, a 35-year-old German writer and editor, went to Iran for two months last year. While there he got arrested (and released two hours later). He got fake-married (and released 10 days later). He couch-surfed in the homes of a dominatrix and a black-market winemaker, among others. And he came back convinced that Iranians are the most hospitable people he has ever visited.
He describes the adventure in a book that was published Monday, “Couchsurfing im Iran.”
The bad news is that the book is in German — that’s why the title is “im” Iran, not “in.” And there’s no English-language publisher yet. But Orth speaks English and has stories to tell — for instance, the day he was walking around the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where graffiti paintings show the Statue of Liberty with a skull as a symbol of death.
“A guy walked past and said ‘Welcome to Iran!’ with a big smile,” Orth told me. “He was just being friendly and didn't realize how ironic it sounded in those surroundings.”
Orth also recalled a sublime moment “sitting on a rooftop in the oasis city of Yazd after sunset. We were above the mud brick buildings of the old town, saw the mountains and the desert on the horizon and listened to the songs of the muezzins.”
One thing Orth wants readers to know up front: He’s not a fan of the Iranian government, just the people (many of whom he gave fake names in the book).
Given the history of animosity between U.S. and Iranian leaders, Orth said, he wasn’t surprised that many young Iranians asked him, “What on Earth gives the nuclear power U.S.A. the right to tell any other country not to have nuclear weapons?” He was surprised, however, that many young Iranians said they hoped one day to study in the U.S. “so they could live in a free country.” (Here’s the U.S. State Department perspective.)
Also, Orth made his travels in April and May of 2014, just before Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jacob Rezaian was arrested by Iranian authorities on unspecified charges in July. Rezaian remains in custody. Orth, who said he was able to return to Germany with all of his notebooks and photos from Iran, called Rezaian’s arrest “quite disturbing.”
Here are seven emailed questions and answers from Orth, whose day job is as a travel editor for the German news site Der Spiegel.
Before we get to the couches, talk about the day you got arrested. Where were you, when and why?
That was in Nowsud, near the border to Iraq. Two guys in traditional kurdish dresses introduced themselves as policemen and asked for my passport. I didn’t give it to them because I heard of scams where men posing as officials would take your ID to sell it on the black market. These two guys turned out to be real, though, and accompanied by some soldiers with machine guns they took me to the police station to search all my luggage. I was lucky they didn’t find my notebooks .… They also looked at some pictures in my camera; again I was lucky: I had photos of dancing girls without head scarf, of an atomic power plant and of military facilities — there would have been lots of uncomfortable questions if they’d found that.
How did the idea of exploring Iran take shape?
Every time I met a fellow traveler who had been to Iran, I heard stories about a totally underrated and incredibly friendly country that's completely different from what you would expect from the media image. I just had to go there and see it for myself.
Since the revolution and hostage-taking of the late 1970s — and all the saber-rattling since then — just the word “Iran” puts many Americans on edge. What did your friends in Germany and the rest of Europe have to say when you shared your plans?
One warned me of terrorists on every corner of the street, another advised not to look any woman in the eyes. Friends were troubled about my safety, especially because I planned some journalistic research in spite of traveling with a tourist visa. What concerned me most were the words of an Iranian colleague who had fled from his home country in the early '80s. He said: “You are crazy. I don't understand what you are doing there.”
Many Americans don’t realize how strong the custom of desert hospitality is, or how much the Iranian on the street might differ from his or her government. Who were your hosts, how did you find them, and what were they like?
I have been to more than 50 countries, but I never witnessed a hospitality that would come close to my experiences in Iran. People would go out of their way to make sure I had a great time. I found my hosts via the websites Couchsurfing.com and Hospitalityclub.org, and was lucky to get an amazing cast of characters: I stayed with a dominatrix in Tehran, with a winemaker in western Iran who illegally produces 600 liters of red per year and with a guy who lived just 500 meters away from the infamous [nuclear] power plant in Bushehr.
Tell us about your fake marriage.
A photographer and friend from Germany was joining my trip for 10 days. Since a man and a woman cannot book a twin hotel room without being married in Iran, we pretended to be just that. We even got rings at the bazaar. Funny thing was: After just a few days, we started to develop quirks and habits that resembled a long-term real marriage. The nicknames. Ridiculous jealousy. Sentences starting with “You always …”. Sometimes it was easy to forget where we were — and how random and unfair it is that we had the luck to be born in a country where people enjoy a lot of freedom.
The Iranians you met — how much experience did they have outside Iran?
Most of them had never left Iran. In many countries its not easy for them to get a visa. They use couch-surfing to invite the world to their homes and learn about other countries. A few, though, had been to Thailand or Turkey where they partied a lot and enjoyed their time without the usual strict laws.
It certainly seems you fell in love with the place and the people. But now that you’ve written this book, you can’t go back unless there’s another revolution. Right?
I knew that before I even started my trip, and I talked to an… expert who confirmed that it wouldn't be a good idea to apply for another Iran visa too soon. But that was the price I was willing to pay for a good story. To be honest, now it's not easy for me to cope with that — it was a very emotional trip, and I'd love to board a plane tomorrow to Tehran to visit my Persian friends.