Season 1
From the Travel Journal: 7 Incredible Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Iran

From illegal broadcasts of Friends to love fortune tellers; a side of Iran you never knew.


This week, Passport sat down with the inimitable Sohail Jannessari to talk about his loving — if complicated — relationship with his original homeland, Iran. There are SO many misconceptions about Iran in the West. The stories about it that make the news are often related to politics, nuclear deals, and conflict. And while those are important stories that might tell you something about its government or leaders — they won’t really tell you anything about the place itself or its people. So that’s what we wanted to know more about this week on Passport – and boy, did Sohail deliver. In fact, he delivered so much that there was no way to fit it all into one episode.

So here are some amazing facts and cultural insights that might change your mind, or at least, help you better understand this very misunderstood place. We can’t think of a more important place to understand a little better.

There’s law-breaking, a Modern Family rip-off, how to tell your future in love, and the rice dish you have to drop everything and go cook NOW. So let’s go!

Here are our favorite facts, stories, and cultural tidbits about Iran that we discovered while researching this week’s episode.

#1 – They love Modern Family

I mean, who doesn’t? But if you think you love the charming, late-aughts mockumentary sitcom Modern Family, you’ve got nothing on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). IRIB is the state-sponsored TV channel in Iran. It’s THE channel in Iran — it has a complete monopoly on TV and radio inside the country Iran. And it loves the Dunphy/Pritchett clan so much, it commissioned a (completely, 100% unauthorized) remake of the original. It’s called Haft Sang and it’s… interesting. Here’s a side-by-side of the Iranian and American version. It’s a scene-for-scene remake… well, except that Cam is now a woman and there are no dating storylines. Ever. 

#2 – 70% of Iranians are Breaking the Law

Jumping off from that last item, Haft Sang and other IRIB sponsored programming isn’t enough for most Iranians. They want more. And so, despite the fact that they’re illegal, it’s estimated that 70% of Iranian households have a satellite dish— and these secret dishes beam in all kinds of edgy, fresh, and non-state sponsored shows into Iranian households everyday. Channels like GEM TV and Farsi1 buck the law and sneak in the important stuff — like Friends reruns (turns out, they really do hold up — even under authoritarian rule) and Persian dubbed versions of shows like X-Factor. But it’s no joke, in 2017 the Director of the GEM Group, Saeed Karimian was assassinated — and some people still claim it was at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.


#3 – Poetry for the People

In America, many fear that poetry is an endangered art. Now, technically, that isn’t quite true because in many ways, songwriters are the poets of our age. There is even some poetry to be found in mediums like texting and Twitter — where compressed and perfectly crafted quips are arguably the new haiku. And yet… it isn’t quite the same. Reading poetry can be like meditation. It usually requires incredible imagination, a grasp of the abstract, and deep critical thinking to decipher a great poem. And In Iran — poetry is an art that is still very much alive. Over and over again, when we talked to people from Iran or those who’ve traveled there, they bring up the same thing — everyone in Iran knows their poets inside and out. Your taxi driver can quote the mystic verses of Rumi as easily as most people in the West can misquote Star Wars. In Iran, it seems everyone from professors to street sweepers are in a life-long love affair with poetry. And with national treasures like Hafez, Omar Khayyam, Forough Farrokhzad, and, of course, Rumi — it’s easy to see why.

#4 – Want to know your Future in Love? Consult this Persian Poet.

If you want your fortune told in Iran, you’ll have to consult a poet. In the West, Rumi is the superstar of Persian poetry that everyone knows. But inside Iran, they revere another rock-star like poet — Hafez. A 14th century poet, Hafez’s wrote passionately about love and wine and sex and railed against the religious hypocrites of the day. He was revered. And his passionate verses about love made such an impact that an entire fortune-telling practice developed around them and has been in use for hundreds of years. Known as fal-e Hafez (which roughly translates to ‘divination via Hafez’) it’s a bit like a mixture of tarot and a Magic 8 Ball.

It works like this. Someone with questions about the future or who is looking for answers or guidance in their love troubles will consult a practitioner of fal-e Hafez. The questioner must never reveal their question. Then, the fortune teller consults their Divan — a book or deck of poetry cards that contain most of the verses of Hafez. A random card is pulled or a page is landed on and that is your answer. You can find these fortune tellers everywhere in Iran. Sometimes they’re men with trained birds that pull the cards for you. Other times, they’re children at bustling intersections that might run up to your car while you sit in gridlock traffic and offer to pull a card for you.

Will my sourdough starter work this time? In Iran, as the proverb goes, “only God and Hafez of Shiraz know the answer”.

#5 – The Artist formerly known as Persia

For thousands of years, the place we know now as Iran was known was Persia. But on the Persian New Year in 1935, the Shah of Persia, Reza Shah requested once and for all that the world begin to refer to them as Iran, meaning “land of the Aryans”. So why the re-brand? The name “Persia” was first used by the Greeks, who called the area Pérsēs. When a place is known by a name someone outside gave it, it’s called an exonym — and the Shah wanted no more of that. Iran, or ērān as it was known in an earlier form, was the word Persians had for themselves. And when a country is known by the name it has for itself, it’s called an endonym. Of course, endonym and exonym are both Greek words, so when it comes to nomenclature, all roads still tend to lead to Athens. Except nomenclature. That’s Latin.

#6 – No Slavery + Religious Freedom

In the West, we tend to hold the ancient Greeks up on a pedestal (Corinthian or Doric, of course). After all, they gave us art and democracy and Socrates, right? So when Greece and Persia went to war in the aptly named Persian Wars — historians of the time like Herodotus cast the Greeks as the heroes and the Persians as the villains. [[See: the movie 300.]] Except… during that conflict when the “democratic” Greeks were fighting the “barbaric” Persian army — it was the Greeks who held slaves, not the Persians. Yes, bucking the long-standing trend of empires exploiting and abusing slaves for a period of time we’ll call “nearly all of recorded human history,” Persia explicitly forbade slavery. And what’s more, at the behest of Cyrus the Great himself — the King of Persia — he decreed that all conquered peoples be allowed to worship however and whomever they wished. Religious freedom was the law of the land. He even let conquered peoples keep their kings — which is why he was deemed the King of Kings. Pretty forward thinking compared to the Greeks — who might’ve given us Socrates… but they also killed him, sooo.


And finally, we learned that we in the West are doing rice WRONG. I mean, criminally wrong. For many American and European palettes, rice is an afterthought; the bland base that allows the other flavors and the main star of the dish to shine. But in Iran, those are fighting words because rice itself is often the star. And rightfully so. The flavors and depth of Iranian rice dishes is like nothing you’ve ever had. So put that sourdough starter aside, because if there’s one dish that everyone must make in quarantine, it’s Tahdig — a golden, crispy crust of rice that will blow your mind and your tastebuds. At most Persian dinner tables, it’s the first thing to go and the thing all the kids fight over.  That’s how you know it’s good. It takes time and patience, so it’s a perfect dish to try when you’re stuck at home. Here’s an awesome Food52 recipe video guided by the one and only, Iranian-American chef Samin Nosrat.

Know something amazing about Iran that we missed? Tweet us, @passportpod.

Image Credits:
Banner image: Vakil Mosque, Shiraz, Iran, photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash
Whirling Dervishes at Hodjapasha, photo by Kemal.kubbe (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hafez Tomb, photo by Elif Pelit via Instagram
Persepolis, photo by Baillif via Pixabay (Pixabay License)
Xerxes All Ethnicities, photo by A.Davey (CC BY 2.0)
Tahchin, photo by Tahdig via Instagram

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.