Couchsurfing, staying with hitherto strangers for free, is a good way to get to know a country and its people. It’s even more rewarding in countries where you don’t speak the language and where you are sometimes a bit lost without local guidance. (One of my best Couchsurfing experiences was in Abkhazia, for example.) And Iran is a fascinating country to visit anyway.
Stephan Orth, a journalist from Germany, apparently thought the same. For one month, he flew all around Iran, spending the night at locals’ houses whenever possible. They told him about life in Iran and showed him the parts that most tourists never reach, like the battlefields from the Iran-Iraq War.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the book scratches only the surface. Of course, he discovers what every other traveler to Iran has found out, that there is a public sphere and a private sphere. As soon as you cross the threshold into someone’s house, headscarves fall, Western music is turned up, alcohol magically appears and the conversation is open and uncensored. But Orth seems to have met mostly people who were looking for freedom in shopping frenzies and drugs. Some Persian poets also pop up, but one thing that really made me wonder is that in a book published first in 2015, nobody spoke of the Green Revolution in 2009. Not a single word in the whole book. I just don’t believe that. Maybe the author wants to protect his hosts, but then he could have put the political discussions into the mouths of the ubiquitous anonymous taxi drivers.
The many interspersed text messages, which the author, allegedly an adult, exchanges with Iranian teenage girls are rather childish. These embarrassing attempts at flirtation do not exactly enrich the book.
I am even more disappointed by this book, because I had previously read “Couchsurfing in Russland” (so far only available in German) by the same author. That one was better, well-researched, more informative. I have the impression that after the success of the book on Russia, he got the assignment to go to Iran with the sole purpose of writing another book, even if there was not enough material. Not every trip needs to be turned into a book.
The author may have been aware of this himself, because at one point, he laments that “doing Couchsurfing, you only meet a certain group of people, the educated ones who speak English well and who are modern and internet-savvy.” This is not the way to get a real reflection of Iranian society. The speed of the journey is not conducive to a literary work either: “It is one of many days in Iran, on which I wish that I wouldn’t constantly be on the go, moving from host to host. I wish that I could stay longer and gain more than just a fleeting insight into someone else’s life.”
In some parts, Orth addresses interesting and delicate issues that would have deserved a deeper investigation. Like him, I have experienced that German visitors to Iran are greeted as “Aryan brothers”. Even when I was in Evin prison, the judge mentioned this to me. (That story should actually be turned into a book!) The widespread appreciation of Hitler in Iran and the neurotic fixation on Israel as the alleged source of all evil are annoying, and one has to give credit to Orth that he mentions these bad habits, hoping that some Iranians may rethink their opinion or, at the very least, that other travelers are forewarned.