Iranians are the most surprising people. Where you might expect them to be austere, they are charming; rather than dour, they are warm; and instead of being hostile to foreigners, they are welcoming and endlessly curious. To understand what makes Iranian daily life unexpectedly familiar in some ways yet unrecognisably different in others, it's necessary to look at a national psyche that has evolved over millennia, influenced by environment and religion, to create as rich and complex a society as you will find anywhere.
The truth of the Iranian national psyche lies in the gap between reality and Western perception. Before the revolution, the West's experience of Iranians was drawn from the country's elite that travelled and came abroad for their education. The revolution turned that image on its head. Suddenly Iranians were scary, hysterical people chanting 'Death to America', covering their women in black chadors, and supporting a fundamentalist regime that apparently took their society back to the Middle Ages.
Despite the Islamic government and Sharia laws, Iranians are not frightening people. They are generally warm and welcoming to a degree that can be embarrassing to Westerners. That Iranians take their role as hosts very seriously comes from a genuine desire to put others' needs first and please where possible. In daily life this manifests itself as taarof the Iranian system of courtesy, which can be a minefield if unknown but for travellers means you will be treated with politeness wherever you go.
A glance at Iran's history allows another insight into the Iranian character. Despite several devastating invasions, Iranians have always managed to keep their own unique culture alive and somehow subvert the invading culture and assimilate it with their own. Thus, the Iranian way is to bend to the prevailing wind only to spring back in time with regained poise. Ever-changing fortunes have taught Iranians to be indirect people, unwilling to ever answer with a bald negative and unable to countenance rudeness or public displays of anger.
Iran's attitudes to the West are contradictory. Most Iranians can talk at length about the faults of Western governments, all the while admiring Western attitudes. They will alternately boast of Iran's superiority in terms of culture, home life and morality and then apologise for Iran's inferiority. For travellers, it's an aspect of Iranian culture you'll encounter with regular questions of 'what do you think about Iran?'.
Iranians are proud of their Aryan roots, and intensely dislike being classed as Arabs, who they see as rough and culturally unsophisticated. The million-plus Afghans in Iran are met with institutional racism.
In essence, the Iranian soul is a deeply sensual one - perhaps the biggest surprise for Westerners expecting religious fanaticism and austerity.
What is universal in the Iranian character is the enjoyment of the cadences of poetry read aloud, their wonderful food and their admiration of natural beauty. They are tied absolutely to the land, although most now live urban lives.
How Iranians live
The majority of Iran's urban dwellers live in flats, and in major cities, homes are rapidly being replaced with apartment blocks. Land in Tehran is as expensive as many North American and European cities, and the cost of living is increasingly prohibitive. With the monthly rent for an average two-bedroom property in Tehran about US$800, and the salary of a midranking civil servant US$375 a month, the struggle to make ends meet means many Iranians work more than one job and, in the case of the middle classes, often both men and women work. Many couples live with parents for years before they can afford their own place.
Rich & poor
The gap between rich and poor is huge. Teachers, earning not much more than US$300 a month, are the sort of middle-class state employee hardest hit by inflation rates running at more than 20% per annum. On the other hand, a fortunate minority live in lavish villas or marble-and-glass apartments in the wealthy northern suburbs of Tehran. It is not uncommon to spend US$100 on a meal for two at a trendy northern Tehran restaurant, an amount most Iranians could not even dream of spending on a meal. The women of such families tend not to work but instead lead lives revolving around their children, visiting parents and friends and working out with personal trainers.
In contrast, a middle-class couple may leave their modest apartment together in the morning after the typical Persian breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and tea. Their children, if small, will mostly be looked after by grandparents while the couple go to work. One or the other may make it back for lunch, unless living in Tehran where distances are greater and traffic hideous. In the evening, the family meal will be taken together, often with the wider family and friends. Iranians are social creatures and many visits occur after dinner.
In poorer or more traditional families it is likely that the woman will stay at home, in which case her whole day revolves around housework, providing meals for her family and shopping (in ultraconservative families the men may do the shopping).
Iranian meals take time to prepare and though supermarkets exist and some pre-packaged ingredients are available, many women spend a decent chunk of each day just buying, cleaning and chopping the herbs served with every meal. Working women generally see to these tasks in the evenings, when they may prepare the next day's lunch. Perhaps in more enlightened families men help with the cooking and housework, but people say that 'men who cook are not real men'. Mostly it is safe to say that men's role in the home is confined to appreciating the quality of the cooking. Which they do well, Iranians being true gourmets.
Family life is of supreme importance to Iranians and often a family will include children, parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives. As a result, Iranian society is more multigenerational than Western society, something that's most obvious on holidays and weekends when you will see several generations walking, laughing and picnicking together.
Living alone is extremely unusual and unmarried children only leave home to attend university in another town or for work. Although the young people of Iran long for independence and their own space, just like their western counterparts, there is not much cultural precedence for this. Those who do live alone - mostly men - are pitied. Women living alone are regarded with extreme suspicion. Being married and having a family is regarded as the happiest and the most natural state of being.
Education is highly regarded; literacy is well above average for the region at 85%, according to UNESCO. Many middle-class teenagers spend up to two years studying for university entrance exams, though the sheer number of entrants, ideological screening and places reserved for war veterans and their offspring make it very hard to get in. And once out of university, there is no guarantee of work.
With the sexes segregated at school and boys and girls discouraged from socialising together, trying to get to know members of the opposite sex is a huge preoccupation for Iranian teenagers. They hang around shopping malls, in cafes and parks, parade up and down boulevards and spend lots of time cruising around in cars.
For the most part, the average Iranian family is a robust unit and, despite economic and social differences, most operate in broadly the same way. They provide an essential support unit in a country with no state benefit system.