The friendliest people on the planet

HULLO! Friendliest people on the planet? The Iranians might be it.
HULLO! Friendliest people on the planet? The Iranians might be it.

The guy slows down his motorbike, pulling up alongside us as we walk the cracked pavement by the side of the road. Anywhere else this could be trouble, but not here. The guy lifts his hand in greeting, flashes us a grin, then yells to be heard over the burble of his engine: "You are welcome in Iran!"

Then he tears off along the street, still waving with one hand. My friend Michelle and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders and smile. Another one.

The true strangeness of this situation is that it's not strange at all. Something similar to this scene has been playing out constantly for the past week that we've been in Iran.

It happened just 10 minutes ago. A kid who can't have been more than 18 nearly ploughed his motorbike into a fruit shop, such was his determination to wave to us and call out hello while negotiating a pavement full of pedestrians on a fairly big machine.

It happened before, too, on the busy streets of Tehran, of Esfahan, of Yazd and of Shiraz. You can see the well-wishers coming from the corner of your eye. You're wandering down the street, minding your own business, and an Iranian will swoop, like some kind of extremely polite eagle.

"Excuse me," they'll say, "can I ask you are from which country?"

"Australia," we'll reply - me to the men, who invariably address the male in the couple, and Michelle to the Iranian women, who'll always break the ice with her.

"Oh," they'll smile, "welcome to Iran. I hope you enjoy my country."

Some will then hang around for a chat, to ask a few more questions or point out a sight of interest, while others will just walk away, content that they've done what they came to do: welcome you.

You think Iran's going to be scary, a place of raging ayatollahs and poorly Photoshopped fighter planes, but you couldn't be further from reality. This is a country of hospitality, of people who want nothing more than for outsiders to see their nation as it really is.

It can be easy to assume a country's citizens are just like its politicians. It was simple, years ago, to think of all Americans as gun-crazy cowboys. It was easy to think of the French as a mob of suave womanisers. And I'm sure it was easy for people from other countries, for a certain period, to think of Australians as xenophobes.

But that's not the case. Americans aren't George W. Bush. The French aren't Nicolas Sarkozy. And Iranians aren't Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their nuclear-obsessed president.

In fact, you could make a case for Persians being the friendliest people on the planet. For a nation that is supposedly part of the axis of evil, we could learn a lot from Iranians about the power of goodwill.

Soon, Michelle and I are on a bus in southern Iran, travelling from the desert town of Yazd to the cultural hub of Shiraz.

Barren landscape is flashing past outside; the driver is smoking a cigarette, tendrils of smoke being whipped out of his open window; bad Arabian pop is blaring from the stereo.

We're chatting about our future travel plans when a hand reaches from between the seats in front of us, proffering half an orange. Then a cloaked face appears behind the hand. "Please," a lady says, pushing the orange closer to us, "for you."

We accept, and share the orange. Ten minutes later the same hand reappears, followed by the same cloaked face. This time the lady is holding an apple. "Please," she repeats, smiling, "for you." Again, we accept.

It's not just food we're offered in Iran, but help. Constantly. "Do you know where you are going?" people on the street will ask. We do, usually, but they'll point us in the right direction anyway.

A few days later we're in Esfahan, home to Iran's most spectacular edifices. We've just entered Masjed-e Emam, a huge mosque clad in blue tiles down one end of the city's imposing main square. Just like on the street, we clock the approach from the corners of our eyes, two girls in black niqabs sidling our way. "Excuse me," one of them says, addressing Michelle, "where do you come from?"

"Australia," Michelle replies.

"Oh. Can we tell you about this mosque?"

And so begins a half-hour tour guided by two girls who, it turns out, are studying to become air hostesses. They take us to the mosque schools, they show us the hidden sundial, they point out the shape of a huge heart woven through the intricate design of the mosque's tiled dome.

And then they leave, smiling, wishing us well in Iran. "You are welcome in our country," they say. And it's true.

Where have you found the world's friendliest people? Share a comment below.

Sydney Morning Herald