Singaporean woman’s video of solo Iran journey shows another side of the country

Satish Cheney is a freelance news correspondent and TV producer for overseas and local news agencies. You can follow him at @SatishCheney
Mandy Tay in Shiraz. She said, "Iran is only two hours away from Dubai but it is so much greener. Reminds me of Singapore." (Photo courtesy of Mandy Tay)Mandy Tay in Shiraz. She said, "Iran is only two hours away from Dubai but it is so much greener. Reminds me of …




It’s not every day a Singaporean Chinese girl gets a marriage proposal -- in Iran, no less, and from a mullah (religious leader) searching for a suitable wife for his son.

That’s just one of the many interesting encounters 33-year-old photographer and TV producer Mandy Tay had during a two-week adventure in Iran two months ago. She shot a video, showcasing a side of Iran most people are not familiar with, and it has since attracted at least 20,000 views on video-sharing platforms YouTube and Vimeo.

Having moved to Dubai in 2011 for work, Tay started getting “distracted by the video function in her new camera” and began recording and editing short videos of her travels.

She was keen to explore the region more, especially since she had visited only one country -- Jordan -- in the two years that she has been in Dubai.

“When I was getting stamps for my postcards (in Iran), the postal office worker said that I was brave to travel alone. I replied that I thought so too. We both laughed at my cheeky response. But honestly, I’ve never felt safer anywhere else,” Tay said.

Her trip to Iran was a last-minute affair. She arrived in Tehran with an Iranian friend but travelled the country alone after they parted ways.

First encounters

On her first day in Iran, Tay visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and was having a coffee at the museum’s cafe when she found herself to be the centre of attraction.

“I found a lady looking at me excitedly and whispering to her friend who also leaned to peer at me with curiosity. I mouthed the word 'Salaam' and we exchanged happy smiles.

The lady in the museum cafe who smiled at Tay. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Tay)The lady in the museum cafe who smiled at Tay. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Tay)

“Before I left, I asked if I could take a photo to remember this moment. This was the first of endless such encounters throughout my journey in Iran,” says Tay.

During her trip, she came across many young and spirited Iranians who were eager to live out their dreams despite the difficult situations they were in.

“They cannot visit Europe or America without a visa and the Iranian currency is weak compared to most places. I also found that the Internet connection was unreliable," she shared.

Censorship is definitely present. "I made the mistake of posting the video first on Vimeo and it was filtered in some parts of Iran," she said.

She says her perspectives have changed since she found out how some of the things she used to take for granted are considered luxuries for others.

Touching lives

Her spirited and feel-good video has garnered much attention. In less than one week, the video received more than 20,000 views on both YouTube and Vimeo.

Tay says she’s been getting messages of gratitude almost every day since she posted the video online -- some from those who have left Iran and can never return.

“Someone showed it to her colleague in the US and she had to leave the room because she was crying so much. She has left the country for more than 27 years. I will never be able to imagine how that feels but I'm glad to have helped ease the pain in some small way.

“It's also a tribute to my friends in Iran who are living their lives with such optimism and love that it puts mine to shame," Tay said.

Tay feels that the video would not have been popular if the country in focus was not Iran. People have become accustomed to seeing negative images of the country in the mass media.

She herself did not know what to expect initially.

“Nobody expected Iran to look like this. I knew Iran would be amazing. Yet, it still managed to surprise me in every way.

Mandy Tay said that at some places, there was no way to take a bad photo as there was so much beauty around. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Tay)

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“Mothers of my friends would hug me even before they knew me. Even the cats would wink at me, as if we were sharing a secret," she recalled.

Tay went alone from city to city by buses which she says were cheap and comfortable, like the VIP coaches you might take from Singapore to Malaysia.

Not everyone spoke English but according to Tay, “all you need is to learn a few choice Persian phrases to break the ice, have a smile and you are set to go".

Shocked parents?

Tay only told some friends about her trip but kept it a secret from her parents.

The cheeky producer had come up with an elaborate plan where her uncle would show her parents the video of their only daughter traversing Iran and record their horrified expressions.

Instead of a complete meltdown, her father, also an experienced traveller who had worked in Azerbaijan many years ago, nonchalantly asked, “Oh, when did you go to Iran?”

Her mother’s reaction took the cake: “Where is Iran?”

Her friends in Singapore have applauded her efforts to show a beautiful side of a country often portrayed solely by controversial politics and religious tensions.

But Tay did not have any political motives. Her only motivation was the fading remnants of architectural beauty and the warmth of the people she met on the road.

“All I did was spend two amazing weeks in a country with a bad reputation," she said, humbly.

As for the mullah and the marriage proposal, let's hope her parents don't find out.

Check out the video here:

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