The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a huge fan of the Internet. The Iranian government has in recent years cracked down on Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and hundreds of independent websites and blogs -- and has even tried to create its own internal, state-sponsored version of the Web. Oddly, it has yet to train its crosshairs on Instagram, perhaps because the authorities don't yet view the hugely popular photo-sharing program, which isn't widely used in the country, as a threat.
I discovered the Instagram loophole in August 2012, when, as international sanctions began to bite and talk of war against Tehran mounted, I decided to make one last trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran -- the country where I spent my adolescence -- before all its splendor was potentially lost forever.
The last time I had visited was in 2009, during the post-election protests known as the Green Movement. Since then, the Islamic regime has cracked down on dissent and made efforts to censor nearly all aspects of the Internet. It is now virtually impossible to navigate online without being directed to a page listing websites that the Iranian government deems morally acceptable. But Instagram, somehow, is still OK.
That could change if more Iranians begin using the service. Already, a quick search for #Iran on Instagram provides a window into the ordinary lives of the Iranian people and captures some of the country's stark beauty, which often gets overshadowed by geopolitical squabbles. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has an official account, which includes photos of him at Friday prayer and public meetings with Iranian citizens -- all of course, filtered for maximum nostalgia value.
Armed with an iPad, I traveled from the capital Tehran to the holy city of Mashhad and then to the beautiful old capital of Esfahan. Unlike many Iranians, I don't have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on my iPad to help me circumvent the firewall. Instagram was my only tool to make (uncensored) contact with people outside the country during my travels. Here's what I saw along the way.
The picture above shows the 17th-century Royal Bazaar in Esfahan, located more than 200 miles from Tehran. Although it was Ramadan when I visited and many shops were closed, the bazaar was still buzzing with people. Located in Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Royal Square), the bazaar is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East, stretching for more than a mile.