Don’t prejudge a place you’ve never been. Governments are not the people, and the people are not the government. That’s what Houston-based philanthropist Franci Neely says are the main takeaways from her travels. In her quest to visit every country in the world, Neely has snapped poignant photos of locals and landscapes alike. And while she’s not picking favorites among her hundreds of destinations, she has an earnest plea for her fellow Americans: Visit Iran.
“I went to Iran sometime after one politician called it evil— and Iran is one of the places that affected me most deeply,” Neely says. “The reason that I loved visiting Iran was not only because of its people, but also because of Iran’s place in history.”
She knows the common objections about globetrotting…there? Yes. Yes, of course there are zealots in the Iranian government — but that’s not unlike many governments, America’s included, says Neely.
“Since we have politicians who knowingly perpetuate lies, it’s pretty shocking that we as a country which professes to be so moral, can perpetuate lies while we demonize other countries. It’s hypocritical. It’s political, I know, but I feel very strongly about this.”
She points out that the Iranians stood in solidarity with America by condemning the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda. In the hours that followed, Iran joined the world in mourning the 2,996 souls that perished in the deadliest terror attack on American soil. In the nation’s capital city of Tehran, more than 3,000 held a solemn candlelight vigil in an international show of goodwill.
Franci Neely Shares What She Learned From Iranians
When her feet touched Iranian soil Neely says she intrinsically sensed the disparity between the American narrative of Iran and what Iran truly is.
“The Iranians I met [share] one of the oldest cultures in the world. The Persian culture is rich,” she states. “And the average citizen in Iran probably knows more about their history, their literature, [and] their culture than the average American, which is not saying much, by the way.”
Neely says she was deeply touched by the overflow of kindness the Iranian people bestowed upon her.
“They were exemplars of kind hospitality to this American and repeatedly told me how they loved Americans — not our government, but Americans,” Franci Neely explains.
She emphasizes that if more people had the opportunity to visit countries such as Iran, it could be a game changer for the lens through which Iran is viewed.
“I’m fortunate I have had that opportunity. I realize it’s hard to have these opportunities,” Neely adds. “But because I’ve been blessed about that, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand that no, Iran is not evil. People are not evil. They may have malevolent governments at certain periods of time.”
Neely says she hopes sharing her journey to Iran will help to end the demonization and dissolve the stereotypes about its people. She hopes her experience will resonate with those who have never ventured far beyond America’s borders, or others who choose to travel only to beachy locales found in the glossy pages of Travel & Leisure. Neely admits she’s had worried friends ask her a sea of questions about her travel to Iran, wondering if she has ever felt in danger.
Neely journeyed to Iran in a very small group — only three travelers. “I was often by myself,” she says. “I went to a number of different towns and cities in Iran. [Locals] would come up and just want to embrace me, talk to me, speaking English. The people I encountered said a number of times, ‘Please tell Americans we love them.’ Now I know that our governments have issues with each other. The Iranians [have] a very sophisticated culture. I think there are just a lot of misconceptions about Iranians. They’re highly educated people. They speak Farsi, not Arabic. They love their history and their culture. They can recite their poetry and they are beautiful people to look at.”
Neely says her heart is as full as her well-stamped passport from her dispatches there. And even when language fails, one look with a local can change one’s life.
“When you make a connection, you can see it in the eyes,” she marvels.
Franci Neely Tips: Travel to Places You Don’t Know
Sure, croissants and coffee in Paris is nice. So, too, is sunning yourself on the sugary shores of the Seychelles. But that’s not where you’ll find Neely, who says she has an enduring wanderlust for going off the beaten path.
The former attorney says lately, she has spent a great deal of time in Africa. She’s wandered around Sudanese pyramids and nature preserves in Malawi. She’s seen those less fortunate — like the women who pumped their water for the day in Malawi — and was inspired by their fortitude and easygoing smiles.
She recommends all her compatriots venture to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
So, Europe and those beaches? They can wait.
“Go to places that you don’t know about,” she advises.
During her quest to explore foreign cultures, Franci Neely admits she’s not only discovered new things about other people and places, but she’s learned a great deal about herself in the process. She says her mission to step foot in every country around the globe was born from a genuine curiosity to have deeper conversations and truly see beyond the surface.
Neely adds that she doesn’t see herself as an ambassador for American culture; instead, she aims to communicate to other cultures that she cares about them and wants to speak as equals.
“My goal is not to teach or preach,” she says. “Rather, I learn by listening and opening my heart and my eyes.”