Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure under the ever-watchful eye of the clerical regime may have stymied the country's reformist push, but not the people's desire for change. But without entering the heated discourse on Iranian politics, I will simply say that within Iran, and especially within its bustling capital, change has long been in the air.
BY ANTHON JACKSON
"Is it even safe there?"
Before heading to Iran, I heard this line about as often as I mentioned the upcoming trip. What to me sounded like an incredible travel experience, seemed to others a dangerous jaunt into the heart of an axis of evil. Some were even worried that I wouldn't make it back. Just over a week later, upon my amply safe return, laden with beautiful memories and gifts from gracious hosts throughout Iran, I had a few things to tell my good friends back home. The "news" will certainly come as a surprise to some.
I was invited to Iran to attend the first-ever International Tour Operators Convention (ITOC) just two weeks before boarding my plane. The convention's mission was to present Iran as a prime destination for tourists of all shapes and sizes. Attended by 132 delegates from 48 countries, including some very high-profile tourism executives and Iranian Vice President Esfandyar Rahim Mashaee, the event also served to convey the notion of peace and diplomacy through tourism and friendship. As Juergen Steinmetz, president and founder of ETN (eturbonews), commented, "The trip was unprecedented and it very much succeeded in fostering a kind of people-to-people understanding among all the various nationals involved, including a high delegation of US travel and tourism executives." It seemed that most delegates would agree with Steinmetz that the positive interaction of the convention proved tourism capable of being a "bridge that connects cultural divides." While the convention lasted only four days, my trip was extended to a week, providing a whirlwind tour of the country and offering me a glimpse into Iran's beautiful culture, welcoming people, and abundant travel opportunities.
But before delving into the rich uniqueness of its culture, the vast diversity of its landscapes, and the warmth of its people, I'll try to get question number one answered and out of the way. Iran is safe. Travelers can feel at least as safe in Tehran as they would in any major US city, and the crime rate of Iran as a whole is extremely low compared to that of Western countries. Despite what you might think after listening to an Ahmadinejad clip on Fox News, Americans are only targeted for conversation. Across Iran, people are generally happy to meet people from abroad, the US in particular, and eager to impress upon visitors the renowned extent of Iranian hospitality and friendship. As for concerns about women, modest dress standards are imposed, but Iran is no Saudi Arabia: women vote, drive cars, outnumber men in college admissions, and are elected to parliament. Instead of the head-to-toe chador, women get by covering their hair with scarves, often artfully placed, appearing on the verge of slipping off the back of girls' heads. As opposed to other countries in the region, women are not subjected to unwanted amounts of attention when out and about in Iran, as opposed to other countries in the region, a region in which, Iranians are quick to point out, Iran stands distinctly unique. And proud of it.
Iranians are similarly proud of their own national language, Farsi (Persian). Contrary to one of the most common misconceptions, Iran is not an Arab country and Iranians, for the most part, do not speak Arabic. And while Iran is certainly a Muslim country, its people are careful to distinguish their culture from elements of Arab culture long attached to Islam. For here, roots dig much deeper than the advent of Muhammad.
As my plane began its descent outside the new Khomeini International Airport, I was wrapping up a two-hour conversation with my first of many new Iranian friends, seated next to me on the aisle. A retired engineer, Hussein gave me an in-depth introduction to the uniqueness of the Persian heritage, centering his comments around the tenets of the ancient religion that sprung up in the region over two millennia ago. I was initially surprised that Hussein, a Muslim, would emphasize his deepest cultural roots over his ties with Islam, of which not a word was mentioned. Despite tilting over the edge of collapse from exhaustion at the time, I was fascinated by our discussion, which actually played out more like a private lecture in which Hussein magically kept me awake until landing with proverbs of ancient Zoroastrian wisdom.
As I cocked my head for his lengthy embellishment of each of the three simple tenets of the religion, I tried to ignore the stiffness in my neck: "Think well. Speak well. Act well."
That Persia produced the great axial age prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, is a fact that carries no small religious or historical weight. Zoroaster introduced debatably the first monotheistic code of worship revolving around Ahura Mazda, exposing the pagan gods of the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks as soulless idols. He taught that humans are morally responsible for their own choices in this world, a world where good and evil are locked in constant struggle. Including the beliefs in bodily resurrection of the dead, the concept of heaven and hell, and the eventual triumph of good, annihilation of evil, and establishment of paradise on earth, Zoroaster's apocalyptic vision was certainly among the first to teach many of the major doctrines eventually adopted by modern monotheistic religions.
Consequently, in addition to an Islamic lunar calendar for religious events and the Gregorian calendar for international dates, Iran has counted over two thousand years on their own distinct solar calendar, harking back to the days of Zoroaster. The Iranian new year, Nowrūz, and connected holidays like Chahārshanbe Sūrī, the Festival of Fire, are completely Persian, steeped in ancient tradition, their rituals including gift giving and family visits. And fire leaping, the symbolism of light (good) overcoming darkness (evil) being central to Zoroastrianism. Nowrūz is observed at the spring equinox, and to this day remains one of the most special and popular holidays in the country. Soon after seizing control thirty years ago, the Islamic government tried to end its observance for its non-Islamic roots, but the Iranian people would not abandon the age-old observance, showing up in tens of thoudands to protest. Realizing that Nowrūz wasn't going anywhere without a serious fight, the ruling clerics were eventually forced to deal with it.
My plane touched down at 3:30 am, and two hours later my visa was stamped and I was headed towards Tehran. As we zipped down the freeway the driver offered me a cigarette and some tea. I accepted, mostly because I wanted to watch him attempt to pour me a cup of tea while driving the cab. As promised, he procured a thermos from under his seat, grabbed a cup, and reached for some sugar cubes out of the glove box. I was already beginning to believe the widespread rumors I'd heard of Iranian hospitality. The cab drifted over a couple lanes as he poured his own glass.
As we neared the city, the neon green lights of hundreds of mosques began to dim in the rising dawn, coloring the sky while silhouetting the snow-capped peaks to the north. The Alborz mountains were certainly more massive than I had imagined. Arriving at the hotel, I took the elevator to the roof, opting to trade precious sleep for a photo or two. I was blown away by the sweeping vista of the city, sprawled as far as I could see, concrete buildings that seemed intent on scaling the slopes of Mount Damavand, Tehran's towering backdrop, blanketed in deep snow.
The ensuing day's ITOC conference included visits with dozens of tour operators, several presentations on Iran's diverse geography, and a delicious Iranian feast. Each delegate left fat and happy, wallets bulging with business cards, excited to explore Iran.
A country three times the size of France, Iran's wildlife and landscapes constitute a world of adventure potential. Native species include bears, ibexes, gazelles, wild boars, panthers, foxes, wolves, leopards, falcons, and perhaps most interestingly, Iran is sole home to the critically endangered Asian Cheetah. Within its borders lie ancient forests, vast deserts, year-round glacial fields, and warm sandy beaches. In addition to the Alborz mountains that divide Iran's dry central plateau from the fertile Caspian coastline is the Zagros range, spanning from the Armenian border in the northwest to the Persian Gulf, continuing east to Pakistan and broadening into a 200 km swath of parallel ridges alternating with fertile green valleys. The agriculture in these valleys is said to have begun around 10,000 years ago.
In the West, little is known about the rich Persian heritage from which Iran springs. Names like Darius, Cyrus, and Zoroaster are shrouded in mystery. But of course, in Iran these names are enshrined in a glorious national history, the earliest traces of which pre-date even the earliest civilizations in neighboring Mesopotamia.
I wandered through one such pre-historic settlement in Kashan, the city from which the three wise men, or "magi" are believed to have begun their journey to Bethlehem. Below one of the suspiciously tall hills rising above the valley floor to the west of the modern city, I came across the remains of a 10-year-old girl encased in glass, along with a label revealing her approximate year of death: 5500 BC. Ancient sites like Kashan render even King Cyrus the Great modern history.
Most famous and splendid in its architectural legacy was the Persian Empire arose about 2,500 years ago to stretch from the Tibetan frontier to the Balkans and Egypt. At the seat of its emperors was built a mighty capital, Persepolis, today considered among the world's most spectacular and treasured archeological wonders. Set on a ten-meter high man-made platform, its pillars rise far above the golden plains to the west. While the vast majority of the stones in Persepolis have crumbled to the ground, it takes little imagination to see what this city once was. Sadly, and perhaps in retaliation for the burning of Athens, Alexander the Great decided to destroy it when he passed through Persia. Still, busts and reliefs of lions, horses, eagles, and kings can be seen almost everywhere you look, and the stonework is delicate, smooth, and artful on an enormous scale.
Standing atop the supposed birthplace of the Iranian monarchy, I noticed tattered remnants of its demise some 2500 years later: rows of tent poles and 70's-style light-posts are all that is left of the Shah's ridiculously opulent party over thirty years ago, when he invited dignitaries from all over the world, much as Cyrus had brought them here to the famous Gate of All Nations, to celebrate the millenia of Persian monarchy. He spent millions on the most expensive of imported luxuries, even tiling some of the tent floors with marble for the single event. Of course, the Shah's popularity, at the time already very low, never bounced back after the party and just years later the monarchy was dead.
When visiting Persepolis travelers must pass through Shiraz, the city of flowers and nightingales. Upon arrival, our Iranian hosts literally rolled out the red carpet at the airport. After one of many banquets provided by my Iranian hosts, I explored the city in what limited time I had. I circled the ancient city wall and paid a visit to the tomb of Iran's greatest poet, Hafez. In the fourteenth century, Hafez was creating some of the most renowned poetry ever written, rich with elements of modern surrealism. His tomb complex was full of locals either paying their respects or just hanging out. Later, while wandering the colorful night market, I spoke to a bunch of cool kids hanging out in the market in my extremely limited Farsi, most of them very surprised to hear I was from the USA. It's quite obvious that not a good number of Americans find their way to Shiraz. At one point, away from the crowds, getting harassed by an old beggar, I handed him a note to get him to leave me alone. A full minute later I realized I'd just given him money from Qatar instead of Iran, meaning the note was worth a good deal more than I'd intended to give; I turned around to find him holding the strange currency under a street light, enchanted by the mystery of its worth. I approached from the side and snatched it out of his hand, slipping him a more appropriate amount. He wasn't so happy about that, and yelled some nonsense at my back as I walked away, relieved, and caught a cab to the hotel.
As one guide explained, Shiraz is known as the "city of mysteries and secrets." My abrupt experience in this city filled with mosques, mausoleums and gardens was something like a dream cut short, and therefore I would recommend a lengthier visit. My whirlwind tour had me flying off to Esfahan the following morning.
According to an old rhyme repeated by several of my hosts today, "Esfahan is half the world." I now have a better idea of where the saying comes from: the city is breathtaking, with more than enough architectural wonder and cultural flavor to spare the rest of the country. Arriving on another charter plane we were greeted by another red carpet, this time complete with small children in traditional dress, smiling and holding flowers for their guests.
Esfahan is infantile in comparison to the more ancient cities of Persia, having been largely developed by Shah Abbas in the 16th century. Most of the mosques, palaces, gardens, and bridges owe themselves to him and the following century of Saffavid rule. It is easily apparent from a short walk through town that its rulers went to great lengths to beautify the city. About a dozen bridges span the Zayandeh River that runs through the city, half of them from medieval times. Among the most elegant is the Pol-e Si-o-Seh, or Bridge of 33 Arches. I returned here late at night to find the bridge illuminated and still humming with pedestrian traffic, its waterside teahouses and arched walkways filled with mostly young people just there to hang out.
Our group arrived at the Chehel Sotun Palace, a giant reception hall surrounded by manicured gardens, just an hour before sunset. Built by Abbas II, its thin wooden pillars were at least ten meters tall, supporting a giant carved wooden roof covered in exotic colorful frescoes, a combination that made it appear to belong much further to the east. But as I walked through the gardens I realized my sunlight would be gone very soon and I had yet to reach the main attraction: Imam Square.
As I had done several times before, I escaped the group and made it on foot to the opening of the giant complex. The brilliant blue tile of Imam Mosque was still reflecting the warm light of the sunset as I approached the entrance to the mosque. As impressive as its bright colors was its sheer immensity, the inside roof hovering 40 meters above the ground. As I wandered alone, several people approached to ask the perennial question sequence of my visit to Iran: 1) Where are you from? 2) How do you find Iran? 3) What do Americans think of Iran? In my short experience, the answer to the first question usually receives a look of surprise, the second answer receives a warm smile, and the third sometimes gets a laugh (if I say that some of my friends actually fear for my life here).
To my surprise, everyone has seemed somewhat excited to speak with an American. Among the questioners tonight was a crew from Iran TV; Alireza, one of my new Esfahani friends, recognized the TV host and got pretty excited to see her in the flesh: "She's famous," he giggled. She interviewed me in front of the fountains in the dead center of Imam Square. And of course, before asking a few other questions, she followed the above sequence. Alireza showed me around the bazaar, which was as colorful as any I've seen, its arching vaulted roofs disappearing into the distance ahead. He bought me a strange yogurt with a bizarre consistency, a treat that is supposedly famous in Esfahan. He insisted it was delicious as I pretended to agree. We talked about our jobs, homes, families, and dreams, and as in almost all of my more extensive conversations here, we concluded that it sucks that our countries are so much at odds politically. And again, as in most of my conversations here, Alireza left me with the distinct impression that it is politics and governments alone that have caused any rift between us and, despite coming from a conservative home, even by Iranian standards, he sincerely wants to see change in his own country. As far as my country is concerned, he's hopeful: "Obama!" he laughed, "Yes we can!"
Much as the majority of Americans voted in Barrack Obama, riding upon the words "change" and "hope," the majority of Iranians seem more than ready to move on from the stricutres of the Revolution. They hope for increased freedom and civil rights, as well as transparency and democracy, none of which are likely to come any time soon from their 28-year-old conservative government. When Mohammed Khatami, Iran's first reformist president (1997 until 2005), combined with a reformist majority in the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) they still fell short of fulfilling promises of widely-desired reform. Although these years did witness some major changes, many of the more liberal changes were vetoed by Iran's conservative Guardian Council, an upper house of parliament operating under the direction and appointment of the Supreme Leader. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure under the ever-watchful eye of the clerical regime, may have stymied the country's reformist push, but not the people's desire for change. But without entering the heated discourse on Iranian politics (just yet), I will simply say that within Iran, and especially within its bustling capital, change has long been in the air.
Back in Tehran, I paid a visit to the former US Embassy compound, referred to today as the "U.S. Den of Espionage." After a run-in with a citizen-cop over photographing the surrounding signs and slogans, followed by a short holdup with the much more amiable (and actual) police officers, I snuck some photos of the murals. Painted lines such as "We Will Make America Face a Severe Defeat," and "United States of America After Ghods Occupier Regime (Israel) is the Most Hated State Before Our Nation," made it clear to me that at some point resentment had boiled over to hatred. While the political slogans may alternate between scary and laughable, with both battle cries and blatant grammatical errors, the building behind the walls represents a shameful symbol of American intervention.
It takes little more than the most basic knowledge of Iran's recent history to understand the source of the frustration: from this building, CIA operatives planned the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq and his democratically elected government so that the hated Shah could be reinstated and, more importantly, the oil industry denationalized. Heavy U.S. influence over Mohammad Reza continued to emanate from this building until the Revolution, after which students stormed its gates in 1980 to take its American diplomats hostage for a year and half. Perhaps they were worried that history might repeat itself and the Shah be reinstated yet again.
Of course, the few topics commonly heard today in the west regarding Iran involve Ahmadinejad and his stance on nuclear power, scattered with a few of his more controversial comments on the holocaust and homosexuals. As is also well known, there have even been reports of Iranians in league with the Iraqi insurgency. With such bad behavior, some Americans ask, how can the US be expected to reverse its hostile policy, including the stifling sanctions which are part of a multimillion dollar efforts towards regime change and "helping" the Iranians to "realize their full potential," not a penny of which is seen by the people of Iran? How can they indeed? Perhaps a small dose of history can provide insight to the Iranian perception of our efforts there to "spread democracy" in their country. From helping the Shah to suppress Iran's democratic voice, ousting president Mossadeq, reinstating the Shah, practically ruling Iran through His Majesty for another twenty-five years, then imposing stifling sanctions along with multimillion dollar efforts aimed at "helping" Iranians to "realize their full potential" (not a penny of which is seen by the people of Iran), aiding Saddam's decimating war campaign in the 80's, openly working for regime change, and even threatening bombs and full-scale invasion in recent years, I think it's safe to say the US has acted the part of an enemy to Iran. Just glace at a map to see that US troops currently surround Iran's borders in the occupied territories of Iraq and Afghanistan. With such behavior, Iran's less than friendly political stance towards the United States certainly seems justified.
Before taking leave of the compound, I noticed that the U.S. Embassy seal was remained on the gate, brutalized just short of the point of recognition. Symbolic, I thought. Thankfully, I know I can speak for many Americans when I say that Iranians are not alone in their hope for change.
Heading due south on the smooth freeway, we'd made it out of the smog of Tehran within an hour and were flying by Qom within two. The city which Khomeini called home, Qom is Iran's second-holiest city after Mashhad, but perhaps the center of Shi'a thought today; from here, only a short drive from Tehran, Iran's all-powerful clerical government can keep its distance while keeping its finger on the capital's pulse. From the freeway I could make out about a dozen domes, one of which was a dazzling gold--most likely wrong, I labeled it the Hazrat-e Masumeh, Qom's most famous site.
After a visit to the ancient mounds marking the site of Kashan's earliest inhabitants, we paid a visit to the old home of a rich Kashani merchant for a sampling of aristocratic life in the nineteenth century. Plain, even austere from the outside, it is the inside, especially the inner courtyard where guests were entertained, that's worthy of hundreds of photos. Entering through the old wooden doorway I was welcomed to the small architectural wonderland that is the Tabatabei House, with its walls, windows, and arches decorated as delicately and artfully as the flowers in the gardens, all set in balanced symmetry. Inside, the stained glass windows cast geometric highlights of color on the white-washed walls. At the complex's four corners stood badgirs, natural wind towers, designed anciently to funnel wind from the plains and down the shaft, to fan the cool surface of the underground water stores, working as perhaps the oldest functional AC system.
As the sun set, we made our final stop in Kashan at the Fin Gardens, or Bagh-e Fin. A spring on a hill just behind the garden supplies the complex with an artful network of pools and fountains that have circulated without the help of any pumps since being built in the time of Shah Abbas I. Its two hectares of water, walkways, and gardens were clearly a popular hang-out spot for Friday night. Families sat for picnics everywhere. Young groups of friends splashed each other with water and snapped pictures with their cell phones.
Somewhere in the desert between Kashan and Tehran, our guide Khalil stopped the car and led us to a giant hole in the ground. Here was one of thousands of openings into the qanat system, a highly sophisticated network of irrigational tunnels that provide about four-fifths of the water used in Iran's plateau region. Dug hundreds of meters underground, the shaft I observed is connected to a perfectly sloping horizontal tunnel funneling water from the mountains, by nothing other than the force of gravity, into the towns and cities of the valley. Some of these tunnels stretch as far as 70 km, and since ancient Persian times have been used to provide air conditioning (when connected to badgirs), and even ice storage and refrigeration. Today, with modern technology allowing water to be pumped from a drilled well, the ancient art of qanat construction and maintenance is slowly being lost, but Iranians remain rightfully proud of the sophisticated heritage the system reveals.
Back in Tehran, a Portuguese friend and I surfaced from the metro line not far from the Golestan Palace, ready to navigate its variety of rooms and museums. Opulence was the word that ran through my mind as we wound through the lavish Qajar chambers, tiled with mirrors and gold. Opulence, and perhaps decadence. Everywhere I looked was something that almost made me vomit, from the Ivory Room to the Room of Mirrors, just glitter and jewels everywhere. But then again, as an eighteenth century royal palace, such is to be expected. Still, as the Qajar rulers that built this place broke the national bank on fine architecture to surround themselves with and bought up heaps of mediocre European art to display in private museums, much of their country outside the guarded walls had deteriorated to a pitiably sad state.
We entered the bazaar late in the afternoon, taking little time to get lost in its maze. Swarms of shoppers and bazaaris often filled the narrow corridors, broken up by the passing of the occasional transport cart, overladen with goods, forcing people to make way at the last second or be crushed. We popped into a restaurant looking for anything tasty--anything other than kebab--but when shown a menu in the form of four rows of sliced meat, two chicken, two lamb, we opted to keep looking around. On the west end of the bazaar we found Khayyam, a restaurant built in a chunk of what used to be the Seyyed Nasreddin Mosque--across the street the same mosque still functions, but the building of Khayyam Street cut the mosque in two. On a carpet next to us sat four young Iranians, two couples, happily sipping on water pipes. They invited us to join them, and we ended up spending the next hour chatting through Milad, the one young man who happened to speak English. Within minutes we were friends, as evidenced by the gifts (cute stuffed animals) they handed us, complete with personalized cards, as we sat in a circle around the shisha. Part of me suspects the little gifts might have been intended for someone else, but Iranian hospitality called for the giving of gifts. Mine was a brown bear that said "I love you." We all left Khayyam and headed back to the bazaar together. We then passed through Imam Khomeini mosque, built within the bazaar itself, and explored until the shops started to close.
Having received so many gifts during my short visit, I realized I would have to check a bag (that was itself a gift) on the flight home. My shopping had been done for me. My Iranian hosts, both those I met during the conference and on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Kashan, and Esfahan, exceeded even my high expectations regarding hospitality. I was blown away by the sites, such as Persepolis, the Tabatabaei House, and Imam Square. My eyes were opened to the immense adventure potential this country holds in its stunning mountain ranges, canyons, deserts and forests. I realize I've barely scratched the surface in my week here. I never reached the green and mountainous north, the lowlands of the southwest, or the sprawling deserts to the east. Tabriz, Yazd, Mashhad, Mount Damavand are still among many places on my list. It all simply means that someday I'll have to go back. As my ITOC hosts tried to convey, Iran certainly has impressive tourist potential. Part of me would recommend going soon to avoid the rush that my hosts are hoping for, while there is no telling whether such growth will indeed come anytime soon. The other part of me selfishly hopes that Iran remains one of the world's best-kept secrets as an adventure destination for some time.