I went to Iran for almost three weeks in July of 2007. I went with a progressive organization called “Global Exchange.” Since 2000 Global Exchange ( http://www.globalexchange.org ) offers several tours to Iran each year with the goal of fostering citizen to citizen diplomacy. In collaboration with an Iranian partner organization ( http://www.pasargad-tours.com ), we went to Tehran, Yazd, Shiraz, Pasargadae and Persepolis, Esfahan, Natanz, Abyaneh, Namak Abrud, Ramsar, Lahijan, Masuleh and Rasht. This tour took me to hyper modern urban centers and ancient adobe towns, to deserts and rainforests, and from the Alborz Mountains to the Caspian Sea. It seems that I get asked many of the same questions about this trip. Below is an attempt to answer some.
Fear One of the strangest questions about my Iran trip came from an Iranian American: “Did you have to do the HIV test and all that to get the visa?“ At first I am totally confused but then I remember: when I immigrated to the US on a fiancée visa some twenty years ago, I had to submit to an HIV test and other health exams, the result of which were kept from me and given to immigration officials in a sealed envelope. Funny - when memory plays tricks on us, even outrageous practices by the US government are attributed to the Islamic Republic.
To answer the question: there were no tests. Based on my European password I even got a discount on the visa fee, compared to the twelve US citizens and one Australian who traveled with me. I never figured out what restrictions there are on individual travel for US citizens. If there are any, they do not apply to other nationalities, as evident from the independent travelers I met for example from Germany, Japan and Spain. I was not always with the group, there was no problem with me venturing out on my own. I can’t count how many people asked “but was it safe?” We are trained so well to fear Iran, I was not immune either. I freaked out a week before departure and called one of the organizers to be reassured that I was not going to be arrested and hanged. The fact is that traveling to Iran for Iranian Americans who actively work against the regime is not safe at this point. But during my trip I never had any encounters with government agents other than the one who glanced at my passport in the airport. I was not questioned or searched. During the domestic flight from Tehran to Yazd we did not even have to show id, a refreshing break from the madness in US airports. And as for the masses chanting “Death to America!” – they must have moved to join the Black Bloc in Portland. We were treated like rock stars. People everywhere came and talked to us and were obviously delighted to find out where we were from. They shared their picnics with us, asked us to pose for photos with them, requested autographs and invited us to their homes. When John, the 86 year old who fled Germany during the Holocaust, asked a group of women at the Hafez shrine in Shiraz what their book was, they gifted him their Hafez. When Marc (who has the “Az didane shoma…” down with irresistible charm) asked a group of soccer players where to buy a national jersey, he was handed one. I took midnight strolls by myself for example across the famous bridge in Esfahan, and I felt entirely safe. I never witnessed any violence, robbery, manifestations of generational substance abuse and/or poverty or any other regular Portland MAX train event.
But wasn’t it depressing? Yes – I cried in Iran. I cried when we drove through the towering mountains around the beautiful town of Abyaneh and the driver sang. I cried when we went to one of the outdoor restaurants by the river in Darband and looking at the Alborz Mountains reminded me of friend's stories about going there to be able to talk and sing revolutionary songs out of reach from the Shah’s Savak. I cried when a friend's relatives – whom I had never met – threw me an outrageous dinner party. I cried when I looked at all that ancient and incomprehensible beauty in the mosques and remembered that even many progressive, liberal folks in the US consider the entire region known as “Middle East” to be backwards and uncivilized I also laughed my head off. That Iranian sense of humor was evident in abundance everywhere we went and I learned many new jokes, most of which I cannot repeat in public. I partied, danced and drank alcohol, which is easily available. I listened to the latest Iroonie pop stars by watching their music videos, which many people carry on their cell phones. The well-intentioned teasing was contagious and pretty soon most of us gusfand (sheep, as we were labeled by our guide) were participating in it. Iranians never seem to get tired of outwitting each other with poems to recite and songs to sing. When we took the cable car up into the Gilan rainforest, we stumbled into a group of strangers singing to each other.
Did you have to wear the burkha? Many ask – seriously. So no - the only women I saw in burkha type outfits were tourists from Saudi Arabia, of which there were quiet a few. I lost my manteau soon after arrival and wore shirts that covered my butt and my elbows and light silk scarves. Depending on age, ideology and occupation, everybody else wore clothing reaching from dark hoodies and long coats to tight short shirts and pants and colorful scarves that often cover hair more symbolically than for real. I saw a Basij hassle a woman for her attire once in Esfahan. A little while later she was back in the same outfit, accompanied by a guy with spiked hair. The women who harvest tea and rice in Gilan wear t-shirts and handkerchiefs tied in the back of their neck.
What about women? Women and men express grievances having to do with the government attempting to interfere into the private sphere, with political oppression and with the economic situation. Family law has improved: divorce, child custody and inheritance are not as unequal as they used to be. I met members of the National Women’s Dragon Boat Team, who compete internationally. Many women engage in sports and seem to be in remarkably good shape. I failed to snap photos of young women on bicycles zipping through traffic – they were too fast. Women were visible and active in all aspects of public life. A large percentage of women are highly literate and educated and read more than “Lolita.” They are on the forefront of political activism. Whatever problems persist in gender inequality – Iranian women are not asking for outside saviors, who are a sore point in Iranian history. In fact: The $75 million dollars the Bush administration allocated for regime change in Iran, have made people’s lives there much more difficult (How would the US government respond to a foreign government distributing that kind of money in the US?). In the past Global Exchange delegations have met with groups such as Zanan, an outspoken women’s magazine. Currently such encounters are not possible, because those NGOs feel the need to distance themselves from anything that could be regarded as foreign attempts to facilitate regime change.
What about religion? Yes – there is religion. Well over 90% Shi’a but also Sunni Muslim and then Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Baha’i minorities. Practicing Muslims, like our driver who took prayer breaks between telling x-rated jokes and lending his beautiful voice to Gogoosh songs, do not necessarily endorse the current IRI government. My biggest surprise was a group of mullahs in a madrese (theological seminar, uniformly portrait as terrorist training camp in the US media, to the extent that this can be used to discredit Obama, who apparently attended a madrese in his childhood). When we peaked our heads into their beautiful court yard, my poor US trained brain was ringing alarm bells: we should not be here, we are Americans, four of us are women, they will get ticked off…Anyway: The mullahs invited us inside the building and ordered bastani fallude (ice cream that comes straight from whatever version of paradise you believe in). While waiting for that to arrive, we had a mutual question and answer chat. They wanted to know about stuff like natural gas and distance learning. We asked about suicide bombing (they condemned it as un-Islamic) and subjects taught in the seminar (religion, math, English, Arabic, art…). Then the mullahs shared their belief that their government is incompetent and needs changing. And that Iranians will accomplish this change through peaceful transition – without bloodshed and outside help. This statement was echoed everywhere we went: our government is awful, yours is terrible, but we are happy you came and experience that people really do not have a problem with each other. And please: leave dealing with our government to us – we do not want any more violence. And then there is everybody else. In the Vank Cathedral in Esfahan I watched Iranian Muslim government employees painstakingly restore the ancient frescos. The cathedral had a memorial and a museum dedicated to the genocide. There are 13 other Armenian churches just in Esfahan alone. Judging from the fact that they apparently are the main suppliers of alcohol and deserts to die for, Armenian Christians don’t seem to be particularly unhappy. There are other Christians, too, but I don’t know much about those. We also visited a synagogue in Esfahan, which seemed a bit tenser. A Jewish woman we met was very clear about condemning Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust Conference and other disgraces, but she also said that she had no problem with her Muslim neighbors, that the problem lies with the government, not with the Iranian people. Iran is still home to the second largest Jewish community (after Israel) in the Middle East, but many have left. Thanks to the Zartushtie in the group, who was my roommate for the duration of the trip, I had the opportunity to take a closer look at Zoroastrianism than I would have on my own. When she explained that she is of Zoroastrian Parsee (Indian) background, the Iranian response usually was “welcome home.” She reflects: “I came to Iran as a young Zoroastrian wanting to explore a civilization whose blood runs deep in my ancestors' veins. Zoroastrianism is the world's oldest monotheistic religion and originated in what is today called Iran. My parents are two of the world's remaining 120,000 Zoroastrians and they raised me in the ancient faith. The religion professes that humankind is designed to evolve toward perfection, but this is complicated by evil forces such as greed, lust and hatred. These evil forces must be challenged proactively by developing a ‘good mind’ and embracing a life of good thoughts, good words and good deeds.” Some of her Zoroastrian contacts accompanied us to the ancient ateshkadeh (fire temple) and towers of silence (ancient burial sites) outside of Yazd. We later saw Zoroastrian symbols and portrayals on many of the ancient ruins, for example at Persepolis. Zoroastrianism is respected as the ancient root for many customs, for example Nou Ruz (Iranian New Year) but my roommate also shared that some Iranian Zartushties feel stereotyped (“fire worshippers!”) and discriminated against, for example when it comes to employment. Being Baha’i is an obvious problem. Following a religion that was founded after Islam (and after the last prophet Mohammad), Baha’is are not considered people of the book and persecuted. Perhaps in a misguided effort to prove his Iranianess, an Iranian American repeatedly told me that the “so-called” Baha’i religion was really a British conspiracy and in the same category as Wahaabism. In this case the problem did not seem to lie just with the government… It was us gusfands who usually brought up religion. The Iranians we met did not seem particularly interested in discussing the subject, and nobody seemed to care much about what religion we were (as far as I know two of us were Jewish, two were Christian priests, two were Quakers, one was Zoroastrian and a bunch of us simply believed in humanity).
So what are Iranians concerned about? The economy – big time. Depending on whom you talk to and what sector of society you ask about, between 20 and 35% of Iranians are unemployed. For a population that is very young (more than one third under 14) and highly educated (60% of university graduates are female) that is a huge problem. Young people who are bored and rebellious engage in similar behavior anywhere on the planet, and the result is sometimes troubling, especially if you sit next to a country that now, thanks to being “liberated” by the US, produces well over 90% of the world’s opium. The highly educated brain drain from Iran into countries such as the US is notorious. We saw obvious indicators of progress: Rural communities seemed prosperous. Iran started exporting wheat this year rather than importing it. Low-income areas in Southern Tehran, including the squatted neighborhoods where many Afghan refugees live (Iran had the world’s highest refugee population, many are now deported), did not look pretty but they were nothing compared to the slums I have seen for example in Ankara or Latin America. The IRI government spent more money on transportation during the last year than it did during the last 26 years. The indicators for that were clearly visible: all highways are being converted to four or six lane roads with median. Esfahan was a huge construction site because of the creation of a five-line metro. Train tunnels were being dug between Shiraz and Esfahan. There is obvious and incredible wealth In Northern Tehran. But overall the economy is not working. Prices are very similar to what they are in the US, housing costs are extremely high, leading to real estate speculation (leading to some of the wealth). Wages in most sectors are very low and many people work several jobs. While Iran needs to import just about everything, export is minimal and still mostly limited to oil (yes – there also are some nuts and carpets). But after 28 years of embargo on oil and gas technology, a country that used to produce 5 million barrels of crude oil a day in 1979, now produces 3.5 MB per day. Meanwhile the population has doubled to 65 million. As a result the nation that sits on the second largest gas and 4th largest oil reserves in the world, now has to import gasoline and began rationalizing gas use a few days before we got there. Everybody assured us that traffic was nothing compared to what it usually is. Some of this is greeted with relieve – traffic jams and air pollution are huge problems in major metropolitan areas. But the rationing creates additional headaches for people forced to commute between several jobs. It is unlikely to find Iranians who oppose the development of nuclear technology. It is seen as hope for the future and guarantee for long-term energy independence. We drove by the nuclear site outside of Natanz so close we could have touched it (with soldiers waving at us!), but I am sorry not to be able to report what exactly is buried there. I do know that many Iranians deeply resent to be treated so differently than the neighboring countries (including those occupied by the US) that surround them with nuclear weapons…
Highlights? The Moshir Al-Mamalek Garden Hotel in Yazd ( http://www.hotelgardenmoshir.com/defaultEn.aspx ): set in a still operating anar (pomegranate) orchard, complete with blue-tiled water channels and baad girs (wind towers for air conditioning). You can spend the night on outside platforms in the garden or in the rooms that have preserved the old architecture and design. The hotel is just outside of the desert town of Yazd, which in itself is a showcase in ancient adobe architecture and harmony. The place is on the national historical register, as are many of the old caravansaries and hammams (bathhouses), now converted into teahouses and hotels. As our guide points out: Iran could be a Nirvana for tourism. But then again – what would happen if it were? The kebab in the outdoor restaurant in Darband – Tehran’s gate to the Alborz Mountains. The air is fresh and cool thanks to the river and a multitude of sprinklers. The tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. The carpeted platforms and relative seclusion invite to party, to flirt or just to relax. If all else fails, you can take the cable car up into the mountains and in winter you can ski of course. Shiraz – the city of poets, flowers, picnics and the impossibility to be alone. Esfahan –meet half the world on bridges. Lose yourself there or in the mosques, bazaars and squares. The rainforest above the Caspian – a thick green surprise in wet coolness and fog. The art of daily life. Visible in the simply but breathtaking beauty of the mosques, the gardens, the ever-present poetry and music (where else do hundreds of people hang out at the shrines of poets who died ages ago but whose work everybody can recite?), the stylish dressers, the elaborate cooking and the fresh-baked bread combined with warm hospitality, the calligraphy, the miniatures painted under a magnifying glass with cat hair brushes on camel bone. The people, the people, the people. The Baluchi boys who play a make-belief “let’s trade watches” game with us. The bagpiper from Abadan who still has not recovered from the Iran/Iraq war. The Bazari who cheerfully exclaims, “Esfahan is the most beautiful city in the world – everybody knows!” The Azeri family who gives me apples after I promise to come to Tabriz on my next trip. The Kurds in cowboy hats who solicit Internet advice. The Gilaki woman who keeps a helpful eye on me until I finally board the airplane out of Tehran alone.