Please walk into the fingerprinting room,” the immigration officer says, smiling. I am with a group of five Americans, and we are the only ones who need to be fingerprinted for some reason — even though there are other foreigners coming into the country. But I have traveled enough, so I do not ask questions. The officials are very polite, friendly and smiling — almost as amused about the experience as we are. The process takes about 45 minutes, and we walk out of the Imam Khomeini International Airport to find our smiling guide, Mohammed, waiting.
The drive to Tehran takes about an hour-and-a-half, and the only significant monument we pass on the way to town is the new Mausoleum for the Ayatollah Khomeini, a huge, sprawling mosque with a golden roof, a shopping center and an amusement park that looks almost like a small city. So much for a simple mullah who was there for the people, my cynical mind tells me.
Along the route, I think about the flight from Frankfurt. The 747 was packed, and as we got closer and closer to our destination, all the women on the plane started to pull out scarves and cover their heads. When we landed, the flight looked like a totally different mix: The women were now covered in black or gray, but underneath they were wearing designer clothes and plenty of bright-red lipstick, Hermès scarves and designer bags.
Tehran is just like every other metropolis, with traffic and pollution; it has nearly 12 million people. I take a walk through the park next to the hotel and do not get too far inside before people start asking me, “Where are you from?”
When I respond, “USA,” their eyes light up, and they tell me how much they love America and want to know more about where I come from. This happens over and over, so my desire to walk for an hour provides a chance for pleasant interactions with the local people. Surprisingly, women are walking alone in the park and stop for a chat as well.
Wait a minute, I am thinking. I thought Iran would be like Northern Pakistan and certain areas of Afghanistan, where women turn their backs and walk away from foreigners. But here they want to chat; here they want to ask questions; here they are not afraid to talk about their government; and yes, here they wear the scarf, but the scarf is way back, and designer sunglasses, makeup and smiles abound. Some people even tell me how much they love Obama, Clinton, Reagan and even George Bush (in that order). This repeats in every city in Iran, even in the remote mountain villages.
Learning to cross the street in the city is an acquired skill, and it takes nerves of steel because there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. What you need to do is start walking slowly and the cars will drive around you. I am used to this, because crossing the street in Vietnam — where I’ve visited several times — is the exactly the same.
I see plenty from all over the world here; Tehran is a “jumping-off point” for tourists. There are a number of museums and other sites to visit, but the one that is most impressive is the National Jewelry Museum, which houses the 182-carat, pink-colored diamond of Darya-ye-Noor and the bejeweled Peacock Throne, or Takhte Tavous, which was built during the reign of Fathali (1797–1834).
Based on the limited exposure to Iran that we have as Americans, it’s easy to think that its society is repressed. But with the exception of women wearing scarves (including the women in our group and other tourists), there seems to be no feeling of being in a fundamentalist Islamic country like there is in Afghanistan. There are plenty of mullahs (educated Muslims trained in religious law and doctrine) around, but no one seems to really care much. While the mullahs dress mostly in dark blue or black suits, the younger men wear blue jeans and T-shirts bearing Western logos, such as the Chicago Bulls basketball team. The thing that surprises me, though, is seeing couples holding hands and kissing in public.
The only place in the city that seems to me to be in the twilight zone is the old U.S. embassy. Here is where all the anti-American graffiti is located, and once in a while there is an arranged anti-American demonstration. Most people I talk to are actually embarrassed about this and do not want to dwell on the topic. I take a taxi to the embassy and the driver tells me, “These are crazy people; do not listen to them. We love America.”
From Tehran we fly to Ahvaz, a small city 100 miles from the western border of Iraq. Then, an all-day drive takes us to Shiraz — a beautiful city with flowers everywhere; the air has an exotic perfume aroma that reminds me of the Shalimar gardens in Kashmir, India. I’m on the fifth day of my 15-day journey in the country. Shiraz, a city of 1.4 million located in the southeastern part of the country, was once the capital of Persia and is known as the “city of gardens” and as the birthplace of the poet Hafiz.
The city smells of roses because it seems that every street and sidewalk is lined with flowers. Here is where the famous mystic poets Saadi and Hafiz lived and wrote their poetry. Hafiz’s tomb is in a wonderful garden. In the afternoon we visit, and as usual the area is packed with people of all ages visiting the tomb and asking the poet to help them find true love.
I see three beautiful Iranian girls (dressed to kill) at the tomb reading books, and I start joking with them. They are not shy at all and speak excellent English. They tell me they are students here in Shiraz and visit the tomb often because they are looking to meet the loves of their lives and hopefully find husbands. As I leave they jokingly shout at me, “Do you want to marry all three of us?”
In stark contrast to Shiraz’s history of beauty and poetry, I see large posters lined up along the main thoroughfare, Nader Road, with the solemn faces of dead soldiers, and it is difficult not to look into the dark eyes staring out from the photos. In a number of sun-faded photos the eyes are the only thing visible, and looking carefully I realize that the person in one of them is a very young man without any facial hair — a boy maybe only 14 or 16 years old who walked in front of Iraqi bullets and died for the fatherland. I imagine the promises of eternal heaven made by some imam or ayatollah that compelled this boy to take up arms in the first place.
I ask some people on the street about these posters, and their reaction is sadness, frustration and resentment toward the people who send these men to their deaths but also anger toward Saddam Hussein, who started the war against Iran.
As we drive along, the stern face of the Ayatollah Khomeini comes into view. It is painted on a huge wall, and, as usual, he is looking down at the people. Every city has these oversize portraits in key locations. He never smiles, never shows a sign of compassion; all you see is a harsh expression and anger in his eyes, which is completely the opposite of what I am experiencing with the local people.
We depart from Shiraz, and after an hour of driving I see the giant columns of Persepolis rising out of the desert, and they look like a mirage. As we get closer I realize how large Persepolis must have been. Being Greek, I try to imagine Alexander the Great arriving here almost 2,500 years ago with a huge army and cutting the Gordian knot as told in legend. The art and stone carvings make this a very popular place for Iranians to visit, and many school kids are here today on a field trip. A number of times we are surrounded by kids smiling and asking questions in English. They are joyous, curious and very polite. I’m amazed at how clean and well taken care of everything is.
Despite my expectations, the highways in Iran are in beautiful condition. We continue on and cover a lot of territory, fortunate to be able to visit some of the nomads in the country’s central Zagros Mountains. While the tribes for hundreds of years walked across the mountains’ different pastures in the spring and fall, now they just load everything on a truck — including their sheep — then drive to their summer home. Most of these friendly and hospitable people are tribal-nomadic Bakhtiyaris.
It’s day 10, and after an eight-hour drive from Yasuj, we arrive at the remote mountain village of Kuhrang, where many of the Bakhtiyari nomads gather for the summer. Khurag is a small mountain village. The hotel we stay at for the next two nights reminds me of a small Swiss chalet from the 1960s — simple but clean and with good food. It’s June, and the weather is cold and snowy. We are the only Westerners here because this village is “off the grid” for most Western tourists. Iranians come to the town for skiing.
My group connects with a large nomadic family on the outskirts of the town where an elderly lady dressed in black insists that we go into their tent for tea and some “drinks,” never asking for anything in return. The nomads are a very hardy people, and the conditions they endure make me appreciate the easy life we have here in Marin.
On day 11, we arrive in Isfahan, which is the center of the greatest concentration of Islamic monuments in Iran. “Hey, there is Starbucks coffee,” one of my co-adventurers, Andrea Eddy from Colorado, says to me with an excitement in her voice that only a true coffee lover has. We are in the Armenian quarter of the city and there is a great coffee shop, where they do serve Starbucks coffee, cappuccinos and lattes. We go inside and hear the latest rock music from Europe and the U.S. playing. I ask the shopkeeper how they get the coffee here, and she says they get anything they want, apparently either from Europe or Dubai, and that’s true — they have everything. So much for the sanctions.
Isfahan is one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited. The history and charm is difficult to describe in words. The main square, called Naqsh-e Jahan, or Imam Square, is among the largest in the world; it looks to me like something out of a Disney movie. The famous Blue Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace are imposing and gorgeous. Around the perimeter of the square is the bazaar, which to me it is one of the most unique I have ever been to — an absolutely wonderful mixture of old and new. The aroma of spices and foods scents the air, and I visit shops — which look like they have been here since the beginning of time — filled with antiques, souvenirs and tea. The square is also interesting in that it is apparently where the game of polo was invented during the Safavid era (1502–1736).
At one point I begin to hear loud music from the end of the square, and it sounds like people are crying. I, and a lot of others, go to look. It is a gathering to commemorate the death of a saint. About 30 men and a few women dressed in black are actually forcing themselves to cry, and the men are hitting their chests with their fists while walking around the square. Eventually, the sounds fade in the distance and everyone goes back to work after touching their hearts with their right hands as a sign of respect. There are so many shrines, mosques and decorative arches with beautiful tile work; I could have stayed a week in this city.
Our drive back to Tehran is along a new highway that puts to shame some of the best roads in California. It is well built and clean, and the scenery beautiful to view while driving across the desert. The road is busy, with buses and cars going back and forth. There are a number of roadblocks with police checking drivers’ permits and licenses. At the police stops I walk around the buses, and many people — especially young children — lean out the bus windows and ask, “Where are you from?” When I tell them the U.S., they immediately give us the thumbs-up and say how much they love America.
We drive all day with a brief stop at Qom, the second holiest city of Iran (and a focal center of Shi’a around the globe), but unfortunately we are not allowed to enter the mosque; we are only allowed to see it from outside. Qom is also home to the largest madrasa, or theological college, in Iran (it has 45,000 clerics), and many of the country’s famed religious scholars have studied here, including the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Finally, we arrive at the airport. Our flight out of Iran to Europe leaves at 4 a.m., and even at that hour as soon as the aircraft leaves the ground the scarves start to fly off the heads of the women, and the fancy French makeup re-emerges from the carry-on bags.
As I settle in to the five-and-a-half-hour flight, I begin to reflect on my visit. Although the U.S. State Department has issued a warning for Americans not to travel to Iran, the whole time in the country I never encountered a moment of hostility, not an ounce of resentment; I never felt unsafe. Iran is a wonderful place, and I would not hesitate to return for a visit anytime.