Monday was the 34th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis where 66 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. I was a young woman at the time going to college at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. At the time the university had several Iranian students, many were working on a petroleum engineering degree. In the previous two years before the Iranian Revolution, I had seen various protest marches against the Shah on campus. The protestors were usually young men wearing hoods over their faces and carrying signs protesting the brutality of the Shah. At the time I knew little about Iran or the Shah. Nearby was Reese Air Force Base where the Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, was attending flight training and was rumored to be dating a Texas Tech co-ed. [To learn more about his time in Lubbock.] The Shah of Iran was forced to leave Iran in mid-January, 1979. While the Shah was granted asylum in Egypt, several members of the Iranian royal family flew to Lubbock to join Reza. [Newspaper article about this.] Reza remained in Lubbock finishing his flight training until mid-March. Only a little more than six months later Iranian students would storm of the American Embassy in Tehran taking the American hostages. As the hostage crisis unfolded I continued to see the Iranian students in small clusters around the campus, usually in isolated locations at the main campus library. They did not wish to bring attention to themselves. Over the years I have learned that most Iranians attending colleges in America before the revolution chose to never return to Iran fearing death if they were to return. Today I can only imagine what these young men were discussing among themselves as they watched their country turn into the Islamic Republic. I am sure many did not imagine the changes that would take place once the Shah was forced into exile.
On Monday I listened an interview with Hooman Majd who has just released a new book about Iran called, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay. The title alone speaks volumes about the culture in Iran. Notice the extreme politeness in the demand. That is the Persian attitude I experienced in 2010. The need to always be polite. One of the most interesting moments in my trip was when I mentioned to my guide that I was amazed at the politeness and hospitality I experienced even when being asked to be finger printed at the airport. His gentle reply, “Gina, even the most extreme religious hard-liner in Iran would welcome you into their home and treat you like a special guest.”
As the nuclear talks in Geneva continue I can almost guarantee that if you were a ‘fly on the wall’ you would think the talks were between close friends. To support my theory, check out this image of Kerry when he met the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN General Assembly in September and you will see what I mean. [Link to image with Kerry and Zarif.]compare to [Link with Kerry and Netanyahu.] Even though the Americans and Iranians have a troubled past where apologies are needed from both sides, we can only hope that a path to greater understanding can now begin with a new and more moderate Iranian President.
I highly recommend listening to Hooman Majd’s interview with Dave Davies on Fresh Air to get a better understanding into this culture. I often believe that it is our cultural differences and the lack of understanding them that leads to the distrust among nations. Only by educating ourselves about one’s culture can we begin to understand each other. I haven’t had a chance to read Mr. Majd’s recent book, but found his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ to be an extremely resourceful book about Iran’s culture before my trip in 2009.
Another great interview on Fresh Air about Iran is called Meet the Iranian Commander Pulling Strings In Syria’s War. Incredible interview.
Upon returning from Iran in 2009 I wrote the following article about my experience:
Nothing screams attention more than announcing a trip to Iran, that foreboding and mystical country we Americans have been taught to regard with trepidation. So telling your friends you have just returned from there is a little like having your own E.F. Hutton moment. As an American woman traveling through a seemingly conservative Muslim country, many ears became perked in anticipation of stories about my journey.
Questions quickly begin to fly off everyone’s lips. “What made you want to go to Iran?” Which is closely followed by, “Weren’t you scared?” Although these are valid inquiries, I am saddened by the questions I am asked because it illustrates just how misunderstood Iran is in the Western world. Iran is a fascinating destination that holds countless treasures to delight even the most seasoned world traveler. Few people know that the world’s largest uncut diamond is contained within the walls of the NationalJewelsMuseum in Tehran, or that Marco Polo traveled throughout Iran on his adventure to China. Propaganda from both Iran and America has led many to believe that Westerners are not welcomed in this country. But in actuality, I was greeted with huge smiles and warm hellos everywhere I went, revealing the immense hospitality of Iranians. Furthermore, I encountered enough culture to keep my senses entertained and my mind peeked in curiosity during the duration of the trip.
For many years I have extensively journeyed to the four corners of the Earth, often bound for obscure regions most people would never dream of visiting. Along the way I have discovered a few things about the world. Firstly, the worst things you hear about a location are often greatly exaggerated or totally untrue. Secondly, the best cultural treasures are rarely mentioned in any travel book or brochure. Lastly, the only way to really learn about a country is by going there yourself. No television show, National Geographic magazine or web site lets you taste the food, talk to the people and smell life as it is happening.
From the very beginning Iran demanded my attention. I was well aware that I was entering a foreign country before I even exited the plane. Thirty minutes prior to the plane landing all the women onboard were instructed by the flight attendant to make sure their heads were covered before disembarking. Before boarding the plane in Frankfurt I had also groomed myself in a loose, long-sleeved, black tunic, called a manteau, to conceal my figure and pants to cover my legs. Only my face, hands and feet would be allowed to show any skin. I could not help but feel a little tinge of jealousy toward the men who had no such restrictions.
Before leaving for Iran I had read the headline stories about the recent protests over the June elections. Entering the country only a month later I was concerned they would view my professional camera, lens, and laptop suspiciously, but thankfully this was not at all the case. My only problem turned out to be a two-hour wait to be fingerprinted at the ImamKhomeiniInternationalAirport. Since the United States began fingerprinting visitors entering her borders, the same pleasure was extended to Americans entering into Iran. Even though this was a major inconvenience at two o’clock in the morning, the custom officials were always polite and continued to repeat, “No worry, no problem.”
As an American I was also required to have a guide at all times. I prefer to travel independently so I can move at my own pace and choose my personal itinerary, but in Iran my guide greatly enhanced my experience. Hamid’s English was impeccable, and he was extremely knowledgeable about Iran. Within a few days I was glad to have a guide by my side to answer my questions, to help bridge the language gap with the locals and to show me the places missed in my Lonely Planet Guide.
My first destination after Tehran was Yazd in Central Iran. Yazd dates back to 399-421 A.D. and is considered by some historians to be the ‘oldest living city on Earth.’ Marco Polo passed through Yazd in the 13th century when it was the center of commerce between Central Asia and India. The ancient city with sandstone mud brick buildings almost felt deserted, but little has changed since Marco Polo walked these streets. As I strolled around the city, tall wind towers called badgers rose high above my head. They were designed to provide homes with cool air by redirecting the air caught from above over the water stored below. Elaborate underground water channels called quants, dug more than 2,000 years ago, provide the city’s dwellers with water from the ShirKuhMountains. Yazd is also home to the Zoroastrian religion. Although there are few loyal followers today an ancient fire temple and the Towers of Silence still stand on the outskirts of town. Until the 1960s, Zoroastrians used the towers for sky funerals, in which corpses were left inside the stone towers for vultures to pick clean. It is believed that the Three Wise Men from the Bible were Zoroastrian magi.
One only needs to view Persian rugs to know that Iranians have always been gifted artists. Each and every mosque, palace, mausoleum, or shrine was a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. The exquisite and intricate designs dazzled my eyes and senses. One building that completely mesmerized me was Shrin of Imamzadeh Ali ibn Hmazeh in Shiraz. The holy site reflects shades of green, blue and red with millions of tiny reflective tiles. I felt as though I had been thrown inside a gigantic crystal bowl, swimming amongst colors swirling all around me.
The pinnacle of beauty is Esfahan, speckled by dazzling mosques and majestic palaces. This beautiful city captivates both foreign and Iranian tourists alike. My camera was kept so busy that it would have been smoking if it had a motor. From the AliQapuPalace to the Imam Mosque my eyes almost became dizzy from the plethora of colors and shapes. I was almost relieved that these sights closed for a mid-afternoon break to help me rejuvenate and refocus. Even the Jameh Mosque which was built more than 900 years ago, made up for its lack of color with elegant and complex geometric designs.
Before leaving on my trip I took the time to read a few books on Iran. One of the most surprising facts was that the word paradise comes from the Farsi word pairidaeza, meaning ‘walled garden.’ Dating back to Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C. Persians have had a deep cultural tie to the walled gardens, which later inspired the gardens and courtyards in Europe. Persians believe that their gardens bring balance to their lives. On the outside of these magnificent havens there is a vast, unrelenting desert, but inside all kinds of life thrives. Near Kashan I visited the famous FinGarden, which reflects all the ancient elements in design. Large vaulted arches provide an area of harmony between the outer and interior areas. The garden is divided into four sections by fountains. Each section contains both sunlight and shade from large cypress trees. These aesthetic elements provide the visitor with a place for both leisure and spiritual practice.
The most renown and visited site in Iran is Persepolis. It gained world fame in modern times when Shah Mohammad Rez Pahlavi celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy in 1971. The elaborate celebration came complete with a tent city that included marble floors for sixty monarchs and heads of state. The shah used the occasion to promote Iran to the world, but it also displayed to the Iranian public the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by their king. This created an atmosphere for his opponents to promote their cause and brought the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty eight years later.
Darius the Great began construction on Persepolis around 518 B.C. for the Achaemenian Empire. Its completion ended more than a century later with his son Xerxes. Once finished, Persepolis was used for receptions and ceremonial festivities until Alexander the Great’s army burned it to the ground around 330 B.C. Even though major excavations did not begin until the 1930s visitors have found their way to these ruins since the 1800s. This is verified by signatures such as Sir Henry Stanley of the New York Herald in 1870.
I entered Persepolis through the same gate that visitors paying homage to the king used centuries ago called, “The Gate of All Nations.” Colossal bulls with Assyrian human heads guarded this gateway. Even though my entrance was not accompanied by trumpets, as delegates from the past, I was awed by the experience. My first response to my guide was, “You must never get tired of coming here!” There is simply too much to absorb in just one visit, but I did my best.
During Xerxes’ reign visitors were escorted into the ApadanaPalace for receptions. The palace once contained seventy-two columns stretching high into the sky as though they touched the Gods themselves. Only fourteen remain today serving as a testament to the grandeur Persepolis once possessed. At the east end to the palace the Apadana Staircase provides visitors with a pictorial account to the Achaemenid Empire’s New Year festival celebrated during every spring equinox. Thankfully the staircase was covered in sand and ash from the wooden roof for centuries leaving it well preserved. The reliefs along the walls depict men from twenty-three nations carrying gifts for the king. Some of the gifts depicted in the carving are gold, silver, animals, jewelry, vases and woven fabrics. The two common threads that link each figure are unity and peace. Men hold hands in friendship and companionship. It must have been a joyous occasion for all those involved.
Records show that after conquering the Persian Empire Alexander the Great commanded 10,000 of his soldiers- including himself – to marry Persian women. The reasoning behind this may have been to unite the two countries, but it could also have been because he saw something uniquely special in the Persians. This is true even today and offers the real reason for visiting Iran, namely its wonderful people, which constitutes the biggest surprise about this striking country. They are the ones that will have you talking about Iran long after pictures have been placed in an album and put on the shelf.
The Persian attitude toward fellow citizens dates back to Cyrus the Great, who made the first declaration to human rights. Inside the BritishMuseum in London visitors can see a clay cylinder in which is engraved the monarch’s belief in respecting all mankind, and in promoting religious tolerance and freedom. A replica of the cylinder is also kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Today hospitality toward foreigners and guests is still a vital part of Iranian etiquette. Even though I tried to dress like a typical Iranian woman, my appearance still screamed ‘Western Tourist.’ Despite this, I was never shown so much as a frown or even a hostile shrug. I was typically greeted with friendly hellos and great curiosity. Whenever I was in a public place young people would approach and say, “Where are you from?” and “How do you like Iran?” Those who did not speak English approached me through my guide. Once they heard I was from the United States I was always greeted with a welcoming smile followed by, “Salam aleyko.” When I asked Hamid why everyone was so friendly he replied, “Even the strictest clergy member would welcome you into his home and treat you like an honored guest.”
Iran is a country of constant contradictions. It is a strict Islamic country with an austere theocracy, yet the majority of Iranians are not stringent Muslims. In fact, you can probably visit any other Muslim country and find more people in the mosques at Friday prayers than in Iran. I have visited eight Muslim countries, but this was the first place where I was not awoken each dawn with the call to prayer. I rarely saw men stopping during the day to roll out their prayer rugs. This partly stems from the fact that Iranians are Shiite and not Sunni Muslims. Unlike Sunnis that pray five times a day, Shiites only pray three times a day. Shiites are sometimes referred to as ‘Twelvers.’ When Mohammed died, the spiritual leadership passed to twelve descendants of the prophet, known as imams. From these twelve men the first, third, and eighth are most recognized by the devout followers in Iran. You are more likely to see a picture of these men than one of Mohammed in the typical Iranian home. Iran also has a strong cultural tie to martyrdom through their religion. To understand this you need to examine the third imam, Hossein. In 680 AD he and seventy-two followers were besieged for nine days in what is now modern Iraq. On the tenth day all were killed on the battlefield of Karbala making them martyrs for Islam. During the Iran-Iraq War thousands of men and boys sacrificed their lives for their country by walking through fields to clear the landmines. Today they are modern martyrs, their faces painted on the sides of buildings and plastered over billboards in every town and city.
During my trip, Hamid offered me a chance to meet his niece and nephew who had recently opened a modern coffee and ice cream shop on a busy shopping corner in Karaj. The only hint that I was not in a Western coffee shop was given by the female patrons, with their loosely worn head scarves. I enjoyed the house special – saffron ice cream with carrot juice – while observing the locals from a table on the second floor next to a plate glass window.
In the West we have come to think that most Iranian women are forced to conform to a strict religious dress code. Instead, I was amazed at how modern and sexy most women passing by the shop looked. Even though their tunics or manteaus went below their buttocks, it was often worn very tightly to expose their figure with a matching stylish head scarf. While I did see many women in the traditional black chador, in cities the stylish girls outnumbered them. Even when I visited the bazaars in the more conservative towns such as Yazd, I saw sexy hip hugging jeans for sale along with the traditional black jilbabs. As I sat enjoying my last spoonful of ice cream a fashionable young woman passed by in high heels, designer sunglasses, a skin tight purple spandex top and long curly locks cascading down her back. I turned to Hamid and asked, “Is she within the religious dress code?” With a hearty laugh he replied, “No, none of them are.” When the Islamic Republic first installed their new dress code requirements in 1980, women were expected to completely cover all their hair and wear a loose, long, dark coat that reached to their ankles. It was obvious, ‘This is not your father’s Islamic Republic.’
That evening I was invited to a Persian style picnic by the ShurRiver. Picnics are extremely popular in Iran and a main source of entertainment for most Persians. Nestled among the trees, loosely constructed medal frames lined the river’s edge. For a small fee an area complete with Persian style pillows and rugs can be rented for a few hours. Among my guide’s friends and family we laughed and shared stories the whole evening. By the end of the evening I felt more like I had spent the night with close friends than with new acquaintances.
During my two-week stay in Iran, feeling comfortable with the locals had become the norm. I was fortunate to stay with four different families from diverse economic backgrounds. At each visit I felt as though I was a long lost relative returning home. Relatives and neighbors all came to welcome me and often invited me to their own homes for a visit. Special food was bought and served at the meals along with every comfort imaginable. Saying a polite, “No, thank you,” at a third serving was greeted with a winning smile and ample food still being piled onto my plate. The host family often offered me presents as I was leaving along with warm hugs and kisses on both cheeks.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that this article will suddenly spark a wave of tourism to Iran. The country still possesses many obstacles for the average traveler. I do hope that it will inspire one to adventure a little off the main route to explore an unfamiliar area. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Unexpected surprises await the curious traveler in places totally unforeseen. Friendships will sprout and grow where you once thought it was impossible. Iran came with so many surprises that she has become a siren calling me to return and discover more hidden charms. Unlike those in Ulysses’ Odyssey, I now know Iran will not cast me into destruction.