15 May 2007

Iran: Axis of Ish?

Good Allah, where did these last two weeks go? I think just about 7 minutes ago I was headed to Tehran via Dubai. And now I’m back. I returned yesterday morning at 10:30 after spending a sleepless night at the Dubai International Airport. I arrived there at midnight the night before, and it was 35 degrees Celsius at that time!

When I learned of a possible opportunity to visit Iran a few months ago I decided to worm my way in and see if it really could happen. Somehow, the day before we left for Iran, the Iranian-Jordanian woman who “invited” me got me a visa from the embassy in Amman. So off I went with two other Americans, an Irish woman, an Australian and about 25 Jordanians. Our flight left Amman quite behind schedule, and we didn’t arrive in Tehran until the sun was coming up on the 2nd of May. The airport there is like Amman’s: it’s a bit out of the city. On the way into Tehran we drove past Imam Khomeini’s shrine and the large mosque complex being built around it. P told us that her mother is buried at the cemetery adjacent to the mosque.

The Jordanians who had not visited Iran before said they were nervous about kidnapping and terrorism. It struck us Westerners as ironic that Jordanians were having the same conversation about Iran that we’d had about Jordan at some point in our lives. In a way, I think we were more prepared than they were. The 5 of us have been in Jordan between 8 months and 2 years now. We are used to living in a country where we suck with the language, where things are foreign and thus unpredictable, and where we stand out because of how we appear or how we speak. In addition, most of the women on the trip (in their 50s, 60s and 70s) had never worn the hijab! Required by law in Iran for all women over age 9, I think we all found it a burden, especially in the hot southern cities. Certainly we all felt our foreignness.

I must admit that the Lonely Planet I picked up made me less excited about the trip with each page. The LP made Iran sound like a bleak place where people occupy their time oppressing one another, inventing scams to defraud tourists, and drive as though they have no reason to live or let live. Before I read the LP, I figured as much. I assumed that Iran would be bleak and stark because of its isolation. Now, I did have to go with a tour, and they did not take us to unhappy places of course. Still, the beauty and sheer creative spirit of Iranians was a welcome if shocking surprise. What I mean is that instead of living a stripped down, Cold War kind of life as a result of sanctions, Iranians have simply made what they need in-house. The result is a unique and vibrant country. Tehran seemed to me a combination of the vibrancy of Beirut with the safety of Amman. Iran is not in need for cash or water (I am guessing), and the abundant and immaculate public green spaces continually reinforced this. Iranians in all the cities we visited took advantage of the beautiful weather and blooming plants to picnic. In fact, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that Iran is a country of professional-grade picnickers. I tossed the LP in my suitcase after only 2 days and didn’t consult it again. Still, even on our contained and highly-produced tour I could sense that there was an undercurrent of oppression. But, we neither felt nor saw too much of it. So rather than try to analyze the culture and politics of Iran I’ll tell you what I saw and what we did, and I’ll add that every single person I met was extremely kind to me. I told all but one who asked where I’m from, and the response of the Iranians was to welcome me, and to thank me for coming to see their country. (The only person I fibbed to was the security woman at the Khomeini shrine in Tehran. I felt a sudden desire to obscure my origins when I was standing in a crucifixion position being patted down by this un-smiling woman.)

We spent our first few days in Tehran touring gardens and palaces and rug shops and eating great food. We went to the Shaw’s house, we drove around neighborhoods that reminded me of Alta Dena, we ate saffron ice cream, we listened to the carpet-sellers speeches over and over. 141 knots per square centimeter, that’s the maximum a carpet can have. I will take this knowledge to my grave! Some Jordanians bargained and bargained, but then said Khlass, and walked away. Others spent 10,000 USD on 1 or 2 pieces. We split off into our cliques, but still mingled at meal times or as we walked through gardens. A few of the Jordanians took an interest in my Arabic studies. One never again spoke English to me once he learned that I’m trying to learn, one indulged all of my lame questions, and one who spent time helping me increase my vocabulary cracked me up because he would only ask one question at each site we went to: “Do they have a unisex (fill in noun here)?” A unisex loo, a unisex garden, a unisex rug shop. For some reason, it made me laugh every time this nice, 70 year-old Jordanian man would ask such an absurd question! B is the kind of man who wears formal shirts and slacks every day of the year, even when we went to Persepolis and it was ungodly hot. So, he caught me off guard the first time he told me to come and sit next to him. He said, “Come sit here! I’m a 70 year-old man, nothing is going to pop out of my pants. Now let’s speak in Arabic…” Very funny and great man to have on trips like this.

This is Golistan Palace in Tehran. It was our first of many garden visits. I must admit, I never tired of the gardens in Iran. The only thing that could improve them is if they had kids running around with thermoses of coffee like we have in Jordan. Forget the whale liver, this would be my paradise. We cruised all around Tehran with our amazing bus drivers, Yosef and Rasoul. We went to a carpet museum and marveled at all the young women who must have gone blind making amazing silk rugs. We went to a museum where they rooms filled with glittering furniture topped with pictures of important historical figures (?!).We drove on and I saw my first anti-American iconography. I was reticent to snap a picture, but the image was of an American flag on the side of a tall building. On top of the flag was a rainstorm of missiles, which became skulls as they neared the bottom of the building. Below that it said “Down with America and Israel.” It actually made me laugh. Not because I don’t believe there are people who sincerely subscribe to this, but because this to me is no different from Bush and his mantra of “We have to fight them there so they don’t follow us home,” or what ever he says. Our first hotel was close to the American Den of Espionage. It was exciting to be in a place where so much intense history had occurred in my lifetime.

After 3 days in Tehran we headed north to the Caspian Sea. I liked this part of the trip a lot, but I was evidently in the minority. We winded through mountains covered in newly green trees and wild flowers. There were rivers running along side of us. They were muddy, and I assume this is because there was a lot of rain a few days before and there were catastrophic problems with flooding. In fact, as we drove into the areas of rice cultivation I could see edges of once-square rice fields had been torn away by the water. By this point one of the Jordanians with an insatiable need for attention had discovered that she could “sing”/scream into the microphone without restriction. As we drove through the most amazing forests I’ve ever seen she was standing at the front of the bus yelling into an amplification device. Our time in the north was filled with complaints from most of the Jordanians that “we are seeing nothing!” An interesting cultural difference, I guess. Undisturbed nature = nothing. Development = something.
There were little villages here and there. We stopped and had coffee in one. There was a woman who crocheted beautiful shawls and sold them in her little grocery store. In Ramsar where we stayed, there were hot springs and lots of parks filled with curious school children. It was in Ramsar that an Iranian first asked me where I’m from. I told her I’m American and she got wide-eyed and asked, “Really?!?” Yes. She stood frozen for a moment and then reached out and touched my face as if to check that I’m real. She put her hand out to shake mine and said, “Welcome to Iran, we are honored that you are here.” She was the only one who spoke any English, so it was up to her to tell the others who had since gathered that I’m American. One by one they touched my face and then asked to have a picture taken with me. This happened everywhere we went, in fact. I quickly developed a routine. When asked by a woman, I would take her hand, smile really big and say, “I’m from America.” In return she would smile really big and ask me my opinion on Iran and the Iranian people. Every person I spoke to in the last 2 weeks wanted to know what I think about Iranian people. These are the exchanges that give me hope and the ability to sleep at night. Simple human contact can do so much to undo the “we have to fight them there…” and the “down with the USA” stuff. Human kindness makes borders irrelevant.

Our too-brief visit to the village of Masuleh was one of the highlights of the trip for me. They have a nice museum with a cute boy working there. They had a post card from San Francisco inexplicably displayed at the entrance. The village is precariously built into the steep mountains that surround them, and a river runs through the middle of the town. I can’t imagine how much it must snow there! On the drive from Masouleh to Rasht we were surrounded by rice fields and families picnicking. Everyone was enjoying the watermelons that were abundantly available. All the families that saw our bus pass by waved to us and smiled. I found the north to be restful and serene. In Rasht we had dinner and a walk. One Jordanian and several of us ex-pats walked along a street that looked like Portland Oregon. A couple stopped to talk with us. The man wanted to practice English, but upon learning my nationality wanted to know all about my perceptions of Iran. We talked and talked. He eventually helped H negotiate her purchase of some gold earrings. We said good night to them, and walked on. I was sad to leave Rasht. The city is beautiful, and the cookies are great too. They sell these wonderful biscuits filled with warm nut-meal mixed with honey. I bought 7 of these sweet (and filling) cookies for about 1 USD. I lived on those for the next few days.

We drove back to Tehran to the “old” airport and flew to Shiraz. Shiraz was overall my favorite place in Iran. Our tour guide told us that they still produce Shiraz in Shiraz, but it is all exported. Can you imagine? Shiraz is where the poet Hafez is buried. Quite close to the Gulf, it was hot there, but not as bad as I thought it would be. By this time it was 35 in Amman, and the airport was closed due to dust storms, so I reckon it was a good time to be in Shiraz! From Shiraz it is about 2 hours to Persepolis. It was quite hot by the time we went, and the Jordanians were not pleased. They spent 20 minutes of our limited time walking up the steps to the city entrance. I split off and walked around by myself because I wanted to see as much as possible. We only had about 2 hours there! I was also able to beat them to the beautiful inscriptions and remaining structures and get lots of pictures with out people in them. I never made it up to the Petra-like structures, but at least I got to see them in person. We drove further north (?) and saw more structures that look like Petra. I should be able to tell you if they are similar in age, and even what they are called, but I can’t. We had very limited time there, and by this point most of the people stayed on the bus to try and recover from their hike around Persepolis.

We flew from Shiraz to Esfhan, or Isfahan. Our tour guide told us not to spend our souvenir money in Shiraz because there was better shopping in Esfhan. I purchased two silk scarves in Shiraz, and I’m glad I did because I found the shopping in Shiraz to be much better. Esfhan, however, is famous for miniatures. Here is the big plaza in Esfhan, and in the bottom right corner is the grand mosque which is oriented to Mecca. We walked around the plaza each day we where there. There is a bazaar at the periphery of the plaza, but as far as I saw they sold tourist kitsch. Esfhan reminded me of Wadi Musa. There were plenty of English-speaking merchants who put forth faux hospitality in order to sell a rug or key chain. What I liked about Esfhan was the river and bridges. On our last night there we had ice cream and walked around one of the bridges. As the sun set I heard a group of men sitting along the water and singing. They were really great! I spent K’s birthday in Esfhan. On that day we went to shops that sell miniatures painted on camel bone. I purchased two for him. Some of the miniatures I saw were dreadful, and some were amazing works of art that were well out of my price range. I was no longer a millionaire by the time we arrived in Esfhan. (It cost me 5 USD to use the internet for 15 minutes at the hotel.) We flew from Esfhan to Tehran, and had a few more days in Tehran before coming back to Jordan. I will say here that Iranian airport security is hit or miss. When I put my bags on the x-ray machine and walked through the metal detector, it beeped. The security woman was plucking her eyebrows, and she turned around to me and asked, “Do you swear to Allah that you have nothing you should not in your bags?” I told her that as far as I knew I had nothing that is disallowed. I took my bags and went though. Later I discovered that I had a box of matches and my pocket knife in my purse!

Back in Tehran again, we saw more tourist sites. Our tour guide told us that the apartment buildings on the left of this picture used to be shaped such that from the air one could read something good about the Shaw. Since the revolution, though, additional building was undertaken to destroy the message. Many people wanted to go to the Jewel Museum. It was quite a process to get in. In a large vault in the basement of a bank, I rushed through the crowded windowless room and sat outside. Too many people in a closed space for me! The jewels are lovely, though. They have miniature paintings on little enameled boxes just like all the things K and I have seen at the V and A. I tried to find a book about the boxes for him, but they only have books about the Peacock Throne and their other big ticket items. Alas. Me and thee others split from the group and headed to the bazaar in Tehran while the others went back to the hotel to check out. The bazaar reminded me of the big souk in Damascus. There were endless isles filled with shoppers and eye candy. We tried to part ourselves with our money. As we were walking through a young man asked me where I’m from. Seeing no other tourists, and quite unsure where I was I was hesitant, but I told him I’m from Los Angeles. He smiled and welcomed me. He told me he was glad that I came to see Iran for myself and he wanted to know what I thought of the country. I told him that everyone had been nothing other than kind and friendly, and that what I saw was exquisitely beautiful. He said he was glad to hear this, and wished me a safe trip back home. Done shopping, and finally having emerged onto the street again, we took a taxi to the Jewel Museum and met the others. From there we headed to the airport.

What I didn’t have was any opportunity to speak with people who are poor and don’t benefit from Iran’s oil money. I didn’t feel a large sense of repression except for the last few hot days when I wanted to rip the hijab off my head and demand that the men around me in t-shirts put on a long-sleeved shirt or get out of my site. At one point some Jordanians were playing cards in a public café and they were told they could not because cards are forbidden. And that’s it. What I will remember fondly about Iran is that the universities are free. They have cheap petrol, but they restrict access. People are given cards which allow them only so many liters per month. So, though it is cheap to drive, people drive small cars that pollute less. I like that a lot. Every day the government announces the prices of produce on TV, and the prices are fixed. A banana costs the same in Shiraz as it does in Rasht (so I’m told). This also means that many things cost the same for tourists as locals, and there was much less hassle for us. Of course even though many things had price tags I still asked to pay less and was always obliged. Iran is very affordable for tourists. In Shiraz I purchased 2 meters of green organza that has beading and embroidery along the edges. It’s beautiful, and it cost me 16 USD! In Esfhan we met a New Zealander who speculated that the reason we saw so few tourists around Iran is because it’s definitely not a party destination. I’m sure the lack of beer is a deterrent for many Westerners. Still, I saw young Iranians in co-ed groups out smoking and eating ice cream. I saw people making out in parks. Many people held hands. Men and women cannot sit together on the bus, but they can work together in a café, and walk alone along the rivers and bridges. I will spend a lot of time trying to understand what I saw. I’m still giddy and honored that I was able to visit. When the man stamped my passport as we prepared to depart I told him “Thank you for letting me visit,” and he said, “Any time!” Not likely. In trying to come to her own understanding about Iran, one Jordanian remarked at her surprise about how nice Iran was. “Iran,” she said to me, “you call it the ‘Axis of ish’?”


Blogger Miss Carousel said...

what a gorgeous place! thanks for the story and fantastic photos. i'm particularly fond of the river-side night shot. lovely.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Your flickr pictures are amazing, as is your narrative. What an experience! KM made a Google Earth tour of your itinerary, so we actually followed you along. I was particularly struck by the different reactions of your group to the tree-filled north. I suppose your "native" climate/geography influences what you appreciate and prefer. I'm glad your personal experiences were good, and hopeful. We could all use some hope these days.

8:07 PM  

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