Persian Dreams - Visiting Iran
Terry McCarthy and Jessica McCarthy
Khaju Bridge in Esfahan (Photo Tiffany Tong)
Iran in the minds of many Americans comes close to the heart of darkness, and yet a trip by 19 members of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council to Iran from October 15th-28th came away with a very different impression of this ancient country. People went out of their way to welcome us when they discovered we were Americans, and spoke scornfully of the continued anti-American propaganda mouthed by their government leaders. Many of our group had been warned by anxious relatives not to come to Iran, or had been asked to email home every day to reassure their family they were safe. Yet very quickly after arriving in Tehran all apprehension evaporated in the face of the enthusiastic openness to Americans. We felt we were in a different country from what is often portrayed in the media.
Few societies have such a gulf between the dour rigor of their ruling elite and the pragmatic optimism of the general population as does Iran. For sure the ruling clergy fear the effects of westernizing influence and take a dark view of any dealings with America that could endanger their theocratic control. Indeed coincidentally on the day our tour started a dual Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, was arrested - apparently as a warning to Iranian-Americans that the signing of the nuclear deal did not mean that all the old hostility against the "Great Satan" had been buried. But there are still hordes of Iranian-American businessmen shuttling between Dubai and Tehran seeking business deals, and Americans without any Iranian heritage seem to face no risks at all. Mention the term "the Great Satan" to ordinary Iranians and they just burst out in laughter.
Younger Iranians increasingly forego praying at the mosque or fasting at Ramadan and are more interested in doing business with the outside world, partying in private homes, and setting up a VPN (virtual private network) on their computers so they can access officially-banned sites like Facebook and CNN. The younger generation regard the conservative clerics with a mix of disdain and resignation. "Religion is just a tool they use to control people and hold on to power," one taxi driver said in Teheran. He was more interested in talking about his favorite soccer team, Barcelona, and how they would rank against other top European teams.
Women are still required to wear hijab - a scarf - over their hair when they leave their homes to prevent them inciting lascivious thoughts amongst innocent men incapable of resisting feminine wiles. The women in the LAWAC group quickly learned how to twist a scarf over their heads on the streets. Many Iranian women will allow the scarf to slip further and further back on their heads, deliberately exposing waves of well-coiffed hair. At some point they will correct this shocking display of femininity with a flick at the scarf to cover their hair again, accompanied by a small facial grimace to broadcast each and every micro-protest against the stultifying orthodoxy they lampoon in private. During a religious parade in the city of Isfahan, LAWAC's Jessica McCarthy received a sharp dig in the back from a female member of the morality police for allowing her scarf to slip back on her hair. And yet cosmetic surgeons in Iran do a booming businesss in nose jobs, breast implants and other California-style physical enhancements. One country two systems.
Our intrepid LAWAC group in the Golestan Palace, Tehran
Tehran, which may be one of the few cities in the world which actually has worse traffic than LA, is nonetheless a modern, clean and well-gardened city full of coffee shops, art galleries, and lush green parks. There are some spectacular museums: the National Museum of Iran has a pre-Islamic building with decorated pottery dating back to 6,000 BC and stone carvings from the glorious age of the Achaemenid empire of King Cyrus and Darius 2,500 years ago. The second building of the National Museum shows Islamic art from the seventh century on, including some breathtaking pottery with the characteristic white glaze and simple black or dark brown inscriptions. Another highlight in Tehran is the National Jewels museum, housed in a vault of the Central Bank and featuring five centuries of jewelry collection by a succession of Persian monarchs. The collection, which includes an 80lb golden globe inset with 51,000 gems and the 182 carat Darya-I-Noor pink diamond, is the largest state-owned jewelry display in the world, and is so valuable that it is still used as a reserve to back the Iranian currency, the rial. The palace of the former Shah, deposed in 1979, is maintained for visitors to see, as is the much more humble one-room study and bedroom of Ayatollah Khomeini, the man responsible for the fall of the Shah.
In between visiting the sites, we were fed lavishly and well in restaurants that were clean, delicious and thankfully free of smokers - unlike much of the Middle East, Iranians are not big cigarette smokers, even though cigarettes are freely available for purchase. (Alcohol, by contrast, is banned except for the small Christian community in Iran - but it is smuggled in from Turkey and Iraq and is widely consumed - a DUI check by Tehran police in 2012 found 26% of drivers stopped were over the limit!) One dish we much enjoyed was fesenjan, a stew of chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce that was spectacular. Rice cooked with sour cherries was another welcome discovery, and lamb in mint and celery was another favorite.
Towers of Silence, Yazd (PhotoTiffanyTong)
We flew from Tehran to Yazd, a desert city once visited by Alexander the Great, now famous for its cookies and its jewelry-makers. The jewelry bazaar in Yazd has hundreds of small goldsmiths who sell elaborate necklaces and bracelets to women clad in black abayas from head to toe - their jewels are worn underneath, apparently as a form of investment, not for public display!
Yazd too has an array of the famous wind-towers, ancient air-conditioning structures that are engineered to use desert breezes and cooling water to keep the temperatures down inside the houses of the affluent. Here we also saw the two thousand year-old system of underground irrigation called the "qanat" - a system of tunnels that brings snowmelt from the mountains underground to fields in the desert plains for agriculture and drinking.
From Yazd we drove to the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the now-ruined former ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Persia with 2,500 year-old temples and gateways set into the side of a hill. This was the site of the infamous party hosted by the Shah in 1971 to celebrate two and a half millennia of Persian monarchy for which he flew in 60 members of royal families and heads of state from around the world, and which was catered by the Parisian restaurant Maxim's - an extravagant gala that cost some $20m and was widely criticized by the Shah's opponents for its unnecessary opulence (the main course of the banquet was 50 roasted peacocks stuffed with foie gras...)
One thing that can't be underestimated is the influence of poetry in Persian culture, and Shiraz, close to Persepolis, was the home of two of the most renowned poets of Iran, Hafez and Saadi, the first a romantic, the second a scribe on manners and morality. We visited the tombs of both poets, and at both locations we were joined by local Iranians interested in hearing our thoughts on the poetry, taking photos with our group, and promising to memorize some of the poems in English for our next visit. As elsewhere the Iranians who approached us were warm, wanting to chat about our country and how we found Iran, and often ending the conversations by saying "We love you." We wondered at the nuance of "like" versus "love" in their language, but the sentiment remained...
Despite such a profusion of love, Iran is still a hypervigilant police state whose hardliners have their own unpoetic message to share - or shout. In Esfahan a government rent-a-crowd of about 50 people staged a well-choreographed demonstration outside our hotel to protest the arrival in the same hotel of former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. They had signs that said "Down with UK" and "Down with USA" - similarly blunt verbiage, also in English, was printed on paper coffee cups, for the convenience of visitors who did not speak the local language - Farsi. Precisely 60 minutes after it started, the "spontaneous" demonstration dispersed.
Our tour coincided with the ten day holiday during the Islamic month of Muharram - a time of atonement when Shiite Muslims (the majority of Iranians are Shiite) symbolically mourn the death of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Some men flagellate themselves with chains in public processions to mimic the suffering of Hussein, while others offer food and tea for free in the streets and spray fragrant rosewater over the crowds. On the final climactic tenth day our group was able to join in the Ashura (meaning tenth) procession in Esfahan up to the great Shah Mosque in Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second largest square on earth behind Tiananmen Square. We were just a few of the many foreigners witnessing the events, and we ended up being filmed briefly for a segment on the Iranian National News. Link here (Segment starts at 5:22, we appear at 7:24.)
After the holiday, when city life returned to normal, we toured much of Esfahan, walking along the Bridge of 33 Arches, touring the bazaars, mosques and Ali Qapu Palace, where a stunning, masterfully crafted soundproof music room allowed the royals to enjoy song and dance without letting the residents below know. We also visited a restaurant and were joined by a precocious 9 year old who wanted to practice her English with us. She sat between two doting parents, and spoke of the Disney movies she loved (Hotel Transylvannia 2 and Frozen are high on the list!), the activities she did at school and her pride in her country. She asked where we were all from, and when one of our members mentioned he was from Mexico she replied "Ooh, Salsa!!" When our guide suggested she stand up and do some salsa dancing, she replied with a smile, "No, this is still Iran."
We proceeded to Kashan, renowned for producing the rosewater that is used to wash Mecca, where we stayed in a beautiful traditional home with winter and summer cloisters, alcoves and a courtyard pool. The Iranians love their courtyard gardens, the name for which, pairidaeza, gave us the word "paradise." Our group enjoyed ice cream while sitting on Persian rugs under the full moon breathing in the fresh crisp desert air.
Courtyard Garden in Kashan
Our last stop, before returning to Tehran for our flight out, was a visit to the holy city of Qom, the birthplace of the Islamic Revolution, where Ayatollah Khomeini was educated. There we visited the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, sister of an eighth century Shia Imam. Thousands of Shiite Muslims visit her shrine every year to ask for blessings, and more miracles supposedly have happened at this site than anywhere else. It was a fitting end to a marvelous journey that produced many unexpected surprises. Our group was universally impressed with the hospitality of the Iranians we met, and their particular welcome once they discovered we were from the US. We can see this will not be the last trip we make to Iran.