Iran — looking beyond political rhetoric to discover a most welcoming nation

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Iran

by J. Norvill Jones, Alexandria, VA

Iran has been demonized by our government and the American news media, but is it really part of an “axis of evil”? As one who spent much of his working life dealing with foreign policy issues, I am inherently skeptical of government pronouncements. In April 2007 I went to Iran to see the country for myself.

The plan

Iran is an ancient land of proud and friendly people where many villages have been continuously inhabited for more than two millennia. Appropriately, the cypress tree, which bends but does not break, is Iran’s national tree.


Iran

This country of seventy million people, in an area nearly three times the size of France, initially succumbed to but ultimately prevailed over Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Afghans, Russians and the British. After the Arab conquest, they bent by adopting Arabic script in their written language, but they kept their native Farsi as a spoken language. They are a resilient people.

For 13 days and 1,500 miles in an Iran-made Samand sedan (plus a 700-mile internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz), I saw much of the best of Iran’s cultural attractions and encountered a variety of its people.

Originally, a friend was to travel with me, but, unfortunately, one day after arrival he was hospitalized in Tehran’s Jam Hospital with a heart problem. So I traveled solo with Abbas Neshat as my informative and daredevil driver/guide.

Abbas, a native of Esfahan now living in Tehran, is a retired teacher of Persian literature and knowledgeable in all things Iranian, past and present. I learned much from him.

Tehran

Starting in Tehran, I flew south to Shiraz, continuing by car to Yazd, Na’in, Esfahan, Abyaneh, Kashan, Qom and, finally, Kijashahr on the Caspian Sea.


Iran

Other than serving as a gateway, Tehran has little of interest compared with other cities in Iran. On Tehran’s plus side, the streets were clean, no beggars deviled me and there were many lovely parks. Significant minuses, though, were congested streets and intense pollution.

The National Archaeological Museum, Shah Mohammad Reza’s palace complex, the Carpet Museum and Ayatollah Khomeini’s house and nearby mosque are some of the worthwhile places I visited, but they were hardly in the category of Persepolis or Esfahan’s Grand Square.

To me, the most unusual attraction in Tehran was a 6-foot-high pair of bronze boots at the deposed Shah’s palace, all that remains of a monumental statue of the Shah’s father; the rest was destroyed in the 1979 revolution.

A visit to Ayatollah Khomeini’s modest home gives one an understanding of why he is so revered by the Iranian people. The floor of his small living room was covered not with fine Persian carpets but threadbare machine-made rugs of Persian design. Across an alley stood the mosque where he delivered sermons sitting in a chair that looked like a Salvation Army reject.

Before his death, Khomeini asked that only a simple monument mark his tomb. But after he died, like bureaucrats everywhere, the mullahs took over and built a grandiose structure that would make any autocrat proud.

One truly memorable feature of Tehran is its traffic. Twelve million people live in the city and its suburbs, and it seems that every one of them owns a car or motorbike. Rules of the road we accept as normal do not apply here. Speed limits, traffic lanes, stoplights and pedestrian rights-of-way are ignored. However, in this dog-eat-dog scene, drivers take misses by inches with surprising equanimity.

Some relief for urban congestion is on the way, as subways are being built in all major cites, but only Tehran’s was operational during my visit.

Shiraz

A comfortable 2-hour flight on Iran-Air took me from teeming Tehran to equally teeming Shiraz, a city of gardens and poets. It was once renowned as the Tuscany of Iran for its Shiraz wine grape, but the only wine now produced in this Muslim country is a small amount for foreign embassies.


Iran

Two of Iran’s most famous poets, Sa’di and Hafez, are buried in Shiraz.

At Sa’di’s tomb, set in a lovely garden, Iranians dip one hand in a pool of springwater and make a wish.

Hafez is even more revered. There is a saying that every Iranian home must have two things: the Koran and the works of Hafez. At his tomb, also set in a fine garden, pilgrims lovingly touched their fingertips to Hafez’s tomb while reciting his poetry.

The word “paradise” is derived from the Persian word “pairi-daeza,” meaning “walled garden,” and Shiraz has notable examples, especially the Eram Garden, known as the “Garden of Paradise.”

Persepolis

Leaving Shiraz, we drove past flocks of sheep and goats being herded by nomads to mountain pastures. An hour from Shiraz lies the famed Persepolis, one of the world’s great wonders.


Iran

Begun by Darius I as a summer palace in about 514 B.C., in its glory Persepolis spread over some 33 acres. Burned by Alexander the Great in about 331 B.C. (some say to avenge Persia’s burning of Athens while others say it happened by accident at a drunken party), it was soon buried under desert sands until excavation began in the 1930s.

The highlights of this grand complex are the many lifelike stone bas-reliefs, particularly those on the eastern staircase of the Apadana depicting delegations from 23 subject lands bearing gifts to the emperor.

Just northeast of Persepolis lies Naqsh-i-Rustam, the rock tombs of four Achaemenid emperors: Darius the Great, Darius II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. Above and below each tomb, carved into a cliff, are fine stone bas-reliefs.

Farther on toward the Zagros Mountains lie the tomb of Cyrus the Great and his former palace complex, Pasargadae. His modest tomb stands alone, without adornment, in a barren field. Pasargadae, begun by Cyrus in about 546 B.C., was soon eclipsed by Darius’ palace at Persepolis. Now Pasargadae is little more than a jumble of stone.

Yazd

In the desert of Dasht-e-Lut lies Yazd, which claims to be the best- preserved continuously inhabited city in Iran. It is called the “Capital of the Desert,” but I would call it the “Capital of Motorbikes” — they swarm its streets like angry hornets.


Iran

Situated in an oasis fed by thousands of underground water conduits called qanats, some as long as 25 miles and in operation for over 2,500 years, Yazd was a stop on the Silk Road.

Besides the beautiful Jameh (Friday) Mosque, which boasts the highest arched portal of any mosque in Iran, Yazd is noted for its Zoroastrian sites and wind towers.

The Zoroastrian faith was Iran’s predominant religion until the Arab conquest, and some of its tenets, notably the notion of a “Messiah,” were incorporated into both Jewish and Christian faiths.

Pilgrims from throughout the world travel to the Zoroastrian Temple of Yazd to worship at the sacred, wood-fired flame which has been burning continuously since 470.

On to Esfahan

Next we crossed the desert to Na’in. It is said that in Na’in you can knock on any door and someone inside will be weaving a carpet. To put that to the test, Abbas knocked at random on the entrance to a small mud-brick home. Sure enough, it was opened by an elderly woman who was weaving a small, round carpet.


Iran

Traveling north from Na’in to Esfahan, the desert became greener from recent rains. Esfahan, the crown jewel of Iran’s cities, is home to magnificent mosques, enticing bazaars, ancient bridges and inviting teahouses. Seeing it, I was inclined to agree with the saying “Esfahan is half the world.”

Its grand Imam Khomeini Square of lawns and fountains (formerly Jahan Square), seven times the size of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, was laid out by Shah Abbas the Great in the early 17th century. With the blue and turquoise tiled, domed Imam Mosque on the south side, the cream tiled dome of Lotfallah Mosque on the east, Shah’s Ali Qapu Palace to the west and the Grand Bazaar to the north, Imam Square is arguably the most elegant in the world.

Esfahanis take great pride in their square, parading around it in family groups each evening. They also flock by day to the parks which line both sides of the Zayandeh River, which is spanned by 11 bridges.

One evening I witnessed an unusual demonstration of physical prowess in a small gymnasium-like building known as a zur-khaneh, or House of Strength. In a sunken circular pit, 10 young athletes performed displays of strength to the hypnotic beat of a drummer seated on a perch above them who, while playing, chanted poetry, recited verses from the Koran and led a call-and-response ceremony in which the athletes prayed for peace and friendship with all people. It is a ritual not to be missed.

Coming full circle

At 6,000 years of age, Kashan is one of the oldest cities in Iran. It is renowned for its carpets that improve with age, giving rise to the compliment “You look like a Kashan” (younger than your years).


Iran

Onward from Kashan, I stopped briefly in Qom, site of the gold-domed burial place of Fatimah, sister to the eighth Imam, Reza, who is buried in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city.

I came through Qom on a Thursday, the beginning of the Iranian weekend, and the streets were thronged with pilgrims and white- and black-turbaned mullahs. (A black turban denotes a descendant of Mohammed.) Fifteen million pilgrims visit Fatimah’s tomb each year.

From Qom, a 6-lane highway, typical of Iran’s fine highway system, took me back to bustling Tehran.

Why visit?

Iran is one of the few inexpensive travel destinations left for Americans. There, the dollar is still king.


Iran

My hotel rooms were always clean and comfortable, with modern bath facilities. I do not know room-only costs, since my accommodations were included in my reasonably priced tour package.

Meals were quite inexpensive by American standards. Dinner in a good restaurant, for example, cost about $10. Iran’s food was not outstanding, but it was wholesome. Indistinguishable kebabs of lamb or chicken served with a heaping plate of rice, salads and flat bread in various forms made up the standard lunch and dinner fare. Alcohol is forbidden.

Persepolis, Esfahan and Yazd alone should be enough to entice even the most jaded traveler to visit Iran. But the real jewels of this country are its people. In all my travels, I have never found people more welcoming, kind or generous. They were kind to foreigners and each other.

Generosity and mutual respect are key facets of their culture. “A human must act human,” an Iranian saying goes.

Examples of their kindness to strangers abounded. I left for Iran on the very day in April that the Virginia Tech massacre occurred. Several people opened their conversation with me by expressing their sympathy for our national tragedy.


Iran

Once, while I was walking in a lane in remote Abyaneh, a man carrying an armload of flat bread passed, turned back and, with a smile, motioned for me to take some. In an unusual occurrence, a toilet attendant, recognizing me as a foreigner, led me to the only non-squat toilet there. My friend who spent five days in Tehran’s Jam Hospital told me that he had never been treated so well.

Recognizing me as a foreigner by my face and attire, young people in particular flocked around me wherever I went, saying “Hello” and “Welcome.”

Iranians clearly distinguish between the American people and our government. It seems they love Americans but dislike President Bush. “America okay; Bush no.” I heard repeatedly.

Everyone I met said they wanted better relations with the U.S., often professing puzzlement over why our government will not talk to their government, but they are also confident that the problems between our countries can be worked out peacefully.

Do not be intimidated by the political maneuverings between our two governments. Go to Iran and see what a magnificent travel opportunity Americans have been missing.

Americans are still a rarity in Iran. I met only one while I was there, a doctor who was returning to her homeland after 40 years in the U.S.

The details

I arranged my trip by e-mail with Iran Doostan Tours (#15 - 3rd St., Vali-e-Asr Ave., Tehran, Iran 14336; phone 011 98 21 8872 2975, www.idt.ir).

The per-person cost for the two of us for 11 nights in single rooms in first-class hotels, with breakfast and dinner daily, a car with a driver/guide, one internal flight and all entrance fees, was $1,400. For one person traveling alone, the cost would have been $1,976.

Everyone at Iran Doostan Tours did a fine job and I recommend them highly. Round-trip, economy-class airfare to Tehran from Washington, D.C., was $1,078 via KLM and IranAir.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.


Iran

by J. Norvill Jones, Alexandria, VA

Iran has been demonized by our government and the American news media, but is it really part of an “axis of evil”? As one who spent much of his working life dealing with foreign policy issues, I am inherently skeptical of government pronouncements. In April 2007 I went to Iran to see the country for myself.

The plan

Iran is an ancient land of proud and friendly people where many villages have been continuously inhabited for more than two millennia. Appropriately, the cypress tree, which bends but does not break, is Iran’s national tree.


Iran

This country of seventy million people, in an area nearly three times the size of France, initially succumbed to but ultimately prevailed over Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Afghans, Russians and the British. After the Arab conquest, they bent by adopting Arabic script in their written language, but they kept their native Farsi as a spoken language. They are a resilient people.

For 13 days and 1,500 miles in an Iran-made Samand sedan (plus a 700-mile internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz), I saw much of the best of Iran’s cultural attractions and encountered a variety of its people.

Originally, a friend was to travel with me, but, unfortunately, one day after arrival he was hospitalized in Tehran’s Jam Hospital with a heart problem. So I traveled solo with Abbas Neshat as my informative and daredevil driver/guide.

Abbas, a native of Esfahan now living in Tehran, is a retired teacher of Persian literature and knowledgeable in all things Iranian, past and present. I learned much from him.

Tehran

Starting in Tehran, I flew south to Shiraz, continuing by car to Yazd, Na’in, Esfahan, Abyaneh, Kashan, Qom and, finally, Kijashahr on the Caspian Sea.


Iran

Other than serving as a gateway, Tehran has little of interest compared with other cities in Iran. On Tehran’s plus side, the streets were clean, no beggars deviled me and there were many lovely parks. Significant minuses, though, were congested streets and intense pollution.

The National Archaeological Museum, Shah Mohammad Reza’s palace complex, the Carpet Museum and Ayatollah Khomeini’s house and nearby mosque are some of the worthwhile places I visited, but they were hardly in the category of Persepolis or Esfahan’s Grand Square.

To me, the most unusual attraction in Tehran was a 6-foot-high pair of bronze boots at the deposed Shah’s palace, all that remains of a monumental statue of the Shah’s father; the rest was destroyed in the 1979 revolution.

A visit to Ayatollah Khomeini’s modest home gives one an understanding of why he is so revered by the Iranian people. The floor of his small living room was covered not with fine Persian carpets but threadbare machine-made rugs of Persian design. Across an alley stood the mosque where he delivered sermons sitting in a chair that looked like a Salvation Army reject.

Before his death, Khomeini asked that only a simple monument mark his tomb. But after he died, like bureaucrats everywhere, the mullahs took over and built a grandiose structure that would make any autocrat proud.

One truly memorable feature of Tehran is its traffic. Twelve million people live in the city and its suburbs, and it seems that every one of them owns a car or motorbike. Rules of the road we accept as normal do not apply here. Speed limits, traffic lanes, stoplights and pedestrian rights-of-way are ignored. However, in this dog-eat-dog scene, drivers take misses by inches with surprising equanimity.

Some relief for urban congestion is on the way, as subways are being built in all major cites, but only Tehran’s was operational during my visit.

Shiraz

A comfortable 2-hour flight on Iran-Air took me from teeming Tehran to equally teeming Shiraz, a city of gardens and poets. It was once renowned as the Tuscany of Iran for its Shiraz wine grape, but the only wine now produced in this Muslim country is a small amount for foreign embassies.


Iran

Two of Iran’s most famous poets, Sa’di and Hafez, are buried in Shiraz.

At Sa’di’s tomb, set in a lovely garden, Iranians dip one hand in a pool of springwater and make a wish.

Hafez is even more revered. There is a saying that every Iranian home must have two things: the Koran and the works of Hafez. At his tomb, also set in a fine garden, pilgrims lovingly touched their fingertips to Hafez’s tomb while reciting his poetry.

The word “paradise” is derived from the Persian word “pairi-daeza,” meaning “walled garden,” and Shiraz has notable examples, especially the Eram Garden, known as the “Garden of Paradise.”

Persepolis

Leaving Shiraz, we drove past flocks of sheep and goats being herded by nomads to mountain pastures. An hour from Shiraz lies the famed Persepolis, one of the world’s great wonders.


Iran

Begun by Darius I as a summer palace in about 514 B.C., in its glory Persepolis spread over some 33 acres. Burned by Alexander the Great in about 331 B.C. (some say to avenge Persia’s burning of Athens while others say it happened by accident at a drunken party), it was soon buried under desert sands until excavation began in the 1930s.

The highlights of this grand complex are the many lifelike stone bas-reliefs, particularly those on the eastern staircase of the Apadana depicting delegations from 23 subject lands bearing gifts to the emperor.

Just northeast of Persepolis lies Naqsh-i-Rustam, the rock tombs of four Achaemenid emperors: Darius the Great, Darius II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. Above and below each tomb, carved into a cliff, are fine stone bas-reliefs.

Farther on toward the Zagros Mountains lie the tomb of Cyrus the Great and his former palace complex, Pasargadae. His modest tomb stands alone, without adornment, in a barren field. Pasargadae, begun by Cyrus in about 546 B.C., was soon eclipsed by Darius’ palace at Persepolis. Now Pasargadae is little more than a jumble of stone.

Yazd

In the desert of Dasht-e-Lut lies Yazd, which claims to be the best- preserved continuously inhabited city in Iran. It is called the “Capital of the Desert,” but I would call it the “Capital of Motorbikes” — they swarm its streets like angry hornets.


Iran

Situated in an oasis fed by thousands of underground water conduits called qanats, some as long as 25 miles and in operation for over 2,500 years, Yazd was a stop on the Silk Road.

Besides the beautiful Jameh (Friday) Mosque, which boasts the highest arched portal of any mosque in Iran, Yazd is noted for its Zoroastrian sites and wind towers.

The Zoroastrian faith was Iran’s predominant religion until the Arab conquest, and some of its tenets, notably the notion of a “Messiah,” were incorporated into both Jewish and Christian faiths.

Pilgrims from throughout the world travel to the Zoroastrian Temple of Yazd to worship at the sacred, wood-fired flame which has been burning continuously since 470.

On to Esfahan

Next we crossed the desert to Na’in. It is said that in Na’in you can knock on any door and someone inside will be weaving a carpet. To put that to the test, Abbas knocked at random on the entrance to a small mud-brick home. Sure enough, it was opened by an elderly woman who was weaving a small, round carpet.


Iran

Traveling north from Na’in to Esfahan, the desert became greener from recent rains. Esfahan, the crown jewel of Iran’s cities, is home to magnificent mosques, enticing bazaars, ancient bridges and inviting teahouses. Seeing it, I was inclined to agree with the saying “Esfahan is half the world.”

Its grand Imam Khomeini Square of lawns and fountains (formerly Jahan Square), seven times the size of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, was laid out by Shah Abbas the Great in the early 17th century. With the blue and turquoise tiled, domed Imam Mosque on the south side, the cream tiled dome of Lotfallah Mosque on the east, Shah’s Ali Qapu Palace to the west and the Grand Bazaar to the north, Imam Square is arguably the most elegant in the world.

Esfahanis take great pride in their square, parading around it in family groups each evening. They also flock by day to the parks which line both sides of the Zayandeh River, which is spanned by 11 bridges.

One evening I witnessed an unusual demonstration of physical prowess in a small gymnasium-like building known as a zur-khaneh, or House of Strength. In a sunken circular pit, 10 young athletes performed displays of strength to the hypnotic beat of a drummer seated on a perch above them who, while playing, chanted poetry, recited verses from the Koran and led a call-and-response ceremony in which the athletes prayed for peace and friendship with all people. It is a ritual not to be missed.

Coming full circle

At 6,000 years of age, Kashan is one of the oldest cities in Iran. It is renowned for its carpets that improve with age, giving rise to the compliment “You look like a Kashan” (younger than your years).


Iran

Onward from Kashan, I stopped briefly in Qom, site of the gold-domed burial place of Fatimah, sister to the eighth Imam, Reza, who is buried in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city.

I came through Qom on a Thursday, the beginning of the Iranian weekend, and the streets were thronged with pilgrims and white- and black-turbaned mullahs. (A black turban denotes a descendant of Mohammed.) Fifteen million pilgrims visit Fatimah’s tomb each year.

From Qom, a 6-lane highway, typical of Iran’s fine highway system, took me back to bustling Tehran.

Why visit?

Iran is one of the few inexpensive travel destinations left for Americans. There, the dollar is still king.


Iran

My hotel rooms were always clean and comfortable, with modern bath facilities. I do not know room-only costs, since my accommodations were included in my reasonably priced tour package.

Meals were quite inexpensive by American standards. Dinner in a good restaurant, for example, cost about $10. Iran’s food was not outstanding, but it was wholesome. Indistinguishable kebabs of lamb or chicken served with a heaping plate of rice, salads and flat bread in various forms made up the standard lunch and dinner fare. Alcohol is forbidden.

Persepolis, Esfahan and Yazd alone should be enough to entice even the most jaded traveler to visit Iran. But the real jewels of this country are its people. In all my travels, I have never found people more welcoming, kind or generous. They were kind to foreigners and each other.

Generosity and mutual respect are key facets of their culture. “A human must act human,” an Iranian saying goes.

Examples of their kindness to strangers abounded. I left for Iran on the very day in April that the Virginia Tech massacre occurred. Several people opened their conversation with me by expressing their sympathy for our national tragedy.


Iran

Once, while I was walking in a lane in remote Abyaneh, a man carrying an armload of flat bread passed, turned back and, with a smile, motioned for me to take some. In an unusual occurrence, a toilet attendant, recognizing me as a foreigner, led me to the only non-squat toilet there. My friend who spent five days in Tehran’s Jam Hospital told me that he had never been treated so well.

Recognizing me as a foreigner by my face and attire, young people in particular flocked around me wherever I went, saying “Hello” and “Welcome.”

Iranians clearly distinguish between the American people and our government. It seems they love Americans but dislike President Bush. “America okay; Bush no.” I heard repeatedly.

Everyone I met said they wanted better relations with the U.S., often professing puzzlement over why our government will not talk to their government, but they are also confident that the problems between our countries can be worked out peacefully.

Do not be intimidated by the political maneuverings between our two governments. Go to Iran and see what a magnificent travel opportunity Americans have been missing.

Americans are still a rarity in Iran. I met only one while I was there, a doctor who was returning to her homeland after 40 years in the U.S.

The details

I arranged my trip by e-mail with Iran Doostan Tours (#15 - 3rd St., Vali-e-Asr Ave., Tehran, Iran 14336; phone 011 98 21 8872 2975, www.idt.ir).

The per-person cost for the two of us for 11 nights in single rooms in first-class hotels, with breakfast and dinner daily, a car with a driver/guide, one internal flight and all entrance fees, was $1,400. For one person traveling alone, the cost would have been $1,976.

Everyone at Iran Doostan Tours did a fine job and I recommend them highly. Round-trip, economy-class airfare to Tehran from Washington, D.C., was $1,078 via KLM and IranAir.