Isn't it Iranic?
Story and photos by Richard Bangs

From Argo to the "Axis of Evil," from Rosewater to Holocaust denial, Iran has been a model for the term "bad PR." On the inside, however, the original world power doles out an extra helping of hospitality.

Iran park

I first visited Iran in 1978, stepping off a Pan Am 1 flight to a city that seemed little different than ones in the West. Women wore mini-skirts and jeans, discos blared, and every hotel had a lobby bar. But, the gap between haves and have-nots was Grand Canyonesque, and there was at once a popular snap that ousted the Shah, and ushered in the Islamic Revolution.

woman in mosque

It is with some unease but much excitement that I step to the Immigration desk at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. I tense a bit when the officer takes my passport and pulls me aside. I'm left alone at a separate desk while my passport and visa are inspected, then cross-checked in a computer, but with a beam it is returned and I am waived through. Nobody checks my luggage, which is purposely innocent. I now wish I had brought the new John le Carré book.

While the USA is an entity less than a quarter a millennium young, Iran's recorded history bows back 5000 years. At its height, about 500 B.C., Persia controlled more than 2.9 million square miles of land spanning three continents, east into India, south to Egypt, westward to Greece. It reigned over roughly 44% of the world's population, making it the largest world power ever by population percentage.

Yet, the ebb and flow of time saw the region conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, by Arabs during the great expansion of Islam in the 8th century CE, and by the Mongol Empire in the 13th. Every time, it has risen again to create another borderland with a deep and unceasing identity. When it comes to putting today's international squabbles into perspective, Iran takes the long view.

Tehran, With Trepidation

It is nighttime, and the hour drive from the airport passes Khomeini's tomb, a sprawling gold domed architectural piece that cannot be called humble. Covering some 50 acres, it is one of the largest monuments in the Muslim world, and one of the holiest, and therefore a target. In June of this year ISIS attacked the Mausoleum, killing one official and wounding a guard. Later we pass the iconic Azadi Tower, its four giant latticed feet thrusting towards the stars, a monument to the late Shah's vaulting ambition. Its image is well known to American audiences of a certain age who were glued to the screen during the hostage crisis of 1979-80.

Along with seven colleagues, I am with a cultural tour organized by MTSobek, which has been operating trips to The Islamic Republic of Iran for several years. We begin in Tehran, the kilometer-high capital, and to get an overview of its chaotic, mosaic-like layout, we take a series of lifts into the Alborz Mountains, to the Tochal ski mecca at 11,500'. It's a bit disorienting to watch parties of women in hijabs, some draped in black manteaux, riding the téléfériques, but hiking, skiing and snowboarding are big sports here for the many. The other distinction is the number of bandages on noses, both men and women. Nose jobs are in vogue in Iran, and it is a badge of honor to wear the post-op bandage to telegraph the transformation.

nose job in Iran

While in line a grinning young man reaches out to shake hands, and congratulates us for being tourists in Iran. Several others join in for an orgy of handshaking and earnest welcomes. Then a woman in a chador asks, "Why do you think we are terrorists?" Today, we have no good answer.

At the summit we wander about and gawk at the high dry landscape, which could be somewhere above the tree line in the Rockies or the Alps, and gaze down at the labyrinthine riddle of 14 million people below. It is windy and a bit nippy, so after 30 minutes we cable back down to the temperate city to tour its museums, mosques, carpet shops, a couple of the Pahlavi palaces, and the buzzing Central Bazaar. We pass the "Nest of Spies," the former American Embassy where the hostages were held for 444 days. Today it is a museum showcasing left-behind spying equipment, alongside pieced-together shredded documents marked "Secret." Diplomatic relations were severed during the Revolution of 1979, but wherever we go in today's republic Iranians seek us out, shake our hands, welcome us to their land, and ask to take pictures with us.

For lunch Hadi suggests a popular local eatery, Moslem, but it is across the street from where the bus lets us off. This is a problem, as the most dangerous part of a visit to Iran is crossing the street, mad with cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes (all Iranian made). Hadi tells the story of an American who couldn't cross one swollen river of traffic, and after two hours he calls to an Iranian on the other side: "How did you get there?" The Iranian calls back, "I was born here."

Hadi shows us the way. He steps into the motoring craziness and holds up his hand like a traffic cop, and then waves for us to run across. The line for the restaurant goes around the block, beneath strings of patio misters that keep the wait tolerable. Inside the door the line continues, coiling up narrow stairs to a packed room with long tables. We order up tah-chin (saffron and yogurt rice, served with chicken and barberries), chelo kebabs, flat bread and Istor beer, alcohol-free as all public brews, and we dine as a musician plays a gourd-bagpipe called a neyanban.

The ride to downtown illustrates the alternative universe that is today's Iran. Every type of modern shop and restaurant lines the milling streets; this could be any Western city, except for one notable difference. There are no recognizable brands. No Starbucks, Gold's Gyms, UPS stores, Super Cuts, Kumon or any franchises we know (there are a lot of pirated iPhones, however.) Western credit cards aren't accepted. The signed Iran nuclear deal in 2015 called for the removal of economic sanctions against Iranian banks, but so far the U.S. has not lifted them. That makes it is difficult to buy Western products. So Iran, with its extensive fossil fuel reserves, has turned inward to create a parallel world of goods and services. Want to buy a Romex watch?

Back in Time, 7,000 Years

As the morning light spills down the slopes of the Alborz Mountains we make the drive along the jagged edge of Dasht-e Kavir, a great salt desert distinguished by its distant hills of biblical proportions. About six hours later we pull into to the brick and pisé outpost of Yazd. With a history that dials back 7,000 years, Yazd qualifies as one of the oldest living towns on earth. It is here the Zoroastrian religion found its first followers, promoting a dualistic concept of heaven and hell, and in time influencing the tenets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It also advocates that hospitality is fundamental to a spiritual life.

Sky Tower in Iran

Just outside of town we hike to the top of a Tower of Silence, a circular raised structure where the dead were taken to be picked apart by birds of prey, similar to the Tibetan Sky burials. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, a body becomes impure at death, when evil spirits, or nasu, arrive to attack the flesh and soul of the deceased. By contaminating the corpse, nasu also threaten the living. Sky burial is considered a clean death because it prevents putrefaction-vultures can eat a body down to the bones in just a few hours. Hadi said the towers were still used until about 40 years ago, and he knows a woman who was walking nearby when a bird dropped a human finger on her. 

Afterwards, we make a late afternoon trek to Saryazd to what is claimed to be the first bank deposit vaults, a series of small rooms in a protected adobe citadel where folks stored their precious personal belongings. This was once part of the Parthian Empire, whose army mastered a technique in which retreating horse archers would turn their bodies back in full gallop to shoot at the pursuing enemy. This was the origin of the term, "parting shot."

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Read this article online at: Isn't it Iranic?

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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