The Islamic Republic of Iran (part 4): dancers shut the band down

Two months to get a visa, worth every minute. In February 2011 I traveled to Iran. Sadly, little has changed geopolitically or for the Iranian people in the intervening years. Two years of sitting on my to-do list is embarrassing, and with me on a contested regions trip this week, I have dusted off the pictures and present The Islamic Republic of Iran. See also parts 1, 2, 3, and the photo album.

In the penultimate day we crowded into a tiny taxi and were off for our only road trip. First stop was Abyaneh, a 1500-year old mountainside village known as much for the fierce negotiation of its hawker old ladies as it serene setting and winding lanes. During lunch, when the others paused for a water pipe break, I ‘took a walk,’ clambering up the mountain to the ruins of the old citadel and dashed back down, turning my ankle a bit but having great fun at the zesty exploit.

The Islamic Republic 091

The Islamic Republic 092

The Islamic Republic 094

The road on to Kashan passes the Natanz Nuclear Facility, target in 2010 of the stuxnet worm, and Iran’s main enrichment facility. Amazing that the highway goes right in front, though it is well defended. Very well defended. I did not need the guide to tell me to keep my hands down, and camera in my bag.

The Tappeh-ye Seyalk site in Kashan was inhabited as early as 6,000 BC and the ruins of the 8th-century mound are still impressive. Kashan is most known, though, for its collection of well-preserved traditional mansions, like China’s siheyuan, innocuous on the outside, lavish inside, with central open courtyards and multi-level warrens of rooms. My group was content to see two, so I slipped over to a third and was rewarded with a movie being filmed. Iran’s film industry is highly celebrated in world cinema and this must have been a very artsy film because the scene was a boy sitting by a pool with an overturned bike, one wheel slowly spinning, the boy unmoving.

The Islamic Republic 095

The Islamic Republic 096

The Islamic Republic 097

The Islamic Republic 098

Racing to beat the sun we turned off the highway, past the amusement park, and into Qom, Iran’s second holiest shrine, birthplace of the revolution and home to the mullahs. Yes, amusement park. The main shrine is closed to non-Muslims but the carnival atmosphere and commercialism surrounding it was a great contrast to the stern religious attire.

The Islamic Republic 100

Back in Tehran, alone again, I enjoyed dinner at another surprise, the Armenian Club, open to non-members for dinner, but classified as a Christian establishment so by law Muslims cannot enter (nor can they enter active churches). Inside, women can uncover their heads but no alcohol is served. I enjoyed an overcooked Chicken Kiev with blasting Russian tunes from the band.

The Islamic Republic 025

Final day, just the guide and I, and much to do. First, the Shah’s two sets of palaces to the north. Sa’d Abad Museum Complex has over a dozen palaces and museums, the highlights the White Palace and Green Place (think whole rooms covered like disco balls) and the Military Museum, which had reminders of twists of history such as a silver-plated Uzi given in the 1970s by Saddam Hussein to the defense minister of Iran.

The Islamic Republic 010

The Islamic Republic 012

Niyavaran Palace similarly has many buildings and was most moving for the remainders of every day life left by the Shah’s family when they fled, such as children’s stuffed animals and model warships. Plenty of modernist touches like a white leather room and a funky private library from French designers. On the grounds a group of primary schoolgirls in full chador (the long cloak worn by more traditional women in Iran), frolicked on the grounds, chasing after each other with chador flowing behind.

The Islamic Republic 016

The Islamic Republic 019

The Islamic Republic 020

Into downtown for a delicious traditional lunch, where one older waiter called me over to say, “My friend, come here. I lived in US for 18 years. In New York.  My first wife was from… Puerto Rico,” with a big, suggestive raise of bushy eyebrows.

The Islamic Republic 009

Golestan Palace, centrally located but not nearly as impressive as the earlier two followed lunch, and after much traffic, we headed south for Holy Shrine of Iman Khomeini, a gigantic complex slowly being constructed over many years. Interestingly, Khomeini conceived of it as a public space rather than mosque, and non-Muslims can enter. His, and his son’s, tombs are in a glass-encased area, while just outside the glass the floor was being dug up in coffin shape. My guide said that Khomeini’s son-in-law had died that day.

The Islamic Republic 006

The Islamic Republic 007

The Islamic Republic 022

We went to the nearby Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery holding the remains of 200,000 of the estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Iranian dead (estimates of Iraqi dead at 300,000) from the Iran-Iraq War. Each tomb has a pedestal with glass box, typically filled with a photo and a few personal items of the deceased. Heart-rending, the scope of the tragedy hit me when I saw tears in my guide’s eyes and realized that he, like so many, had lost family in the war. I felt guilty for going and subjecting the guide to that moment, but it is important to learn all aspects of a place’s history and I hope he felt that I was respectful. A somber close to my tour, with rains beginning to fall.

The Islamic Republic 023

The Islamic Republic 024

Spirits were lifted when M and Y, back from Shiraz, pulled up at my hotel and we went for a last festive meal, a delightful traditional tea house cum restaurant with lively traditional music, cheeky all-male waiters and wonderful food. I had my last dizi, a stew served in earthenware pot. The stew is ground with a pestle and the paste is eaten with smoky bread that is baked on a bed of rocks (watch for the occasional rock embedded in  the bread!). We had great fun with the other patrons and the only harsh reminder that we were in Iran was when the band suddenly stopped playing and cleared the stage. It happened so fast I hardly noticed.  Y said, “Because that man started dancing.  It is illegal to dance in public.  The band does not want to be arrested for causing it.”

The Islamic Republic 103

The Islamic Republic 105

Rapid Travel Chai newsletter ¦ Twitter ¦ Facebook ¦ Instagram

  • Very intersting! Happy to read some trip reports for some off-the-beaten path countries.

  • caveman

    Very interesting trip report. So how many days was this tour and approximately how much did you have to pay (just a rough estimate is fine too). Bye the way out of all the places, why did you chose Iran. It is so rare for an American to go there. Have you been to Cuba yet?

  • @caveman – I went with Pars Tourist Agency’s A Glance of Persia, 8 days, which they currently list as €450 standard/€590 luxury. Overall they got the job done and part of the issue was I wanted a much faster pace, more things scheduled. It got me to the key historic historic areas in the center of the country. I was not happy with their frequent cost-cutting, like throwing random people in with us on different days and being very cheap on transport, like that last road trip we were stuffed into an old, tiny taxi. Maybe other agencies do the same, best I suppose, is to confirm everything prior to final booking. US-based agencies may offer a bit more hand-holding in the visa process but are much more expensive.

    I am an ancient history buff so Iran would be high on the list even without the curiosity of the current regime. As for Cuba, if I had gone there I would find it prudent to not discuss on the blog until the political issues are resolved.

  • Mateo

    What an incredible insight. Thank you for sharing

  • STAN

    I would not spend one penny in Iran , why support a country that has killed and help kill so many innocent people , sure the people suffer , yet it is partially the”peoples” fault for not kicking the murders out and freeing themselves.

    no amount of tourist dollars will change the fact that “IRAN” has sponsored world terrorism and by spending in Iran you help support murderers

  • flyer708

    i’ve enjoyed every word of your report so far. it will probably never be on my itinerary, at least not this life. but wow, it was fascinating nonetheless! thank you.

  • @STAN – I respect your opinion and it is a difficult call, much of my reasoning on visiting North Korea applied to my thinking on Iran, see here.

    I do not see the positive effect of decades of isolation, perhaps a grass-roots human to human approach can yield better results and that is only possible with direct interaction.

    Also, it becomes difficult to draw the line, countries of all stripes, my own the US very much included, engage in activities that can be argued as morally similar or morally equivalent. If I, for example, go to Pakistan and families of civilians killed by US drone strikes accuse me in the same terms as you propose, what is my response? Do I say they were unfortunate ‘collateral damage’ and it was partially their fault for not kicking out suspected terrorists? Should I expect them to put their lives on the line in this way when I have never been faced with the same?

  • @flyer708 – thank you, I put the time into it since I realize it is not a likely or realistic destination for many travelers, yet I believe mutual understanding is the seed of progress.

  • STAN

    You are entitled to your beliefs, history has taught that no amount of good will “ever” change a country while murders ( yes that is what they are) are in control , while economics will “maybe” force “some” changes that will keep the peace

    I have kept my reply short as this is not the place for strong political thought

  • @STAN – I appreciate the exchange and as you point out this is not a forum well-suited to that debate, I will think about revisiting that issue in the future. Lots of regimes I have visited I do not approve of the government, Myanmar was a tough one until they allowed a bit of private tourism business so dollars would not all go to the government, and now just about everyone has dropped talk of travel boycott. Plenty of others have less vocal worldwide movements but are also arguable in several ways. Today I was in Trans Dniester, at this point thing seem fairly low-key about this bizarre situation. Thanks for contributing your view.