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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”