A senior woman’s travel through Iran
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
—Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
Late last year, I was exceedingly fortunate to receive an invitation to join a small group of women for a cultural trip to Iran. It took me ten minutes to decide to accept. Preparation for this 19-day trip was unlike any other. In January, there was the travel ban, listing Iran as a banned country, and a quick reciprocal ban of U.S. citizens visiting Iran. This drama continued into April with deadlines for cancellations and promises of visas which were then delayed. By Palm Sunday (April 9 – I was scheduled to leave on April 18), I had given up. The next morning when I got to my office, there was an email saying our visas had been granted. I received my passport with the Iranian Visa on April 13.
The second challenge was wardrobe. For us, this meant accumulating both hot and cold weather clothes that cover everything except hands, feet and face and did not reveal the curvature of the body. The challenge included opaque headscarves. That done, I was ready to go.
Mostly, the trip was long (St. Louis – Chicago – Doha - Tehran). The Iranian gentleman sitting next to me on the Doha-Tehran segment was informative and interested in the reason for my visit. Before deplaning, I dutifully put on my black headscarf. My seatmate urged me to buy one with a bright color saying it is now permitted. The customs and immigration process was lengthy. I was separated from non U.S. travelers—and told to stand to the side. Shortly thereafter, I was given the okay.
The next morning, I looked out the hotel window to see a wonderful view of Tehran with mountains in the background. I changed dollars to rials and set out with over 18,000,000 bucks in my purse. We met our licensed guide – U.S. citizens must be accompanied at all times – and headed for a day of museums and historic overview of Persia. Persia has been occupied for 300,000 years and has preserved artifacts dating to 7000 BCE. The final stop of the day was the Carpet Museum. Each carpet was more gorgeous than the previous one. Back at the hotel, we had a delicious dinner of grilled lamb and literally piles of delicious accompaniments. Only problem, Iran is dry.
Iran is a Shiite country and on day two we visited a holy shrine, with dazzling mirror work – unbelievable. At this shrine and one other, a chador was required. On the days following, we visited sites related to Xerxes and the Tomb of Esther and Mordacai, and sites related to Alexander’s invasion. We saw synagogues and churches including one built by Armenian refugees escaping from the genocide in 1915. We traveled over 3,000 miles. Much was rugged, mountainous terrain with occasional oases giving rise to wonderful farms and gardens. We visited Susa (5,000 BCE), the tomb of Daniel and on to Shiraz, historically known for the fine, dry red wine of the same name, but there was none to be had. However, there were stunning carpets. From Shiraz, we visited Persepolis. In Yazd, we saw the Tomb of Cyrus the Great and the fast disappearing Zoroastrian community with two abandoned Towers of Silence and an active Zoroastrian Fire Temple—with a fire which has burned for 1,500 years. Then on to Isfahan for three days of amazing historic bridges, waterwells, bazaars, and astonishing historic technological developments such as “badgirs” or a wind-catching system which provides air conditioning and water channeling systems. There were mosques, so many with magnificent architecture and tilework. One thing that was reinforced on this trip was the importance of water to civilizations, both past and present.
While the sites were endless and beautiful, the real charm of Iran is the people. The people of Iran were warm and friendly, engaging at every opportunity, speaking English and taking selfies. Cell phones and selfie sticks were commonplace. Iranians value education and take great pride in their culture. Surprisingly, Iranians openly discussed politics and the relationship between their country and ours and appear to hold no personal animosity toward the U.S. citizens in spite of the hardship imposed by the U.S. support of the Iraqis during the Iraq-Iran war. In the towns on the eastern Iranian border with Iraq, the main streets are lined with large photographs of the town’s young men lost in that war.
Conversations were the highlights of the trip. One of my first conversations was with a man who stated that he would not hold our government against us if we did not hold theirs against them—this comment set the tone. The election for President of Iran was in progress and was totally different from ours - much shorter for one thing - and the candidates are controlled by the Islamic Council who determined who could and could not run.
All in all, it was an amazing visit to a country filled with history and beautiful monuments, exquisite shopping, lovely music, poetry, art and science but, most of all, congenial people. A journey of discovery, surprise and welcoming. I recommend this experience to all. And, no, I was never afraid.