My friend, George, and I inaugurated the Millennium with a plan for an adventure. Our quest for excitement came down to two options: a mountain bike trip in Tibet or a tour in Iran. While other businessmen devised ways to protect computers from the Y2K virus, we opted for a three-week guided Iran trip. This adventure included stops at several cities, living with nomads, visiting cultural sights and buying Persian rugs. The U.S. State Department warned on its website about risks for westerners. The press reported that tourists were taken hostage near the Afghani border, and a group of Americans were harassed in a religious enclave. On the other hand, I read favorable reports by tourists themselves. Having previously traveled in Kazakhstan and Turkey, and being somewhat familiar with Islamic societies, I decided to disregard State Department warnings. The fact that there was no U.S. embassy in Iran, and importation of Persian rugs was limited to six square meters (one carpet about 4 by 6 feet or an aggregate of several small carpets equal to about 24 square feet), while disappointing, was not a deal breaker.
Reflecting on my hopes from six years ago for a better Iran, I was disappointed that conditions got worse for everyone. Today, my thoughts focus on two characteristics that were memorable. First, the dominance of Islam in this country and second the cities of the harsh deserts. The former was the source of strict moral and legal constructs and the latter, a condition of the county’s progress and survival.
My background as a water resource engineer helped me appreciate the influence of qanats (subterranean water canals) on desert life, but I was astonished by the power and control of Islamic clerics in Iran. This article is the first in a series about my trip to Iran, places that I visited and some of the interesting people that I met there.
While waiting for the flight to Teheran at Frankfurt airport, I met several Iranians who were curious about why I picked Iran as a destination. Beyond that, they were anxious to give advice, tell their story and provide references. Interestingly, a woman from Detroit, about fifty years old, was returning to Iran to see her sister and other relatives for the first time after a twenty-five year absence. In a gesture to improve relations with expatriates and the West, President Khatami and some in the Parliament relaxed visa restrictions and hoped to encourage tourism. But this lady was clearly apprehensive. She feared that government might deny her return because her family once supported the Shah.
An Iranian businessman warned us that carrying hard liquor, drugs or foreign magazines into Iran could result in immediate imprisonment. I was dressed in dungarees and hauled a backpack, and this businessman figured I looked the part of a smuggler. I pictured myself behind bars, pleading for cholesterol medication. Of course, I didn’t have any contraband, but my small suitcase full of gifts for the people I hoped to meet may have attracted attention at the luggage scanner.
When we got into the landing pattern over Tehran, I noticed several women tying on heavy scarves and adjusting clothing. I saw one lady stuffing a colorful jacket into her bag. The dress code for women in Iran required that hair and curves be covered and loud colors were prohibited. As my newfound friend from Detroit bowed her now covered face and departed, I learned that the sway of the Imams extended into Iranian airspace.
In the Teheran airport, there was a sea of dark skinned people in matching clothes, all chattering Farsi. So much dark clothing! They looked like a flock of blackbirds. We were the only two white guys in a crowd of a couple thousand people. I sensed absolute isolation and vulnerability in this extraordinary place. The happy faces and embraces of people greeting their loved ones calmed my fears. Aside from the chain-linked security fence, the scene was just like everywhere else, loved ones being reunited. I learned afterward that most passengers were returning from the two-week celebration of Noruz, the Iranian New Year.
After collecting our luggage, we searched placards on waiting drivers. This was wishful thinking for a couple low budget travelers. Next, we explored the taxi area. With no idea who to look for, I got worried. But our travel agent promised someone would meet us at the airport and we frantically searched the crowd. After about twenty minutes, retracing our steps in the lobby and taxi ramp, I heard a faint high-pitched voice, “Mr. Brian, Mr. Brian. I am your guide, Saheed.”
With a pumping handshake, he said, “Welcome to Tehran. Nice to meet you. Where’s your friend, Mr. George?”
Saheed was light skinned, had light brown shoulder length hair, greenish eyes and he looked European. He spoke clear English, an unexpected surprise. The three of us looked like we belonged together.
“I think George’s crawling in that cab. Hey, hey, George, hold it, our guide is over here.”
As George got into the car, he asked, “Where the hell was he?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
Saheed stuffed our luggage into his small car and drove to Hotel Mashad for a much-needed stretch on the bed. As I rested on the pillow, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “I’m finally here.”
(In the next segment, I discuss my travels in the Fars Province)