Saturday, June 27, 2009

Part 8 - Pictures

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Iran & Syria - Part 8 - Conclusion

When we set up our itinerary for Syria we made a decision to spend more time in Aleppo than Damascus. Given the information we had about the two cities and their environs it seemed like the right choice – at the time. Today, with the advantage of hindsight, we’d do it differently. We had 7 nights to play with and split them 4-3 in favor of Aleppo. If we did it again and could stay at the Old Vine it would be 5-2 Damascus.

One reason Aleppo got my attention was because it was home to several well-reviewed small boutique hotels. They’d been around for about 10 years and looked terrific on paper. At the top of the list were Dar Zamaria Martini and Beit Wakil. I preferred Dar Zamaria because I’d read that the rooms were “significantly more comfortable” than the “plain and boxy” rooms at Beit Wakil. Both were restored 17th and 18th Century houses and featured lovely courtyards.

Alas, I couldn’t get a reservation at Dar Zamaria. I tried multiple Internet sources and the hotel directly, but no luck. Beit Wakil told me that they could accommodate us for our 2nd, 3rd and 4th nights and could put us in a nearby boutique hotel the 1st night. That sounded OK, and I confirmed the rooms.

As promised, the “nearby boutique hotel,” the Dallal, was nearby and it was a boutique hotel. As a step-sister to Beit Wakil I might have guessed that it too would have “plain and boxy” rooms, and I would have been right. Except that “plain and boxy” would have been a generous description. Our room was a tiny, dimly lit box with no decent amenities to brighten the cell-like atmosphere. Really depressing.

Another factor also came into play at this point. While in no way were we hitch hiking and back packing, we had been traveling for more than three weeks, had covered many thousands of miles by plane and car, and this was our 14th hotel. So both physically and mentally we were beginning to run out of gas. It was the time when a little pampering would have made a difference. But we were not going to be pampered at the Dallal. The best we could do was charge up our Kindles and go downstairs to the courtyard and read. Which we did.

The next day when we transferred to Beit Wakil the setting was more upscale, the public spaces were beautiful, and the room was “plain and boxy,” a bit better than the Dallal but not much. Again, we spent time in the courtyard with our Kindles. Beit Wakil is living on its past glory. It is in serious need of upgrading and maintenance.

Maybe the same can be said of Aleppo in general. It could use some upgrading and maintenance. I don’t want to dump on the place unfairly. We didn’t dislike it. We just didn’t find much to get excited about. Inevitably we compared it with Damascus. Not only was there an order of magnitude difference between the Old Vine and Beit Wakil, the areas in which they were located worked against Beit Wakil. The Old Vine is in the middle of a vibrant Old Town. Beit Wakil is in a newer area that lacks the charm we found elsewhere.

An image stays with me. On a walk we took to the Old Town the next day I noticed a row of fruit stores and the roof that covered them. On the roof was an array of large, old, rusted satellite dishes – eight of them. I guess they transmitted pictures to TV sets, but they looked ancient and old fashioned. Needed: Upgrading and maintenance.

People on the streets of Aleppo seemed preoccupied with whatever they were doing. They seemed uninterested in us and everyone else. They weren’t hostile, just not interested. Only once did I experience any hostility. I wanted to take a picture of a man sitting in his outdoor meat shop. He glared at me and said, “No pictures.” He looked like a seriously no-nonsense guy, so I didn’t argue.

Later, two different Aleppans/Aleppites? made the same unsolicited comment about their town. They told us that the people of Aleppo were uneducated and lazy. Since the same exact words were used I can only assume that “uneducated and lazy” is a mantra for those who are dissatisfied with their local environment.

Consistent with our mood, we didn’t try to stay busy in Aleppo. We read, took meandering walks and drank wine at sidewalk cafes while we watched the people and the scene around us.

After our first dinner at an “in” place called Sissi’s (pretentious, overpriced and full of tourists), we had several good meals. We ate dinner twice at Beit Wakil (beautiful space in a courtyard) and once at Dar Zamaria Martini (also a lovely courtyard.) Both restaurants featured oud players and we loved the music. An oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument said to be the predecessor of the lute. We found small places in our neighborhood for lunch. Very low key.

When Nasser deposited us at our hotel at the end of our drive from Hama we said goodbye to him and Fatima. We’d need a car one more time, for a short trip to San Simeon (Qala’at Samaan) and arranged with the hotel for a driver. He turned out to be a bright young guy, Yasir, who was both working full time and going to school.

I thought San Simeon would be my final encounter with old stones on this trip. (I was wrong; there’d be one more.) These are the remains of a church made famous long ago by (surprise!) a guy named Simeon. And therein lies a tale.

Turns out Simeon, born in 392 AD to a shepherd family, opted to live a monastic life. But he found the monastery was insufficiently ascetic so he retreated to a cave. Word got around that he was super-pious, so people began to visit his cave to receive blessings. This didn’t please Simeon. So he built a 3-meter high pillar, out of the touch of people, and took up residence. (Here you have to suspend your disbelief.) The legend goes that as his tolerance of people decreased he built ever-higher pillars, finally reaching a height of 18 meters (59’). With a railing around the top and an iron collar around his neck to keep him from tumbling off in the middle of the night he spent almost 40 years living this way. It is said he preached daily from his perch and answered questions (from men only). After he died in 459 a church was built around his final pillar.

Well, I believe they built a church. And I could tell basilicas were part of it. And that it had a Romanesque façade. As to the rest of the story – I’ll leave that up to you. Ooops, forgot! What about the pillar? Is it still there? Sure, see that boulder? That’s what’s left of the pillar, the rest having been chipped away over the centuries by pilgrims looking for holy souvenirs – or so they say.

We enjoyed our ride out into the countryside. Having driven a lot in both Iran and Syria, I’d say the roads are better in Iran. The traffic is light in both countries. The architecture in towns and on the outskirts is less offensive in Syria. We saw many Bedouins and their sheep in Syria.

Other comparisons: There were more tourists in Syria, mostly from Europe. We never saw a woman in shorts and only a couple of men (in Syria.) The weather was warmer (but not real warm) in Syria. Sandra was struck by how many birds (mostly small ones) she saw everywhere. We saw more CNN and the BBC in Iran. More English was spoken in Iran. Contrary to my usual habit of trying out local languages, I didn’t learn any Farsi or Arabic. I think this was a mistake on my part. I should have made the effort.

On the way back from San Simeon Yasir asked if we’d like to stop at a Roman Temple. “Sure,” we both said, “why not?” My internal conversation had something to do with saying goodbye to old stones – at last.

We left the highway and headed up a hill on a small dirt road. At the top was an absolutely lovely, well-preserved temple from almost two thousand years ago. A Bedouin family was camped nearby. Two Arab gentlemen lounging on the hillside offered us tea. Four teenage boys were the only other visitors. There was a gentle breeze and it was quiet. It was a magical setting. We couldn’t find the temple on any maps or in our books, so we don’t know anything about it. Which doesn’t matter at all. It was wonderful just being there.

On our final day in Aleppo we mostly hung out. We visited an old house that has been turned into a museum. Not very interesting. We filmed a street that amused us, since every shop over several blocks was selling women’s handbags. We returned to a little restaurant where we’d eaten lunch once before. It was on a narrow lane, quiet, no cars allowed, and we sat at a little table outside under a tree. Very laid back. Sandra volunteered that she was really ready to be home. This was the first time in memory that she’d expressed an interest in having one of our foreign adventures come to an end. In discussing it we both agreed that it would have been fine with us had we gone home a couple of days ago. We were tired.

We weren’t looking forward to our schedule for the rest of what would be a very long day. Our plane out of Aleppo was to leave at 3:45 the next morning. Since we needed to be at the airport two hours in advance of the flight, we’d leave the hotel at about 1:30. We decided there was no point in trying to sleep. We’d have a late dinner and sleep on the plane(s) we were about to take.

We had a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul and a connection, also on Turkish Airlines, to Frankfurt. If we were on schedule, which we were, we’d be in Frankfurt for something like six hours and then board a United non-stop to San Francisco. The journey back was uneventful, the best kind. It was 30 hours door-to-door – we were home and soon in our own bed.

Here are our five favorite experiences in Syria. Notice that four of the five are the same for both of us.

Dan:

1. Being taken to the hotel in Damascus upon arrival

2. Finding Al Dar restaurant the first night & the dinner there

3. The Old Vine Hotel

4. The Shi’a Shrine at the Umayaad Mosque

5. The Museum in Damascus

Sandra:

1. Being taken to the hotel in Damascus upon arrival

2. Finding Al Dar restaurant the first night & the dinner there

3. The Old Vine Hotel

4. The Shi’a Shrine at the Umayaad Mosque

5. The “Welcome” said so warmly when they found out we were Americans

So – that’s the end of the story. But it’s not the end of the conversation. At this point it’s fair to ask – What do I think of it all, especially in light of recent events in Iran? What am I left with?

First off, I am suspicious of instant experts. 16 days in Iran and 9 in Syria do not magically endow me with the expertise to issue profound in-depth judgments. What my experience gave me is a few snapshots, some prisms to look through and think about, not a full-length feature film on the subject. I realize there is much I don’t know and much I wasn’t exposed to.

With that disclaimer/caveat in place, it won’t surprise you to hear that I have a few things to say.

What stands out above all in both Iran and Syria is the humanity of the people. At one level, to call attention to the humanity of people is simplistic and self-evident. Couldn’t I say the same thing about all people in all places? Yes, I could. So let me use what is perhaps a better word to describe what I mean: ‘humaneness.’

It stands out not because Iranians and Syrians are unique human beings. It stands out because it is in stark contrast to the one-dimensional, black and white, demonized face we tend to put on people considered to be our enemies.

One of Sandra’s five top experiences in Syria was being greeted with a warm “Welcome” when people found out we were Americans. It was the same in Iran. Without exception, every article I’d read written by recent American visitors to Iran commented on this phenomenon. So I was not surprised. But when I remembered what friends and family said to us before we left, how concerned they were that we would be greeted with hostility and might be in danger, I realized how at odds the perception is with reality.

A recent series on Jon Stewart’s show made this point brilliantly. They sent one of their ‘reporters,’ Jason Jones, to Iran before the election. While they usually do these reports in front of a screen in the studio, in this case he really went there. I don’t know what they expected to find in Iran, but what they put together demonstrated how our preconceptions are laughably inaccurate.

Where they expected to find hatred they found friendship. Where they expected to find danger they found security. Where they expected to find fear they found loving families and happy children. Admittedly, the recent demonstrations and repression cast a pall on what the Daily Show reported, but they don’t contradict what Jason Jones and we experienced – humaneness.

I notice that it’s easy to get focused on Iran. While Syria is doesn’t get the attention Iran gets we’re very happy we had a chance to go there and would certainly recommend it as a destination. From a tourist point of view there are many treasures to see. Compared to other places in the world it is still relatively inexpensive. The distances aren’t great, so it’s easy to get around.

We had no political conversations in Syria. We didn’t avoid them; they just didn’t come up. It’s obvious that there is a lot of energy on the Palestine issue and it appears that Syria has a role to play in helping to broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. That we are going to bolster our presence by sending a U.S. Ambassador back to Damascus (after a four-year absence) is a positive sign.

While Syria and Iran are mutually supportive politically, they are very different countries. In many ways the differences are profound. Syrians are Arabs. Iranians are not. Syria is predominantly Sunni. Iran is Shiite. Iran has a long history filled with past glories. Syria does not. Iran is a large country in a strategically important area. Syria is a small country with a role to play in their neighborhood but is not a major player (or a threat) on the world stage.

Before we decided to go to Syria it wasn’t on my radar screen. Having gone there, I now feel a personal relationship with the place and have positive feelings about the country and its people.

Back to Iran. It would be easy to misinterpret what has been going on since the Iranian election on June 12. The opposition is protesting against voting irregularities, not against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In that sense it is not (yet) a revolution. It may be that over time there will be some fundamental changes in how the country is run. But nothing I saw while I was there and nothing I’ve heard since leads me to think that in the foreseeable future there will be a contextual change in what Iranians want for their country.

If Ahmadinejad were gone tomorrow and replaced by someone thought to be more moderate, the fundamentals would not change. If Ayatollah Khamenei were gone tomorrow and replaced by an Ayatollah thought to be more moderate, the fundamentals would not change.

Based on what I took away from our visit, the fundamentals I’m talking about are:

1. Iran’s attitude toward Israel. As long as there is no resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute and a viable Palestinian state is created, Israel will continue to be Iran’s enemy #1. In the absence of such an agreement, even if there were a new Iranian President who toned down his rhetoric and acknowledged the horror of the Holocaust, both the government and the people of Iran would hold Israel responsible for the problems of the Middle East.

2. Support for a nuclear capacity. Most Iranians would support Iran’s right to develop a nuclear capability. They don’t see this issue in terms of building a bomb but about their rights as an IAEA member to follow the same path other members have followed.

3. Preservation of the Islamic Republic, with emphasis on Islamic. Iranians of all political persuasions support Islam and their Shiite faith. This is true even for those who are less than seriously devout.

4. A disdain toward Arabs. That Iran shares many of the political and social goals of Arab states does not lessen the historical enmity Persians feel toward their ‘second class’ cousins, especially Saudi Arabians.

5. Pride. Iranians are a bit (some would say more than a bit) snobbish. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture. They love their language, their food and their landscape. They take enormous pride in being hospitable.

6. Commitment to family and children. Every day we saw evidence of how much Iranians love and care for those close to them.

Probably one of the reasons we felt so comfortable and safe in Iran is because the people make a clear distinction between a government and its people. They didn’t hide their negative feelings toward the US Government, at least under Bush, but they didn’t blame us. Quite the reverse. They know that they are not necessarily representative of their government. They represent themselves. And that’s how they saw us.

They were very positive about Obama. They accepted the premise that he offered hope for a new and better day. They seemed to relish the idea that they could be friends with the United States – government as well as people.

It’s not likely I would have made this trip without years of gentle prodding on the part of the Lovely Ms. Marsh. I was interested enough to put it on our “To Go” list, but not interested enough to make it a “Must Go.” Sandra was passionate about it. I’m glad she persisted. I now feel a kinship with and compassion for the people of Iran. I’m concerned about them and confident that in the end they’ll be able to take care of themselves.

I hope you have a chance to visit Iran someday. But maybe you should wait a little while before you go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Part 7 - Pictures

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Iran & Syria - Part 7

In Damascus we hired a car and driver to take us on a four-day overland jaunt to Aleppo, where we’d end our trip. Our first stop would be Palmyra, 140 miles northeast into the desert. We were very happy with the car that showed up. It was an almost-new VW Skoda. Our driver was Nasser. He seemed like a nice guy, spoke passable English and was a good driver.

The road was good and the traffic was light, so it didn’t take long to get to Palmyra. We stopped once for tea and a snack (olives and cheese) at a tiny oasis called the Bagdad Café. This place was like a movie set on the back lot of Paramount Pictures in the 1940’s. A small broken-down structure housed what passed for a restaurant and a room filled with local artifacts. A few traditional mud houses with conical roofs were nearby, as was a well (I don’t know if it had water) and some scraggly small trees.

We sat outside and had our goodies. The price was about five times what I thought it should be, but I decided not to complain. A couple of Arab gentlemen were engrossed in a game of backgammon. It was very quiet at the Bagdad Café. We were surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see.

As we neared Palmyra Nasser suggested it would be a good idea if we had a guide to show us the ruins. I demurred. A few minutes later he suggested it again. I began to get the message. I bet our man Nasser has a friend/informal business associate in Palmyra who would be the perfect person to be our guide. Nasser’s cut of the fee we’d pay would be a nice bonus for him.

While we weren’t happy with the rather clumsy promotion number Nasser was laying on us, Sandra and I conferred and decided maybe a guide would be a good idea after all. So we told Nasser to call his friend. By this time we were at the Palmyra entrance. It turns out the preferred guide was occupied with a group of tourists. Nasser wanted us to wait until he was available. We wanted to get started. He’d convinced us a guide was a plus, so we started a conversation with another man, Mohammed, who was offering his services.

This agitated Nasser. He could see his scheme was backfiring, because there was no way Mohammed was going to pay Nasser anything. Everyone involved knew what was going on, but after some serious bargaining we concluded our deal with Mohammed and moved on. Nasser, grumbling about how we were getting an inferior guide for too much money, could only stand around and wait for us to finish our tour.

The Lonely Planet says:

Palmyra is Syria’s prime attraction and one of the world’s most splendid historical sites. Hard-bitten travelers who have seen enough old stones to last a lifetime (does this remind you of anyone?) are still moved to superlatives by the profusion of colonnades, temple remains and funerary towers and their desert oasis setting. Palmyra is special.

I’ll resist the temptation to join the other hard-bitten travelers in showering Palmyra with superlatives. It’s true there is a profusion of remains, and as old stones go they are better than many. I was more impressed with the ruins than with Mohammed. He was a rather unattractive blowhard whose lame jokes seemed boring even to him. Maybe we should have waited for Nasser’s man after all.

We would be staying overnight in Palmyra. When I was setting up hotels in Syria I found it difficult to find a room in Palmyra. Most visitors come and go the same day, so there aren’t that many hotels. I finally took what I could get and sight unseen made a reservation at the Tetrapylon. Given how little I knew about the place and the relatively low price, my expectations were not high.

The Tetrapylon met my expectations. It was not wonderful. However, even though the room was small and a bit shoddy, we had a great view. Not far away, in full view, were the Roman ruins.

Palmyra is not a large town. There is one main street a few blocks long, which we found by walking out our front door. A short distance away was the Traditional Restaurant, recommended by our man Nasser. We ate at a table outside next to the street and ordered a Bedouin rice dish said to be their specialty. Again, our expectations were not high, and so the meal was just fine. We did an after dinner walk down the main drag and back again. Took about 15 minutes.

The only real problem with the hotel was that the room was cold. As in Iran, the weather in Syria was cooler than we expected it to be. We were told the date for cold weather had passed, so the heat was turned off. Makes sense – I guess. In the end they brought extra blankets and we were fine.

In the morning after a brief visit to the Palmyra Museum we headed west back across the desert toward Hama, where we’d spend two nights. We planned to make a stop on the way – at Krak des Chevaliers, reputed to be the finest Crusader castle in the world. The terrain changed dramatically as we neared Krak. The desert disappeared and we found ourselves surrounded by neat farms in a verdant, hilly countryside. Atop one the highest hills was the castle.

If you like old castles, Krak des Chevaliers is for you. And I suspect most of us, especially those who were once children, have at least a fantasy relationship with castles. Krak has it all. First off, it’s huge. Thick walls. Moats. Towers. Ramps that lead up to courtyards. Wells. Chapels. Stables. Kitchens. Fortifications. Openings to shoot the arrows through. Openings to throw rocks or burning oil down on enemies trying to scale the wall. Dark tunnels. And rooms large and small for every conceivable purpose.

It’s fair to ask: “OK, if this castle is so wonderful how come the Crusaders lost it to the armies of Islam?”

Krak des Chevaliers was built in the middle of the 12th Century. Over the next hundred years the castle successfully withstood many attacks and sieges. But by 1271 it was a lonely last outpost. Jerusalem had been lost. The Christians were retreating. Krak, which was built to hold a garrison of 2,000, was down to 200 knights. Even though they had supplies that could last for five years, the Crusaders agreed to depart with a promise of safe conduct. So the Muslims never had to overcome the castle by force.

A tasty surprise adjacent to Krak was a restaurant that served a wonderful mezze (many small appetizers) for lunch.

We arrived in Hama late in the afternoon. As in Palmyra, the hotel choice was limited. I took the safe route and set us up at the only large hotel in the city, the Cham Apamee Palace. The Cham Palace hotel chain is well known in Syria. They have a dozen hotels, are on the pretentious side, cater to tourists, and lack charm.

The Cham Apamee has seen better days. Behind the façade it is showing its age and could use some maintenance. The staff was less helpful than in other places we’d stayed. And many of the 200+ rooms were not occupied.

On the positive side, we had a wonderful view of Hama’s main claim to fame – its norias. These are centuries-old wooden water wheels, some of which are 65’ in diameter. The Orontes River, which flows through Hama, is lower than the surrounding land, so the norias were needed to scoop up water and channel it for irrigation. Even though modern water management systems are now available, some of these ancient norias are still in use.

Hama has (or had) a reputation as being a pleasant, picturesque town. This is less true today than in the past. In 1982 a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama was brutally put down by Hafez al-Assad. He brought in some 8,000 troops, and in fighting that went on for three weeks large portions of the city were destroyed or damaged. Evidence of the battle is still apparent in Hama’s Old Town. We spent some time walking through Old Town, and it is lovely. We were told that what we saw is a small portion of the pre-1982 Old Town.

Our one full day in Hama was pleasant and laid back. The main Old Town attraction is the Azem Palace, an 18th Century Ottoman home. We couldn’t see much because it was closed. No problem; we walked on. I noticed quite a few women covered head-to-toe (including a face veil) in black. One stands out. Clearly young and perky, as she passed Sandra she surprised us with a clear “hello.” And then she was gone. (Throughout our trip the women we encountered paid attention to Sandra. I didn’t exist for them.) We went to an old mosque. Small, quiet, little decoration, and a very nice feel to it. We went to the Christian Quarter to buy wine.

Nasser suggested we eat lunch at the Orient House, an out-of-the-way hotel. It was a good choice. The restaurant was in a large courtyard-like room. The food was very good. Not much English was spoken and no wine was available, but we were OK with that. After several days in Syria we’d realized that more often than not we wouldn’t find alcohol in restaurants. It seems that in recent years the trend has been to tighten up on serving booze, not the other way around.

In the restaurant the night before, a place called the Jardin near the hotel, they served whiskey and beer, but no wine. The Jardin was on the river and had a view, but mediocre food and noisy kids left us unimpressed. For our second dinner we went to the Four Norias, also on the river. Again no wine, but good food (mezze) and no kids, so we were happy.

Nasser asked us if his wife, Fatima, could join us for our drive to Aleppo the next day. It turns out her family is from Hama and she used the occasion of Nasser going there to make a trip up to see them. She brought their young son with her (who we met after dinner at the Four Norias.) We thought her joining us would be fine. Once we were dropped in Aleppo they would head back to Hama.

We couldn’t communicate much with Fatima, but what we observed was very positive. She is a good-sized woman in her 30’s, with a strong face and a confident sense of herself. We had the impression she is quite intelligent. She and Nasser talked a lot and seemed to have a very good relationship.

On the way to Aleppo we wanted to stop at Serjilla, one of the larger of the hundreds of so-called Dead Cities in Syria. I say “we” advisedly. It will be no surprise to hear that the main requester for a Dead City stop was Sandra.

These ghost towns date from the time this area was part of the Byzantine Christian city of Antioch, about 15 centuries ago. Why they were abandoned is a mystery. The current theory in favor is that these sites were on trade routes that changed and the people moved with them. No one knows for sure. Since the Dead Cities number about 600, I doubt the trade route theory is accurate.

It was a challenge finding Serjilla. It’s off the main road, signs don’t exist, and even though Nasser asked several people along the way for directions there wasn’t a lot of certainty about where we should go. We finally realized we were there when we spotted a cluster of buildings off to the left side of the road. The area is windswept, rocky and hilly. A small community of Bedouins, with their tents and sheep, were camped on the right side of the road. I was amused to learn and see that while the Bedouins retain their traditional nomadic lifestyle, these days they get around from place to place in trucks.

Serjilla was a different kind of old stones place. It is more recognizable than other ruins we’d seen. There are dozens of semi-complete buildings and a few that look almost intact. They say that the latter were a tavern, bathhouse and church. The surrounding ground is covered with short grass. There are no wild bushes or undergrowth. It’s almost like it is being maintained in an almost orderly way. Or maybe that’s just imagining things. We spent some time wandering around. Nasser and Fatima went off on their own and seemed to be having a terrific time. Sandra was entranced. I enjoyed the walk.

Next stop – Aleppo.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Part 6 - Pictures

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Iran & Syria - Part 6

When I was setting up our Iran/Syria trip it was a challenge figuring out how to get from Tehran to Damascus. I thought since the two countries are buddies it would be pretty straightforward. Not so. The most convenient flights were non-stops on Iran Air, but they fly only three days a week and the day we were leaving wasn’t one of the three. The next best was Kuwait Airlines, which would get us to Damascus with a change of planes in Kuwait City. They were afternoon flights that would have us arrive at a decent hour. So Kuwait Airlines it was.

We had a short layover in the Kuwait City airport. I found the terminal rather exotic. I should say the people in the terminal. Some women were totally covered, face included, in black abayahs. Others were wearing chic, revealing western dress. Most of the men were wearing a long sleeved one-piece white Dishdashah and a scarf-like red and white checked head cover. We had clearly moved from a Persian to an Arab place.

The flights were on time and except for an exceedingly hard landing in Damascus (and I mean really hard – I thought the pilot was on the verge of losing control of the plane) we were safely in Syria.

I’d heard that there were some wonderful small, boutique hotels in Damascus and Aleppo. I went on the Internet to check them out and found the Old Vine in Damascus. It turned out to be a jewel. I arranged for a car to pick us up, which turned out to be a really wise decision. As we were to discover, the Old Vine is not easy to find, even for local taxi drivers.

The car came to a stop on a busy shopping street. I didn’t see any hotel and wondered why we’d stopped. The driver got out, opened the trunk, and began unloading our luggage. As we stood there not knowing what to do a young man with a hand truck arrived and began loading our bags onto the truck. No one had said a word to us. Given that they didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Arabic I guess that wouldn’t have helped anyway.

The driver said goodbye and the young man with our luggage took off at a fast clip down a narrow street into a bazaar, called a souk in that part of the world. It was about 7 in the evening at this point and the souk was crowded with people. Shops on both sides were open and doing a brisk business. We had no idea where we were going and daylight had disappeared.

Sandra rushed ahead to try and stay close to our belongings. I guess the young man knew we were following, but he showed no sign of that or concern about where we might be. I was lagging behind, intrigued by the street scene through which we were passing and figuring that in the end it would all turn out OK. As far as we could tell there were no other foreigners around. Not that they would have been any help should we have needed it.

I kept both Sandra and (most of the time) the young man in sight as we kept walking. I guess we went about 300 meters more or less before coming to a very small lane on our right. Finally there was a sign directing us to follow that lane for the Old Vine. After another 50 meters we caught up with the young man, his hand truck, and our luggage in front of an old wooden door and a plaque that said Old Vine Hotel. We were there, safe and sound.

You know how sometimes when you arrive at a new place you have a feeling you’re going to like it (or not)? You walk in and it takes about three seconds to conclude, “Hey, this is great.” And there are those rare instances when you don’t even have to walk in. That’s the way it was at the Old Vine. I liked it even before we walked through that old wooden door.

Everything was done well at the Old Vine. The décor. The art. The staff. The food. Our room. The public space. I’ve described flying first class on Singapore Airlines as a seamless experience. With no offbeat notes, everything works well. The Old Vine is seamless in the same way. More about the hotel soon. For now, back to our first night in Syria.

We were looking forward to a good dinner and a bottle of wine, so our first order of business was to ask the man at the desk for restaurant recommendations. He suggested Narange, Damascus’ current #1, but we couldn’t get a reservation on such short notice. His Plan B was Al Dar. It was, he said, very good and only a 10-minute walk from the Old Vine. Sounded good to us. Now, how were we going to get there?

Our man gave us a map. Sandra loves maps and over the years has used them successfully to help us locate hard-to-find places around the world. There were just a couple of problems this time. First of all, the street and other names on the map were in Arabic. Second, the scale was such that not every lane was shown and it would take a magnifying glass to really see what was shown. Third, while we had little ‘x’s’ indicating where we were and where Al Dar was we weren’t at all clear on the best way to get from here to there. Basically, we were told to go out the door, turn left, go to the end of the lane, turn right, and then turn right again at either the 1st or 2nd or 3rd street we came to. Our man’s mastery of English and our complete and utter ignorance of the local language were such that we weren’t sure exactly what he was telling us.

But, hey, we’d had challenges before and overcome them. We’d do it again this time. So in that spirit an hour later we headed out the door for the Al Dar. We did the left and right OK, but when we came to the first right after that we weren’t sure whether to take it or not. We decided to pass on that one and go to the 2nd right. A short distance after that we came to an intersection and were unsure of what to do. I wouldn’t say we were lost. We hadn’t even gone far enough to be lost. Just unsure. Sandra found enough light on the street to study the map. And then she studied it some more. For the first time I can remember in such a situation she acknowledged that she didn’t know what to do.

Fortunately, our man had given us a little slip of paper with something written on it that he said would be a help if we had trouble finding Al Dar. I decided to show the paper to someone in a shop across the street. It worked like a charm. The man pointed us in the right direction. We were a long way from the finish line, but at least we were on the way. Not too long after that I took my trusty little piece of paper into another shop, and again it worked like a charm. We were told which way to go. It was like using a compass. If we asked often enough we wouldn’t go too far wrong. We were awake enough to pay close attention to where we were on the assumption that we’d have to find our way back to the hotel later that night.

I must have gone into at least eight shops on this journey. Without exception, the shopkeepers and shoppers were happy to help. As we came closer to our destination we were told ‘300 meters’ straight ahead. We heard ‘300 meters’ several times, but finally, voila, Al Dar. We did it! Dinner was, literally, just around the corner.

On Al Dar’s website is the following statement:

In the oldest city that the history knew.

Within the most Damascene districts nobility.

Inside the old fence to Damascus city.

In Thomas’s door Al Dar Restaurant falls.

Contempt we founded it on old house rubbles with new spirit.

Foods derived from the past by western breaths.

The past atmospheres we put them between your sights by the present language.

Hospitality is our principles.

I quote this not to make fun of the contorted translation of what is written in Arabic on the same website (its infinitely better than I could do were it the other way around) but to give you a sense of the environment and the place.

We were inside the walls of the Old Town of what many think is the oldest city on the planet. What was originally built as a home centuries ago had been renovated and converted into a ‘hip’ eating establishment. I’d describe the structure and décor as antique modern. Elements and the flavor of Old Syria were integrated into a 21st Century design. These carried over into the menu, which included both traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and European dishes, and the ambiance – live jazz music and upscale service.

As we sat down at our table I’d say our mood was giddy. While we’d loved our time in Iran, we certainly liked the idea of indulging ourselves in a place that closely resembled what we were used to. And that we’d successfully navigated our walk to get there increased our pleasure.

So now, how about something to drink? We quickly learned that the most available wine in Syria comes from Lebanon’s Ksara Winery. Ksara has many different bottlings and all the ones we had were quite drinkable. So we began our Al Dar experience by ordering a bottle of Ksara. But I had a yen for some Arak, the anise flavored liquor that has its home in the Middle East. Arak is a clear liquid usually diluted with water (which turns it a milky-white color) and served over ice. So we ordered a bottle of Arak as well.

Sandra isn’t an Arak fan, so I was on my own with it. Cut to the end of the meal. We’d eaten and drunk well – too well in my case. The Arak put me over the top. I was loaded. I can’t remember the last time I was a giggling, happy drunk. I didn’t misbehave and I could function well enough to walk home (we did remember how to get there), but I wasn’t going to set any records for coherence. I had the feeling we’d paid twice what we should have paid for dinner, but I hadn’t challenged the bill so there was nothing to do but let it go and congratulate ourselves on doing exactly what we set out to do that night.

Our first full day in Damascus was a Friday, the day many things are closed in the Islamic world. We did want to visit the National Museum, and it was open, so no problem there. The owner of the Old Vine, Sami Maamoun, was in the hotel as we were about to leave and offered us a ride. Sami looks to be in his early 30’s. He’s an attractive guy, cosmopolitan, cultured, and speaks impeccable English, which is not surprising since he was educated in England and has a British mother and Syrian father. He told us it took 2½ years to turn the Old Vine from a rundown 17th Century mansion into the hotel that it is today.

Later we were told by a woman who manages the hotel for Sami that the quality of the Old Vine reflects the taste, attention to detail and relentless pursuit of perfection that he brought to project.

The Old Vine has only nine rooms. We were in the Fulla room. In Arabic, Fulla means jasmine. The furniture in our room featured an Arabesque design and mother of pearl inlays. Our bed, which was quite large, had originally been an old Diwan (couch.) I particularly loved the black and white pictures on the walls. They featured people and scenes from the Syria of a hundred years ago. In our bathroom floor was a large lovely tile design. We didn’t realize until we were in the room that we didn’t have a window. Normally I would have considered this a major drawback, but at the Old Vine it didn’t bother us.

We had breakfast down in an open courtyard in the center of the property. The food for breakfast was excellent. We particularly enjoyed being able to have eggs made to order by a woman who did the cooking. Freshly made pastry from one of the nearby bakeries was reminiscent of France – not surprising since the French controlled Syria under a League of Nations Mandate between the first and second world wars. And of course the coffee was plentiful and strong.

The National Museum was well worth the visit. The building is set in a shady garden, with trees, flowers and many works of art. When we were there a class of schoolchildren was tracing some of the stone objects. The entrance is a work of art itself. It is the main gate of a 7th Century desert palace in Palmyra that was moved stone by stone to Damascus.

In the museum itself there is much to see, but three things in particular stand out for me: Large 3rd Century Roman mosaics in great condition dominate the walls and floor of one room. Downstairs is a reconstruction of a burial chamber in Palmyra, with statues and decorated walls with openings into which bodies were pigeonholed and interred. And finally there is a special section dedicated to a 2nd Century synagogue that was discovered in the ancient city of Dura Europos, removed and reconstructed here. Frescoes in a naïve style of drawing depicting scenes from the Old Testament cover the walls. I’ve never seen anything like it.

A market near the museum catered to tourists and Sandra wanted to check out the possibility of buying some silver items. Her job is to decide what she likes. My job is to bargain. She found a few things she liked, and I went to work. The shopkeeper was a young guy, rather cocky at first. I offered an amount that was way less than what he asked. We went back and forth for a while, until I convinced him that we’d walk away rather than pay his price. I’d give a little, but not too much.

What finally became obvious was that this was his father’s shop and he’d have to answer to him if he sold the merchandise below whatever their minimum was. I guess we were close to that number, because he hesitated before agreeing on what I said was my final offer. I thought later that I might have gone too far. Usually the seller is in good spirits when a bargaining session is successfully completed. This young man didn’t look very happy. Sandra was, though. She had three pieces of silver jewelry that she likes a lot.

Finding a taxi to take us back to the hotel was a challenge. There were plenty of empty taxis. The problem was we couldn’t find a driver who knew where we wanted to go. I said the name of the city gate near the hotel. I was sure I was pronouncing it correctly, but whatever I said didn’t compute. Finally, I remembered that we had a slip of paper the Old Vine had given us, which said in Arabic where we wanted to go. With that we were able to communicate and we were dropped back at the same spot the airport car had deposited us the night before. Except by now we knew what to do when we got there – 24-hour experts – and we completed our excursion.

Dinner this evening was to be a little more modest that the Al Dar the night before. We went to the Al Khawali, an easy walk in roughly the same direction we traveled on our search for the Al Dar. The Al Khawali is a large, family-oriented restaurant, also converted from an old home and nicely decorated. We saw quite a few women who we thought were having a night out after attending Friday prayers. No wine was served, but the food was fine, the price was cheap, and we enjoyed it. Since we had a couple of bottles of Ksara red in our room, we weren’t feeling wine-deprived.

The next day we spent in the Old Town area near our hotel. The main attraction is the Umayyad Mosque, and it didn’t disappoint. The Umayyad is very old, built at the beginning of the 8th Century. It is one of the holiest places in the Islamic world. In style it is very different than what we saw in Iran and beautiful on its own terms. It is huge, with a large open courtyard, and has many extraordinary mosaics. For architectural and design details I suggest you look elsewhere.

On the eastern side of the Umayyad is the Shrine of Hussein, grandson of the prophet, who was killed in Karbala. For Shiites, this shrine is revered. It is said that while Hussein’s body stayed in Karbala, his head was entombed here. Naturally, we wanted to see it. (The shrine, not the head.) When we entered the shrine we found ourselves in the middle of a mob scene. Wall to wall people. Shiite pilgrims. More black-clad women than men. Emotions running high. Tears. Prayers. Pushing forward to touch the side of the shrine. Following the lead of several male pilgrims, I stood back out of the way near a wall and took pictures. It was an unbelievable sight. I’ve described the craziness at the Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz. The Shrine of Hussein was more of the same.

It was a struggle getting out. We ran into a large group of pilgrims, almost all women, in a frenzy to get inside. I would have stepped aside and let them pass (figuring at some point there would be a break) but I couldn’t. I was being pushed forward by a group behind us also trying to get out. Not a good place to be if you have claustrophobia.

Adjacent to the mosque is Saladin’s Tomb. Saladin was the Sultan of Egypt and Syria who led Muslim resistance to the Crusaders. Just outside the front of the Umayyad is an old Temple Gate built by the Romans. This gate was the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter, which stood on the ground now occupied by the Umayyad. And just beyond the Temple Gate is Damascus’ old souk.

The souk wasn’t quite as crowded as Hussein’s Shrine, but it was close. Lots of people, almost none of who paid the least attention to us. We saw more foreign tourists in Syria than in Iran, but there weren’t many in the souk and the locals were focused on taking care of whatever business brought them out – shopping, meeting friends, taking the kids for a walk – whatever.

Sandra wanted to buy two things: ice cream and a cap. We saw many people carrying cones or cups of ice cream, so we knew it must be available somewhere close by. Sure enough, up ahead we saw a crowd of people trying to get into a place called Bakdash. It had a large window in front, and we could see men in white scooping gobs of ice cream out of large containers. Sandra was on a mission, so – undeterred by the crowd or knowing how to ask for what she wanted – in she went.

I watched from the outside as she wormed her way into the store and disappeared. I found out later she’d figured out that first she needed to pay for what she wanted. Her problem was that she couldn’t communicate. Thanks to sign language, pointing and helpful people behind the counter she got that job done. Then she reappeared behind the window near the containers of ice cream. I saw her tell one of the guys in white what she wanted him to scoop out for her. A few moments later she emerged, cup of ice cream in hand, triumphant.

Not far away we saw a cap shop. Sandra found a cap she liked, which led to a chat with the shopkeeper. Turns out he has a son in the U.S., in Baltimore. He seemed very happy to talk with us. Our excursion into the souk was a success.

On this, our final night in Damascus, we had dinner at Narange, the popular restaurant we couldn’t get into on our first night in town. Who knows what makes a restaurant ‘the’ place to go? Maybe it is because President Assad is said to eat there once a week. Maybe because the food is good. Maybe because it has a cosmopolitan ambiance. Or more likely, none of the above. My guess is that Narange is hot just because of the buzz.

In any event, we had a reservation. To get there we followed the same path we took to Al Dar. Except by now we were veterans and knew exactly where to go. We loved the place. The food was great. There were many large tables filled with families or friends. The energy in the room was strong and positive. The service was good. When we left we noticed that the street in front was filled with many new, expensive cars. No surprise. What did surprise me was that several had Lebanese license plates. While Lebanon isn’t that far away, it does seem like a rather long way to go for dinner.

Later, I noticed on our Visa bill that the charges for Narange came from a vendor in Jordan. Which reminds me, our expectation that in Syria we’d be able to use credit cards in most places proved not to be true. In Damascus, the Old Vine and Narange took Visa, but that was it. Everywhere else either the machine was broken, or they hemmed and hawed a lot, or they simply said ‘no.’

Many restaurants in Syria didn’t have prices on their menus. The menus we saw were in English or English and Arabic, so I’m not sure if the ‘no price’ policy was the same on all-Arabic menus. It wasn’t a problem; I just found it strange.

Speaking of Arabic – I thought what we call Arabic numerals are the regular 1, 2, 3, etc. But in Arabic-speaking Syria the numerals are written in (I guess it’s accurate to say) Arabic. And since I can’t read Arabic I couldn’t read the numbers. Seems like there’s a misnomer in here somewhere.

The Narange was our farewell party in Damascus. We’d leave for Palmyra in the morning.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Comment: Elections in Iran

What do I think about the elections in Iran two days ago?

Like many people around the world I'm sorry that Ahmadinejad won. Given that real power is held by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, even had Mousavi won we wouldn't likely have seen basic shifts in Iranian policy, at least not immediately.

But Mousavi held out hope for a kinder, gentler approach to how Iran sees and deals with the west. So his victory would have been a step forward.

When we were in Iran we had a few conversations with people about the upcoming election. Those who expressed unhappiness with Ahmadinejad and his policies were doubtful that he could be defeated. They assumed the vote would be rigged if necessary to keep him in power.

My guess is that had the votes been counted fairly Ahmadinejad would still have won, but by a smaller margin. We'll never know what actually happened. I don't think the current protests by Mousavi supporters will go on for long. They'll either be suppressed and/or they'll resort to private expressions of dissatisfaction. I don't think there is enough of a critical mass at this time for a serious uprising. But the passion shown by those who'd like to see change in the direction of reform is a positive sign.

Irrespective of who's in charge in Iran, the U.S. should continue on the path of engaging them in a positive dialog.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Part 5 - Pictures

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Iran & Syria - Part 5

When we left Isfahan we began the final stage of our adventure in Iran. Over the next several days we’d head north and then west to Kermanshah, which would put us just a few miles from the border with Iraq.

From time to time as we drove through desolate stretches of highway with only sand, rocks and brush for company and with mountains in the distance I’d remind myself where I was. Just a few hours away to the east were Afghanistan and Pakistan. And to the west Iraq was even closer. War zones surrounded us. It was a strange feeling.

Yet we felt no sense of danger. We were not concerned for our safety. Not once during our 16 days in Iran did we feel insecure. Quite the contrary. We were made to feel welcome every step of the way.

Having said that, there were times when reality outside our little safe haven bubble intruded. That happened during our drive the afternoon of April 11. We were headed toward a place called Abyaneh, a village up in the mountains. To get there we had to pass through a stretch of terrain that looked like a cross between the Sahara and the moon.

It was here that we passed through Natanz, which just happens to be the location of Iran’s primary nuclear facility for the enrichment of uranium. There was nothing we could see from the road that looked like the facility. What we did see while driving through the Natanz area were several military bases, tall barbed wire fences, guard towers, and anti-aircraft batteries. The latter looked puny and ancient, like World War II vintage. It may be their appearance was misleading, but I couldn’t imagine how they could possibly pose a danger to 21st Century planes. Even though there was no indication that our presence in the area was noted, I was happy to leave Natanz behind us.

A couple of more things I want to note on the subject of Iran and the rest of the world:

Iranians don’t have warm, fuzzy feelings toward Arabs. Quite the reverse. There is a disdain that is palpable. Their enmity goes back a very long time, before the time of Mohammed. Persians see Arabs as the descendants of uncivilized tribal nomads with no cultural distinction or achievement. Shapur II, who ruled in the 4th Century, is reputed to have said “The places where the Arabs live are fit only for dogs.”

Over many centuries wars between Arabs and Persians were common. Adding to the problem was the schism in Islam that resulted in Iranians being Shi’a Muslims and most Arabs being Sunni. Recent political developments in the Middle East have exacerbated the situation and reinforced historical prejudices.

There is no question that Iranians strongly support the Palestinians, who are Arabs, in their struggle with Israel. No Iranian we talked to showed an affinity for Israel or was willing to moderate a hard-line stance vis a vis the Palestine issue. So how do they reconcile their anti-Arab feeling with their current political views? I’m not sure. My guess is that what we see as a conflict in positions they see as distinct issues that don’t require reconciliation.

Persian/Arab issues aside, it was clear to me that from an emotional point of view the Israel/Palestine conflict is front and center. We were told that until this key Middle East issue is settled there is no hope of a fundamental change in relations between Iran and the United States. And as a corollary, nothing except that issue stands in the way of our being friends.

In one regard I had the sense that Iranians think they have outfoxed us. They are actually a little smug about this one. They have made life difficult for both the U.S. and Israel by providing support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Their proxies are getting the job done for them. Iran has kept us off balance without getting their hands dirty. One can argue with the accuracy of their conclusion, but in their mind they’re winning the battle.

I also found Iranians to be truculent insofar as a possible military conflict with Israel is concerned. Should Israel be so foolish as to attack Iran it will mean the total destruction of the Israeli state. Again, we can argue with their conclusion, and they may not have a clear idea about how the obliteration they predict will happen, but that doesn’t detract from their 100% certainty in the matter.

So on the political front there is work to do. The issues are difficult and complex. They go far beyond just the U.S. and Iran. At the same time, if we had the ability to create the problem we have the ability to solve it. An important factor on the plus side: the fundamental good will and affinity we found Iranians have toward Americans.

It was cool in Abyaneh when we arrived, not surprising since the elevation is more than 7,300 feet. It is a lovely location – in the mountains and surrounded by even higher snow-capped mountains. While getting to Abyaneh requires a detour off the main road between Isfahan and Kashan, it is a well-known place that attracts many tourists. Most visitors are en route from someplace to someplace and spend a couple of hours in Abyaneh. We were staying overnight, so we checked into the village’s only hotel, which is relatively new.

The hotel’s reception area is set up nicely, like a small museum. The attraction to Abyaneh is that it is one of the oldest villages in Iran and has maintained the old look. The houses are as they’ve been for centuries. The people wear traditional clothes. They’ve turned their antiquity into a business. I’m ambivalent about such an enterprise. It’s cool that there is a place in which you can get a firsthand look at how it used to be. It’s not so cool that the main reason the village exists today is to lure tourists and entice them to leave a few rials or tomans behind.

(Iranian currency is the rial. The money is denominated in rials. A dollar is worth about 10,000 rials. But when you talk about what something costs it is never stated in rials. It is in tomans. A toman equals 10 rials. So every time we dealt with money, remember our notes are in rials, we had to make the calculation from rials to tomans. Not complicated, but a challenge.)

Abyaneh reminded me of San Gimignano in Tuscany, another small medieval hill town that attracts many tourists. In both cases the towns are attractive and interesting. And in both cases they survive on tourism. Oh, well, no point in being too much of a purist I guess. We were in Abyaneh and we might as well enjoy it.

The hotel had some charm. Our room had a great view. The showerhead was better than most. (Must remember the important things, right?) The place was comfortable. On the down side, the staff was totally untrained, especially in the restaurant. They were unsophisticated young men, likely local, who didn’t have a clue what to do. The menu was limited and the food mediocre. I found it interesting that unlike other hotels in which we’d stayed, the TV choice in Abyaneh was, except for the BBC, channels that were stridently pro-Palestinian.

We did our walking tour of the village the next morning. Even though there were large tour buses coming and going with foreign ‘grupos’ it wasn’t too crowded. The traditionally-dressed women were fairly aggressive in almost demanding we buy something from them or take their pictures for a fee, but we resisted their entreaties. No question, Abyaneh is unique and I found our walk enjoyable. I’m glad we went there.

I can’t say the same for the next stop we made outside of Kashan. It was to look at the Sialk Ziggurat. In case you’ve forgotten, the building of ziggurats began 5,000 years ago. A ziggurat is a tower, sometimes surmounted by a temple. The Sialk Ziggurat is one of the earliest, built about 2900 BC. It is the epitome of old stones. To be slightly less than charitable, yet accurate, what I saw was an ancient sand hill with no discernable form. My interest level was, you guessed it, less than zero. Sandra and Mehdi, however, were fascinated. They say the earliest archeological remains from this mound of dirt date back to 7,500 years ago. Wow! Now you’ve got my attention.

Kashan was a lunch stop on the way to Goodad. We visited a lovely garden and a 19th Century mansion that has been restored. The home was very impressive. Suitable for a governor like Agha Ameri, whose home it was.

And now Goodad. Goodad is not far from Golpaygan. Not many people, even Iranians, have heard of Gopaygan. Goodad? A wide spot in the road, like a truck stop. Google Goodad and you’ll find nothing. Wikipedia Goodad and you’ll find, “Did you mean Goddard?” Why we were set up to stay there is a mystery to me. I guess it was someone’s bright idea of a good place to stop between Abyaneh and Hamadan. Bad idea. Mehdi said he’d never been there before. He added, “And I won’t be here again.”

Our itinerary said we’d be staying overnight in a “beautiful and fascinating old hotel.” Old hotel, yes. Beautiful and fascinating? No. If was a faux caravanserai place. Built in the form of a caravanserai, with rooms around an open courtyard. But based on our experience at a real caravanserai, that’s where the resemblance stops. It was shoddy. It was run down. I took a picture of the bathtub, which was rusty and beat up. The picture doesn’t do justice to the ugliness. We ate. We slept. We got up. We had our only breakfast in Iran where coffee (or at least Nescafe) wasn’t available. We left.

We drove long distances in Iran but didn’t seem to stop for gas very often. And when we did stop it was usually at a strange pump with a nozzle that didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. When I asked for an explanation I was told that we were buying natural gas. Now I was really confused. What’s the car doing with natural gas?

It turns out our car had two tanks, one for petrol (like we use) and one for natural gas. The natural gas tank was located in the trunk, which accounted for the fact that there wasn’t enough room left over for our luggage. I’ve mentioned that the economic sanctions placed on Iran inhibit them from upgrading or building new refineries. Even though Iran has huge oil reserves, most is exported and as a result there is a domestic shortage. In fact, petrol is rationed and what is available is expensive. Natural gas is cheap and the supply is plentiful.

So the workaround that has been put in place is what we observed in Mahyar’s car: two tanks. I don’t know exactly how the car runs on both petrol and natural gas. We were told that Mahyar could switch from one to another with a flick of a switch. And that natural gas works fine on flat highways. Petrol is used when more power is needed.

As we drove from city to city and approached the outskirts of our next destination I kept looking for an attractive entryway, something that would have me think we were about to be in a lovely urban area. It never happened. I knew that we would likely find beautiful mosques and monuments; I’m not talking about them. I’m referring to the impression we had as we came into town. Without exception these outskirts were, to be straight about it, ugly.

The structures we passed – factories, stores, houses – were drab. They were without any saving architectural grace. In no way do they represent Persian culture or aesthetic sensibility. Regrettably, the quality of the average buildings in the cities isn’t much better. I was surprised. Obviously, Iran is not alone in this regard. I can think of many countries I’ve visited as well as outskirts in the U.S. that are drab. But what sets Iran apart is the contrast between this ugliness and the exquisite beauty that exists almost just around the corner.

On the subject of surprises, here are a couple of others:

In South and Southeast Asia I’ve come to expect that I will encounter many small flying creatures that can be annoying or worse. In 16 days in Iran I didn’t see one mosquito or fly. I don’t know whether it was the season, the altitude, dumb luck, or what. I do know it was a very pleasant surprise.

We wondered how young men and women deal with their hormonal urges in the face of the strictures that are part of life in the Islamic Republic. In the larger cities, Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, we saw many young couples that were overtly ‘into’ each other. To be sure, their behavior wasn’t shocking by our standards, but it was different than I expected it to be.

The situation is exacerbated when financial limitations prevent 20-somethings from marrying. When celibacy loses its battle with desire these young people declare themselves to be boyfriend or girlfriend, a euphemism for a couple who are sleeping together. I suspect that what we were told and what we observed is limited to a small percentage of young adults in Iran. In all likelihood most people are more conservative and don’t bend or break the rules. Even so, what is happening was surprising to us.

Finally, on the subject of surprises – I expected that an easy conversation starter in Iran, as in every country I’ve visited, would be soccer. Football, as the world knows it, has passionate fans everywhere. Before we left I watched a World Cup qualifier between Iran and their arch rivals, Saudi Arabia. I wanted to be at least partially informed about the Iranian team and how they were doing. As it turned out, in that game they were terrible and ended up losing to the Saudis. It was the first time they’d ever lost to Saudi Arabia on Iranian soil. This was a national disgrace and led to their coach being fired.

On several occasions I tried talking about football. No one seemed interested. The best I could get was a disgruntled mutter about how bad the team was, how it had always been this way, and it was a disaster. Nothing I heard encouraged me to pursue the conversation. I think I just talked to the wrong people. The passion of the fans in Azadi Stadium during the game I watched convinced me they are like other football fans around the world – they really care. But I never had a chance to test my conclusion.

It was a five-hour drive from Goodad to Hamadan. The weather was awful. We were in a heavy rainstorm for almost the entire trip, interrupted from time to time with hail. Mehdi said there was a possibility of snow in Hamadan – just what I wanted to hear. It had been cool in most places we visited, but not really cold. Today was colder than cool – could even see your breathe sometimes.

Later we found out that Hamadan has a reputation for being one of the coldest cities in Iran, with heavy snowfall in the winter. This is a little surprising because its elevation is just over 6,000 feet, quite a bit less than other places we’d been. Has to do with the location of the nearby mountains, wind, and other factors about which I know little. What I did know was that again I wished I’d brought some heavier clothing. This was especially true when we went out to dinner. On both nights we were in Hamadan we ate dinner in large, high-ceilinged, empty, unheated restaurants – the Glass Island and Minoo. Had the food been special it might have taken the edge off our discomfort. But it wasn’t, so I can’t say I enjoyed those meals much.

Hamadan (formerly called Ecbatana) is an ancient city, so it is home to more old stones. It was the capital of the Median Empire, which ended in 550 BC and then was one of the capitals of the Archaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus. There are Ecbatana ruins (of course we went!) which appealed to Sandra and Mehdi. My lack of imagination had the ruins show up for me as ancient mud walls.

However, there was a small museum adjacent to the ruins that I liked a lot. I was intrigued by several skeletons that were displayed as they were found, in different positions in their stone coffins along with artifacts. And there was a wonderful collection of old pottery on display.

I would say Hamadan is mildly interesting. There are the Alavian Tombs, the graves of people said to be descendents of Mohammed. There are inscriptions carved in granite on the side of a mountain outside of town, which inscriptions were ordered by Darius I and Xerxes I in the 5th Century BC. There is a funny monument in the center of a roundabout that is said to be a lion. But it is so eroded that it looked more like a walrus to me.

Maybe most interesting for visiting westerners is what is said to be the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai. Esther was the Jewish queen of Xerxes I (the biblical king Ahasuerus) and Mordechai was her cousin. According to the bible, Ahasuerus’ main man, Haman, planned to murder all the Jews in Babylonia, but Esther exposed the plot and saved her people. The Jewish holiday Purim celebrates this episode.

Inside the tomb are a couple of graves, some Hebrew writing on the walls and what passes for a small synagogue. There was no ark and no evidence that it is used for religious services. A caretaker, an old Jewish gentleman who was much more interested in extracting a donation than explaining anything about the site, said there was an active Jewish community in Hamadan.

I don’t believe what the old gentleman said. I don’t believe what we saw is the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai. Mehdi acknowledged that there is some question about the authenticity of the place. Some people say it is the grave of King Solomon’s wife. That’s just as plausible as the Esther/Mordechai story.

I had read that there were in fact active Jewish communities in Iran. We asked to visit synagogues in both Shiraz and Isfahan. Mehdi hemmed and hawed and said to do so required a special permit. Maybe that’s true; maybe it isn’t. In recent articles about Americans who visited Jews in Iran there was no mention of needing a special permit. We asked Mehdi to try and arrange a visit. It never happened and we didn’t pursue it aggressively.

I was not asked if I was Jewish. Had I been asked directly I would have acknowledged that I am. But in the absence of someone bringing it up, I decided to keep it to myself. I didn’t want to have people with whom we interacted modify their behavior because of their concern about what I may think or feel, and it was my assumption that this would have happened.

On the subject of religious minorities in Iran, I was curious about the Baha’is. The Baha’i Faith was founded in Persia in the 19th Century by Baha’u’llah, who is believed by Baha’is to be the final divine messenger (following Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed) or in Muslim terms the 12th and final Imam. For the Shi’as of Iran this is heresy. For them the 12th Imam has not yet appeared. I know very little about the inner workings of Islam and even less about Baha’ism, so I’m not going to make an argument for or against the issue(s) between them. I have heard that the Baha’is have been brutally persecuted in Iran and wanted to find out what is behind it.

No one I talked to would acknowledge the persecution. However, as Shi’ites they took a strong position against the Baha’i belief that the 12th Imam had come in the form of Baha’u’llah. I didn’t get very far in satisfying my curiosity on the subject.

Another group I was interested in were the Kurds. Kurdistan (a country that doesn’t exist) includes areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran largely populated by Kurds. Kermanshah, where we would go when we left Hamadan, is home to many Iranian Kurds. In fact, I didn’t learn much about the Kurds that I didn’t already know. I was told they are Iranians just like other Iranians, a recognized ethnic minority with 7% of the population. They are Muslims (both Sunni and Shi’a) and are free to speak Kurdish if they choose.

When we were visiting the inscriptions of Darius outside Hamadan we ran into four young men in their 20’s who were Kurdish. They made a point of talking with us and we took pictures of each other. Sandra gave them postcards from San Francisco. It was a gentle encounter, one we will remember for a long time.

In Hamadan, during what was our final dinner on the road in Iran we thanked Mehdi and Mahyar for taking good care of us and for being great traveling companions. We gave them small gifts and a few crisp $100 bills as a tangible expression of our appreciation. We had been told not to read anything into how Iranians react to receiving tips. Even though they may be very happy with what they receive, effusive thank you’s are unlikely. And that’s the way it was. Our hope is that they understood our genuine appreciation for all they’d done.

But we were not quite finished. The next day we drove from Hamadan to Kermanshah, where we’d see a few things before boarding an Iran Air flight to Tehran. I guess it is appropriate and predictable that our final full day in Iran should focus on a variety of old stones. We had the Anahita Temple, erected sometime when the Greeks controlled things in this part of the world. I think a more accurate description of Anahita would be old rubble

Then we had Behistun, an inscription carved 330 feet up a limestone cliff. Actually it is the same text written in three different languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. I don’t know when it was carved, so let’s just say a long time ago. The inscription is huge, 50’x82’, but it is so far away that we couldn’t really see it. Above it is a large bas-relief.

Finally, we saw Taq-e Bostan, massive bas-reliefs carved inside arches that have been hollowed out of another mountainside. The figures honor a Sassanid king from the 7th Century AD. While these reliefs are quite impressive, I was over my limit and not interested in learning a lot about their iconography.

We stopped for a glass of tea and then went to the airport. Our plane was on time, and an hour later we were on the ground in Tehran and on our way to the Ferdosi Hotel, where we were 16 days earlier. We thought and hoped we’d be met by Kami again, our man in Tehran at the beginning. But that was not to be. A driver was waiting for us. While he didn’t speak any English it really didn’t matter. His job was to drive.

We thought we’d be able to make a quick visit to the National Museum in the morning before we had to leave for the airport. The agency had a tour guide come to the hotel (a very nice woman whose name I don’t know) but it was too late, so we bagged that idea and headed out to Imam Khomeini International Airport where a Kuwait Airlines plane would start us on our way to Damascus.

I promised Mohammed Yazdanpanah that I’d send him an email when I returned home telling him about our experience with Let’s Go Iran. Here’s what I sent:

Dear Mohammed,

We have finally returned home after nearly a month in Iran and Syria. We are both very happy we made the journey and very happy to be home. We promised to send you our comments on our tour of Iran, which we’re happy to do. As you may recall, it is delayed because we wanted to wait until we were back in San Francisco before writing.

We chose to engage the services of your Agency for several reasons:

  1. From the very beginning we received prompt responses to our messages. This gives great confidence to the prospective traveler, who wants to feel that the Agency person at the other end really cares about serving us.
  2. Your Agency (all the messages we received were signed by Parisa) paid attention to our requests to have an itinerary that was tailor-made to our interests. We were able to feel that we were receiving personalized care.
  3. The price quoted for our trip was very competitive with that quoted by the other Agencies we contacted.
  4. The final itinerary looked good to us.

Overall, we would give your Agency a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Most things worked very well. For example:

  1. We had an excellent guide in Mehdi Fatemi. He has encyclopedic knowledge of Persian history and culture, is an expert on every monument we saw, and he worked hard to make sure we were well taken care of.
  2. Our driver, Mahyar Geramizadegan, was very good at his job. We felt safe in his vehicle.
  3. Going to Bavanat was a great gift. Abbas Barzegar and his family are wonderful.
  4. Being able to spend time with you and Lada was also a gift, which we thoroughly enjoyed and thank you for.
  5. With the few exceptions we’ll note below, the comfort level in the hotels was high. We particularly appreciate having rooms that are well lit and having comfortable chairs in which to sit. Overall, the bathrooms did not function as well as the bedrooms.
  6. Before we left the U.S. our friends were concerned about our safety. We are happy to be able to tell them that every moment we spent in Iran we felt very safe.
  7. The guide who met us in Tehran when we arrived, Kambiz Madanipour, did a great job of making us feel welcome and taking good care of us. Since first impressions are very important, he made a big contribution to our trip.
  8. As you know, we contracted for a combination driver/guide. As it turned out we had both a driver and a guide. We think this worked to our advantage and are happy you made the decision to provide both of them. We would recommend to others that they have both people as we did.
  9. In 16 days it is not possible to become an expert on a country. So we are not experts on Iran. However, thanks to you and your people we do have a personal experience of the beauty and history of Iran and, more importantly, we have had a chance to meet and talk with average Iranians. Without exception, we were greeted warmly as friends. This is a message we will convey to our friends and family here.

As to what we were not happy with, we will mention several things. Please remember that our overall experience was positive, so you should not let these items outweigh what was done well.

1. The car we had was not as large or comfortable as it should have been. We spent many many hours driving without a lot of room for our legs and bodies. The trunk could not accommodate all of our luggage, so a large suitcase had to be wedged into the space between the front and back seats, which made what was already a small space even smaller. We should have been given a chance to ask for a larger vehicle, even if that meant that our cost would increase. As it was, we weren’t given the choice.
2. You are aware that we were upset to find that our hotel in Isfahan had been changed from a 4 Star to a 3 Star. We were never told that there might be a hotel change. We recognize that it may be difficult for you to reserve space when there is a doubt about visa approval, but first class foreign travelers don’t want to be surprised by such changes. Had we been told in advance that there was a chance this could happen we might have been prepared for it. But we were told nothing until we drove up to the front door of our new hotel.
3. While Bavanat was wonderful, it was very cold. There was no heat in the bathroom. A heater in the bedroom did not provide enough warmth.
4. In fact, the weather in the cities we visited was much colder than we anticipated. We weren’t really aware of the high elevation in places like Hamadan, so we weren’t prepared and had only lightweight clothing. We should have been warned that we might encounter cold temperatures.
5. We weren’t told how we were to pay for your services. It was only after we raised the issue that we were told we would need to pay in Shiraz, in cash. We should have been told about this in advance. Just as we should have been told we would be expected to pay a small part of the bill before we left the U.S. This too came as a surprise.
6. As for our itinerary, we were scheduled for too much time in Shiraz. Two nights, or maybe three, would have been more than enough. As it was we were there for four nights. Likewise, we probably should have had more time in Isfahan and Yazd, which we enjoyed a lot. Our last few days, in Golpaygan, Hamadan and Kermanshah, were not as interesting as what we saw and did in the previous two weeks.
7. The Googad Hotel near Golpaygan is terrible. We don’t think you should book it for your customers.
8. The Abarqu Caravanserai is well done and an interesting experience, but we should have been told that we would be using common bathrooms and that there wasn’t even a sink in the bedroom. These conditions came as a surprise to us.
9. On our last day in Tehran there was some confusion about whether we’d have a guide. We had been told that we’d be met by Mr. Madanipour, but that didn’t happen. By the time a guide was sent to us that last morning it was too late to visit the National Museum, which we had hoped to do.
10. Finally, we would suggest that more care taken to make sure that the activities that were scheduled could in fact be done. For example, our first day in Tehran was a holiday and various places we were supposed to visit were closed. In other places we were sometimes scheduled to visit a bazaar on a Friday, when everything is closed.

We hope these comments are useful to you. As we said, our overall experience with your Agency and Iran was wonderful. We will recommend you without hesitation to people we know who want to visit Iran. And your personal interest in our well being is very much appreciated. Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to return your hospitality some day here in San Francisco. We hope so.

Please give our warm regards to Lada.

Sandra Marsh & Dan Miller

At the conclusion of every trip Sandra and I make a list of our five favorite experiences from the journey. These are what we chose from our time in Iran:

Dan:

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan

Buying Miniatures experience in Isfahan

Bavanat

Yazd Old Town walk

Lunch the 1st day in Tehran

Sandra:

Buying Miniatures experience in Isfahan

Bavanat

House of Strength in Yazd

Persepolis

Shrine in Shiraz where I wore the chador