Saturday, June 13, 2009

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:


Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan

Buying Miniatures experience in Isfahan


Yazd Old Town walk

Lunch the 1st day in Tehran


Buying Miniatures experience in Isfahan


House of Strength in Yazd


Shrine in Shiraz where I wore the chador


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