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••• The International Writers Magazine -
Travel to Iran

Returning to Iran During Tumultuous Times
• David Devine
It is still possible to visit as a tourist

Iran City

Sporting a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard while wearing a brown cloak over a neatly pressed light gray shirt, the white turbaned mullah began by observing: “The young people of Iran all think everything was better under the Shah.” Responding, I reflected: “That’s not true.”

            It was October 2022 and I was at the end of a 12-day driving trip across the center of the country. My driver/guide Joon (a fictitious name), the mullah and I were sitting peacefully in a small courtyard of Isfahan’s Imam Mosque, magnificent despite its dome being covered in scaffolding. A sign announced the mullah offered “Gentle Conversations,” but he had introduced a volatile topic.

            A few days previously, a BBC News broadcast had portrayed an Iran in chaos from on-going, sometimes violent, street demonstrations. They were focused at mandatory head scarf wearing by women and been ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s infamous morality police.

            The mullah didn’t mention the protests. Instead, he observed: “The educational system is much better now, as is the housing.” I added that from my reading, healthcare was also far superior.

“When I lived here 50-years ago,” I noted of my time as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the country, “poor people in the southeastern part of Iran where I lived were basically ignored by the Shah’s government. Some tribal families with small children lived in cardboard boxes near my house. But instead of helping the poor, with America’s encouragement, the Shah spent a lot of money buying U.S. military hardware.”

Ten days previously, the first city visited on the trip had been Bam in eastern Iran. The community and its internationally famous ancient citadel were heavily damaged by a 2003 earthquake that claimed a reported 34,000 lives. While the city appeared rebuilt, the mud brick fortress, more than 1,000 years old, is slowly being reconstructed. Its importance in providing a stopping point for trade caravans crossing the nearby Lut desert could be easily understood by visitors.

            As we roamed through the ruins, a stranger approached Joon and I. “Where is the foreigner from?” he inquired in Persian. “Amrica,” I replied in his language. “Welcome,” he greeted me with a smile and warm handshake.

            From Bam we drove to the desert village of Shahdad, outside of which are a long line of kalouts – huge sand sculptures carved by centuries of wind and water. Relaxing on a blanket spread on the desert floor while munching grapes and nuts, we watched the setting sun cast ever-lengthening shadows off the immense formations.   

            At the Shahdad basic hotel where we stayed, the owner expressed concern about the European tour groups cancelling their bookings because of the protests. Then he added encouragingly: “Be sure to open your room’s window tonight. That way you’ll hear the soothing sound of the small stream that runs through the central courtyard.”

            Kerman, a city I had visited several times previously, came next. Its major streets, like everywhere else visited on this trip, were lined by large tile portraits of a few of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians killed in the 1980s war with Iraq. From farming villages to major metropolitan areas, these plaques were omnipresent silent reminders of the high price the country payed to defend itself from an invading army.

            One of my vivid memories of Kerman was waking on Christmas morning, 1972 to see fresh snowfall covering a 70-foot tall, inverted beehive-shaped ice house. On that special day, in some respects it resembled a powdered sugar sprinkled holiday ornament. The cold commodity of ice would be stored in this mud brick structure during the winter months, then parceled out in the blazing summer heat. Today, this ancient ice house has been restored and is used as a children’s library.

            Taking a momentary break from the typical tantalizing Persian cuisine of kebabs or vegetable and meat stews heaped upon an enormous mound of delicious rice, one night Joon and I dined at a busy downtown Kerman hamburger joint. The tasty patties were served on either plain white bread or a “McDonald’s” bun.

West of Kerman, the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Maymand has hundreds of small man-made caves dug into a rocky hillside. Nomads for centuries wintered in this high-elevation spot because it afforded a permanent stream of water in an otherwise hostile mountainous environment. The caves, along with the fires burned in them, provided some protection from the harsh climate.  

            Overnight cave accommodations are possible now along with hearty meals accompanied by unusual thick, chewy, dark bread. But the low-ceilings, sooty smell and cool temperatures of the caves made for a long night.

             Yazd is an Iranian city that fortunately preserved its historic core. Narrow passageways meander between mud brick shops and homes providing shade in the intense summer heat. These car-excluding paths sometimes lead to spectacular vistas as the walkways emerge into plazas containing beautiful blue-tiled mosques.

            Also known for its traditional, environmentally-friendly wind towers, Yazd is dotted with these innovative cooling devices. Directing outside airflow down onto a pool of water, the humidified and cold air is circulated throughout the house. At dusk, a small group of European tourists had gathered at a rooftop restaurant to photograph the sun setting behind the city’s skyline, numerous wind towers and mosque domes making for a spectacular image.

            The drive to Isfahan the next day took a few hours and for lunch we dined at an upscale outdoor patio restaurant. Not having had during the trip the Persian noodle soup ash, my wife’s favorite, at Joon’s suggestion I ordered a bowl. As I slowly sipped the delicious concoction that was artistically presented, Joon conversed with the restaurant’s manager. “One day last week,” he explained, “we had to ask everyone to leave. Tear gas was fired at some demonstrators nearby and it drifted in here. So dining was impossible.”

            The next morning, while we enjoyed a downtown hotel’s buffet breakfast in a nearly empty dining room, Joon and I were approached by a longtime staff member. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” the man began plaintively. “During Covid, I didn’t work here for two years. But I was able to return a few months ago. Now the protests are causing a lot of tour groups to cancel. I have a family to feed,” he said, looking lost.

            The day before, a story in the New York Times stated of the demonstrations: “the authorities have tried to crush them with violence and throttle them by disrupting the internet…It hasn’t worked. Protests have spread from streets to university campuses and to high schools.” It was this type of alarmist reporting that led many of my friends to ask before I departed the U.S.: “Aren’t you afraid of going to Iran.”

My reality on the ground had proven much different from the hysterical headlines. In the ten days Joon and I spent driving across Iran, other than some random anti-government graffiti, we did not personally see any protests. Instead, we met dozens of Iranians who warmly welcomed me, an American stranger, to their country.

What wasn’t friendly were the impacts that onerous American sanctions are having on everyday Iranians. Joon told me they had even affected his elderly mother, who was seriously ill. “One of her symptoms is severe leg cramps that leave her in extreme pain. A client I had before Covid gave me an American muscle relaxing cream that helped a lot. But after it ran out, because of the sanctions, we can only buy an inferior product.” (Note: I tried mailing a couple of tubes of the helpful cream to Joon, but they didn’t get out of the U.S. because of Postal Service sanction regulations.)           

Imam Mosque The focus of Isfahan is on its huge main square surrounded by a ribbon of two-story, arched buildings interrupted by four focal points. The Imam Mosque encloses one end of the square and the other terminus is the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. Underneath its brick ceiling were maze-like corridors lined with stalls where everything from spices to suitcases were for sale to the flocks of people crowding its hallways.

Along the other two sides of the square are the Ali Gapu palace with its viewing platform from which royals long ago could watch games being played far below and the small Lotfollah Mosque that showcases an incredible tiled ceiling where rhythmic patterns of similar shapes rotate around a central explosion of color and design.

            After sunset, hundreds of people were enjoying a delightful fall evening on the square that was brightly illuminated from the surrounding arches. The light cast reflections of the structures into a long pool of water, making the image appear doubled. Families picnicked on the grass, youngsters chased pigeons, and some couples held hands. A few women without head scarfs were present and not being hassled. Dozens of people also stood in a line, waiting to take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the square. As the clomp-clomp-clomp of the horses’ hoofs echoed throughout the peaceful space, it reminded me that sometimes what travelers hear about a place and what they experience can be vastly different. It’s always good, I recalled, to keep an open mind when traveling.  

© Dave Devine 9.1.23

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