By Judy Carlock
February 9, 2004
I didn’t expect to be standing here, by these graves, tears rolling down my face. But then, I didn’t expect a lot of things when I came to Iran.
I didn’t expect Tweetie Bird, platform shoes and nail polish. I didn’t expect to see ex-Wildcat basketball player Richard Jefferson on Iranian state TV. I didn’t expect motorcycles on the sidewalks, dancing in the aisles or spontaneous cheers of, “We love America!”
I didn’t expect to give chocolate to an ayatollah, or to watch a young Iranian-American woman launch herself into the arms of an uncle she’d never met.
I didn’t expect flowers, music, colored lights.
Most of all: I did not expect joy.
* * *
“There is no joy in Islam,” Ayatollah Khomeini said, or is quoted as saying. I don’t believe him. Still, I’m apprehensive as the lights of Tehran rise up to meet me.
I’m exhausted, my makeup has worn off and I’m wearing a ridiculous outfit to meet the country’s dress code – fringed scarf and beautician’s smock. Looking just as ugly as my visa picture, I stumble into the glaring fluorescence of Mehrabad Airport. The get-up works. Waved into the country, I’m greeted by a man holding a “Global Exchange” sign. I stick out my hand, not knowing this is taboo.
Masood shakes it anyway.
There is a washing machine in the middle of the baggage carousel, a mystery I’m too tired to ponder. Another mystery: What are 40,000 wide-awake Iranians doing at the airport at 2 a.m.?
On the bus, Masood is speaking to 15 Americans he will spend the next two weeks baby-sitting: “When your plane landed in Iran, it also landed in our hearts.”
He is the first of many Iranians who will bend over backward to make us feel welcome.
* * *
My travel mates lean toward the left. San Francisco-based Global Exchange has a human rights, fair trade and environmental agenda. Our group has retirees, ministers, a nurse, a couple of lawyers, a city planner and a semilicit journalist. My roommate, Azita, is a 20-year-old student at William and imani. Her father is Iranian, but she’s never been here.
Our chief guide is Roxanna Shapour, a former expatriate raised largely in the United States, who returned three years ago. She has a simple solution to mandatory hejab, the covering of women to protect male virtue: Blind all the men!
She often wears her head scarf turban-style, exposing ears and neck.
I myself am a hejab geek, an Islamic fashion disaster. Thankfully, after a morning of palaces and museums, Roxanna takes us to buy manteaus – loose outer garments that fall to the knees, obscuring the feminine form. The clerks giggle, recognizing an emergency.
Head scarves or no, they are all gorgeous.
I find a baby-blue scarf in floral print and matching manteau, with long, loose sleeves that end up dragged through ubiquitous bowls of lunchtime yoghurt.
By dinner, I’m chic – and showing a scandalous amount of hair that won’t stay crammed under the scarf.
* * *
After two days in Tehran, we leave for the southern city of Shiraz, screened for the flight in separate security lines for men and women.
The separation is apparently for show; on the plane, I’m seated next to our group’s logistical wizard, Assad. Mount Demavand, elevation 18,386 feet, floats below me, a perfect snowcap on a blanket of smog. I study a phrase book (Farsi balad neestam: I don’t speak Farsi.) Though Assad’s English is 10,000 times better than my Farsi, it’s not as good as his French. So as he teaches me Farsi, we speak French – which in my case keeps coming out as Spanish.
By the time we land, I’m itching for a walk. Masood and Assad have been keeping a nervous eye on the group. They’re not spying; they’re just terrified something bad will happen to us. Outside the crowded capital, they sigh in relief.
I wander confidently, knowing I have a map. Unfortunately, I soon discover, it’s a map of the city of Isfahan. And I can’t remember the name of the hotel. But stashed in my money belt are my passport and a huge wad of 10,000-rial notes – “greens,” worth about $1.20 each – so I figure I’ll be OK.
Before I came, people asked, Are you afraid? I was puzzled: What’s to fear? Terrorists? Who would hijack a plane going to Iran? The only time I was afraid was trying to cross the street in Tehran.
Still, I’m not quite confident enough to get comfortably lost.
* * *
Soon I relax, into busy days crammed with sweetness. A pomegranate farmer beckons us into his walled garden, offering ruby fruit, and baby goats to cuddle. “Do you raise them for meat?” we ask. “These are my pets!” he answers, horrified.
We visit a Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, home of a flame that has been burning since A.D. 470. We smoke sheesha (flavored tobacco) at the tomb of Hafez and take tea under an ancient bridge in Isfahan.
At Ardashir Palace, near Firoozabad, we run into a group of tour guides in training. A digital orgy ensues. We take each others’ pictures. We take pictures of us taking each other’s pictures. When farewells finally must be made, the Iranians join hands, outside this dusty third-century ruin, and send up a cheer:
“We love America!”
That day, we lunch with nomads – women ululating, men firing rifles – then take off, nomads in tow, to find the tomb of Laleh and Ladan.
A long, low marble slab lies next to a village of mud bricks. The once-conjoined twins lie in two coffins, side by side. They bled to death in a Singapore operating room during a separation attempt in July. They were 29.
“This is their sister,” Roxanna murmurs, as a young woman approaches. And, as an older woman with immense dignity appears, “This is their mother.”
Roxanna translates as I tell the woman that her daughters were very brave and touched many lives. We embrace. She plants a kiss on my arm.
Then villagers want our picture for a mausoleum they plan to build. Relatives fetch photos to prop on the tomb. We smile, subdued.
* * *
It’s like Mardi Gras, but everyone is sober.
It is the birthday of the Twelfth Imam, a mythical figure reputed to be among us, unseen. His return will herald an era of peace. On this occasion, the people of Yazd consider it their religious duty to drown American tourists in lemonade. Colored lights are hung, recorded prayers drone from a mosque and families settle with picnics on the grass and around fountains. The streets – and sometimes sidewalks – are filled with motorcycles, carrying as many as five people, honking and yelling and carrying on. To add to the frenzy, the Iranian national soccer team has just beaten New Zealand.
I raise my camera and an official angrily gestures at me to lower it, as if such exuberance must be censored.
Near the Jewish quarter, someone tries to give Azita a chicken. “How cool is that?” she exults.
On a mountaintop where, until the 1970s, Zoroastrians took their dead to be picked clean by vultures, I find a mixed group of Iranian students, who push and pull me through a door to the Tower of Silence. They’re eating Cheetos, or the Iranian equivalent: Chee-Toz, it says on the bag. In English.
“What do you think of our culture?” asks one young man.
“I think you are very energetic,” I say.
“It’s because we are young.”
* * *
In Isfahan, a cool breeze blows from the Zayendeh-Rood river. It’s a lovely city, its tree-lined river flanked by flowers, its giant central square home to the ravishing Sheikh Lotfallah mosque and a seemingly endless bazaar. Our local guide is Scheherezade, a devout Muslim who dresses with faultless modesty – and who grins in delight when someone gives her a Frisbee. At our request, she arranges a meeting with an ayatollah. Roxanna fixes her head scarf, but still wears leopard-print pants.
He fields questions (“How do you know you’re doing God’s will? asks Paul, a nurse.) I have a simpler query: “Do you like chocolate?” “Of course,” he replies, “but I am diabetic.” “Will you share?” I ask, offering him a giant Hershey Special Dark bar. The junior clerics laugh.
At an Orthodox church, a young man named Joseph tells us, frankly and in perfect English, about the limits of tolerance for religious minorities – in his case, Armenian Christian – under an Islamic republic. Adrianne, a Congregationalist minister in our group, presents him with a “peace shawl” made by women of her church.
* * *
Today Azita will meet her Iranian family. Plans change hourly. At first, they agree to pick her up in Isfahan, to spirit her away to a cousin’s wedding in the north of the country, near the Caspian Sea. But as we leave Isfahan, she is still with us. Now they say they will pick her up in Kashan, at the end of the day.
Assad, as usual, has a cell phone glued to his ear.
Halfway to Kashan, in a town called Natanz, we visit a ceramics shop. I wait outside the bathroom to make a pre-emptive strike on a Persian toilet – a porcelain-lined hole, with a hose for washing up. Suddenly, in a courtyard, two middle-aged men, two younger men, a young woman and a little boy appear, bearing an enormous bouquet.
Assad, through 20 phone calls this morning, has timed the moment with military precision. Azita has no idea. She’s asleep on the bus. I attach myself to the entourage and sprint toward the bus, where sleepy Azita’s head scarf has slipped down to reveal her glossy black “Persian ‘fro.”
Then she’s wide awake, flying into her uncle’s arms. I’m taking pictures. And crying.
Minus the kidnapped Azita, we slice through the arid landscape, Persian music blaring through the PA system. Amir, the assistant driver, and Jack, an Armenian-American with my group, get up to dance. When a woman stands, Amir pulls the drapes to block the view from the highway. The party continues.
I use time on the bus to teach myself the Iranian alphabet. All through the country I study signs, many bilingual. Soon, even without the English, I can sound out the words.
“Ka,” I start. “Ka-b … Ka-ba … Kabob!” I’m thrilled. I won’t starve.
By the end of the trip, when we drive by the former U.S. embassy where hostages were taken in 1979, I know enough Farsi to pick out the words on a mural: “Marg bar Amrika” – Death to America.
But only because I’m looking for them.
* * *
Walking into the hotel that seemed so alien my first night in Tehran, I immediately recognize Azita’s uncle and smile. They brought her back, after all. I spend the day walking down Valiasr Street, a main drag, because I know I won’t get lost. The next day, I walk up the street, stopping at an Internet cafe.
In so many ways, I have been nourished these past two weeks. I’m full, even a little burned out. But greedy. There is so much I haven’t seen.
Roxanna fills the waning hours. A bookstore owned by the city of Tehran, where Paul finds a copy of “Queer Culture” and I spot a biography of Barry Goldwater.
Lunch at a restaurant run by Hare Krishnas.
A hurried interview.
Roxanna has faith in her country. She believes Iran will change, is changing, has changed. Freedom will come slowly, organically, and U.S. intervention will just get in the way. The people are not downtrodden, she says. It is a culture ancient and vibrant, dynamic and surging, messy and diverse, ceaselessly reinventing itself.
“It’s the most exciting time to be here,” she says. “Which is why people like me make halfhearted attempts to leave. We’re afraid we might miss something.”
Speaking of her circle of former expatriates, she says, “We all, at the end of the day, come to the understanding that Iran gives you a lot more than it takes away.”
* * *
In the lobby, I look up and see the Nets and the Spurs on Iranian TV. It’s a file clip, advancing the start of the NBA season. I catch a glimpse of Richard Jefferson.
Gifts change hands. Assad gets an “Arizona Rocks” T-shirt. I promise Masood a CD of favorite songs: “Folsom Prison Blues,” “The Night Chicago Died” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” I collect saffron, and lapis to ward off the evil eye. We eat in a fancy restaurant, stocked with napkins, not Kleenex.
Mehrabad is mobbed. We jostle at the counter, relinquish our luggage, head to security. It’s happening too fast, but I can’t slow it down. Time to go. Masood sticks out his hand.
I shake it.