The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the most powerful lobby organizations in the country. On March 4-6, AIPAC will be holding its annual policy conference in Washington DC. The speakers include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich and a host of other powerful politicians.

AIPAC has tremendous clout but its influence has been disastrous for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. democracy. Here are ten reasons why AIPAC is so dangerous.

1. AIPAC is lobbying Congress to promote a military confrontation with Iran. AIPAC – like the Israeli government – is demanding that the U.S. attack Iran militarily to prevent Iran from having the technological capacity to produce nuclear weapons, even though U.S. officials say Iran isn’t trying to build a weapon (and even though Israel has hundreds of undeclared nuclear weapons). AIPAC has successfully lobbied the U.S. government to adopt crippling economic sanctions on Iran, including trying to cut off Iran’s oil exports, despite the fact that these sanctions raise the price of gas and threaten the U.S. economy.

2. AIPAC promotes Israeli policies that are in direct opposition to international law. These include the establishment of colonies (settlements) in the Occupied West Bank and the confiscation of Palestinian land in its construction of the 26-foot high concrete “separation barrier” running through the West Bank. The support of these illegal practices makes to impossible to achieve a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

3. AIPAC’s call for unconditional support for the Israeli government threatens our national security. The United States’ one-sided support of Israel, demanded by AIPAC, has significantly increased anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East, thus endangering our troops and sowing the seeds of more possible terrorist attacks against us. Gen. David Petraeus on March 16, 2010 admitted that the U.S./Palestine conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” He also said that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

4. AIPAC undermines American support for democracy movements in the Arab world. AIPAC looks at the entire Arab world through the lens of Israeli government interests, not the democratic aspirations of the Arab people. It has therefore supported corrupt, repressive regimes that are friendly to the Israeli government, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Events now unfolding in the Middle East should convince U.S. policy-makers of the need to break from AIPAC’s grip and instead support democratic forces in the Arab world.

5. AIPAC makes the U.S. a pariah at the UN. AIPAC describes the UN as a body hostile to the State of Israel and has pressured the U.S. government to oppose resolutions calling Israel to account. Since 1972, the US has vetoed 44 UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. President Obama continues that policy. Under Obama, the US vetoed UN censure of the savage Israeli assault on Gaza in January 2009 in which about 1400 Palestinians were killed; a 2011 resolution calling for a halt to the illegal Israeli West Bank settlements even though this was stated U.S. policy; a 2011 resolution calling for Israel to cease obstructing the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees; and another resolution calling for an end to illegal Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights.

6. AIPAC attacks politicians who question unconditional support of Israel. AIPAC demands that Congress to rubber stamp legislation drafted by AIPAC staff. It keeps a record of how members of Congress vote and this record is used by donors to make contributions to the politicians who score well. Members of Congress who fail to support AIPAC legislation have been targeted for defeat in re-election bids. These include Senators Adlai Stevenson III and Charles H. Percy, and Representatives Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney, and Earl F. Hilliard. AIPAC’s overwhelmingly disproportionate influence on Congress subverts our democratic system.

7. AIPAC attempts to silence all criticism of Israel by labeling critics as “anti-Semitic,” “de-legitimizers” or “self-hating Jews.” Journalists, think tanks, students and professors have been accused of anti-Semitism for merely taking stands critical of Israeli government policies. These attacks stifle the critical discussions and debates that are at the heart of democratic policy-making. The recent attacks on staffers at the Center for American Progress is but one example of AIPAC efforts to crush all dissent.

8. AIPAC feeds U.S. government officials a distorted view of the Israel/Palestine conflict. AIPAC takes U.S. representatives on sugar-coated trips to Israel. In 2011, AIPAC took one out of very five members of Congress—and many of their spouses—on a free junket to Israel to see precisely what the Israeli government wanted them to see. It is illegal for lobby groups to take Congresspeople on trips, but AIPAC gets around the law by creating a bogus educational group, AIEF, to “organize” the trips for them. AIEF has the same office address as AIPAC and the same staff. These trips help cement the ties between AIPAC and Congress, furthering their undue influence.

9. AIPAC lobbies for billions of U.S. taxdollars to go to Israel instead of rebuilding America. While our country is reeling from a prolonged financial crisis, AIPAC is pushing for no cuts in military funds for Israel, a wealthy nation. With communities across the nation slashing budgets for teachers, firefighters and police, AIPAC pushes for over $3 billion a year to Israel.

10. Money to Israel takes funds from world’s poor. Israel has the 24th largest economy in the world, but thanks to AIPAC, it gets more U.S. taxdollars than any other country. At a time when the foreign aid budget is being slashed, keeping the lion’s share of foreign assistance for Israel meaning taking funds from critical programs to feed, provide shelter and offer emergency assistance to the world’s poorest people.

The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has influence on U.S. policy out of all proportion to the number of Americans who support its policies. When a small group like this has disproportionate power, that hurts everyone—including Israelis and American Jews.

From stopping a catastrophic war with Iran to finally solving the Israel/Palestine conflict, an essential starting point is breaking AIPAC’s grip on U.S. policy.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of and She is one of the organizers of, which will take place March 3-5 in Washington DC.

My journey does not boast military might nor invasive power; rather, I travel simply with the hope of bringing back knowledge. —Alexa Stevens

What happens when an American young woman visits Iran for the first time? You can find out as you follow the adventures of Alexa Stevens, a Tufts University student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic who is en route to Iran. Alexa is one of seven delegates traveling to Iran with the Citizen Diplomacy Reality Tour trip June 26- July 10, 2011.

Citizen Diplomacy delegates on this Iran trip will explore topics such as:

  • Is the threat of war the best response to Iran’s nuclear program?
  • Is the US media’s portrayal of Iran accurate?
  • How do Iranians feel about the US government and people?

To learn more about this trip, visit this Reality Tours web page.

Alexa will be blogging about her experiences throughout her journey in Iran right here on our Reality Tours blog. As she explains on her own blog, “I always have a story to tell.”

Alexa’s First Post: “Excited and Expectant

It’s comic how fast fear and anxiety dissipate entirely once routine and order is introduced. Yesterday our itinerary arrived, bringing with it descriptions of the sites we will see (Persepolis, The Friday Mosque, ect.), promises of the smells and tastes we will experience (shay under a 4,000 year old cypress tree, fesenjoon and bademjan in the bazaar) and the alluring dreams of people we might meet.

I can’t tell you just how anxious I was in the weeks between the time I mailed off my passport and yesterday. I had no time to be excited and expectant, instead I pragmatically researched what it might mean for an American to visit Iran.

The preparation for this trip really started a year or so ago, when my newfound interest of the region was strengthened with history books, pop music, a class aptly titled History of Iran—all of this information was gathered sporadically, from a myriad of sources, to help me understand Iran. And so it happened that I fell in love with a country I’d never seen.

But here’s the thing about those conventional courtships, where snippets of information are devoured with the utmost excitement—as the eventual meeting date grows closer, one begins to question just what exactly their enthusiasm has gotten them into.

About a month and a half ago I bought my ticket, and started to focus not on understanding my elusive paramour, but rather to prepare myself to meet it. I scanned the paper, researched the realities of the legal system, mulled over blogs and travel websites, and began to realize that even the most well-intentioned of tourists don’t always follow the rules of the Islamic Republic. I began obsessing, wondering just how much of me–my past, my thoughts, my opinions, my body–was now a public entity.

I’ve travelled far and wide, but I’ve always maintained the luxury of practically complete independence and autonomy, just as I do at home. I felt pathetic, like I was playing into the stereotypical fears of an ignorant, unaware tourist who assumed and generalized without a care in the world. I know better than this—after all, I had already proclaimed my infatuation with this remarkable place! How could I be wavering on the eve of my trip?

The truth is, I’ve never had to reconcile my somewhat romantic dreams of this country with the concrete realities of travelling there. I never thought I’d have to, so I tucked away my illusions of turquoise tiles, the soft, pleasing sounds of Farsi and mouthwatering kabob, along with my knowledge of the dress code, the awareness that the social is the political and the political is the social, and that the privilege of finally meeting that which I’ve fantasized will make reality better than dreams.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow you’ll find more from Alexa here on our Reality Tours blog.

This is the final post in an 8-Part “Giving Thanks” series, a Global Exchange exclusive highlighting individuals (chosen by Global Exchange staff members) who are contributing to our social justice work in some way. This series will culminate with a “Giving Thanks” video to be launched right here on Wednesday, November 24th. So please join us in recognizing those special individuals who are helping to make this world a better place.

Reality Tours Director Malia Everette Thanks Actress Eliza Dushku:

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
-Albert Schweitzer

Rick Fox, Malia and Eliza on Reality Tours delegation in Uganda

Today I have the honor of expressing my heartfelt gratitude to a woman who has rekindled and inspired the flame within me and countless others.  I am thankful that I have been fortunate to know Eliza Dushku as a fellow intrepid traveler, as a compassionate advocate for human rights and my favorite Boston diva friend who over the years has proven that one can effectively use their fan base to educate and advocate!

While many people know Eliza’s beauty, her well known role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless movies, what I have come to appreciate is her ability to be gracious and fearless in letting the world know what she cares deeply about. While there are a few courageous voices in Hollywood that speak out and use their clout, I often think of what a different world ours would be if those with such fame, access to media outlets and the public used it for social good.

Eliza has traveled with Global Exchange Reality Tours on many occasions and I know through her travel she continues the vibrant legacy of her mother (another strong woman, educator, advocate and mentor that I also have been blessed to know and work with for years customizing educational tours for her classes), and continues to engage in a multitude of ways on her own.

I met Eliza personally years ago on a Citizen Diplomacy delegation in Iran and then we journeyed together on an intensive delegation to Uganda that explored the issues of human trafficking, child soldiers, and sexual exploitation of youth.  Eliza as a participant is consistently engaged, honestly inquisitive and incredibly empathetic with our hosts. Upon returning back home, she shares her experiences with others as a spokesperson for many significant human rights issues.

A few weeks ago, Eliza mentioned coming on another tour soon and “changing the world one Reality Tour at a time” and I felt so pleased because she knows the incredible connective, transformational and educational power of travel.  While I believe that Reality Tours are a source for meaningful experiences that truly benefit not just the traveler but the hosts, it is also our intention that our travelers return home and share their experiences with others.

Eliza, thank you for sharing your experiences with us to your fans, for amplifying the voices of those you hear and for not just talking the words, but for walking the talk!

Who are YOU thankful for? Add your own thank you message in the Comments section to recognize someone you think is doing great social justice work. And if you feel so inspired, Retweet and Share this post to help spread the recognition all of our ‘Thankees’ deserve. Thank YOU.

Deborah James advocated for Fair Trade at Global Exchange from 1993 – 2005, and now serves as a member of the Global Exchange Board. She is currently the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She recently participated in the Citizen Diplomacy Delegation to Iran with Reality Tours. In a series of posts, she shares with us her experience.

July 4, 2010  Shiraz

Today we are leaving the beautiful city of Shiraz, known for its gardens, nightingales, roses, wine, and poets. When we arrived, the first person we saw was dressed in tight jeans, a figure-hugging manteau and Sex-in-the-City high heels! Shiraz is also known in Iran for being a very liberal city. And while unfortunately, the wine is no longer to be found, poetry abounds here.

Sa’di Tomb

Most Americans do not associate Iran with poetry, but it is essential to the country’s identity. From a thousand years ago, when Ferdowsi penned the Persian epic history, the Shahnameh, in verse; to the Rubaiyat poetry of mathematician Omar Khayyam, written around 1100 AD; the Masnavi of the Sufi mystic poet Rumi, and the Golestan and Bustan of Sa’di, both written in the 1200s; to the unparalleled Hafez, whose collection of poems from the 1300s speak of courtship and wine, the country has an illustrious history of world-renowned, mesmerizing poetry. In fact, the gorgeous mausoleums of Sa’di and Hafez, both of whom resided in Shiraz, are considered pilgrimages by Iranian school groups and tourists alike, as evidenced by the throngs of Iranians present and reciting verse when we visited!

Shiraz is also renowned for its lush Persian gardens, which we took great advantage of to escape the day’s heat. A refreshing mix of cypress, palms, sycamore, and other shading fruit and nut trees, mixed with flowering plants of honeysuckle, jasmine, and bougainvillea. Some of the gardens are run as public spaces where families picnic; others were the private gardens of the fabulously wealthy, complete with lavishly decorated mini palaces, now endowed to the Ministry of Culture for public view. It was easy to see how the famed Persian gardens inspired both the poetry of the region, as well as the exquisitely detailed miniature paintings we saw in the bazaar of Shiraz.

We also visited a teahouse. Our small group, a born-Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim enter the Seray-e Teahouse in the Serai Mushir craft area of the Vakil Bazaar, a former caravanserai (a hotel for traveler caravans on the Silk Road). We ascend curving staircase, peek through beaded curtains, and see wooden picnic-style benches covered in Persian woven tribal kilim rugs. My eyes immediately fix on the polychrome tile representations of polo players, lovers and music, poetry and wine from the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi that cover the walls. Colored light passes above through the metal cut-out lanterns. We sit down at tables, covered in Shirazi woven red and gold paisley tablecloths. A waiter brings a porcelain tea set with small glasses bearing the image of the 4th Qajar king. Nasser ol-D in Shah ruled from 1848 to 1896, and is known both as a great patron of the arts, as well as the shah who gave so much of the country away to Russian and English concessions. We dip hand-cut sugar cubes into the tea, which we then sip through the sugar held behind the teeth. After a moment, the prize arrives: a qaylan, traditional water pipe, through which we inhale delicious mint-scented tobacco and blow thick curls of smoke. It is another perfect moment in Iran.

We meet some young people in an Internet café. They are studying to be architects and engineers. Unfortunately, they don’t see future job prospects in Iran, and are planning on leaving to find a place where their skills can be put to good use. The recession has cut off many of those opportunities internationally, however. I ponder how much worse this situation will get due to the sanctions…

After a few amazing days of visiting gorgeously tiled palaces, green gardens, and perusing the bazaar, it is time to leave. I read Hafez and Sa’di in the car, while looking out at the lovely Zagros Mountains, seeing all the walnut, almond, pistachio, fig, plum, and apricot trees; grapes, eggplant, tomato, spinach, potato, wheat, barley, and rice farmland; along with the sheep and goat pastures.

Because of this rich bounty, Persian food has far exceeded my expectations! For breakfast we enjoy delicious fresh yoghurt every day, wonderful omelets with tomatoes and mushrooms, or eggs with tomato and cucumber and a feta-like cheese, and coffee. At lunch and dinner we eat like queens – first salad and yoghurt with flatbread, then a wonderful barley soup, and a mouth-watering roasted eggplant dish unlike any I’ve ever tasted. Then there’s grilled fish or lamb or chicken kebab, served with a bowl of fresh mint, basil, and other herbs, or national dishes like fesenjun (a rich sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranates). All very healthy and delicious!

Not many oil-rich countries maintain a focus on self-sufficiency in agriculture as Iran has, but farming here is far more ancient than oil. We hear from Iranians that because of the sanctions, many of the government subsidies that keep prices low are going to be reduced, and they are concerned about the impact this will have on food prices, particularly for the less well off…

Read the rest of Deborah James’ ‘Journey to Iran‘ blog posts.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

Deborah James advocated for Fair Trade at Global Exchange from 1993 – 2005, and now serves as a member of the Global Exchange Board. She is currently the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She recently participated in the Citizen Diplomacy Delegation to Iran with Reality Tours. In a series of posts, she shares with us her experience.

July 1, 2010 Deserts of Yazd

We spent the last few days in Yazd, an amazing desert town that according to UNESCO, is one of the very oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (about 7,000 years). Because it was so isolated and dry, it was never made into a capital city, and thus was evidently never overrun and destroyed by foreign armies.

Yazd is the center of the Zoroastrian community in Iran. Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest monotheistic religions, based on the teachings of Zarathustra, at least 1000 years BC. It was the original religion of Iran until the first Arab conquest that brought Islam after 637 AD. The Persian calendar and many contemporary Iranian customs (such as the celebration of the New Year, No Ruz, on the spring equinox) are derived from this ancient practice. We even visited a continuously burning Zoroastrian fire temple dating from 470 AD!

To survive in such an arid climate – Yazd receives only two inches of rain a year – a water delivery system was developed, by digging underground tunnels, called qanats, from the local mountains to deliver fresh mountain water all year round. In addition an air conditioning system was invented using wind towers that cool and circulate the air, keeping buildings habitable. Impressive centuries-old appropriate technological innovations! A former mansion was converted into our lovely hotel; the rooms were built around a pretty pair of inner garden-and-pool courtyards common in Persian home architecture.

Yazd is now one of the most religious cities in Iran. Over half of the women wore chadors, the black cloak that religious women wear over the obligatory manteau (the knee-length jacket) and hejab (head covering or scarf). Generally so far, it is noticeable that choices about dress appear largely generational. Grandmothers near-universally don the chador, and middle-aged women mostly wear a loose manteau and hejab. But it’s apparent how young people seem to have an amazing ability to wear headscarves in a way that reveal more coiffed hair than they cover, and manteaus that show more youthful curves than they obscure!

It turns out that Iran and the surrounding regions have a long history of women (and often men) covering themselves, probably as much to keep out the dust and sand as to hide women from view, including before the arrival of Islam. Some Iranians lamented the opportunity cost of the moral police (ie, couldn’t state employees be put to better use by fixing potholes than policing headscarves!) Others felt more protected by it. I have to admit, since women’s bodies are not displayed, it was a relief to be free of images of half-naked women being used to sell commercial products. In the 110-degree heat of Yazd, I could have done well with out the scarf, but it is a sign of respect as a foreigner to wear it modestly. And at least you don’t ever have to worry about your hair!

I look forward to our next stop, Shiraz, and remember long ago reading Simin Daneshvar’s classic Savushun: A Novel about Modern Iran, set there.


Read the rest of Deborah James’ ‘Journey to Iran‘ blog posts.

Deborah James advocated for Fair Trade at Global Exchange from 1993 – 2005, and now serves as a member of the Global Exchange Board. She is currently the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She recently participated in the Citizen Diplomacy Delegation to Iran with Reality Tours. In a series of posts, she shares with us her experience.

June 28, 2010 Greetings from Iran!

The moon shone full the night we touched down in Tehran. The day I had left Washington, the U.S. Congress had just passed further sanctions on Iran, in the most bipartisan vote since Obama took office. I had gravely considered whether coming to this nation, despised by so many, was propitious at this time. And yet, I kept thinking, don’t Americans need to know more about this country, especially if our government is actually contemplating military action?

Traveling to Iran with Global Exchange has so far been everything I wanted it to be – learning about ancient history and culture, completely fascinating and beautiful, while getting a taste for as much contemporary life here as possible; a context in which to place current politics. In anticipation of the trip, I had prepared by reading Nikki Keddie’s Modern Iran, Ray Takeyh’s Guardians of the Revolution; Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening, and kept up with the incredibly insightful blog,, along with with Robert Naiman’s impressive postings on, including this excellent article on the UN sanctions. I also devoured about half dozen or so novels and about twice that many films by or about Iranians.

As Americans, we are obligated to be sponsored by a tour company in Iran, and are prohibited from having political meetings, so it wasn’t a normal Global Exchange Reality Tour. Still, the experience has far exceeded my expectations. Our guide, Bahman, is one of the very best I have ever worked with, possessing a deep knowledge and appreciation of the country’s history, a convivial personality and the patience of a saint.

First stop in Tehran was to shop for manteaus, the knee-length coat that women must wear over their clothes. Fortunately, I packed a supply of the obligatory headscarves! My roommate would be the adventurous and ever-curious Alice, a wonderful retired schoolteacher and current health care activist.

To gain an initial historical grounding, we first visited the archeological museum, where earthenware vessels from Iran dating back from the 5th millennium BC were on display. A highlight was the Cyrus cylinder, known as the first Declaration of Human Rights for its prohibitions on slavery and affirmation of freedom of religion (dating back to 539 BC during the first Persian Empire.)

We also toured both the extravagantly ornate Green and White palaces of the last dynasty, the Pahlavis, who were overthrown in the revolution of 1979, as well as the Golestan Palace of the previous dynasty, the Qajars (1795-1925) who first made Tehran their capital.

We also visited the National Carpet Museum, to survey the great diversity and exceptional quality of this incredible art form that has flourished in Iran for centuries. Each city or region seems to boast its own identifiable patterns, some considered “city” and others “tribal”; quality is determined by the beauty of the design and harmony of the colors, but also by the knots per square inch, along with the materials used (wool, cotton, silk.)

I was delighted that our itinerary included an ethnographic museum, having learned in my preparations of the incredible ethnic diversity within Iran. The Turkomen in the northeast, Baluchis in the southeast, Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the west, and Armenians and Azeris in the northwest mix not only with the majority Persians, but also with nomadic Qashqai and other tribal peoples, mostly in the southern regions. Many of these peoples speak their own languages, usually alongside Farsi, and many of them maintain distinct cultural heritages that have survived for centuries within Iran.

One evening we had the pleasure of dining with a young Iranian with whom I share a mutual friend. He was eager to meet Americans, and expressed his hope to gain a scholarship for post-graduate study, like so many people his age, looking towards the future.

Aside from museums and palaces, Tehran is mostly made up of about 15 million Tehranis going to work, taking care of their families, and going to school each day. And despite a new and growing subway system, it has the congestion and pollution of many fast-growing urban metropolises. Fortunately, it does not appear to have the same endemic poverty. Still, I barely feel like we are scratching the surface of this city – and tomorrow we fly to the desert town of Yazd in the morning!


Read the rest of Deborah James’ ‘Journey to Iran‘ blog posts.

By Judy Carlock
Tucson Citizen
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.