Here’s the next in a series of posts written by Alexa Stevens, a Tufts University student who is one of seven delegates currently traveling (and writing) in Iran with the Citizen Diplomacy Reality Tour trip:

Stone-Cold Truths

Sometimes I wonder if all travel isn’t some variation of escape. An escape from somewhere or to something I’m not sure, but a deliberate action of leaving what is known to surround one’s self in the unknown. We had our conference call last week, where the seven of us met each other, over the phone, for the first time. Allow me to explain–our trip is organized by an NGO based out of San Francisco, Global Exchange, and I am one of seven delegates of this tour to Iran.

Everyone spoke of their preparation–Patty, a fund-raiser from Columbia, Maryland, joked about the difficulty of finding a loose-fitting top that would be conservative enough for Iran yet tolerant enough for the heat (highs of 102ºF, lows of 80ºF next week); Rebecca, a freelance writer from Washington DC, talked about the voracious reading she had undertaken, ranging from ancient Persian history to the poetry of the greats–Hafez, Rumi, Ferdowsi–while Tom, a retired attorney from Houston, spoke not of the intellectual preparation he had done, but rather how he was waiting to take it all in once we got there. I spoke of my studies, my scant knowledge of Farsi, and my excitement.

We were all urged to catalogue our preconceptions; write down a few questions we were hoping this trip would answer, or a few hypotheses we would confirm or disprove through the empirical evidence we were sure to gather on this fact-finding mission. This trip, though veiled in the same cloth as a true tourist venture–complete with bilingual native tour guide, bright orange tour bus (or so I hear), and of course us, the American tourists equipped with our guide books, cameras and useless currency–was also supposed to serve as a first-hand educational field guide, footnote to our intellectual conclusions and perceptions.

I get the feeling that in two weeks, upon our return to the US, we are expected to bring back not just souvenirs but true gems of knowledge, which will illuminate our world views, focus our political inclinations and refine our identities.

But I don’t know what my preconceptions are, what I’m hoping this trip will answer, and I’m not quite sure that I’m going to Iran entirely to discover the Iranians and their country. You see, I’m truly hoping to discover more of myself through them. I want to know these people, see this country, connect our worlds, of course–but I’ve invested so much of myself in the study of Iran, what if all my columns of curiosity come crashing down? Truth be told, I’m a little terrified of disappointment; not in Iran, but in myself.

The most common question I get leading up to my departure is the incredulous “Why?” Why would you go to Iran?” And I can’t ever seem to give a coherent answer. I suppose the easiest reason I cite is the default one: oh, its what I’m studying, I’ve been interested in the region for years, I have a few close friends from the Middle East. But I know there must be more to it than that. No one commits them self to studying the foreign if the familiar is truly… Familiar.

Here, in the West, I’m lost. There are so many possibilities–these days, the pressure to be something, to fulfill a professional aspiration, is waning in favor of the pressure to be someone, an intellectual-philosophical-socio-existential aspiration to find yourself and follow your dreams to personal fulfillment. And the prospects are terrifying. There are too many options, too little guidance, too much space, not enough time… We make it far too hard on ourselves, us twenty-somethings on the verge of completing our schooling and venturing into the real world.

So, when I started school I did what I thought was best–I picked something so foreign, so different, I must be defined within it. Studying the Middle East was a way to find myself, to see which truths could be translated across the map and still come back pure. But what if it was all in vain? What if my romantic notions of a country that I already identify with, that I am already enamored with, reveals itself to be like the gems it is famous for (turquoise, in particular is quite prolific in Iran)–beautiful, but impenetrable? There is an element of safety in studying the dissimilar. In conversations with well-intentioned relatives and inquiring friends, the conversation always turns to restrictions, to all the stone-cold realities of Iran today.

I feel protective of the image I’ve built of this place in my head, of what I’ve imagined from books and films–I suppose my perceptions are those of someone who, already committed, begs and pleads that reality confirm her dreams–because if not, she not only loses her knowledge of a place, but of herself.

Stay tuned. More updates from Alexa coming soon right here on our Reality Tours blog.

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.

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 12, 2010  Last Days in Tehran

View of downtown Tehran from the Tochal Gondola

After returning from Esfahan, we had a couple of more days to enjoy Tehran, do any last minute shopping, before returning home. We buy books of poetry as gifts, along with Persian sweets, pistachios and dates. Bahman gives me excellent recommendations for popular Iranian music, including Farman Fathalian, Benyamin, Googoosh, and Faramarz Aslani; these will make great additions to my collection, which includes only Mohammed Reza Shajarian of the Masters of Persian Music, whom I saw recently at the Kennedy Center.

I was also quite pleased also to visit the Cinema Museum. I’ve known of Iranian cinema’s cutting-edge reputation for some time, and seen quite a few of their award-winning titles, including Children of Heaven and the Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi), The Circle (Jafar Panahi), A Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), and Two Women (Tahmineh Milani). This museum was a testament to the importance of cinema as an Iranian art form, as well as its complicated relationship to the government, which have both promoted Iranian cinema – particularly under former President Khatami – as well as censoring it (filmmaker Panahi has just beenreleased from jail.)

During the trip, I have asked about the economy, because I haven’t seen nearly as much urban poverty as many other places I have traveled. From my discussions with Iranians, and from previous research, it seems that the government has invested quite heavily in infrastructure, consumer subsidies, and social services, and the country boasts high levels of education and good health care coverage, and good infrastructure (roads, electricity, water distribution, etc). Economic growth has been steady in recent years. At the same time, several Iranians pointed out that given the revenues from oil, the country should be doing even better. Mostly though, they expressed worry about the impact the sanctions would have on the poor, rather than the governing elite, believing that the mullahs would find ways to evade the sanctions, which would only create more black market activity and drive up prices for the poorer Iranians.

Our intrepid Bahman takes us on a final adventure up a gondola and several chairlifts to reach the top of Mt. Tochal, just above Tehran in the Alborz mountains. Tehranis go to ski in the winter, and to take refreshing hikes in the summer. It is beautiful, relaxing, and pleasant to get some exercise. We also pass by a “green belt” in Tehran, which Bahman explains not just roadside landscape, but part of an extensive new park that has been built for women to exercise without being seen by men.

That evening, Alice and I wonder, for the fourteenth time these last two weeks, How did we get to be so lucky as to be on this trip? When we spoke of our upcoming trip to Iran, most of our friends and family were either scared or thought we were crazy. “Why would you want to go to Iran, of all places?” they would ask, the bewilderment in their voices not at all hidden.

It’s understandable, given the image in Western media of Iran – mostly formed by negative images of a repressed society, a demagogue president, and oppressive mullahs. But these images alone aren’t fitting with the warm smiles and pleasantly surprised looks we got every time a curious Iranian stopped us on the street to inquire as to where we were from. It’s not that those things don’t exist here, but they do so along with another, more complex reality, one of an incredibly varied, dynamic history, of expansive empires and destructive foreign occupations, of artistic and literary marvels alongside current religious fundamentalism, of youth eager for a future and elders mindful of the country’s past greatness.

We turn on CNN International, and hear about the horrifying case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman in Iran who has been sentenced to stoning to death after being convicted for adultery. After having seen the film, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” before coming to Iran, and knowing of how wrongfully convicted inmates are still put to death in U.S. prisons, the thought that this dreadful act could still occur turns my stomach. At the same time, it is not difficult to identify the propaganda against Iran being ratcheted up in recent months, and fear that this case will play into the hands of those demanding that the United States “do something” about Iran.

In the two weeks I’ve been here, the number of stories about the “existential” threat posed by Iranian’s alleged nuclear ambitions has increased, with calls for a pre-emptive attack by Israel. What about the real threat of Israel’s existing nuclear weapons? Iran sits surrounded by nuclear Israel and Pakistan, sandwiched between two states – Iraq and Afghanistan – occupied by U.S. troops, which also hold military positions in neighbors Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and UAE. Iran is no threat militarily, and has not acted aggressively towards any other country in decades – something that cannot be said for Israel. Of course no one wants Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. But the majority of the world support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. As Chomsky has pointed out, the threats of the US and Israel contravene the NPT – and are more likely to induce Iran to develop a deterrent. If the US and Israel were serious about making peace with Iran, they would reduce that threat. Or do the hawks in our government somehow think that the heroes of the Green Movement will be immune from the destruction of war?

And yet we have seen some of the most incomparably gorgeous mosques and palaces, all architectural gems; walked in sublime gardens and passed by lovely landscape; eaten the most delicious fresh food in fabulously decorated teahouses and restaurants; seen hundreds of painstakingly knotted rugs, delicately painted miniatures, and other beautiful arts; witnessed testament of 2,500 years of proud history; and met some of the most friendly, sweet, and generous people.

I can’t wait to go back and look at the hundreds of photos we took, leap back into my Netflix queue of Iranian films, and finish the other Iranian books waiting on my shelves. I hope that others will take advantage of these tours – next scheduled for September and April. The more Americans know about the Iranian people, the less likely we will be to allow our government to drag us into yet another senseless war.

As grandmothers, mothers, and daughters dine together in Iran, can you help ensure their future is one of peace?

August 2, 2010  post-script

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, this weekend admitted that the United States does have a plan for attacking Iran, although he maintained his position that it is probably a bad idea due to the unpredictable impacts it would have across the Middle East. At the same time, Gareth Porter wrote in Truthout about the neocon strategy of building up enough pressure on Obama, to get the United States to support an Israeli bombing campaign. There’s also a media strategy to build public support, that has evidently convinced two thirds of Americans that Iran already has a bomb. House Republicans seem eager to do so, and have already introduced a Resolution supporting a pre-emptive bombing of Iran by Israel. You can learn about how to oppose this Resolution and support other diplomacy efforts at the National Iranian American Council.

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.

July 8, 2010 Esfahan, Half the World

During some of the dynasties of the Persian Empire, the area it governed was so large that its capitals were located in cities that are now outside of present-day Iran. During other times, the region was ruled from foreign lands, such as by Arab caliphates in Damascus or the Uzbek Timurids from Samarkand. It wasn’t until the Safavid dynasty re-established the Persian Empire in 1502 that the capital cities were henceforth located within present-day Iran. And it was under the Safavids that Persian art and culture again flourished, and most of all within their capital city, Esfahan.

Shah Mosque

We arrived at night, and after dinner our guide Bahman conducted us on a pleasant walk through the city. He then insisted we close our eyes for a moment. I was nervous and excited, thinking to myself, this must be great, if it was going to top the amazing palaces, gardens, and other sights upon which we had already feasted our eyes. Then he gives the word, and immediately my senses are treated to the most gorgeous sight I have ever witnessed. Imam Square by night is an ethereal rectangle of archways, anchored on two sides by infinitely gorgeous mosques, and on another by the Ali Qapu palace. The square is second in size only to Tienanmen.

Serving as a polo field in the past, today it is chock full of hundreds of intergenerational families setting out a blanket or rug for an evening’s picnic and delighting in the cooling air. Alice gets out her camera; she has become an expert at finding joy in children’s faces, and their mothers always seem pleased to have their child’s picture taken. This interaction inevitably leads to an invitation to sit down, and we share a family’s melon, cheese, and bread. I marvel at the generosity of Iranians who are so quick to share a meal with a complete stranger, one who speaks no Farsi beyond Salaam, and who is from a countrythat is at this very moment, contemplating bombing them.

The next day we visit the Congregational Mosque, considered a museum of nearly a thousand years of Persian religious architecture, due to the fact that, after having been first built by the Seljuks in the 11th century, it was added to, rather than destroyed and rebuilt, by subsequent dynasties. This includes the Mongol Il-Khanids in the 14th century, the Timurids in the 15th, and the Safavids in the 17thcentury. It was one of the first mosques that included two iwans, built facing each other within the inner courtyard that contains the ablutions fountain. The religious center of any mosque is its mihrab, or prayer niche, and the famous Uljaitu Mihrab of the Il-Khanid period, in finely detailed stucco, is exquisite.

We return to Imam Square that afternoon, and it becomes easy to see how the square has earned its name, Nesf-e-Jahan, or Half of the World. We behold two of the Islamic world’s greatest architectural masterpieces – the incomparable Sheikh Lotfollah and Shah mosques. To enter the latter, we have to throw light cotton chadors over our heads. First, we walk through a brilliantly tiled iwan, or perfect ly proportioned arched gate. These are richly decorated in mosaic tiles featuring geometric motifs, floral designs, and kufic calligraphy from the Qu’ran. They even have muqarnas, the sumptuously decorated stalactite-like patterned archways that are one of Persia’s gifts to the Islamic architecture. We pass through a hallway – every square inch is covered in tiled designs – and enter the courtyard with the ablutions fountain that is the center of any mosque complex.

From there we make our way to the masterpiece – the interior dome. The Shah mosque, boasting a dome covered in tiles made from Iranian turquoise, has an equally stunning interior floral and arabesque pattern dominated by lapis lazuli blue and turquoise tiling. The mosque of Sheik Lotfollah, which is crowned with a unique and striking cream-colored dome, reveals an interior graced with an almost imperceptibly tiny peacock, ringed by wispy arabesques, surrounded by a field of the most exquisite tiles in the shape of peacock feathers. My breath is taken away; I truly cannot find words to describe the sublime beauty in front of me.

We see so much more in Esfahan, starting with the famous arched bridges which link the city divided by the Zayandeh River, many of which are gathering places for families and young people to walk and enjoy the sunset. We revisit the Ali Qapu palace on the main square, and meander through the Qeisarieh Bazaar with hundreds of shops displaying the handmade carpets, silver housewares, gold jewelry, tiles, inlaid woodwork, block print and woven fabric, miniature paintings, and other divine crafts for which Esfahan is famous around the world. We visit a synagogue, as well as the Christian Armenian quarter and the Vank Cathedral; the Chehel Sotun Palace with its mind-bogglingly beautiful paintings, built in the 17th century; as well as the Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradises) house built in 1670 for another shah’s harem.

And we are constantly pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Iranian people. While visiting the Shaking Minarets, a young girl approaches us and asks (through hand-motions) if she can take her picture with us. Alice and I are happy to oblige! Then her friend comes up with the same request. Of course! Suddenly their entire school class is upon us, giggling and edging in to the photo! They all want to know where we are from. When we say the United States, they are always curious! All of a sudden paper is produced. They want us to write a note! A note, any note, from the American women they have just met. I wish them each a bright future, and one in which our two countries can be friends and not threaten each other.

We do not want to leave Esfahan. We contemplate ways to come back.

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

Apadana Palace

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 5, 2010 Persepolis

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Persepolis is the heart of our tour through Iran’s history. At the time it was built, starting around 520 BC, it was the ceremonial capital of the largest empire that the world had ever known. At its height, the Persian Empire included much of present-day Central Asia all the way to Pakistan and as far north as Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, Turkey, parts of Greece, Mesopotamia and the Levant, and even parts of Egypt and Libya. The destruction of this masterpiece in 330 BC by the Macedonian Alexander the Great’s army represents an enormous global cultural loss.

Initiated by Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids, Persepolis includes the remains of the former palaces of the Achaemenid kings including Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes. (Cyrus himself is buried at Pasargad nearby). We are fortunate that most of the ruins were buried in desert sand for centuries, so that some bas-reliefs remain, famous for depicting kings and courtiers and gift-bearing representatives of nations (Baylonians, Assyrians, Armenians, Egyptians, Scythians, Indians, Arabs, Bactrians, etc) of the Persian Empire.

Coming from a country where many citizens think the era of Jim Crow laws is ancient history, it is overwhelming to contemplate what it must be like to be from a country that is steeped in 2,500 years of documented, organized history (in additional to several thousand years of continuous habitation.) And every Iranian we speak with is well aware of this history, as if it were yesterday.

From Persepolis we drive to Esfahan, the last stop on our trip before returning to Tehran. On the way, as on all days, we are plied with a variety of snacks: roasted pistachios or fresh walnuts; juicy cherries and mulberries, perfectly ripe apricots and peaches, and fresh Persian melon; baklava, delicious saffron ice cream, and mouthwatering sweets made with rosewater and pistachio; and heavenly pomegranate juice. And of course, ubiquitous service of tea with fresh dates!

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.

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.