Excerpt from a letter by best-selling author Nicholas Lore after returning from his first visit to Iran in 1995. At that time, very few Americans had visited Iran since the revolution. Mr. Lore is married to Mitra Mortazavi Lore, an Iranian-American peace and human rights activist and artist. They live in near Washington, D.C.
Getting off the plane in Tehran, it was obvious that we were not in Kansas: the desert air deflowered by intense air pollution, the soldiers, all looking about 16-years old, standing around with machine guns, no shorts, no tank tops. I felt like a lamb getting off the bus in Wolfville. But then the surprises started – and they never let up. As we went through the endless stations of officialdom at the airport, all the uniformed guys were welcoming, warm and friendly. I had expected a gauntlet of suspicion. What I got was hospitality and generosity. In fact, in all my weeks in Iran, I never ran into any real hostility.
We were welcomed by a large entourage of family and family friends, swept into a flock of waiting cars and delivered to Mitra's parents place, where the first of an endless stream of parties welcomed us. I met many relatives that had previously just been names and stories. Her family is amazing: bright, warm hearted, poetic, enthusiastic, loving, funny, and professional partygoers, as all Iranians seem to be.
The next two days we stayed in Tehran where I, alien from another planet, absorbed the culture, the sights, smells, quirks, all completely new and endless fascinating. We went to a bazaar filled with the aromas of exotic spices wafting down the streets filled with vegetable vendors, tacky cloth merchants, bath houses, religious shrines and lots of other stuff that is in short supply in your average suburban mall.
The amazing thing here is that the people are not strangers to each other. There is an assumed intimacy that is quite surprising and wonderful. You wind up in extended conversations with everyone you run into – the cab drivers, the itinerant fruit merchants all launch into conversations as if they have known you for years. It is difficult to reconcile this with the terrorism and fanatical religious violence. It is hard to imagine these fun loving, talkative people sending unarmed children out in front of the soldiers to be martyrs for Allah. But, I guess I only saw some parts of a complex puzzle. The right-wing Christians in the U.S. are, to my mind, cut from the same cloth as those fanatics in Iran who sacrificed their children. Fortunately, in Iran, they seem to be a shrinking minority. I wish I could say the same for my country.
We went to a huge cultural fair where all the various regions, cultures and tribes gathered to show off their regional specialties: fabulous rose flavored confections, complex hand worked silver, and literally thousands of other things, mostly made at a very high level of craftsmanship. There were many tents of nomadic shepherd tribes. I have a special interest in and affinity for the tribal people, those with the closest ties to early civilizations. I visited with Qashqaie and Baktiari tribes people, learned to make flat bread, was interviewed on TV.
For the first time, we were in the midst of “villagy” people. Most of the women were dressed in the long black voluminous “chador” that we see in Western media – looking like a combination of nun and wicked witch of the West. Some of the more conservative ones hold part of the chador across their face with their hand or put a corner of it in their mouth. Mitra's sister Roya once, just after the revolution, had her car searched by a woman who felt the need to cover her face while she searched the car with a machine gun in the other hand. She had to keep moving the machine gun and the part of the chador covering her mouth from hand to hand to mouth, all the while searching every inch of the car.
On the streets you see plenty of women dressed in these black chadors, but mostly they are the exception rather than the rule. Many women wear a “mantoh” which is essentially a long raincoat, and a scarf over their head. The more Western, liberal women wear the scarf with plenty of hair showing in front. In Iran, the liberalization of the culture occurs millimeter by millimeter – and the most obvious gauge is the amount of hair that can show. When there was a crackdown a while ago, the scarves had to be pulled farther forward. Now they are creeping back again. When it's party time, which was most every night, off come the scarves and raincoats – and underneath are the latest Paris fashions.
The next day we took an early morning flight to Isfahan, over deserts that look like the moon, with the remains of ancient settlements and villages, now long deserted, still holding on, clearly carved in the wild, mountainous desert moonscape. Below us were long trailing lines of circular holes, like wells, which are what shows of “ganats”, the ancient Persian system of carrying water from the mountains or wherever else it can be found, to desert villages.
On arrival, we were whisked off to the Abassi Hotel, a veritable palace, one of the more luxurious places I have stayed. It is a refitted caravanserai, which was the place you would stop for the night, similar to an inn, but capable of taking care of you, your 75 fellow caravaners and 300 camels at a moments notice. Now it is a magnificent rectangle of rooms surrounding and looking out on a huge central courtyard of gardens and fountains. Since there is so little water and greenery in Persia, any outdoor place where relaxation is the aim will have some combination of water and gardens, reflecting the Persian way of imagining what heaven must look like. In fact, the source of the word “paradise” is Farsi and in Iran, paradise is a garden. I agree.
We visited the architectural masterpieces, for which Isfahan is famous. One huge mosque, the Masjed e Imam, is an architectural masterpiece on the same level of perfection as the Taj Mahal. Endless domes, courtyards and passageways, all decorated with the most amazingly detailed, unbelievably beautiful tile work imaginable.
What I liked best was the great bazaar of Isfahan. A vast area of narrow streets, all covered with domed roofs, making for an endless maze; dark and spiced with a sense of impending discovery and mystery. There are special streets for the practitioners of special crafts, the street of samovar makers, the street of goldsmiths, carpet merchants, cloth merchants, and many more. There are public bath houses, open gardens, places to buy edible treats, ice cream and confections. There is an area of antique shops with wonderfully done knock offs of ancient brass padlocks in the shape of animals, one shaped like a scorpion with its tail the hasp of the lock, astrolabes that guided caravans across the desert before the days of the sextant, coins from thousands of years ago, silverwork in almost endless intricate patterns. I bought many antique nomadic textiles, an old brass Russian samovar, a camel bell. The bazaar swarms with people, mostly peasants, sprinkled with Baktiari nomads who make their camps near Isfahan at this time of year.
At night we visited the Isfahan river bridges, with romantic steps down to the water's edge. This is the place to be in Isfahan at night. Many Iranians stroll, sit and talk, cook supper, smoke, laugh, and watch the water flow under these amazing structures that have been in daily use since the sixteen hundreds, and standing up well until recently to heavy car and truck traffic. People stay up late at night, having fun, even on work nights. There are soccer games going on after midnight as well as numerous families and groups of friends hanging out together. People go to the hills with a grill and cook kebabs and sleep out under the stars. This is not an occasional sort of thing. Everywhere, late at night, there are people still out enjoying themselves. If anthropologists ever sought the ancient, original source of partying, no doubt all the evidence would point to Iran. These people are the true, original party animals. Throughout the entire life span, they basically keep the playful, highly social natures that we Americans are expected to give up when we shed our teenage skin and become adults.
What is most amazing is that, even in the vast sea of people in the bazaars, where most of the folks you bump into live in poverty beyond the imagination of Westerners, I felt completely safe. I don't know why. It is not a function of me or my personality. I'm not sure if it is just the nature of the people or if it also has anything to do with harsh consequences for bad deeds. The bazaars are crowded, people constantly nudging around each other in tightly packed spaces, trying to move ahead but it is very gentle, respectful jostling. Nobody pushes. Nobody shoves. In America, in any big crowd, there are enough insecure young men who had no real parenting, who feel the need to prove their manhood as a warrior, that you always have to stay somewhat alert and be cool. In Iran you can let yourself be swept along with the crowd, and join in as a part of the flow of the wondrous river of humanity.
I experienced no animosity toward Western people. In fact, we constantly told people all over Iran that I am an American. There was not even a tiny shred of hostility. I was treated a little bit like a movie star, with extra special hospitality everywhere. A highly refined sense of hospitality has always been an important part of Iranian culture, but people went overboard for me, the representative of a country the government calls, “The Great Satan”.
In the airport leaving the country, I approached a counter manned by five frowning, uniformed men. I put my American passport on the counter. The man in the middle, obviously the boss, picked it up, examined it for a long, long time, give me a hard look and said, “Shaytana bazorg”, which means Great Satan. After a moment of stunned silence, wondering if I was about to be dragged away, I put two index fingers above my forehead like curved devil's horns, wiggled my fingers enthusiastically at him, and gave him a great big grin. There was another very long, long moment of silence. Then he put two fingers to his forehead, wiggled them, and laughed heartily. A moment later the others were doing the same thing.
Once, at the cultural fair, I was in the tents of Lors, an ancient tribal people from a part of Iran that was totally remote until modern times. Back at home, I have this running joke when I meet new Iranian Americans, and they ask where I come from, that I come from Loristan. All this was being translated to the Lors, who were in the process of dressing me in their traditional costume. Naturally, there was a great deal of jocularity and laughter from all of us, Lore and Lor. Outside the tent a large crowd of people watched. Apparently this was a bit too much levity for the Islamic smile police. An overly serious looking man with a dark suit and a walkie-talkie came over and told us to tone it down. This was the only time anybody told me to cool it.
Everyone I met is cynical about the government, but I don't think another revolution is brewing, at least not a violent one. The real revolution that is coming very soon will be a mostly non-violent transformation of the culture. I believe that once cultures reach a certain level of readiness and development, true democracy becomes possible, and there is no more need for the people to be ruled by a strong man, or dominated and controlled by a few powerful men. I think Iran has just about reached this point.
Iranians make up their own rules. Everything constantly shifts. People operate in a state of perpetual anarchy. Anarchy is not really quite the right word because anarchy suggests resisting order and government. In Iran, chaos reigns. Everything is open to each person's interpretation. Murphy's law, “If anything can go wrong, it will” must have been coined in Iran. In fact, I decided that Murphy must have changed his name upon moving to the U.S. Originally, I suspect, it was Mr. Murafi's law.
The traffic is chaotic beyond anything that can be conveyed in words. It is simply unbelievable. Tehran has a well deserved reputation for having some of the wildest traffic on the planet. There are no rules at all. You are constantly surrounded by vast numbers of cars and motorcycles weaving in and out of each other at high speed, no lanes, no thought to life, limb or consequences. Just this mad joyful dash like some vast school of half crazed fish hurdling pell-mell down a racing mountain stream. People roar up one-way streets the wrong way. When traffic slows, the motorcycles take to the sidewalk. Cars roar around blind mountain curves in the left lane at full speed. What is most amazing is that there are very few accidents. These people can really drive. They make New York cabdrivers look like a bunch of restrained beginners.
At one point, we visited a family villa along a river in the mountains that is reached by a precipitous mountain road with hairpin curves and bottomless cliffs. On the way back home this road was clogged with vast numbers of cars filled with impatient people returning from a long weekend at the Caspian seashore. This little road has one lane going each way and drop offs that would take your breath away. When our lane slowed down, someone started another lane to the right of us, on what would have been the shoulder, if there had been room for an actual shoulder. When that lane slowed down, someone started another lane to the left of us. Soon, there were four lanes of cars going our direction, all impatient to get home, all completely beyond caring about anything beyond the present second in the swirl of chaos.
For the first two days, I was terrified every time I got in a car. Every day there were several traffic incidents that were near death experiences, the kind of things that might happen once every few years at home. On the third day I became enlightened. I surrendered my ego to the gods of chaos, completely at peace with the nightmare traffic. In fact, I loved it. Next time I visit, I will get an international drivers license, and join gleefully in the bumper car mayhem, perhaps strapping mattresses all around the car, closing my eyes and hitting the gas.
We then flew to Shiraz, the city that was home to many of the Persian poets. They are highly revered. People quote them, visit their tombs, much as we revere Shakespeare. Then, after a couple days, back to Tehran for several more days of parties. Frankly, I was ready to go home when the time came. I would love to see much more of the country. I only scratched the surface. But, I was partied out.
I have been back home for more than three weeks, trying to get back in the rhythm of my life. But this is difficult. In my mind's eye I still smell the spices, the complex, musty aroma of the bazaar, and most of all, I miss the people, extraordinary, complex and generous. These people that we Americans so misunderstand.