I traveled to Iran recently. Many of my North-American friends and family questioned the wisdom of my decision at the time I announced my intention. Iran, known in America for being a member in good standing of the “axis of evil”, homeland of Ayatollah Khomeini and legions of imagined but unknown terrorists and American haters, is not a popular tourist destination for westerners. The most asked questions about my intention were “why?” and “do you think that it is safe?”.
I was interested in experiencing the country and culture for myself and making my own decision about it. It was an incredible trip and I find a vast difference between my experience and the perceptions of people I have talked to about it, before and after.
My first impression was my arrival at the airport. We disembarked and walked into the baggage claim area at about 9 pm. It was not to busy. About half the bags came and the owners took them and left, leaving it even quieter than before. After a little delay, my bag came out by itself and I left also.
I went through customs, I was the only one there and the officers were in a discussion so they paid very little attention to me. It took literally 20 seconds to clear as the officer just glanced at my papers and stamped my passport. There still seemed to be no one around as I walk out to the greeting area. It reminded me of the Edmonton airport, sometimes it is so quite, like a ghost airport.
I walk into a long, wide corridor with glass walls at the far end and on the whole right side and suddenly everything changes. I see a large crowd of people pressed against the glass. They are professionally dressed men, and women in black scarves and coats, and they are all looking at me. I was dressed in extremely casual travel clothes, carrying my backpack, and it seems as if they are taking a moment to think 'hmmm, and what have we here?'.
I feel pretty good, a new adventure is beginning for me and I start to smile. Suddenly someone waves to me, I wave back and then half the crowd is waving and smiling at me. They were all there to welcome their own friends and family, but since I was so obviously an outsider they all pitched in to welcome me also. I felt as if I was being welcomed into a greater societal family where neighbors and strangers actually interact with and care about each other.
As I get to the exit there is a man waiting with a sign that says “Mr. Dunkin, USA”. The crowd is pushing in but he helps clear a way to get me out. When we are a little clear of the crowd there is a girl with flowers and Mr. Azarian, who arranged the whole greeting. What a welcome; it put one of those incredible warm feelings in my heart that I will never forget; I still smile when I think about it.
I found the people to be social in Iran, in a way that we are not social in the West. Strangers would actually have meaningful conversations with each other and it gave me a lot of insight into to attitudes of the population. This happened several times when I was traveling with Mr. Azarian in cabs in Tehran.
The first time it happened was most memorable. We were in the back of a cab and Mr. Azarian and the driver were engaged in some light political conversation. The passenger in the front quickly and vehemently interjected, flashed an ID card, and went into a tirade, which made me think he was some sort of government official who did not like what he had heard. He went on for quite some time, and he was very irate.
I was not sure what to do, and since I couldn't understand him I wasn't sure if I was reading the situation correctly. I thought maybe I should just ignore him, not give him the satisfaction of an audience. I also thought maybe I should stare him in the eye to let him know he could rant on but I wasn't intimidated by his status. It was actually a little unsettling because of the uncertainty of the situation.
In the end I just tried to absorb the situation and try to read as much as I could about it. I found out later, when he left the car, that he was a government official working in intelligence for the national broadcasting company. But he was not complaining about the conversation in the car, he was the one complaining about the government. His frustration was to the point where he was almost losing control, he needed to vent or he would burst.
Many of the people in the cabs in Tehran had the similar thoughts. “Tell George Bush to come and get rid of the mullahs for us.” I was shocked by the openness of that statement. With one fellow I tried to discuss it with him in more detail to see if he really meant it or was just talking. I told him that if George Bush came and got rid of the Mullahs, it would not be to help the people of Iran; he would be coming for the oil. The fellow replied, “He can have the oil, its not doing us any good anyway and at least then we would be free.”
The further outside of Tehran I was the less political and less critical of the government people were, although not completely without regard. They did not like the situation but were less inclined to openly complain about it.
When I was riding in cars in Shiraz with my friend Ali many of the people had questions for me. They often wanted to know what I thought about their country. They were very proud and they were concerned that I would think less of Iran, and them, since it was not as modern as America and economic conditions were not as good.
I sensed a strong identity with America from many of the people. I think this is because of the success and power of America, and also because of the feeling that in America anyone who wants to work hard can be personally successful, which is a value that they respect. I think many people in Iran feel that their country could and would achieve the same success if not for the leadership of the clerics.
This insight into the way the Iranian people think gave me a new perspective on the foreign policy of the USA. Think about it like this. Let's say that over 50% of the people in Iran would like to get rid of their government of mullahs (I believe the number would really be over 90%). In a democratic system, with over 50% wanting something they would get it. So if an outside influence (USA) helped them get what they want, isn't the outside influence doing the democratic thing?
Of course I realize that this issue is not so simplistic and the opportunity for abuse by the outside influence is huge, but at any time is it ok for an outside influence to help shape another country if it is the desire of the majority in that country? I have never been to Iraq, but I wonder what the majority of people there want?
Speaking of kabob, there was a sort of funny incident that happened when I was at the Caspian region. I had told Mr. Azarian that I knew how to make kabob and we decided I would make during our trip to the north of the country. The big day finally came. His sister was coordinating events (she's the boss in the house) and at the appropriate time she took me to the barbeque to light it, which I thought would be a snap since I have done a lot of camping.
When I looked inside there was just a bunch of black rock-like things, real charcoal. I wasn't sure how to light them but she gave me a jug of petrol, so I poured a little on the coal and put a match to it. Nothing happened. The sister is looking at me skeptically.
I decide I needs some newspaper to help start the fire, since I often use that when I am camping. I put some crinkled newspaper under and in the coals, add a little petrol and put a match to it. The newspaper starts burning fairly good, the sister seems satisfied and she goes back inside. The newspaper quickly burns out with no effect on the coals.
I decide it's time for more force. I used newspaper again with a lot more petrol this time. It flames up beautifully, and burns out. Now I am a little worried, I need to get this thing going before she comes back with the kabob. When I am camping I often us a little kindling wood to light the bigger wood and I decide that's what I am missing here.
There are trees nearby and some of the bottom branches seem dead and dry. I break some of these off, organize them into a nice little package, and insert them into the pile off coals. Now we're cooking! I douse it liberally with petrol and put a match to it. It flames up nicely, burns out on one side, but keeps going at the back. Success! I start fanning it to help it burn and in that one little spot I can see the coals catching on.
Unfortunately, the branches were not as dry as I thought and there is also a lot of smoke. I keep fanning the good spot and when a bunch of the coals are burning I decide I need to mix them around so other areas catch on. I mix it around and keep on fanning. About this time the sister comes and looks out the door. Smoke is billowing everywhere. I smile, give her a thumbs up and say 'almost ready!'. She rolls her eyes and goes back in.
I keep on fanning like mad, I am making a little progress but my fire looks like hell because there are bits of tree branches and newspaper still mixed in with the coals. The sister looks out again, smoke is still billowing everywhere, I give her a smile and thumbs up again. But actually I was worried because I was sure she was going to get Mr. Azarian to come and see what the heck I was doing and I wasn't sure how I would explain all the bits of tree branch and paper mixed in with the coals. It just looked so odd.
I franticly start picking out all the pieces of tree branch, trying not to burn myself, and throwing them into the bushes (making sure they are not burning first, of course). Just about the time that my fire, though still very weak, is at least looking normal again, Mr. Azarian comes out to check on me. Close call… and the kabob was delicious!
I planned to hike on Mounnt Damavand, but didn't know where to go. I did some research on the internet and found that I needed to go to the town of Raineh. That part would be simple, I went to the bus depot and asked for a ticket to Raineh. Then I went across town to the correct bus depot and got my ticket, and sat around the bus depot for a while waiting for enough passengers so the bus driver would go.
I arrive in Raineh and sure enough, there is Damovand right in front of me. I had read that there were shelters on the mountain for camping in and I planned to hike up to one of them. As I stood there looking at this mountain I realized that I was miles away from it and the shelters could be anywhere, I had no way to find them unless I found some kind of trailhead (since I had no map).
I was thinking maybe I would just have to start hiking towards the summit and see how far I got. I was only there for a couple minutes when a gentleman walks up and offered his assistance, in good English. His name is Reza and he teaches sports at the local school. We go to his facility; he shows me the map, gives me some good directions and arranges for a car to take me to the trailhead (7km). I start hiking up the trail, looking for a fork where I am supposed to stay right to get to the shelter. I see a fork, go right, keep hiking, see a couple more forks, stay right again, and end up at a dead end in a sheep pasture.
The sun is starting to go down. I am sure I am pretty far to the right of the shelter but I saw a Sheppard's fire on the mountain up ahead so I thought I would go spend the night with them. As I walk up the sheep pasture, I hear some dogs barking. Sounds pleasant enough at first, seems to be getting closer, getting closer quite rapidly, suddenly I see two dogs coming for me and they aren't tail-wagging.
I run and jump over the rock fence (with my pack on), but this crazy scar-headed, one-eyed dog still comes after me. I pretend to throw a rock at it, a motion that it immediately recognizes and runs off a little way. There are now 4 or 5 dogs circling and barking in the pasture and following me up the fence so I take a hard left up a steep ridge to get away from them. I am mentally preparing for a night out in the open when I top the ridge and there it is, the shelter.
That night I saw the clearest sky I have seen since the old days in northern Alberta, Canada. The stars were brilliant; the Milky Way was crystal clear. The next morning I was on the trail at 5:30. The beauty that opened up around me as the sun rose was breathtaking. I missed a lot of this the night before since I was lower down and concentrating on getting to the shelter before dark.
Behind me was a deep, wide valley with a lake in the valley floor. Across the valley I can see all the other peaks, I am above most of them, and ahead of me is the Fuji/Kilimanjero like peak of Damavand. I climbed 1,100 meters to the next shelter at 4,100 meters in under 2 hours. It was a pretty good push but I felt fine, must have been a bit of an endorphin rush.
If I had another day and something for my feet besides worn-out Vans, I am sure I could have gone to the summit at 5,800 meters. I had breakfast with a German named Jeorge, who was spending a day there acclimatizing. After a good rest I headed back down the mountain, caught a bus back to Tehran and was eating ghormeh sabzi by 18:00.
Lest it sound like my trip was nothing but peaceful good times, I must tell you that I did find the bad guys towards the end of my stay. I was walking past the ex-American embassy, taking in the anti-American slogans on the wall (the only place I ever saw such things in Iran), when a couple guys at a gate invited me in to see an exhibition.
It turned out to be an exhibition of construction projects done by the Sepah (the revolutionary army, loyal to the mullahs), with their extra resources since the end of the war with Iraq. They brought me an English-speaking guide to help explain things to me, a nicely dressed gentleman with a beard and a clever look in his eye. It was a very interesting exhibit, lots of big tunneling projects, big dams, ports, pipelines, buildings, machinery, etc. There are a lot of different models to look at that show the magnitude and complexity of the projects.
Midway through the tour we stop for a refreshing beverage. I drink my juice and my guide, with a sly smile, tells me to look at my cup. I see that written on the side of it are the words “Down with USA”. Ouch. I chuckle a little and tell him that's very interesting. He tells me to read the other side of the cup, which I see says “Down with Israel”. He's smiling quite gleefully, like he just did something brilliant, and I'm laughing along with him, because it's so banal. I mean really, is that it? After that, I headed over to a friends home for some khoresh e seeb, and ghormeh sabzi : My trip to Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd, including the drugs, the frustrations and the hopes.
I grew up in Canada and have spent the last 7 years in California. I am now taking my MBA at the San Francisco campus of the Wharton School.
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.