Three and a half years ago, after the collapse of a publishing deal I had pinned my hopes on, I was feeling deeply discouraged and about ready to throw in the towel . But two Iranian-born scientists, my former roommate Vahid and his sister Anahita, were impressed by my novel, discerning in it elements of pre-Islamic Persian spiritualism and mythology. With their help I established an arrangement to hire Anahita's friend from school, a young woman named Mojgan, to translate my novel into Persian.
For two years Mojgan and I corresponded via e-mail. (The day after September 11, 2001, she sent me an earnest e-mail expressing sorrow and condolences over the terrorist attack.) She completed the translation and sent it to me in hardcopy and “Zarnegar”, a Persian-language software. (The package was mailed from Tehran to Dubai to London to Washington and left outside the door of my home in Greenbelt for me to retrieve after I came home from work.)
The title of my novel in Persian, chosen by Iranians, is Ourmazd Khoud Khandeh, which translates into English as “The Man who Claimed to be God”. Mojgan and I finally talked over the telephone. She and her family expressed a great desire to meet me, so I decided to visit them in Iran as well as tour a few of that country's impressive archeological sites. In July, 2002, I traveled to that region, spending eight days in Turkey and ten days in Iran.
At the gate in the Istanbul airport, I waited to board the 10:00 PM flight to Tehran. The waiting lounge was filled with members of that new subculture, the Iranian-American. Two teen-age girls dressed like Britney Spears sat next to me, talking to each other in Valleyspeak and to their parents in Persian.
Boarding time arrived. We all went through the check-in and boarded the Turkish Airways flight. It was not too different from your typical American or European flight, as Turkey is very much a secular state. During the hours we took to fly to Tehran, I read a story I had loved as a child, Sinbad the Sailor from the Scheherazade tales. Few people know that Scheherazade is a Persian, not an Arabic name.
What is commonly called The Arabian Nights was originally called The Thousand and One Nights (in Persian, Hezar Afsanah). Historical records indicate that Scheherazade (Shahrzad) actually lived during the Sassanian dynasty, centuries before the time of Mohammad, when the predominant religion of Iran was a faith called Zoroastrianism.
When the Hezar Afsanah was translated into Arabic, the setting was changed to the Golden Age of the Arabs, the reign of Caliph Haroun-Al-Rashid of Baghdad. From Arabic the Scheherazade tales were translated into French and English, hence the name Arabian Nights. The story of Scheherazade is actually a plea to end the mistreatment of women; throughout the tales women are continually saving men from their own folly.
We arrived at Tehran airport around 3:00 AM. As we disembarked from the plane, I noticed that those two teen-age girls, along with the other females, were now all covered-up in traditional garb.
I went through customs, picked up my luggage and went to the exit. There I saw a man holding a sign with my name. I identified myself, and he escorted me outside to where he introduced me to a middle-aged woman. In textbook English, she welcomed me to Iran and identified herself as Nasrin, my guide while in this country. We went to the car, and I was driven to my hotel. There I checked in for two nights, thanked my hosts, and went up to my room on the fifteenth floor. Utterly exhausted, I slept till almost noon.
The next day, at lunchtime, I met Mojgan for the first time. It was a wonderful experience to meet the sweet, young translator I had been communicating with for two years via e-mail. Of course, she was all covered up in traditional garb. She told me that she could not accompany me on the trip to Persepolis but that she would try to join my personal tour (arranged for me by my Iranian-American friends) in Yazd, the desert town where the Zoroastrian religious minority is centered.
I was given a guided tour of Tehran which included the infamous former U.S. embassy. In the evening I visited the family of Vahid and Anahita, where I met the parents, sisters, a nephew and a niece of my friends in Greenbelt. They were extremely nice to me, and inside the privacy of their home the women and the girl were dressed just as they dress in the West.
After two days in Tehran, Nasrin and I flew on Iran Air to Shiraz in the south. On the plane the stewardesses wore long, black uniforms with typical airline emblems while keeping their hair covered in shawls.
In Shiraz, we met our driver, Ishmael, who also spoke good English. Ishmael drove Nasrin and me through the subtropical town, first stopping at a caravanesi and then the tomb of the poet Hafez, where I first observed how truly reverent Iranians can be. I saw a man bowing and crying as he touched the elaborate tomb of Hafez, as if the poet was a loved relative who had just died.
The three of us toured the fantastic ruins of Persepolis. The next day, we began our overland journey north. We viewed colossal, well-preserved statue carvings of action scenes from the distant past, visiting Parsegard, the tomb of King Cyrus, the world's oldest tree (a cypress) and other amazing sites.
In the middle of the desert, we came upon the ancient city of Yazd. There we were joined by Mojgan. Together, we visited the “Towers of Silence”, twin mountain plateaus where corpses used to be left for the vultures, and witnessed a fantastic desert sunset.
The next morning, the four of us drove to the site of a prominent Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd. Behind a class encasement, a fire supposedly drawn from the destruction of Persepolis by Alexander the Curse was still burning. We talked with a Magi, a Zoroastrian clergyman, about this ancient religion which was once the dominant creed of Iran. Many Moslem-background Iranians were there, asking the Magi questions on theology. Could a grass-roots revival of Zoroasterism be taking place among those Iranians disillusioned with Islam, even though it is a capital crime in Iran for a Moslem to convert to any other faith?
That same day, we drove through the desert to Chek-Chek (which means “drop-by-drop” in Persian), a cliff on the side of a mountain where Zoroastrians congregate for the summer solstice religious ceremony. After ascending a seemingly endless set of stone steps, we arrived at the “sacred spring” fire temple. There we met a Zoroastrian couple who told us of the last princess of the Sassanian dynasty, who, being chased by Moslem fanatics, vanished into the mountain of the sacred spring.
According to legend, when this daughter of the King of Yazd returns in spirit, the religion of Iran will once again be Zoroasterism. A Magi came by and unlocked the doorway to the fire temple, inviting us into the sacristy. (Vahid later told me that I had been granted a privilege generally denied to non-Zoroastrian Iranians.) Inside, I was allowed to light the flame and, as is customary, petition the Eternal Being while so doing. I prayed that the Iranians may somehow break out of their present-day trap.
That evening, we had tea at a nice outdoor café. At one point, a mullah (easily recognizable in his medieval garb) walked by our table. Here I experienced a little shiver, because he was accompanied by an entourage of tough guys in three-piece suits who looked like Mafia-style hit men ready to break kneecaps should the mullah give the order. The mullah and his entourage stopped, stared at me for a few moments, then walked on.
We then drove to the beautiful city of Isfahan, touring the majestic palace of the Safayeed kings. We continued our drive north, visiting a remote village that claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited village in the world. I'll never forget the look of fear in the eyes of the people. They literally snapped to attention when the mullah and his entourage walked by.
We continued north, passing by the Islamic religious center of Qom. I was surprised at how modern and well-developed the Iranian highways are. Iran is not primitive. Eventually, we arrived back in Tehran.
In the evening, I was a guest in the home of Mojgan's family. Many people were there, and, as with Vahid's family, the girls and women were dressed the same as in the West. (It was nice to see Mojgan dressed that way.) Mojgan's friends and relatives treated me as though I was a great author from the dreamland of America! I never felt so honored in my life. They were very apologetic, and said they hoped Americans did not hate Iranians.
In the early pre-dawn, Nasrin and Mojgan and Ishmael took me to the airport. They helped me through the check-points, and then we said our farewells. I took the plane to Istanbul and a connecting flight to Izmir. That very afternoon, I was relaxing on an Aegean beach, admiring as works of art the girls in bikinis, wishing that the many Shahrzads of Iran had the same freedom to enjoy life and beautify the environment. [See: Return of Shahrzad]
You hear about a controversial place like Iran in the news and thereby develop pre-conceived notions. But once you've been to such a place, you can never look at it the same way again. For me, Iran now has a human face.
Visit the author's website, beckoningstar.com.