Our family of five, along with nearly 800 other passengers, were aboard the Emirate’s double decker A-380, having departed from New York’s JFK on winter solstice night 12 hours earlier, and expected to arrive in Dubai within an hour, considering the time difference. We noted, unlike the past, that the Persian Gulf on navigation screen simply has no name designation, factual or fallacious. Looking down however, we were ecstatic to witness the snow-capped, extinct volcanic Mt. Damavand, elev. 18,500 ft., eternally standing high and proud, to safeguard the motherland, IRAN. The astringent fact that we had to fly over entire Iran all the way southbound, wait in transit at Dubai airport for five arduous hours and then turn around north to land at the Tehran Airport, had given us a twilight sense of déjà vu; it was such a reassuring and soothing feeling to leave behind the unfriendly, desolate and barren Arabian desert south of the Persian Gulf and to enter the snowed mountains, forests and prairie terrains of Iran. After much dehumanizing and demoralizing concerns, due in part to recent passage of the U.S. law against Iranians traveling home, it was such a fuzzy feeling of comfort to be home and warmly welcomed.
The rapid cordial processing of our passports and collecting our luggage at Tehran airport, brought us the sweet reality of finding ourselves in talkative relatives’ cars, while driving home on empty superhighways at dawn. Staying with our niece, her real estate tycoon spouse and their two sweet children in their third floor, ultramodern four bedrooms condo in northeast Tehran was such a special treat, and as they took the famous 24/7 warm Persian hospitality to the next level. On our second evening, they threw an all-out family party in the building’s concealed community room, 2,500 square feet in size, three floors down from the ground level, where catered Persian cuisines, deserts and refreshments, accompanied by music, entertainment and chitchatting, was simply breathtaking. Our wishful hope to then avoid repetitive gatherings so we could instead go sightseeing dawn to midnight, did not materialize, as we saw the same family members and close-knit friends over and over again at invited lunch or dinners to follow. The honored guests were our aging parents, loved, hugged and kissed by us all, especially the dozen or two grand and great grandchildren including four born in the U.S.
The next day, we were drawn back to Palladium, the upscale shopping mall, which we have not seen even one like it in the U.S. or Europe. The giant ornamented Christmas tree and the serenading Santa Claus at the grand entrance, the boutiques, the fast food court, and the exquisite full service restaurants are unparalleled anywhere. The prices can only be afforded by the highly affluent natives, but for western visitors, they compare to average meals at home. The supermarket has a vast assorted Persian and western products, bakery, pastries, fresh meat, fruits and vegetables; plenty of sharply dressed staff offer you politely assorted samples, which in and of itself is a full course meal! At various coffee or tea houses on the premise, you would not mind staring with much admirations at the work of arts instead of sipping your tea or coffee down. Anywhere you go gives you a surreal sensation of the perennial tales of Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights. Located at the foothills of snowcapped Alborz Range, my family’s home for the past 60 years, and my primary and secondary schools, as well as my alma mater the National University, are all within a short walking distance from this Mall. In fact, we visited the house, now replaced with a modem four storied eight condo units building, almost ready for re-occupancy. We then proceeded to spend the afternoon, hiking for a couple of hours along the nostalgically narrow alleys of Darkeh and Haft Howz-Palang chal trail, to rest and sip tea and sweets topped with the freshly baked flat taftoon bread in a wooden cabin covered with ubiquitous carpet and a kerosene heater along the foaming river. As we listened to a nostalgic song by Sivash Shajarian (circa early 1970’s), we tasted sangak, barbari, Yazdi and lavash breads, various type of feta cheese from the local Persian lamb milk, and fresh vegetables, then topped with Shirazi salad. We found my father in melancholic trance of his regular hiking to a shelter a few hours up the mountain where he sued to stay overnight. And the trip to Tochal Hotel ski resort with tele cabin at 13,000 ft. elevation is divine.
When our family friend took us to enjoy a live show in Kourosh Mall & Entertainment Complex west of Tehran, we were in awe for its modernity, high-end boutiques, 14 movie theatres (3,000 seats), many fine restaurants, its 750-seat live theater, and its six underground floors of valet parking! The show, I seek to please my other soother, a live comic musical which occurs in a hotel, inter-spiced with sexual and political innuendoes was most captivating even for our children who only have a rudimentary level of Persian language skill.
One shivering evening, we had dinner at Park-e Aab–o–Aatash (“Water & Fire” Park) where we must have crossed the various floors of Nature Bridge spanning across a major superhighway to connect two hilly parks. The multi-level Pol-e Tabi’at (“Nature Bridge”) was conceived by a young lady architect, Leila Araghian.
Although Tehran now spans a 2,500+ square miles with an elevation of over 5000 feet, with 12 million residents and nearly ten million vehicles, it still holds dearly onto hidden neighborhood jewels with pristine springs, ‘qanats,’ and luscious treed streets and backyards. We stayed in Darrous and Yousef-Abad in the heart of such treed neighborhoods. We even took a one day tour of historic quarters of Tehran, when we visited Golestan Palace, a few historic private homes now turned museums as Moghaddam House, Negarestan Palace, and the major Caravanserai along the silk road where we indulged in the best abgousht, the traditional winter lamb meat-legume stew, in a traditional setting with its distinctly Persian geometrical turquoise blue tiles. What was noteworthy was the discovery of the seven thousand-year old woman skeleton right outside this site and now on display at the national museum in Tehran.
Since we had visited Esfahan, Kashan, and Natanz our ancestral hometown last year, we opted for Shiraz this round. We overruled our initial intent to avoid this ailing sanctioned aviation in Iran, by booking on Aseman Airline aboard this nearly 40-year old Boeing 727. Despite the dilapidated appearance of the aircraft, our 90 minutes journey to and from Shiraz entailed the warmest hospitality by flight attendants and the smoothest takeoff and landing ever experienced by us.
Shiraz has been acclaimed since antiquity, not only by the Persians but equally importantly, by the orientalists and western visitors, as the City of bolbol the Persian nightingale, red dry wine, citrus blossoms, rose, narenj (sour orange), citrus and intoxicating blossom gardens, and most above all, Persian classical poetry. When we checked in our hotel, the Grand Shiraz, next to the City’s northern entrance arch, Darvazeh Qur’an, we were initially told by the receptionist that our two room suite is on the back of the building facing a muddy hillside. Upon further request by one of the children with a funny foreign Persian accent harmonious with the native’s love for foreigners, she lit up and said, she miraculously found the best suite on the top 12th floor, a corner suite with balconies facing south overseeing the entire City! What is lesser known, nonetheless, as precious as other historical sites in Shiraz, is the modest tomb of Khawjou Kermani, carved literally in the womb of the mountain, and credited as the Hafez’ teacher.
The cost of $100 a night for the suite, the amenities and service, including the most lavish breakfast at the five star hotel, exceeded all expectations and surpassed most if not all similar western hotels. We hired a large chauffeured SUV for three days and visited all major historical sites that included Persepolis, Pasargadae, the resting shrine of Cyrus the Great, Naghsh-e Rostam, the mausoleums of the famous Persian Kings of the Achaemenid dynasty, as well as Eram and other gardens, sa’adi and Hafez mausoleums, palaces, mosques, museums, grand Vakil Bazaar, Vakil public bathhouse, now converted into anthropological museums with great many wax statutes of the Persian luminaries of a few hundred years ago, Shah Cheragh Shrine complex with its ubiquitous and intricate geometrical mirrors and colorful miniature and calligraphy designed tiles and courtyards, and Narenjestan-e Qavaam. Shiraz’ population triples during Nowruz! Although these archeological sites only dates back to a mere three millennia, there are multiple ancient sites in Iran, the earliest of which, stone arrows on western Zagros range, goes back to 17,000 years ago. Some believe such invention for more effective hunting purposes, led to transmigration of early humans into Europe.
We had dinner at two traditional restaurants, Haftkhan and Shahrzeh, both of which we recommend highly. The food with a Shirazi twist was simply divine, the ambiance with the Persian music played live in the background, very warm, and the patrons’ happiness, intoxicating. The local hymns by amen at each sofreh, the dinner spread on the floor, led to dancing and chorus singing by all present. Strangely, a Jewish family with two daughters of 2 and 12 sitting next to us, were most conservatively dressed acceding to strict Islamic rules, presumably to avoid the Vice and Virtue Guards which we did not see any throughout our journey.
A few days before our return, the three children simply disappeared on us when, after a few hours, we heard from them via cell phone; watching heavy snow fall, they were sipping tea and biting onto local pasties in a family’s upscale villa on the ill in Shemshak’s ski resort within an hour form Tehran.
All in all, our consensus was that if we had to live in Iran, Shiraz had no serious rivalry from any other city in Iran and beyond, especially the overcrowded and polluted Tehran, the capital. We further yearned that if and when we returned to Iran in the future that we should spend the bare minimum days in Tehran and choose to visit as many other provincial cities and towns as we could so we deepen and broaden our genuine appreciation for the diversity of Iran’s natural beauty and peoples. The nostalgic Kandelous, tucked in the valleys of the lusciously green mountains along the Caspian Sea, has inextricably remained in everyone’s mind as we had gone there a few times before.
Our exit from Iran, scheduled at 4:00 A.M. did not deter the usual family crowds and friends from stopping by for yet one last round of lavish supper, chitchat and reminiscing at our niece’s home. Everyone literally wept during our departure; we, finally after almost forty hours of no sleep, descended home in New York. Although three framed carpets arrived with us to carry home, the remaining five luggage were mysteriously delayed for five days when they each arrived in piece mill, and after TSA had carefully inspected them and inserted in a note in that regard.
Irrespective of governments everywhere that have emerged and disappeared especially when unjust since antiquity, peoples’ aspirations and yearnings in life have remained universal: to survive with dignity and to secure their children’s future. Our family has been proudly fortunate to relay on our bridged Persian heritage and American way of life. And yet, we are not fully certain whether it is certain plutonic force or simply our ancestral homeland and its diverse people and tantalizing nature, that more intimately draws us to Iran over all else. We recommend this intoxicating experience to everyone, especially those born or enrooted in Iran. Traveling between the two homes, one every time leaves behind a piece of heart in the motherland. Notwithstanding, our love for our birth home Iran, it is our beloved adoptive home the great and beautiful America, where we have spent most our lives and where we have raised our children. And last but not least, I ask you to watch one his last interviews by the late Harvard Professor Richard Fry, the protégé to Iranologist Professor Arthur Pope, and read about Howard Baskerville. Here is the quandary of the year to resolve: Could we finally allow the late Richard Fry to fulfill his last wish– to be permanently rested in his mentor Arthur pope’s shrine, alongside Zayandeh Rud in Esfahan?