American astronaut Bruce McCandless giving a talk
at a conference in Esfahan. Photo by Doug Biesecker
"Never did I think I would visit Iran"
By Doug Biesecker
August 17, 2000
About two years ago, Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp, invited
me to join a group that was planning to view the solar eclipse in Iran.
I immediately jumped at the chance. I think because I knew about the desire
to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran, but also because I wanted
to find out what it was really like. After all, I had read the newspaper
accounts about the newly-elected, reform-minded president and I knew about
the exchange of wrestlers between the two countries.
So, what can I say about Iran after two visits there? Never in my life
did I think I would visit the country which had such a vivid, negative
impression on me in my teenage years. Now I've been there twice and would
recommend to any American that they try to visit Iran as well. The fact
that I went back again pretty much tells it all, but I'll elaborate.
I've been to smaller towns and I've been to big cities. No matter where
I was, the reception from folks on the streets was always welcoming. Of
course, I stick out with my blue eyes and brown hair. I can't walk more
than 30 feet before someone says "hello" and asks me where I'm
from. When I say America, the questions come fast, "Do you like Iran?
What do you think of Iranians?"
My answer is always, yes, Iran is wonderful and the people here treat
me better than anywhere else. Iranians are always sure to point out that
they like Americans. They just don't like our government. Well, plenty
of Americans don't like our government either. In Iran, I feel safe everywhere,
whether walking alone or in a group. Many Iranians just enjoy the chance
to practice their English.
But meeting nice people isn't enough incentive to visit a country twice.
No, in Iran, what you will see are places large and small with buildings
which will amaze you and which are stunningly beautiful. It would be impossible
to name them all. Let me summarize a few. First of course, is Persepolis,
but that's too obvious. The Ali Sadr Caves near Hamadan, where I got to
pedal a boat through the caves are wondrous. In Khorramabad, the 3000-4000
year old artifacts on display at Falak-ol-Aflak are incredible.
In Esfahan, the Armenian Vank Cathedral is the most beautiful church
I've ever seen. And it is testament to the acceptance that Iranians have
for other cultures and religions. Outside of Isfahan, at the Shaking Minarets,
I was able to stand inside a minaret as it was being shaken. In Shiraz,
the Shah-e Cheragh Mosque was unbelievable. To enter such a holy place
was amazing. Even more amazing was the guard inviting the women in our
group over to the men's side. Even I was a little apprehensive about the
reaction that might cause. But, once again, there was no reason for concern.
I visited Iran for 12 days in August, 1999, and for eight days in July,
2000. I didn't notice any dramatic changes between my two visits. Except
for the drought, that is. I do believe that many people, men and women
alike, were dressing less conservatively now. Iranians want change. The
older people and the young alike. Many of the younger people don't feel
it's happening fast enough. The older people do see it happening and are
confident of the future.
The children of Iran are impatient, however. They are getting a good
education and now they want a chance to use it. The population boom in
Iran is incomprehensible. The children at the leading edge of the boom
are now ready to enter the workforce. Most of the students think there
is no place for them in the workplace. Maybe if U.S.-Iran relations are
improved, U.S. companies will invest in Iran and create jobs for a ready
and able work force.
In my mind, the images of the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy have
been replaced by images of a country with friendly, beautiful people. The
history is compelling and the tourist sites are unparalled. Most importantly,
every Iranian I meet is concerned about my opinion of their country. Rest
assured, I've got the greatest respect for the Iranian people. When you
visit, be sure to try the Khoresh-e Bademjan, and you'll discover that
stew can taste good. Also see article by
Doug Biesecker, is an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center
in Maryland who works with the SOlar
and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) project.