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Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

A Nation Holding its Breath
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #11, Iran
31 March 2001

Feeling invigorated after our relaxing stay on the Dead Sea, we headed back up through Jordan and Syria and into Turkey. After a quick stay at Can's place in Capadoccia, we headed toward the Iranian border. After our adventures in Syria and Jordan, we felt we cold tackle anything and looked forward to the challenge of crossing into Iran. But before that, we faced crossing Eastern Turkey, backdrop for the ongoing struggle between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) rebels.

As we worked our way east, we encountered an increasing number of checkpoints along the road - a good indicator of the increasing political instability as we ventured deeper into Kurdish territory. Still, it was hard to be concerned. The road, which we had been warned was in poor repair, was actually in excellent condition and we made great time. The weather was clear, offering a postcard scene of Mt. Ararat in the distance. It was a magnificent view, and we couldn't help but wonder if Noah's Ark really was still up on Ararat like the old Bible story said.

Iran-Turkey turned out to be a challenging border indeed, because the Revolutionary Guard officer in charge suspected that our visas, duly issued by the Iranian embassy in Amman, Jordan, were somehow faked. It turns out that the fact that the visa form had been filled in by hand was out of the ordinary. It should have been typed, he said. And also, he didn't much care for Jordan and kept muttering "Amman, Amman, humph, Amman..." under his breath while shaking his head in disgust. The Jordanian government's cozy relationship with the USA doesn't sit too well with right wing Muslims, and worse yet, they were Arabs. My pointing out that the prophet Mohammad was himself an Arab didn't seem to do much for my standing in his eyes.

Eventually, it was decided that calls would have to made to Tehran to determine our status, and the staff at the border were obviously becoming uncomfortable with Karin's presence, as she was wearing only a scarf and a loose jacket as opposed to the tent-like women's fashions favored by the Islamic Republic. So, after a few minutes, Karin and the children were shunted into a small dimly lit room with cement walls and floors and locked in with a padlock. Presumably, this would keep Karin from seducing anyone at the border with her Western wiles. Down the middle of the room was a painted line denoting the border between Turkey and Iran. Connor amused himself for hours on end by standing on the line and wiggling his backside from one side of the line to the other, chanting, "my butt's in Iran, my butt's in Turkey, my butt's in Iran..."

Fortunately, a kind gentleman from the Iranian tourist board took it upon himself to expedite matters. In the meantime, I had been conversing with the border official that seemed in charge, and after a few hours, he seemed to have decided that I wasn't such a bad guy after all. Before long, we were having a congenial discussion about technology and he finally made the magnanimous gesture of letting Karin and the children out of their holding cell. It was late that evening before we got permission from the authorities in Tehran to clear the border. By then, the customs officer felt so sorry for all the trouble we'd been through that he signed our papers and waved us through little more than a cursory glance at our vehicle.

Once in Iran, we caught our first glimpse of the dangerous road conditions we were to face for the rest of our journey. We had arrived in Iran right at the beginning of “Noruz”, the Persian New Year, so a lot of people were out on the road going to visit friends and family for the holidays. Cars would pass on blind curves and in places where they obviously didn’t have enough room. To survive, you’ve got to throw out your American preconceptions about acceptable driving behavior. When someone passes and they can’t make it, you squeeze over a little and let the guy through. Drivers would not put on their lights until pitch-blackness had set in, long past the effectiveness of my own night vision. My normal habit of turning on my lights at dusk infuriated the Iranian drivers, and they would flash their lights their lights and blow their horns. Even police vehicles would do this and on several occasions, yelled at us to cut our lights through public address systems. I never really did understand why everyone thought it a good idea to drive around in the dark for an hour after sunset.

Since my first visit to Iran a few years before, I had been telling Karin how kind and friendly the people are. She had a hard time believing it, given the steady diet of negative press the country gets in the US media. But after the first few days she was convinced. As we strolled around Tabriz, a commercial and industrial city in Northwestern Iran, we were approached many times by people who wanted nothing more than to talk with us. People would often approach us with a very polite line like “excuse me sir, would it be rude of me to ask from where do you come?” These encounters would often lead to extended conversations, which we found delightful. We consistently saw a genuine gentleness of spirit in the Iranians throughout the country.

Americans are required to travel with a licensed guide on a fixed itinerary, which would normally be a problem for us, but we were fortunate to have secured the services of Behzad Montazeri as our guide. As we had limited space in our own vehicle and could not accommodate Behzad, we hired a separate vehicle, ably piloted by Mr. Mustafa. Together, these guys made a formidable team, and they did an outstanding job of getting us around.

After leaving Tabriz, we made our way along the Caspian coast, visiting several of the major centers, including Rasht, Bandar-e-Anzali, and Astara. Astara is an interesting town, as it straddles the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. It’s a busy place, supporting a brisk international trade between the two countries. At Bandar-e-Anzali, we caught a glimpse of the Caspian’s glory days, before the Shah was ousted from power as a result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In those days, the beaches thronged with international visitors, and drinks were openly served to sun worshippers as they worked on their tans. But today, it’s a different story. The Caspian’s beaches are still popular, but the scene is a lot more subdued. Long barriers that stretch out into the sea now separate men and Women, no longer allowed to swim together. Nevertheless, it’s still a mighty pleasant place to sip tea and smoke water pipes or while away the hours in a beach villa, as we did.

In Tehran, we met with my friend, Sam Sadeghi, who was kind enough to obtain our visa approvals and help set up our itinerary. Sam and his wife, Jila, were kind enough to invite us to their home on several occasions and we had a great time visiting with them. Kirsten and Connor really enjoyed meeting their children, Melodie and Melika. By now, Karin was starting to feel the need for more body cover than her loose fleece jacket provided, but she dreaded having to wear a chador. Jila kindly loaned her a garment called a "Mantoo", which provides the appropriate covering for women, but is somewhat more stylish.

Tehran is a huge city with a population of over 7 million. The sprawl is incredible. It seems like you drive forever before you hit the edges. Located in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, Tehran was historically known as a stopping point on the north-south caravan trade routes. Though often characterized by westerners as place of political and social upheaval, Tehran appears almost like any thriving city, with busy shops lining the streets, traffic jams, and tall buildings. But there is a subtle difference here. Just beneath the veneer of modern urban life lies the eroding social superstructure that has been imposed on the Iranian people since 1979. But change is in the air and the progressive reforms being put in place by President Khatami are slowly taking hold. Nowadays, you see alot more variety in women's dress, including fashinable mantoos in colors other then black. We saw teenagers in Esfahan wearing, of all things, cowboy hats, blue jeans and boots. When we told them we were American, they exclaimed "I love you America", for all to hear. The feeling is decidedly more liberal than even 5 years ago when I was last there. Iran is holding is a nation holding her breath, hoping to to reconcile herself with modernity without becoming jaded.

One of the places I wanted to revisit while in Iran is the “Cala Atasperistan” that Marco Polo mentions in “Travels”. First identified as Polo’s Castle of the Fire Worshippers by Dr. Paul William Roberts, I first saw Cala Atasperistan while producing Mungo Park’s “Journey of the Magi” Live Expedition in which we retraced the journey of the Three Wise Men of Biblical lore from Iran to Bethlehem. The site itself is spectacular, a massive temple-fortress sitting atop a hill surrounded on three sides by multihued cliffs with a commanding view of the plains below.

Perched on the peak of a low mountain, overshadowed by the higher summits to the west behind, was a gigantic castlelike structure of dark reddish-gray stone. A hundred yards farther back it must have been all but invisible, melting into the rock around it. Now, a mere quarter of a mile off, it was there.

"Dividing the sheer walls of its soaring central keep on either side of a broad arch were six narrower arches: Ahura Mazda and the Six Immortal Spirits, a trademark of Mazdean architecture. Yet this was no mere shrine or temple. It was a fortress, too, a 'castle' – as Polo said it was."

"Observatory, temple, fortress, Marco Polo’s “Castle of the Fire-worshippers,” “Cala Atasperistan,” base of the Magi: I could now picture them up there on those battlements so vividly, their robes billowing in a soft night breeze, astrolabes and sextants gleaming red in flickering torch light, scanning the heavens, sighting along Orion’s belt to Sirius, seeking out Polaris beyond the tail of Ursa Major, and then watching in awe as the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn rose, an unfamiliar jewel in the constellation of Pisces exactly two thousand and one years ago. Then summoning aides and servants, ordering that preparations be made, provisions crated, gifts commissioned, and, finally, camels saddled for a long uncertain trip west to Bethlehem."

-- From “Journey of the Magi” by Paul William Roberts

We circled around to the back of the fortress, as the crumbling frontal approach was far too steep to climb safely – not that the other side was that much better. But it was doable, and with a little effort and no small number of minor heart attacks as we watched the children clamber up the steep track, we all made it safely to the top. There had been several cave-ins since the last time I’d been there, revealing a series of additional levels. We picked our way carefully through some of the small cracks and holes, ever mindful that the smallest disturbances could cause a major structural collapse. We peered into dark spaces that hadn’t seen another living person in perhaps as long as a millennium, and wondered what treasures might lay within. I could have stood all day atop those parapets, transfixed by the view into the plain below. Is this what the Magi saw two thousand years ago as they prepared for their epic journey to Bethlehem?

Continuing south, we visited towns and cities with names straight out of ancient history texts: beautiful Esfahan, with its lovely bridges, Shiraz, Persepolis and Yazd, the spiritual center of Zoroastrianism. We made it a point to seek out the Zoroastrians around Yazd, and made a day trip to Chak Chak, site of an important fire temple. It’s a large, multilevel complex featuring large patios and a small fire temple at the top. It was nearing the end of Noruz, the Persian New Year celebration, and families were out on the patios enjoying picnics in the spring sunshine. We were invited to join one of these families and, during lunch, were given the basic requirements for being a good Zoroastrian: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. It would certainly seem that many of the world’s major religions would do well to throw all their other beliefs and customs out the window and heed just these three simple tenets.

Beginning at the vernal equinox, Noruz marks the coming of spring, and has been celebrated in Persia for over 2,500 years. After the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime tried, largely in vain, to suppress undue emphasis on this holiday, with it’s pre-Islamic roots. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions with roots that may well stretch back as far as the second millennium BC. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all drew from the fundamental tenets of Zoroastrianism to some extent. Several key Christian traditions, including the belief in a single deity, baptism, communion, and a savior born of a virgin, have their origins in Zoroastrian doctrine.

Leaving Yazd behind, we were starting to feel anxious about crossing into Pakistan, given the dire warnings that we’d received from the US Consulate in Karachi. But we did our best to enjoy the rest of our time in Iran, spending a day at the remarkable mud brick citadel in Bam before heading off for the wild frontier that is Baluchistan.

I can't emphasize enough that this is a country that is grossly misrepresented by the the American government and press. Far from being part of any evil axis, Iran is a country engaged in a difficult struggle to reinvent itself to cope with modernity without suffering the hapless commercialization that afflicts the western world. The Iranian people are among the most pleasant people you will meet anywhere in the world. We were often approached on the street by complete strangers who wanted nothing more than the chance to practice their English and chat. It's refreshing to travel in a country where people are interested in you as a human being rather than as a tourist. We stayed in Iran for almost a month, lingering along the Caspian coast, and enjoying the many historical wonders Iran has to offer. I got into the habit of passing the evenings in tea houses, drinking chai, smoking water pipes filled with aromatic tobaccos, and conversing with the delightful Iranians. I can't wait to go back.

Next up: Pakistan!

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