When I first was planning this trip I was a little wary on whether I was going to include Iran in my itinerary or not. I had always been curious about this rogue nation of sorts. After giving it a lot of thought I decided that I was going to be so close in Ashgabat that I would have to go and see it for myself. I had missed an opportunity to go there in February during my Middle East tour and was not going to miss it twice. After jumping through major hoops to get my visa to go there (it takes upwards of 2-3 months and in America you have to go through the Pakistan Embassy because there are no diplomatic relations between our countries), I was off on my adventure.
Of course, the first day of my trip when I arrived in Bali, Iran was caught testing missiles for all the world to see and there were strong words from both the US and Israel about what may happen. So I had nearly three weeks to nervously keep up on the situation and hope that war did not break out or that Israel didn’t make a preventative strike against Iran. As the day I was to cross into Iran arrived, all seemed well after the Geneva nuclear talks last week so I decided that I would see what happens.
I left Ashgabat very early and drove the 30km or so through the beautiful mountains to a very high elevation border station, where after saying goodbye to my Turkmen guide I had to walk across to the Iran border. Lets just say the soldiers who kept asking to see my passport were shocked that I was American and that I had all of the proper paperwork. When I finally did get through this minefield of soldiers I met my guide Sia inside as soon as I opened the door which was a major relief for me. I was a little worried that he may be late or not show as I am not used to having other people set up my tours as you must if you travel to Iran as a westerner.
Sia immediately made me feel comfortable and had been having a dialogue with the border guard who was very nice to me and apologized in Farsi to me about what I had to do next. They made me do a full fingerprinting with both hands, like I had been arrested. I was obviously wary of this and had never seen this before. However, Sia assured me they do this to everyone and that it was in response to what the US does to people who apply to visas to enter the US. I understand the reciprocity angle so I decided it was probably OK. I only wish the guidebook or my travel agency had mentioned that in my itinerary ahead of time-so I would be prepared.
After clearing customs, we were off through the gorgeous mountains on a three hour journey to Iran’s second largest and holiest city, Mashad. We stopped in a place called Toos along the way to see a very impressive Mausoleum and then made it in time for lunch in Mashad. Mashad is a beautiful city that is very green and has many parks. It was a very pleasant place to spend a few hours and our lunch was certainly an experience. As usual in the region, lunch was kebabs or sorts but the Iranian people do not use knives to cut their meat. Both Sia and the driver were using only spoons and forks to eat and cut. This baffled me and I was confused. I did try and felt retarded trying to cut meat with a spoon so I did ask for a knife which the waiter was confused about but Sia made sure he got me one and all was right again in the world-I was able to eat with proper utensils!
After lunch, Sia brought me to the biggest park in Mashad and we walked around and chatted about everything about Iran-its history, cities, marriages and finally we got to politics. When I finally got around to asking about Iranian politics and the current events of the day-he really clammed up and wouldn’t give me an answer. This was surprising to me but interesting at the same time. When I asked about his feelings about the current Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who most of the world sees as a crazy tyrant, he replied, “I just try to do my job to provide for my family”. He continued on to say that he hopes our two governments can work out the current dispute and he seemed thoroughly optimistic that our nations were about to enter into a new phase of improved relations. I understood his reluctance to speak about this subject and decided to not push him and accepted his answer and his deflection of the topic.
After the Iran Air flight to Tehran, I checked into my hotel, the Ferdossi Grand, which was a decent three star place in the heart of Tehran. I arrived at midnight on a Thursday, which is like Saturday night anywhere else in the world as their weekends are different than ours. I asked what there was to do on the biggest night of the week and there was nothing to do. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, there are no bars, no places to socialize and I looked around the lobby and it was all Muslim men sitting around drinking water and coke-this did not look like much fun so I decided to go to sleep before my big tour of Tehran in the morning.
As I laid in bed trying to fall asleep, I flicked on the TV and there was nothing in English until I finally came to an English station. It was something called Press TV and it was an Iranian news channel, based in Tehran, in English. So I was fascinated and watched for an hour or so. All the stories were told from an Iranian perspective and generally were negative toward the US and Israel. The way the stories were told were very interesting and they usually ending up in some way blaming the US or Israel for something or another. However, they did seem to love Obama and his European tour.
The main topic up for discussion was about the current issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation program and how the International community doesn’t want them to continue it but they insist they are doing it for peaceful reasons only. I don’t think that Iran should have access to nuclear weapons either but it was interesting to see how the stories were told from a pro-Iran angle. And you know what, perhaps some of their points were correct as well that the US should open talks directly with them and not demand conditions beforehand-it kind of makes sense in the spirit fairness and diplomacy.
Additionally, the lead in for the show (like most shows, they have a little video montage introduction before the newscast is shown) was interesting. The images they show in the twenty second intro were pictures of the World Trade Center burning and collapsing at least on four different occasions; Bush being shown with the word terrorist at least twice; US and Israel flags burning; and Israel at war with Hezbollah several times as well. I thought that was very strange but fascinating at the same time to see the propaganda machine at work in Iran.
Seeing Tehran the next day was interesting, the city of 17 million people was much nicer than I had imagined it to be. It was also much more modern and very clean. It reminded me of Baku, Azerbaijan which makes sense as Baku used to be a part of the Persian empire when Persia was once one of the largest countries on the world before the split. Tehran was also a very green city with many nice parks, great mountain backdrops and one of the best National Museums I have seen with many artifacts from ancient Persepolis. This made be feel better about not actually going there as all significant discoveries in Persepolis were on display in the museum.
However, as Tehran is a very nice city with wonderfully polite people, who were very nice to me: the main site I will take with me about Tehran is that all over the city are billboards and signs that say “Down with Israel” or “Down with USA”. These signs were in front of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in their main squares. Most notably, the old US Embassy which has been closed since the 1980 hostage crisis is still standing in a prominent area of the city and has signs all over it saying the US government is the most hated in the world, and we should all go to hell basically.
I found this fascinating-obviously grotesque as well, but fascinating nonetheless that they actually allowed this to go on in their capital city. Don’t the Iranians think this just makes them look awful to the International community when they have all this negative stuff in plain view all around the city-written in English and in Farsi. I found it shocking. When I asked Sia about the signs, he was very tepid and said something deflective like “they are just slogans-you know” and then he quickly changed the subject.
Anyway, I found Tehran and Iran in general to be a great case study in current events and in different points of view or at least skewed points of view. The images I take with me will be of the signs around town and the great kindness shown to me by everyone I met. The Iranian people are a very nice, polite and courteous group who will do anything for you. It is obvious to me that many of them do not agree with the direction the current regime is taking the country but there is optimism that relations with the world may soon improve. I really hope it does, Iran has a long and proud history and a real place in the world. The people are proud of their heritage and are very nationalistic. This is refreshing but for ordinary Iranians-their days are spent just like ours, going about or lives, hanging out with friends and family-maybe in a different way but don’t let the rogue government skew your viewpoint on the warm and welcoming people of Iran.
After a brief stop in Istanbul, I am back home in New York now and loving being back home. It was a very long and tiring trip that I will need a some time to reflect on that brought me around the world, to eight new countries and some amazing destinations. This was one of my best trips ever and I will have some more over the next few days as I have a some time to put it all into perpective. I did put a few pictures up in the “About Lee Abbamonte” page on my site if you want to see some of the stuff I saw. Thanks for reading and following my adventures.