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Eight Days in Iran

By Bill Heavey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 1998; Page E01


    The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's presence is still felt throughout Iran, including on this Tehran billboard The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's presence is still felt throughout Iran, including on this Tehran billboard. (By Bill Heavey)
"Yah, Hosein!" comes the chant from hundreds of men in black shirts and pants under the brilliant sun. They are solemnly parading double-file down a packed street in Tehran to the beat of drums and the prompting of a megaphone.

"Yah, Hosein!" After each cry, the men stop momentarily and flick themselves over the shoulder with short chains on wooden handles. Others smack their chests with their hands. The chains don't look particularly heavy; on the other hand, they aren't feather boas.

"Yah, Hosein!" They take a step, stop, switch hands with the chains and flick the opposite shoulder. Many of the men are sweat-soaked, glassy-eyed, tranced out. They have been marching for hours and will continue until the noon call to prayer, when they will kneel in the streets facing Mecca and place their foreheads against tablets of compressed dust, acknowledging that from which man arose and to which he will soon return. Toddlers too young to join in the parade mimic their gestures from the arms of approving parents on the crowded sidewalks.

"Yah, Hosein!" The men are marking the death in battle in A.D. 680 of the grandson of the prophet and third imam, or leader, of the Shiite branch of Islam. Shiites believe that Hosein and those who died with him after three days without water in the Iraqi desert went immediately to Paradise. Their marching and self-flagellation mark their devotion to the patron saint of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the forgotten.

"Yah, Hosein!" Ordinarily, I pride myself on being an independent traveler. But the Islamic Republic of Iran is not an ordinary place. Not six hours off the plane, I have imprinted on my guide, Bahman, like a newborn duckling on its mother. It's all I can do to keep from grabbing his shirt as we thread our way through the crowd. Despite the sun, there is nobody but me wearing sunglasses.

People tend to have strong reactions when you tell them you're planning a visit to Iran. A friend in government relations offered to put together a hospitality pack: a fifth of Johnnie Walker, a copy of "The Satanic Verses" and a can of Vienna sausages. A woman at Overseas Citizens Services in the State Department adopted a schoolteacher's severe tone as she said: "We can't do much to help you out if you get in trouble since we don't have an embassy there. The Iranian government leads the world in state-sponsored terrorism. We strongly advise against travel there. But if you want to go, we're not going to stop you."

My father began with the assumption that I'd be taken hostage. But what really sent him over the edge was finding out that there are almost no dogs in Iran because Muslims consider them unclean. "You're gonna go visit a country where they hate dogs?" he asked, incredulous.

Well, yes, actually. The Iranian government has been quietly easing visa restrictions for American visitors for the past couple of years. Just last January, Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi went on CNN and called for the "the exchange of writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists." It was the most significant overture to the United States since 1979, the year Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and an Islamic government hostile to the corrupting influence of Western culture generally--and American politics specifically--was set up. Between 1979 and 1997, perhaps as few as 200 American tourists visited Iran. One group, Geographic Expeditions, pioneered a short-lived program in 1993. Last year, it ran seven trips. Ten are planned for this year. Absolute Asia, a New York firm, is offering four 15-day group trips and a number of customized tours this year. Distant Horizons in Long Beach, Calif., is planning 10 trips this year. Iran is suddenly back on the list of must-see countries for people who've been everywhere.

An independent traveler who hates packaged tours, I flirted with the idea of getting on a plane to Iran and going it alone. But when I called the Iranian Interests Section at the Pakistani Embassy to ask about a visa application, I was told candidly by an official there that my chances as a private tourist were no better than 50-50, and it would take at least 60 days to find out. A travel agent in New York seemed amused by my presumption.

"It's a little more involved than that. Technically, you have to be invited by the government to visit, which means you need connections in Iran." He hinted that the cab drivers, spotting a single American at the airport, would burn up most of my travel budget on the short trip from the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran to any downtown hotel. (There may be some truth to this. When I needed a new camera battery or a broken hinge fixed on my sunglasses, Bahman told me to wait outside while he went in to do the bargaining: "They will charge you three times what I pay.") In the end, I gave in and booked a trip with Absolute Asia.

During a whirlwind week-long visit to the must-see cities of Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, the only time I felt apprehensive was during that parade on the first day. I often walked the streets alone in the evening. I was the subject of curious stares (many young Iranians--nearly half the population is 15 or younger--are just now getting their first look at Western tourists) but no hostility. If anything, Americans often receive most-favored-nation status. At a carpet shop near the spectacular Emam Mosque in Isfahan, I bargained the price of a rug down from $1,600 to $800. ("You tell your customs you bought it in a duty-free zone. No problem.") When I pulled out my Visa card--there was the company's decal on the shop door--the young proprietor shook his head. "They stopped working with us a month now. Some pressures from your government. You have MasterCard?" I didn't. "Give me some in cash and you send the remaindering to my account number in Dubai. I do this only for Americans. Not French, not Germans. The Italians, never."

By my last day, when a group of a dozen young men approached me under the enormous gold dome of the mausoleum for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and politely asked--in English--where I was from, I felt comfortable enough to tease them a little.

"From the Great Satan," I said.

They nearly blushed. "We like American people very much," one told me. "Only we don't like your government."

I never broached the subject directly (Iranians are famous for their tact and circumspection, and after a while it rubs off on you), but sometimes got the feeling Iranians aren't all that crazy about their government either. Most are obviously aware that its demonization of the United States is largely diversionary in a country where, by Western accounting and reporting, inflation has been averaging 25 percent for the last nine years and the unemployment rate is well above the official rate of 33 percent a year, where dissent is not an option and more of the middle class slips into poverty every day.

My guide for the week was Bahman, an English instructor at the University of Tehran who moonlights showing Western tourists the country. He is a small, unpretentious man with a mustache who looked 10 years older than his age, 33. He accompanied me for the entire trip, picking up local guides and drivers in Shiraz and Isfahan.

The upside of a planned itinerary is efficiency. Your guides cherry-pick the best of everything for you and arrange to get you to the attractions when they're open (not as easy as it sounds in a country where, as my driver explained, "We have a saying: Policies made in the morning are often unmade in the afternoon").

The downside is that with the best of intentions, they drag you through so many museums, mosques, poets' tombs and palaces that they all start to melt together. At one point in the incomparably beautiful city of Isfahan, I complained to Bahman that I had the feeling of sitting down to a wonderful meal and being asked to eat it in 30 seconds. "It's not eating," he agreed. "It's gorging." Then he bustled me off to yet another mosque.

If I were to make the trip again, I'd dig my heels in harder and tell my hosts at the outset that I wanted to see a maximum of three attractions a day and linger a bit, instead of rushing through six. Tourism is still a new concept in post-revolutionary Iran. The people are proud of their heritage and almost desperate to show it all to you.

The ruins of Persepolis attest to Iran's rich ancient history. (By Bill Heavey)
Iranians are not Arabs, and can get touchy when mislabled as such. They point out that the Aryans came to the country's vast central plateau ringed by mountains in the second millennium B.C. The region was then occupied by the Medes and the Persians until the Persian King Cyrus the Great chucked out the Medes and became ruler of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. At its zenith, with the capital at the palace in Persepolis, whose fabulous ruins can be seen near Shiraz, the empire stretched from the Aegean Sea in the west to India in the east, including Egypt. (It's from Cyrus the Great that Persian history begins. The last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire at Persepolis in 1971, to which he invited all the crowned heads of the world.)

Like all empires, it fell apart. Cyrus's heirs got creamed by the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C. and then again at Salamis 10 years later. Alexander the Great came along in the 4th century B.C. and "accidentally" burned down Persepolis. Part of the problem was that the country was right on the way between Asia and Europe. The Romans, then the Byzantine imperials had their way with the place. Arab Muslims took over in 641 and ruled for 600 years, before Genghis Khan rolled into Persia, leading to two centuries of bloody chaos. The Safavid dynasty (1502-1736) restored internal order and established the Shiite form of Islam as the state religion.

The discovery of oil in the early 1900s attracted European interest. After World War I, an army officer named Reza Khan came to power, changed his named to Shah Reza Pahlavi and founded the Pahlavi dynasty. It was under his rule that the country's name was officially changed from Persia to Iran, which had long been the popular term for the nation. In 1941, he abdicated in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Shah is credited by Westerners with rapid modernization of the country and improved social and economic conditions. He gave women the right to vote, improved health care and redistributed land. But his alignment with the West (particularly the United States), his repressive policies and moves to ban the wearing of traditional Islamic dress for women all angered people, particularly the clergy. Mass demonstrations ensued.

The Shah's response was swift, brutal and desperate. He declared martial law. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the streets in Tehran. U.S. support wavered when the extent of popular opposition became clear. The Shah fled the country on Jan. 16, 1979. A few weeks later, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned and quickly set up an Islamic government dominated by the clergy. Banks were nationalized, Western influences--from music to booze to fashion magazines--were banned outright. Women returned to the chador, a traditional veiled dress. Militants took over the U.S. Embassy in October, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. It is only now, nearly 20 years later, that the dust from those times has begun to settle.

Tehran, the hub of modern Iran, is a sprawling city of 12 million ringed by the snow-capped Elburz mountains. The city is more than a thousand years old and has been the capital for 200. But an exotic Oriental crossroads it ain't. Think Albuquerque times 10, with that special brand of air pollution you get from leaded gasoline fumes, endless low-level urban sprawl and traffic that makes the Beltway look like a driver's ed class. A lack of zoning and an influx of people from the countryside looking for work has meant development so swift and so haphazard that any building more than half a century old is considered historic. There's not much to be seen on the streets (unless you want to go see the vast slums in the southern part of town), and the guidebooks recommend that you get out as fast as you can.

The only thing is, there are some great things scattered across the city. You could easily spend a week at the Archaeological Museum of Iran, generally recognized as the finest museum in the country. We did it in two hours. My chief memories are a pair of tiny silver tweezers that are 3,000 years old and Bahman's explanation of a 14th-century book detailing the constellations. "Did you know that your English word 'disaster' comes from a combination of the words for accident and star?" he asked. "If you could read the stars, you could foretell your fate. Kings loved this idea. They did whatever they wanted and then invoked the zodiac to say it was all preordained."

He stopped before a marble statue of a Greek woman, thought to be Penelope, the wife of Ulysses. It dates from the time of Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid king, five centuries before Christ. "The head is missing. You see? It's maybe in some British museum."

One of the museum's most famous pieces is a larger-than-life-size bas-relief of one of Cyrus's heirs receiving subjects. It comes from the palace at Persepolis and dates from the 5th century B.C. His subjects greet him with bowed heads and hands covering their mouths in respect. The workmanship is flawless, down to the stylized curlicues in their hair.

There are other superb museums here: one devoted exclusively to carpets, including what is left of some woven in the 16th century, as well as masterpieces from the 18th century to the present day. There is a museum of glass and ceramics that has glassware that is 5,000 years old and ceramics twice that age. The Iranian crown jewels--including the 182-carat "Sea of Light" diamond, enough crowns for all the kings you'd care to name and the Peacock throne, encrusted with 26,000 gems--are housed underground in the Bank Melli Iran near the German Embassy. (The museum was closed the day we went. "The Mourning," Bahman explained.)

A few miles south of town is the huge mausoleum for Ayatollah Khomeini, whose picture is in every public building. It's hard for Americans to fathom, but he is genuinely venerated here. An outspoken critic of the Shah as early as the 1960s, he refused to be silenced or intimidated. "There is no Revolution without Khomeini" was a sign I saw on the wall of a snack bar one day. At his funeral, it is estimated that there were 10 million mourners. Even a large force of the Revolutionary Guard failed to hold back the crowd. Pieces of his funeral shroud are regarded today as holy relics.

Nearby is the main cemetery for the martyrs in the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1981 to 1988. The number of killed and disabled on the Iranian side was more than a million. "I lost many of my childhood friends in the war," Bahman told me. "Everyone did."

In the fashionable north end of the city, you can visit the Shah's summer palace and his mother's palace, which the current regime has left as reminders of the corruption it replaced. Actually, as wretched excess goes, they're pretty tame: nicely landscaped with cedars and fountains, well-proportioned and not much bigger than the home of any first-round draft pick in the NBA. The Shah's palace has Czech crystal chandeliers the size of icebergs in the dining room, 19th-century European landscape paintings of no particular distinction and a Ric-O-Chet pinball game in the billiard room that has been mislabeled "Gamble Room." Out front is a pair of monumental bronze cavalry boots, a symbol of the Shah's father's days as a cavalry officer, hollow as drums.

There are people making piles of money in Iran, as evidenced by the occasional new Mercedes in the street. Iranians have something of a national flair for business, which is starting to reemerge as the dust settles from the revolution. In the old days you needed to be connected to the Shah. Now you need to be connected with the clergy: relatives, friends, friends of friends. Western goods--from Marlboros to Levi's--are widely available here via third-party countries such as Turkey and Dubai. The car of any self-respecting person under 30 advertises its sound system with a Kenwood or Pioneer decal plastered across the rear window. At a restaurant where we stopped for lunch, we saw a group of sons of the rich, a coterie of college-age boys who came sauntering in wearing Nike T-shirts, ponytails and Kurt Cobain-style sunglasses. They would have looked right at home cruising Georgetown. They all casually sported Iran's greatest status symbol--mobile phones, which have only been available for a year or so and cost $2,000. Bahman bristled ever so slightly as they sat down and ordered steaks and Cokes all around. "They have no idea of inflation, of the lives of common people in their own country."

After lunch we drove back into town past billboards adorned with the faces of sensitive-looking young men who had achieved martyrdom by driving truck bombs into Israeli targets. A block over is a street named after the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Bahman indicated the knots of men conferring around the raised hoods of cars and said this is where people come to buy and sell automobiles. There are Peugeots, Iranian-assembled Paykans and old American cars: Nash Ramblers, Chevy Bel Airs, even a Buick Electra 225, once painted blue but now blasted nearly to the metal by the sun. It's very dry here. Cars tend to last a long time.

We passed by the infamous American Embassy, now a military school, but our driver seemed nervous. It's apparently not a place where you should stop for more than a moment or two. You can't see much from the outside. There's a wall on which someone has written "We Will Make America Face a Severe Defeat" in large letters. The U.S. Embassy seal is still out front, embedded in the wall, but all the writing has been hammered off, leaving only a forlorn eagle with arrows in one claw and olive branches in the other. Because of the religious holiday, there was almost no one in sight. But it felt like more than simple absence, as if some taboo still hangs over the place.

The Iranian love-hate relationship with America--we are, by turns, the Great Satan and the Great Santa--can be seen in the lobby of the Homa Hotel in the quintessentially Iranian city of Shiraz, famed for its poets, universities and gardens. Proudly displayed in the lobby is a nine-foot-long model of an Iran Air Boeing 747. On the lintel over the doors leading out to the street are foot-high gold letters that read, "DOWN WITH U.S.A." No one pays it the slightest attention, except American tourists, who unfailingly register the moment on film.

Shiraz dates from the time of the first Persians, a nomadic tribe that filtered through the Caucasus to this area in the 7th century B.C., and is considered by many Iranians to be the most pleasant of the country's large cities. A number of universities are here, including the only medical school where students are lectured in English instead of Farsi. The Eram garden, set out below a 19th-century palace with tiled and mirror-encrusted arches, is a lovely place filled with 200-year-old cypress trees, sour orange and pomegranate trees and the scent of musk roses pervading the walkways.

The must-see attraction in Shiraz is actually 35 miles out of town. Persepolis is the enormous palace and treasury built by Darius the Great starting in the 6th century B.C. Even before you go through the first entrance gate, you see the graffiti of those who came before you, including one left by "Stanley New York Herald 1970." Unless you go on a Friday, the Muslim sabbath, you may have the capital of the ancient Persians pretty much to yourself.

Twenty-three-foot-high stone bulls with the head of the king and eagle wings flank the entrances to Xerxes' Gateway. A bas-relief shows three rows of the known world's rulers (28 in all) bringing gifts to Darius and, literally and symbolically, supporting his throne. A motif repeated liberally throughout the ruins depicts a marvelously robust Darius hoisting a lion up by the mane while plunging his dagger into its stomach. In the little museum, an inscription from Xerxes refers to him as "Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing all kinds of man."

The complex spreads across many acres and the scale of the place is immense. The roof of the hall where the king received visitors, for example, was supported by 36 stone columns, each about 60 feet high. When Alexander the Great came to loot the treasury, he is said to have needed 3,000 animals just to haul it away. The small palace that functioned as the royal living quarters was made of reflective black stone, supposedly so the king would always know who was behind him. The most impressive thing today are the bas-reliefs. Those running along some of the processional staircases, for example, show the figures with feet upraised. They're mounting the stairs just like you are.

The kings are nearly always depicted with a man behind the throne to swat away the flies, whose descendants are still here today. The local guards pluck an herb that grows freely among the stones and bruise the leaves, the odor of which is supposed to keep them away. Bahman asked one guard who was swatting at the flies around his head why he wasn't using the plant. The old man shrugged, and Bahman cracked up. "He says it's not working today."

Just when I was thinking Iran has revealed the cream of its cultural riches, we landed in Isfahan, a gorgeous city of about a million people with the greatest concentration of Islamic monuments in the country. By the 1500s, Iran had been in a long period of decline under the invading Mongols, the Ottoman Turks and others. When Shah (which is simply the Iranian word for "king") Abbas came to power in 1587, he pushed the occupiers out, united the country and set out to make Isfahan a showcase.

He succeeded. A famous half-rhyme from this time--"Esfahan nesf-e-jahan ("Isfahan is half the world")--was coined to reflect the city's splendor. There are several beautiful old bridges across the Zayande Rud, the river flowing through the city that's used to irrigate its gardens and supply water for the fountains outside palaces and mosques. In the arches of the Khaju Bridge are places to sit and drink tea, listen to the gurgle of the river and watch swifts carve the evening air. It is unbelievably romantic.

Even the best-known hotel in Isfahan is distinctive. You enter the Abbasi Hotel from the street, pass through the lobby and find yourself in what was formerly a caravanserai, now a magnificent courtyard with fountains, flowers and a tea house. At night, locals who could never afford a room come to sit and talk.

The heart of the city is one of the world's most beautiful plazas, the Meidun-e Emam. Laid out in 1612, it still has the stone polo goals set up by Shah Abbas standing at either end. Today, you are likely to find boys racing their motorcycles up and down its stones. The square was the seat of governmental, religious and economic power in the 17th century.

Our local guide in Isfahan was a civil engineer with a poet's soul. Reza described the palace, public mosque, royal family's mosque and the entrance to the immense bazaar on its four sides and said, "You must understand. Merchants, clerics, courtiers, common people--all welcome here. The powerful would appear here spontaneously when a new high official was appointed. If they liked him, they threw their rings into the fountain in approval. The beat-ing heart of the city. A keyboard for the hand of the king to play upon." Abbas would disguise himself as a commoner and go among the people in the square to take the heart's pulse.

The Emam Mosque on the southern end of the square rises up--its pale blue tile covering ever-changing with the light--as if completely assured of its own magnificence. Its entrance portal is more than 90 feet tall, purposely dwarfing those who bow before Allah. The tourist in you raises your camera reflexively to your eye. But then you realize this place will not miniaturize into a Kodak moment.

Everything looks symmetrical here--but it isn't. The nearly matching tile work has endless, subtle variations. A column on one side of the arch has three intertwining elements; its opposite is smooth. In the largest of the mosque's vaulted sanctuaries there are some roughened stones directly under the vast dome. Reza clapped his hands once, sharply. The sound echoed precisely seven times and died.

"Do that again," I said. Seven quick echoes. Silence. "Why seven?" I asked. He shrugged. "An ancient, mystical, also asymmetrical number. And because they could."

Later, as we battled the scariest traffic I've ever encountered, Reza tried to explain the engineering of it, the mechanics of the double-layer dome, the squinches and pendentives that support a dome over a square space. I nodded. It would have been interesting stuff but for the Nissan Patrol apparently trying to run us into the shoulder while we blew past an old man on a bicycle so close I could see his long eyelashes. The Nissan powered ahead.

I asked our driver if there were any rules about who has the right of way. He thought for a moment. "In theory, yes."

So, Should You Go?

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning in April suggesting that Americans defer travel to Iran as a result of "evidence of hostility to the United States." This doesn't mean you can't go, just that conditions are still considered volatile.

It's important to remember, however, that the U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran; there's no embassy protection for Americans traveling there. So if you go and there's a problem, you're on your own.

On my next-to-last night in Iran, I went out walking after bidding Bahman good night and found a tea shop with men sitting around smoking hubble bubbles, the tobacco bong that is in every self-respecting Iranian cafe. In a country without alcohol (your first Islamic beer, Delster, is so sweet that it is likely to be your last), where women are required to cover everything but their hands, feet and face, the delivery of large amounts of nicotine has been refined to a high art. I had two pulls on the thing, which sent the smoke so deep into my lungs that I exhaled only the faintest blue plume and waved it away, my head reeling.

The fellow at the next table began a conversation in excellent English, and soon I found myself experiencing the strange mix of familiarity and alienation I encountered a number of times in Iran. On the one hand, he seemed the most reasonable of companions. He praised American democracy, the idea that if you don't get the job done, you're voted out. "And you cannot appoint somebody to positions of power just because he is your friend? He has to have experience in the area, yes?"

I said that this was so, at least in theory, and resisted the urge to complicate things by introducing the matter of, say, Webster Hubbell. He said that in Iran, cronies of the religious leaders are often appointed to jobs in which they have no experience and stay there. Before the revolution, the clergy were humble men, he told me. Now they are the ruling class, and many are only slightly less corrupt than the sycophants surrounding the Shah. "Before, when I saw them walking by the road, I would stop to pick them up. No more. Now I go faster. Sometimes I think we have just traded one means of corruption for a new one." He also let on that he liked actor Harrison Ford ("a very great artist").

When he asked what most Americans think of Iran, I told him the truth: The strongest image among many of a certain age is smoldering resentment at the takeover of the U.S. Embassy and the holding of hostages for 444 days. "This was the greatest stupidity," he said. "Most Iranians were very surprised when it happened, even though it turned out there was a large amount of light and medium-weight weapons in your embassy. But what benefit did it get us? Nothing." I began thinking the two of us saw the world in similar ways.

But then the conversation turned to matters Islamic. Almost in passing, he noted that drugs were a great evil and that it was only proper that people in possession of 40 grams of marijuana or two grams of heroin be executed. I wasn't interested in getting into an argument with him, so I didn't react outwardly. It did occur to me, however, that a number of my friends and I would have been eligible for death back in our freshman year of college. A little later, I steered the conversation around to sex.

"Married people who commit adultery are generally given a chance to stop the affair," my companion said. "If they don't, in some cases they are executed. Homosexuals can also sometimes be executed."

He went back to puffing his pipe and I found my head reeling again.

Like the great majority of educated Iranians, my companion had never been out of the country. He told me the Internet hadn't yet arrived in Iran (actually it has, but is not widely available) but that he knew it contained pornography that would corrupt the people.

It was getting late. Unable to square the zealot and the rationalist strains in my companion's makeup, I said good night and walked back to my hotel. As in all hotel rooms in Iran, a small arrow near the ceiling pointed the way toward Mecca. A Koran and prayer rug lay in my bedside table. The television was playing a movie about how a small, heroic band of Iranian commandos defeated a vast force of overfed, heavily armed Iraqi soldiers.

I wished mightily for a cold beer and reflected on what I had seen. Iran is opening its doors to what will undoubtedly be a wave of American tourists eager for a look behind its mysterious veil. It's a magnificent country--loaded with history and culture, full of friendly people with a long tradition of hospitality and a genuine affection for everything American except our foreign policy. But, of course, I came away knowing that I had been granted only a few peeks at the country and its people. While Iran is making new efforts to find its place in the larger world, its veil will not easily fall away.

An Iranian friend in the States says you don't really understand the place until you are taken into someone's home to meet the family. This may be true. In the meantime, it's probably good that Americans can now visit Iran and see it in at least a superficial way. But as long as the visitor's experience is limited to the sort of high-priced, whirlwind sightseeing that a U.S. tour company can provide, Iran will remain a mystery even to the Americans who go there.

Bill Heavey last wrote for Travel about Western Maryland.

Details: Visiting Iran

Getting There: At least three U.S. tour operators specializing in travel to Iran: Absolute Asia (1-800-736- 8187) in New York; Distant Horizons (1-800-333-1240) in Long Beach, Calif.; and Geographic Expeditions (1-800-777-8183) in San Francisco. Most group tours run from 15 to 24 days, with prices that include all rooms, meals and all transportation, except international air fare, starting at around $3,100 per person.

Airlines serving Iran include Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Austrian Air, Turkish Air and Swissair. Usually your tour company can get you the best rate.

Visas: In theory, all you have to do is send two passport photos to the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy here in town. In practice, you have to be invited to visit Iran--which means that, absent some unusual connections or professional duties, you will need to go through a tour company with connections there. They will get your visa through a third country, like Canada. Cost for this service added $100 to my trip. The American tour company contracts with Iranian agencies, who provide drivers, guides, hotels and everything else you need.

Accomodations: You will be put up in former Intercontinental, Hyatt and Sheraton hotels that have lost a little of their luster, but are quite comfortable: Touch-tone phones, wake-up calls, room service and laundry are all available.

The food is surprisingly good: eggs, toast, cereal and fruit for breakfast; fresh salads, chicken, steak, lamb and seafood for lunch and dinner. Iranians drink vast amounts of tea. Nescafe is provided for Westerners. The water in Tehran is among the best in the world. In the other cities, I drank bottled, though many people drink the tap water.

Shopping: There are bazaars in every Iranian city, sometimes miles of stalls housed in centuries-old brick halls. This is where locals go to buy everything from auto parts to spices. Tehran's and Isfahan's are considered to be among the best. The great affair here is to simply wander and soak up the sights and sounds. Iran is famous for its miniature paintings, spices, rugs, ceramics, glassware, inlaid boxes and jewelry. In truth they are more fun to browse than buy. Your best deals will probably come on miniature paintings, wooden boxes and anything else that requires a lot of hand labor.

Silver and gold prices are pretty constant the world over. You won't get any deals, though if you like the workmanship on a particular piece, it may be a bargain.

You will, like me, probably be tempted to buy an Iranian carpet. I haggled like mad, left the store twice and finally got a rug for $800. After getting home, I took it to my local Oriental rug shop, told the fellow it was a gift and asked its value. "Nice little rug. Worth maybe seven, eight hundred dollars." Although there is a trade embargo with Iran, a U.S. Customs agent at Dulles told me that American citizens may bring up to $400 worth of goods back into the country from Iran without penalty.

Social Customs: Western women can get by with a modified version of purdah, the Islamic dress code for women: a full-length skirt or trousers (including jeans) worn beneath a loose, below-the-knees coat in blue or black. Your head should be covered by a scarf. The only skin showing should be your face, hands and feet. No one should be able to guess your weight within 50 pounds. Your guide will tell you if you're not in compliance. For men, the only taboo is shorts. Iranian men tend to wear long-sleeved shirts, but short sleeves are acceptable. By the end of the trip, I felt comfortable enough to wear T-shirts in public with no adverse consequences. Do not shake hands in public with members of the opposite sex. Buses are segregated by sex, with women in the back. It's probably not a good idea to buck the system. Do accept tea when it is offered to you in shops. It comes with no obligation and is considered common courtesy. Iranians are extremely courteous people and generally tolerant of innocent gaffes by foreigners if your general attitude is one of respect.

Crime: Your own country should be so safe. Physical violence is extremely rare. There are reports of pickpockets working some of the bazaars. The better hotels have strict security. The most likely target of theft is your passport, which is worth a great deal of money on the black market. (Incidentally, thieves are generally sent to prison. The idea that there are lots of criminal amputees walking around isn't true. There are a good many men on crutches and in wheelchairs as a result of injuries in the war with Iraq.)

Money: The official rate of exchange is 3,000 rials to the dollar. On the black market, you may be able to get as high as 5,500, but you may also get nabbed by one arm or another of the security forces, which is not advisable. Your guide is prohibited from exchanging money for you. There is, however, a gray market, which you will discover on your own, where you can change rials at the rate of 4,000 or so. Many Iranian shops accept MasterCard. A call to the company verified that MasterCard is operating in the country. Iranian merchants do not accept Visa cards from Americans. A call to that company verified this. Visa says it has ceased operations in Iran in compliance with the U.S. trade embargo. American Express does not have operations in Iran.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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