Andrew M.H. Alexander

September 2007

A better, much more concise version of this travelogue was published in the Chicago Maroon, October 5th, 2007

Dear family and friends…

Unfortunately, I’m not actually in Tehran, at least not anymore. But as some of you may know from illegible postcards or crackly telephone calls, I just got back from two weeks in Iran with a U of Chicago group. I promised myself that I wouldn’t bore anyone with tales of How I Spent My Summer Vacation, but, well, Iran is kind of off the beaten path (so far off that there are large “DO NOT ENTER” signs in both English and Farsi) and especially with it being in the news so much recently, I thought I might be able to illustrate the well-researched articles in the paper with my own anecdotes from an entire fortnight there.

I’ve tried to be as brief as possible but seem to have lapsed into typical verbosity (if only I could write this much when I have papers due!). In homage to the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, I’ve written in a nonlinear, unstructured stream of consciousness. So I certainly don’t expect many (or any) of you to read this, but in case you are interested, here it is. (And please feel free to pass this along to anyone else who might be curious to hear a report from the ground…)

So to begin, U.Chicago organizes trips to a Weird Part of the World each year. Last year it was Tibet (focusing on human rights issues), next year it will be Laos and Cambodia (focusing on sustainable development), and this year it was Iran (and its human rights issues). Nine of us went, and the trip was coordinated by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with the wonderfully liberal mission of connecting people in different countries to facilitate “cross-cultural exchange and dialogue”. Normally we would have met with various Iranian NGOs–human rights groups, environmental groups, etc.–but the rightward swing the country has taken in the past two years prevented most of that. We still got to go to quite a few religious sites–a synagogue, an Armenian orthodox church, and several Zoroastrian sites. We went to no shortage of mosques, and even met with one of Iran’s highest-ranking clerics (albeit an apolitical one). But Grand Ayatollah Imani was, depending on your point of view, either senile or just spiritually detached from the material world. The Dumbledore lookalike leaned on his cane and answered our questions about “How can we improve tensions between Islam and the West?” with one-liners like “Islam teaches that everything will come with patience.” His two suit-wearing, Haldeman-and-Erlichman aides jumped in and subtly tried to convert us. They told us, as did all the clerics we met, about how they hoped that the Twelfth Imam, the Shia messiah, would return soon, and that when he did he would return with Jesus Christ. (According to a recent cartoon in a reformist newspaper, the actions of Prez Ahmadinejad are accelerating his return.)

The one person who did not seem to hope that the Twelfth Imam would return soon was our guide, Bahman, an ex-pro basketball player who as his senior thesis for his English Translation major translated The Sun Also Rises into Farsi (his professor got the credit when it was published). Bahman looked exceedingly uncomfortable at all of the religious sites we visited, referred to the theocrats as “those sons of bitches”, and at one mosque in Isfahan, went on a long rant about how horrible it was that people actually prayed there, interfering with the ability to appreciate its architectural beauty. We visited a Shia seminary (madrassah in Farsi), where we ran into a young cleric who told us that he wanted to improve his English so that he could come to the U.S. and work to dispel the notion that their clerical colleges are terrorist training camps. Then he fingered the gold chain around Bahman’s neck, said “You do realize that wearing gold is a sin…” and mused about how wearing gold would cause Bahman to be angry, impotent, and only bear daughters (Bahman has a six-year old girl). Bahman didn’t look too pleased and all of a sudden we had another important site to rush off to. (A few days later, meeting with the Grand Ayatollah, Bahman’s shirt was uncharacteristically buttoned all the way up.) And the full translation of the encounter with the gold-fearing mullah only came from our other guide, Mahdis, who might be described as a liberal activist of unclear nationality. Her parents are Iranian, she grew up in Germany, is now doing some sort of master’s in Peace Studies at a university in Barcelona, and had worked in Global Exchange’s San Francisco office over the summer, as well as having been involved in various activisty-type things in Israel/Palestine and so forth. Even though she had a preternatural suspicion of businesses, governments, and the media (i.e., large organizations) that was all too familiar after living in Ithaca for eighteen years, she was also very well-traveled and -experienced for a 24 year old. I liked her and Bahman quite a bit.

We stayed in four cities on the trip. Yazd, a small desert city home to Iran’s dwindling Zoroastrian population, has narrow streets in the gaps between one-and two-story adobe buildings. The minarets at the mosques were the only buildings more than one or two stories high, and everything was made out of the beige mud and straw mixture. Shiraz has the best university in Iran, and consequently, good bookstores. It had plenty of public parks used as free campgrounds by Iranian families visiting the “Paris of Persia.” Isfahan had people, a lot of them, and a lot of them friendly and eager to make English conversations. Tehran seemed cosmopolitan and wealthy, but it turned out that this was only because it was heavily income-stratified and we never wandered outside of the areas with “Starcups” coffee shops (where a cup of coffee cost $.20).

We visited quite a few cities and saw all the major tourist sites in central Iran, including Persepolis, the palace of Darius the Great that was first excavated by UChicago archaeologists in the 30s. In Tehran we went to the a contemporary art museum that had a large exhibit on textiles and fashion, including photos and sketches of Persian women modeling the latest designs in headscarves and manteaus (loose-fitting, neck-to-knee coats). Islamic dress for women is required by law and enforced by the Moral Police, whose squad cars are identical to normal patrol cars except for the label “ADMONISHERS” in small type. Still, there’s quite a spread in what women actually wear, and like in the rest of the world, older women tend to dress more conservatively (which in Iran means full-body chadors or black headscarves and black clothing) than younger women. Especially in the richer parts of Tehran, girls my age wear their headscarves tied back as far as possible without falling off, and comb their bangs so as to expose as much hair as possible. And of course they wear headscarves with bright colors or crazy patterns, and tight-fitting manteaus with even tighter jeans underneath. (And then, of course, take the entire outfit off as soon as they get inside a private house.) One night in Shiraz, a motorcycle cop pulled our bus over for some unimportant reason, and as we were waiting, we saw two girls crossing the street behind the cop notice him, pull their headscarves forward over their hair, and put them down again as soon as they were back on the sidewalk.

The other popular fashion accessory for young people in Iran is a nose job. Or three consecutive nose jobs, as in the case of one girl we met. They’re so popular (and cheap) that our guide claimed that two-thirds of women and a fifth of men had them. The real percentage probably isn’t that high, but just gauging by the number of people who walk around with bandages on their nose (especially in the rich districts), they’re pretty darn popular. Iran has become a Mecca for nose jobs and people from the Gulf states apparently fly in to have them done in Tehran. They’re a popular subject of conversation, or at least of bragging. One girl we met in Isfahan, the cousin of a U.Chicago student we bumped into in the Tehran airport, was on her third–apparently the first had taken too much off and the second had put too much back on.

About that U of C student we met our first night in Tehran’s Mehrabad International–that was a strange occurrence. It was 3 AM–all international flights from Europe arrive and depart in the middle of the night, since Tehran’s main airport is about the size of Syracuse’s and serves 20 million+ people–and the U of C delegation was sitting in some sort of holding room in customs. The immigration authorities (women in black chadors) had waved the Germans ahead of us through (we flew Lufthansa), but then paused when they saw our American passports. With no explanation, they escorted us into a room off of the immigration lounge, where we sat for a half-hour or so. In walked an eighth American, and we all jumped up and said hi, assuming that she was the eighth member of our group, who was arriving on a later flight. But she was, in fact, a fourth-year poli sci major from Cleveland whose family is Iranian, and who was going to visit her grandmother in Isfahan for a month. She had been on the flight after ours.

The eight of us probably weren’t the only Americans in Iran, but especially with the government’s recent crackdown on Iranian-American dual citizens in Iran, there’s a decent chance that we were the only non-dual citizen Americans. So we chatted about mutual friends and classes, and watched a turban-wearing mullah get ushered through a side door without showing his passport; he was carrying four huge shopping bags from the duty-free store in Frankfurt. Eventually the immigration authorities came back and fingerprinted us. The U.S. has been fingerprinting and photographing Iranian citizens since the mid-90s (long before US-VISIT mandated it of all foreign entrants), the Iranian government doesn’t like this, and had been considering responding in kind. But neither any of our guides nor the Swiss Embassy (home of the “U.S. interest section” in Iran) had heard of it actually happening. So we may have been the first recipients of that new policy. On the other hand, they let us go to the bathroom to wash the ink off our hands (and it was quite a lot of ink, since they took full palm prints), and the bathrooms in Mehrabad were the nicest bathrooms we visited in Iran.

We returned to Mehrabad and its 60s brutalism a few days later when we took Iran Air flight 294 to the small desert town of Yazd (whose airport resembled the pre-1994 Tompkins County Airport). I’d really love to have an exciting third-world-air-travel story, but unfortunately, Iran Air (with one important exception) was fantastic. Airport security, too, was excellent; it was like U.S. security before September 11th. The one exception was that we had to go to the metal detector and baggage scanner twice–once upon entering the terminal and again before entering the concourse. The second was a genuine airport security checkpoint with police and signs asking you to please not bring grenades onto the plane, but the first seemed mostly for show–the metal detector beeped for some guy right behind us, and the one person manning the checkpoint didn’t care. (Incidentally, they have separate checkpoints for men and women.) They must have only been able to afford jetways at the international terminal, since at the domestic terminal, everyone had to board buses to be ferried out to their planes. In our case the plane was a Fokker 100, the same plane US Air used to run on the Ithaca-Pittsburgh flight. Unlike US Air, though, the flight attendants smiled and were friendly. One of them looked like a Persian Mitt Romney. Their announcements were both in English and Farsi (apparently this is standard practice and not just because we were on the plane); when they were done explaining how to fasten seat belts, they said, without translating it into English, a prayer. This turned out to be a good idea, since as soon as the plane began to accelerate down the runway, there was this sound like several hundred ball bearings rolling to the back of the plane. “Spare parts,” Bahman joked. The sound continued as the plane banked after takeoff. Supposedly the plane had been flying at its maximum altitude on its previous flight, causing the water in its pipes to freeze, and it was the chunks of ice scudding around in the water lines that we were hearing. (Don’t planes have insulation for this kind of thing?) Still, it was a good flight, and the terrain looked like Wyoming from above. It was 45 minutes long, only cost $25 (or 251,000 rials), and we even got food–a snack box containing apple juice, almonds, and a very tasty pastry.

Speaking of tasty treats, there’s plenty of ice-cream in Iran (their soft serve is good; even better is saffron-flavored ice cream), but even more popular (and delicious) is a food called faludeh, which is frozen starchy noodles served in a sort of rosewater and lime broth. It’s really, really good. I was wandering around the bazaar in Isfahan one day and happened on an ice-cream/faludeh shop, and while I certainly didn’t need any ice cream, what with the kebabs they were stuffing us with, I figured that ordering food and interacting with retail staff would be a good Cultural Experience. Unfortunately, even the prices were in Persian numerals, and my Farsi is equivalent to about an hour in the womb. So I stared at the sign, and after ten or fifteen minutes, figured out that the store sold both ice cream (“bastani”) and faludeh. (I could have figured this out in about thirty seconds by looking at what the people leaving the shop were carrying, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.) Unfortunately, like most ice cream stores, the store had five or ten different types of each faludeh and ice cream, each with different names and prices, so I couldn’t just walk up to the counter and say “Me ice cream.” Plus, the store was completely mobbed, mostly with fathers carrying out trays of ice cream or faludeh for their kids. It wasn’t clear whether people were ordering and giving money or taking bowls of ice cream and then giving money, or what. I tried to get in line, and stood amidst the crowd for about five minutes, but people kept shoving past me and I never got any closer to the counter. Then, this kid, maybe 13 or 14, came up, tapped me, and offered me his faludeh (or at least a faludeh that he was holding). “Take it.” I asked him how much it was, but he declined payment, so I took it, and he disappeared. In retrospect, I should have been polite and declined (Iran, like many cultures, has an elaborate system of formal refusing), or at least have tried harder to pay him. Still, his generosity and hospitality really made my day… and the next evening, I went back when the store wasn’t crowded, and managed to buy faludeh all by myself.

The rest of the food was quite good, although the Iranian staples of pomegranates, dates, and eggplant aren’t really my thing. We had a lot of kebabs, a lot of rice, a lot of nan, and a lot of saffron- and rosewater-flavored things. I now have a very Warhol-esque glass bottle with “Pepsi” written in Farsi, although I only once got to try Iran’s indigenous and wildly popular line of soft drinks, Zam Zam. I also had a fairly sketchy beer in Isfahan, but since the drinking age is never, it was non-alcoholic “Islamic beer” (a label proclaimed that it had not just 0% alcohol, but 0.0%). There’s apparently a pretty big black market for alcohol, though, and our driver told us that whenever he drives buses from Tehran to Istanbul, the first thing the women do at the Turkish border is take off their headscarves and the first the men do is take out their beer.

The day after I got the free faludeh, I was wandering around the same square in Isfahan. Imam Square (not to be confused with Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass.) is, according to our guide, the second-largest public square in the world, twice the size of Red Square in Moscow but not quite as big as Tianamen Square. Some 17th-century shah built it back when Isfahan was the capital, and boy, what a great monument it is. The square is 1600 feet long by 500 feet wide. It’s surrounded on four sides by a single low building filled with shops that open up onto both the square and onto the interior of the building. At the north end of the square the shops merge with the rest of Isfahan’s main bazaar. There are two mosques built into the sides of the square, an enormous one and a medium-sized one, as well as a modest palace (all extremely beautiful). The center of the square is broken up between walking lanes, grass, and a reflecting pool with a fountain. There’s a small parking lot at the north end of the square, and a small but busy street cuts through. We were there on weekend nights, and so the place was absolutely packed with people, including a lot of families picnicking on the grass. There are even hansom cabs! It’s a great example of “living history” and certainly deserving of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Anyway, I was wandering around Imam Square, and in the course of an hour, four people had come up to me and started conversations with me in English. Two of them were trying to sell me stuff, but two were just curious to talk to foreigners, and they were all surprised to hear that I was American. It was getting dark, so I was trying to take a photo of the mosque dome using my tripod, and as I was balancing it on a bench, a fifth person came up to me, said hello, and asked me where I was from. His eyes went wide when I said I was American. As it turned out his family was picnicking just a few feet away, so he invited me to sit down and eat sunflower seeds with them. His uncle, upon hearing that I was American, made the throat-slitting pantomime. “Khameini,” he said, referencing Iran’s Supreme Leader, the successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini. I ended up sitting and talking with them for about a half-hour, mostly about Iranian and U.S. politics, and it was very interesting. Only the guy who had come up to me and said hello, Kashan, spoke English, so he was interpreting, although I tried to toss in a sentence in bad Farsi every now and then (mainly “Yes!” or “Bush is very bad!”). He looked 18 or 19 and said he was studying math. (This was slightly strange, since every college student in Iran seemed to be training either to become an engineer or a doctor, but perhaps math was just a route to engineering.) Most of his seven or eight relatives there were older, but he also had a younger sister who was maybe 9 or 10. She bounced around the whole time, but kept asking questions and never took her eyes off me. When I asked what her name was, she said it, then carefully spelled it out, syllable by syllable. When I was leaving, I shook the men’s hands and smiled and nodded to the women, since public intergender touching in Iran is never done. Then his sister stuck out her hand–much to everyone’s giggles–and so I shook it. It was a small but significant symbol of youthful defiance.

Like most people we met in Iran, Kashan and his family hated the Iranian government, both the president in particular and Khameini and the Islamic Republic in general. Ahmadinejad is seen as an embarrassment. A poll taken by a fairly mainstream Tehran newspaper over the summer showed that of those who voted for Ahmadinejad two years ago, only 32% would vote for him again, and a reformist newspaper ran a cartoon saying that he was living proof that humans were related to monkeys. He’s kind of a strange character, since he’s ultraconservative but not a cleric–he has a Ph.D. in civil engineering and had been some sort of professor before becoming Mayor of Tehran. He’s actually been at odds with the clerics on a couple issues. I heard him described somewhere as an Iranian neocon, which was particularly apt. People who go up to foreigners on the street probably aren’t hard-liners, so there’s a selection bias, and there probably are a lot of people who support the government. Even so, most Iranians are well-educated, pro-Western, and young–something like 70% of the population is less than 30 (i.e., younger than the government)–and the government is not popular. There was a lot of hope in 1997 when Mohammed Khatami, a reformist cleric, was elected president, but despite his landslide victory and reelection in 2001, Supreme Leader Khameini (who has veto power over everything the government does) blocked most of his reforms. This was one of the more depressing themes I took away from the country: people dislike the Islamist crackdown of the last two years, but don’t know what to do about it. I asked Kashan about this, and he said, “We are not mullahs or politicians; we are just little people. We cannot change things.” They can vote, though, and one can always hope that the backlash against Ahmadinejad will be strong enough to provoke a reformist win in 2009. Or the mullahs could just work extra hard to disqualify reformist candidates, which was the main reason why Ahmadinejad won in 2005. When democracy doesn’t work, infinite veto power is a good fallback strategy.

One of the major themes of Ahmadinejad’s campaign two years ago was fixing Iran’s economy, which boasts 20% inflation and 40% unemployment. Most large corporations are either completely or partially state-owned. Though Iran has quite a bit of oil in its Iraq-neighboring provinces and oil makes up the majority of government revenue, it has almost no domestic refineries, and so has to import most of its gasoline. They government began rationing gas a few months ago–100 liters per month per car–but with heavy subsidies, it only costs 40 cents per gallon. (Those same subsidies are what made my hour-long plane ride cost $25.) The economic sanctions against Iran have completely severed its banking network from the rest of the world’s, but there’s a moderate-sized network of internal ATMs. (It’s still a cash economy, of course, but most major bank branches have one or two sitting outside.) And the sanctions can be easily circumvented; all the fancy carpet shops we visited had “contacts in Dubai” that let them accept credit cards. They had little Visa and MasterCard stickers on their windows, and the transactions worked successfully for several members of our group. I got the impression that the “contacts in Dubai” were actually fairly sophisticated businesses, and profitable ones, with 3-6% commissions on top of each transaction (quite a bit for carpets).

After Isfahan, we drove back to Tehran, and stopped in several nice villages in the Zagros Mountains on the way. We also drove past Iran’s main nuclear-processing site, outside of Natanz. The site is right next to the main road between Tehran and Isfahan, the Persian equivalent of I-95. There were occasional anti-aircraft guns for about fifty miles in each direction; this was the only evidence of military buildup that we saw in Iran. (With one exception: each major state museum in Tehran had a single soldier with an AK-47 standing guard. I guess they take looting seriously.) We passed a watchtower, and the guard smiled and waved at us. Unfortunately we didn’t tour the site and the gift shop was closed–I really wanted some centrifuge keychains. We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the nuclear site (nor of any government building, cop, or soldier in Iran). But our view from the road wasn’t as good as the satellite photo available on Google Maps. (Google Maps’s resolution on the nuclear site is higher than on Ithaca–go figure. Or maybe they’re trying to encourage grassroots reconnaissance.)

So that was Iran. I’d really like to go back sometime if we ever liberalize relations; the country is very beautiful and there’s lots of good hiking. It’s not a closed country and there is tourism (lots of Germans and Japanese), but the government is quite touchy with Americans, and it’s pretty impossible to get a visa unless you have family or are on a tour.

Life at Chicago continues, and I write for the newspaper, work for the campus cinema, and this quarter am TA’ing precalculus. I also go to class from time to time–this quarter I’m taking physical chemistry, a class on the neo-Assyrian empire, modern physics, and sculpture. I hope I can share photos the next time we meet, and until then…

all the best,