Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series.
When I first mentioned my upcoming Iran trip to acquaintances, most wondered why I would want to go there. I have many Iranian friends, so the country has always been high on my wish list of places to visit.
Propaganda has painted Iranians as evil incarnate, which may be why some Iranians refer to themselves as Persians, to dissociate themselves from the present Iranian government. Persia has a proud history of being one of the largest empires of the ancient world, but present-day Iran has tarnished that image for many (Americans). I wanted to see for myself what life is like there and come to my own conclusions.
Many Americans have numerous misconceptions about Iran. Most Iranians are Shiites, a Muslim branch that constitutes only about 13 percent of the religion, whereas 87 percent are Sunnis.
The schism in the Muslim community began with the death of Mohammed, who founded the Muslim religion. When he died, there was a dispute as to who would be his successor. None of Mohammed’s sons lived to adulthood, so there was no hereditary leader. A trusted advisor to Mohammed, Umar, nominated Abu Bakr, who was made the first Muslim caliph. That Muslim branch became known as Sunni. Others felt that Ali, who was Mohammed’s cousin and was married to Mohammed’s daughter, was arguably the hereditary successor. Those who shared this belief became the Shia faction (Shiites). Disagreements also led to the formation of lesser-known Muslim groups that still exist.
Iran democratically elected a prime minister in 1951, but because he wanted to nationalize its oil assets, Britain and the United States engineered a coup led by our CIA to overthrow the prime minister and reinstall the shah, who was more compliant to U.S. interests. The shah was brutal in suppressing any opposition. With this background, it’s no wonder that Iranians mistrust Western powers. However, there is growing discontent now among the Iranian people toward their theocratic government.
I was once close to visiting Iran in 1979, when the kidnapping of the U.S. Embassy personnel occurred and the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini took place. Much later, Americans were allowed to visit, but the State Department warned of dangers that they reiterate today.
I have found that many State Department warnings are political in nature, rather than alerts to actual danger. I personally prefer independent travel, but Americans are not allowed to do so in Iran and must be part of a sanctioned group.
After reviewing various tours, I chose a tour led by Jerry Dekker (email@example.com). His tour was not only the most reasonable, but he had led many previous tours with great reviews. I was required to obtain a visa, trip cancellation insurance and basic medical coverage to include transportation back to America for further care. The application process was very complicated. I was offered an extension to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, neither of which I originally considered, but since I would be very close to these countries, I signed up for the extension. At the last minute, the Turkmenistan portion was cancelled by that country because they said it was during Independence Day celebrations and they were worried Islamist elements might create problems.
I made my own flight arrangements, which required an overnight at Dulles International Airport and also in Dubai. Overnight accommodations around Dulles are usually expensive, but luckily I am a member of Affordable Travel Club (253-858-2172 or atc@
affordabletravelclub.net)…Dues cost $65 a year for an online directory or $80 to include a printed directory. Members pay $15 a night for singles or $20 a night for a couple. This includes breakfast provided by the host. Overseas hosts may add a $10 surcharge. Of course, you must reciprocate when members request a stay at your home.
My hosts lived close to Dulles, and even offered to pick me up and return me to the airport. The couple lived in an interesting large retirement complex for residents over age 62. One has to pay cash for the unit, but 90 percent of that cost is returned — or given to their heirs — if they decide to leave. My host paid $300,000 cash for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit and is assessed a monthly charge of $3,000 a month ‘carefree retirement’ for all the services, such as repairs, utilities, 20 meals a month in the dining room (more can be added for an extra cost), shuttles, gymnasium, pool, medical services, etc. It didn’t sound like a bargain to me, but the huge complex is almost always filled (http://www.
While we were getting acquainted, they told me about a Japanese American family in Washington state that was not imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II because the town vouched for them. I later made a trip there to investigate this claim, which I’ll write about in a future column.
I used AirBnB.com to arrange my stay in Dubai. The host also offered free pickup and delivery from the airport to a private apartment with kitchen and private bath, all for $35. I had to be at the airport for a 5 a.m. departure, but he even accommodated me for this inconvenient time.
Now, my long awaited trip to Iran begins with my flight to Tehran from Dubai. But, I immediately encountered a long list of frustrations at the Dubai airport. The ticket agent for the flight to Tehran said I had to have a return ticket to Dubai from Tehran and would not issue my boarding pass until I paid for it. I was going to return from Tashkent, Uzbekistan and explained that to no avail. The agent said it was a security issue, but that excuse turned out to be a fabrication. I paid for the ticket, but a later investigation by my credit card company revoked the charge.
Upon arrival in Tehran, someone with two symbols on their epaulette at passport control looked at my American passport and called someone with four epaulette symbols, who took me to a separate room. Hospitality is part of the Persian culture, and they kept assuring me not to worry, but then they took a retinal photo for identification as well as fingerprints. The whole process took 45 minutes. I arrived a day earlier than the scheduled group to see more of Tehran on my own, but I was disappointed about the “required” guide who met me at the airport. My hopes for a visit without onerous oversight were shattered.
The guide, who was also the guide for our group, cost $50 for the extra day and he took me to an Islamic museum that was not very interesting. We had a long drive to an area with many restaurants at the base of a mountain for a pleasant lunch of fried trout and delicious beef kabobs. Surprisingly, I also saw a Korean BBQ restaurant nearby. The bathroom facilities were only holes in the floor-types without toilet paper. Newer facilities have Western-style toilets, but the old type is still more common.
Tehran is located in a bowl surrounded by mountains, which results in bad air pollution — like Los Angeles, but worse. Most buildings are boxy and plain. Traffic is horrendous, even with private cars banned from the city center from noon to five. Crossing the street is even more frightening than in Saigon because cars go faster and seemingly have no consideration for pedestrians. There are very few parking lots, so finding a parking spot is impossible and leads to illegal parking everywhere. The Iranian auto production is said to be the second-most active industry dominated by Khodro and Saipa, the local brands.
Our group stayed at a five-star hotel, the Espinas, for a room with a Western-style toilet, flat screen TV, and free slow Wi-Fi with many censored sites. This would be considered a three-star by Western standards, if that.
The 10-person group met the next morning, since most arrived at around midnight. There were two retired couples, two older women, a middle-aged man, an American widow who had been married to an Iranian living in America, but was visiting Iran for the first time, a freelance journalist in his early 20s and myself. The widow’s son, Jason Rezaian, holds dual American and Iranian passports, and is a correspondent for the Washington Post. After our group had returned, I learned he was arrested by the Iranian government on trumped up charges. I met him and his stories emphasized the positive things about culture here.
On his trip to Iran for CNN, chef Anthony Bourdain featured an interview with Rezaian. Bourdain also was pleasantly surprised at how well he was welcomed by the Iranian people. It again shows how elements in their government feel that discord between America and Iran will keep them in power.
Our first stop was at a carpet museum, but no information was provided to help us judge the quality of a carpet. One carpet depicted Jesus, who Muslims believe was a prophet.
The National Museum was the next stop. The exhibits had signs in English and Farsi. Audio guides would have been helpful. A several thousand-year-old body called the “salt man” was found in a salt mine with a skull fracture.
The last museum for our first day was at the glass and ceramic museum, which is located within walking distance of the national museum. The building was built by a wealthy Persian family and then became the Egyptian embassy before conversion into a museum. Some visitors raved about it, but it did not score high on my list. I was still smarting from being on an escorted tour rather than having the freedom to choose my own destinations.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant overlooking a park with a lake. The nearby Milad tower was said to be the fifth highest concrete tower in the world. It required an hour and 40-minute drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there from our hotel, but fortunately, the food, especially the kabobs were delicious. The return to the hotel only took 20 minutes because traffic was gone.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.