When people heard we were going to Iran, the question was always why.
My response then and now is the same. Iran is a magnificent and historically important country. It contains nine World Historical Sites as designated by UNESCO. Only 20 countries—including Greece, China and Italy—have more. Since Katrina and I had already visited those, it was time for us to tour Iran.
Iranians we encountered also wanted to know why we came and what people in the U.S. thought. A carpet vendor said, "People think we are all religious extremists with nuclear weapons and beards down to our stomachs, but Iran is actually very safe for tourists." Our guide was quick to agree, stating that they are not terrorists, but warm, friendly, welcoming human beings.
The State Department official travel warning on Iran is "to carefully consider the risks of travel" there, saying "American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest." We do not have diplomatic or consular relations with Iran and Americans must rely on the Swiss Embassy for consular services. Our experience indicates that the risks are minimal and well worth the rewards.
Of course, we couldn’t just pack and go. We had to apply for our visa through an authorized tour company, Asian Pacific Adventures, who did a fine job in booking our trip, arranging for the driver and guide and setting up the itinerary. They secured an approval letter from the Iranian government that was sent to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington (Iran does not have an embassy in the U.S.) We then contracted with a visa company to secure the visa, all of which took about three months.
We were the only Americans on the flight and the only passengers subject to additional scrutiny, including a 45-minute delay in airport passport control. As we sat waiting while the authorities further studied and checked our passports and visas, I was afraid that maybe there was some technical problem with the visa that would cause them to deny us entry into the country—or, worse yet, allow us entry but in captivity.
As it turned out, they asked only a few questions, finger printed us and then allowed us to proceed through customs. Thankfully our bags were still there and our guide was still waiting in the entry hall.
Right out of customs, we were met by our guide, Hamid, who was required by the government to keep us in his sight until he deposited us at the same spot eight days later. Except for the time when we were in our assigned hotel, of course. He was also required to file our itinerary with the government so they knew our whereabouts at all times.
There were also rules to follow. Because of their religion, there is no alcohol, dancing, music or outward signs of affection between the sexes. There is no dress code for men, although shorts are frowned upon. As with all women in the country, Katrina had to wear a scarf covering her head and hair and a loose-fitting jacket that reached to mid-thigh whenever she was outside of the hotel room.
Still, she attracted some attention. Many groups of girls took Katrina’s picture with their cell phones and some asked to have their picture taken with her, presumably because of her blue eyes and the bit of blond hair peaking out from under the scarf. We detected no animosity, only warmth and curiosity.
Space doesn’t allow me to mention all of the magnificent sights we visited, which you can read about in tour books. It’s a shame that there are so few tourists anywhere in this country. The cities of Shiraz, Yazd and Esfahan all are potentially world class tourist destinations. At one World Heritage Site, Katrina, our driver and guide and I were the only visitors. On the entire visit, we encountered only one other American couple and only three busloads of European tourists.
One marvelous site I have to mention, though, is Persepolis, one of the most important archeological wonders of the ancient world. A 2,500-year-old masterpiece and capital of the first Persian Empire in the fourth century BC, it was a relatively cosmopolitan place, and for many Iranians its ruins are a reminder of their Persian heritage.
The rest of us should be reminded as well. Cyrus the Great established this first Persian Empire, which would become the largest, most powerful kingdom on earth in what has been called the world’s first religiously and culturally tolerant empire. Ultimately it comprised more than 23 different peoples who coexisted peacefully under a central government. Persia was arguably the world’s first superpower.
"We have a nostalgia to be a superpower again," said Saced Laylaz, an economic and political analyst in Tehran, "and the country’s nuclear ambitions are directly related to this desire. It was a stable superpower for more than a thousand years."
Still today, it is said that inside every Persian is an emperor.
Other interesting information we picked up:
• At the Tehran airport I exchanged $100 for $1 million Iranian Rials, reflecting an exchange rate of 10,000 to 1. Inflation has hit the country hard.
• Because of the embargo, you cannot use credit cards, ATM cards or traveler checks. We had to bring enough cash to last the trip.
• The former U.S. Embassy compound is now a museum and historical site known as the Den of U.S. Espionage. It was the site of the C.I.A. plotting of the 1953 coup that installed the Shah as well as the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
• While the region of Shiraz, which we visited, produces great wine grapes, wine is no longer made there. They just eat the grapes, exporting some to other countries for wine making.
• The culinary offerings don’t vary much: lamb or chicken kebabs plus quince and squash stew. The food is not very spicy but has large quantities of herbs, such as mint, dill, parsley, coriander and chives. Almost everything is accompanied by rice.
• We did not smoke a qalyan or water pipe on this trip. Tea, sugar and a qalyan are served in many tea houses and homes. The smoke is sweet and rich and the air can become quite hazy.
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B Glick Co. He can be reached at [email protected]