The truth about visiting Iran

People stared at me and asked with gestures or words, "Where are you from?" When I said, "America," they grinned, smiled, said, "Welcome," or drew a heart sign in the air.

THE VAKIL Mosque, which is being restored, evokes the stately grandeur of its 18th-century origins, in Shiraz. (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
THE VAKIL Mosque, which is being restored, evokes the stately grandeur of its 18th-century origins, in Shiraz.
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
My friends, who are avid and intrepid travelers, blanched when I said I was going to Iran.
“You’ll never get out alive. You’re Jewish. You’re female. They’ll behead you, and they’ll post it on YouTube,” one of them cautioned.
“You’ll rot in a rat-infested jail for the rest of your life. There’s no American Embassy; no one will be able to help you!” Because a very stubborn streak runs down my back, I departed for Iran, visa in hand, and fully expected to spend my entire visit with my head attached – although I planned to cover it with an obligatory headscarf. I also packed a few long blouses, as both hair and butt have to be covered.
Shortly before the plane from Baku, Azerbaijan, landed in Tehran, I asked the man who was seated behind me how to say “hello” and “how are you?” in Farsi. When we disembarked, and while the uniformed customs official fingerprinted me and scrutinized my passport and visa, I ventured, “Salaam,” and asked, “Choobie?” He giggled, put his hand on his heart, smiled and bowed his head in welcome.
Tehran is a crowded, modern, traffic-choked city, with no apparent driving lanes or rules, and it’s daunting to try to cross a main street. I smiled at some of the fast food knock-offs, like Pizza Hot and IFC (instead of KFC).
ORNATE DECORATION covers the Lady Mosque, which is unusual in that it does not have a minaret, in Isfahan. (PAUL ROSS)
Just when I started feeling overwhelmed, I saw an expansive, lush, green park, with locals sitting on benches, and cut through it. The men were all dressed in Western-style clothes, and the women managed to look stylish with dramatic eye makeup, scarlet lipstick, headscarves and caftans in modest but appealing colors.
Some women wore long, black robes that gave them the appearance of nuns. People stared at me (blonde bangs protruded from my headscarf) and asked with gestures or words, “Where are you from?” When I said, “America,” they grinned, smiled, said, “Welcome,” or drew a “heart” sign in the air.
I headed for a money exchange, where I handed a man $200 and received a thick wad of seven million rials. Since severe economic, trade and military sanctions were first levied against Iran after hostages were taken at the American Embassy in 1979, and succeeding American presidents occasionally loosened – but more often tightened – the screws, the rial had been so devalued that a single US dollar bought me more than 34,500 of them.
Unemployment has reached catastrophic levels, so you would assume that Americans are considered to be denizens of an evil empire. But, as people in the street informed me everywhere I went in Iran, “We don’t like your government, but we love American people.”
When I walked into a 7/11-type market to buy bottled water, all the shoppers gathered around me. “Where are you from?” This time, when I answered, “From the US,” the man standing closest to me insisted on paying for my aquatic libations.
THE AUTHOR engages with friendly locals in front of the Imam (formerly the Shah) Mosque, in Isfahan. (PAUL ROSS)
THAT FIRST night, I found the official Iranian English language Press TV channel, and became hooked. It was a 180º change from news shows in America.
The bad guys are the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Debates center around the “occupation” of Palestinian lands, and nightly footage shows graphic IDF incursions and violence in the West Bank.
They also cover Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Surprisingly, there is generally a pro-Israeli person engaged in debate with a pro-Palestinian person, and they are more or less given equal time.
The newscasters, often women in headscarves, drop their veneer of neutrality and rail with moral outrage at the Israeli “occupation” and insist that it must end. I never heard anyone call for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. I never heard anti-Semitic remarks.
The days of hate-spewing, Israel- annihilating Ahmadinejad are gone, and people told me they consider their former president an embarrassment and an ignoramus.
Officially, the American government and Zionism are targets of verbal venom, and some publicly disvisiting played cartoons and derogatory banners support this animosity. But, simultaneously, there is a major exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum featuring prominent Jewish American artists, Jewish travelers are welcomed as long as there is no Israeli stamp in their passports, and the owner of a travel company told me that there are plans afoot to offer Jewish heritage tours.
A LOCAL boy in an American T-shirt gives visitors a ‘thumbs up,’ and a generous villager offers a gift of freshly picked, ripe pomegranates. (PAUL ROSS)
Not only is there an active Jewish community, but Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai are enshrined in Persian tombs, and there are sites that are redolent of an important Jewish past.
So, just as Iranian people can dislike our government but like us as Americans, the official stance is one thing and the general acceptance of Jews living in Iran and visiting Iran seems to be another.
The newly agreed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which involves lifting economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, is being greeted everywhere in Iran with reactions that range from skepticism to cautious optimism to unbridled buoyancy. The two financially oriented English-language newspapers, which I read every chance I had, feature articles about trade and oil deals with every country you can think of – except the US. Officially, there will be no business with America, but I am sure tables are bouncing from all the deals going on underneath them.
New hotels are in the works. Tourists are arriving in busloads from Germany, France and Asia. They head from the bustling city to northern Tehran, to a serene, forested area where the shahs built their lavish palaces, with reflecting pools, fountains, columns and arches on the outside, and sparkling, mirrored halls inside.
They visit the bazaar, where women dressed in black shop for underwear in neon pink, lime green and bright purple.
In the privacy of their homes, they can dress with style and pizzazz.
Tourists gaze in awe at graceful mosques with minarets and domes; palaces with pictorial ceramic tiles, and dazzling stone and plaster carvings; and stained glass windows where bright sunlight shines though and falls in patterns on intricate Persian carpets. The country is safe, Iranians are truly friendly, and the country is rich in ruins, art, history, architecture, food, carpets, spices, and, above all, exotic ambiance.
OUTSIDE TEHRAN and other important cities, visitors ride through seemingly endless stretches of desert, often bordered by mountains. Iran is experiencing a severe drought, and some of the flowing rivers and streams that feed the beloved flower gardens and parks are reduced to a trickle.
One of the sites I wanted to visit was the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great. After Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, there was a forced exile of leadership, priests, prophets, scribes and other Israelites to Babylon. When Cyrus conquered Babylon and became its ruler, he decreed that the Temple should be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and that Jews were free to return there to accomplish the task. He returned some of the booty stolen from the Temple and provided large sums of money for its reconstruction.
Frequently mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus is generally considered a savior and patron of the Jews.
I assumed that, given the recent climate of Iranian-Israeli relations, there would be no mention of Jews at the site of the mausoleum. The opposite was the case. As I arrived, walking down the long path that leads to the tomb, which looks like a cross between an earth-tone ziggurat and a symbolic mountaintop, a loud recording spoke about Cyrus and the Bible, and how he gave Jews permission to return to Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Cyrus was a tolerant humanist, a visionary leader and a practicing Zoroastrian.
This piqued my interest, and I found out more about the religion in Yazd, a desert town, where we visited the Temple of Silence and the Fire Temple.
The former is perched on top of a steep, arid hill, and is the place where, in the past, bodies of the deceased were carried so they could be close to the sky. Their flesh was devoured by vultures, who picked the bones clean before eventual burial. Jewish bodies are food for worms in the ground, and Zoroastrian bodies fed the bird kingdom in the air. Judaism, like Zoroastrianism, is monotheistic, and both associate fire with the divine. In the Hebrew Bible, God is sometimes represented by fire.
The Fire Temple, where an eternal flame burns in a huge copper urn, and the adjacent museum, offer a good deal of information about Zoroastrian rituals and practices. I loved the fact that joy and feasts are key components of the religion.
And felt a pang of familiarity and recognition when I saw, in the modern Zoroastrian graveyard, small stones that family members and friends left on top of headstones when they visited. This is also a Jewish custom.
THE PINK Mosque is triumph of decorative religious art in stone, plaster, tile, stained glass, wood and textile, in Shiraz. (PAUL ROSS)
ANOTHER MAUSOLEUM in Iran belongs to Persia’s greatest poet, the 14th-century Hafez. His tomb is nestled in a lush garden, and Iranians of all ages come to pay homage to the master. I had a sudden urge to hear one of Hafez’s poems read aloud, and I turned to a gaggle of college students and asked if they would oblige. One of the men pulled out his cellphone, quickly downloaded a Hafez app, and Hafez’s lyrical words poured from his lips. The three women in the group were a bit shy, but when I asked them what they were studying, they proudly answered political science, information technology, and engineering.
Women are certainly being educated in Iran, and one hopes the job situation improves so they can work in their chosen fields.
In Isfahan, we visited the workshop of an artist who paints in miniature, learned more about Persian carpets, and hung with locals at (the main) Imam Square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site that rivals Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in terms of size and the number of monumental historic buildings. The Shah Mosque is a shimmering example of Safavid architecture, the Ali Qapu Palace makes visitors dreamy as they imagine life in a spectacular, art-adorned palace.
The Lotfollah Mosque, which was built for the ladies of the harem in the l7th century, is an elegant and graceful architectural pearl.
After sightseeing comes shopping, and there’s no better place to browse for art, hand-stamped textiles, jewelry, carpets, and souvenirs of every stripe than the Imperial Bazaar. If your feet get tired, relax at a teahouse where you may want to try flavored tobacco in a water pipe.
At a teahouse, I overheard a few European tourists discussing their favorite sites. One waxed eloquent about the Jewelry Museum in Tehran, with its blinding array of functional objects covered in gold and dripping with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, and the Carpet Museum, with its brilliant pictorial carpets that are of such high quality that they can last hundreds of years.
Another foreign tourist extolled the Archeology Museum in Tehran, which features the art and artifacts of little-known civilizations like the Sialk (1000 BCE) or the 7,000-year-old Bakun culture. A third tourist agreed about the Archeology Museum, with its bronze lions, massive reliefs carved in stone, and symbolic elements like the lotus flower (longevity), and the palm tree (sweet life) – all found in the ancient city of Persepolis.
AT THE mention of Persepolis, my pulse quickened. It was one of the reasons I had come to Iran in the first place.
Persepolis, whose site Cyrus the Great may have personally selected, was the ceremonial seat of the Achaemenids, one of the world’s greatest and most extensive empires. The city dates from around 500 BCE, and lasted until Alexander the Great burned and sacked it in 333 BCE. According to legend and our guide Sohrab, Alexander needed 30,000 animals to carry off the gold and jewels from Persepolis. Going to the ancient city and seat of wealth and power was like visiting the remains of former great empires in Rome, Athens, Luxor or Palenque.
Today, Persepolis is easily reachable from the city of Shiraz. It rises from the desert floor, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We entered through the Gate of All Nations, where partially ruined monumental Lamassus statues still stand in proud, but broken glory. They have the head of oxen and the bearded face of humans – suggesting both power and intelligence.
Although much of the ancient site is in ruins, many of the fabulous friezes remain. They depict the gifts each nation brought in tribute: lotus flowers for longevity, perfume, gold, silk, giraffes, elephants, and, most prized of all, lions from Africa. The animals are so well depicted that you can still see the wide eyes of a sheep, its nostrils flared, as though it knows it is about to be sacrificed and eaten.
Also remaining are sculpted representations of the 10,000 soldiers who took care of the royal family. When one died he was replaced, so the number was always 10,000. Because their ranks never dwindled, they were called the Immortal Guards.
As I wandered past statues and friezes, columns and palaces, I reflected on how many empires have arisen, flourished and vanished. I thought of the countless soldiers who have died and continue to die in wars fought over power and resources, and the suffering of those they left behind.
As though reading my thoughts, a young Persian woman who spoke English well came up behind me. “Today’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies and friends,” she said. “We are all just humans, and we welcome you to our country.
We must meet each other, and love one another. It is the only way.”
: I traveled to Iran in a small group with Original World Travel, and recommend it highly for its professionalism, price, and personalized attention. 1-888-367-6147. [email protected] 
The author is an award-winning international travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications. She is the author of 'Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel' and 'The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands', and an acclaimed speaker and workshop leader. Her website is