Monday, November 29, 2010

Journey to Persia

The first time I located Iran on the map, the country had recently tossed out its shah and was embroiled in a bitter revolution. As I watched crowds of bearded men and women veiled in black shouting “Down with America!” on my TV screen, it never occurred to me that this troubled nation would one day become my favorite travel destination.

My next encounter with Iran came two years later when, as a student at an East German university, I roomed down a dormitory hall from an Iranian graduate student named Ali. He lived like a hermit, rarely venturing out of his small room at the top of the stairs, yet everyone was terrified of him. Ali had a reputation for being a mean drunk who’d once tossed a Finnish student down the stairs in a rage, which resulted in a serious head injury.

When I first met Ali, he was far from the drunken lunatic the stories made him out to be. Slight of build, with wire-rim glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee, he almost always had a friendly smile on his narrow face. Later, I learned that the Finnish student had indeed tumbled down the stairs and sustained a serious head injury. He’d been falling-down drunk at the time, and Ali had been nowhere around.

It was another two decades before I set foot on Iranian soil, but my first encounter with that country went much like my meeting with Ali.

“You must wear a black scarf,” the Iranian-born photographer advised me when he took my picture for a brand new Iranian passport. “And cover every strand of your hair.” The picture made me look two decades older and rather like the witch from Hansel and Gretel. But at least I wouldn’t be breaking any rules.

“If they detain you at the airport, act more devout than the ayatollahs,” said a concerned Iranian friend, who also suggested choice passages from the Koran for me to quote as proof of my piety.

But when I arrived at Tehran’s Mirabad airport, the passport control officer couldn’t hide his amusement at my horrible photo. And no one detained me; they didn’t even search my luggage. Instead, the customs official waved me through the line with a friendly grin and a cheerful “Welcome to Iran.”

Before I ventured into the street the following morning, my sisters-in-law fussed with my appearance. “You need more makeup.” They dabbed at my eyes with the mascara wand and searched their cosmetics bags for a brighter shade of red lipstick then turned their attention to my hejab (head covering and loose-fitting coat). “You look too Islamic,” they decided and loosened my scarf, pushing it toward the back of my head to reveal a wide swath of hair.

Iran is a country that never fails to surprise me. It’s a place where ancient traditions coexist comfortably with modern life and 7th century laws clash much less comfortably with 21st century attitudes. Where pre-Islamic Zoroastrian fire worship is reflected in angled mirrors on the walls of Shiite shrines, catching the light until they sparkle like diamonds. Where polygamy is legal, yet socially unacceptable. Because I never know what to expect, even after many visits, I just look around, camera and notebook at hand, and absorb the sights, sounds, and smells. For I know that no matter what happens, it will be an exciting adventure just waiting to be turned into a new story idea.

What was your first encounter with another culture? Did you have any expectations and were they met?


  1. Oh, Heidi, this is what I love about your writing--you explain all those scary stereotypes and make me want to visit this beautiful, complex place.

    P.S. Where was that glittery photo taken?

  2. Thanks, Supriya! The photo is inside the men's section of a shrine next to the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. My husband took the photo. I was in the women's section, getting a lesson in how to wear a chador without tripping over your feet. :)

  3. Heidi, that photo is absolutely beautiful! How wonderful you have a country you can return to again and again and still be fasinated and captivated by it all.

  4. I was totally ignorant of what Turkey was like when I went there in 2007. We had such a good time and I'd love to go back now! It's a beautiful place with warm and friendly people. And, of course, like all countries in that region, so full of history.

  5. Alli, I'm always dazzled by Iran's shrines. I try to visit one each trip, although they're not all as glittery as this one.

    Kaye, that must have been a wonderful experience for you in Turkey. I hope you do go back some day. I'm all for returning to places I've fallen in love with. There is always so much more to see and learn.

  6. I always wonder about stereotypes and how often they prove to be so totally not true. Some hold, others don’t – you just have to be careful not to upset or insult the people and their traditions, even by ignorance. It can be hard, but I noticed that no one ever got mad at me when I was politely asking exactly how I had to put on the covers to enter a mosque. In fact, most locals get excited when an outsider is trying to learn their ways. They feel proud and willing to forgive you for your mistakes. Well, I don’t know to what extent it would hold true in a more extreme places – like the Saudi Arabia that I am dying to see, but Persia is certainly on my list. I was told being Jewish is not a problem.

  7. Lina, I agree that people usually love it when they see you are interested in them and their culture/country, and they are willing to cut you some slack for faux pas. I provided plenty of entertainment to women in mosques and shrines with my struggles trying to wear a chador It's a great conversation starter, that's for sure. :)

    You should go to Iran. Being Jewish is absolutely not a problem there.