Faces

Words

Road Trip

A month in Iran: 3200 mile road trip

Tehran to Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Homuz

We are just returned from a long road trip around Iran. I don’t like to write many words about my photographs since I intend for them to speak for themselves.  But, in view of the extensive disinformation about Iran, its people, and Muslims in general, driven by ignorance and political agenda, some explanation is warranted.


From the moment we arrived at IKA (Tehran airport) and were greeted by our incredible guide Hassan with roses (!) we were made to feel welcome and safe by virtually everyone we met throughout our trip. Food was shared. Invitations to dinner offered. Selfies with us were coveted. This was most intense in the Kurdish areas near the Iraq border, but we felt it everywhere. With only two exceptions*, all my photo subjects were enthusiastically permissive and often stared into the lens with mixed curiosity and warmth, and that most human and pervasive of reactions, hospitality. Most of the pictures are of the Iranians, so this website is titled Faces of Iran. This parallels the website I put up shortly after the Syrian catastrophe began, Faces of Syria, hoping to show the humanity that was being overrun by violence and war.


We never encountered individuals who expressed hostility to the US. It was always the other way round, often telling us about the relatives they had in the States, often in what they, with typical Iranian humor, called Tehran-geles (there being so many Iranians in LA). We did see a selection of anti-American signs, first on the wall of the “former” US Embassy and on another large building in Tehran, and later in a couple of other places. These served to remind us that like some other countries we know, Iran has its share of uninformed hard liners, and that in Iran they are already in control. I was approached on several occasions to be reminded in excellent English that not all was happy. Often this was related to difficulties young people have getting jobs (sound familiar?) in keeping with their educational achievement. They have hope that things are getting better with the (for them all too slow) relaxation of economic sanctions.


The dress code mandated by law is the subject of much angst by women travelers before they arrive. Madeleine was no exception and spent more time on her travel wardrobe than, from my perspective, she spends in three years for her San Francisco clothes. From the moment the flight landed at IKA to the take off from Bandar Abbas, “hijab” rules were in force. The minimum: hair covering, a loose outer garment (often an overcoat called a “manteau”) reaching down toward the knees, and loose pants to the ankles, all subject to interpretation. The fashionable young woman takes advantage of the interpretative freedom. Manteaux are colorful and often are seen with some very interesting and funny English words. Large architectural hair clips are available in quantity in every bazaar. They create a raised portion at the back of the head so that scarves will not fall off - or, perhaps more important, will not fall too far forward and cover too much hair. Elegant pocketbooks and shoes are often part of the look. To what extent the compliance with hijab is voluntary and cultural is complicated. Certainly, many older women would not feel comfortable without their scarves, and some not without the full covering of a chador. In  Bandar Abbas, I saw several examples of a (bright red) niqab covering a woman’s face. Nonetheless, young Iranian women will usually shed their scarves in a heartbeat when in private settings. Also mandated by law and tradition, the separation of the sexes is not my favorite aspect of the culture, but there it is. It is not for me, but for the younger generation of Iranians, to address.


The mosques and landscapes are beautiful. Most of the country is desert, sometimes extreme desert. It reminds me more of the American West than anywhere else we have been. The driving culture does not make a  former New Yorker uncomfortable, but for those unfamiliar with the Middle East, it can be unnerving. Lanes are often a bit optional. Rapid turns (and U-turns) from the wrong lane are to be anticipated. We joked about Iran being “bump-country” because of the speed bumps so often encountered. Radar and traffic checks are common, and, particularly near the drug routes from Afghanistan, security checks.


Our trip dates included the intense ceremonies connected with Ashura, the religious holiday that, for the Shias, mourns the assassination of Mohammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali in 680 CE. The murder marks the intensification of the Shia-Sunni schism that still drives so much conflict. There are many photos in this website taken during Ashura. We watched the culmination of Ashura from a rooftop above Bam’s main square. It was among the most amazing things we have seen in all our travels.


Iran’s is a very ancient culture, one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures and among the most resilient.  The Persians were there at the beginning of writing and astronomy. They invented wind towers, backgammon, polo, the hookah, and algebra. They founded, and lost, empires that straddled much of the known world. Many periods of their history were bloody. They fought the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols. Yet, an American who visits Iran today finds that a deep sense of history (many Iranians can recite by heart lines written by a 10th century poet) co-exists with a sophisticated modern society, that in many ways is very American-like. It is no wonder they are comfortable and effective at home in Tehran-geles.


I had just gone through the exit immigration at Bandar Abbas when a security policeman ominously pulled me over… All the concerns, worries, and warnings about the dangers of travel in Iran, from friends and government, came flashing by... like an end of life experience … He asked me how we liked Iran and Iranians. I told him what I told you, how intelligent, welcoming, and friendly they were. “Be sure to tell everyone in your country,” he said, and smiled warmly.



*In case you are curious, one exception was a young man in a major city on a date with a girlfriend, which, perhaps, was not sanctioned by family. The other was an Afghani in a far east town near the drug trade routes who, again perhaps, may have had other reasons to avoid being pictured.

Ashura