Friday, April 29, 2016

Iran the Second Time Around: 10 days in April 2016

I missed out on the February Pakistan trip:  visas for US citizens required a personal interview and their nearest offices were in Los Angeles.  So cancelled out. And thus on  to Iran with Political Tours.  (Ironically, got the Iranian visa via the Pakistan embassy in Washington DC  through my visa service with little hassle.)

I had been in Iran for ten days in May 2005, visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd and Esfahan.  This had been a budget, sightseeing tour which I greatly enjoyed.  So PT's ten days in Isfahan (same as Esfahan), Shahrekord, Qom and Tehran was tempting, particularly given their approach to travel - essentially an inquiry into the political and economic scene.  More interesting given the easing of sanctions imposed by the West.  I remembered the friendliness and courtesy of the Iranians.  But necessarily had  seen it through the eyes of our guide, a professional class young man who was an IT man who  avoided serving in the Iraq-Iran war.  But who was knowledgeable about the history, current and ancient, of his country..  But still, a sight seeing tour.  Though a good one.

So going with Nicholas Woods' group was cutting through the frosting and into the cake.  Guiding us was Christopher de Bellaigne,  author and Iranian expert extraordinaire.  There was also a local guide plus Nick and Karen, his wife.  Top notch!  We were a gang of nine:  mostly from the UK, but myself, two Australians and a Russian to flavor the mix. Several  retired.  Backgrounds were varied:  business,  academic,  linguist,  criminal justice, NGO.  All were serious travelers. 

We started in that most lovely of cities, Isfahan, Easy evening, walking about town,  getting oriented and acquainted  for the next day we took off via  private bus to Shahrekord (Shahr-e Kord per Lonely Planet and Wikipedia) where we spend time visiting two businesses:  an appliance factory and a cement firm.  Both had survived sanctions by business domestically and with Iraq, Turkey and China. 

The owner of the appliance business had an MBA from the US and had his son following the same path.  Wandering about the factory, I found it noisy and dusty, somewhat automated but without safety features  required in the US.  Updating it would disemploy a number of workers - always, the unintended consequences.  The cement firm was neater:  a gardener was working outside the main office, we were issued hat hats and safety vests; followed by an ambulance as we were escorted around.  Immaculate, considering the product.  Seemed more up to date than the appliance factory.

Returning to Isfahan,  we stopped at a village, Yaseh Chah (I think).  Wandered about crumbling homes which hopefully will be restored as a model village for tourist viewing.  We had tea with a village elder and picnic lunch along the river back of his home.  Interestingly, the men of the house  met with us with woman seen only upstairs as we left. 

One of the most memorable experiences  was at the martyrs cemetery, where soldiers who had fought in the Iran-Iraq war (a big deal to the True Believers) were buried.  Several of our group chatted  briefly with a brother of one of the buried as a covey  of grade school girls came by led by several adult women, chanting "Death to America"!  When I was identified to them as American, there were apologies and assurances by both the supervising Imman and the  woman in charge  that this was not directed at me, personally.  Subsequently, the girls - and our group - were presented with faux medals  by Revolutionary Guards, picturing one of the heroes of the war.  Apparently, this is a yearly excursion for the girls; boys have the same opportunity, just not with the girls. 

The contrast to this was time spent at a Music Museum of Iranian Instruments.  Not only did we see the various instruments, but were treated to a concert by the two owners.  They discounted  my earlier  experience at the cemetery, saying things were changing.  At one point music was forbidden and now there were numerous studios and teachers.  This experience certainly balanced  the earlier experience. The other side of the coin.

We did make a stop at the Armenian Church which reminded me that Iran hosts a number of people of varying religions including the largest number of Jews outside Israel.  We also  spent an evening  observing a Zurkhaneh session, an ancient, aerobic men's exercise routine with drumming and chanting - this was not as good as I remembered from before.

There is always Naqsh-e Jahan  (Eman Khomeini) Square, the UNESCO world heritage site, a magnificent place featuring the gloriously tiled Jamen Mosque.  Shops and restaurants are in the buildings surrounding the square.  Horse driven carriages are available for rides about the area.  It is a central point for the city.  And we did some wandering about Isfahan:  I remember lovely bridges across the river. And a jump across I didn't try.

On to Qom, the religious capital of the country.  and the meeting with the mullahs. The first we met by chance, on the street, a rather cheerful man from Pakistan; he had been here for ten years, returning  home come Ramadan. 

Another with whom we had a scheduled appointment, saw  himself as quite liberal, willing to see changes in th
e penalties for not wearing the hejab - which all women were required to wear,  .  Moslem or no.  He still retained the  "company" view when it came to the international scene though he explained there were even more "traditional" thinking among the religious.

When we visited what I assume was the Hazrat-e Masumeh, burial place of Fatemeh, there was a funeral of some six Afghans who had been killed in Syria, fighting ISIS.  The women of tour group were loaned oversized flowered figured abelas so we could accompany the males into a meeting with another, and more conservative, Imman.  

Then to the smog and traffic of Tehran, with its convoluted and uncompleted freeways.  We visited Laleh, a private hospital.  Doctors often work at both the public and private facilities, Care varies greatly. with  IAMAT not listing Iran.  But worth mentioning or no:  male docs are the only males who still wear ties - apparently they were discarded following the Revolution. Out with the ties and on with the hejab! 

In the park area in northern Tehran, two of us met a lady who was determined we come home with her for lunch.  And there is another man who discounted the clerics and determinedly shook my hand, not common between men and women.  At an art gallery/cafe, off an alley, , I ran into several from California. 

There were several meetings with business people.  One problem is the transfer of monies via the banking system, which may explain why credit cards are not used - or it may be the Islamic attitude toward usury.  These representatives were hopeful problems could be resolved.  While it appeared they had done well, the businessmen thought the lifting in sanctions would see them more active in the world markets.  Tourism was a plus.

One of the high points, for me, was the visit to the girls' school.  An exclusive private facility, it provided about everything for the students:   Besides the basics (including computers from China), music, dance, swimming, ice skating - you name it.  The students were highly motivated: medicine, dentistry, engineering, architecture were some of their goals. 

Then there was the time at the newspaper office with a glimpse into the newsroom.  Apparently,    the budget balanced with the printing of books.  The editor, who was secular, apparently is secondary to the advisor, a cleric.  Anything like Investigative Journalism is non existent.  As our New York Times guy found out.

One evening was spent with the family of our Iranian tour manager.  She and her husband had a large apartment - the living-dining room was larger than my  entire apartment .  But living with them are members of her husband's family, including the patriarch, suffering from MS.  Most all spoke English and were most hospitable.

We did the tour of the Shah's palaces.  Been there, done that!  Yes, he lived high.  I do wish we could have checked out the former US Embassy but that wasn't possible.  I skipped the bazaar.

Most Unforgettable:  1.  The student-interpreter at the girls' school who was so facile in English with great body movements, I thought she had lived overseas.  I was assured she had learned her English via television and film.  She hoped to be a politician so she could help people.    2.  The suave Iranian, now a Swedish national, who worked out of Dubai that I chatted with in the Tehran hotel lobby.  We talked of the layers one must go through to understand Iran and Iranians.  3.  My  fellow traveler, a former British  government executive, who asked the most interesting and hard questions. 

Difference between then and now:  Ten years ago, the people I talked with were at beat, middle class:  shopkeepers and those staying at our modest hotels.  This time, we were often talking with some of the movers and shakers.  I saw a more prosperous bit of Iran though there was an effort for us to see and chat with average citizens.  Lots of new buildings and buildings in progress, the latter  a result of the sanctions?  Also, there was loosening of the women's dress code - some color along with the prescribed black and hair showing.  There was no change in the friendliness and hospitality of the Iranians.  We were offered tea and pastries at almost every meeting.

Accommodations:  From a three star in Shakrekord to  four star Abbasi in Isfahan (a remarkable hotel based on an old caravanserai) to the would be five star Espinas in Tehran.  All excellent and way above my usual.  They provided great people watching, particularly  checking out the Western women's efforts to adhere to the Iranian dress code. 

Food:  Great. Ranging from the pizza parlor to a picnic to  lying on a bed while eating.  Good food; good restaurants. 

Cost:  Political Tours:  $5204 inclusive.  Turkish Airlines: $964 (very good except for long layover in Istanbul) .  Tips and gifts: $250.

Christopher  talked of the duality. The  Iranian-Swede talked of the layers. What you see is not necessarily what you get.  The ultimate authority is religious and while   they have softened some as the secular pushed  to move ahead  and reengage the west.  Rather than have another demonstration, the Mullahs loosened the apron strings.  But I suspect some would be  delighted if the West, ie the US, gave them any excuse to pull back.  One of the unintended consequences of the sanctions is that the Iranians found they could survive in an alternate world, sans the West.  So they don't  feel in a one-down position vis a vis the West.  What would be interesting is if the US ceases to be their Number One Enemy - what that would do to the religious' power! It's a love-hate relationship with the US, depending on who is speaking.  Europe seems to be more active in entering the Iranian market, sans sanctions.. Little was asked or  said about Hezbollah, allegedly  sanctioned/supported by  the religious sector.

Regardless, it is a lovely place to visit, it is safe, the people are friendly and they do want tourists. 

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