This is a slightly modified version of Bob and Alita Phelps' journal of their trip to iran with Neighbors East and West, April and May, 2009
Journal of Our Iran Journey
Sunday, April 26. When we woke and peaked underneath our shuttered airline window it was already broad daylight outside, and as the plane descended over Holland it was raining heavily. We Arrived Amsterdam-Schiphol, Netherlands at 9:15 AM, after approximately 4,155 miles. At the airport we had a couple of hours to catch up with most of the rest of our ÒNeighbors East and WestÓ tour group, most of whom we had not met before.
By the time all of us got to the hotel in Tehran our group numbered a total of 24, all Americans – 11 from Montana, the rest from other states – 5 from California, 4 from Georgia, 3 from Illinois, 1 from Indiana. We represented different walks of life – teachers, attorneys, social workers, doctors, 1 veterenarian, 1 prison chaplain, 1 seminary teacher, 2 UM pastors, 2 nurses, 2 ranchers, 2 Afro-Americans, a number of seasoned world travelers, several social activists, mostly Christians. Two of us were United Methodist pastors and three of us were Jews. All together we made an interesting collection of humanity ranging in age from 40 to 88.
We again had to go through security (under KLM guidance this time) to board Iran Air Flight 764 bound for Tehran-Imam Khomeini International. Once on board we found that our plane had obviously seen a lot of service. We departed from Amsterdam-Schiphol at 3:30 PM and arrived at Tehran at 11:30 PM, local time, after 5 hours and 30 minutes of flight and approximately 2,527 air miles.
Just before landing all the women had to don chadors, or some kind of complete head-covering. From then on, any time we were in public, including on the tour bus, this remained the requirement for all the women in our group for the remainder of the trip.
The customs process was tedious. The authorities debated whether to fingerprint our group of Americans, consuming about an hour during the process. Alita and I were among the first to be allowed through. The others took much longer. People at the check point seemed unsure how to process us into the country. Finally we all got checked in, without fingerprinting. It took more time to change some of our dollars into rials, our first experience with Iranian currency (one dollar equals around $10,000 rials, a very confusing monetary system).
We met Mana, our marvelously talented young Iranian tour guide, loaded up our tour bus and were driven for some 30 miles into Tehran where we were booked into Enghelab Hotel (Revolution Hotel, in Farsi). We didnÕt really get to bed until about 3 AM Monday, partly because none of my plug-in connections for my CPAP worked for the first night, in spite of help with an additional plug from the desk clerk. Before the 3rd night I managed to purchase a connector from another desk clerk that did work, a merciful relief because by that time I was dead tired.
Monday, April 27. Tehran pop about 15 million, elev 4,000 ft. The Lonely Planet tour book calls it 'one of most (air) polluted cities on earth.' We slept in until around 9. Still we managed to catch a late breakfast buffet in the hotel's restaurant – our first taste of Iranian breakfast cuisine, one that is heavy on tomatoes, yogurt, dates, flatbread and olives. Together we made a bus tour of the northern part of the city past expensive condos to the foot of the high mountains that overlook Tehran. Snow-covered Mt. Damavand at 18,606 ft. is the highest.
A ravine into its rocky hillsides is a favorite excursion area for locals. To get there we wound our way through an ancient part of the city. Our tour guide Mana told us that this part of Tehran is at least 3,000 yrs old. The city has huge pollution and traffic problems. Mana said that Tehran adds 1000 vehicles a week to its traffic congestion.
Tuesday, April 28. Sight-seeing in Tehran: We visited a Carpet Museum, an Archaeological Museum, a Ceramic Museum, and the Sa'ad and Golestan Palaces.
Whether walking the streets of Tehran, or the gardens of ancient palaces, we quickly became accustomed to people, both old and young, coming up to us and asking us where we were from. When we told them, "From the US," they without exception showed their delight, wanted to talk to us and try out their English, and some of it was quite good. Teenage girls, with their full head-covering black hijabs, typically wanted to take our pictures with their camera cell phones even as we in turn got their photos. People frequently spoke approvingly of "Obama" and disapprovingly of "Bush."
Wednesday, April 29. We drove by the compound of the old US Embassy, with its streetside walls covered with pictures and slogans decrying the stars and stripes, the statue of liberty with skull instead of normal face, stars and stripes hanging from a pistol, quotations from Ayatollah Khomeini mobilizing the people against 'the great satan.' No photograph-taking of the wall was permitted. We then took a ride on TehranÕs new and very crowded subway to the cityÕs bazaar, ending up at Jamshidiyeh Park, outside of TehranÕs Peace Museum, which for some reason was closed. (note: it is still being renovated, after two years.)
Thursday, April 30. In our chartered bus we headed south out of Tehran through a part of the city our guide told us is nicknamed 'Texas' presumably because of its 'Wild West' atmosphere. It is rarely visited by most Tehranians even today. This is Ahmadinejad territory – deeply religious and working class. Ahmadinejad has given these people hope.
About 50 miles south in the desert we came to the holy city of Qom: pop 1,070,000 elev 2793 ft.. This is Iran's religious capital, much of it still under construction, thanks to Ahmadinejad. We visited Hazrat-e Masumeh, the burial place of Imam Raza's sister Fatemah, who died and was interred there in the 9th century AD. By prearrangement we were treated to a private meeting in the gold-domed shrine with Imam Mohammad Nazari, Director of International Affairs of the Holy Shrine of Hadrat Fatimah Ma'sumeh of Qom.
Among other interesting things we learned from him that according to Shiite theology, women are completely free to study, work, and choose their husbands. He told us that 65% of the student bodies of their universities are women.
Women can become (Shiite) clergy. They cannot, however, have a 'following', which prevents them from becoming ayatollahs. This imam specializes as a counselor. He particularly admires an American counselor whom one of our tour members knows personally – a startling reminder that we are not so different after all. His well educated daughter was listening in on this conversation through the glass window from another room: she is studying to be an engineer, if I remember correctly, but is just at home in theology. I have a hunch she is doing her own part to educate her dad!
We then drove further south to Kashan pop 320,000 / elev 2805 ft., home to human settlements since at least the 4th millennium. Legend has it that the Bible's 'Three Wise Men' set out from Kashan to pay their respects to the newborn Christ, an event that might have happened given that the 'Wise Men' were reputedly magi and thus possibly Zoroastrian priests We visited either the Tabatabei house, a well-preserved home of a rich merchant., and then drove on to Abyaneh Village and Abyaneh Hotel, with snow flurries falling on us as we approached town.
Abyaneh is 6885 ft. in elevation. Alita had real trouble breathing at this altitude, a problem complicated by the fact that our room in the hotel was on the 3rd floor and during our stay the elevator was not working. We began to suspect that she might be dealing with a return of BOOP*. She had gone to her health care provider in Whitefish the week before our departure for what we thought at the time was a 'bug' going around.
(*Bronchiolitis obliterans with organizing pneumonia)
Friday, May 1. We spent the day in Abyaneh. Caves in the surrounding Zagros Mountains' stony hillside are used to provide shelter for sheep flocks. One man from Esfahan took some of us down a winding street to meet members of his family – aunt, sister, grandmother and grandfather. Flowery head dresses are characteristic here for old women. The village is a popular picnic destination for families.
The village has a distinctive mountain culture and its dress style is more Turkish than Arab. One small note: the hotel dining room offered packets of instant coffee that have a 'Red Eagle' label that displays an American flag on the background. Surprised that the stars and stripes should be displayed anywhere in Iran we turned the packet over to read in English that it was "made in Malaysia." We wondered how it had escaped detection because some of the printed labeling was also written in Farsi!
Saturday, May 2. As the day began in Abyaneh, most of the group wanted to hike, so they left for a 3 mile hike to a Zoroastrian temple at 9 AM. The bus departure time was rescheduled for 10:30 AM. A roadside rest stop was arranged en route next to what appeared to be a tree farm: women went to the right, men went to the left. Before that, on the edge of the mountains Mana pointed out an adobe settlement on top of one ridge that is reputed to have been built 1600 years ago. Shortly afterwards we passed by Natanz, Iran's nuclear-enrichment facility, located outside a little town and right alongside the highway, complete with anti-aircraft guns and Revolutionary Guard troops. We drove further south to Esfahan and our lodging at Parsian Suite Hotel.
Sunday, May 3. Esfahan pop.1,630,000/ elev 4572 ft., is revered as Iran's masterpiece, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. It is the country's third largest city. We spent the full day visiting various sites in this beautiful city beside a river including the Chehelsoteun Palace, Nagash e Jahan Square, Alil Opu Palace, Imam Mosque, Shekh Lotfollah Mosque and the nearby bazaar. During our stay, however, there was no water in the river bed. Iran has periodic water shortage problems.
I asked Mana, our guide, about the swastika-like symbol that appeared in the pictorial design of one of the mosques. That's a sebastica, she said, an Aryan symbol that says, 'We are not Arabs; we are Aryans.' 'I hate Arabs,' she went on to say. 'Young people in Iran today are picking up Arab words. This disturbs true Iranians. The use of the sebastica symbol has long been a secret way of protesting the invading conqueror's right to impose his will on the Iranian people.'
We developed new respect for our bus driver and for Iranian bystanders as our driver maneuvered our huge bus out of a tight jam under an overpass with the assistance of bystanders who simply picked up an automobile that was in the way and moved it onto the sidewalk. It was a respect for drivers that was increased when Alita and I caught a cab the next day to get back to the hotel and witnessed first hand the skill of the driver who maneuvered his vehicle literally within inches of other vehicles in ways I would never attempt back home in the States. There are no marked lanes for traffic in Iran. Buses, cars, and motorbikes simply surge in a body together, with pedestrians occasionally cutting across their lanes of traffic on foot.
Monday, May 4. Esfahan. A full day of sight-seeing, including the beautiful foot bridges, Vonk Cathedral, the synagogue, and Shaking Minarets. We learned that morning that we were under severe restrictions as far as wandering freely in Isfahan was concerned. Our hotel was right across the street from the 33 bridges main walking bridge and a popular public park. Yet we could not leave the hotel when we wanted to. We were under virtual house arrest without our guide. We began the day by visiting the Shaking Minarets – a popular tourist attraction. A local man climbed up into one minaret, shook it, and a sympathetic vibration occurred in the other minaret. We werenÕt quite sure what the religious meaning of all of this was, but like Old Faithful, every hour on the hour it sure attracted a crowd of onlookers.
We then visited the Armenian Church (All SaviorsÕ Cathedral (Vonk), 1655-1664) and the adjacent Armenian museum. The cathedral is no longer used for worship. The Armenian Christian community worships elsewhere apparently. Iran allowed Armenians to escape to Iran from the terrible holocaust of 1917 in Turkey.
We then visited the Jewish synagogue that is still an active synagogue, but is under severe restrictions. This Jewish community is no longer able to operate its own school.
In our tour of the city we learned that access to the river is public domain in Isfahan and that the parks on the river banks are maintained at public expense for all to enjoy.
Tuesday, May 5. Esfahan. We visited the main foot bridge, essentially built for the king, and then visited 2 palaces. One of them octagonal in design, surrounded by a huge, green public park. As we left, Alita and I were approached by a young couple who wanted to try out their English on us. The woman seemed to be of a traditional background because when I asked if I could take their picture she said 'na, (no, in Farsi), shaking her head. The second palace, of '14 Pillars,' had an interior with many huge paintings on walls and ceilings – much like the paintings that adorn the museums of Europe. One of the paintings displayed figures of persons whom Mana said portray people whose behavior indicates that they were obviously gay or lesbian.
We then had lunch together at the same restaurant where we all ate on Sunday night – kind of a 'goodbye' celebration to 4 in our group who would not be continuing with us to Shiraz, and a way of celebrating our leaders. We noticed over in the corner, the American flag was displayed among flags of many nations, an unusual sight.
Alita and I came back to the hotel to spend the afternoon there after getting permission from our guide for Isfahan, a woman, who told me that I look like her grandfather. AlitaÕs cough continued to sound troublingly like BOOP.
Wednesday, May 6. We had a long bus ride to Shiraz, pop 1,750,000 elev 4593 ft.. on the way visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great in the ruins of his capital city of Pasargadae (530 BC).
Some of the other things I learned about Cyrus the Great (Kourosh in Persian) on this trip:
Ÿ He was the first Archaemenian Emperor (580-589 BC.
Ÿ He founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian tribes – the Medes and
Ÿ To the pregnant women on his staff he gave a 3 month maternity leave.
Ÿ He allowed no slave-labor in his kingdom.
Ÿ The freeze statues of him, his royal staff and the supplicants to his court,
including himself, portrayed all the men looking exactly like each other. This
was one of his ways of saying that in his kingdom all men were equal.
Ÿ He showed great forbearance and respect towards the religious beliefs and
cultural traditions of other races. When he conquered Babylon, he did so to
cheers from the Jewish community who welcomed him as a liberator, allowing
the Jews to return to the land of Israel.
Ÿ He had the wisdom to leave unchanged the institutions of each kingdom he
attached to the Persian crown.
Ÿ He established the world's first postal system.
Thursday, May 7. We spent the full day sight-seeing in Shiraz, including the tombs of the poets of Hafiz and Sadi, the Eran garden, the Nasirolmolk mosque, Vakil bazaar and Karim Khan Citadel. I took a picture of a young man who was drawing some calligraphy off to the side of Sadi's tomb (after first getting his permission). He insisted on giving me what he had drawn, signing his name to it.
At the bus, Mana, our guide, translated his beautiful script. It was one of Sadi's most famous poetic lines, one that she really loves, she said: 'All of my life I am drunk on your love because even before my existence you are in my heart – Aramgah-e Sa'di, poet, 1207-1291. His most famous works are the Golestan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Garden of Trees).
Friday, May 8. From Shiraz to Persepolis and back to Tehran. It took us about 1.5 hours to drive to Persepolis elev. 4890 ft..It is said that Persepolis, probably first built by Darius the Great, embodies the greatest successes of the Archaemenid Empire. The city was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. We Visited Naaqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab (tomb of Darius the Great) before returning to Shiraz prior to our evening flight to Tehran at 5:00 PM.
(We lost about 5 hours waiting in the hotel lobby while one
of our group went to the authorities, with our guide and tour leaders, to work
out what to do over her lost/stolen passport. She was sure it had been stolen
from her purse in the bazaar. It
turned out the next day that she had inadvertently placed her passport in her
room-mate's suitcase. That evening we flew back to Tehran in an hour's flight. The plane was full to capacity.)
Saturday, May 9. Some of us visited the Tehran bazaar again, and I spent some of that time meditating inside men's section of a nearby mosque with my Quaker professor friend Steve.
Three of us managed a brief unscheduled visit with Ali, a Kentucky educated director of a skin-disease center related to the U of Tehran, who quoted to us from Cyrus the Great: 'The hands that serve the other are more holy than the lips that pray. Ali's son came back to Iran as a 14 year old. Ali's dream is that instead of spending money on weapons the nations of the world will spend their money on combating disease and disasters.
Sunday, May 10. 'The longest Mother's Day ever' – our flight back to Whitefish. We went to bed at 9:30 PM Saturday night, knowing that we had to be down in the hotel lobby by 1:00 AM Sunday morning, which we managed to do, along with the 7 or 8 others who were also scheduled on the 5:15 Iran Air flight. We learned as we waited that the group who had left earlier (10 PM) the night before for a 2 AM KLM flight were still waiting at the airport, bumped until 7 AM. We checked in and cleared security without problems and were on our way around 5:30 AM. Arriving on schedule in Amsterdam we were briefly held up at the check-in for Northwest, told that our Visas might not be in order, but after being put on hold with Kathy Young and Mary Mumby for about 10 minutes were allowed on through. Alita and I had non-aisle seats for the 10 hour flight to Seattle, Then 9 hours in SeaTac, part of which time was taken up with customs, which was mercifully swift and gentle. The flight home was uneventful.
Finally, this little postscript. Since everybody now knows of the political turmoil in Iran, and as I send out copies of this Journal on 06/18/09 the outcome of it is still uncertain, I want to add a couple of comments.
The first is a memory from the city of Esfahan. Alita and I rode up on the hotel elevator to our room one day with a man who was obviously a foreigner like we were. He turned out to be from Austria. For some reason the subject of the up-coming Iranian elections came up. 'They don't mean anything,' he said. 'In spite of the the name, this is not a Republic.' The election is already decided. I know these kinds of elections. I lived most of my life in such a system.'
The second is an e-mail that has been going the rounds of those of us who were on the Iran trip. It comes from the young woman who was our very skilful and politically savy tour guide. Her life has literally been at risk in recent days because she has been among the young people of Iran who have been out on the streets demanding that their votes be counted. This is what she has written:
'We are living in a battle field these days, the special police is out everywhere, they attack people and hit them merciless, I do not know if you heard that there was a unbelievable cheat in election and the previous stupid president was chosen again. The leader ignored all the votes and said he has to be president for another four years and it made the people mad. The other night I was out, it was exactly a war, fire, bullet and blood. There were enormous number of police on motorcycle, the rode on the side walk and hit all the pedestrians. My friend sheltered me between himself and the wall. They hit him, he saved my life; the police was aiming my head. I do not know what is going to happen , but today there is going to be another big gathering to protest and I will be there.
I hope that we can kick the dictators out of the country that is very difficult as no country is supporting us.'
It's hard for Alita and me to read these words. The election in Iran has become a very personal issue for us now. We not only can visualize the places that get mentioned in the news reports, but now we know real people there, marvelous people, who are longing for freedom and a better life. We believe that the whole world has a stake in what's happening in Iran. We have returned to the States convinced that there's an enormous well of support for a new political direction there.