Finding enchantment far from Montana
Posted: Saturday, Sep 06, 2008 - 11:48:04 pm MDT
Special to the Daily Inter Lake

Sam Neff, right, talks with a group of college-age men in the village of Abyaneh, Iran.
The village sits high in the mountains in west-central Iran. Neff is from Whitefish.
He and his wife, Ruth, helped organize a trip for Americans to visit Iran through
Neighbors East and West, a peace outreach group.

Iran refrain: ‘We love America’

The crowd of school children swarmed Will Randall on his way to the palace.

It was a hot, sultry afternoon in the town of Kashan, Iran, and we’d just finished touring the palace of a wealthy businessman. We stopped for a soft drink at a sidewalk vendor when we were spotted by the occupants of a school bus. The children flooded out of the bus and flanked us on all sides. Wanting to practice their English, the young children shouted “Hello, I love you” and “We love America!”

It was a common occurrence during a two-week trip to Iran in April that included Kalispell residents Will and Tammy Randall, Whitefish photographer Laira Fonner, and Ruth and Sam Neff of Whitefish.  Organized by the Neffs and Neighbors East and West, the trip was designed to help foster open communication between the United States and Iran.  The Neffs are strong believers in world peace and have led trips to Cuba and the former Soviet Union to help build relations between the United States and those countries.

“I was concerned about what George Bush was saying about Iran,” Ruth Neff said. “We just felt it was important for America to open its doors to Iran.”

For Tammy Randall, the trip to Iran was an eye-opener. “I never thought I would have said ‘some day I want to go to Iran,’” Randall, a yoga instructor in Whitefish, said. “But now I’d love to come back and lead tours. It’s so beyond any experience I have had traveling the world. Where else would you get the kind of reception you do here?”

Will Randall, a carpenter, was frequently besieged by Iranian children. He got the feeling of what it was like to be a rock star. But in Iran, you only have to be American to get rock-star treatment.

“You don’t have to apologize for being an American,” he said.

Tammy, who had to adapt to wearing the ever-present head coverings, was amazed at the reception we got as Americans, wherever we went. “They want conversation and they want to know what we think of Iran,” she said.

Will, too, said he was blown away by the friendliness of the Iranian people.

“It’s an amazing place,” he said. “We have more in common down deep than I thought. I figured the people would be gloomy or oppressed, but it was the opposite. The political climate does not hold these people down.”

The Kalispell couple, married 27 years, found Iran so enchanting that they renewed their wedding vows in an impromptu ceremony at the Imam Khomeini Square under the golden dome of a beautiful mosque.

“How do you describe Iran?” Tammy pondered. “It’s a feeling, a sensation. And I just keep thinking what a huge waste it would be to bomb this place. It would be unforgivable.”

A strange new world

It’s 4 a.m. and the sound of singing echoes throughout the quiet city square in Esfehan, Iran. The voice of a man singing the daily call to prayer floats over the city, which in a few hours will be teeming with millions of people.

Esfehan is a beautiful city deep in the country of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we’re in a different world. We’ve traveled far from Montana to visit this distant place, to witness a culture and a country that Americans seem to know very little about.

“You’re going where?” people asked as I prepared to leave for Iran. “Why would you want to go there?”

Good question, on the surface.  But I, and the other 18 people from around the United States who ventured to Iran, wanted to find out more about the people upon whom the U.S. government casts a wary eye.

It was in the Amsterdam airport, the last leg of the trip before flying into Tehran, that I first started to get a sense of what kind of people Iranians are.
Sitting in a crowded airport with about 200 other people, most of them Iranian, the looks from the Iranians did little to assuage my concerns. Many regarded me with a bit of distant bewilderment; after all, what would an American be doing boarding Iran Air? Only about 300 Americans visit Iran each year.

But upon boarding the airliner, I was promptly welcomed to the party. Iranians — old and young — approached me, wanting to practice their English or learn about America. Throughout the six-hour flight we were besieged with questions, conversations and small talk from the Iranian people. Here, on the plane, all defenses were down and we talked openly about our governments, our countries, our way of life.  When we landed in Tehran, the capital of Iran, the hospitality continued, even by the customs officers who detained us for almost two hours at the Khomeini Airport.

We were fingerprinted and sat waiting, but when we were released by the customs agents, they apologized for detaining us. “We have to fingerprint Americans now because the U.S. started doing that to Iranians,” one customs agent told us.  That sincerity was extended to our group throughout our two weeks in Iran.

Getting there

Getting to Iran is not simple. Each visa application from Americans is scrutinized by the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C., and it takes months to get a visa to travel in Iran. Our visas appeared only an hour before our flight departed from Kalispell. Two people who had hoped to travel with us were denied visas entirely.

I was traveling with a mix of young activists, retired hippies, a socialist, Quakers, a carpenter, a yoga teacher and a few scholars and professors.  We braced ourselves for the worst: kidnapping, torture, any number of things that could happen to American tourists in Iran — at least that’s what people warned us about.

But there was little reason to be concerned about our safety, except when Hillary Clinton, during her Democratic presidential campaign, made a remark during a speech in the U.S. about bombing Iran to protect Israel. Our tour guide then informed us that we were, in fact, being watched by Iranian Secret Service, and on closer inspection, we could tell who these people were. They tended to show up repeatedly in city after city, and when they approached us, asked the same questions: “Where are you traveling? What other countries have you visited?”

Ruth Neff, whose gentle demeanor contrasts her passion as a hard-driving peace activist, had to convince, connive and almost coerce people into going because of the negative image many harbored about Iran. Once they were there, though, the attitudes quickly changed.

“When I was first asked to go to Iran, I thought Ruth Neff was out of her mind,” Fonner said. “I was too polite to tell her that. But I’d go back tomorrow.”

What most Americans likely remember about Iran is the hostage crisis of 1979, when American students were held captive in the American embassy in Iran for more than 400 days.

During our stay in Tehran, our hotel was just around the corner from the U.S. embassy where the hostages were held in the 1979 crisis. It’s been closed since the hostage situation and there is no longer a U.S. embassy in Iran — although recently the U.S. government has begun plans to open a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran. It’s not a full embassy, but it will be the first diplomatic tie to Iran that America has extended in nearly 30 years.

We spent three days in Tehran, a bustling city of more than 10 million people with crowded bazaars, quaint sidewalk shops, beautiful historic mosques and polluted air. With gas priced at about 30 cents a gallon, everyone drives.  At noon, the shops close down, and the workers are given a break to attend prayer. At this time, the beckoning call of the prayer floats above the noisy din of city life, and the shops become quiet.

Rigid customs

Iran is a country of rigid customs, due in large part to its theocracy and Islam.  On Fridays, Iran commerce shuts down completely for Friday prayers. Women are required to keep their heads, arms and legs completely covered, while men are free to wear most anything in public, except shorts. Some women preferred a modest approach to the hijab, wearing a colorful head scarf, while other women wore the complete body covering. The American women traveling with our group also had to wear head scarves in public.

In the south of Iran, about a 10-hour drive from Tehran, we visited the tiny mountain village of Abyaneh.
Here we found a 14th-century village that clings to a rocky hillside, dotted with rectangular, red-clay houses. There was snow on the high peaks, and a tiny river twisted its way through the village of Abyaneh. Far in the valley below us, the dust of the desert and urban life settled into a brown haze, but here the air was fresh and clean.

Here we found relics of past civilizations. A castle perched on a mountain bench crumbled into the sand, and fortified caves with strong wooden doors were dug into the hillsides. Next to the crumbled castle was a satellite dish: another juxtaposition in this land of never-ending contrasts.

At night we sat on large carpets to smoke the kalyan, a Turkish-like water pipe, savoring lightly flavored tobaccos and sipping on tea.

The village of Abyaneh is inhabited by herders and farmers in a deep, green valley bordered by tall scrubby mountains. In Abyaneh there were strict customs of language and clothing. The women wore brightly colored hijab, similar to Peruvians, a tradition for this mountain village. (Hijab is the name for the covering that all women must wear in Iran.) This village is a stark contrast to Tehran, some five hours away. As night falls, you can hear the wail of a lone coyote high in the rock outcrops above the village. Across the street from the hotel, a goat bleated from inside a stick hut that was tucked into a gulch. Here, a man lived in a small circular hut with no roof and slept on a bed of leaves.

Leaving Abyaneh, our bus passed a military fortification in the desert where anti-aircraft tanks were lined up, their long gun barrels pointed west toward the horizon of the Alborz mountains. A nuclear power plant was said to be nearby, and we were told strictly not to take any photographs.

Along the highways, families picnic here and there, huddled under a single tree or in the shade of their car.

Iran seems to be a society that consists of two classes: lower and middle. From my interviews with shop owners, business people and college students, the middle class is frustrated by restricted economic and personal freedoms.

“Some day our country will be a museum that I will take my children to see,” said Hossein, a young man who ran a carpet business in Esfehan. “It is a bit difficult to explain the real situation here. The Iranians are a very talented people, if only they had the self-confidence. It is a country based on two emotions: joy and fear.

“We are living in a very lovely prison.”

The joy, he said, arises from the proud history that all Persians share, dating back thousands of years. The fear, he said, comes in part from knowing that you could be arrested for drinking alcohol or being with a woman who is not your wife. Stress also comes in the form of 17 to 30 percent inflation, stagnant wages and high cost of living. The American economic embargo with Iran has hurt the country also, Hossein said.

“We are not asking for simply a change. We are asking for real change,” Hossein said. “The U.S. offers many things to the world, as we offer many things.”

With their strong history and keen sense of who they are as a culture, many of the Iranians I spoke with were looking toward the West and seeing things they themselves might like to have — like freedom.

However, those I spoke with all seemed to share a disconnect between their personal lives and that of the government — not dissimilar to Americans’ view of the Bush administration.

Time after time we heard Iranians tell us they admired America, that they wanted to share in economic prosperity, that they wanted freedoms that we all take for granted in the United States. The problem, they said, is between our governments’ leaders, not between the people of the two countries.

Indeed, Iranians are proud of their heritage. Near the city of Shiraz, birthplace of the Shiraz grape, of which great wines were once made, we toured the ancient city of Persepolis.

Here, a ruined city stands among the sandstone foothills outside Shiraz. It was here that Alexander the Great, the Roman conqueror, sacked the palace of Xerxes and Darius. The ruins are incredible to behold. Tall stone columns pierce the blue sky, and intricate carvings decorate stone walls that once were homes for families and servants.

“Muslims have to visit Mecca one time in their lives,” our friend and tour guide Amir Arbaban told us. “I believe people should visit Persepolis at least one time in their lives.”

Despite the confines of a nation ruled by religion, there is order.

Iranians are a proud, joyous people who want the same things as Americans: prosperity, peace — and a future.

“We love America,” one young man told me on the street in Esfehan. “We love all countries. But America … it does not love Iran.”

They do see hope for a better relationship with America — while holding on to their unique culture.

“This is the beginning of a bridge between our two countries,” Arbaban said. “American people are great people with good hearts. We are at a new age. The time of fighting and bullying is over.”

Reese is the publisher of Montana Living Magazine. He may be reached at