Finding enchantment far from Montana
Posted: Saturday, Sep 06, 2008 - 11:48:04 pm MDT
By DAVE REESE
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org