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A Return to Iran

Although such leniency goes in cycles (a month from now, that same trail might be crawling with morals police), much of the current freer atmosphere can be traced to Iran's new president, elected last year. An overwhelming 70 percent voted in favor of the moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami, rejecting the conservative religious establishment's candidate and sending a strong message for change—specifically, a relaxation of strict Islamic codes and a rapprochement with the outside world.

When I arrived, the press, newly liberalized, bristled with opinions and arguments over everything from a woman's right to ride a bicycle to Koranic interpretations of foreign policy. Religious conservatives are attempting to slow the pace of reforms, but they can do little to combat Khatami's wide popularity, especially among women and the young. Half of Iran's 67 million inhabitants are under 18, demographics created by the government call for Islamic warriors during the eight-year war with Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of Iranian men are estimated to have died. But the war is over, and those left are faced with the challenge of shaping an Iran that can carry them into the modern world while staying true to the memory of the revolution they inherited.

TAKING LEAVE OF REZA'S SHRINE, WE SET OFF TO VISIT a 12th-century caravansary, a stopping point for traders along the ancient Silk Road, several hours out of Mashhad. We slide open our bus windows, unbutton our coats, and pass around a box of crumbly rice-flour cookies. Most of the group has traveled extensively, and is eager to discover Iran. Stuart, a retired Connecticut lawyer, plans to attend Jewish services in synagogues all over Iran. Gerry, a retired music teacher from Tennessee, calls the Iranians he meets "babe," and tries to locate a piano in every hotel.

We lurch over the rolling green hills in fits and starts, speeding down a slope only to stop short behind a herd of bleating Persian lambs, their fatty tails swaying awkwardly behind them. Frequently we must stop at police checkpoints; this area is close to the Afghan border, and the blood-red poppies staining the hillsides are reminders of the Silk Road's more nefarious modern incarnation—an international heroin-trafficking chain whose Iranian link the government is working hard to break.

At one checkpoint, as a young soldier with a rifle peers at us from the doorway of the bus, Joyce, the Californian, passes me a photocopied sheet of paper stamped with a U.S. government seal. "Warning," it reads. "The Department of State warns all U.S. citizens against travel to Iran, which remains dangerous because of the generally anti-American atmosphere and Iranian government hostility to the U.S. government. U.S. citizens traveling to Iran have been detained without charge, arrested, and harassed by Iranian authorities."

And yet despite this warning (which has since been softened), a small number of Americans are taking the plunge. Some are encouraged to do so by Iranian friends; some have a special interest in Islamic art. For others there is the frisson that comes from venturing into forbidden territory. "My friends and family told me I was crazy to go to Iran," is the common refrain; one traveler adds, "I even had a guy at work stop talking to me over this."

The Iranian government has issued similar warnings about the United States, cautioning its citizens against the moral decay of a country mired in sex scandals and gun culture. Privately, however, the Iranian view of the States has been more dualistic. As the government railed against the "enemy of humanity," illegal satellite dishes provided many Iranians with a steady diet of Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210. Schoolchildren were taught to chant "Death to America," but there was never a shortage of college students applying for U.S. visas.

Nowadays, Americans coming here find less antipathy than ever from the government. Gone is the American flag painted on the steps of the former Hilton Hotel for all to walk over. And the angry anti-American slogans that long adorned the walls of the former U.S. embassy have been scrubbed away. "It all looks so normal," muses a New Yorker as he watches a man wave his hands angrily and argue with a policeman who is writing out a parking ticket.

Women in Iran also have more freedoms than Westerners commonly assume. It is true that they're required to cover their heads and bodies; they also have fewer custody and inheritance rights than men. But within these confines, women form an unexpected power base. There are women lawyers and politicians (many lobbying to change current laws), women doctors, even women athletes (they gravitate toward skiing, riding, and target shooting, which can be performed in a scarf and long coat). Americans are surprised to see Iranian women driving cars and flashing jeans and high heels from under their coats as they browse the windows of trendy boutiques.

Iranians, too, are intrigued by us. Everywhere we go, people gather. We tell them where we're from, and their expressions change from interest to amazement. Schoolboys in a roadside town insist I am mistaken—"You must mean England," they laugh. "Americans would never be allowed into Iran."

IF VISITORS ARE SURPRISED BY THE WARM RECEPTION they receive in Iran, they are just as unprepared for the landscape. A high plateau surrounded by an even higher ring of mountains, Iran physically resembles a fortress, within which most travelers envision a harsh terrain of unvarying desert. But inside the ring of mountains, in an area one-fifth the size of the United States, lies an astonishing range of climates and terrains. Iranians like to say that at any time of year, a drive through Iran can take you through all four seasons: from the lush tea plantations on the Caspian coast to the arid date groves near Bam, the vast salt lakes around Qom, and the world-class ski slopes of the Elburz Mountains.

We are seeing much of this by bus, winding from town to village and stopping at ancient mosques and roadside teahouses. It is less efficient than Iran Air's inexpensive intercity flights—most highways still have only one lane in each direction, and the public bathrooms (a hole in the ground with a watering can instead of toilet paper) are a source of black humor among our group. But overland is the only way to go. Iran requires time—to get lost in the dusky corridors of a bazaar, to listen to the wooden-pipe song of a mountain shepherd, to eat faludé (icy vermicelli in orange-blossom water) while dangling bare feet in a freshwater stream.

Even traveling in this relatively leisurely way, we often feel rushed. In a 15th-century mosque, we stumble upon a women's Koran-study class just getting started. The friendly young women in black chadors ask us to join them; we reluctantly decline, explaining that we're on a tight schedule. Itinerary and arrival time are not natural Iranian terms, though, and as we hurry away I'm reminded of an old saying about how "in Persia, only foreigners and low people walk quickly."

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