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A Return to Iran

And yet we wouldn't want to miss the bus ride. Anyone who ever wondered where painters got their inspiration for the backdrops of ancient Persian miniatures need only take a drive through the wrinkled brow of the Fars province. Formed by a northward push from the Persian Gulf plate, the layered, jagged mountains look as if they've been dusted with pistachio powder and sprinkled with tufts of lavender. We wind along great walls of sedimentary rock twisted into uncanny swirls that loom like phantoms over the narrow road. The only signs of life are the caves of wild animals and, standing alone on a hill, a crumbling mud-walled fortress attesting to the days when bands of robbers roamed the area.

As the road flattens, wide black goat-hair tents announce the presence of Qashqa'i nomads making their seasonal migration north. Farther along, more sedentary residents have planted orchards of pomegranate trees whose blossoms stand out like rubies against the dense green foliage.

In Yazd's 18th-century Khan Bathhouse, now a restaurant, we order everything on the menu. Here, amid chambers tiled in cool turquoise and lapis, the men of Yazd would wrap their lower bodies in red and black lengths of woven cotton (appropriately called longs) and settle down for an afternoon of scrubbing, massage, and local news. The restaurant owners have preserved the subaqueous, ethereal feeling of the baths, polishing the white onyx pools to a translucent shine and restoring the high, airy domes whose stained-glass skylights let in a dreamy, rainbow contortion of natural light. It is the perfect spot to feast on fesenjoon, a savory duck stew cooked in an almost-black sauce of pomegranate and walnuts; ash-e-reshté, a lime-herb noodle soup; kashk-e bademjun, sautéed eggplant with whey and fried mint; and grilled chicken and lamb kebabs coated in a tangy lemon marinade.

JUST AS EACH REGION OF IRAN HAS ITS OWN CLIMATE, each city has a distinct flavor. In congested, concrete-choked Tehran, residents flock to film festivals, book fairs, and heated political rallies. In Kerman, known for its carpets and cumin, bazaar craftsmen pound designs into copperware as an old man yells, "Fortunes! Hafez and Sa'adi!" and points to the caged bird who will select a slip of paper inscribed with the wisdom of Iran's sages. In the desert town of Yazd, labyrinthine mud-brick alleys are punctuated by wind towers that rise like organ pipes against the blue sky, channeling cool air into the houses below. Most of Iran's Zoroastrians, devotees of a fire-worshiping religion pre-dating Islam, live in this area. In the hills outside Yazd, we hike up to the stone "towers of silence" where, until earlier this century, Zoroastrians would leave their dead to the mercy of the sun and the vultures.

Shiraz is famed for its gardens, poetry, and the wine that flowed from there until the revolution. It is the perfect base from which to visit Persepolis, seat of the ancient Persian kings and Iran's most important archaeological treasure. Destroyed in 331 b.c. by Alexander the Great, this ceremonial palace complex was built around 36 massive stone columns; 13 still stand at their original 65 feet. Below these, intricate black stone reliefs show Persian kings sacrificing mythological beasts and accepting homage from representatives of foreign lands; hulking lions and winged bulls lie scattered around the grounds.

Less than an hour away from this monument to lost empires is Shiraz, whose once-bustling tourist industry all but dried up after the revolution. Luxury hotels here, as in other cities, were taken over by the government and allowed to fall into disrepair. One prominent mullah, in a drive to destroy any evidence of past monarchs, even led a bid to raze Persepolis itself. Fortunately, revolutionaries contented themselves with blowing up the Persepolean two-headed cow that once greeted visitors driving in from the Shiraz airport.

Since then, Iran has rediscovered the economic advantages of tourism. Most hotels on our tour have recently been renovated and, except for the prayer stone and arrow in every room that point toward Mecca, resemble good hotels in Western countries. Shiraz's Homa Hotel has an impressive marble-floored lobby, a sauna (serving men and women on alternate days), and a garden café abounding with roses. It also features, in brass English letters above the entrance, a gleaming sign that reads DOWN WITH U.S.A.

We snap pictures of the sign. The staff discreetly ignores us. Late one night, stopping by the front desk, I ask why such an incendiary message has been left in a hotel that has seen such an increase in American guests. The concierge, a man in his forties, smiles cryptically. "In two days that sign will be gone."

"What do you mean?Why is it up at all?"

He shrugs. "It's like the chador. You have to wear it so they won't bother you about the rest of your behavior. Having that sign allows us to do other things." With the sign paying lip service to the anti-American party line, hotel staffers are free to be gracious to American guests; anyone who criticizes them for consorting with the enemy will be referred to the golden letters.

"In any case," he adds, "we can't take it down until we get a call from Tehran. The government makes these decisions. But you'll see, they'll call any day now."

The very positioning of a sign like this in such pleasant surroundings encapsulates Iran's conflicted emotions vis-À-vis the United States. Iranians are tremendously hospitable, and most would like to see their country normalize relations with the outside world. But no one has forgotten the long years of war during which, despite the fact that the tanks and bombs came from the direction of Iraq, America was so often held up as the true enemy of Islam. In every city, young soldiers stare out from billboards festooned with heavenly clouds and flowers that celebrate their martyrdom, and every graveyard has a section lined with the photographs of local boys who didn't make it home. It can't be easy for a mother who has lost four sons to the holy cause to come to terms with the American tour buses now trundling past her window.

Earlier this year, in an unprecedented interview on CNN, President Khatami called for a cultural dialogue with the United States. His critics condemned the idea, but supporters of normalization, at home and abroad, took heart. Khatami specifically mentioned exchanges between American and Iranian journalists, scholars, and tourists, and with this in mind, it's hard not to see these initial American visitors as cultural diplomats.

Balanced between the two cultures, I find myself playing the watchful mother hen as I travel with the Americans. I rush to stop them from giving a group of schoolboys the thumbs-up (similar to the middle finger in the United States); I hurry to adjust the scarves that constantly slip off the women's heads. Much as I agree that the scarf is hot and annoying, and much as I know that foreigners will be given some leeway if their behavior does not meet Islamic standards, I can't help my solicitousness. I want the Americans to enjoy themselves, but I also want them to make a good showing, to not be seen as flouting the rules.


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