So I am a little concerned when, at a teahouse in eastern Iran, we are joined by a squadron of young men in dark-green military gear—the uniforms worn by the morals police who on previous visits I so often saw arresting people for looking "too Western." Our guide has warned us not to take pictures in this area; two weeks ago an American group was detained here and its film confiscated after a passerby objected to the photographing of schoolchildren. I wait tensely, praying that no one in our group will take a photo, when to my horror I hear the click of a shutter.
"Oh no, that was my last picture," says a voice behind me—and then I realize it is Farsi. I turn to see three green-shirted soldiers rushing over to ask their friends for more film. Then, laughing, they hurry back to snap more pictures of us, the foreigners.
Other interactions are more ambiguous. "Can you believe it?" exclaim a couple of Americans after a trip to the bazaar. "When our taxi driver heard we were from the States he refused to take our money, no matter how much we insisted. I've never seen such gracious people."
Iranian politeness is as subtle as the intricate latticework on the mosques. The rituals are so complex they have a name of their own: ta'arof. It has no English translation. A cabdriver, when asked the price for his services, will usually say, "It's nothing." Iranians know to insist. Arguments often ensue, with the customer forcing money into the protesting cabbie's hand, but an Iranian would never walk off without paying. It's a matter of pride. Maybe this taxi driver was being gracious, but in an occupation where every rial makes a difference, he was most likely ta'arofing, entering into a game that the foreigner couldn't possibly know how to play.
Bahram, our Shiraz guide, recalls getting the raw end of this. "The first time I led a foreign tour group they came up at the end with an envelope full of tips. I said, Oh no, you shouldn't'—you know, to be polite. The next thing I knew the guy said, Okay,' stuck the envelope in his pocket, and there went my tips!"
Such cultural crossings of wires have a history that most Iranians remember all too well. Attempting to emulate the West and make Iran a world power, the last shahs ignored the plight of Iranians while courting Westerners with caviar and lucrative oil contracts whose proceeds rarely reached the masses. Many Iranians who initially might have welcomed foreigners began to see them more and more as plunderers of Iran's wealth. The CIA's reinstatement of the shah after a popular coup, and the passing of a law granting diplomatic immunity to American military personnel, only increased the resentment. "If the shah were to run over a dog belonging to an American he would be prosecuted," cried an outraged Ayatollah Khomeini in one of the impassioned speeches that got him exiled. "But if an American cook runs over the shah no one will have the right to interfere with him."
Seen in this light, revolutionary Iran's animosity toward the West is not so hard to understand. As my friend Jalal put it, back on the mountain trail: "During the shah's time Iran had lost its aberu, its dignity. We needed the revolution to get it back."
TWENTY YEARS LATER, IRAN'S STEPS TOWARD readmitting foreigners resonate nowhere so strongly as in Esfahan, the country's crown jewel of travel destinations. Old-time Esfahanis nicknamed their city "half the world," convinced that most of the wonders on earth were contained among its elegant blue-tiled mosques, scented gardens, and ornate pleasure palaces.
As a child I used to run around Esfahan's 400-year-old main plaza, while foreign tourists streamed through an arcade of crafts shops, loading up on silver jewelry, silk carpets, and gold-woven tapestries from the reign of the Qajar shahs. Now the shops stand silent, their Welcome signs in English, French, and German faded and peeling. But as we walk along, merchants step out of doorways. "Mister! Madam!" they call out in English. "Would you like to see Persian carpets?Most beautiful quality!"—their sales patter well-oiled after all this time.
If Esfahan is more subdued than it once was, its Grand Abbasi Hotel, built in the shell of a 17th-century caravansary, still retains a distinct cosmopolitan flair. Its whitewashed arches create private balconies that overlook a courtyard of fountains and roses. The garden features a traditional Persian teahouse where Italians, Austrians, French, Germans, and Americans sit alongside Esfahanis enjoying an evening out. We sip tea from fluted glasses and pass around a waterpipe filled with fragrant tobacco, as fountains gurgle behind us. A few Iranian men are even wearing ties, the first I've seen in public since the revolution, when ties were declared to be symbols of Western decadence (early on, zealots would run up with scissors and snip off the offending article).
Ties are not a problem here; nor are the men and women sitting casually together on benches as piped-in sitar music tinkles overhead. The caravansary is back in business. And yet, as we eat spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream and allow our scarves to ripple in the warm breeze, the call of the muezzin starts up from an unseen minaret somewhere nearby. The wailing rises to a crescendo, drowning out the sitar for a few moments before it subsides and is lost in the hum of the city streets. We are left with an eerie, melodic ringing—a reminder that as we begin to venture back into Iran from different parts of the world, we are beholden to a history we cannot ignore.
ON MY NEXT VISIT I'LL PROBABLY BE SURPRISED AGAIN. Perhaps the morals police will be back in force; perhaps the golden letters over the hotel entrance will be gone; most likely both of these will be the case. What is clear is that Iran has become more thoughtful about itself and its position in the world. "We're letting Americans in now, so why don't they give us visas?" asks a lanky, sharp-eyed law student we meet in a park. "We gave a warm welcome to the American wrestling team," he adds, referring to a sports exchange between the two nations a few months ago. "So why were their Iranian counterparts held for two hours and fingerprinted?"
These are good questions, and as the trickle of American visitors widens, they will continue to be asked. Perhaps the best thing for travelers to keep in mind is that their presence here does not call up one simple truth so much as a multitude of interpretations. This was clear from the first day of our tour, outside the shrine in Mashhad. As the American women struggled to keep on their chadors, an old lady appeared at the other end of the courtyard, wrapped in black and making a beeline for the shrine. Passing by, she stopped for a moment and surveyed our group—the cameras, the fanny packs, the errant tufts of blond hair—then lifted her arms to the sky. "Oh, Emam Reza!" she cried toothlessly, ecstatically. "See how great you are! Even the foreigners have come all this way to see you!" Then she hurried on to make her pilgrimage.