A Return to Iran
Look what we've missed: mountain landscapes straight out of Persian miniatures, pomegranate groves, and extraordinarily welcoming people plus one of the world's most demanding dress codes
MY MOTHER WAS 21 WHEN SHE PUT ON A CHADOR for the first time. It was during a trip through northeastern Iran, and my father had suggested they stop in the holy city of Mashhad to see the famous shrine of Emam Reza. After a visit to a local tailor, my mother found herself covered in the tentlike shroud required of all women entering the holy place. But even with only her eyes, nose, and mouth exposed, she was stopped at the shrine's entrance. "No foreigners!" barked the men guarding the brick archway. "Only good Muslims are allowed."
"This is my wife," my father barked back. "How dare you say she is not a good Muslim?"
The men reluctantly let her through.
It was 1966, and my mother had just arrived in Iran. A native of Los Angeles, she spoke no Farsi. Her formal study of Persian culture was limited to a cookbook she had bought when she met my father, an Iranian architecture student at Berkeley. In Tehran, my parents moved into an apartment above his parents. When his father learned that my mother was expecting her first child, he asked her to convert so that her children would be born pure according to Islam. She obliged; a short time later came the visit to the shrine.
Once she passed through the entrance, my mother was separated from my father and directed toward the women's section. Slipping off her shoes with everyone else, she walked tentatively over the pale-green marble floor. As she looked up at the twinkling mirrors and glass chandeliers, a sea of black-clad women closed in, screaming and moaning in religious ecstasy, pushing her toward the silver cage that enclosed their martyr. Trapped in a crush of women crying out prayers for sick husbands and crippled children, my mother prayed her chador would not slip off and reveal her red hair, her pale skin, her obvious foreignness. A foreigner had recently been killed after sneaking into a shrine elsewhere in Iran, and my mother imagined these women ripping off her covering and jumping on her in righteous wrath before my father had a chance to find her.
THIRTY-TWO YEARS LATER, I AM SITTING IN A BUS full of jet-lagged American tourists headed toward that very shrine. Mashhad, Iran's largest city after Tehran, houses the country's most important pilgrimage site, a massive complex of mosques and theological schools that was begun in the early 14th century and has been added onto regularly since then. The city grew up around this shrine, and every street leads toward its large blue dome, its smaller gold one, and the smattering of minarets that shimmer above the hazy, low-slung skyline.
Sidewalks bustle with shrine-related activity—mullahs in turbans and long cloaks walk together in earnest conference; an old blind man holds out his hand for donations in return for blessings; shops display dark red prayer rugs, Khomeini key chains, and wooden-handled scourges for self-flagellation at Shiite mourning rituals.
Amid all this, our bus pulls to a stop. Sixteen Americans file off. Our tour leader hands the women folded chadors and calls out mystifying instructions that involve draping the straight part over the head and letting the round part hang over the body.
"But how do you make it stay on?" agonizes a Californian as the voluminous half-circle of cloth slips off her blond head once again. Beside her, the other women go through a similar struggle, as their husbands look on helplessly. I've done this a few times, so after securing my own chador I step in to assist them. And yet even after each American woman has pulled the top down over her forehead and gathered up the extra cloth so the edges won't drag in the dust, the final result resembles not so much a group of modest Islamic women as a band of oversize Halloween trick-or-treaters sweating under black ghost costumes. "Please stay together and follow me," says Reza, our local Mashhad guide named after the Mashhad holy man. We troop behind him, a few women still wriggling under their chadors, as a line of Iranian pilgrims stand transfixed, staring at the outsiders at their gate.
We are separated from the men. In a small room, black-clad women use Kleenex to wipe away any trace of our lipstick, and tap giant rainbow-colored feather dusters to point out any hair falling forward from our chadors. Only then are we allowed to enter the outer courtyard where, beneath a row of 500-year-old tiled archways, we hear about Emam Reza, a charismatic Shiite holy man who is believed to have been poisoned here by an Arab rival in a.d. 817, giving rise to a cult of martyrdom (Mashhad literally means "place of martyrdom").
As our Reza tells the story, women in black chadors gather around, whispering and pointing and shaking their heads. Worried that we are doing something wrong, I ask one of them if it is okay for us to be here. She draws in her breath. "You speak Farsi?" she says incredulously. I explain that I am half-Iranian and that I lived in Iran until I was 11, the year of the revolution. "Well, then you can answer our question," she says. "Where are these people from?"
I pause, wondering how they will take the news that their most sacred shrine has been invaded by emissaries from the place Iranian clerics call "the Great Satan." Lowering my voice I say, "America."
Another gasp. "Truly, these are Americans?" I nod. "And they are going inside the shrine?" I start to assure her that we are not, but she pushes past me to reach Jane, a hazel-eyed history teacher from Baltimore.
"Welcome to Iran!" she says in joyful Farsi, grabbing the surprised Jane's hand and pumping it vigorously up and down. "We are very, very happy to see you! We hope you enjoy your visit."
IRAN IS NOT WHAT YOU WOULD EXPECT, EVEN FOR SOMEONE who's been here before. I arrived in May for my third visit in five years, this time to join one of the first groups of Americans to travel through the country since the taking of the American embassy in 1979. Flying in early to visit family and friends, I barely listened to the Lufthansa announcement that all women—including foreigners—must don scarves and long coats in accordance with postrevolutionary Iranian law. I was used to seeing the transformation of fashionable, well-coiffed women into bulky, swaddled figures whenever the pinprick lights of Tehran came into view. Remembering the female airport employees who prod you if a lock of hair shows, I cinched my scarf around my throat and braced for the descent.
After the revolution, a large segment of Iran's educated, Westernized classes fled to Europe or the United States. Many who stayed embarked upon a double life—miniskirts and cocktail parties at home, Islamic dress and behavior in public. What I hadn't anticipated on this trip was the sight of people starting to bridge that gap—at times with trepidation, at other times with unmasked exuberance. On my first day in Tehran, one newspaper carried a startling headline: central advisory committee states that nobody has the right to Question a boy and girl for walking down the street together. "Let's go for a walk to celebrate," said Jalal, an engineering student and friend of my family. We took a taxi to the northern edge of Tehran and set off into the rocky Elburz Mountains, where locals hike on weekends, letting the roar and spray of the icy river wash away the city's noise and grime. Two years ago on this same trail, Jalal and I had been stopped repeatedly by revolutionary guards demanding to know our relationship to each other (we said we were cousins) and ordering me to pull my scarf forward. Now women hiked with loosened scarves and tucked-up coats, young couples nuzzled in teahouses, and not a single policeman materialized.
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."
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.
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, ŒOh no, you shouldn't'—you know, to be polite. The next thing I knew the guy said, ŒOkay,' 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.
For Americans curious about what lies beyond the great diplomatic freeze, the time is right to visit Iran. The weather in both north and south is ideal in spring and fall.
Tourist visas are generally only issued to Americans who will be accompanied in Iran by a local guide. Visas can be obtained through a tour packager or by contacting the Iran Interests Section in the Pakistan Embassy in Washington (2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007; 202/965-4990, fax 202/965-1073; www.daftar.org/default_eng.htm).
Contrary to popular belief, most women in Iran do not veil their faces; however, all women are required to cover their hair with a scarf and to wear long-sleeved, loose-fitting coats that extend to their ankles (or shorter coats over long pants). It's also courteous to avoid wearing bright colors: mourning days, when Iranians dress in black, are frequent. Shorts and tank tops are not acceptable for adults; sandals, however, are fine.
The following organizations offer both private and group tours led by English-speaking guides.
Distant Horizons 350 Elm Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802; 800/333-1240 or 562/983-8828, fax 562/983-8833; 17-day group trip $4,990, including airfare from New York. This outfit put together my trip, which was impressive from every standpoint. Tour size is limited to 15 and includes a guest scholar. Stops are made in Tehran, Mashhad, Shiraz, Kerman, Yazd, and Esfahan, with visits to the Caspian Sea and historic sites and traditional villages along the way.
Geographic Expeditions 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco, CA 94123; 800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448, fax 415/346-5535; www.geoex.com; 23-day trip $3,690$4,090, depending on group size, airfare not included. Described as "rigorous touring," this excursion covers an itinerary similar to Distant Horizons', with the addition of a loop through northwestern Iran.
Absolute Asia 180 Varick St., New York, NY 10014; 800/736-8187 or 212/627-1950, fax 212/627-4090; www.absoluteasia.com; 15-day trip $3,125, airfare not included. The itinerary focuses on major cities, plus ancient sites in northwestern Iran.
Pasargad Tour 146 Africa Ave., Tehran 19156; 98-21/205-8833, fax 98-21/205-8866; www.pasargad-tour.com. This private Iranian company offers customized itineraries for individuals and groups from abroad. Its clientele includes the first two agencies listed above. Pasargad's guides are extremely knowledgeable about their subjects.
Iran by Paul Greenway and David St. Vincent (Lonely Planet)—A solid general guidebook that is a must for anyone traveling to Iran. On the Internet, check out Destination Iran at www.lonelyplanet.com.au/dest/mea/ira.htm.
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (Oxford University Press)—A highly entertaining account of the author's adventures in Persia in the 1930's.
The Iranians by Sandra MacKey (Plume)—A good overview of Iranian history and society from the ancient Persian empires through the Islamic revolution.
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (Anchor Books)—Engaging essays by a Wall Street Journal Middle East correspondent who looks at the lives of women in Muslim countries.
My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pizishkzad (Mage)—A hilarious satire set in 1940's Tehran that captures the essence of Iranian family life, romance, and politics. An enormous pre-revolution hit.
On the Web
Iran on Line (IranOL.com/Travel)—Provides links to Iran-related Web sites, including a comprehensive travel section.
Iran's Candy Coating
Iranians love sweets, and each town has its specialty. Yazd is known for baklava; Esfahan for gaz, a rose-flavored nougat, and Qom for sohan, a dangerously addictive pistachio brittle.