Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Iran on Seven Hundred Thousand Tomans a Day

Brother Li Wei and I just returned from a one-week visit to Iran. You can’t learn a whole lot about a country from such a short visit, but, as a sort of mini-ethnography, I thought I would post some pictures here that say something about that wonderfully interesting country.

First, the Azadi Tower or Freedom Tower. It was designed during the Shah’s reign by an architect of the Baha’i faith, which, as I’ll explain further below, is now persecuted by the Iranian government. The tower is a kind of symbol of Tehran as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

We were escorted around the cities of Tehran and Shiraz by two English-speaking guides, both female, and both very nice and knowledgeable – Pouran and Malihe.

                               Li Wei and Pouran


Iranian money is a little confusing. The rial is the basic unit, and one dollar is equal to about 32,000 rials. So, we were actually millionaires once we changed money.

               One million rials = about thirty dollars
However, when people talk prices, they talk in terms of tomans, one toman equaling 10 rials. This sometimes threw us and we wound up giving waiters the equivalent of one dollar to pay for a ten dollar meal. Everyone was very understanding, and, even when we erred the other way, giving ten times too much in payment, we were politely and honestly corrected.

One of our favorite things to do was wander through the bazaars looking at all the cool stuff for sale.


                             Blackberries, Cherries, etc.

                             Water Pipes



                                    Rifle Cases

When a shop is inherited, a picture of the deceased founder, generally the current owner’s father, is typically displayed. In the background, on the shelf behind this gentleman, is a picture of his deceased father.

The Iranians during our visit were intensely interested in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. We saw lots of TV screens with scenes from the Vienna talks.

We actually heard about the agreement on Tuesday while strolling through a bazaar in Shiraz. A carpet shop bazaari called out to us to tell us an agreement had been reached as he displayed news of the agreement on his tablet.

Carpet seller telling us about the nuclear agreement. Shiraz bazaar, July 14, 2015.

Obama was popular with almost all the Iranians we spoke to. Some even praised him extravagantly – “I love him!”

Some Iranians also like George W. Bush.  I know.

Here’s a magazine cover:

There are an awful lot of beautiful mosques and historical palaces in Iran. Here are just a couple of the many we visited.

                                Vakil Mosque, Shiraz.

                             Golestan Palace, Tehran

                  Golestan Palace, Decorative Art.

And there are countless interesting and beautiful treasures from Iran’s past on display in various museums. Here are a couple of the many we saw.

                  Artifact from Something or Other BCE

                       Gold and Lapis Lazuli Necklace

We were told that Jews and Christians can worship freely in Iran. Two different people told us that over 100 Iranian Jews died fighting for their country in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. This war, by the way, is still deeply felt in Iran. Along the city streets and highways, we saw literally hundreds of pictures of martyrs who died fighting in that war.

Here is a service in a synagogue in Shiraz that I happened upon one Friday morning: 


         Dome of an Armenian Church, Shiraz:

The Baha’i faith is not tolerated under the current religiously conservative regime (though it was under the also undemocratic Shah). One young woman explained this to us thus: According to the mullahs, Judaism and Christianity were imperfect religions leading ultimately to the perfection of Islam. But Baha’i claims to go beyond Islam to a higher perfection, and the mullahs won’t accept this. They believe that Islam can’t be improved on and no Muslim should leave Islam. This has resulted in persecution and death to many Baha’i followers, including some of the friends of the lady who explained this to us. She adamantly disapproves of the mullahs’ persecution of this religion. In fact, practically everyone we spoke to dislikes the undemocratic heavy-handedness of the mullah-dominated government.

If we had spent time with those Iranians who are more conservative about their religion and less educated generally, I'm sure we would have encountered more support for the mullahs.

At any rate, almost every single person we spoke to had nothing but positive things to say about American culture and the American people – though not always the American government. The Iranian government, on the other hand, is not so US-friendly, prominently posting anti-American images in places of high visibility.

Here is a billboard in front of the old U.S. Embassy in Tehran:

A highway billboard near Persepolis:

On the lighter side, Iran continues to produce some of the world’s best films. I can’t vouch for this comedy, “Guinness,” since I didn’t see it, but it is popular now.

Of course, the really great Iranian films are not goofy comedies, but the products of such brilliant directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, to name a few.

Women are obligated to cover heads, arms and bodies under the Islamic government. Some of them are quite good at revealing their prettiness, despite these strictures.

The women we asked told us that they would not wear hijabs or scarves if the government did not require them to do so, but certainly many of the more conservative women of Iran, particularly in rural areas, would do so even without the law.

Men, facing only a few restrictions (no shorts allowed, for example), tend to dress more casually. A lot of them wear T-shirts.

                                      T-shirt for sale:

Near Shiraz, in southern Iran, lie the ruins of ancient Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire which was founded by Cyrus the Great. Persepolis was later conquered by Alexander the Great. The ruins here are magnificent, and include countless impressive sculptures.

Persian Soldier on the Left, Mede on the Right

Also interesting is the graffiti left by travelers from days past, including some by newspaperman Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone” fame).

On our last night in Iran, we happened upon a café in which an indie band was playing some good music.

Some pictures on the wall of the cafe:

Then, getting back to our hotel, we found that an engagement party was in full swing. With typical Iranian hospitality, the hosts insisted that we join in, even though we were complete strangers to them.

                           Dance Fever!

                     Pictures of Adorable Kids by Li Wei

     The bride-to-be’s father gave a car to the groom-to-be.

During the ceremony, the husband of the bride’s older sister (with the mic in the picture below) made a speech in which he joked that he never got a car from his father-in-law! Then the father-in-law announced that he too would be getting a gift of a car.

Let me conclude with some random pictures.



                             Boy and His Mom

                            Persian Cool

   Hotel Staff in Shiraz. Wonderfully Polite and Helpful, All.

What can I say? Our governments continue to criticize each other (we crushed Iran’s democracy in 1953 on behalf of western oil interests; the Iranian government supports ruthless dictators like Bashar al Assad, etc.), but in spite of this, there is an abundance of good will toward Americans on the part of the Iranian people. We were very lucky to benefit from this sentiment, and Brother Li Wei and I would like to say "Thanks" to all the people of this great country who showed us kindness during our visit.

(Also, thanks to Norma Lee Nichols-Mahdavi of Iran Custom Travel who helped us arrange our visit!)