Iran – Khomeini – Hostages – EvilFor Americans of a certain age these four words are inextricably linked. The Iran hostage crisis forever burned Iran and Khomeini into our minds as emblems of danger and evil. Nearly 30 years have passed since then but stories of nukes, kooky mullahs, and oppressed women have done little to improve Iran’s image.
First Day in Tehran
Road South along the Iraqi Border
(DAY 5) Almost a year to the day after I left Baghdad, today’s drive would take us within sight of the Iran-Iraq border. Traveling south along the low mountain chain that divides the two countries felt almost surreal. Here I was relaxing in a car, sipping tea with my guide while on the other side of those mountains a war raged.
Professor saw me staring at the mountains. I’d already told him about my ‘Axis of Evil tour’ and that I’d worked for the U.S. government in Iraq. Hell, I was sitting in his car wearing the desert boots Uncle Sam issued me.
Professor, and every other Iranian I mentioned it to, didn’t like the Axis of Evil thing; my tour or the original comment. “Comparing us to the North Koreans is just rude, man. We’ve got the Internet. We can talk about politics. We’re not a bunch of crazy assholes.”
He asked me about my time in Iraq. If I’d ever been shot at or anything. I told him about getting rocketed and mortared, plus the window-rattling car bomb blasts. He told me about the Iran-Iraq war when he’d guided a few Western journalists through some of these same areas for a tour of the frontlines. About artillery blasts, air attacks, and poison gas worries. About yelling at one of the TV journalists for hyping the dangers to make his report sound more exciting, “He was just standing there and lying, man. It pissed me off.”
Central Iran – Arrival in Esfahan
Home of the Mullahs – Qom
(Day 16) I’d been told by one Iranian that, “an American in Qom is like an Al Qaeda in the White House.” So I was a little nervous about this stop, and I could tell Professor was too. Qom (rhymes with ‘gnome’) is home to one of Iran’s (and Shia Islam’s) holiest sites. The city itself is a stronghold of the current conservative government and served as Khomeini’s base for the revolution in 1979. No liberals or opposition groups here; this is the center of mullah control over the government, culture, and politics of Iran. From this city spreads Iranian religious and political influence into Iraq, Lebanon and Hezbollah, Palestine and Hamas, and a host of other organizations and countries around the world. While most international attention focuses on the nuclear program down in Natanz, or the politicians in Tehran, it’s the clerics living in Qom that actually control the fate of Iran.
From guidebooks, media, and talks with people along the way I rolled into Qom with a sense of dread. The nervousness reminded me of how I felt boarding the plane into Iran a couple of weeks previous. Then the sense of the ominous was quickly displaced by the man on the plane doing his giant book of puzzles and mazes. Pulling into Qom, all darkness and seriousness, the spell was broken when the first thing I see from the exit is a giant Ferris wheel sticking out over a gaily-painted amusement park. I actually laughed out loud, getting a weird look from a still-nervous Professor, at the incongruity of my preconceptions and the happy little carnival.
After a fantastic three weeks traveling around Iran, it was finally time to turn towards home. As an American, the only way to obtain an Iranian visa had been to book a guided tour, and while the guide had been sage-like in his knowledge and helpfulness, I was looking forward to a little time on my own. Since the visa rules require a guide only inside the country, but not on the way in or out, I’d booked the longest outbound trip I could find, the Tehran-Istanbul train.
Everything started out fine. Professor [my guide] and his taxi-driving brother-in-law met me at the hotel for our short drive to Tehran’s train station. Standing inside the station, I was sad to say goodbye – Professor had become a friend during our intense three weeks together and I was going to miss him. After making sure my seat assignment and baggage were in order, and still somewhat surprised I was leaving by train instead of plane, he held out his hand and we said goodbye. Then, quickly and without another word, he disappeared out the station doors and I was suddenly alone.
The train was barely half full, with only one other person in my 4-bunk compartment. My roommate for the four-day journey was to be a young Afghani who spoke no Persian and whose only English was ‘ok’. Since that was more Afghani than I speak, we went with his English and a lot of miming. He was going to Istanbul to work and seemed spellbound by my maps of Iran and Turkey. Other than that he turned out to be a very quiet guy – perfect for a long train ride.