This is as much an aide memoire as it is a travel piece I wrote all those years ago to catch my own memories; now I can share the experience. I wish I had taken more photos back then as I do now.It was so long ago……
In some global chain of effects, the speechwriter who put the “axis of evil” in the mouth of George Bush had me rummaging through memories. I was with the first Australian tour group into Iran after the Ayatollah seized power. It was 17 years ago. What portents did I see, or fail to see, that defined this country as a point in the triangle of terror?
I had replied to an ad: “Carpet dealers going to Iran will take others….”. As an obsessive my recent interest in carpet determined I should go; should swallow the chattering classes’ scorn at “tour group” travelling and tailgate the expertise and contacts of the carpet dealers.
Eighteen of us gathered in Istanbul, some of the women unable to wait before donning the head to toe black chador only to find that the bar at Istanbul airport did not look kindly on women in hejab taking a drink or two. Better to wait until some point in the flight when as if by osmosis, the Iranian women aboard gave the lead. Their expensive western clothes disappeared under heavy coats and all hair covered. We are in Iranian air space.
In the chromatic scale of airports, Tehran was a stand-out. It was basically a male show but the few women personified the exotic – one in exquisitely cut full length camel hair coat, another a wisp in long white with a tribal scarf wound around her head and trailing down a slender back.. The rich and stylish can carve a niche anywhere. There were large headscarves that came from the fashion houses of Europe and a young couple, she in patterned black chador, furtively sharing a cigarette. A ravenesque flock of teenage girls peeped out, chadors clenched between their teeth.
From the window of the down at heel Azardi Hotel (formerly the Hilton) 25 idle cranes interjected the jagged skyline of this concrete box city. With a city of 12 million people, growing at a rate of more that 2 % per annum, development must continue a pace.
The pervasiveness of the Government was first noticed the next day with security guards who were clearly meant to protect propriety as well as museum exhibits. A blonde amongst us got more than one poke in the ribs and signaled instructions that she was to attend to her drifting headgear.
That night we were invited to a party at the home of a journalist and his wife. At that party, the Iranian women in the safety of the home wore the most chic of clothes and there seemed to be no shortage of forbidden alcohol for toasts.
Yet under the surface, here is a story of great sadness. The hosts had not seen their children since the revolution when they sent the little ones to Europe for safety and left them there for the same reason. Photos of sons grown and married abroad represented a lifetime of family life forgone.
Over the next week we travelled most of the country. We walked through Qum, the holy town where Mullahs stride and visited the carpet auctions in Isfahan; we mixed with the wary, impassive silent crowd in the covered markets of Bijar in Iranian Kurdistan; we gaze at the extraordinary palaces of Persepolis and wander the rose gardens of Shiraz. We pass breathtakingly stark Biblical hills and see young women threshing sunflowers, for seed for stock, dressed in wondrous patterned colour from scarf to floating skirt. We have tea in the tents of nomads and visit snow fields in the summer. On the road to Baghdad we see great carvings in the towering cliff face, the way ancient kings told of the exploits.
But the presence of the state is never far away. Exploring a 13th century mausoleum we are followed by a local camera crew. They say they are making a travel documentary for the American market and would like to interview us on our impressions. Someone says they are from the Ministry of Propaganda and the paranoia rises.
When we visit the roof of Iran, home to the Lors and Bakhtiari tribes, we are accompanied by the chaps from the Department of Islamic Culture and Guidance and again they video us.
A final time we notice the Monty Python security measures is at Persepolis. Exploring the parade of long forgotten nations, we notice a newcomer. He has a tape recorder and is clearly causing our urbane and loquacious guide some disquiet. With customary Australian directness, someone asks him what he is doing. He advises that he is learning to be a guide and disappears soon after.
Our guide seems to speak openly enough although he sings a song of a bird pining to be free. He is a man of culture who soaked up life living as a gentleman in London under the Shah but found his career cut short with the revolution. He is witty and elegant, a poetic Persian. How sad to see him waiting anxiously in the hotel foyer while the details of his pittance are calculated.
It is difficult to know the reality when you whistlestop through. The crowds out walking in the evening look like the passing parade anywhere. Families eating ices; young couples eyeing each other; children playing happily But we hear first hand of women professionals scared to laugh on the job or look at colleagues in the eye for fear of dismissal. We are told of a couple to be jailed that week since guests danced with the opposite sex at their wedding. This dancing boldness is hard to believe since the only weddings we saw were one where the men and women held separate receptions and another, a mass ceremony of a hundred country couples financed by the Government and scripted to protocols.
There were satellite dishes on many roofs. Hard to believe that the culture was not being nibbled away. More so now with the Internet revolution. Back then, shy knots of women talked to us, curious about our lives. There was the woman praying in the brilliantly tiled mosque for her son in Thailand hoping for his visa to America.
I wonder sometimes whether he was so desperate that he came by boat to Australia instead and is one of the Iranians we held in the camps. Maybe it is someone like him who is now one of the Iranians we are now forcing to go back or keeping in the disgraceful conditions of Manus Island quelled by the PNG police.
If it was going to be all right, who wouldn’t want to go back to a land of beauty, history, culture and family? Unless of course, you believed you were in danger.
What I saw in Iran was as much a product of religion and politics as gun massacres and capital punishment reflect American culture and politics. Bush might have call Iran part of the axis of evil but in Iran at that time, America was equally depicted as the Evil Empire. The sad irony of it all!
Now 17 years later there is an Iranian refugee in my extended family, a young man who suffered greatly at the hands of our Government before he was allowed to stay. A finer person it would be hard to find; this country is lucky to have him but he must pine for home.