A supermoon, a painting done with cat hair, and some empathy in an elevator are just a few of the wonders my good friend and travel writer Mariana Noble experienced on her recent journey to Iran. She also happened to be abroad during the U.S. presidential elections (see below). I got to ask her a few questions …
How many days was your trip, and what were your destinations?
The trip was 12 days. We began in the capital, Tehran, where we spent several days getting acclimated, visiting the city’s museums and eating wonderful Persian food.
We flew south to Shiraz, where we got to explore the mindboggling ruins of the royal city, Persepolis, begun in 515 BCE. Huge limestone blocks stacked one on top of the next formed pillars, gateways, monumental statues of horses and humans, all created more than 2,500 years ago.
We took photos of the colored light pouring through the stained glass windows at the Pink Mosque, and inspected the wares along the skinny lanes of the Vakil Bazaar.
Next, the group drove to Yazd, an ancient city where a good portion of the dwellings are still made from the baked desert mudbrick of the past. Here there are remnants of the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion, including tall flat-topped hills called Towers of Silence, where the priests used to bring the dead for the vultures to eat.
The final stop was beautiful Isfahan, where we happened to be on its elegant Imam Square as the sun went down and the supermoon, closest to the earth for hundreds of years, rose over the fountains and minarets.
How should travelers prepare for a trip to Iran?
I always tell people to read as much as they can about a place before they visit. I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, which told about how difficult things were there after the Islamic revolution of 1979. I looked at guidebooks and read online articles, and I read Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson for background. (Its subtitle is “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.”)
I also brought a little English/Farsi phrasebook so I could communicate a tiny bit without the inevitable interpreter.
Did you have any fears/concerns traveling as a woman or an American?
My main concern as a woman was how to make sure my headscarf stayed on. The company I work for, MIR, which runs the trip I was on, has a good video on how to follow the rules of hijab (the dress code for women) that was very helpful.
When I told my friends and family that I was going to travel to Iran, they reacted like I was going into a war zone. In the U.S. the memory of 1979, when radical students kept 52 Americans hostage for over a year, is still painful. Iran doesn’t get much good press in the U.S, its name connected mainly with sanctions, nuclear capabilities and terrorism.
It’s true that our governments don’t trust each other, but what I found is that most people in Iran are happy to see American visitors. Groups of school kids surrounded us at monuments and outside of museums, trying out their English phrases and taking selfies with us. Iranian adults were quick to point out that governments do not always represent the values and ideas of the people. We found unfailing hospitality and goodwill at the personal level.
What impressed you most on your trip?
What I thought was coolest was the way that antiquities seem to be everywhere in this landscape. I live in Seattle, where the oldest buildings are maybe 120 years old, so the contrast is striking.
And to see, in the museums, evidence that humans have been creating beautiful things ever since they first scratched pictures on cave walls with rocks. Evidence that humans have always longed for and valued art and beauty.
How do you hope to write about your trip?
First I have to tease out the stories, the small things that happened like the surprising gift of a miniature Scheherazade painted by a master with a brush made of his cat’s hair. Sometimes the story is simply the interactions among the people you travel with, sometimes the strangeness of a place itself.
What food do you recommend?
I recommend, wherever you travel, that you try some of everything you see, unless you have allergies. One of the best food experiences I had in Iran was at a cafeteria-style restaurant, where I got separated from our interpreter and had to order by pointing at dishes. I ended up with a huge spicy meatball and a rich stew of eggplant and peppers. They eat a lot of lamb in Persia, and we ate tender little grilled lamb chops several times. Rice is served at every meal, and it is always decorated with a dollop of golden saffron rice.
I like to shop for spices in the bazaars when I travel, and I try to recreate a few of my favorite dishes at home. This time I bought a beautiful layered spice mix and some dried barberries, and when I got back, I ordered a Persian cookbook/travel account, Taste of Persia, by Naomi Duguid. I’m going to try a lamb and chickpea stew called dizi.
Funniest thing that happened on your trip?
Our group didn’t really have a moment of hysterical laughter, as you do when something goes ridiculously wrong, although we did laugh a lot at the squat toilets we found everywhere besides our hotel rooms. And the strange hoses meant to wash off our undersides afterwards. (These were in our hotel rooms.)
What we had was an early morning huddled around a laptop in the lobby of a five star hotel in Shiraz watching the U.S. election returns. Iran is some 11 hours ahead of the west coast, and some of us got up extra early in anticipation of watching our first female president being elected.
On my way to my hotel room to cry alone, I apologized tearfully for the results of our election to an Iranian couple in the elevator. The couple told me that they well knew how a country can be captured and manipulated by radical and unwelcome ideas. They sympathized. That made me feel even worse!
Our tour manager, Farzaneh, tried to cheer us by telling her story. She was 15 “when the revolution happened.” She’d been a modern teenager going to high school, and overnight had to wear dark baggy clothes and cover her head with a scarf. For many years after that, there were no jobs and people went hungry.
“But now look at me,” she said. “35 years later, I’m a tour manager for a big company, I meet and become friends with foreigners all year long, I make good money and can support my mother, and I even lead Iranian groups abroad. I have friends all over the world. I’ve been to Paris, London, Berlin.
“Terrible things may happen, but life goes on.”
I saw that in Iran. Life goes on, and it has done just that here for thousands and thousands of years.