Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 3

Today ends the 3-part series on Iran. Thanks for reading these posts. One of the things that Cliff and I have said for years to people who spend time overseas is to make sure to process your time. Often that processing takes place through visiting with friends and writing in journals, and in this case translating the journal into a couple of blog posts. 



Having lived in Pakistan and the Middle East, I was used to seeing photos of the current president everywhere. No office or government building in Pakistan was complete unless you had a photo of President Zia al-Haq or in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak. But in Iran we saw no photo of President Hassan Rouhani. Instead we saw the photos of Imam Khomeini and Iman Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. There were 5-6 story banners hanging from buildings all over Iran, as well as in every government office. I felt like I got to know both Imams by having looked at their photos all week.



While in Iran we were given a small taste of the immense history of Iran dating back to earliest civilization. Iranians are very proud of their extensive history. They say no other area of land has had so many different rulers and civilizations and dynasties. Most Americans are familiar with the Pahlavi dynasty that was in place at the time of the Iranian Revolution. There are no photos or images of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza. While in visiting the Tehran Bazaar I came across a small shop that sold items with the picture of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar. The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1785-1925. I stopped and purchased a set of six teacups with the ornate painting of Nasser al-Din Shah. I could’ve also bought ceramic plates, glasses, boxes and even martini glasses with his mustachioed bust. We were to later visit his exquisite Golestan Palace in the heart of old Tehran and see that the Qajars lived in extremely opulent surroundings, much to the dismay of their poor subjects. It seemed that modern Iranians were allowed to be enamoured with the Qajar shahs, but not the Pahlavi shahs!

BACK TO THE FUTURE: January 1979

Our delegation visited two important historical sites that seemed frozen in time: January 1979. The first was the former American Embassy. We parked our vans across the street and were told to only take photos of certain walls. There were security cameras along the walls with barbed wire fences on top. There were murals of the Iranian Revolution, including those of Imam Khomeini, the U.S. flag with the skulls instead of fifty stars. There was the requisite “Down with the USA” mural, but over all it was sedate. The embassy now has a museum and a center for Islamic teaching.

The second place we visited were the grounds of Saadabad in North Tehran, with the backdrop of the Alborz snow-covered mountain range. Saadabad was the royal grounds for the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. This beautiful complex has many buildings located among the pines. We visited the Green and White Palaces. The White Palace was the home of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his third wife, Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi. The décor is quite exquisite but frozen unchanged when they fled the country in January 1979. The dining room last hosted King Hussein of Jordan. The color television in Farah’s boudoir was the first color television in Iran. It felt like going back in time.


After the tour of the elaborate palaces of Saadabad we were taken to the humble home of Imam Khomeini. He lived in a middle class neighborhood and we were given a tour of his home, the mosque he officiated at and a small museum, primarily a photo gallery of the life of Imam Khomeini, including his personal effects. It was striking to see how simply he lived in just two basic rooms that he rented until his death. The people we talked to during the week often referred to him or his fatwas, religious statements, but they also seemed realistic about him as a person.


Even though the primary religion in Iran is Shi’a Islam there are Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian minorities. We had many discussions about religious freedom and pluralism in Iran. We had the privilege to visit an Armenian Catholic Church and speak with some of the Christians that attended it. Across the street we visited a fire temple for Zoroastrians, a monotheistic religion that centers around the worship of Ahura Mazda (Great Lord) and worshipped via light, including fire and the stars. We met a few Zoroastrians who were reading the Avesta in the fire temple and learned of their freedom to worship.


Each day I woke up and went out on my balcony on the 14th floor. I had a spectacular view of the Alborz mountain range, but within 2-3 hours that view was blocked by the pollution and smog of modern Tehran. Everyone spoke of how bad the pollution was and we heard multiple times that due to the sanctions on Iran, they were unable to import certain chemicals that would reduce pollution from cars, trucks and motorcycles. We heard, “the sanctions are slowly killing us” by the pollution. One of the days that we were there the pollution was so bad that all the public schools were closed.

We heard of the various other sanctions imposed on Iran. Iran can only export oil to five countries in the region. They cannot be paid in Iranian Rials but have to keep the money in banks in these countries in the currency of that country. No foreign banks can work in Iran, but it appears that this door might be opening for 1-3 foreign banks entering the market. Many banks and companies are poised to enter when the international community gives the green light.

One delegate we met said that the sanctions have been very hard on Iran but in one sense had made Iran less dependent on other countries and that they had allowed Iran to create new infrastructures, independent of foreign collaboration.


Our delegation made our way to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We had a 3:00am flight to Frankfurt. We were sad to leave and four of our handlers came with us and we had an emotional departure. They wanted to make sure that all of our needs were met and that we were taken care of until the very end. I often told our Iranian hosts, “This was my first trip to Iran, but will not be my last.”

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking here and here.
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Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 2


Today is Part 2 of the series on Iran. If you missed yesterday’s feel free to click here.


For those of you who have had the privilege to sample Iranian/Persian cuisine you are definitely in for a treat. Before I left my good Iranian friend, Payman, said, “You will be served more chelo kebab than you have ever been served.” Now chelo kebab is a national dish in Iran, with small pieces of beef, grilled with sumac (a lemon-like spice) and served over saffron enhanced rice and whole grilled tomatoes. I laughed at my friend and said, “Could one ever get tired of chelo kebab?” Well, his prediction came true. After each delegation meeting and even in the evening we were treated to sumptuous meals of chelo kebab kobideh, rice, salad and occasionally fesinjan, a chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce. By the end of our trip we were ready for a break from chelo kebab.


Our trip was primarily focused on delegation meetings, rather than tourism, but after one meeting we were taken to the main Tehran Bazaar. As we piled out of our vans, accompanied by 3-5 “handlers” we first stopped for refreshing hand-squeezed pomegranate juice. We were all in our suits and ties and began our walk towards the main bazaar. Iran does not have many Western tourists and even fewer Americans that visit. So you can imagine the looks we received. At one point an older woman asked one of our delegates if we were from Germany. She said, “Na, ma az Amrika ast” “No, we are from America.” The woman took her hand and said, “Welcome, where have you been? We have been waiting for you for 32 years.” It was a genuine expression that was to be repeated over and over during our time in Tehran and Qom. Iranians seem to be tired of the isolation of their country from much of the world and would like there to be more interactions.


Someone asked me upon my return if I had witnessed women being “oppressed by Islam”. It is not the first time I’ve been asked this question by North Americans when they find out I have both lived and traveled extensively in the Muslim world. From my view people seemed genuinely happy and relaxed in society, interacting with each other freely, observing cultural norms of modesty. All women had their heads covered with fashionable scarves and most showed some forehead locks, some even with super-stylish curls. Most were modestly dressed with their manteau (covering to their thighs) or dresses. When we visited the holy city of Qom, about 2 hours from Tehran, all of the women were in black chadors with no hair showing. But we saw many women interacting with men in every day life and even saw women working in the bazaars.

One of our ‘handlers’ pointed out a situation one day in the area called Darband where four young women were put in a police van and were going to be taken for questioning. In front of the van were four bored policemen and two serious morality policewomen in full black chadoors, zealous in their job of upholding the modesty of the young.

During our stay we learned that Tehran was the “nose-job” capitol of the world with over 90,000 nose jobs a year performed. We saw Tehrunis proudly strutting with bandages on their noses, both men and women alike. My wife always said that God made Iranian women the most beautiful in the world and left the rest of the world to fend for itself. What a surprise to find that with some of these women God got a little help in the form of a plastic surgeon skilled at crafting noses. 


I have to admit that I was most interested in meeting with Shi’ite clerics on this visit. I certainly had perceptions of them being intensely spiritual and serious men. As we went from meeting to meeting we started to interact with more clerics. What struck me most about these clerics was their deep passion to connect their religious intellect with the passions of their heart and with culture and education. We had very honest and candid conversations about faith and the intersections of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But what surprised me the most was the sense of humor that they had. At one lunch I sat across from two clerics, one with a black turban and one with a white turban. We discussed a variety of topics when I posed to them, “Can you tell me of the religious significance between the black and white turbans?” The cleric leaned in and said, “Well, it is because I have a black heart and my friend here has a white heart.” They laughed and then explained to me that those with black turbans were sayyeds, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The cleric in the white turban said about his friend, “He is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and I am only the descendent of the Prophet Adam.”

After our lunch conversation the black-turbaned cleric said to me, “You must stay in Iran. We will keep you here with us. We can find you an Iranian wife.” I replied in Arabic, “Haram alayk, God forbid, I already have a wife and one is most sufficient.They laughed and made the offer again. We posed for pictures with them and were told to come back and visit and bring others with us for more dialogue and discussion.

One day our delegation traveled for two hours to the holy city of Qom. It is like the Vatican for Shi’ite Muslims and seat of great learning and pilgrimage. We met with clerics and academics at two universities and was welcomed into their midst. We had candid discussions about religion, theology and practice among Muslims, Christians and Jews. We were given a private tour of the holy shrine of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of the 8th Shi’ite Imam, Ali Reza. We were able to see faithful pilgrim come and venerate this shrine along with the tombs of other religious leaders and teachers buried there. It was a great privilege as non-Muslims to enter into such a sacred place for Shi’ite Muslims.


Thursday and Fridays are government holidays in Iran, so on juma’ (Friday) we were taken on a tour around Tehran. We stopped for lunch at the International Ferdowsi Grand Hotel. We were told that we were being taken to a “traditional restaurant”. It turned out to be called Traditional Restaurant. It was decorated with large wooden chairs covered with Persian carpet squares, large wooden tables and large brass samovars around the room. Through the middle of the restaurant there was a large fountain and river. A sumptuous buffet table was laden with Iranian appetizers, rice, vegetables, fish and chelo kebab! They served us the most incredible bread I’ve ever eaten called sangak, a large rectangular flatbread that had been cooked on hot rocks.

Against one wall was a raised dias with 4-5 musicians setting up their instruments for a live traditional music performance. After our delegation was seated at two large tables we noticed a large influx of guests, mostly women. We were told that a wedding reception was taking place. As the live music started, a man in a leisure suit and coiffed hair began to croon before the crowd. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love music and that I love to dance. As the music started, the drums beat and the accordion accorded (?) I started to move my hands and hips to the music. My Iranian handlers found this most amusing. I went up to get some food at the buffet and was entranced by the music. I went up closer to the performers and took a short video. The wedding singer then motioned for me to come up, biyah, and I set my plate down and joined him on the stage and began to dance. The women from the wedding party started to clap and egg me on. I didn’t need a more encouraging audience. I danced and moved and noticed the camera phones of my handlers take pictures across the distant room.

After the song ended I left the stage and returned to my table to continue eating and enjoying the wedding festivities. When it was time to leave I met in the foyer a young man dressed in a trendy blue suit jacket and jeans. I said to him, “You have the best suit at this wedding!” he leaned closer and stated, “I’m the groom.” We laughed and talked for a while and took pictures together. When I left the restaurant he thanked me for dancing at his wedding.

Join us tomorrow for Part 3 as Cliff writes about Khomeini; mosques, churches and fire temples; and the effects of sanctions on Iranians.  

Pomegranate Juice Stand – Tehran, Iran
Fruit of the gods – selling pomegranates Tehran, Iran
All that glitters is Brass
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Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 1

In January, my husband went to Iran, a place he dreamed of visiting for 30 years. I am delighted to have him guest post for Communicating Across Boundaries these next 3 days. Cliff writes from his short time there and it is interesting, insightful and humorous. Enjoy!


There is an old adage that says if you visit a place for a day you can write a book about it. If you visit a place for two weeks you can write a magazine article about it. If you live in a place for twenty years you can barely write a sentence about it. Well, I just returned from a week-long trip so will have to condense it into a few blog posts.

I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a 10-person peace delegation with U.S. Academics for Peace to Iran last month. The underlying motto of USAFP is “peacemaking is essential or conflict is inevitable.” We had been in negotiations with the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N, Dr. Mohammad Khazaee, for over two years to bring a group of academics to Iran to meet with Iranian academics, political leaders and clerics. In December 2013 we were given the green light and approval for ten visas to bring our delegation in January 2014. We were one of the first American delegations invited to Iran after the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013.



After months of planning our delegation assembled at the Frankfurt Airport and boarded our non-stop Lufthansa flight to Tehran. We were seemingly the only Americans on the crowded flight. There were some German tourists and businessmen, but most of the plane occupants were Iranian. When our plane landed in Tehran the flight attendant made two announcements:

“We are arriving at Iman Khomeini International Airport. No photos of the airport are allowed.”

“All female passengers are required to have their heads covered by Iranian government decree before disembarking the plane. Welcome to Tehran.”

Two of our delegates were women and had already covered their hair with scarves. One delegate had lived in Iran in the early 1970s and spoke Farsi (modern Persian). As we filed out of the plane at 1:00am we were greeted by a man holding a sign with our names on it. Mind you just our first and middle names. We were taken down a short flight of stairs to a van waiting on the tarmac and given preferential treatment as guests of the Foreign Ministry. Somehow in the process we “lost” one of our delegates and obtained an inebriated German businessman. We were taken to the VIP Lounge, replete with comfortable couches, pots of hot tea, and trays of fresh fruit and desserts. There representatives from the Foreign Ministry, our tour company and the Ministry of Science and Research Technology welcomed us while our checked luggage was being recovered, (as well as our missing delegate, replete with her mandatory headscarf). One by one we were to go to see Mr. Mahmoud, who would fingerprint us using a digital scanner for each digit of our right hand. I was the second to go and for some reason I was doing it incorrectly so Mr. Mahmoud showed me the proper way and my ring fingerprint is really his. How fortunate for me.


After three hours at the airport we were taken in two vans to our hotel in the northern (and more affluent) section of Tehran. Our delegation had been warned of Tehran’s notorious entangled traffic, but luckily we were driving at 3:00 in the morning so encountered almost no traffic upon arrival. During the next six days we were to experience many hours sitting in Tehran traffic. After having lived in Cairo, Egypt for seven years, this traffic did not seem that different with one exception —Cairenes use more horns.


While in Tehran we stayed at the former Hilton hotel, called Parsian Esteghlal (Independence) Hotel. Each day we encountered the daily breakfast buffet in the Yas Restaurant. You provided the maître d’ with your room number and the requisite, good morning in Farsi, sobh bekhayr. The buffet was plentiful with an omelet station, fruits, cheeses, olives, breads and cereals. I had the fresh squeezed sour cherry juice each day. On my first day I met a waiter and tried to thank him in Farsi, merci. Unfortunately Farsi does not have a specific word for thank you, they use the French loan word, merci, or Arabic loan word mutchekar. I accidently used the Turkish word teşekkür ederim. My waiter leaned in close and whispered, “Turkish?” I nodded, and he smiled and pointed to his chest and whispered, “Azeri.” Azeris comprise 16% of the Iranian population and are primarily from the the Northwest corner of Iran from the city of Tabriz. Each day he would greet me and bring me special cups of chai and would lean in and whisper “very best Iranian chai.”


When we arrived at our hotel the first night we were introduced to our “handlers”. We had our tour guide, a Foreign Ministry protocol guide, two drivers and between 4-6 other “handlers” during the week. We were told that since we were American citizens we were only allowed to be escorted by these “guides” at all times. Our handlers were very educated and articulate men with great senses of humor. Most of them had lived in other countries and spoke excellent English. At first it felt constricting and I’m sure that I could have easily eluded them during our trip but thought better of it, deciding to interact with them and obey the security protocol. I never once felt unsafe or in a precarious position during our time in Tehran or Qom.


During our week-long stay our delegation attended 2-3 meetings a day with Iranian academics, political leaders, researchers and clerics. The Foreign Ministry had made sure that we would meet with the key people in each of these spheres. We were greeted warmly at each gathering with a crowd of Iranian delegates in formal conference-styled arrangements with named placards, microphones, and bottles of water and showered with coffee, tea, sweets and fruit. Most of our interactions were in English, with only some translation needed into Farsi. We were told on more than one occasion that there were more U.S.-educated Ph.D.s in President Rouhani’s cabinet and circle of advisors than in President Obama’s.

Our meetings were full of substance, candor, honesty and a true dialogue between American and Iranian academics and theologians. Our last meeting consisted of a three-hour dialogue with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and provided insight into Iran’s desire to interact more with those in the West, and especially in America. We were encouraged to organize more delegations and to bring more academics and graduate students back to Iran. It is a pivotal time for our two countries to begin to trust each other again.


One cannot overemphasize the extent of how hospitable Iranians are. Our Western media has portrayed Iranians as angry, haters of America and Israel, deniers of the Holocaust and oppressors of freedom and women’s rights. We often let one event or person brand these stereotypical messages into our brains and we no longer question their validity. But the truth is far more complex. I can only say it is amazing to arrive in a country and have almost everyone you meet greet you, welcome you and serve you with extravagant hospitality. Each meeting we had consisted of Iranian tea, chai, served in clear glasses. Most tea is served with small sugar cubes which you dip into the hot tea and then place in your mouth to dissolve as you sip the tea. They also served tea with rock candy sugar on sticks and you swirled it in the tea as it dissolved. One of our delegates didn’t know what to do with it and was seen licking the rock candy directly. There is something to be said about the sharing and drinking of chai together with strangers and with friends. We continued to use the phrase, “Governments have interests, but people have friends.” Our delegation was peace making over glasses and glasses and glasses of chai.

Tomorrow join in for Part 2 where you’ll hear about nose jobs, Shi’a clerics with a sense of humor and crashing an Iranian wedding. 



About the author:Cliff Gardner is the Senior Administrative Manager of Research in the Department of Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition he serves as the Middle East Program Director for Conscience International, a humanitarian relief and development organization that implements life-saving medical interventions, refugee assistance, and community development programs following wars and natural disasters.  Enhanced by Zemanta