Journey Beyond Persepolis

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Photos, at least...

I haven't updated this blog in a long time, but I have posted a lot of new photos to my Flickr account... view them here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

checks and balances in action?

An interesting data point on the question of whether Iran is a democracy.

Iran Leader Backs Parliament in a Dispute With Ahmadinejad

Published: January 22, 2008

TEHRAN — Iran’s supreme religious leader, in what appeared to be his first public dispute with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sided with Parliament on Monday in a conflict over energy policy.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened after Mr. Ahmadinejad had refused to carry out a measure that required his government to supply gas to remote villages during this year’s exceptionally cold winter.

The government provides natural gas to the state-run gas company for a fee, and the gas is then sold to customers. Most of the country is running short, and rationing has been discussed. It is unclear what the legislation requires, but the villages involved presumably are among the hardest hit by the shortages.

“All legal legislation that has gone through procedures stipulated in the Constitution is binding for all branches of power,” the ayatollah said in a letter to Parliament, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

The speaker of Parliament, Gholamali Hadad Adel, said that Mr. Ahmadinejad had complained to him in the past months about some of the measures passed by Parliament. But Mr. Hadad Adel said he was surprised by a recent letter from Mr. Ahmadinejad in which he said that the natural gas law was unconstitutional.

“I was surprised by the president writing to Parliament to say a bill was against the Constitution,” he was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Mehr news agency. “This is unprecedented.” He added that it was the job of the Guardian Council, which is appointed by the supreme leader, to decide if a law passed by Parliament was unconstitutional.

Mr. Hadad Adel said he had sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei seeking his intervention to avoid further confrontation with Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

More Iran news

Interesting post on Iran on the "truthout" blog. Excerpt:

On July 25, the Tehran-based English language newspaper "The Iran Times" published an article saying that the supreme leader of Iran has issued an order to the Iranian president that he is not allowed to produce a nuclear weapon, and furthermore that all Iranian nuclear aims will be peaceful. An Iranian man sipping coffee with his breakfast reads over the article and explains how much power the Supreme Leader has. "The supreme leader has the real power after the revolution. He controls the Republican Guard and the Guardian Council, so his orders are law." The Republican Guard is similar to the Special Forces in the United States, but is under direct control of the Supreme Leader.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

UN Inspectors Invited to Iran For Talks on Nuclear Program

Since I haven't been posting add'l days of the trip I thought I'd post Iran-related news items here... now n then.

June 26, 2007, Tuesday
By MARK LANDLER (NYT); Foreign Desk
Late Edition - Final, Section A, Page 9, Column , 662 words

DISPLAYING ABSTRACT - Team of inspectors from International Atomic Energy Agency will travel to Iran at invitation of Iranian government to try to clear up questions about Iran's nuclear program; diplomats say Iran's move appears calculated response to rising international pressure over its nuclear ambitions; US reacts skeptically to Iran's invitation

you can purchase the full article here, or read it if you're a Times Select member.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Day One: Museums in Tehran

I was thrilled to discover that Iranian breakfast is the same as (or at least incorporates some of the same elements as) Turkish breakfast: cucumbers, tomatoes, a delicious feta that's milder than what we have in the U.S., bread (flat), and hard-boiled eggs. Miscellaneous meats and sweets were also available.

Day 1 BreakfastI'm not sure quite what I had imagined our guide, Bahman, would be like, but I wasn't expecting him to be as suave and cosmopolitan as he is. I was continuously impressed with the way he navigated potential difficulties and managed to keep our motley and disorganized group together and mostly on schedule. One of the reasons I'm not changing his name in this blog is because if you go to Iran, you should call him! He's amazing.

Anyway, here you see us having our first experience of our fearless leader, as he tries to prep our bleary, jet-lagged selves for the day's activities.

In the morning we visited three museums: the National Museum of Iran, with archeological treasures; the glassware museum, showcasing ancient & modern masterpieces, and the carpet museum.

In the archeological museum, groups of schoolchildren hesitantly approached us, with much giggling. Some girls asked me, through a translator, why I was wearing the al-amira hijab—was I a Muslim? I replied that I was not. What religion was I? they then asked. I hedged, but they insisted, so I said "Christian."

They were satisfied and wandered off, but then a man hurried up to me and asked (with somewhat unsettling eagerness), "You're Christian? Are you Lebanese? Syrian?"

Something about his intensity was a bit worrisome, but before I could decide whether he was going to be a real problem, something happened that would happen several times during the trip, on the few occasions when an awkward exchange seemed imminent: another man came up and pulled the first man away, muttering an admonition whose words I didn't catch but whose tone was something like, "come on, dude, leave her alone."

This was only the first of many times I would be asked about my religion because of the al-amira; I learned to say, "No, I'm just too lazy to make the scarf look nice." Women understood that easily.

So, anyway, onward, to the glass and carpet museums:

Next was lunch at a traditional restaurant.

As we entered, we were invited to scoop small seeds onto a brazier of smoking coals (see photo at right), a traditional ritual to ward off the evil eye (the seeds bursting in the heat correspond to the destruction of the evil eye).

I've traveled in several places where charms against "the evil eye" were ubiquitous, but I've never been quite sure what "the evil eye" is... Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this ritual, and the evil eye in general, and here is some more specific information about the ritual. (At left: fellow diners in the restaurant)

But I digress.

The best part of lunch was the appetizer: delicious herbs (sabzi, literally "greens") rolled in bread and dipped in yogurt. My traveling companions identified dill, parsley, coriander, mint, basil, and green onions. Soooo delicious! The main course was a selection of kebabs, a staple in Iran.

After lunch, the women went shopping for "manteaux." Manteau, which means "coat" in French (there are many French loan-words in Persian), describes an all-purpose coat-like garment that comes to one's knees. It allows one to comply with the law on "Islamic dress code" while wearing other clothing underneath.

We were taken to a row of shops where manteaux are sold. Choosing a shop at random, several of us dove in, only to be faced with what seemed to be a small army of young male shop assistants, all hanging out and eating ice cream.

They greeted us with an edge of sarcasm that was a bit daunting (later in the trip I learned to recognize the same sarcasm teenagers in the U.S. employ when they are caught at a loss for words) and began suggesting manteaux for us. I tried on the ones they gave me, but all were too frilly and too small.

"I don't like this," I said in Persian (literally, "this is not my friend"!), fingering some of the frou-frou. "Also, too small. Bigger, please."

"Oh, bigger! She wants it bigger!" several of the young men said to each other, smirking. "BIGGER!" one said to me, illustrating the concept with arms held out to indicate rotund proportions, and face puffed up in imitation of fat. I laughed (when in Rome...!) and said, "yes, please."

After a few minutes of this, however, I found myself upstairs (in what must have been the matronly section), being assisted in peace and quiet by a courteous, deferential young man, who quickly understood both my size and my taste, and picked out some less-frilly items that fit perfectly.

I chose the simplest, and took it down to pay for it. The shop owner, too, was polite and helped me through the transaction with the help of limited English. He was one of the first people to say (as so many others would), "Welcome to Iran. I hope you enjoy your time here."

By this time, the other young men had calmed down and were helping the other women find suitable clothing. I wondered if it took them a few minutes to realize that we were serious shoppers, not just there to mock the garments worn by local women. Or maybe it just took them a few minutes to recover their manners, a few minutes for the shock of our sudden appearance to dissipate.

I took my purchase out to the sidewalk where the unattached men were waiting for us (husbands and partners were inside helping their better halves). Our guide had bought some sour green fruits for us, washing them in a tap by the jub (canal); the sourness was extremely refreshing.

In the late afternoon we were given time to rest; several of us went for a walk near the hotel, where we saw both traditional and modern shops.

As I walked down the sidewalk, I sometimes cautiously raised my gaze to catch the eyes of passing women. They regarded us with what I thought was an implacably hostile expression; I was later to learn how wrong I was about that.

This expedition, like so many of our adventures in Iran, ended up in a carpet shop.

It appears that by dinner time I was too sleepy to take any photos; I was certainly too sleepy to recall anything that happened. This is therefore the end of Day One... more to come!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Inflight journal

Throughout all my preparations—all the worry and warnings of friends & family—I had not felt any foreboding about visiting Iran. I had a ready answer to every expression of worry from others, and I felt totally sanguine about my plans.

But once I was actually in the plane, with a boarding pass that said "Amsterdam - Tehran," such rational reasoning started to waver.

In my journal, I wrote:

Different ways of thinking about my destination chase each other across my brain - each a flickering projection on a blank screen. The shadowy sworn enemy... Islam as utterly alien....

Then again, after all my years of experience with Japan and my travels throughout Asia, I felt

the familiarity of a culture where one is supposed to refuse tea three times before accepting it, and where "aunties" can generate hours of humiliating conversation out of the question, "Why aren't you married?"


When they woke us up for "breakfast," I began to worry about a more immediate concern: when am I supposed to cover up?

As discussed below, I had put a great deal of thought into how to cover appropriately, and had my raincoat and al-amira hijab in my flight bag.

But nobody had mentioned exactly when to put all this on.

I had read of a journalist who visited Iran just after the revolution, who had to cover as soon as the plane entered Iranian airspace—the flight attendant even gave her bandaids to cover her pink-polished fingernails.

I wondered if they would stop serving alcohol and all the lovely Dutch flight attendants would put on hijab. I kept glancing surreptitiously at women around me, writing in my journal,

Interesting to be among all these expats and their complicated journeys home. Many seem cosmopolitan, bejeweled, made-up, coiffed. The former king's cronies? How, and to what degree, will they change before we land?

None of them seemed to be covering up, so I waited.


I felt the plane shift and begin its descent into Tehran, and I decided not to wait for others any longer. I pulled my raincoat and al-amira out of my bag. The coat was easy; the hijab was tougher.

Pulling on the hijab, my first concern is - is it supposed to feel so tight under my chin? Damn my gigantic head. I get out the mirror and try to tuck everything in.

I wonder if people think I look silly, and think about whether and how often the men around me have seen an al-amira put on - what is it like to see a stranger do it? Amusing? Alluring? Embarrassing?

What about the moment when, frustrated, I pull it off and start over?

Who knows what anyone is thinking. A mysterious forest of opaque faces. We all keep our thoughts to ourselves.

I was afraid to try to catch anyone's eyes for a smile over my predicament. All my preconceptions had vanished and I felt that I had no idea, at all, what to expect from any Iranian or from the trip itself.

When I finally felt that I couldn't do any better with the hijab (still surprisingly tight under my chin), I took out my journal and wrote:

Landing. Excited. Nervous. This is it. Time for the fabulous intercultural exchange, kidnapping & psychological torture, beautiful historic artifacts, accusations of espionage on all sides, warmhearted welcoming population, and the launch of the American war.

Projections, projections, I have a slide show going.

Then I settled in to wait—there was nothing else I could do.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


I had spent months trying to learn Persian (I was taught to call the language "Persian" when speaking English; "Farsi" is the word for the language in the language, like "Deutsch" in German), with the help of CDs, flashcards, and two different tutors.

I had carefully researched the safety and logistics of my trip. The U.S. State Department travel warning re Iran describes specific areas of the country as dangerous (I would not be in those areas); warns missionaries that their activities are illegal and may be prosecuted (does not apply to me); and warns U.S. citizens of Iranian origin about returning to their native land (does not apply to me). Then, there were numerous blogs, Flickr sites, and other records from travelers from the U.S. who had visited Iran and found a warm welcome. All the worries of my family and friends were clearly unjustified, I thought.

Clothing was the toughest. In Iran, women are legally required to "observe Islamic dress code," including covering their hair and wearing loose clothing that obscures the shape of their bodies. Failure to comply can result in arrest and/or a fine, although this is enforced much more leniently now than in the years right after the revolution.

I had looked at countless photos of women in Iran, trying to guess how to be most comfortable and least ridiculous within the legal constraints on women's clothing.

Many of the photos I saw on Flickr showed stylish, elegant women with scarves barely perched on the backs of their heads (click on any of the pix below to see more from the Iranian photographers).

My hair has never cooperated with anything I've asked it to do. Never. So, I knew could never pull off anything like that glamorous look.

I also looked at instructions about how to pin a scarf on so that it won't fall off; this looked very difficult, and hot as well.

In the process of all this research, I read a lot of fascinating material about wearing hijab; for example, check out this article by a convert to Islam who exhorts and encourages her sisters.

Anyway, I finally bought a bunch of cotton al-amira hijabs online from "" These are essentially a tube that is pulled over the head; I eventually took to calling them "my t-shirt sleeve hijabs." (See photo at right, which of course is much, much prettier than I ever looked in those things!) I hoped these would be easy to use and also cooler than the various polyester concoctions.

In the final days, almost as an afterthought, I bought two long summer dresses (linen and cotton) with long-sleeved jackets (for once, my short stature was a blessing—normally I'm annoyed that "mid-calf" length dresses reach the floor!) I ended up wearing these two dresses about 2/3 of the time I was there.

Toss in a bunch of kleenex packets (people in Iran use water instead of toilet paper) and some anti-bacterial wipes (hardly needed, it turned out - I have never been anywhere where the soap dispensers in public restrooms were so consistently functional and full of soap!), and I was packed.

As I picked up my suitcase to head for the airport, the handle ripped off, leaving a good-sized hole. I ended up re-packing in the car on the way!
This is a Flickr badge showing photos in a set called Iran 2007. Make your own badge here.

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About this blog

Although I didn't end up blogging while I was in Iran, I still want to share my experiences and impressions. I'll (hopefully) write each day about one day's experiences (much as if I were writing while on the trip, although inevitably the perspective is different). I'll also write separate posts to collect and summarize my thoughts and impressions on specific topics (i.e., the revolution, the government, women, etc.), based both on observations and on prior reading.

Comments Policy

Comments are welcome; offensive comments will be deleted. It's my blog, so I will be the sole and arbitrary judge of what is offensive. People seeking to insult (or advocate harm to) others can post that crap on their own blogs. Rationale: I have visited too many interesting blogs whose comments are a waste of space, full of ridiculously petty arguments and traded insults. (Boring!) Comments whining about the policy will also be deleted.