Nick Smith’s feature on Iran in Geographical magazine, June 2009 (full text)

A new dawn for Iran?

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s Iran has been something of a closed book to the west. But as the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President heralds a softening of attitude towards Iran, travellers are starting to rediscover a country radically different from the image presented by the media. By Nick Smith

Sitting in a teahouse in Esfahan smoking an apple-scented ghalyan, Hassan tells me he is quietly optimistic about Iran’s future. ‘For us Persians it has been a confusing time. When America invaded Iraq, we were happy.’ Hassan seems to use the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ interchangeably, but as I get to know him better it becomes just about distinguishable that the former refers to the modern political state, and the latter to the geographical region and cultural empire he still lives in.

Hassan regards himself as informed on international issues. He’s been a shop assistant in London, a taxi driver in California, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. These days he is retired, and prefers to spend his time drinking tea and talking with the increasing numbers of foreigners who travel to see the most splendid city in Islamic Iran. At the end of the 16th Century, Shah Abbas – the greatest influence in the creation of modern Iran – made the remote desert town of Esfahan his capital, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. Esfahan has been described for centuries by the people who live there as ‘half of the world’, and it is easy to see why.

For several mornings Hassan and I listened to news reports of the run-up to the Presidential election on an old valve radio in the teahouse in a side-street running off the Royal Square. On more than one occasion, he confided in me that his only real worry was that once America withdrew from its occupation of Iraq, it would turn the spotlight on his homeland. ‘I always believed that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ he said, crunching his way through a plate of saffron-flavoured sugar crystals. But for Hassan, this simplistic expression of ‘realist statecraft’ might at last be coming true, because with the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s 44th President, the pressure, for the moment at least, is off.

In his inaugural address in January, Obama made it clear that his foreign policy in respect of the Middle East would differ radically from that of his predecessor George W Bush. ‘To the Muslim world,’ said Obama, ‘we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.’ Less than a week later, he elaborated on this, saying: ‘My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.’ Not so much as a whiff of the ‘axis of evil’. The Wild West rhetoric of Bush’s post 9/11 pronouncements – ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ – now seems to belong to a different age.

Meanwhile, former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has said that Obama’s inauguration raises hopes for a peaceful solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomatic engagement. According to Blix: ‘Bush was the worst for treating people without respect. The policy was that the US was the good guy and they would keep order among the unruly children of the world.’ While back in February 2008, Bush was steadfastly refusing to rule out any ‘options’, his replacement will, as Blix says, ‘be more ready to enter into direct talks. We should get a much more creative and positive attitude.’ During my recent visit to Iran, I only saw one piece of evidence to suggest international relations are strained. As I drove past a heavily guarded power station on the highway between Yazd and Kashan, I saw clusters of mobile rocket launchers and gun emplacements with their sights trained north, scanning for incoming air raids from Israel.

***

Iran’s image is changing. This is happening because of the popularity of films such as ‘Persepolis’ and the trendy contemporary books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran. And although you can’t easily read Reading Lolita in Tehran in Tehran (much less Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), the rules are starting to relax. The increasing ease with which you can travel here means that it’s becoming popular again. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Iran was the Middle East’s top tourist destination, but numbers dwindled following the overthrow of the Shah. Three decades on and the tourism industry is booming again. Statistics released by the Iranian tourism office show that the number of foreign tourists has doubled in the past three years.

‘Roughly one million tourists visited Iran in 2004,’ says Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Chief of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO). Mashaei highlights the improved facilities provided to tourists and recognises the contribution electronic visas are making in simplifying the immigration procedure. To date, 250,000 e-visas have been issued, while reports of visa applications quadrupling from territories such as South Korea are becoming the norm. Iran’s ‘20-Year Vision’ document projects investment of over $32 billion in the country’s tourism sector. The document also predicts that Iran will account for two per cent of all international tourists by 2025.

One of the reasons for this is the success of the touring exhibition The Glory of Persia, which recently moved from Japan to South Korea. A dazzling exhibit of artifacts dating back to the 6th century BCE, the exhibition introduces Iranian history, culture and art to other nations. The ICHHTO, which has also recently taken major Iranian cultural exhibitions to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Britain and Mexico, is now planning to set up camp in the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it is scheduled to host an exhibition in 2013.

More immediately, currently running at the British Museum is Shah Abbas: the remaking of Iran, the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah Abbas, Shah of Iran from 1587–1629. According to Sheila Canby, the exhibition’s curator: ‘Shah Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today.’

But it’s not just a question of Iran touring the world. Although independent travel in Persia is still difficult, travel companies at the more adventurous end of the spectrum are starting to turn their attention towards offering Iran as a destination for escorted travel. One such operator is Simoon Travel. Managing Director Amelia Stewart explains: ‘the reason we wanted to move into Iran was that we knew it would be so different from the much-maligned portrait painted by the Western media. We wanted to see for ourselves, and we weren’t disappointed.’

Simoon’s itinerary is based on a classic journey along an old Silk Road trading route from Shiraz north to Tehran. Enthusiasts for Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana will be familiar with the names of many of the places of archaeological and architectural interest… Persepolis, Pasargadae, Esfahan and Yazd. Those with a wider-ranging knowledge of Persian travel literature will recognise the trip as an almost exact replica of one of the legs of Michael Carroll’s ‘Travels in Old Iran’ from the 1960s, which he describes in his largely forgotten classic From a Persian Tea House. Travellers expecting a literary, cultural and archaeological feast won’t come away empty-handed: ‘One of the great things about travelling in Iran,’ says Stewart, ‘is that the people make it. They are so warm and welcoming, charming and funny. They will go out of their way to ensure your time in Iran is memorable.’

***

Many writers have tried to capture the magic of Persia. Isabella Bird, Vita Sackville-West and Freya Stark have all chipped in with their observations on subjects as diverse as the beauty of Persian gardens, traditional village weddings and descriptions of the qanats or ancient underground irrigation tunnels that deliver water from the mountains to the desert cities. Lord Curzon, the great imperialist and President of the Royal Geographical Society immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War, wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, Persia and the Persian Question (1892). This had such a penetrative influence that even two decades later, writers daring to comment on Persia were openly apologetic to Curzon for encroaching on his territory.

One such was W P Cresson (a fellow of the RGS) who, writing in 1908 in Persia: The Awakening East, describes his arrival in Tehran in such wonderful prose it’s worth quoting at length: ‘since daybreak we had been hoping, at every moment, to catch our first glimpse of the towers and minarets of the Persian capital. From time to time, in answer to repeated questioning, our sleepy driver would wave his whip in a comprehensive sweep that took in the whole sky-line ahead, empty of any sign of habitation except the occasional distant village of high-walled garden, and muttering a reassuring “Tahran Anja” would lapse once more into a state of blissful unconsciousness.’

Arriving in modern Tehran today is nothing like that, although the reasons for wishing to go there in the first place are probably identical. Iran ranks 7th in the world in terms of number of UNESCO heritage sites, and knocks spots off the overcrowded commercialised mega-archaeology of Egypt, Greece and even Turkey… When you go to Persepolis today, or for that matter Pasargadae or any other of the wonderful sites of ancient archaeology, you’ll most likely find yourself on your own. As you wander around these old rocks and stones you can mentally reconstruct the scenes of Darius’s palatial splendour in his summer palaces. British-naturalised Iranian photographer and explorer Henry Dallal tells me: ‘when we were kids we all went to Persepolis on a school trip – it’s the greatest place on earth.’  

The more I traveled through Iran, the more I realised that every preconception I’d based on television news bulletins and the foreign pages of the broadsheets was almost entirely wrong. Our media insists on bombarding us with absurd clichés of rogue nuclear power reactors, public executions and starving, oppressed masses forced to eat the bark off the trees to survive. On the other hand, if you believe the romantic fiction of most guidebooks published today, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that modern Iran is awash with nightingales, pomegranates and poetry. ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ says Hassan as we embark on yet another glass of sweet tea. ‘We’ve only got one nuclear power station, and we use it for generating our domestic power. And I haven’t seen a nightingale in years. When you go home tell your friends to come and see Persia for themselves.’

 

Iran – Travel co-ordinates

Nick Smith travelled to Iran with desert and cultural specialists Simoon Travel who organise tailor-made and group tours to Persia as well as Libya, Algeria and Oman. Experienced guest lecturers often accompany the tours and groups do not exceed 15 in number. The company also works closely with schools to offer educational trips to these destinations. For a brochure call Amelia or Clare on 020 7622 6263 or visit

www.simoontravel.com

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