New friends narrow the Persian gulf
Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.
Who: David Purcell (the author), his wife, Linda, and their friends of 25 years, Jimand Diane Huning, all of the District.
Where, when, why: The four of us have an affinity for the Middle East that comes from its being just so very different from home. Previous trips only whetted our appetites for the region and we found ourselves wanting to return, but to someplace new. To the utter disbelief of our friends, we chose Iran. With the help of IranExplorers.com, we worked out a 19-day itinerary that took us to Tehran, then south to the cities of Kashan, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz and Isfahan. Along the way, we spent nights in a 400year-old caravanserai; tiny Abyaneh, one of Iran’s oldest villages; and a family-owned and -operated hotel-restaurant-museum-farm complex in the mountains near Bavanat. We traveled by van with an Iran Explorers guide and driver. (Iran requires Americans to have a guide.) We went in April and May, a comfortable, although busy, time of year.
Highlights and high points: Most tourists go to Iran for the architecture of the centuries-old mosques and lavish palaces, the breathtaking tile work, the tranquil gardens, the ruins of Persepolis and, yes, the carpets. These things enticed us, too, and we were never disappointed. But they rarely get star billing in our memories of Iran or the stories we tell our friends. That is reserved for the Iranians themselves. We were warmly greeted everywhere, even swarmed at times, by Iranians of all ages. Once they determined we were from America— not Germany or Italy or some other Western country— we instantly became rock stars. Our photos can now be found on literally hundreds of Iranian cellphones. People thanked us for coming to Iran and told us of their hopes for peace and better relations between our countries. We always felt welcome. We always felt safe.
Cultural connection or disconnect: The night we arrived in Isfahan, we strolled with our guide through large, beautiful Royal Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like every outdoor public space we visited, the square was full of people enjoying themselves. As we walked by, one group called out to us, asking where we were from. When we said America, they responded, “We love you. We love America.” Moments later, at the far end of the square, we saw signs advertising a rally that had taken place that morning. The signs, although written mostly in Farsi, said in English, “Down with U.S.A., Down with Israel, Down with Ale Saud.” Our previous 15 days in Iran taught us not to be alarmed. These slogans are familiar to all Iranians, and almost no one pays attention to them.
Biggest laugh or cry: As we approached Shazdeh Garden, another UNESCO site, in the town of Mahan, we saw families picnicking on the lawns leading up to the entrance. It was Father’s Day, and a lot of people were out. From a distance, one family motioned us to join them where they were grilling kabobs. After an exchange of pleasantries, they asked us to have lunch. Because, in our experience, this was as likely to happen at home as pigs are likely to fly, we were stunned and deeply moved by their generous offer of hospitality. We had some of the most amazing grilled chicken, which we ate inside folded pieces of delicious, warm flatbread.
How unexpected: Iran was full of surprises, exemplified by nine women who defied our stereotypes of life in an ultraconservative, cleric-dominated Islamic republic. We saw and talked with them off and on during our three days in and around Kerman. The women are friends from north of Tehran, near the Caspian Sea. Twice a year, they leave their husbands and children behind and travel, this time to Kerman, in a van driven by a man they hired for the trip. Several times we passed them on the highway, packed into their van, waving their arms in the air and dancing in their seats. I just know the music they were grooving to was good and loud. There were no head scarves to be seen. We saw them another time, late one morning, in a teahouse, again dancing in their chairs and singing along to the live music. A few of them smoked hookahs. At some point, they asked Diane and Linda what they talked about when they got together with their American girlfriends. Diane and Linda answered, and the women replied, “That’s exactly what we talk about, too.”
Fondest memento or memory: We came home from Iran with just a few mementos— a couple of tiles, some saffron, a handpainted camel-bone box, an antique lock shaped like an animal. Our most precious mementos, however, are not physical objects. They are memories of the people we met — the bakers who showed us how they make flatbread, then gave us samples; the nomad women who invited us into their tent and offered us warm goat’s milk; the hard-working laborers at the henna factory who patiently answered our questions about their work and their lives. We treasure, too, the e-mail addresses we brought home, including those of our wonderful driver, Mehdi Hajikhani, and awesome guide, Ashkan Shirazi, whom we hope and expect to be lifelong friends. There are no mementos better than that. We look forward to another trip to the Middle East, next time to northern Iran.
Above, from left, Diane Huning, Jim Huning, Linda Purcell and David Purcell at the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis. The friends of 25 years ventured to Iran, where they received a rock-star welcome. Top, the Bridge of Thirty-Three Arches in Isfahan.