‘It’s not like Argo’: the trials of a tour guide in Iran
By Christopher de Bellaigue
Publish Date: Tuesday 7 July 2015
In the spring – already hot because this is southern Iran, and southern Iran is hotter than it used to be – I landed in the middle of the night at the tidy, unassuming Shiraz airport, along with a dozen well‑heeled westerners. We got off the plane – a Turkish Airlines Airbus, because our insurance companies had not countenanced our travelling by Iran Air – and joined the queue for passport control. I looked at my fellow travellers and thought I detected, over the natural melancholy of people who have been woken up at a cruel hour, a glitter of unease. We were a party of mostly Brits, Americans and Australians – you could hardly have devised a rainbow more likely to arouse the suspicions of the Iranian authorities – and we were entering a country that we had heard vilified all our adult lives, and to which our respective governments counsel against all travel unless absolutely necessary.
Inside the airport, the members of the group shuffled uneasily forward to show their passports to young, unshaven men in bottle-green uniforms, or to their female counterparts, hooded and pale under the strip lighting. But these immigration officials turned out to be far from hostile, seeking only a virgin page, and some of them even smiled and made little jokes about being tired.
I was along as the tour “expert” – so-called because I have lived in Iran, written about it and speak the language. Before the flight from Istanbul, one of the party had asked me if he should delete photos of a recent trip he had made to Israel. He feared his hard drive might be inspected at customs. I shook my head and said: “That’s not the way they operate in Iran.”
Before leaving the airport with our luggage, we did have to put our cases through an x-ray, but this was for detecting contraband – not selfies in front of the Wailing Wall. Afterwards, I saw some members of our group give each other looks of bemusement, as if to say: “Well! That wasn’t like Argo at all!”
As we were leaving the airport, our tour leaders, Ed and Katryn, called me over. They were standing next to an oval man in a blue suit. He was tamarind-brown from exposure to the sun and he carried an overstuffed computer bag.
“Christopher,” Ed began, “I’d like you to meet Hossein, our local guide. And this,” he went on, gesturing towards me with a flourish, “is Chris, our Iran expert.”
When I had first accepted Ed and Katryn’s proposal that I join their party, it had occurred to me that our local guide might be offended that some random foreigner had been assigned to describe the country in preference to himself. But when I met Hossein I found no pique in his expression – only an odd, faintly inauspicious bonhomie.
The following morning we gathered in the dining hall of our hotel for the stock Iranian five-star breakfast of quartered tomatoes, cucumbers, goats’ cheese and hard-boiled eggs. I moved among the tables and introduced myself.
I immediately made friends with Tina, a retired senior social worker and fellow Londoner, and with Muriel, a former Qantas flight attendant who had married a minister in the Australian government, had appeared in Neighbours and was now enjoying a sunlit widowhood. From Ed and Katryn I knew that the members of the tour had all enjoyed success in professional lives that ranged from the law and medicine to fund management, oil-field troubleshooting and writing novels. And at least two of the group displayed that combination of piercing acuity and inadequate dress sense that I associate with genius.
Many seemed to know each other from previous tours – North Korea and Ukraine occasioned much nostalgia – and, before long, they slipped into the repartee that is essential to groups of any kind, lubricated by the unfeasibly infantile humour of Ryan, a startup multimillionaire from Yorkshire with a rare talent for the double-entendre.
Conversation in the dining hall was humming along when Katryn intervened to tell us to be on the coach in 10 minutes. Soon we were trundling through the lush valley of Marvdasht, towards the ancient city of Persepolis, and Ed thrust a microphone into my hand.
Ed had told me that his clients visited countries in order to understand “how they work,” so it was with politics that I began my first group address as a tour guide. I used to be a journalist in Iran, and I know that politics and tourism are considered incompatible by many Iranians, including members of the country’s law-enforcement agencies. I had an uneasy feeling that by the time we were done, I would have a fuller understanding of the relationship between tourism and the security state.
I began by stating the obvious: we were in Iran at a pivotal moment. Only weeks before, Iran and the world powers had struck a provisional deal limiting the Iranian nuclear programme and setting up further negotiations, with the potential to end one of the most enduring geopolitical enmities of recent decades.
European and Iranian tourists visit the 2,500-year-old Tachara palace at Persepolis in Iran. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
Finally (as the griffin-capped columns of Persepolis came stupendously into view), I described Iran’s current, liberalising president, Hassan Rouhani, and his determination to turn the isolated, resource-squandering oligarchy he had inherited from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into a diversified regional producer and trade hub. The president’s goal, I said, was not only to increase oil sales after the lifting of sanctions, but also to attract foreign investment on an unprecedented scale. This would affect the culture and even the appearance of the country.
“Who knows?” I concluded, “Next time you’re here, there could be a McDonald’s on every corner.”
After Persepolis, we had an early night before heading east the following day towards Kerman, when I squeezed in next to Hossein in the prime position he monopolised as official guide, sprawled over two seats directly behind the driver.
Hossein showed none of the wariness that I associate with Iranian men when first meeting them. He was, he told me, a former weightlifter who had given up the sport after injury; since then, as he cheerfully admitted, he had run spectacularly to fat. Now he was an expert witness on matters relating to tourism. He took Iranian holidaymakers to the Caucasus and had commercial interests in Scandinavia. His phone was full of numbers – he knew, or claimed to know, everyone. And when he wasn’t talking, or snoozing, or demolishing a box of traditional Iranian biscuits, he was taking notes on whatever was going on around him, which he filed away into his computer bag.
It was part of Hossein’s job spec to keep us supplied with ordinary Iranians, and shortly afterwards Ed asked if we could get into the next village to meet some. Almost immediately we saw a breeze-block settlement running parallel to the road and swung off to enter it. “We’ve got a bunch of foreigners who want a cup of tea,” Hossein said to the first group of men we came across in what passed for the main street. “Will you oblige?” After a few minutes’ consultation, the men informed us that we would be received in the Hosseinieh, a devotional meeting hall that was ornamented with pictures of the supreme leader, carpeted with Chinese knock-offs, and locked.
There was a problem. The key to the Hosseinieh could not be found. Not to worry; one of the men broke the window, put his hand in and slipped the latch. Shoes off, we rocked awkwardly on our haunches while the 15 or so men who had escorted us to the Hosseinieh dispersed to gather glasses, thermoses of tea and sugar lumps. They returned with the government-appointed headman.
He was a taut, handsome, suspicious man who delivered himself of the usual declaration of self-abasement (“your heel is on my eye”), before denouncing the sanctions that our respective countries had inflicted on Iran. What, he would like to know, did we think of these sanctions? His pen hovered over his pad as I translated.
He needn’t have worried. The small number of western tourists who visit Iran every year have already weathered their friends’ disapproval; by setting foot in the Islamic Republic they are showing their scepticism of the prevailing image of Iran as a regional troublemaker, while it is Israel, Pakistan and India that possess nuclear weapons and Saudi Arabia that exports the world’s most intolerant form of Islam.
“Unfair!” pronounced Muriel the former flight attendant, and others murmured agreement; our host lowered his pen and spoke freely about the chronic water shortages that are ruining this formerly fecund part of Iran. These woes have nothing to do with sanctions, but rather a combination of lamentable water management and climate change. Even vegetables can no longer be grown locally but must be purchased from travelling salesmen.
Unknown to us, as we chatted away inside the Hosseinieh, news of our arrival had spread around the village, and after we had finished our tea, the women of the village turned up. They slipped off their rubber shoes and came in, the older ones with the ends of their chadors clamped in their mouths, the younger ones more brazen and curious, looking at us through their black polyester maghnaehs, which neatly frame the face like a porthole.
With the Iranian women arrived, the atmosphere in the Hosseinieh properly lightened. The women in our party gravitated towards their Iranian sisters and – without my help, without the laborious interventions of a translator – through an instinctive and unmediated synergy, eyes sparkling, hands reaching for hands, bonds of affection formed.
“Aus-tra-lia,” sang Muriel, making it sound like an exotic flower, and there was a general cooing and bandying of benign phrases: “How wonderful,” “What a pretty daughter you have!” and “How about a picture?”
My services as an interpreter were only required when the old women of the village, who learned that Katryn had been a doctor, besieged her for a consultation. “Bad leg!” they grinned, clutching capacious, rustling sides. “Backache!” “High blood sugar!” Katryn tactfully prescribed remedies that were both accessible and inexpensive: icepacks; celery tea; camomile. “And cut down on the red meat!”
When it was time to go, we spilled out of the Hosseinieh like revellers from a pub. A police car had turned up to see what all the fuss was about. Hossein calmed the cops’ fears of sedition. We got back on the coach and rejoined the Kerman road. I asked Muriel what would happen if a dozen foreign tourists pitched up at a homestead in Australia.
“They’d come away with lead in their buttocks,” replied the minister’s widow.
Over the next few days we drove thousands of kilometres, winding from Shiraz through the central provinces of this jagged, khaki land, and, since my travelling in Iran has always been done in the company of Iranians, this was the first time I saw the country as a foreigner does. The experience was far from liberating – on the contrary, it sometimes felt as though our progress was structured around toilet stops – but it revealed to me new lines on a face I had long known.
Tourists visit the tomb of Persian mystic poet Hafez in Shiraz. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
Sometimes when we were driving I would go and sit up near the driver, Mr Aghai, and his youthful assistant, Ali-Reza. Mr Aghai was an old timer, and he drove uncomplainingly even with a blinding sun in his face. Ali-Reza, on the other hand, did not conceal his unhappiness at being a dogsbody. He had benefitted from the home-building subsidies that Ahmadinejad had made available in the early years of the decade, and had earned good money making armatures for houses. Rouhani stopped the handouts; Ali-Reza lost his job. His new work in tourism was taking away from his infant son and exposing him to unsettling hierarchies.
One relationship particularly vexed Ali-Reza: Hossein, perched in the coach’s front row, clearly enjoyed teasing, lecturing and embarrassing the younger man. I intervened in these exchanges from time to time, always with levity, but aware that I was coming between a bully and his prey.
Hossein was one of those Iranians who sensed the good times coming. Between snoozes he proposed that we go into business together. We met another in an oasis town we visited, drinking tea on daybeds in a merchant’s mansion that had been converted into a hotel. Its owner told us that he had 12 more tourism projects that were good to go – as soon as he found foreign backing. He had survived the past few years on Chinese and domestic custom; now he wanted Europeans and Americans.
A few miles west of the city of Bam, whose famous date palms survived the earthquake that destroyed the mud-brick citadel there in 2003, we were admitted to a special economic zone in an expanse of reclaimed desert, where we gained a sense of the desolation wreaked by sanctions – and the country’s potential for liftoff.
The zone had been designed for 50,000 workers and their families, but Ahmadinejad and isolation had scared away investors, and the lots were mainly empty. We drove around for a while, up and down the deserted grid of streets, before visiting one of the few productive units in the place: a car factory that was knocking out overpriced Chinese SUVs for the domestic market.
A nearby Volkswagen plant lay silent. The juxtaposition seemed to sum up the Iranians’ reluctant dependence on Chinese technology and investment, and their keenness to entice back the westerners as soon as politics allows.
Often, as we drove along the well-maintained roads, I was handed the microphone to speak about some aspect of Iranian history or politics, or the experience of living in Iran. I fielded questions on everything from Iran’s mineral riches (vast and still barely tapped) to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, an eight-year trauma that killed half a million Iranians and lives on in the country’s prickly, distrustful foreign relations.
In the prosperous desert trading city of Yazd, we had the impression of a country going in different directions at the same time. We spent the morning at the city’s principal Zoroastrian temple, one of a few places of worship open to the 30,000-strong community that is all that remains of pre-Islamic Iran. The priest told us that the fire he feeds mulberry and walnut logs had been been burning continuously for hundreds of years.
“And what happens if it goes out?” someone asked. “Nothing,” the priest replied laconically. “Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to nought.”
Yazd is a famously conservative place, dry and mercantile, so it came as a surprise that it also boasts one of the most self-consciously western restaurants I have seen in Iran – a softly lit establishment decked out with plush furnishings that had been imported in spite of sanctions. (Although it is not illegal to sell non-sanctioned goods, such as furniture, to Iran, in practice it is difficult because bank transfers are impossible and the collapse of the Iranian rial has made imports exponentially more expensive.)
Several of us had mushroom soup (in the desert!), served in a bread bowl, made according to an eastern European recipe, and our lunch was punctuated by the sound of corks being pulled from bottles of non-alcoholic champagne (in fact, carbonated grape juice) that was being quaffed, with a kind of simulated drunken hilarity, by slim and impeccably made up young women in highly coloured headscarves – the daughters of the conservative Yazdis.
That such a restaurant has thrived under sanctions lends credence to the common Iranian gripe that the sanctions have hit ordinary people painfully, while anyone with connections has been able to make enormous sums operating in a closed, illiberal business environment. It stands to reason that these people, under cover of ideology, should oppose the deal being worked out with the west.
On the whole, though, most of the people we spoke to in Yazd and elsewhere expressed an affinity for the west and a desire to know it better. For anyone who spends time in other countries in the Middle East, where the US and its allies are generally loathed, this exceptional attitude substantiates the idea that Iran could, over time, not only make peace with the US, but find itself in a de facto partnership with its former enemy. (The fight against Isis is the obvious place to start, even if some Iranians believe, somewhat eccentrically, in an American hand behind Isis’s creation.)
Sitting on my bed after we got back to the hotel that evening, I reflected that after a decade and a half of involvement with a pariah state, I would soon witness Iran’s readmission to the international community. It’s a moment I have longed for – I have an Iranian wife and two half-Iranian children – and yet I found it impossible to rejoice without reservation, because this readmission will have a telling effect on the country’s greatest resource: its culture.
Iran will now join the ranks of the insipid elsewhere, and I sensed it already from my room in Yazd, whose layout, specifications (minibar size; disposition of plug sockets) and dark-stain trim derived from an instantly familiar rule book of international standards. There was something chilling about a hotel room you could get around in the dark because it was the same as every other hotel room. I fled downstairs.
The Amir Chakhmagh mosque in Yazd, Iran. Photograph: Keren Su/China Span/Alamy
While we waited for our food, Ed asked everyone to describe their impressions of the country. “In what ways has Iran matched your expectations?”
It turned out that it hadn’t matched them at all. “I was expecting a place that had obviously been hammered by sanctions,” said Graham, the former telecoms executive, “somewhere obviously down on its luck. But even in the small towns the streets are tidy and cared for. You see patches of garden. The people carry themselves with a kind of pride.”
Several members of the group had anticipated a police state. “If this was Pakistan or Saudi,” said Henry the hedge-fund man, “there’d be military on every corner. But I’ve hardly seen anyone in uniform. We’ve been going around the place talking with people unhindered. I’m surprised at how relaxed it all seems from a security point of view.”
For all the country’s human rights abuses, however, everyone agreed that the gap between perception and reality was startling. “Iran,” I agreed, “is friendlier, better-run and freer than most westerners are led to believe. Also, what the west calls Iran’s ‘aggressive behaviour’ might be better understood as Iran looking after its interests – which naturally don’t always coincide with those of the west.”
The group seemed to like these ideas. They confirmed the wisdom of travelling – of seeing with one’s own eyes what others distorted. A corollary was that what they were being told at home was not the truth, and for all their awareness of the vested interests that control the TV and press, and the difficulty of getting reliable information even in an age of unregulated social media, this thought troubled them.
Henry flourished the most recent issue of the Economist, which described Iran as “the fist that most threatens the world”. To the people around the table, it seemed preposterous that the stimulating and welcoming country in which they had spent the past week could be characterised so unthinkingly. Henry and the other Americans around the table attributed the flood of misinformation in their country to the power of Israel, the rise of an undiscerning Islamophobia, and the replacement in US public discourse of calm analysis by the politics of the gut. Not that these ailments are a monopoly of the US, as Ed pointed out. “Where we are sitting now is considered by the Foreign Office to be as dangerous as Baghdad.”
In our next destination, the historic city of Isfahan, where arrangements had been made for us to have dinner with an Iranian family, he ate copiously from the exquisitely astringent herb-and-bean stew that our hostess had prepared before making his way around the room and taking photos of the family mementoes.
That night, I went down to the river, breathed in the daphne and mayblossom and watched the Isfahanis move like a shadow play between the illuminated arches of the bridges that Shah Abbas the Great built 400 years ago. Then I sat on the bank and counted the days that were left.
The following morning, we went up to the ridge of mountains that bounds the city in order to visit the war cemetery, the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, which holds thousands of graves, each surmounted by a photo of the martyr in a metal frame. We wandered about self-consciously. Our respective countries had all supported Saddam in his war with Iran, and in a way we all felt culpable.
It was a Friday and the cemetery was full of families visiting the graves of fallen sons, having picnics and reciting the Qur’anic prayer for the dead. But the people did not look askance at our odd little group, as I feared. One female student told us how young women had gone to the front as nurses and sought out disfigured veterans to marry.
An old man came up to me and said how pleased he was to see us; he smiled radiantly, but then his eyes reddened and he clutched his ribs – his son lay a few yards away. “Tell them what their countries did to us,” he wept. “Tell them.” Muriel wiped her eyes and said, “It’s good that we came; it’s important to show what we feel.”
German tourists visit the tomb of Darius I the Great near Persepolis in Iran. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
From Isfahan we went to Qom, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam, on the edge of the vast salt flats of central Iran. I once wrote a book that meant I had to come to Qom a lot, and it always made me feel thirsty.
In Qom we visited a private university that specialised in comparative religious studies. The books in the well-stocked library testified to an eclectic curriculum – Engels was there, as well as nihilism and even Israel .
We filed into a classroom that contained about 15 students, the majority of them young women wearing maghnaehs. A male teacher was addressing them on the origins of Shiism – he was using foundation texts to refute claims by hardline Sunnis that the Shias are a heretic sect and should be considered apostates. “On the contrary,” the teacher told us, “the texts demonstrate that Shia tenets are integral to Islam.”
Our visit ended with Ed expressing his hope that everyone there would have the chance to visit Britain. “I would be very happy to come to Britain and proselytise,” one of the girls replied, and we all laughed uneasily.
Abridged from:The Guardian