It was my first full day in Isfahan. As I was wandering the magnificent Emam mosque, two young Iranian girls came over to talk to me. They were maybe 14-15 years old and their lovely, smiling faces were framed by their black chadors, that all-encompassing garment that most woman wear in Iran.
“What’s your country?” they ask in halting English.
When I answered they exclaimed, “America! We love America!”
Questions came as quickly as they could find the correct English words:
“What city do you come from?”
“What do you think of Iran beating America at soccer?”
“Do you like Iran?”
After a few minutes they exhausted their English and, I thought, their interest in me. They headed off but didn’t get more than 20 paces before they came back with one last question: could they take their picture with me? So we waylaid a passing tourist to work the camera and the three of us stood together smiling.
As I walked off, I contemplated what this encounter said about women in Iran. The young, at least, weren’t shy. I was delighted because I had feared I would only meet men on this trip – how lopsided that would have been.
A little later as I was crossing Eman Khomeini Square, the tourist center of Isfahan, I noticed a busload of schoolgirls. I didn’t make the connection until the same two girls got off and said, “Come to the bus, the children have questions.” As I stepped closer, all the windows went down. First, they would consult among themselves to get the proper English words and then someone would shout a question to me:
“When did you arrive?”
“Where are you going next?”
“Do you like Isfahan?”
They went on like that until the bus driver, who didn’t look too happy, blew his horn to get everyone back on the bus. I stood there as they drove off, all waving at me. What a wonderful introduction to Iran!
Isfahan, Saturday, April 10
My seatmate on the flight from Tehran to Isfahan was a computer-networking specialist. As I also work with computers, we talked a little shop. When he found out that I had just arrived, and that this was my first trip to Iran, he insisted on getting a taxi and taking me to my hotel, the Abassi. After making sure I was OK, he headed off to work but said he would try to return later. I had a feeling he would too.
I was so excited to be in Isfahan, a city I had dreamed of visiting for years, I just dropped my bag in my room and headed off. In the street I consulted my map and walked toward Emam Khomeini Square, about 10 minutes away. It’s a huge open area, an ex-polo field, full of pools, flowers and grass. At one end is the unsurpassed, Emam mosque, built in the 17th century and covered with magnificent blue tile. Around the sides are loads of tourist shops, another mosque and a palace: plenty of things to see. At the north end is the entrance to the bazaar. That’s where I headed. I just wanted to stretch my legs: the mosques could wait until tomorrow.
I entered the winding lanes, thick with people, carts and motorcycles. The shops near the entrance were mostly aimed at the tourist trade selling jewelry, carpet, pottery and Persian miniatures. Farther back there were the standard array of shops selling fabric, plastic pots, car parts and various hardware items: all the things of everyday Iranian life. I walked slowly and for the first time since I had left home, I felt that incredible rush of excitement that comes with visiting a new place. “I’m in Iran,” I said to myself, “I really am in Iran.”
In many ways this busy bazaar was like many others I have visited, but the frequent pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, so revered in Iran and so vilified in America, made it clear that this bazaar was in Iran and nowhere else.
I walked the full length of the bazaar – about 3 miles – and came out the north end in a little market area. I walked over to a busy street and stood there looking for a taxi to take me back to my hotel. A cleanly groomed man in his middle years rode over on his bike and asked, “Do you speak English?”
When I said I did, he looked at me intently and said, “We threw the British and the French out, all those who didn’t believe in God.”
He paused, still looking directly at me. He then pointed at the sky and asked, “You think the sky is blue?”
When I answered yes, he pointed down. “We think the ground is brown, very brown.”
He nodded his head several times and rode off. I stood for a few minutes trying to digest what he had just said.
Eventually I flagged down a taxi and, after a little bargaining, got a ride back to my hotel. I kept thinking about what that guy had said. Was there some message hidden there? Finally after a few days I decided he was simply a street-corner nut. My hometown has a few and I could imagine someone coming from abroad and, after hearing some of their rants, trying to make sense of it. I got a good laugh out of that. You can’t take everything people say seriously.
Back at the hotel I took a nap: I was pretty tired. I had arrived in Tehran after midnight and then flown to Isfahan first thing the next morning. As I lay there before I fell asleep I noticed something unusual, a marker on the ceiling pointing the way to Mecca – the direct Muslims face when they pray.
I didn’t sleep long and woke up hungry. As it was 3:00, to late for lunch, I headed to the hotel café. Along with my food I had the first of many Delster, the non-alcoholic beer that is widely sold in Iran. This was probably the only downside to traveling in Iran: absolutely no beer and after a day in the dusty bazaar I sure could have used one. This wasn’t the last I would lament the lack of beer.
As soon as I was done eating, I headed back over to Emam Khomeini Square. As it was raining a little, the only time it happened while I was in Iran, I decided to walk the tourist bazaar that surrounds the square. I wanted to check out the quality of the carpets and other tourist items. I also talked to a few of the touts, mostly guys wanting me to visit their shops. I found them quite pleasant: they always took a simple no to mean just that.
I got back to the hotel just after dark and found Mohsen, the computer network guy, waiting for me. Did I want to go for a walk he wanted to know? I was getting pretty tired, but yes, I would love to take a walk. The night was very pleasant and we strolled for a while in the nearby park. He then asked if I would like to meet his cousin, who had a camera shop. The word shop made me a little wary, but I said sure. His cousin, it turned out, was very friendly but spoke no English. Instead he showed me some pictures taken by his grandfathers who apparently was one of the first photographers is Isfahan. They looked to be turn of the century pictures and were very interesting. Mohsen translated the little stories that went with each.
Being in a shop, I was still waiting for the pitch. When it came it was quite subtle. “Do you need anything for your camera?” Mohsen asked. Before I thought I said, “No, I brought all the film I need with me.” After that there were several long silences. Finally I realized it was time to go and said my good-byes. Thinking it over later, I wished I had bought a roll of film as a sort of thank you to Mohsen who had shown me such kindness. I think it would have been a more appropriate response.
Back at the hotel I stopped at the gift shop to get some postcards and stamps. I figured I had better mail early if I wanted them to arrive home before me. A young woman dressed in the standard black chador waited on me. As she was getting the stamps, I listened to the music playing softly in the background. “Hey,” I said, “That’s country music.” “Yes,” she said looking at me, “I love country music.” “Well, so do I,” I replied.
I had fantasized about bringing a George Jones tape and listening to it while I drove across the desert. I decided against it because I was worried it might cause complications at customs – so I never expected to hear country music in Iran.