TRAVELOGUES BY IRAN RPCVS

Beeya Bereem!

edited by David Shannon (Sahneh, 1974-76)

Welcome back to Beeya Bereem! (Let’s Go!), where we share our travels in Iran and encourage others to follow. John Lorentz (Karaj, 1962-64) spent two post-Peace Corps years in Iran doing research on his Ph.D. thesis and teaching at the University of Tehran, but left in 1976, before the Islamic Revolution. On this May 2014 trip, he was the tour scholar with a group sponsored by Distant Horizons. Please share your experiences with all of us. Contact the editor for details: daveshan@xtra.co.nz

Back “Home” in Iran

by John Lorentz (Karaj, 1962-64)

With my background, I was well prepared for an intense and extensive itinerary. We traveled from Tehran to Mashhad, Shiraz, Kerman, Mahan, Yazd, Isfahan, Kashan, and finally to the Caspian Sea. My expectations were far exceeded by the overwhelming hospitality experienced throughout the country. It was exactly as I remembered from pre-revolutionary days and not in the least besmirched by politics.

My memory of Tehran in the ‘60s was of a city experiencing all the ills of rapid urbanization. With another ten million people since then, I expected the worst. What a surprise it was to find a well-ordered city, much easier to get around in than the mid-‘70s thanks to many freeways, flyovers, pedestrian overheads and underpasses. The superb subway system is worth a visit itself for the beautiful artwork adorning each station. The air quality is much improved, and great effort and expense have gone into creating a park system. Every area of the city has its own park, and they are fully utilized. I spent many evenings walking, where I interacted with people of all social classes. Naturally, my fluency in Farsi made a huge difference.

On many evenings I went park-hopping, often not returning until after midnight. Despite having already eaten, I was invited multiple times to share in the dinners of families. Having to respect the ta’arof, I gained five pounds on this trip! The Tehran museums were another pleasant surprise. I visited six of fifteen and was highly impressed with their layout and the exhibit information they provided.

Outside Tehran, nowhere did I find decay. Each city and location had its own vibrancy. Newer suburbs abound, but the charming older sections put their stamp on the character of each city. And, of course, Iran has so much to offer in the way of history and culture. It was a delight for me to share this with the thirteen Americans who were experiencing Iran for the first time.

The roads and the highway driving offered another shock. The highways in Iran are in better shape than where I live in the U.S.A.

My impression is that Iran has been economically hurt by the sanctions and I seemed to find universal agreement on that. However, Iranians hardly appear bowed by the pressure. First, it is evident that our “allies” have been less than assiduous in their application of sanctions. There are a great many foreign companies operating in Iran – excluding American companies. Also, Iranian pride trumps all, no matter what the individual political views might be. It was impressive to me how outspoken people were about politics. The consistent theme was, “Recognize that we have rights also and let us move beyond the past.” Over and over I heard, “It is time to move forward.” The fact that the majority of the population is below the age of sixteen means there is little memory of past grievances, and the youth seem well tuned to the digital age.

Indeed, in reflecting on my experiences I am struck by the changes since the election of President Rouhani. Many Americans ask: “What about Ahmadinejad and all his threats?” I can honestly say that Ahmadinejad has disappeared from the political scene in Iran. I asked numerous times and could not find a single Iranian who had the slightest idea where or what had become of him.

My trip to Iran was nostalgic and informative. Iranians are a proud people, and for very good reason, as those of us who served in the Peace Corps are well aware. Those able to return will find much familiar and much changed, but they may feel most deeply, as I did, re-energized by the encounter with Iranians, in Iran, and grateful for having had the privilege of once calling Iran “home.”

Viewing the 1999 Solar Eclipse in Iran

By Carolyn Yale (Shiraz, 1974-75)

My diary entry for August 4, 1999 reads, “We are now in Tehran—for me, once again in Tehran.” This was my return to Iran after Peace Corps service in Shiraz in the mid-1970s, and this time the mission, in the company of three scientists, one former astronaut, and seven other fellow-travelers, was a “solar” lecture tour of western Iran capped by viewing a total eclipse. How convenient that Isfahan, with a 96% probability of clear skies in summer, lay in the path of totality! And how fortunate that I was included in this delegation with my physicist husband, Rock Bush.[1] The three of our group who had lived in Iran were eager to revisit and, viewing the politics of that summer with trepidation,[2] hoped that Iranian hospitality would smooth any rough spots. As it turned out, the hospitality and interest in Americans exceeded all expectations.

Organizations in Iran and the United States (particularly the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation based in Tehran and Search for Common Ground) collaborated on arrangements and itinerary: a bus loop in the company of Iranian associates and an Iranian guide took us from Tehran to Zanjan, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Khorramabad, Isfahan and the viewing site, Chadegan, and Shiraz.[3] That first day in Tehran my husband and I set out on what became our routine: long morning and evening walks, free of guides or instructions, opportunities for up-close viewing and conversations with Iranians. Whether in Farsi or English — it really didn’t matter—we and the other travelers could understand delight in meeting and hosting Americans.

Apparently the scheduled lectures were well advertised and the students prepared and eager with questions. Today in Iranian universities women slightly outnumber men.[4] Certainly, our audiences in 1999 were equally attended by male and female students. In Khorramabad, after a long day’s ride, we arrived at our hotel only to be informed that in five minutes we were expected at the nearby University of Lorestan. Off we went, entering a packed auditorium—standing room only, with roughly 500 students seated, women on the left, men on the right. Fluent translation made for robust discussion after the lectures. That was a long day.

We were also tourists, viewing not only storied sites in Isfahan, Takht-e-Jamshid, and Pasargadae, but such treasures as Soltanieh (under restoration at the time) near Qazvin, and the ongoing excavations of Ecbatana (Hamadan). For me, however, the highlight was a site newly discovered since my Peace Corps days: Ali-Sadr cave, over six miles of waterways through limestone formations the equal of any in the United States. As our guides paddled they started singing –an echoing musical competition among passing boats.

And, on August 11, 1999 the famously clear skies gave us a perfect eclipse, accompanied by the celebratory rifle shots of tribal men at the edge of the huge Chadegan reservoir on the Zayandeh Rud, 130 km from Isfahan.[5]

Behind the inspiration of this special journey to Iran was the dream of building a people-to-people exchange in science and culture. Intervening events and political shifts have dimmed immediate prospects for these kinds of exchanges, but the vision lives on. One of our group, Alan Hale, remarking on the friendship he felt among people he met on the trip put it this way, “America, are you listening?”

[1] At the time, Rock was working on “SOHO” (google); he’s a researcher at Stanford, now focused on the HMI (google that too). It’s all solar observing instruments/data etc.

[2] A little background: The July 1999 student unrest in Tehran over government repression led to demonstrations. The Basijis retaliated viciously. This episode was at the time the most significant clash since the revolution. I suspect the selection of lecture venue—far from the major cities—and cancellation of our talk in Isfahan reflected concern that we be kept away from risky situations.

[3] . Despite the planning and hope of better political relations under the presidents Clinton and Khatemi, our visas arrived only hours before our scheduled departure.

[4] See https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/35482/Effatxthesisxx.pdf for a discussion of the increased numbers of women pursuing higher education in Iran. The figure of women comprising 60% of higher education enrollment is cited in various articles but difficult to corroborate.

[5] Zayandeh Dam, Chadegan reservoir. And next to the reservoir, a sort of country-club set retreat. I suspect we were placde there for security. It was a convenient viewing site except for complete lack of internet access. Actually, the intermittent internet service proved challenging for the group throughout the trip.

Copyright © 2014 by Carolyn Yale

(Originally published in KhabarNameh, February 2014)

John Lorentz

Carlyn Yale