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. The three of our group who had lived in Iran were eager to revisit and, viewing the politics of that summer with trepidation, 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. 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. 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.
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?”
 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.
 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.
 . Despite the planning and hope of better political relations under the presidents Clinton and Khatemi, our visas arrived only hours before our scheduled departure.
 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.
 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)