In summer, I flew from Istanbul's Ataturk Airport to Tehran's Khomeini Airport to film a public-television show on Iran. ("Rick Steves' Iran" will air on PBS throughout the USA in mid-January.) For an American, it was eye-opening from the first moment. When the pilot said, "We're taking this plane to Tehran," nobody was alarmed.
The wide-body jet was filled with well-off Iranian people. Although their features were different from mine, they dressed and acted just like me. As so often happens when I travel, I was struck by how people are so similar the world over. I wished the big decision-makers of our world weren't shielded from opportunities to share an economy cabin with people like this.
I had made this same Istanbul-to-Tehran trip 30 years ago. Last time it took three days on a bus, and the Shah was on his last legs. Wandering Iranian towns in 1978, I remember riot squads in the streets and the Shah's portrait seeming to hang tenuously in market stalls. I also remember being struck by the harsh gap between rich and poor in Tehran. I was 23 years old and confronted with realities that my friends who stayed home were oblivious to. I believe that was the first time in my life I was angered by economic injustice.
My Istanbul-Tehran trip was much quicker this time — it took only three hours rather than three days. Every main square and street that was named "Shah" back then is now named "Khomeini." In the 1970s, all denominations of paper money had one face on them. They still do today...but the face is different. At Khomeini International Airport, the only hint of the Shah were some of the travelers (many of those flying in were likely his supporters who fled Iran for the West in 1978, and were coming back to visit loved ones).
I made a mental note to myself to remember that émigrés (from any country) I meet and talk with in the USA may have intriguing insights. But they are a group with something in common — a reason and the where-with-all to leave their homeland.
As the pilot began our descent into Tehran, rich and elegant Persian women put on their scarves. With all that hair suddenly covered, I realized how striking long hair can be — how it really does grab a man's attention. Looking out the window at the lights of Tehran reminded me of flying into Mexico City at night. Greater Tehran is huge, with more people than all of Greece.
A youthful and noisy capital city, Tehran is the modern heart of the country. This smoggy, mile-high metropolis, with a teeming population of 14 million in the metropolitan area, has apartment blocks that stretch far into the surrounding mountains.
My impressions of modern-day Tehran were strong. There were playful Revolutionary Guards, four-lane highways intersecting with no traffic lights, "Death to America" murals, and big, warm, welcoming smiles...Iran is a fascinating and complex paradox.
I stepped out onto the 15th-floor balcony of my fancy hotel room to hear the hum of the city and to enjoy the view of a vast, twinkling city at twilight. Fresh snow whitened the mountains above the ritzy high-rise condos of North Tehran.
Looking straight down below, I saw the hotel's entryway buzzing with activity. The hotel was hosting a conference on Islamic unity, and the circular driveway was lined by the flags of 30 nations. Huge collections of flags seemed to be common in Iran — perhaps because they provided a handy opportunity to exclude the Stars and Stripes. (Apart from the ones featured in hateful political murals, I hadn't seen an American flag.)
A van with an X-ray security checkpoint was permanently parked outside the entrance. All visitors entering the hotel needed to pass their bags through the van first. It was interesting to see that Iran, a country we feel we need to protect ourselves from, had the same security headaches we do.
Back in my room, I nursed a tall glass of pomegranate juice. My lips puckered from munching lemony pistachios from an elegantly woven tray — they were the best I've ever tasted (and I am a pistachio connoisseur). I cruised the channels on my TV: CNN, BBC, and lots of programming designed to set the mood for prayer. One channel showed a mesmerizing river with water washing lovingly over shiny rocks. Another showed the sun setting on Mecca, with its Kaaba (the big black box focus of pilgrim worship), in real time. Lying back on my bed I noticed an arrow on the ceiling — pointing to Mecca. I had hardly been outside my hotel, and already I realized that visiting a theocracy would be a memorable experience.