In Iran, open arms, rich history await intrepid Westerners

TEHRAN -- "Beyond our ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."— Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet

Bob Augustine's last encounter with Iran was on a Pan Am plane, a few days before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control as architect of the country's fundamentalist Islamic revolution. He remembers the panicked faces as plainclothes security men yanked passengers off the jet just before takeoff, and the sobs of relief when their pilot announced they had cleared Iranian airspace.

Thirty years later, the retired telecommunications executive from Bonita Springs, Fla., is back in the Axis of Evil — as a tourist.

An old map in hand and wife Jill by his side, Augustine is launching his eight-city Iranian odyssey with a mission to reconnect with the couple's former Tehran neighbors. Also reaching out: hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is promoting foreign tourism as a "strategic bridge" at a time of escalating tensions between Iran and the West. And despite a State Department travel warning that U.S. citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest, a trickle of plucky Yankee tourists — about 1,600 so far this year — have been answering the call.

"There are many things that Americans justifiably find outrageous about the Iranian government," acknowledges guidebook guru Rick Steves, whose one-hour travel special about his own May trip airs on PBS stations in January.

But the peripatetic author says he's "never had so many preconceived notions torn apart," and proclaims the Middle Eastern powerhouse and political lightning rod the most "surprising and fascinating" land he's ever visited.

The Augustines, and 11 other participants (seven of them Americans) on Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures' Discover Persia tour, would agree.

Their two-week swing by plane and bus through a country twice the size of Texas will take them from chaotic, lung-searing traffic in the capital, Tehran (population 12 million), to a one-room school in the mountain hamlet of Abyaneh (Lonely Planet's population estimate: "a few old women, most of the time.")

They'll wander the 2,500-year-old ruins of Persepolis, cradle of the Persian Empire until it was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great, and watch men gather for prayers beneath arches of staggeringly intricate tiles in Isfahan, a UNESCO Heritage city that ancient Persians proudly dubbed "half the world." They'll savor pistachio ice cream in the convoluted alleys of Yazd, a Silk Road outpost that 13th-century visitor Marco Polo declared "good and noble," and listen to the eerie strains of the ney, a wooden flute, at the shrine of a Sufi mystic in Mahan.

And amid one of the world's most demonized regimes and bewildering societies, they will be greeted with two constants: "Welcome to Iran!" and smiles as wide as a cloudless desert sky.

'Two very different worlds'

Now working in France, the young Iranian on the KLM flight from Amsterdam is returning home to Tehran for a family visit. She drains her glass of Chardonnay, waiting to tie a bright scarf on her head until she leaves the cabin. (Iran bans public alcohol consumption, and all women, including foreigners, are required to wear hijab, or head covering, and modest dress in public.) When an American tourist asks whether she's worried airport inspectors will confiscate the Sex and the City DVDs stuffed into her carry-on, she shrugs.

"Iranians are like sugar in water. We can blend in to survive," says Golsa Fouladinejad. "In Iran, we live in two very different worlds: public, and behind closed doors."

Those public and private worlds collide constantly, and foreign visitors are often on the fault lines. In Isfahan, a shopkeeper's dinner invitation includes a session in front of the family's illegal satellite TV, beaming the latest Hollywood soaps and news from CNN. On one of Tehran's pristine subway cars, a teenager sports a sweatshirt emblazoned with "United States of America, Washington, D.C." It's not far from the former U.S. Embassy, where a wall mural still shows a skull-faced Statue of Liberty and this week's anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the compound by militant Iranian students was marked by the burning of U.S. and Israeli flags.

London artist Lorna Tresidder, like several others on the G.A.P. trip, came to Iran expecting a Third World country. She says she has been "gobsmacked" by the modern highways, litter-free streets and engaging, well-informed people.

But while it's tough to find an Iranian who supports the U.S. government, many are highly critical of their own.

At the Shiraz tomb of Hafez, a 14th-century poet whom most Iranians can quote by heart, a pilgrim with a spiky haircut straight out of There's Something About Mary shows off his cellphone with a popular rap video. The stars: a jiving Ahmadinejad and Khomeini. In Isfahan, a carpet shop salesman steers a tourist off the street and into his shop — not to extol the virtues of hand-woven tribal designs, but to whisper his anger at Iran's skyrocketing inflation rate (nearing an estimated 30% a year) and what he complains is a growing disconnect between oil revenues and average workers. And in Yazd, a stronghold of the country's pre-Islamic faith, Zoroastrianism, a popular souvenir is a pendant depicting the ancient Zoroastrian symbol of a winged man — a symbol that some young Iranians wear as a silent protest against the country's fundamentalist regime.

Mood swings at a sports event

It was billed as a brief stop at a crumbling ghost town between Isfahan and Shiraz, the garden-filled city that has been the heart of Persian culture for more than two millennia. But within minutes of the tour bus's arrival at the hilltop redoubt of Izadkhast, it's clear that the morning agenda will be tossed to the winds.

Nearby residents have gathered for a yearly sports award ceremony, men and boys on one side and a sea of women in head-to-toe black chadors on the other. Then, as the entranced tourists raise their cameras and angle for a better view, the tenor changes.

New York investment banker Rex Visher, 26, recounts the scene: "Please respect our culture and our privacy. No photos," a stony-faced local tells him. A police car suddenly materializes, lights flashing.

And when the man learns Visher is from America, the mood shifts yet again. Visher exchanges e-mail addresses and poses for the villager's own photo as Visher's fellow travelers are besieged with autograph requests.

"Tell us," the now-genial man asks Visher. "What is one piece of advice you would give the Iranian people?"

The chattering crowd falls quiet and leans in for his answer: "Stay kind, and be positive."

Camels and cab fare

On the tour's last night in Iran, the group gathers for a farewell dinner in the chichi North Tehran neighborhood of Darband, snuggled against the steep slopes of the Elburz Mountains. Over platters of kebabs and rice (mainstays of practically every restaurant menu in the country), they recall the highlights from a trip of a lifetime that most of their friends thought they'd been crazy to attempt.

Dubliner John Feeney, whose own tin whistle had harmonized with traditional Iranian instruments in teahouses along the way, remembers the camels. Moseying home to a 400-year-old desert caravanserai, one of hundreds of inns that once sheltered Silk Road traders, they reminded the middle-aged banker of cows in the Irish Midlands — commonalities, he says, that can unite even disparate cultures.

Bart Van Gestel, a 24-year-old from Antwerp, Belgium, marvels at the Iranian who befriended him on his flight to Tehran. Arranging a taxi after their middle-of-the-night arrival, the man accompanied him to his hotel and insisted on paying the fare. The explanation was one the Belgian would hear repeated often: "You are a guest in our country."

Forthe Augustines, the journey has brought them full circle.

Bob's 30-year-old map had delivered them to the doorstep of their former apartment, where they'd lived while he worked on government projects for the country's previous ruler, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Their old landlord answered the knock, and tears flowed as the onetime friends and neighbors made up for decades of lost time.

As Jill gossiped with the landlord's grown daughters, they reminded her of long-ago picnics and swimming lessons. And they reminisced about something else: a sapling Jill had planted in the family's front yard. Towering nearly three stories above them, the tree was a symbol, too.

"All of us have planted seeds on this trip," says Jill. "Governments come, and governments go, but there is always room to talk."