Face to Face with the Enemy? A Women’s Group Visits Iran
By Phyllis Stoller
At the end of 2013, The US and Iran signed an agreement which freezes some Iranian nuclear projects and lowers some US sanctions.
The result is an increase in Americans visiting Iran despite our lack of diplomatic relations and frequent State Dept cautions/warnings.
As The Women’s Travel Group found out in November 2016, travel to Iran is easier and less intimidating than any of us expected.
How to Get to Iran from the US?
As of December 2016 there were no direct flights between the two nations; travelers have one stop choices: Turkish Airlines, Emirates, European carriers etc. British Airways began its London-Tehran route in September (BA is still waiting for culturally acceptable female uniforms so women can work that route).
The flight is so new that check-in personel in Heathrow thought a visa stamp for Ethiopia was for Iran. For us it is a really big deal to go to Iran, for others, it’s business as usual.
Some carriers might discontinue the route since Iranians cannot pay with overseas credit cards and the flights remain pretty empty. Fares are as low as $500 from London to Tehran. The flight is just five hours door to door.
Americans need a visa stamped in the passport.
To secure a visa, the visitor must present an authorization number from a valid tour company, a filled out application, and fees. Our group went through MIR Travel in Seattle, who have been offering trips to Iran for years and know the scoop.
In Iran, MIR contracts with Pasargad Tours in Tehran. We found out afterward that almost every US tour goes through Pasargad, from lower priced trips like ours or top luxury tours–all staying in the same hotels, eating the same meals and seeing the same sights.
The US State Dept. issues frequent warnings to heed, and journalists, dual nationals and some others should be wary. A friend from The Times shared her three-day press trip experience with us, lots of surveillance, lots of arrival questions, she had to wear the headscarf even on remote country roads.
In Tehran Airport, Americans are segregated for private questioning.
Some in our group found the interview probing; others thought the officer was practicing English. Whatever your welcome, you need to follow protocol carefully. Women must don headscarves and long sleeved knee length garments before deplaning otherwise be turned away.
A Tough Relationship
‘Know Before You Go’ that Iran and the US have have a tough relationship, due to the 1940’s CIA and British oil-based involvement, support of the Shah and hostage crisis, Israel and Iraq.
Our support for Israel is a sore point, tourists who have visited Israel within a year from date of departure from Iran will be denied visas.
So you need to make some internal moral decisions before you go.
Downtown posters in Tehran will horrify Americans with photos of a skeletal Obama, Americans murdering civilians etc. Your non-VPN phone might be listened to and, if you visit Iranians, you might be followed. Social media sites fail; some display error messages like CRIMINAL CONTENT.
You must check the date of Ashura, a holiday when Iranians demonstrate angrily against America and Shia heroes are memorialized. It’s on Saturday September 30, 2017, so plan accordingly!
Once you check into your hotel, (we stayed at the luxury Espinas in downtown Tehran) you feel a normalcy. However, the spa and gym are only for men, there is no alcohol, no cashier for Americans (you must pay for any extras via the tour company) and everything down to shower caps is made locally and looks a tiny bit odd.
The embargo has helped with employment since everything is made in Iran.
But in reality Iranians recognize you as foreign, ask where you are from, then “Welcome you back”. Even women in head to toe black stare then smile. One woman announced quite boldly in the public market in Shiraz “You should have been here with the Shah, Iran was nicer”
Guides will talk openly if they know it is allowed. Locals in museums might ask you what you think. However, around walls and on bridges are enormous posters of soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war.
You Are Jewish?
You are Jewish? The public image is ‘enemy Zionist’; the private is many Jews do well in Iran and our guide told us her social group was multi religious.
You will see anti-Israel posters, with burning flags and genocide scenes.
If you want to visit a Jewish family, get very detailed instructions ahead of time or do not visit. You can get both yourself and your hosts in deep trouble. In fact, visiting any private home is touchy and you might be followed from the hotel.
Cities are safe, clean and there is no begging or street haggling. Tehran has some bad areas that tourists are unlikely to visit. Women (in scarves of course) can wander solo around downtown Tehran and its parks.
Except for the terrifying traffic, wandering again feels normal. Many people speak some English.
Shop keepers are thrilled to help you and happy to take dollars. Purchases might be $3 scarves, nuts, halvah candy. Carpet and fashion stores might have overseas banking and then will accept a credit card. Remember, no US credit card company is doing business as of 2016 with Iran, and even Barclays in the UK refuses to open there. Cash is king.
In reality, Iranians immediately recognize foreigners. They will ask you where you are from, then “Welcome you back.” Even women
Yazd, Isfahan, Shiraz and Kashan
Iran’s main tourist cities are Tehran, Yazd, Shiraz, Isfahan and Kashan. All have excellent historic and modern hotels, good roads, airports and restaurants. Snow capped mountains in the distance, even in Tehran, make Iran especially beautiful.
Tourist sites are well maintained with a pride built on never being a colony.
Bathrooms are clean enough, but for squatters only.
Food is excellent, varied, hearty, a mix of kabobs and what Ghenghis Khan might have eaten–stews, thick soups. Restaurants cater to locals and a few tourists. There is no alcohol served–officially that is.
Oddly, just like during the US prohibition, religious groups of Armenians and Jews are allowed alcohol for religious ceremonies.
Tehran has internationally great museums for archaeology, modern art, glass, ceramics and carpets.
Visiting the former Shah’s palace in the north of the city is a hoot, with a very dated Princess telephone and everything left just as it was in 1978 when the Shah left the country for medical treatment in the US.
Yazd is a quaint Zoroastrian desert city. Shiraz and Isfahan are must sees. From Shiraz you drive to Persepolis, potentially the most complete archaeological site in the world.
Persepolis was begun by Darius the Great around 515 BC and you need half a day there to appreciate the palaces, friezes, lion and griffin statues, even cuneiform tablets written 2500 years ago explaining who visited Darius and why.
In 1971, a massive and grotesquely expensive 2500 anniversary of the Shah’s supposed dynasty took place in Persepolis. It was this extravaganza with food for thousands flown in from Maxime’s in Paris that helped to turn the country against the Shah and his family.
In Isfahan you are in ancient city full of blue tiled mosques, palaces, squares, Armenian churches and world famous Imam Square. Kashan is ancient trading center, with a movie set bazaar.
Bazaars are beyond wonderful, clean not pushy and fabulous: carpets, clothing, gems, jewelry, ceramics,turquoise, pistachios, caviar, scarves.
Climate is important–go during our winter. November is perfect. Water is important, drink only bottled water and lots of it. Food is clean at good spots and you can eat the local salad. Fruit is amazing.
Security in Iran is key–do not call or text controversial or private financial information. Do not confront your guide or driver with political questions. Expect to be followed.
Read a lot before you go so as not to be misled by Iran’s physical normalcy. MIR did and excellent job for our group as did the Iranian company, Parsagad Tours.
Go soon in case the treaty changes with our new President Trump, inflation rises with influx of foreign money or flights are cut back.
Phyllis Stoller has lived and worked in England, France and Switzerland and resides in New York. Phyllis founded The Women’s Travel Club in 1992 (acquired 2007 by a large tour company) and The Women’s Travel Group in 2012. Both have won awards for quality small group tours to unusual places.