Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Back to the Future in Iran

As we slowly made our way toward the airport for our flight home, the car lurched forward as the front wheels fell into a particularly large hole. From the front seat, our guide turned around, rolled his eyes and said "Here, he was mayor of Tehran and now he's President but he couldn't even fix our streets." And so it was during our trip, an imperceptible admission that they - our hosts and others like them - weren't responsible for Ahmadinejad. Sure they voted but not for this guy. On the one hand the events of this week are amazing in a country ruled by fear but on the other-hand less so. The crowd - students, moderate clergy, the middle class - had been invited to participate, but they had had enough and told them so. To many of them Ahmadinejad turned out to be worst than their worst nightmare.

This was my third visit to Iran having stopped over twice before in the mid-1970s. At that time, Tehran was rapidly growing under another dictatorship. Here was a vast city in the middle of nowhere completely outside my experience yet they had skyscrapers, side walks, movie theaters, traffic, jet aircraft, incredible architecture, and a jewelry collection you couldn't believe. Even in the 1970s, the separation between us and them wasn't that great. We stayed at the newly built Intercontinental and there was a Sheraton across town. We visited the souk and we got a carpet and some other souvenirs. We visited all the important sites and we went by plane and back to Isfahan, the holy city. We even frolicked in the hotel pool where off-duty Pan Am air crews wandered around as though they were in Miami.

Over the years my memories remained positive and I was never able to marry Bush's 'axis of evil' with my experience. Wouldn't that be like invading France I thought. Iran isn't some backward country. Regardless, in advance of our trip in November 2005 I did have some trepidation as I left London. I was excited, and when we arrived we were escorted through immigration by our travel guide. We were welcomed. I've had more trouble getting into Canada. Conversations were generally guarded but when we went for our big dinner out the conversation did become looser. During the dinner, males and females interacted, some women did not wear head scarfs and the Iranians proffered an almost laisez faire attitude to their political situation. Almost admitting 'we didn't vote for him but what are we supposed to do?

As chance would have it, when I returned to Tehran in 2005 we were placed in the old Intercontinental. At the height of the 1979 revolution, the hotel was 'liberated' but in the years following the government chose to keep everything the same. While the pool is now out of commission, the Iranians seemed to be proud of their previous more westernized outlook. The hotel retained all the branding of the original Intercontinental - even down to the waste basket in my room - despite a name change. The lobby was identical to the image in my mind from the day we left back in 1974. And in the entry way to their best top floor restaurant they still had on display a famous award for excellence. Encased in glass it was so covered in dust it looked like a funnel spider. Unfortunately for me, that meal caused me to get so ill I couldn't get out of bed the next day and make the day trip to Isfahan.

There were some dark spots: walls painted with 'death to America' and the local Tehran Times English language newspaper was busy interviewing a holocaust denier. There was no interest exhibited by our travel guides to engage on these topics and we didn't press the issue either.

As we saw, life in Tehran was getting harder. Inflation was growing and we saw lines outside gas stations. The roads weren't getting fixed. Corruption was rampant yet the religious police maintained their sweeps of improperly dressed women. So, some bright spark asked them for some feedback on their political circumstance and this is what they got.

No comments: