13 May, 2010

if Iran away...

Oh, Iran, how i want to visit thee.

It all began on a bus ride home from Ankara. My friend Osman was saying how he thought maybe he'd make a journey after the semester. Someone he knew had been to Iran, traveling by train across the country on a shoestring budget, and highly recommended it. The idea didn't take shape immediately, but two weeks later it echoed in my head. Iran? Why not. Lonely Planet recommended it on a list of "Countries that can still be traveled on the cheap". Despite being reportedly illegal, there's a thriving community of CouchSurfers, especially in Tehran. And the sleeper train overnight from Tehran to the southern port city Bandar-e-Abbas costs less than $8 US. From there, i could catch a ferry across the Persian Gulf to Dubai. It could be a dream trip.

I dug deeper, searching for visa information and train timetables online; making a list of potential CouchSurf hosts as i went. First, just across the border from Turkiye was the norther city Tabriz. Home of notable sufi Shems, spiritual companion of the poet Rumi, Tabriz is populated by a mixture of ethnicities, including many Kurds and Azeris. There was an intriguing story about a young American missionary and teacher, Howard Baskerville, who fought alongside his Persian students in the Constitutional Revolution of 1909. Killed at the age of 24 and buried there in Tabriz, Baskerville became somewhat of a legendary figure - a martyr - to Iranians, and there are schools named for him in Tabriz. Since 1909, though, Iranian perspectives on the U.S.A. have changed.

Fun fact: Iran has the world's third-largest oil reserves. In the early 1950s, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh decided to nationalize Iran's oil industry - a move popular among Iranians, but not with Britain (who had controlled those reserves through the Anglo-Iranian oil company) or their American ally. Enter CIA Operation Ajax, America's first (but not last) intervention to topple a democratically elected foreign leader - Mohammed Mossadegh. Apparently, we only support foreign leaders willing to rape their land for our benefit.

Traveling south by rail, i planned, i would visit Tehran and the beautiful Isfahan, one of UNESCO's world heritage sites, of which Iran is home to fifteen. (I was going to add a link, but i think you should just search "Isfahan" in google images.) I pored through CouchSurfing profiles for Tabriz, Tehran, and Bandar-e-Abbas, and uncovered glowing recommendations from travelers from the world over. But very few from Americans. I knew getting a visa could be difficult, and i sent messages to all the Americans i could find. One was traveling on an Indian passport; another, Iran-born, had dual citizenship. Finally Tucker Pyne, who's backpacking around the globe, emailed from Cambodia:

"Iran is, in fact, very cool. The people were thrilled to speak with a real live American, and I certainly never felt like I was in any danger. So here's the bad news ... you are required to have a guide ... at all times ... everywhere you go. And it is expensive."

A couple days later, another insider helped burst the bubble my Turkish friends had created. While Turks can visit Iran for three months without a visa, an American traveling alone, he reminded, would be seen by the Iranian government as a security risk. With a youth population increasingly vocal against theocratic rule, i could easily see myself as an unwanted cultural influence. Unless i wanted to visit visa-free Kish Island, i'd need an expensive babysitter. Which would rather cramp the whole backpacking-and-couchsurfing style. For once my desire to be an explorer, to experience the culture of an everyday Iran unfiltered by industrial media, would be denied by the red, white, and blue in my passport. Unless, of course, i decided to "go rogue" and potentially join the three American hikers currently in Evin Prison.


Postscript: As my hopes unfolded in a series of facebook status updates, one friend made an ignorant comment, referring to Iran's president Ahmedinejad as "Ahmed Imanutjob". Sigh. So much for working to understand others, to understand the world and why it is the way it is.

In the past few days i've come to realize more than ever that every story has two sides, and our reluctance as a species to embrace this fact has far-reaching consequences. Thanks to matters of perception, people on both sides of the story ironically feel the same. Yet instead of respecting each other and working for reconciliation, people make generalizations, others unquestioningly join the chorus, and the cycle continues. In almost every disagreement, both sides are at fault, but the desire to absolve oneself by relocating blame completely to the other party usually overcomes reason and truth. (Then of course, there are situations involving behemoth imperialist nations with industrial interests. Those are a bit different.)

That there are more military academies than peace academies, more soldiers than diplomats and more bomber aircraft than relief planes, stems from humanity's stubborn refusal to admit that our similarities are larger, stronger, and inevitably more valuable than our differences. And this is a failure of education - of the truest education, which is open and unprejudiced involvement in the world at large. I feel pretty lucky to be here.