Outside the tea cup
"Tell George Bush to come and get rid of the
mullahs for us"
By Duncan Beatty
September 20, 2003
I traveled to Iran recently. Many of my North-American
friends and family questioned the wisdom of my decision at the
announced my intention. Iran, known in America for being a member
in good standing of the "axis of evil", homeland
of Ayatollah Khomeini and legions of imagined but unknown terrorists
and American haters, is not a popular tourist destination for
westerners. The most asked questions about my intention were "why?" and "do
you think that it is safe?".
I was interested in experiencing
the country and culture for myself and making my own decision
about it. It was an incredible trip and I find a vast difference
between my experience and the perceptions of people I have
talked to about it, before and after.
My first impression was my arrival at the airport.
We disembarked and walked into the baggage claim area at about
9 pm. It was
not to busy. About half the bags came and the owners took them
and left, leaving it even quieter than before. After a little
delay, my bag came out by itself and I left also.
I went through
customs, I was the only one there and the officers were in a
discussion so they paid very little attention to me. It took
literally 20 seconds to clear as the officer just glanced at
my papers and stamped my passport. There still seemed to be no
one around as I walk out to the greeting area. It reminded me
of the Edmonton airport, sometimes it is so quite, like a ghost
I walk into a long, wide corridor with glass walls
at the far end and on the whole right side and suddenly everything
changes. I see a large crowd of people pressed against the glass.
They are professionally dressed men, and women in black scarves
and coats, and they are all looking at me. I was dressed in extremely
casual travel clothes, carrying my backpack, and it seems as
if they are taking a moment to think 'hmmm, and what have
I feel pretty good, a new adventure is beginning
for me and I start to smile. Suddenly someone waves to me, I
wave back and then half the crowd is waving and smiling at me.
They were all there to welcome their own friends and family,
but since I was so obviously an outsider they all pitched in
to welcome me also. I felt as if I was being welcomed into a
greater societal family where neighbors and strangers actually
interact with and care about each other.
As I get to the exit
there is a man waiting with a sign that says "Mr. Dunkin,
USA". The crowd is pushing in but he helps clear a way
to get me out. When we are a little clear of the crowd there
is a girl with flowers and Mr. Azarian, who arranged the whole
greeting. What a welcome; it put one of those incredible warm
feelings in my heart that I will never forget; I still smile
when I think about it.
I found the people to be social in Iran, in a
way that we are not social in the West. Strangers would actually
conversations with each other and it gave me a lot of insight
into to attitudes of the population. This happened several times
when I was traveling with Mr. Azarian in cabs in Tehran.
first time it happened was most memorable. We were in the back
of a cab and Mr. Azarian and the driver were engaged in some
light political conversation. The passenger in the front quickly
and vehemently interjected, flashed an ID card, and went into
a tirade, which made me think he was some sort of government
official who did not like what he had heard. He went on for quite
some time, and he was very irate.
I was not sure what to do,
and since I couldn't understand him I wasn't sure
if I was reading the situation correctly. I thought maybe I should
just ignore him, not give him the satisfaction of an audience.
I also thought maybe I should stare him in the eye to let him
know he could rant on but I wasn't intimidated by his status.
It was actually a little unsettling because of the uncertainty
of the situation.
In the end I just tried to absorb the situation
and try to read as much as I could about it. I found out later,
when he left the car, that he was a government official working
in intelligence for the national broadcasting company. But he
was not complaining about the conversation in the car, he was
the one complaining about the government. His frustration was
to the point where he was almost losing control, he needed to
vent or he would burst.
Many of the people in the cabs in Tehran had the
similar thoughts. "Tell
George Bush to come and get rid of the mullahs for us." I
was shocked by the openness of that statement. With one fellow
I tried to discuss it with him in more detail to see if he really
meant it or was just talking. I told him that if George Bush
came and got rid of the Mullahs, it would not be to help the
people of Iran; he would be coming for the oil. The fellow replied, "He
can have the oil, its not doing us any good anyway and at least
then we would be free."
The further outside of Tehran I was the less political
and less critical of the government people were, although not
without regard. They did not like the situation but were less
inclined to openly complain about it.
When I was riding in cars
in Shiraz with my friend Ali many of the people had questions
for me. They often wanted to know what I thought about their
country. They were very proud and they were concerned that I
would think less of Iran, and them, since it was not as modern
as America and economic conditions were not as good.
a strong identity with America from many of the people. I think
this is because of the success and power of America, and also
because of the feeling that in America anyone who wants to work
hard can be personally successful, which is a value that they
respect. I think many people in Iran feel that their country
could and would achieve the same success if not for the
leadership of the clerics.
This insight into the way the Iranian people think
gave me a new perspective on the foreign policy of the USA. Think
it like this. Let's say that over 50% of the people in Iran would
like to get rid of their government of mullahs (I believe the
number would really be over 90%). In a democratic system, with
over 50% wanting something they would get it. So if an outside
influence (USA) helped them get what they want, isn't the
outside influence doing the democratic thing?
Of course I realize
that this issue is not so simplistic and the opportunity for
abuse by the outside influence is huge, but at any time is it
ok for an outside influence to help shape another country if
it is the desire of the majority in that country? I have never
been to Iraq, but I wonder what the majority of people there
Speaking of kabob, there was a sort of funny incident
that happened when I was at the Caspian region. I had told Mr.
Azarian that I knew
how to make kabob and we decided I would make during our trip
to the north of the country. The big day finally came. His sister
was coordinating events (she's the boss in the house) and at
time she took me to the barbeque to light it, which I thought
would be a snap since I have done a lot of camping.
When I looked
inside there was just a bunch of black rock-like things, real
charcoal. I wasn't sure how to light them but she gave
me a jug of petrol, so I poured a little on the coal and put
a match to it. Nothing happened. The sister is looking at me
I decide I needs some newspaper to help start
the fire, since I often use that when I am camping. I put some
crinkled newspaper under and in the coals, add a little petrol
and put a match to it. The newspaper starts burning fairly
good, the sister seems satisfied and she goes back inside. The
quickly burns out with no effect on the coals.
I decide it's
time for more force. I used newspaper again with a lot more petrol
this time. It flames up beautifully, and burns out. Now I am
a little worried, I need to get this thing going before she comes
back with the kabob. When I am camping I often us a little kindling
wood to light the bigger wood and I decide that's what
I am missing here.
There are trees nearby and some of the bottom
branches seem dead and dry. I break some of these off, organize
them into a nice little package, and insert them into the pile
off coals. Now we're cooking! I douse it liberally with
petrol and put a match to it. It flames up nicely, burns out
on one side, but keeps going at the back. Success! I start fanning
it to help it burn and in that one little spot I can see the
coals catching on.
Unfortunately, the branches were not as dry
as I thought and there is also a lot of smoke. I keep fanning
the good spot and when a bunch of the coals are burning I decide
I need to mix them around so other areas catch on. I mix it around
and keep on fanning. About this time the sister comes and looks
out the door. Smoke is billowing everywhere. I smile, give her
a thumbs up and say 'almost ready!'. She rolls her
eyes and goes back in.
I keep on fanning like mad, I am making
a little progress but my fire looks like hell because there are
bits of tree branches and newspaper still mixed in with the coals.
The sister looks out again, smoke is still billowing everywhere,
I give her a smile and thumbs up again. But actually I was worried
because I was sure she was going to get Mr. Azarian to come and
see what the heck I was doing and I wasn't sure how I would
explain all the bits of tree branch and paper mixed in with the
coals. It just looked so odd.
I franticly start picking out all
the pieces of tree branch, trying not to burn myself, and throwing
them into the bushes (making sure they are not burning first,
of course). Just about the time that my fire, though still very
weak, is at least looking normal again, Mr. Azarian comes out
to check on me. Close call... and the kabob was delicious!
I planned to hike on Mounnt Damavand, but didn't
know where to go. I did some research on the internet and found
to go to the town of Raineh. That part would be simple, I went
to the bus depot and asked for a ticket to Raineh. Then I went
across town to the correct bus depot and got my ticket, and sat
around the bus depot for a while waiting for enough passengers
so the bus driver would go.
I arrive in Raineh and sure enough,
there is Damovand right in front of me. I had read that there
were shelters on the mountain for camping in and I planned to
hike up to one of them. As I stood there looking at this mountain
I realized that I was miles away from it and the shelters could
be anywhere, I had no way to find them unless I found some kind
of trailhead (since I had no map).
I was thinking maybe I would
just have to start hiking towards the summit and see how far
I got. I was only there for a couple minutes when a gentleman
walks up and offered his assistance, in good English. His name
is Reza and he teaches sports at the local school. We go to his
facility; he shows me the map, gives me some good directions
and arranges for a car to take me to the trailhead (7km). I start
hiking up the trail, looking for a fork where I am supposed to
stay right to get to the shelter. I see
a fork, go right,
keep hiking, see a couple more forks, stay right again, and end
up at a dead end in a sheep pasture.
The sun is starting to go
down. I am sure I am pretty far to the right of the shelter but
I saw a Sheppard's fire on the mountain up ahead so I thought
I would go spend the night with them. As I walk up the sheep
pasture, I hear some dogs barking. Sounds pleasant enough at
first, seems to be getting closer, getting closer quite rapidly,
suddenly I see two dogs coming for me and they aren't tail-wagging.
I run and jump over the rock fence (with my pack
on), but this crazy scar-headed, one-eyed dog still comes after
me. I pretend
to throw a rock at it, a motion that it immediately recognizes
and runs off a little way. There are now 4 or 5 dogs circling
and barking in the pasture and following me up the fence so
I take a hard left up a steep ridge to get away from them. I
mentally preparing for a night out in the open when I top the
ridge and there it is, the shelter.
That night I saw the clearest sky I have seen
since the old days in northern Alberta, Canada. The stars were
brilliant; the Milky Way
was crystal clear. The next morning I was on the trail at 5:30.
The beauty that opened up around me as the sun rose was breathtaking.
I missed a lot of this the night before since I was lower down
and concentrating on getting to the shelter before dark.
me was a deep, wide valley with a lake in the valley floor. Across
the valley I can see all the other peaks, I am above most of
them, and ahead of me is the Fuji/Kilimanjero like peak of Damavand.
I climbed 1,100 meters to the next shelter at 4,100 meters in
under 2 hours. It was a pretty good push but I felt fine, must
been a bit of an endorphin rush.
If I had another day and something
for my feet besides worn-out Vans, I am sure I could have gone
to the summit at 5,800 meters. I had breakfast with a German
named Jeorge, who was spending a day there acclimatizing. After
rest I headed back down the mountain, caught a bus back to
Tehran and was eating ghormeh sabzi by 18:00.
Lest it sound like my trip was nothing but peaceful
good times, I must tell you that I did find the bad guys towards
of my stay. I was walking past the ex-American embassy, taking
in the anti-American slogans on the wall (the only place I ever
saw such things in Iran), when a couple guys at a gate invited
me in to see an exhibition.
It turned out to be an exhibition
of construction projects done by the Sepah (the revolutionary
army, loyal to the mullahs), with their extra resources since
the end of the war with Iraq. They brought me an English-speaking
guide to help explain things to me, a nicely dressed gentleman
with a beard and a clever look in his eye. It was a very interesting
exhibit, lots of big tunneling projects, big dams, ports, pipelines,
buildings, machinery, etc. There are a lot of different models
to look at that show the magnitude and complexity of the projects.
Midway through the tour we stop for a refreshing
beverage. I drink my juice and my guide, with a sly smile, tells
me to look
at my cup. I see that written on the side of it are the words "Down
with USA". Ouch. I chuckle a little and tell him that's
very interesting. He tells me to read the other side of the cup,
which I see says "Down with Israel". He's smiling
quite gleefully, like he just did something brilliant, and I'm
laughing along with him, because it's so banal. I mean
really, is that it? After that, I headed over to a friends home
for some khoresh e seeb, and ghormeh sabzi >>>
Read part II:
My trip to Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd, including the drugs, the
frustrations and the hopes.
I grew up in Canada and have spent the last 7 years
in California. I am now taking my MBA at the San Francisco campus
of the Wharton School.
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