An American in Iran: Photos reveal a country of martyrdom and merriment

The third in a series of ‘round-the-world photo essays (the first two, on Pakistan, are here and here) that will also spotlight Iraq, Syria, North Africa, West Africa, Europe, and other destinations.

rsz_ir-mapIn the months after 9/11, I interviewed a group of foreign-policy experts, including former U.S. deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. Then, he waxed optimistic about the world, but Talbott was in a less forgiving mood when he wrote about America’s beginnings and said, “All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances. No matter how permanent and even sacred they may seem at any one time, in fact they are all artificial and temporary.” This outlook applies profoundly to Iran – a country whose ancestors had an empire that, stretching to Central Europe, was the greatest of its day; a country that begat one of the world’s first monotheistic religions (Zoroastriasim); a country that, in the 1950s, was subverted by British and American interests; a country that, most recently, has seen a violent backlash against the clerical regime that’s been in power since 1979.

I took these photos over a collective one-month period – two weeks in Tehran in 2004, when I reported a story on the country’s biggest film festival, and wrote another on Tehran’s political atmosphere; and two weeks in 1993, when I went around the country as an independent traveler, venturing from Tehran to Qom (Iran’s religious capital), Esfahan (a stunning city of Islamic buildings), Shiraz (a longtime center of poetry) and Persepolis (Iran’s ancient capital). I continue to write about Iran, and like many people familiar with the country, I see today’s upheaval and see echoes of a recent and faraway past. The violence and bloodshed stand in contrast to Iran’s rich cultural traditions, which are also evident in today’s Iran. Throughout the country’s long history, merriment and martyrdom have been constants, even as things have changed for the better and for the worse.

rsz_iran_cemeteryIran’s Sacred Burial Grounds: They’re so young. Seventeen years old. Eighteen. Nineteen. Their faces – frozen in time, in images from before their deaths – stare out at passers-by. Many of the faces are glum or serious. This is a section of Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery that features the graves of young Iranians killed in the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. The Behesht-e Zahra cemetery is a kind of open-air photo gallery – a place where nearly every grave has a visual homage to the deceased. The cemetery is a stunning place to visit. Thousands and thousands of Iranians are buried there, crowded into plots that often feature images of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who inspired Iran’s youth to martyr themselves against Iraqi troops. Martyrdom is a central motif of Shia Islam, with public commemorations around the death of Imam Hussein and other Shia figures. The families who visit Behesht-e Zahra cemetery often spend hours there. The trees, walkways, and open space give the burial ground a peaceful feeling.

rsz_iran_cemetery_2Sadly, the cemetery is still receiving Iranians who died too early. Days ago, a nephew of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was buried there, a victim of Iran’s continuing crackdown of those protesting last summer’s disputed election. These photos are from 1993. When I visited the cemetery again in 2004, I met two veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who were pleased to encounter an American visitor. Both men were disillusioned with Iran’s political situation, saying they weren’t planning to vote in the then-upcoming elections. To me, their admission – in the cemetery where their friends were buried – was an important gauge of Iran’s political temperature.

rsz_persepolisPersepolis – When Iran (Persia) Was an Empire: Hundreds of miles south of Tehran is the city of Persepolis, famous for being the Persian empire’s seat of power between 510 BC and 330 BC. The latter year is when Alexander the Great had the palace complex burned and destroyed, but remnants of Persepolis’ glory still stand. These walls, columns and other monuments to greatness are a source of pride in Iran, though it took two decades for the country’s religious leaders to recognize Persepolis’ value as a tourist and cultural attraction. That’s because they associated the grounds with the deposed Shah, who rsz_persepolis_2in 1971 held one of the world’s most opulent celebrations at Persepolis – a $100-million, invite-only affair featuring case after case of champagne and extravagant recreations of French palaces (see page 38 of this Life magazine issue). The Shah’s decadence at Persepolis helped crystallize opposition to his rule, leading eventually to the Iranian revolution.

When I visited Persepolis in 1993, few other tourists were there. Docents rushed over to get my business. I photographed two docents standing by a relief that shows Persian royalty with an attendant. The wall I photographed from its base, looking up at the clouds, gave me a small sense of what Persepolis would have looked like at its apex. Marjane Satrapi used Persepolis as the title for her best-selling graphic novels. The movie version only heightened interest in Iran’s ancient capital, which Darius the Great oversaw more than two millennium ago.

rsz_jews_of_esfahanThe Jews of Esfahan and Tehran: Every Jewish child learns about Iran’s Jews through the story of Esther, the biblical figure who becomes Queen of Persia and saves her community from slaughter at the hands of Haman. I met with members of Iran’s Jewish community in 1993, both in Tehran and Esfahan, and they told me (much to my surprise) that they had few problems in Iran – that in the days after the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself said the Jewish community was an integral part of the country’s populous. Around 30,000 Jews live in Iran – the largest number in the Middle East outside of Israel – and their synagogues are still in use. In Esfahan, which is famous for its Imam mosque and public square, I came across a small temple, where I was invited in. Like the Imam mosque, the synagogue was festooned with elaborate tiles of blue, designed to inspire thoughts of God and paradise. I took a photo of three members standing in the doorway of the synagogue, below Hebrew lettering. Similar lettering is on the rsz_tehran_synagoguefront gates of Tehran’s Haim synagogue, which also advertises its name in English and Persian. Jews have lived in Iran for more than 2,500 years. They are represented in Iran’s parliament. In a country where the government takes a strong anti-Israel stance, they often have to be circumspect in their views, but Iran’s Jews remind visiting reporters (see this story by the New York Times) that they are free to voice their opinions. “Freedom” is what they say they have in Iran.

rsz_store_peopleThe Funny Woman in Tehran: I met her in a drug store in downtown Tehran. I went in there to buy something, and we struck up a conversation. She was in her 50s, and had visited the United States. Her English was perfect, and so was her sense of humor – not in a joke-telling way, but in a way that brings much-needed levity to matters. This was 1993, only four years after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Every store and office in Tehran has an image of Khomeini on its wall, and this shop was no exception. Staring at the image, I remarked that Khomeini looked a lot like actor Sean Connery. “Oh, yes,” the woman said. “He was a handsome man, Khomeini.” At which point we both smiled and laughed. Two strangers – one born and raised in San Francisco, the other born and raised in Tehran – shared a silly but truthful thought about the man who changed Iranian history. The woman and I talked about many other subjects, and we mailed each other letters upon my return to the United States. I still have them somewhere. As importantly, I have this photo, which shows her joyous personality. She stood next to the owner of the store, who didn’t mind that an American stranger occupied his customer’s time for what seemed like ages.

rsz_persian_college_peopleGiving a Talk at a Tehran University: Arriving at Tehran’s airport in 1993, I met a student at the money-exchange counter. Hearing that I was an American journalist, he asked if I’d like to give a talk on journalism at Allameh Tabatabai University, which he attended. Days later, I was standing in a classroom at the university’s College of Persian Literature and Foreign Languages and speaking before students and administrators about “objectivity” in my profession. At the talk’s conclusion, several students questioned whether reporters could be truly objective. I remember saying that “staying objective is difficult to do – but necessary for journalists to do their job.” (That was then.) The after-talk discussion was inspiring for both me and the students – a chance to talk about issues (like objectivity) that are universal and equally relevant in Iran and the United States. Afterward, I was introduced to the college’s dean. He’s on the left in the photo. The student who invited me is on right. Between them is a professor at the college. All of them (standing below photos of Khomeini and the Ayatollah Khamenei) thanked me for speaking to the class. I was more grateful than they were, for giving me a chance to connect to a student body that had never before met a U.S. journalist.

rsz_tehran_stock_exchangeIran’s Stock Exchange: Three months ago, the Financial Times published an analysis of the Tehran Stock Exchange, warning readers that the exchange’s “bubble” could quickly burst, leaving investors with devalued shares in Iran’s publicly traded companies. More than 200 companies (including banks and industrial firms) are listed on the TSE, as it’s often called. Walking around Tehran in 1993, I was surprised to see the building, though I shouldn’t have been. The exchange has been in Tehran since 1968, when the Shah was at the height of power. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average was taking a beating, the TSE’s index was experiencing a steady rise. The big news of late, as reported by the Financial Times: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards bought a controlling interest in the country’s telecommunication company, paying $7.8 billion for its stake. There’s money to be made in Iran. Its building may not look like much, but the Tehran Stock Exchange is one of Iran’s most notable structures.

Mohammad Khatami in Tehran, 2004

Iran’s optimism in 2004: Everyone seems upbeat in this photo. The woman on the lower right, the young men in the lower left, and – yes – the man riding atop the SUV. That’s Mohammed Khatami, who was then president of Iran. I took this image in 2004, at a Tehran rally. This was a time when Iranians still believed that Khatami might usher in new freedoms in Iran, might somehow convince the Ayatollah Khamenei and other ruling clerics that Iran needed liberalizing. Few in Iran want their country to become a facsimile of the United States, but they desperately want reform that allows fair elections and more transparency around politics and other areas. The majority of Iranians are under 30 years of age. Music is as important to them as it is to their counterparts in the West. Filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (who I interviewed in 2003) has a new drama out about Iran’s underground music scene, but Tehran authorities have banned it. “No One Knows About Persian Cats” is still being watched by Iranians, only surreptitiously. The fun – and smiles – are now underground in Iran. They were out when I was there in 1993 and 2004.

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2 Responses to An American in Iran: Photos reveal a country of martyrdom and merriment

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  2. rockyinlaw says:

    Mr Curiel, I get a strong sense of caring, perhaps nostalgia, from this piece. You seem to love the country and the people. I hope you get to see your acquaintances there again in another hopeful and peaceful time …

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