Monday, March 02, 2015


Woman's Shrine Tehran
Here are the facts:
     Iranians are Zoroastrians, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Armenian. They are Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, Persians, Bakhtaris, and Turkmans: cultures crossing and criss crossing.
     The largest age bracket in Iran is 25-29. They text, sext, Facebook, Viber and Instagram. Access to technology is cheap and fast through their virtual personal networks (vpns). Uncensored news is easily available. They are panting to shop on Amazon. Materialism – not revolution - is salvation.
     Iran has an Islamic government that has killed Islam. Few want anything to do with religion. There is little or no religious feeling among the young in the cities. You can buy great mascara in Iran’s bazaars but it is impossible to find a place to take a swim. 

Women on Darband Mtn

Darband Mountain
Woman's Shrine, Tehran
You went to Iran? Are you crazy? Did they know you were American? Jewish? Was it safe? Did you have to be covered?

     Yes, they knew I was American. They invited me to their homes, offered me gifts and often asked me if I could help with a visa (there is no American Consulate in Iran).  

     They knew I was Jewish. They know Esther was a Persian Queen and that her tomb is in Hamadan; they know Daniel’s tomb is in Susa. Maliheh, my guide wasa thirty-seven year old Moslem Shirazi who became a sister to me. Under our headscarves, together we found out way to Jewish communities and ancient Jewish sites. She was my translator including a sabbath sermon at the Kinisa (synagogue) in Shiraz.      

     In Isfahan Maliheh made sure to get me on time to afternoon services at Kinisa-ye Daniel. Maliheh and her girlfriend who works in my hotel visited a mud clay synagogue in ancient Yazd. Four hundred year old Kinisa-ye bet Knesset. Days later is our momentous visit to the cemetery of Serah bat Asher in Linjan an emotional connection to Persian Jews who have lived in Iran since the Babylonian exile: more than 2700 years.

From Tabriz to KhoyMakuUrmiaSolduzMaragheh and Zanjan
     Arriving in Tabriz at 2:30 in the morning from Istanbul, I covered my head as the travel agency had instructed. My passport including visa was right away confiscated at Immigration. Segregated from other arriving passengers, in the middle of the night, I had Kafkaesque visions of disappearing forever. Three hours later I was summoned with good humor by four thirty-something men to a pocket size room to be fingerprinted (on a machine older than Methuselah). These ‘Persian officials’ offered me their sympathy for the business of customs that kept me three hours. Like my Visa application, they wanted to know my father’s name. ‘Melvin’ was not easy for them. Afterward they cheerily sent me on my way.

     I went to the money changer while waiting in the Arrivals hall. Remember there are no ATM’s. The Iranians are living under the sanctions and and there are no American banks in Iran though every kind of other ones. A fifty American dollar bill was now a twenty inch stack of ‘rials’ - 330,000 Rials to the dollar – worn, torn bills with Ayatollah Khomeni’s picture plastered on one side and white capped Mount Damavand, long a symbol of resistance and pride in Persian literature and mythology, on the back. When the Iranians say ‘we are under the sanctions’ their money looks it: threadbare, creased, dirty and stacks of it needed to buy anything. After changing my money, the changer offered me candy.

    Tabriz, a city dating to antiquity in western Iran is in a mountainous region of the Azerbaijani province near Orumyeh Lake, the saltiest lake in the world after the Dead Sea. Snow covered the ground the my first morning when I ventured - without sleep - into the collision course that is Iranian traffic. Iran has the highest percentage of traffic accidents in the world. Crossing the street is like being in a video game that is hemorrhaging cars. (Tabriz was scary but Tehran was worse). But I was on my way to buy an extra scarf in the Tabriz Historic Bazaar, a World Heritage Site and the largest covered bazaar in the world so there was no turning back.

      Instantly recognizing I was a tourist, enthusiastic locals besieged me. They wanted a picture and to practice their English. The umbrella I bought was decorated with Disney characters. Disney is as ubiquitous as the overheated rooms and every ceiling arrow  pointing to Mecca. (Disney is everywhere: from placemats to socks). In the bazaar and in the streets, locals, young and old, told me, “Forget about the government. The people have to talk to each other. We can make peace.” At the newspaper stands I noticed George Clooney gracing the cover of every other magazine. Yet I was aware that the regime executed a teenage boy accused of homicide the day before I arrived.
Northwest Iran

     For five days I rode a bus across the barren landscape of northwestern Iran along the bare foothills of the Alborz mountains, tiers of fire lit mountains, the region near Iran’s frontier with Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan through countryside with depressing buildings, wrecked fuselages of military jets, giant mushrooms of ugly factories and half built concrete developments maligning the already bleak rounded foothills that affront a mighty range of mountain peaks: ramparts covered by poplars and cypress. I pondered regal Mt. Ararat, its volcanic peak crowned in snow with Lesser Ararat framed behind.

      At monuments and historic sites realized Iran is not ready for prime time: (no public western toilets - almost no toilets at all). Labeling – if it exists – is incomplete and haphazard. At more than seventeen World Heritage sites I was unable to acquire much information beyond what I already had read or studied. No postcards, no audio guides, no souvenirs, and almost never anything in English.

Armenian Church in the northwest
(Keep scrolling down to continue reading.)
Blue Mosque in Tabriz

Mt Ararat


From KHOY: sheepherders, apricots, peach and grape orchards, sunflowers and melon farms, goats to Maku and its fortresses protecting against the Ottomans. In fact the lingua franca is Turkish; I was closer to the Azerbaijan border and to Maragheh dotted with a few Christian and Armenian Churches; around Lake Orumyeh, the largest lake in the Middle East seeing the first of many Sasanian rock reliefs; tramping one drizzling afternoon over Hasanlu, the largest 'tell' of northwestern Iran. Similar 'tells' are only found in Jehrico and Nineveh. Remarkable how excited one can get.
      It took most of the day to get there and the rest of the day to survey it but the 5thcentury World Heritage site of Takht-e-Soleyman (Throne of Solomon) has one of the three eternal fires of Sasanian Iran. It is sustained in a Zoroastrian temple built next to an artesian volcanic lake.

Takht-e Soleyman
Takht-e Soleyman
     As dark approached, two men came from behind a makeshift building at the entrance of the extensive ruins. They were carrying a large tin bowl into which I politely peered. They would not take no for an answer: within minutes I was sitting with them and soaking up a delicious concoction of eggplant and tomatoes with soft lavash. Afterward we sat on a worn Persian carpet and drank fragrant bergamot tea. They spoke no English. I speak no Persian but we learned about each other. Bahram, an engineer with a family and, Mehdi, a scholar and bachelor, were based a month at a time (for little pay) in a bare room with cots and an improvised kitchen lacking even a hot plate. These were well educated people looking to do meaningful things and care for a precious site. They have status but no money. The money is to be found in the moneyed class of Revolutionary Guards, born into families who have looted and subjugated these people by intimidation and violence.


       In a remote village between Maragheh and Zanjan where I stopped for lunch and a stretch, I was enthusiastically ‘collared’ by a schoolgirl, Mahdi, who beged me to come home with her, offering me all kinds of hospitality. When I demurred – ‘I’ll miss my bus” - she went off and then quickly returned with a gaggle of friends and her IPad. She wanted pictures and my email. “This is my dream,” she kept tearfully repeating, “my dream to meet an American; to go to America.” Her email was ‘’

     I quickly learned that every Persian name has a meaning: 'Mahdi' means ‘guided one’, 'Maryam' is the name of a flower; 'Golestan' is ‘rose garden’. Nirloufor means ‘lotus’; Nasim ‘breeze’.  Out of the bus windows I saw close up  the glut of filling stations and long lines. Oil and gas are cheap. Everyone has monthly ration cards. If the ration is exceeded, only a few cents buys another liter.

     Elaborately painted and meticulously maintained murals of the faces of  ‘martyrs’ are displayed throughout the countryside and in the cities, villages and towns; huge haunting portraits of the idealistic millions who died in the decade long war between Iraq and Iran; the nation’s war dead everywhere looking out onto the world of the living, their idealistic - almost meek - demeanors rendered like the thousands of individual faces carved in stone  in Persepolis. Outside the bazaars and on the roadsides were billboards decorated with swirling Persian script sometimes quotes from the Quaran, and if translated translated into bad English.

     The last stop before Tehran was in the great nomadic grasslands around Soltanieh, the second capital of the Mongol Empire where I spent half a day at the Dome of Soltanieh, an egg shaped dome and mausoleum that eventually served as the prototype for the Taj Majal. The Dome of Soltinieh is the largest brick dome in the world.

Dome of Soltanieh
Beauty salon Tehran
Women at prayer shrine in Tehran
  Tehran is the largest city of Southwestern Asia. A heavy scent of diesel tinged with eucalyptus is entangled in a chaotic web of wires, cables and broken concrete sidewalks, a metropolis seemingly without a center. Every other building is a bank. For two days I dodged urgent reckless terrifying traffic to visit the Qajar Dynasty’s Golestan Palace; to the Treasury to see the bedazzling National Jewels and the world’s largest diamond; the Carpet Museum. I was repeatedly observing the absence of infrastructure: for labeling; no provision for materials regarding their treasures and this was true at the Glass Museum, the Archeological Museum and the National Museum. There is no money invested in these 'amenities'.

     I took the public bus on the city’s famous Vali Asr north-south road - formerly Pahlavi Avenue - to the bazaar in the city’s north. The market teems with stalls packed with multi-colored spices, jars of pickled walnuts (that looked like brains), huge varieties of vegetables, saffron, pistachios, and other exotic foods. 
Woman's shrine in Tehran
     {I decided against writing about food for this article. Food has complicated sociological and anthropological dimensions too great to write about here. There is I am told good food in Iran: mainly in people's homes. I saw lots of ingredients in markets and on roadsides to infuse any kitchen. In the meantime, I adapted to what there was. In the rural northwest after a few days I finally spoke up one evening after a typical tasteless and monotonous dinner of kebob and asked a most obliging soul from the wait staff  to bring in with them the next morning some luscious looking melons I saw from the window of the bus so I could have them for breakfast. And some dates and honey if some could be procured please. By the road and in small villages I bought excellent tomatoes and apples and once or twice some very good bread. In Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz I picked up dried fruits to snack and cardamon pods to make tea. I was glad I brought peanut butter with me (individual packets and they were all consumed over the three weeks).}

     The women on the bus and in the bazaars were self confident and chatty, quick to express love for Americans. They reassured me Iranis know the difference between Jews and Zionists! In public! They spoke disparagingly about the government (out loud). Iranian women occupy public spaces. They are professionals. They work, drive, shop. This is not Saudi Arabia; yet two days before I arrived in Tehran, a woman was executed for murdering her alleged rapist. No one spoke of it. 
    One woman explained to me, “The ‘trouble’ with Iran is if you need permission for something, there are at least fifty people you must go to. If you want to complain about something, you cannot find anyone.” I tried to go to yoga class but was told ‘yoga is banned right now’. There was no chance of swimming. No pools available to women. No fitness studios. And not many men or women are physically fit. 

    The laws that pertain to women’s rights have no relevance to the lives of Iranian women who represent half of the population. Sixty percent of university students are women. Female students outnumber men two to one. More than two thirds of Iranis were born after the revolution. Disillusion halos the young who comprise more than half of the population. They talk constantly about living under the sanctions; about tech start-ups and the struggle for free speech. Pop music and culture is literally ‘underground’ in people’s garages with alcohol and drugs. Text messaging is constant.

     After two hours sniffing saffron and spices, tasting sour cherries, mulberries, walnuts and pickled beets in the smaller of the two major Tehran bazaars one morning, I borrowed a public chador and went – covered from head to foot - to Friday prayers in the (mirrored and glittering green) woman’s shrine. Women prayed, socialized and gossiped. Cell phones were ubiquitous, many of them charging in the outlets along the perimeters of the awesome marble walls.

Woman on Darband Mountain
When riding city buses I sat with other women in the back chatting segregated by a large bar across the bus’s center away from where the men were standing . But in private cars, taxis and vans men and women ride together. After Friday ‘prayers’ in the woman's shrine next to the bazaar I climbed into a dilapidated van squeezing into the back seat with three full bodied and heavily made up twenty something’s and their boyfriends. We were going to the Darband Mountains, a favorite place for Tehranis to congregate and socialize especially on Friday afternoons. 
The gap between the reality of society and the image cultivated by the regime is like the vast center between the two mountain ranges: the Alborz in the north and the Zagros in the south. (In Iran the in-between is the center of an extinct interior ocean which is the most arid depression in the world.) One woman told me referring to the regime: ‘It is a soft war waged with propaganda and technology but they are losing. We are trained to be afraid but things are different now. Once we were like mice in a laboratory but no more. Things are changing.” 
     Surrounded by Western consumer goods, computer games, Western beauty ideals, Instagram, Facebook, Viber, and Twitter private lives are full of vice. I went to two beauty salons, one in Tehran and one in Shiraz and in both the walls are plastered with posters of bleached blonds in strapless gowns revealing ample décolletage. From the streets in the smallest town to the biggest city, bridal stores exhibit racy, lacy and skintight gowns in the windows. After dark opium and alcohol are plentiful. Chinese and German businessmen, Italians and other tourists occupy the hotels in the biggest cities: Tehran, Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Isfahan. Interpreters and guides are doing brisk business.

Flight to Isfahan     In Tehran’s domestic Mehrabad airport, I passed through ‘women’s security’ into the departure hall where everything was in Persian, a swirling script most beguiling but that I can not read. I turned to the woman nearest me and showed her my boarding pass. Ghazal, a beautiful Persian stranger whose name is the meaning of a poetic form made famous by the Sufi poet Hafez, immediately enveloped me in a warm Iranian embrace, reassuring me she would guide me to Isfahan where she was going too. Protectively she ushered me through the hall. We sat next to each other. She took out an English Conversation book and I immediately insisted she put it away: “Let’s talk,” I told her. “Practice with me.” 
     We did a lot of practicing as the flight was delayed almost three hours. The plane was a Focker from the 1970's and by the looks of it I was just glad to arrive safely. Two nights later Ghazal and her brother and sister-in-law took me to dinner at the Abbasi Hotel, a dazzling restoration of a Safavid caravansary complex from the time of its grandeur; a faithful preservation of a monument that deserved preservation. A stream flows through its lush Persian garden, the best garden I saw (and smelled) in Iran. The hotel was built by the Iran Insurance Company and is definitely the only hotel in Iran approaching four or five stars although I wasn’t in any of the bedrooms. (Unfortunately there were no rooms for three nights.) 
Miniature, Isfahan
After strolling in the gardens and having a non alcoholic drink under the stars on one of the grand verandahs before dinner we went to a sumptuous room meant to conjure a room of one of the great caravansaries of the past and ordered dinner. The salad dressing was served in a plastic packet like soy sauce from a Chinese take-out. I was able to get some vinegar and fresh squeezed lemon juice (delicious) but olive oil was not available and was almost never to be found.
Ali Kapu Grand Palace
     My gracious hosts entertained me at dinner with pictures of their parties and their friends and friends’ children. The girls had lots of pictures of fashion, shoes, and nail designs. Some of the conversation was confined due to language barriers that did not encourage discourse on lengthy complex issues though they were not totally ignored. It was not the first time I heard from ‘cosmopolitan’ Iranis that they were not planning to have children. Ghazal and her brother Perman were destined to a childless life of hereditary privilege part of an extinguished world (though ‘through connections’ Perman was able to get an army deferment).

     “All our wealth and privilege does not buy us a good life in Iran,” Ghazal told me. “We have nothing to spend our money on,” (except Rolex watches apparently).“Living under the sanctions means our money is virtually worthless. Where can we go to vacation? Abu Dubai and the Emirates? The hotels on the Caspian are very mediocre though we love to vacation in the forests near Turkmenistan or along the thousand mile Persian Gulf coast.” They both have homes in Tehran and Isfahan.

     Ghazal and Perman drove me back to the hotel and as I was saying ‘good night’ – ‘shab bekheir’ - Ghazal placed a lovely bead necklace with a pave diamond heart in my hands (she had made it herself). All I could do was be as gracious as possible while accepting it.

     During the days touring Isfahan my eyes were drunk with the splendor of the minarets; with the brilliant mosaic tile work in blues and turquoise and the glorious contrasts between glazed and unglazed tiles; massive interior arches of mosques and palaces; billowing flags of calligraphy; enchanted gardens and the Maidan where an open polo grounds has been transformed into a garden and a reflecting pool. I could imagine archery practice or polo in the evenings long ago. I saw my first murquanas and witnessed the kaleidoscopically glittering mirrors of the palaces, the optical illusions, and the bazaar of two hundred arcaded arches full of carpet weavers and other craftsmen. The incarnations of light on the architecture is only one of many reasons that Isfahan is studied and admired more than any other Iranian city and was once known as ‘half the world’. 
Boy snacking in Isfahan

One afternoon in the courtyard behind Maidan Maqsh -e Jahan between one of Isfahan’s remarkable mosques and a madrassah I came upon two clerics. They were thirty-somethings and spoke fluent English and were sitting in the cloister with the sole purpose of engaging with tourists (not expecting too many Americans).
 When they learned I was a Jewish American, they began – gently - challenging me about the ‘Zionist media’; my ‘proof’ of the prophets Moses and Daniel, and the holocaust. I pushed back energetically and wished my husband was there to do the arguing about the Bible and the Five Books of Moses because about this he knows more about than I do. My Moslem guide, Maliheh, remained quiet during our half hour conversation but squirmed when they said women in Iran were free to choose whether or not to wear the veil. The tenor of the conversation was civilized though intense. As I began to leave one cleric asked me if I knew anyone who could help them with visas. They have been on a waiting list for four years to come and study at Fordham.

     Later Maliheh and I found our way to Kinisa-ye Keter David, a synagogue in Isfahan, where I met ‘Daniel’, an American Irani who welcomed me warmly into the sanctuary (and successfully solicited a contribution). At least twenty-five men were praying, standing shoeless on the Persian carpets. I heard voices of children reciting songs and prayers on the other side of one wall of the sanctuary. Daniel flooded me with questions about what I was doing in Iran? How was it to be a woman traveling alone? How were  things in New York? Were there jobs? How was real estate? He was conflicted about remaining in Iran where life was not as good as ‘before the Revolution’ or returning to the uncertainties of New York. After prayers we chatted over tea and biscuits served in the courtyard while the children I overheard earlier swarmed around me. I answered questions from throngs of well wishers who all invited me home for dinner.

Under Si-O-Se Pol bridge, Isfahan

After two days of exploring Isfahan, the city known as the ‘Pearl of Persia’, Maliheh and I took a taxi southwest and went bumping over a dusty road eighteen miles from Isfahan to Linjan a small village situated in a valley sheltered by gaunt mountains. My research had described an ancient cemetery called Serah bat Asher with thousands of carved tombs some dating back thousands of years.  
    For twenty minutes we pounded on two green painted metal gates each decorated by a Mogen David. Eventually a sleepy eyed man reluctantly opened the door. His name was Jacob (like Serah’s grandfather.) He hesitated but Malileh’s persuasiveness and sincerity won him over. Gently he invited us through the gates and into the first courtyard. We were in the cemetery of Serah bat Asher, one of the most important Jewish pilgrimage sites in Iran. Legend has it that Serah was the first Jew to set foot in Persia.

Jacob at Serah bat Asher

Mausoleums at Sarah bat As
 On my left were two derelict synagogue buildings. We followed Jacob beyond them to a sanctuary with a stone door covered in Hebrew writing. Jacob pushed the door open and beckoned me to enter. I was in the Chelleh-Khun, an ante room where I stooped over low to the floor and crawled through a ‘tunnel’ to the legendary ‘Jacob’s pillow’, a large stone barrel that was covered with Cabalistic carvings and wax dripping from candles that  Jacob keeps perpetually burning. The barrel is said to have once spun continuously. I was in the Kenisa-ye Aveinu. There were other small rooms with faded blue paint, Jewish stars and a painting of Moses receiving the Tablets. I was emotional.
    After I emerged Jacob took Maliheh and me around two other decaying adobe synagogue buildings built like caravansaries. I was speechless  to find myself on a five-acre expanse with thousands of tombs, some from the second century. There were also many clay brick mausoleums where whole families still come to stay during the Days of Awe. 

Seeing us so emotional, Jacob let Malileh and me linger and then led us back to the synagogues, some decorated on the outside with beautiful tiles but mostly very derelict. Several interiors were scattered with plaster bricks and plaster dust. Makeshift ladders were scattered throughout. One room was domed at ground level with a stone bimah in the center. Upstairs were small prayer rooms. 

     Like me, Maliheh saw Jacob as a ‘holy’ man. He is living in a small cave at the front of the complex, a frayed Tallit and well-thumbed prayer book nearby the bed. He sleeps on the floor on a mattress covered with a Persian carpet while remaining devoted to protecting and maintaining the cemetery and the buildings, laboring daily with bricks and cement and welcoming the pilgrims who come by the thousands every year.
      On the way out of Isfahan the next day Maliheh and I talked about the visit to Serah bat Asher, about Jacob, and the conversation with the clerics. 
     Maliheh asked me, “What does America have against the Iranian people?
     I said I didn’t know how we could have anything against the Iranian people. I added,                “Americans do get Iran mixed up with the Arab world.”

     “I thought so,” said Maliheh. “But Iranians are not Arabs. We are Persians and, in fact, many have no good feelings about the Arabs. They burned our schools and our libraries.” This was 1300 years ago but I recognized that scars are deep.

     “What have the Arabs ever done for us?” she went on. “They put us behind the veil and take credit for teaching us to pray. Our Islam is about a way of life, about ethics, about being honest and generous, not about rituals.” 
She continued, 
“Can you imagine if politics had nothing to do with us, you and me, Americans and Iranis? Our government blames the Israelis for everything, but I actually think Jews and Iranis are the most alike. Besides, think how good Cyrus was to the Jews.”
     It was true. Cyrus is considered our first righteous person.
    "And,” Maliheh continued, 
   “We all have the same mother and father: ” 
    We spent the long desert drive discussing Torah stories and comparing the sounds of words in Hebrew and Persian while headed south to Yazd for two nights.

Synagogue, Yazd

    I loved Yazd, the oldest clay brick (adobe) city in the world. It is in a remote desert location and is especially famous for its qanats: vertical shafts – subterranean aqueducts and sloping tunnels - that create reliable supplies of water for irrigation dating from the time of Cyrus. This may be the greatest civil engineering project in the history of the world.

     Yazd has thankfully escaped mauling (and malling like so much of Iran) so it is possible to stroll in the old city and feel like you have stepped back thousands of years. This was also the first place I bought some things to bring back to the states. Yazd is especially known for its textiles (bought some) and confectionaries and the pastries in Yazd were delicious. Once a Zoroastrian center, Yazd is the home to the Towers of Silence, the awesome Zoroastrian ritual monuments for defleshing the dead, as well as the Atashkadeh Bahram, a temple holding a fire that has been kept alight continuously since 470 AD. In the foreyard of the Temple a woman appeared from nowhere asking if I was an American. As Maliheh translated, I understood she was Zoroastrian and that HIAS had once helped her and her family. It was hard to believe an Irani Zoroastrian in Yazd was singing the praises of HIAS! 
Zoroastrian de fleshing site


      Behind Yazd’s iconic Jame Mosque, Maliheh and I wandered until we found the Haridim family home (I knew about it from my research.) The mezuzah and the Hebrew writing above the door made it easy to identify. A 20 something attractive man wearing a sweatshirt that said ‘New York’ opened the door to us and directed us to the Kinisa a few doors away where ‘Bet Knesset’ was written in Persian and in Hebrew above the door.
     At two in the afternoon I left my shoes outside the door and entered the sanctuary through the derelict courtyard of the ancient adobe synagogue where I came upon ten men praying. A teenage boy was leading them. After prayers I spent two hours talking with ‘Aaron’ who showed me the ark behind the green silk curtain with ten four hundred year old scrolls.
      Aaron wanted to know “……..the truth about Obama. Is he a friend to Israel?”
     Our conversation proceeded from there while I absorbed the tenderness within the synagogue and imagined all that had passed within its walls. Aaron told me that nearby is the tomb of the Jewish mystic and religious scientist Harav Oursharga and that more than five hundred ofIran's Jews gather every year to celebrate and put flowers on the tomb of this religious leader who died more than 200 years ago.
Man in Yazd synagogue
Two days later Maliheh and I were on our way to Shiraz, a city known for roses and nightingales – another long desert drive broken up by a short stop in Nain a 'city' possessing some of the finest pre-Islamic monuments in all of Iran and that continues to use the ancient qanat system for more than half of its water. 
     In the late afternoon we stopped in Pasargadae to pay respects at Cyrus’ tomb (and break up the long drive). Cyrus of Anshan liberated Babylon and is considered the first 'righteous person' by many Jews. Jewish leaders hail him as the figure described in Isaiah (45:1–6) who would redeem them and provide them with the hope of returning to Judea. Indeed, when he became ruler, Cyrus sent a group of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the Holy Temple; some remained, many more stayed in Iran. 

     A newly planted ‘avenue’ off the Isfahan Road approaches the mausoleum.  The 2700 year old tomb – a sarcophagus of white marble on a high steeped plinth - stands alone in an enormous ploughed field. The mausoleum is without ornament, though it was once surrounded by a temple and pavilions. 

     A billboard stood outside the entrance to the site: 

      “Imam Khomeini (with picture): The world knows that all Iran and Muslims problems are due to the politics of aliens. Of the USA Muslims generally hate Alies and specially hate the USA.” I write it here as it was with all its spelling and grammatical mistakes. Surrounded by visitors who did not so much as glance at the sign, but wanted their picture taken with me, I was ‘interviewed’ by a young man with a sophisticated video camera.

     “Tell us what you think of Iran,” he implored.
     “Who is this for?” I was imagining being summarily arrested.
     “For the Cultural Minister of the Province,” he answered. “It will be a pleasure for us to know that Americans are coming to visit.”

     I looked into the camera and expressed my admiration for the courteous and hospitable Iranian people; my respect for the monuments of the Persian Empire (and I had yet to visit Persepolis); remarked on the extraordinary Islamic architecture; how much I savored the pistachios and melons and dates and the delicious gaz I had eaten.

Cyrus Tomb
      “What is your message to the country?” he persisted.

      “I am a Jewish American,” I began. “I am pleased to meet fellow Jews in Yazd and Isfahan; to visit the sites of my ancestors like Esther and Daniel and Serah bat Asher. I am looking forward to praying with my brothers and sisters in Shiraz. I see Americans and Iranis need to build bridges for a peaceful world.”

      I made the peace sign and worried that secret police might follow me but Maliheh was reassuring. The young man was sincerely grateful. Many adults and children had congregated and began applauding, understanding my meaning if not my words.


I really thought that if there had been Jews in Iran, they would be gone, just like the Persian Empire was gone. I thought that just like Persepolis lay in ruins, traces of Queen Esther’s descendants would be in ruins. However, the chosen nation is inextinguishable. Unbreakable. Eternal. Nothing proved this more than the Sabbath service in Shiraz that I rushed to from Pasargadae on Friday night. At least two hundred men and seventy-five children along with a few elderly women were praying in Kinisa-ye (Synagogue) Rabbizadeh sanctifying the Sabbath.
     The congregants mobbed me after Kiddush: 
Did I have kosher food? (There are kosher restaurants in Shiraz.) Are the Jews in America religious? Are the ‘Reformed’ compromising the rest of the Jews? There were so many invitations for dinner.

     During the next few days I returned several times to the synagogue so I could photograph it and there were always many people (mainly men and boys) studying and praying there.

Synagogue Shiraz
    On my last days in Iran I visited Persepolis the ceremonial capital and world empire of the Achaemenid Empire. I saw columns, massive - and so many - stairs, platforms and palace doors; canellations along the parapets and balustrades decorated with winged beasts who now keep their solitude beneath the stars on this empty, moonlit plain. We detoured to visit Naqsh-e Rajab the site of rock cut tombs of the most famous Achaemenid kings. The carvings are fluttering long ribbons of etched stone merging into hair balloons. Herds of sheep, their necks garlanded with bells were herderd past us while we stood in front of the ancient tombs. We raced around Shiraz with its black spires of cypress trees cutting across egg-shelled colored hills to visit the Elam Gardens, the Citadel, the Narangestan Palace, the Pink Mosque and Hafez tomb: Iran is home to the great Sufi mystical poets.

       The last days coincided with Ashura the ten day celebration of the funeral of the 3rd Imam, Hossein, who with seventy two members of his family was cut down in Kerbala (now Iraq) by his cousin the Caliph Yazdi thirteen hundred years ago. For Shi’ites (98% of Iranis are Shi’ites) Ashura commemorates Hossein’s defiance and informs the core of Shi’a psychology: “He died to save his people.”


     When I was traveling from Tehran to Shiraz there were black banners and triangular flags hung on streets and public parks, strung from one home to another. When I stopped to see the ‘Zoroastrian Sarv-e Abarkun’, a cypress tree that is one of the world’s ten oldest living trees, I met schoolboys and told them, “You are the future of your country”. They thronged me but there was no touching. No handshaking and no drawing close for a photograph.

    They followed me on their bicycles to give me a banner so I could participate in the upcoming celebrations. There are parades with people on camels dressed as Mongols and other icons of Iranian history. The last two days of the holiday the whole country is shuttered. An ultimate Sabbath. These are days of singing and chanting and praying. Food is prepared at home to give to the needy and families and neighbors who come together to share and visit. Maliheh invited me home to her house.
      In the warmth of her parents living room I visited with her parents, kind-hearted, in their sixties. They were watching a banned television channel. I talked with her twenty-three year old brother Abbas who had recently qualified as a pilot having depleted his savings and his parents’ savings to take the necessary courses (including English) and to practice the required hours on a small ‘Piper’ plane.
    “I have a license but I have no job. The chances of getting a job are nil. The government is corrupt. The only way to get ahead is to know someone. I am disillusioned; depressed. The people I know who have jobs or have money come from wealthy well-connected families. I am working on a visa to live and work in Canada. I feel like a drowning person.”
    “Don’t leave your world,” I wanted to say.

     When I asked Maliheh about what Abbas said and how she felt about staying in Iran, she told me:

     “I cannot leave my country. If I leave, who will be left to take care of it? Who will guide you to Persepolis? I can’t do political things. I can’t protest against the government but I can stay to protect what I have. I want Abbas to go and have the chance to fulfill his dreams because he is like people all over the world; obsessed with the latest technology and a burning desire to know more about the world, a world that Persia helped to shape for centuries. ” 

     When I left Maliheh's home I was loaded with packages of baked goods and fruit and other delicious food. During the time we were together Maliheh often told me stories about learning to lie when she was at grade school and later when qualifying as a guide. Her parents hid the fact that they did not support the revolution. Iranis from the time of Esther learned that to lie is not an act of treachery or deceit but a right of passage. People lie for survival in a long tradition of dissimulation in the face of harm and anticipated injury. (Esther's Children:

     Maliheh will remain in the land of her ancestors, a land of nightingales, poetry, rose gardens and cypress trees; a land where leaders are divided between the medieval and the modern; where banking and oil are king. 
     I went to Iran because I wanted to see for myself what is going on; because Iranian history - as vast as the country’s geography and impossible to compress - stretches over half the world. Today the talk is of Islam and oil, centrifuges, holocaust denial, and hatred for Israel. I wanted a wider lens. Before this world is entirely extinguished, I wanted to bear witness. What I found was a transitional moment with eighty million hospitable and friendly people anxious to connect to us. It was a seminal experience. I cannot tell a lie.

Laura with Maliheh and Marayam, Yazd

Waiter in Tehran restaurant



Crimson Gold directed by Jafar Panahi