I’ll never take the pre-COVID freedom of global mobility for granted, nor will I forget how it enlightened me about the propaganda surrounding certain countries in the world. Daydreaming about contenders for ‘most treasured trip’ before the globe shut down, I asked my husband what his had been. “Iran.” he blurted at once. “That was my favorite trip, too,” I concurred. “Why Iran? one might ask.
Ancient Persia held mythical status in my mind when I was a little girl. With a library card in hand, I learned that it was the world’s first super power during the reign of Zoroastrian leader Cyrus the Great, a humanitarian who focused on leading with social justice (to say nothing of his architectural and botanical feats). I dreamed of walking through the grandiose ruins in Persepolis, and I longed to visit the gardens described in the mystic verses of Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz. Reading about twentieth-century Iranian history, I also learned that the United States and the United Kingdom had played disturbing roles in the fraught political climate that had led to the othering of Iran in the West.
When the New York Times hosted an educational tour of Iran in 2018, we had just renewed our vows. Since we had missed out on the post-nuptial ritual the first time, this would be our honeymoon. We wouldn’t be able to hold hands in public, nor could we toast our renewed union over Iran’s once-celebrated wine (most of the vines had been burned by the Ayatollah). There would be no little black dresses, either, but traveling to a country that intrigued us—coupled with the thrill of flirting with purported danger—prompted us to book the two-week sojourn.
The U.S. Department of State posted a level four warning regarding Iran: “Do not travel.” On the level four list with Iran were Somalia, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria. Draconian sanctions were to be placed on Iran by the United States government shortly after our arrival, but by then, we were all in. There was some concern that the trip would be canceled, but a small contingent of us showed up in Tehran covered in head scarves and modest dress with eager smiles.
When we embarked on our cross-country tour of Iran with our small and friendly group, we discovered that Iranians were the warmest and most welcoming people we had ever met. From Kermanshah (on the border with Iraq) to Isfahan, I could have left my cell phone at a coffee shop, walked off, and had several people chase after me with it. I played pick-up football games with children in town squares, to our mutual delight. We all made friends wherever we landed from the white-capped mountain rest stops to the rose-bush lined paths of Shiraz. When I asked people how they could be so nice to an American when my country had just imposed such severe sanctions that diabetic patients couldn’t even get the medications they needed, they said: “the people have nothing to do with it; it’s not your fault.”
I could have wandered the architectural wonders of Isfahan for weeks. Strolling through the Royal square, or Naqsh-et Jahan square, I kept tracing my fingers over the imbricated tiles of azure and royal blue. The sumptuous Persian blue tilework in the Lutfollah mosque had me repeating the words “elegant” and “regal,” as if I needed new words for these marvels.
Derived from the Farsi “parādaiĵah,” or walled garden enclosure, it was Cyrus the Great’s love of gardens that explains how the word paradise came to be. It was later adapted by the Ancient Greek and Latin languages, and gives English the modern word “paradise.” As we walked through the gardens of Shiraz, my husband and I feasted on pomegranates falling from the trees and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from street vendors. “Our own Eden,” I whispered to him.
Passing by French school children on a tour of the grand ruins of Persepolis, who leaned against gargantuan columns in awe, I thought about how I would like to raise a little citizen of the world like they were becoming, rather than a petite nationalist who might never find Ancient Persia in her textbook.
When our tour guide revealed that we were the very last New York Times group going to Iran, we were saddened for those who couldn’t be enriched by the Persian gifts we received. I savor the memory of walnut and pomegranate- roasted chicken that our hosts offered in their homes. I can see the smiles of the college students that invited me to coffee on the streets of Isfahan. I share an Instagram-based friendship with several young women I met in Isfahan and Shiraz. No one has ever made me feel more welcome in a country than Iranians did on the street, and we delved into substantive conversations about philosophy, politics, and art with mutual respect. I wish we could offer such reciprocity to Iranians who visit the U.S., if only the political climate privileged hospitality and openness. Thank you, Iran, for being such good hosts. If we had listened to the propaganda, we wouldn’t have experienced paradise.