Of the “axis of evil” countries, Iran is the most hospitable for the adventurous traveler. In North Korea, a tourist has a government guide at his side 24/7. We all know about Iraq: No Western tourist is so stupid as to venture there. On every street corner you run into kidnapping gangs who sell their victims to the so-called resistance. None of that in Iran. Beginning last year, the country opened its borders to foreigners — except Israelis, of course. A one-week visa can be obtained at the airport, and you are free to travel all over. (The U.S. State Department has, however, issued a travel warning for Iran.)
“Iran, the Land of Civilization and Friendship” is the slogan of a Department of Tourism trying its best to lure tourists to a country Westerners perceive as unfriendly and dangerous. The slogan may sound like something out of Orwell, but it is true. Persia can be proud of a civilization thousands of years old. Architecture and irrigation were already in advanced stages when Europeans were still half naked and shivering against the cold in mud shacks. Three thousand years before Christ, the Persians were already fermenting wine, a fact the French tend to forget. (The Shiraz grape originated in the Persian town of Shiraz.) Poets are held in high esteem. Cities like Isfahan and Persepolis are the jewels of the ancient world.
There is friendship galore. The streets appear free of petty crime. Cab drivers and waiters tend to help tourists, instead of ripping them off. The youth love to exchange thoughts with foreigners, and do so with an endearing frankness and curiosity. Anti-American slogans and murals appear only on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy, now called the “Former U.S. Den of Espionage.”
Just outside Tehran, high up in the mountains that surround the city, you can find ski resorts where the religious police ignore fashionably dressed young women who rush down the slopes on their snowboards, no head scarves involved.
Of course, there is the Iran you don’t see as a tourist, the Iran we know from the news. The country remains an international pariah, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is working hard to keep it that way, calling for Israel to be wiped off the world map. In Europe, he could be arrested for denying the Holocaust; here, he initiated a competition for cartoons mocking Nazi genocide, hosted a recent conference questioning the authenticity of the Holocaust and has encouraged performances featuring dancers waiving containers of enriched uranium.
But inside Iran is another story, one offering hope for another kind of future.