The border at Astara lay behind us. Ahead, only Iran. Our driver and guide, Masood, an energetic young man who looked as if he could be a student in any American college, laughed at our enthusiasm. Having Americans to drive across the Iranian landscape was something rare for any guide. In Masood’s case, he’d only had them once before.
“We did it!”
“Can we get out?”
“Don’t spoil the moment! Pass me a fig!” Masood eyed us with a big smile. “You have a good feeling about Iran!”
The trip on foot across the border from Azerbaijan had taken much longer than expected. Each side of the border had its own quirkiness. For the Azerbaijanis, it was a case of sheer inefficiency. In this part of the world it is extraordinarily unusual to see any commonly understood manners of lining up for things in public. People simply mass around the point of importance – a ticket counter or, in this case, border processing officials – piling up on one another in a scramble to be next. No attempt had been made by the border police to organize this sea of madness; every man for himself. On the Iranian side, things were much better organized. However, Americans are not a common occurrence in this border town. Given the politics between the US and Iran it was quite possible we were the first Americans to pass through Astara in years. There were questions about our presence that delayed our entry, questions that had to be answered in my not so perfect Persian. We never doubted the outcome, as we had the proper visas from the Iranian embassy in Baku plus the required “guide” lined up through an approved agency in Tehran. “Welcome to Iran,” a border policeman had finally said. “Enjoy your trip.” We hurried away before they could think up any new questions.
In the mountains of northern Iran with Masood
Our little Peugeot barreled up the mountainsides, destination Tabriz via the small city of Ardebil. Along the way herds of sheep dotted the hills, while directly along the roadside small stands popped up from time to time drying and selling wild flowers for tea and honey fresh from hives. The long climb finally leveled out on top of a vast plateau with snow capped mountains in the distance. Everywhere green met the eye. It was spring in Iran.
“Ardebil was once the capital of Iran,” said Massoud. “It is the birthplace of Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. Ardebil is just a city now, but we can see the old palace, the mosque, and tomb of the Safavids.” Though the little city hummed with activity, we found things rather quiet inside the ancient gates.
Courtyard of the Safavids
The old courtyard with roses and benches once bustled with sayyeds and merchants. They had long left this place. There is often something odd, even unsettling, about the way in which change over time relegates what was once deemed the center of everything that mattered in society to something of a backwater, though in this place a revered one. Adjacent to the ancient mosque, in low light, the tombs of the great Safavids lay in solitude. A few women in black chador floated through, paying respects. As we stood in our socks, taking in the modestly sized prayer room of the mosque a well-dressed man, with a camera in hand, spoke to us. He turned out to be an Iranian historian touring various sites in northern Iran.
Inside the Mosque of the Safavids
“Where are you from?” he asked in excellent English.
“I thought you might be American! It is not usual to see Americans. You are far from your home. I would like to visit New York.”
“You would like it.”
“You are diplomats?” This surprised us, giving us the beginning of what we would soon call our “special mission of diplomacy” in Iran.
“We are teachers,” I said.
We talked about Iranian history for a few minutes. Then he departed, wishing us a warm welcome to Iran and a happy journey. It was the beginning of many such encounters. Later that evening, as we approached the outskirts of Tabriz in the midst of a brilliant electrical storm, we asked Masood about the kindness we were experiencing.
“Americans are not friendly?” he asked.
“Well, they are friendly, yes, but there seems to be more here. Much more. Maybe a curiosity.”
“People here want to know Americans,” he responded. “Just like you want to know Iranians.”