An American in Iran: captivated by the unexpected warmth and openness of the country’s people

Tara Burton in The Economist:

“Perhaps you have seen me before.”

Iran 201612_TR_IRA-portrait-2I was walking through Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square, under one of the vaulted archways that run along the sides of the bazaar, when I was stopped by a man with a grey goatee, black glasses and a bicycle. The fading sun had turned the mosaics on the walls from dove-blue to indigo. Fountains flanked the long, central pool. The grass was dark with carpets doubling as picnic blankets, upon which families ate dinner straight from copper pots. Horses, lashed to buggies, galloped around the perimeter, dodging men selling wares from their bicycles. Boys played with toy swords where, once, noblemen had played polo as the shah watched on from the balcony of his palace. “I was on ‘The Daily Show’.” Five years ago, he told me in an accent both Persian and French, a correspondent for the show had come to ask Iranians what they thought of America. Nobody else would dare speak to a journalist, he said, but he was unafraid. “He asked me who was president – I told him, Mr Obama. He asked me who was president before…” He listed them correctly, he said, “all the way back to Watergate”. They asked him to say “Death to America” on air. “Of course, I refused.” He bowed, seized my hand and shook it vigorously. “I wish for a better relationship between our two countries.” He gave me his name – Ali Shariat – in case I should need a guide. “I was professor. I studied my postgraduate degrees en France. I am retired, but I am still young. Now, je suis guide.

He cycled to the next group of tourists. He began again. “Perhaps you have heard of me…”

To be an American in Iran is to attract immediate attention. The number of tourists from the United States is rising as relations between the countries warm up, but there are still precious few of us. And Americans are subject to special restrictions. Unlike most Europeans, they must travel with a licensed guide and stick to a fixed, pre-approved itinerary. (The British are subject to restrictions, though less stringent than those on Americans.) Those of us able or willing to navigate the byzantine visa regulations then face a raft of rules more germane to the early days of the Islamic Republic than to the present. Officially, women are told to cover their wrists, their ankles and avoid speaking to strange men. These rules, I discovered, were not to be taken very seriously.

More here.