January 22, 2011

Iran vs. KFC: Chickening out in Tehran and Yazd

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 2:52 pm

In a pissing contest between the United States and Iran, it’s hard to tell who would win. Of course America is bigger and has more nuclear weapons, but Iran is more self-sufficient due to its broader manufacturing base.

Americans used to be much more free than Iranians — but times may have changed. When you consider the recent FBI raids in Minneapolis, Congressional renewal of that slimy PATRIOT Act, waterboarding’s sudden wide popularity, our suspended habeas corpus protections, wholesale election giveaways to Citizens United and Diebold, AT&T wiretapping, executive privileges to detain and assassinate U.S. citizens, Arizona’s recent driving-while-Mexican laws and all those happy crotch-gropers at TSA, our country seems to be trying just as hard as it can to catch up with the hardliners in Tehran.

Yet despite the fact that hard-line mullahs are basically running the show in Iran right now, it is still one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East when you compare Iran with a majority of other countries in that region that are currently run by or have been run in the past by the many tyrannical losers that America has happily hand-picked and financed over the last 60 years. Then suddenly Iran doesn’t look so bad.

America has poured billions of our good taxpayer dollars into supporting all kinds of tyrants and dictatorships in the Middle East, including (but not limited to) Saddam Hussein, the decadent House of Saud, Hamid Karzai’s brother who is the top heroin supplier in the world, that famous CIA tool Osama bin Ladin, the notorious former Shah of Iran, those Kuwaiti losers who sucked us into the Gulf War, Washington’s current BFF in Egypt, good old Ariel Sharon aka the Butcher of Shatila, that American-owned punk who was just thrown out of Tunisia — and I forget who all else. (

If you compare the natural resources of Iran with those of America, the U.S. certainly does have lots of oil — but then Iran has lots of oil too. We also have lots of farmland, but then so does northern Iran. Our national parks are awesome, but Iran’s historical architectural sites are also superb.

Gasoline in Iran now costs $2.80 per gallon, due to a recent 400% increase. But gas at my local gas station costs $3.50 per gallon, so Iran has the slight edge there. Profits from oil revenue in Iran appear to be going toward upgrading of the Iranian economy, infrastructure, military and social services. American gas companies’ profits, on the other hand, appear to be going toward buying new Beemers and Porsches for their CEOs.

Financially speaking, the U.S. banks on its dollars — while Iran uses euros. But which currency is stronger? It’s hard to tell. However, with gold now selling at an unbelievable $1,367 an ounce and both the U.S. and the E.U. having economic problems these days, I think that almost everyone is losing that particular race — even China.

Iran is a flat-out theocracy now — but according to Bush, Beck and Boehner, America is a theocracy-wannabe in the making, a “theocracy” ruled by corporations. Not Jesus.

Currently, Iran is ruled by Islamic ayatollahs and America is ruled by corporations. Let’s compare. In Islam, people fast for one month a year in order to learn compassion for those who have less than they do. In addition, good Muslims are required to give a portion of their income to charity. Under these house rules, there is a fair chance that the ayatollahs of Iran will be motivated by their religion to help those they rule — thus there is always a chance for redemption.

However, the corporations that now rule America have proven again and again that they are motivated solely by greed. And while everyone in America seems to be complaining about Big Government these days, the truth is that “government” — big or small — no longer rules America. Corporations do. There’s been a bloodless revolution in our country. America is now ruled by K Street.

Corporations now own America on every level — and we Americans stood passively by and allowed this disaster to happen. America’s government no longer serves us. America’s government now serves them. There’s been a bloodless coup here in America and now it appears that we are ruled solely by greed — and greed has no chance for redemption.

Here’s another comparison between Iran and America: If asked the question, “Does the Iranian government systematically lie to its citizens?” I would probably have to say yes. But compared to the vast amount of lying to its citizens that goes on in America today — as revealed recently by Wikileaks — who knows which country would come out the winner here? The American government, however, appears to have gained the winning edge in this contest.

One in four Iranians don’t have healthcare coverage. One in six Americans don’t have healthcare coverage. America is only slightly ahead here.

But there is one area where America has clearly beaten Iran hands down. No contest here at all! America is far better at cooking chicken. Even KFC chicken is better than most of the chicken I ate in Iran — and I have evidence to prove it.

When I toured Iran two years ago, almost everywhere I went, I got served dry, over-cooked chicken. America wins the chicken-cooking Olympics hands down!

Iran may occasionally use an iron fist on dissenters who disagree with its presidential election results — whereas America still uses its velvet glove. Iran may have much of the European oil market sewed up, a much broader manufacturing base and apparently-strong alliances with Russia and China, but America has won out over Iran hands down when it comes to cooking chicken!

PS: Here’s a report on my two-day trip to Yazd, one of Iran’s wonderful tourist destinations. Eat your heart out, Rick Steves!

October 13: On my last day in Tehran, the hotel waitress served me a large glass of hot milk and coffee — which somehow hit me as being the height of decadent luxury. Hey, don’t laugh. It’s something that I never indulge in at home. And there were dates and yogurt for breakfast as well. This is about the most exotic thing I can say about Tehran. Almost everything else here is fairly Westernized. Iran is a truly Westernized country. I don’t think that Americans realize that Iranians are not “camel jockeys” at all.

Then our guide told us a joke about the sanctions. “One day a Persian died and was sent to Hell because he was from the Axis of Evil. In Hell, he looked around and one section of Hell looked sort of fun. ‘This is the Persian Hell,’ he was told. ‘Why is it not like the American Hell where you get burning tar poured into your mouth through a funnel every day?’ ‘Ah because this is the Persian Hell and we are very disorganized — plus we have sanctions, so that one day we don’t have the tar and the next day we don’t have the funnel.’”

Then we drove along a street that used to be called “Eisenhower Boulevard”. Now it is called “Freedom Street”.

After the revolution, the very first company to come to Iran was Coca-Cola,” said our guide. “Also Iran is the world’s second largest exporter of copper.” And also the second largest producer of oil.

“So how are the sanctions working?” I asked.

“Not as well as expected — for two reasons. First, the European community has too many investments here to support most sanctions, and, second, Iran is industrially self-sufficient in a whole bunch of areas. We even make our own cars.” If sanctions were ever applied to America, we’d be screwed — because we are not, not, not industrially self-sufficient.

Our plane to Yazd is going to be delayed,” said our guide. “This is due to sanctions. Airplanes and airplane parts are being sanctioned.” “But why?” It’s not like these planes are being used for military purposes or nothing. And doesn’t that put civilians in danger?”

“Yes, the sanctions do put civilians in danger. We have had several disastrous plane crashs recently due to sanctions, and it’s also hard to make airplane repairs. We are forced to improvise. Plus we rent planes from other countries — from Russia, Turkey and even Bulgaria. Many of our planes are in such poor shape that they aren’t even allowed to land at European airports.” Great. That’s just what I needed to hear right before our flight to Yazd takes off. “But don’t worry. We are flying on a Dutch plane today.”

“But why doesn’t Iran make its own planes?”

“Specialization. In today’s world economy, it’s not possible to make everything.” Oh. So the sanctions actually do end up hurting Iran? “Yes. However, the EU can trade with Iran for anything up to 20 million dollars, and there is a lively black market.” But what black market do you go to if you want to buy airplane parts? And, more important, will they serve lunch on our flight?

Once on the plane, the captain announced, “We can’t take off just yet because we are missing a….” I couldn’t hear exactly what it was that we were missing — but do I really want to know?

There was a famous Iranian actor aboard our flight and he came over to talk with us. He is famous for his detective roles in various murder mystery shows. “I hear that you are the Iranian Sherlock Holmes,” someone said.

The actor smiled and replied, “Yes. Only I’m better.” We all laughed.

The city of Yazd appears to be pretty big from the air. But who cares! I just want to see Yazd from the ground!

This city is located out in the semi-desert so it is famous for its water irrigation systems, first developed in 500 BC. “Yazdi citizens are hard-working, honest and never lie. They are famous for their ability to grow things. They are farmers.” There is snow on the nearby mountains in the winter and it is then channeled down into the city through its underground irrigation systems — which gives Yazd lots of parks and trees.

“Yazd was also an oasis on the Silk Road, so here is the place to buy silk. And here’s a joke about Yazd. A man came home and told his wife to make both of them some eggs, but then he went up to the roof to fix the TV antenna and fell off the roof. ‘Make that only one egg!’ he yelled to his wife on the way down. Yazdis are famous for being careful with their money.”

This is a desert city, more like Iraq than Tehran geographically. “According to UNESCO, this is the second-oldest city in the world. It is a World Heritage Site. And our hotel used to be a merchant’s home 200 years ago, with fountains and gardens and domed ceilings.” And an internet cafe!

“Next we are going to Yazd’s Friday mosque and to some rug shops.” The carpets at the shop looked almost magical enough to be able to fly and because the shop was run by Zoroastrians, we got to take off our headscarves. “See all those rugs? All hand-tied and reasonably priced.“ My daughter Ashley needs a rug but even the cheapest ones cost $700 apiece. “In America, this one would cost $5,000 – it represents one and a half year’s work.” Sorry, but I still can’t afford it. But these rugs definitely filled me with lust. “But we take MasterCard.” I don’t dare even touch these rugs.

“Zoroastrians don’t believe in killing so we go to the forests and take the silk after the butterfly has left its cocoon. This type of silk is called wild silk.”

Then at a local cafe I talked with another Iranian who told me something that really surprised me. “Ahmadinejad is to Iran what Bush was to America. They both ran for election on an ‘ownership society’ platform. Ahmadinejad promised us economic prosperity and all that same ‘I’m a uniter not a divider’ stuff — but in the end he turned out to be only a tool of Iran’s richest families and a drum major for confrontation and war.”

What else did I learn from my talk with the Yazdi? “I served in the army during the Iran-Iraq war. It was a time from Hell. I watched my best friends be killed.”

“What started that war?”

“The Iraqis started it. With the backing of the United States, they tried to seize one of our most oil-rich provinces.” >Aha. And now Israel has taken the place of Iraq when it comes to sabre-rattling. What’s with all this hatred of Iran?

“It’s not so much hatred of Iran,” my new friend said. “It’s the Americans in power who want to divide and conquer the Middle East, get control of the oil and promote weapons sales. Even Israel is a fall-guy in this scenario — and Saudi Arabia definitely is. The U.S. always wants to have a bogey-man in the region so they can sell arms to Iran, Iraq. Israel, Saudi Arabia and everyone else. You really have to live in the Middle East to understand all this stuff.”

No wonder the people of Tehran are more interested in shopping at Gucci than in making war.

Then we went out to dinner in a wonderful moonlit courtyard with a fountain — but there was no dessert. Bummer.

October 14: “This morning, we are going to go climb a mountain. It is the Sacred Tower of the Zoroastrians.” I’m sorry but the Zoroastrians are just going to have to wait. My knees hurt too much to go climbing no darn mountain. And I need a mental health day too.

“Can I stay home this morning? Please?” No problem. So I got to read late in bed and poke around at the hotel’s computer and catch up with my blog. Admit it, Jane.

I do like Yazd a lot. It’s so Arabian Nights in a way that Tehran will never be.

Then, after a wonderful quiet morning, a taxi came and whisked me away to meet my tour group for lunch. Prawns, lamb, fish and pomegranate sauce. Grapes for dessert.

“You missed the Silent Tower and the Zoroastrian temple of fire,” said my new roommate. But she had photos. The tower looked like a dust-covered hill but the temple looked interesting. “That fire has been burning continuously since the 12th century.” That’s hot.

Next we went to an 18th-century palace or castle or something. “This is the residence of the governor of Yazd,” said the sign. The main palace had a garden with a reflecting pool a half-mile long. I took a photo of part of it but was too lazy to walk to the end. But it would have been a really good shot.

“The oldest building we have in Iran is from approximately 13th-century BC, but Iran has gone through four different building styles since then, including desert ziggurats built so that mountain people could feel at home in the flatlands. And then after that came the Greek post-and-lentil style and the arched-dome look.” Or words to that effect. There is a lot of architectural diversity here. This palace looked like parts of its style were stolen from India and Egypt. But we didn’t get to see a seraglio like the sign at the entrance had promised.

Then the driver of some car hit our bus and, after having spent years writing personal injury settlement briefs for a law office, I was very interested to see how all this was going to go down. Could we sue for whiplash or what?
The confrontation was in Farsi but I got a quick translation from our guide. “You hit my bus!”

“I did not! I was standing still! You hit me!”
“Did not!”

“Did so!” Then both drivers decided that it would be a bad idea to get the police involved — and that was that.

Then we visited a prison run by Alexander the Great and I got a photo of me in chains and leg-irons, hanging from the wall. I not only stood in the same spot where Alexander the Great had stood but I also got to play S&M too. Plus Alexander the Great’s prison actually had a concession stand and I bought a bag of corn chips too. Not Fritos, however.

Then we went off to a 14th-century mosque and another Zoroastrian rug shop that took both Visa and MasterCard. I love to look at these rugs. I took tons of photos. Then we met some young tourists from Tehran. “You are touring the mosques here too?” I asked.

Next we wandered around Yazd’s “Old Town” section — gardens, walled houses, and narrow arched and domed passageways with whole families perched on motorcycles that roared up and down them. You shoulda seen the look on one two-year-old’s face.

Then we went off and photographed more rugs. I’m going to go home and figure out how to put photos of rugs on my floor. One of the young women in our group found a rug that she really wanted but couldn’t afford so we all joked that she could start a corporation, sell shares in her rug to us and go public. “And we could have an annual shareholders’ meeting at your house and sell the rug in ten years for a fabulous profit.” Or not.

“The rug itself is 40 years old but the pattern comes from 2,500 years ago. It’s a Bijar, and took one and a half years to make.” But the young woman still couldn’t make up her mind.

“Would you like me to do a Tibetan Buddhist divination on it? Would that help?” I asked.

“Yes.” But the divination came up — twice — with the opinion that it would be best for the young woman to make up her own mind. “I can’t decide!” she wailed. Who could blame her? It was a fabulous rug but $1,200 is a lot of money when you’re young. Hell, it’s a lot of money for me too — and I’m old.

Will she buy the rug? Or not? Stay tuned.

“I’ll take another $100 off the price,” said our carpet guy.”I’ll buy it!” Good decision.

Then we walked through the local bazaar and I saw some rugs on sale for only $20. “But those rugs are made in China!” our guide cried, shocked.

“But they are within my budget,” I replied and lusted after these rugs too. But it was not to be. They were too big to carry home in my suitcase.

Tonight at dinner I sat next to the bus driver and got the whole story on what really happened after the accident this afternoon. “It was clear that the accident was the other driver’s fault,” he said, “but however….. There were about five men on the street who thought it disrespectful of me to hold it against her.” Apparently the other driver had been dressed in that full-drag black hooded outfit that pious women in Iran wear, so all five men wanted to defend her honor.

“Then, to make matters worse,” the bus driver continued, “the lady then called up her boyfriend and asked him to come down.” So we’ve got five angry men and one angry boyfriend yelling at said bus driver. “So I did the expedient thing — got the hell back on the bus and drove off.” Or words to that effect. The bus driver’s English wasn’t all that good.


July 15, 2010

Why Europe will never let Iran get bombed…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 12:13 pm

Has Europe just been appointed Iran’s designated driver? Is Europe going to keep Iran from getting bombed? And, more important, can Europe take away America’s and Israel’s car keys as well? Yes, yes, and yes.

Let’s talk realistically here. The various corporatists and neo-cons who have seized control of the military decision-making processes in both America and Israel have been making a lot of strong noises lately to the effect that they really really want to attack Iran. Sober up here, guys! Get a grip. You seem to have carefully isolated yourselves — and also your backup crew of citizen right-wingers — from all too many of the realities and facts on the ground that are readily available to the rest of the world.

For instance, did you know that people in Europe view the Israel-Palestine situation from a very different perspective than most Americans do? Almost everyone in Europe has been pretty much disgusted by the American-backed Israeli neo-cons’ failed 2006 invasion of Lebanon, its brutal 2009 invasion of Gaza and its recent viscous attack on the internationally-sponsored humanitarian flotilla to Gaza.

Knowing this, what makes Israel’s and America’s corporatist decision-makers think that Europe (and also Russia, China, etc.) is going to welcome an invasion of Iran with open arms? Not gonna happen!

Further, by isolating and restricting our major media to the point where it mainly prints opinions that corporatists in Washington want to hear, Americans and Israelis may be cutting off their own noses in order to spite their face with regard to Iran.

At this point, the media war for America’s hearts and minds needs a serious reality check. Otherwise, Americans may find themselves once again swimming out into the deep end of the pool at their own peril — just like what happened in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Won’t someone please take our military-industrial complex’s car keys away! They may think that they are sober — but in reality they have drank far too much of the “Endless War” Kool-Aid and are in NO condition to drive. Europe knows this. But apparently we Americans do not.

It seems that if corporatists, neo-cons and right-wingers don’t like reality, they try to make it disappear. And the main difficulty with this approach to reality is that we the people are getting suckered into situations that we might normally avoid like the plague. However, trying to convince Europe, Russia, South America and Asia to go along with these war plans against Iran may turn out to be a hard sell indeed.

And there’s another major factor involved in this facts-on-the-ground equation as well — unlike Iraq and Afghanistan (and to some extent Palestine), many Europeans, Asians, etc. have actually BEEN to Iran.

Who the freak went to Iraq before Shock and Awe? Hardly anyone. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not exactly some hot new tourist destination. And tourists hardly ever went to Afghanistan — except for perhaps a few hippies with wanderlust back in the 1960s. But. What Americans and Israelis apparently don’t comprehend or understand is that Iran is a major tourist attraction — for both Europeans and Asians. Think Egypt and the pyramids. Think Taj Mahal. Iran is to Europe what the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China is to us. A major tourist hotspot!

So while a huge number of Americans still think that Iran is filled with sand and camel jockeys and harems, most Europeans and more than a handful of Asians have been there, done that. They know, for instance, that Tehran is the Paris of the Near East. They know that the ruins at Persepolis rival the ruins at Karnak. And they know that Estafan’s grand palaces and mosques can easily compete with the coliseum and Vatican in Rome. And Europeans flock to Iran by the tens of thousands annually.

Europeans have been there. Americans have not. You can tell Americans ANYTHING about Iran and they will believe it. You can’t tell Europeans diddly-squat about Iran — because they have actually been there themselves.

For this reason alone, I’m willing to bet the farm that Europeans will never let Iran get bombed.

PS: And I’ve been to Iran too. Here’s Part One of my report on the wonders of Iran. “Iran never disappoints.”


Innocents Abroad: On the Road in Iran
October 8, 2008: “I have no idea what to wear to Iran,” I whined. I’d heard stories of women actually being executed there for not covering themselves from head to toe.

“Don’t worry about that,” said an Iranian-American friend. “Just wear long sleeves, long dresses and a headscarf and you’ll be fine.” But I don’t even own any dresses. Crap. This is going to be like dressing up for a trip to the moon. I’m totally out of my cultural depth.

“It’s just not that big a deal,” said my friend. But it is. All I ever wear these days are jeans and T-shirts. Jeans and T-shirts. That’s it. “Jane, get a grip. Jeans are made of cloth. Dresses are made of cloth. Same difference. You’ll do fine.”

But still I worry. I’m not worried about going to Iran during a time-period where that idiot George Bush is threatening to bomb it and being there when the bunker-busters drop. And I’m definitely not worried about getting any tourist diseases over there. No, I’m all worried about clothes and I’m also worried about getting a ticket from the fashion police for looking like a dork.

“Jane,” said my friend, “you went on Hajj and spent a whole month in Mecca. You visited Afghanistan. You even stayed on in Palestine. And you loved every moment. You’ll like Iran as well.” Will I? I’m going to find out tomorrow. I’m leaving tomorrow for Tehran.

October 9, 2008: It’s 4:00 am in the morning, our jet plane is somewhere over Iceland, I just watched a re-run of a movie I saw last spring when I flew to China, I’m uber-tired and I’m stuck in a middle seat with no legroom – but other than that this has been a very smooth flight. I haven’t been reduced to total terror so far.

The man in the seat to my right – 35F – is from Monte Negro and he just gave me a capsulated rundown on the Serbo-Croatian war. “Serbs, Croats and Monte Negrans all speak dialects of the same language,” he added, “but the people from Kosovo speak Albanian, which is a language unto itself.”

“What’s Monte Negro like now?”

“We have a lot of beaches. It’s a tourist destination and we have hydropower and aluminum. Tito was in charge when I was a boy. There wasn’t all that much freedom of speech like there is now but we had excellent free education and healthcare.” Trade-offs.

The woman on my left – 35D – was from India and remembered the days before the partition. “Hindu and Urdu are also similar languages,” she said. I didn’t know that.

Both my seatmates had lived through civil wars. “I spent the entire duration of the Serbo-Croatian war in Russia,” said the Monte Negran, “and the United States.” Good thinking. Avoiding a war zone is always a good idea.

There’s a kind of fugue state generated by flying and I am now definitely in that zone. If I read any of what I wrote here later, will it make sense? Probably not.

After we landed in Frankfurt, a bus came out to our 747 and drove us for about a mile to the terminal, past a very long flight line. “How many wide-bodies do they have in this place!” I exclaimed to the Indian lady.

“Maybe 50?” Or more – all bearing the name “Lufthansa”. Some were being driven from place to place like they were cars. Others sat parked in long parking-lot lines, like they were waiting around for their owners to get back from the mall and drive them home. “Aren’t they pretty!” someone said. Yes.

Then I trundled off to my free Sheraton Hotel dayroom, soaked in a nice long hot bath and slept for five hours. Heavenly – except for the dream. The dregs of society were down by the waterfront planning a wedding. One woman-man had a tongue made of metal and the end of his-her tongue had rusted off. Eeuuww.

Meanwhile back on the plane to Tehran…. We saw a lot of cartoons. “Why are we watching children’s shows?” said a member of our group that I had met at the Frankfurt airport gate lounge while waiting for our flight.

“Because Iranians love cartoons.” Interesting. We watched Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Little Mermaid. Since when does the Little Mermaid pass the dress code?

There were two wonderful babies on the plane. More and more, I’ve been noticing wonderful babies – of all races, cultures and creeds. Maybe I just started noticing wonderful babies because of my wonderful granddaughter – or maybe more wonderful babies are being born because there is a greater need in the world now for wonderful babies than there ever has been before. Perhaps they will all grow up and save the world.

We have one hour and eleven minutes before we arrive in Tehran. Is it time to start putting my headscarf on yet?

I met up with the rest of my tour group at Gate 22 of the Frankfurt airport. They all seem very nice – three younger women, several women my age and a middle-aged couple. There’s supposed to be one more man but I haven’t met him yet.

“Do you have a copy of the itinerary?” I asked one of the women my age.

“Sure. We’ll be flying to the northern part of Iran and then driving back down south.” Oh goodie! We’ll get to see a lot of the countryside and not just Tehran. “Yadz, Persepolis, Esfahan.” Tourist hotspots and famous archeological digs. Cyrus and Alexander were here. I may have accidentally stumbled onto the trip of a lifetime – besides Egypt of course…and maybe India. Manchu Picchu? The Potola in Tibet? Shut up, Jane.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important announcement,” said the stewardess. “All women are required to cover their heads so we ask you to put on headscarves before we land in Tehran.” So I ran to the toilet area to put on my long skirt and coat-dress — and the plane started rocking and the “return to seat” light started flashing and the stewardess kept saying, “Return to your seats,” and there I was, halfway in and halfway out of my costume and bouncing around the toilet compartment and muttering “Oh crap!”

But when I got back to my seat, the Iranian men I had befriended on the flight all smiled and cheered and I was a big hit – except for the man next to me who got all nauseous and rang for the stewardess and was going to throw up – hopefully not because of me.

I’m so glad my daughter Ashley isn’t here. She’d laugh her head off at the sight of me in a skirt. But at least in all the excitement of me coming out of my cocoon as an Iranian butterfly, I forgot to be terrified of the turbulence.

After we got through customs, only our group was made to wait and wait and wait. “Sometimes they hold Americans at the airport for three or four hours – in revenge for all the waiting that Iranian citizens have to go through at American airports.” But as we waited all alone in the now-deserted airport, I noticed that the immigration department computers all had Windows XP screen savers and we were waiting next to a Panasonic advertizing sign.

And then the customs police brought me a chair.

Boy did I misunderestimate the temperatures here. Once we got through customs, the fresh cold air hit us hard – freaking San Francisco weather. I’ve packed the wrong clothes.

“117 million people live in Tehran proper,” said our new guide, “and an additional 22 million live in Greater Tehran. And the airport is one hour’s drive from the downtown .” We climbed onto the bus. It’s now 3:00 am, Iran time.

Our four-star hotel room had all the amenities – hot water, a bed, towels, sheets, cockroaches.

October 11, 2008: “Good morning!” said my new roommate. How does one civilly reply to something like that at 7:00 am after getting only three hours of sleep? I am so freaking tired.

I guess from my first impressions that the only difference between Iran and other places in Europe and America is that the women here wear headscarves and blouses that come down past their hips. But that’s about it. I could be sitting in any other hotel in the world.

“People in Iran are overly polite – that’s the big difference between Iranians and Americans,” said our guide. “In that respect, we are more like the Japanese.” Oh, and you CAN brush your teeth with the tap water.

“We just got word that we will not be meeting with a prominent ayatollah as planned,” said our guide. “He is not feeling well.”

Much to my surprise, everyone here wears western clothes and hardly anyone is in full Muslim drag.

“American dollars are getting stronger in Iran right now so you are lucky,” said our guide, “and a lot of people here actually take dollars.” And apparently inflation has hit here hard in the last year. “The price of eggs has doubled and housing costs three times as much.” The inflation rate is around 500%. Wow. “Gas used to be 40 cents a gallon but now it is 40 cents per liter, and living in Tehran is very expensive. A lot of people work two or three jobs.” The wives work as well as the husbands.

The first stop on our tour was the archeological museum, built in the 1930s as part of a plan to stop the looting of archeological treasures by western collectors. “This museum covers the period of the fifth millennium BC to the seventh century AD – the pre-Islamic period.”

Iran is four times the size of Iraq – which is the size of California. “Iran is approximately one-fourth to one-third the size of the United States, excluding Alaska. The name ‘Iran’ is derived from the word ‘Aryan,’ the people who migrated down from the area which is now Russia. Our national history starts from around 1900 BC, when the Aryans came and subjugated the local people. Cyrus the Great is a descendant of the original Aryans.” And they call all white people Caucasians because that’s the area where the Aryans originally came from, so Americans, European and Iranians all come from the same stock.

“Iranians are basically Caucasians – but because we are located at such a geographical crossroads, we have all kinds of ethnic diversity too.” Aryans, Semites and even Mongols. Then we saw a lot of paleolithic stuff at the museum. That stuff was OLD.

“There’s a museum in Chicago that has more Persian antiquities than this one,” said one tour group member. Still and all, this stuff is nice. Plus it gives us a taste of what we have to look forward to at Persepolis – lots of statues of impressive-looking bearded guys.

I didn’t see many statues of women here. “The role of women in the Middle East has always been secondary, not just since Islam.” I guess that’s right. With a few notable exceptions, Jewish women were secondary to their men in the Middle East back in biblical times, and even look what happened to Mary Magdalene when she stepped out of her place — she got called a whore.

Back on the bus, we passed two churches on our way to a ceramics museum. My idea of a good museum is one that has places to sit down. This one had lots of chairs.

“These necklaces date back to the fourth millennium BC.” Even then, human beings appreciated art. I gotta start appreciating art too. Human beings create art – it’s what distinguishes us from beasts. Less bombs, more art. Let’s spend the Pentagon’s budget on teaching people to paint, draw, write and play the violin instead. Iran and Israel could have a battle of the bands. May the best poet win. There is a peaceful quality about museums. Then I accidentally sat in the museum guard’s chair – but he was extremely gracious about it.

What’s next? Lunch. “We are going to one of a chain of restaurants that serve traditional Iranian food.” Mostly stews. Ours was a stew composed of extract of pomegranate, walnuts, vegetables, dried lemon and kidney beans, served with plain rice. Then we got to talking about fast food. “People here really like fast food – burgers and pizza.”

“Is there a McDonalds?”

“No, but we do have Coca-Cola.” So much for sanctions. I had a Sprite. Someone else had a pseudo-Red Bull. My Sprite can said, “Canned under authority of the Coca-Cola Company.”

Apparently traditional Iranian food includes chicken pasta salad. “And this dish is fried onions, tomatoes and lamb.” Then the shish kebob came! And dates and macaroons for dessert. “Is lunch or dinner the main meal of the day?” I asked.

“Every meal is the main meal of the day.” My kind of people.

Then we got into a discussion about headscarves. There are advantages and disadvantages regarding the treatment of Islamic women. “We sacrifice some things yet we also receive more respect,” said one Iranian woman. In one way I like the headscarves because they grip my skull and keep my brains from rattling around in my head.

When people found out that Americans were at the restaurant, it took on a festive atmosphere as diners from other tables came over and offered us food. “Try this yogurt. Try these olives!” Sure. I wonder what the poor schmucks who think Iran is such a horrible place are doing right now? Probably just stuck at home at McDonalds.

I can see the direction this trip is going in. Once I get back from Iran, I may never have to eat again.

“Next we are going to the jewelry museum. An 18th century corrupt shah was so busy with his harem that the Afghans were able to invade. But then a new shah came to power and kicked the Afghans out and got back the treasury that the Afghans had seized – plus a lot more.” That’s where we are going now – to view the gold and gems once owned by this shah. I’m definitely up for looking at gold.

“The jewels exhibited here,” said our guide, “are priceless.” Imagine a huge underground vault filled with hundreds of thousands of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, gold and other shiny stuff – worth trillions of dollars.

“Are any of the people who owned this still alive?”

“No, all of them are dead.” There’s a moral here – that even a treasure-house full of jewels won’t make you immortal. Deep, huh.

“Do any of the current Iranian state leaders wear any of these jewels?”

“They wouldn’t dare. Their reputations would be ruined.” But there were so many thousands of diamonds that they just seemed like rhinestones, paste and glass beads after a while.

“Diamonds used to be the most valuable stone,” said our guide, “but they are still mining diamonds – whereas there are no more rubies left to be mined and so now rubies are five times more valuable.”

Then we went off to buy Islamic dresses. Islamic dresses basically look like overcoats. We all had fun trying them on but the ones that were stylish cost over $50 and the cheap ones didn’t fit at all and were ugly. I finally found a black cotton one for $25 that wasn’t too bad, if a little bit tight. Hey, it had pockets. I look like a sausage. But it was fun shopping for it and I can always move over the buttons.

October 12, 2008: My roommate and I really get along well outside our hotel room but once in our room we (politely) fight about everything – what time to set the alarm for, whether or not to open the window, what speed to set the air conditioning on, when to turn out the light and even where to put the toilet paper roll. Weird. Plus she snores a lot and I certainly don’t want to be the one to tell her that.

Right now, all my extra money is going to the hotel’s internet café. The Iranian government denies me access to and but gives me access to That’s strange. All three sites offer the same articles and all three sites worked their little hearts out to prevent Bush from attacking Iran. I submitted an appeal to whoever manages this kind of stuff to unblock the sites.

I wonder what we are going to do today? I need to buy some T-shirts. I packed five skirts and dresses that I will never use but not enough T-shirts to wear under my manteau (that’s what they call these overcoat dresses here).

Our hotel is one block away from the Petroleum Ministry. That probably contains more gold than the jewelry museum.

“In a few minutes we are going to pass the former U.S. embassy. You are not allowed to take photos.” But mostly it was just a view of a wall, you couldn’t see the embassy itself, nothing strategic. But I figured it was okay to take pictures of the wall. It had lots of anti-American phrases and murals that had been done back in the 1970s and were now almost the only place in Tehran that you could see anti-American slogans. “Iran will outlast the American superpower,” said one section of the wall. At this point that might not be very hard to do. The reports on BBC News this morning about the American economy were really bad.

Then we drove through the old Armenian quarter. It looked like the Lower East Side of New York City.

“Tehran is 4500 feet above sea level. The population went from 3.5 million in 1978 to 17 million now, creating a population boom as people streamed into Tehran searching for jobs and creating large ghettos and sections of poverty. Plus over a million people died in the Iran-Iraq war, which also affected Tehran because people came here to be safe.”

To the east of the city, high mountains suddenly rise. I know that the mountains are in the east because I always carry a compass – but you know that I still always manage to get lost.

“We are now going to a palace complex that belonged to the former shah. The closer you get to the mountains, the more expensive the neighborhoods get.” Lots of 20- and 30-story condo towers – with helicopter pads on their roofs. “A two-bedroom condo in this area goes for a million dollars. There is a lot of construction going on and, unlike in the USA right now, housing is still a lucrative business here.”

Iran has 30 provinces but Tehran is the most popular place to live at. “They are trying to transfer the capital to Esfahan to lower the congestion here but that move is still in the works.” Then I got the sneezes from all that air conditioning last night.

“You can find the best-paying jobs in Tehran but you have to spend more to live here.”

Then we passed through a lovely tree-lined boulevard. “It is not allowed to cut down trees in Iran. There’s a $20,000 fine. This street is the Champs de Elysees of Tehran.”

We passed some Starbucks wannabes here, only they had changed the name to “Starcups”. Many brand-name stores are coming to Iran now, such as Versace and Baskin Bobbins. “Tehran is not an ancient city, only about 200 years old.” We will try to see three palaces today. King Reza, the founder of this dynasty, had four wives. And his son, the last Shah, had three wives. The last shah had 18 palaces but we are only going to see three of them. And after the palaces, we are going to go shopping at Nordstrom’s.”

Tourist buses were lined up at the palace entrance and little girls in lavender cupcake uniforms sat on the steps of one of the palaces and said good morning to us in English. Third graders.

Then I tripped over nothing, fell flat on my face and screwed up my left ankle. Crap. It really hurts. I feel like a horse that needs to be taken out and shot. “Are you okay, Jane?” No. But, hey, I tripped on the same path that one of the cruelest dictators in the whole world used to walk on daily.

Next we went to a museum for the paintings of Mahmoud Farsachian. My initial reaction was “kitsch” – but technically well-executed kitsch. I’m such a snob. I couldn’t have possibly drawn or painted any of his stuff. Would I hang any of his work in my home? Sure. I’ve already inherited about 20 other kitsch paintings from my mom. These would fit right in.

Then we found a restroom with options besides a squat toilet. And the men’s side was cleaner than the women’s, giving me a whole new respect for Iranian men. Men’s rooms in America suck eggs.

Then we went off and got our photos taken in ancient Persian dresses while sitting in front of a Cinderella-style carriage that used to belong to a shah. I think. And then we toured the last shah’s palace with a group of Korean tourists and the women in the group wore the most beautiful headscarves, all covered with sequins. The shah had a lot of fabulous Persian rugs.

Then we went off to the Black Palace which is now an art museum. Lots of stairs, no chairs.

“These are paintings of Persian nobility from the 17th century.” I’d hang any one of these in my home any time. I loved them. Who ARE these people? And where do they shop?

One portrait showed two young men, six young women and an old lady, fondling each other. “Back in those times, relations between women were not uncommon and were considered normal.” Why not? There was probably nothing else to do in the harem.

And that was our day, spent flitting through the palaces of the former shah. Back on the bus. “About 60 years ago, you wouldn’t see any houses around here, only lawns, gardens and trees.”

Time for lunch.

We drove up a winding street up on the hillside of the poshest part of town. “That home there costs 25 million.” Dollars. This is the Beverly Hills of Tehran. “Here is our restaurant.” Men sat outdoors on carpets. We sat outdoors too, under trees, in a garden – but not, thankfully, on the floor. Barley soup, eggplant anti-pasta with dill sour cream – just for starters. I’m already full. Lamb kebabs, chicken, potatoes, dates and tea.

Then we went off to an upscale mall. Not quite Rodeo Drive – but close. “Don’t think of this as window shopping,” I told someone in our group. “Think of this as anthropology!” Exploring how the Tehran upper class lives. Incredibly stylish ways to wear black dresses of course, but also Dior, Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton, Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Mont Blanc, D-Squared and Elle! I was all in a daze.

I also found an ATM machine at the mall. Good. I was running out of money and had $200 less than I thought I had. But my card was rejected. “This machine will not accept your card.”

“Where can I get money?” I asked one of our guides.

“There’s no place that you can get money from America here.” Wow. The banking and credit system has gotten THAT bad? The dollar has sunken that low? “No, it’s just that there are no commercial ties between Iran and America.” Tell that to Coca-Cola and Tommy Hilfiger.

“What about Western Union?” I’d seen a Western Union sign near our hotel.

“Yes, you could do that.” But how?

“No tourist has ever been killed here in the past 200 years,” someone said. Good to know — but not surprising. Tehran is an extremely civilized town. I wonder, however, if any tourists have ever died of starvation due to access to an ATM machine. And I also wonder if I will have enough money to be able to buy a soccer jersey for Ashley or a doll for baby Mena. And maybe a small Persian rug for Joe?

One Iranian explained the gas situation to me. “We don’t have that many gas stations here so there are always long lines. Some people get up at 3:00 am to buy gas. And it’s rationed too. And if you don’t have a ration card, gas costs four times as much.”

Then we went off to a carpet museum. I’m assuming that they have a bathroom.

“There are two different types of carpets: Tribal rugs and urban rugs.” They showed us a rug from 500 BC. Awesome. A whole museum full of carpets. I wonder how many people went blind weaving these rugs?

“Urban rugs are more valuable if they are perfect but flaws in tribal rugs are acceptable, even expected.” Persian-type knots, natural dyes. “144 knots per (something, I didn’t hear what, perhaps inch?) is the highest amount you can get.” And it is illegal to import Chinese rugs into Iran. Then we looked at the rugs themselves. They were stunning, impressive. But I still like my little prayer rug better. It’s been in my purse since 2005, followed me everywhere, been around the world with me, kept me company. Just like the nomadic rugs.

Next stop – the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring an exhibit by art instructors in some of the local colleges and design schools. Nice building. Nice exhibit. My feet hurt. Can I go back to the hotel and use the internet yet?

“None of this stuff is political,” someone commented, “and none of it reflects the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war.” I get the opinion that almost everyone in Tehran is trying to forget it.

The sofas in the museum are incredibly soft – but hard to get out of. So I sat in the one by the door, waited for someone in our group to walk by and pull me out of the sofa, and listened to an Iranian Muzak version of “Sketches of Spain”. I used to listen to Miles Davis’s version of that in college back in 1963. I’d play it again and again – that and a whole ton of Joan Baez – and now I am sitting here listening to it in Iran.

Then we went off to a park where I saw the first man I have seen since I got here who was wearing a thobe — the traditional Middle Eastern white nightgown worn by men. “That isn’t a typical Persian item,” said a guide, “and, also, Tehran is such a new city that everyone here wears Western garb except the mullahs. That man was probably a Pakistani.”

This park actually has park benches! Whew! And we also found a bunch of Nautilus-like exercise machines. And I got to sit down on the stationary bike.

Speaking of exercise, someone here told me that, “The girls in Iran eat very little until they get married and then after that….” The day after the wedding day they say goodbye to their diets.

(To be continued when I get back from the Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas)

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