Blog - August, 2006
by Amanda Roraback
Day 2 Part 1
DAY 2 (On the way to Qom and Kashan)
Ali came by the hotel at 7 am (I was waiting at the door at 6) to
take me to Kashan and Qom south of Tehran.
Before setting off, we stopped to buy some bottled water and
fresh baked bread which he wrapped in newspapers. His wife had packed cheese and
It was already very hot by 8 am and I was glad that I had decided
not to wear anything under my black jacket. It took a few sweltering days before
I had discovered that I could dip my scarf in water to keep my head cool
until it was dried up by the sun – an hour in the morning, a few minutes in the
middle of the day. Sometimes when performing my cooling ritual in the public
restroom, I’d notice ladies watching me in amusement. I was amazed that they
hadn’t already discovered one of the few advantages to the hijab and
equally surprised that they didn’t follow suit. Perhaps again it was admiration
of martyrdom that stopped heavily black-clothed women from
seeking a little relief, even in an unconventional way.
On the way out of Tehran, I took note of the murals on the
buildings. Most displayed painted
pictures of martyrs from the 1979 Islamic Revolution or “the war,” that is, the
“Iraq-Iran War” that claimed the lives of more than a million people.
Others showed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or his
predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini with various expressions often accompanied by
words of wisdom or religious verses. Some, like the mural
pictured above, had both.
Also visible were pronouncements of hatred for America and Israel
– the cause celebre these days. What I found especially intriguing was
the fact that the messages were written in English. For whom were the posters
intended? Iranians? Americans? Europeans?
Were they supposed to stand as a collective declaration to the world? Was I, a
foreign tourist, supposed to photograph the pictures to show to my friends so
that they would believe that Iran was united in its disgust for the Israeli “Zionists”
and their sponsors?
What made more sense to me were the ubiquitous yellow banners
showing Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah raising his rifle
defiantly to the sky.
In one of my interviews later in the trip, an Iranian fellow
wondered why Iran was so preoccupied with the fight with Israel: “What gripe do
we have with Israel?” he queried out loud. “There are plenty of Jews in Iran.
Two Jews even serve in
the government.” Although I did see a working synagogue myself, I couldn’t
really attest to what Iranians wanted to believe was a country free of
discrimination. But for the record, Ahmadinejad did
clarify on Fox with Mike Wallace and in other interviews that he had no issue with people or individuals (read: Jews) but rather he despised their
“heinous actions.” That could explain why no one ever had a problem with me as a
member of the “oppressive empire” of America.
On the topic of Israel: one local theory was that Iran needed the
backing of its Arab neighbors for support in Iran’s battle with the West over
the enrichment of uranium (which can be used to produce nuclear bombs.) The
Sunni Muslim Arabs are neither Shi’a nor ethnically Persian but the Iranian
government intended to show they had a common enemy: the United States and, by
extension, Israel, or, to put it their way, the “Zionists” and their
I discovered that advertisements had been placed in Iranian
newspapers offering $2000 a month to anyone who wanted to fight with Hezbollah
in Lebanon – not a small sum considering the average salary was $6-800 a month.
The question was, would Turkey let them through?
Iranians are allowed to visit Turkey for three months without a
visa. For many Iranians, this is the easiest way to reach an American Embassy.
But because Turkey is an ally to both Iran and Israel, it was put in a delicate
position in the Hezbollah-Israeli war. I had heard that Turkey had in fact
blocked passage of some eager Iranian fighters on their way to battle with
Hezbollah in Lebanon. The detention provoked an Iranian demonstration in front
of the Turkish Embassy in Tehran.
According to Ali, the specter of war and sanctions that came from
the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict and American threats was already wreaking
havoc in the Iranian economy. Homebuyers and homeowners weren’t sure whether
home prices would drop or rise, businessmen didn’t know when or whether to put
their money into new ventures and foreigners (investors and tourists) were
staying away all together.
The drive to Qom
On our way out of town, I continued where we had left off on the
first drive in Tehran. My head was full of questions to ask and Ali was
kindly willing to answer as best he could. Some excerpts:
On Nuclear Weapons:
Ali had once done work for the nuclear energy department and by
his estimation, there was no way that Iran could be anywhere near developing
weapons. There was too much arguing for any progress to take place, he claimed,
and eager technicians regularly made empty claims of successes in order to get
“Why was the government making such a big deal out of nothing?”
He asked rhetorically. Well, I thought, because even the possibility that Iran
could become the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons
(besides Israel, that is) could provide the country with great prestige and power in
the Middle East. Actually HAVING nuclear weapons would also provide security
against attack. Nevertheless, Iranian leaders have insisted that they have no
intention of building nuclear weapons. Khomeini once called nuclear
weapons “un-Islamic” after the Revolution and had discontinued the Shah’s
weapons program. In my humble opinion, the Iranian government will
continue to tow this line as long it serves them -- or until Iran finally does
acquire nuclear weapons.
Ali told me that it is a fact of life that the government is
corrupt. Even doctors and nurses working in government-run hospitals must be
bribed before they will practice any medicine. Doctors must pay their nurses an
additional “salary” to do their work and to prevent them from badmouthing the
doctor in front of potential patients. Patients must pay doctors five times the
government fee to have an operation or they will be left to die.
Bribes and “permission” is needed all along the bureaucratic
ladder. “Permission” is needed to get a visa, to get a tour -- the foreign
ministry even needs bribes to get foreigners booked in hotels.
We once talked about the restaurant ratings system in the U.S.
(an “A” means it’s clean, “B” means there are some sanitation issues, “C” means
they serve Asian food, etc.). Ali just laughed. The concept would only create a
whole new set of jobs for corrupt inspectors. No one would know whether an
“A” meant cleanliness or whether the inspector was the owner’s cousin’s school
chum paid a pretty penny to stay “mum.”
On the Government
In Ali’s opinion, only 10% of the population supports the
government and only because they depend on the regime for jobs and an income.
The rest would be very happy to see a change of guard but are too busy working
and too disunited to do anything about it. Indeed, about 90% of the people I
spoke to shared his view.
Ali said that in the first days of the 2003 war in Iraq, Iranians
were optimistic. Since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government and the
people were consumed with the threat that Saddam Hussein posed. They welcomed
his downfall with great enthusiasm.
But the enthusiasm waned when the war continued without a clear
victory. People were being killed: pilgrimage to the Shi’ite holy sites of
Kerbala and Najaf was still difficult: and the war created a new threat that the
chaos would bleed into Iran.
The Iranians believed that the U.S. was much more powerful than
Saddam Hussein as had been proven during the swiftly won Gulf War in 1991. The
veil on invincibility had now fallen exposing a disunited American government
led by an unpopular leader.
The common perception now is that the United States is actually
instability in Iraq in order to convince people that the U.S. needs to stay.
The more people die in Iraq, the more Iranians believe that America is just
interested in oil and money and not the problems of the people.
“They had a dictator regime. Now there is no security. It’s
worse. Iraq is losing more people every day than during the Iran-Iraq war.”
As for the financial cost to Iran: After the Gulf War Iraq had
been ordered to pay reparations to countries that had been affected by its
belligerent actions (particularly Kuwait and Iran). Kuwait got its money after
the war but Iran was still supposed to receive 1 billion dollars a year. The
2003 incursion into Iraq and the change of regime meant that Iran was
unlikely to see the money.
Before the 2003 attack, Iraq had sent dozens of planes to Iran to be
protected. The Iranians instead confiscated them to compensate for lost
payments. They just painted the planes with Iranian flags and voila, they were
One of the detrimental effects of the U.S.-imposed embargo on
Iran has been the harm to its aerial fleet. For years, Iranians have not been
able to get parts to repair and upgrade their airplanes leaving them dangerously
substandard. The fatal crash of an Iran Air Tour plane landing in Mashhad
on September 1, 2006 (luckily after I had already returned home) was just the
Before the Revolution, Iran was a close ally to Israel. In fact,
Iran was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel in 1948.
Today more than 75,000 Persian Jews live in Israel including
Israel’s president, Moshe Katzav, who was born in the city of Yazd, Iran. Also
born in Yazd was Iran's former President Mohammed Khatami.
During the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the alphabetical
seating arrangement put Katsav and then Iran's President Khatami next to each
other. There was a rumor that Khatami didn’t know who Katsav was and started a
conversation with him in the Yazd dialect of Farsi. Katsav said publicly that the two
also shook hands but Khatami vigorously
denied it. Hmmm.
Next -- Gardens, Mosques and Mullahs.