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Offbeat Tour of Iran

Iran is one of the most unique destinations on earth.

Tours of Iran

Iran, like North Korea, is a country whose very name, whether spoken or seen in print, is certain to trigger a highly unfavorable response on the part of the great majority of Americans.  This has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with decades of media distortion.


There are a few things I should tell you from the start about Iran.  Again, like North Korea, it is totally safe and legal for Americans to go there, but not on their own: they must join a group tour, and since this is a destination to which Young Pioneer Tours has been operating for years without any problems, I work solely with them.  Another thing you should know is that I have never been to Iran.  Actually, while traveling in the far east of Turkey in 1984 - which is a world apart from Istanbul and the Europe-oriented far west - I came within twenty miles of the Iranian border, and got a strong feeling for the conservative religious tradition of this region.  And I have traveled around fourteen Islamic nations spanning several thousand miles, from Morocco to Malaysia.  If you'll pardon my excessive reminiscing, I'll tell you a story about a neighboring country closely aligned with Iran, much in the news of late.


Syria is another one of those mideastern countries that conjures up a mysterious, evil image, and this has been the case for a long time.  It was the case thirty years ago when I wondered if I wasn't flirting with danger by deciding to go there.  This was the pre-internet age, and not only had I never heard of anyone traveling to Syria, but there were no guidebooks about this country in print, and I could find no reliable information anywhere.  Yet when I called the Syrian embassy in Washington I was told there were no restrictions on travel for Americans and they could issue me a visa no problem.  So I went through the usual rigamarole, got my visa, and was all set.


After traveling for five weeks around Turkey, which is one of the world's most fascinating countries and one of my top favorites, I found myself in the dusty border town of Nusaybin.  Unsure of what to expect and with some apprehension, I got stamped out of Turkey and walked into Syria.  There was a small customs post which I entered, and I handed my passport to an official sitting at his desk.  His eyes widened when he saw it was American and he looked up at me.  Then without saying a word, he flipped through the pages, found the Syrian visa, applied an entry stamp and handed it back to me.  It was that simple.  I went outside where some grizzled men in traditional Arab robes and head coverings, and a few women dressed in blazing colors and glittering jewelry, along with their small children, sat in the shade of a tree.  At remote border crossings like this, in most parts of the world, there's no regular transport.  When there are enough passengers to make it profitable, something on four wheels materializes sooner or later.  Eventually, an old Buick Roadmaster station wagon turned up and everyone piled in.  After tying my pack and a few battered suitcases to the roofrack, and opening the tailgate to stuff in two bewildered sheep, we left for Deir ez-Zor, the only town of any size in northeastern Syria.  When we got there I walked around and found a scruffy family-run hotel.  After checking in, the owner and his two young sons, who spoke no more than five words of English,  made tea for me and invited me to sit down with them.  There I was, sipping tea and watching the Los Angeles Olympics on a fuzzy old TV screen with these friendly people, while half a world away President Reagan was muttering darkly about Syria harboring terrorists, and my family probably worried themselves to death over my safety.  I was in the country for two weeks, traveled all over without meeting a single other foreigner, walked the streets of Damascus late at night, and not once did I ever feel threatened in the slightest way, nor did anyone ever react in a disparaging way upon learning that I was American.  This is also true of every other Islamic country I've been to.


And I'm not saying I'm a great fan of Arab nations or the Islamic world in general, because I'm not.  That religion holds no appeal for me.

Iran Tours

The music in these countries grates on my eardrums.  The food is nothing to get excited about.  And overcharging is rampant; everytime money changes hands you have to be on guard.


But this mindless equating of Arabs, Iranians and Islam with violence and terrorism greatly disturbs me, as does the obsession with Iran's nuclear ambitions, whatever they might be.  The fact is that Iran is an ancient nation with an illustrious history, which has not attacked any country in over a thousand years (it was Iraq's military assault on Iran that initiated the border war between those countries in the 1980s).  If Americans took the time to scour the internet they would discover, to their shock and dismay, hundreds of postings from every corner of the globe expressing fear and hatred not of Iran, but of their own country as an out of control warmongering rogue state.  This is one way of putting things in perspective.  Another way, of course, is to visit Iran and see for oneself what this country is all about.


I can furnish a hint here.  Not long ago I met a Spanish doctor who had flown to Teheran, the capital, for some kind of medical symposium.  He told me that the Iranians he came across were so hospitable it was "scary" - his word.  People were practically dragging him into their homes for a round of tea or to join them for dinner, he said.  Now I'm sure he was exaggerating a bit, but there's no doubt in my mind that all foreign visitors to Iran, most certainly including Americans, are made to feel welcome.  In addition, like Turkey, the country is a veritable outdoor archaeological museum, with structures of dazzling beauty and historical antiquity going back thousands of years.


Because so many people are irrationally scared off from going to Iran, tourists are few and far between.  The scorching summer heat is another factor to be reckoned with, making spring and fall the ideal times to explore this unknown gem.  In consideration of most school schedules, that means spring break in April.  I look forward to sharing my own discovery of Iran with a like-minded group of young adventurers.