Thirty minutes before Lufthansa flight 600 landed in Tehran, an odd transformation took place. As if on cue, the four or five dozen women in the cabin -- women who had left Frankfurt in tank tops, halters or blouses and skirts -- rose from their seats and pulled plastic bags from the overhead bins. Each bag contained the same two items: a broad black scarf, called a "rusari," and an oversized trench coat. By the time we buckled in for landing, every passenger of the female persuasion (girls under 9 excepted) had covered her hair and skin completely, leaving only her face showing.
This sudden reverse metamorphosis -- from butterflies back to cocoons -- was so striking that I almost laughed. The change was especially dramatic in the woman sitting next to me, Sophia, an Iranian by birth who had been living in Hawaii for two years. Sophia's manner, so lively and playful during the five-hour flight, now took on a somber and wary mien. She was doing something she hated, to please someone else: Someone who could not be pleased.
Naturally, I was fascinated. Everything about Iran fascinates me. I've attempted to visit this country twice; twice my visa application was rejected. This time, I applied as part of a small group arranged by San Francisco's Geographic Expeditions. Our chief purpose is to observe the last total solar eclipse of the millennium, which will throw a giant shadow across south Europe, Turkey, Romania, Iran and north India Wednesday. Weather permitting, we will witness totality in Esfahan -- the legendary city that was the jewel of 16th and 17th century Persia.
I've never seen an eclipse before, and I've never been in Iran before, so the trip seems a good opportunity to experience two legendary states of darkness. Not that I personally think of Iran as a dark place -- on the contrary, I associate it with Rumi, Omar Khayyam and the great Persian poet Hafiz. But let's not kid ourselves. Since 1979, Iran has been an Islamic republic under the strict supervision of stern-faced ayatollahs, and the official line is invariably a rhapsody on the theme of Great Satan.
These days, though, we're more of a bite-size Satan. For Iran, like much of the developing world, is awash in contradictions. This has been immediately apparent in everything I've encountered here -- starting with the women on the plane. Like much of Iranian society, they seem to be living with their heart in one place and their hand in another, pulled between the poles of enthusiasm for the new and fear of the old. As Sophia said to me before we parted: "Of course we hope things will change. But I doubt they ever will." Saying this, she bundled up her trench coat and stepped outside -- into 107-degree heat.
This social ambivalence became even more apparent after we deplaned. Our eight-member group was met by emissaries and herded into a lavish waiting area filled with comfortable couches, mirrored tile and skittering woodwork. This was, a brass sign proclaimed, the "CIP" lounge.
"CIP?" I looked quizzically at Sanjay Saxena, our Delhi-born expedition leader. "Shouldn't it be VIP?"
"No," he replied drolly. "As far as Iran's concerned, we're CIPs: Commercially Important Persons."
We would wait there some minutes, we were told, while our luggage passed through customs. In fact, it was two hours. During the interval, we were fed strong tea and served small, creamy cakes. An elderly man with a white moustache took pains to put us at ease. He offered a newspaper -- the Iran Daily -- which I greedily opened. Atop Page 3, I spied a short column called "Let's Memorize the Quran."
"Good idea," I thought to myself. I was genuinely intrigued; I know virtually nothing of the Koran (as Westerners prefer to spell it), and was grateful for the opportunity to increase my knowledge. The passage, I noted, was from Sura 5, 51:
O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.
Whoops. I turned quickly to another page, and scanned a more hopeful story:
Iran Lifts Ban on Western Musical Instruments
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has lifted a two-decade ban on the import of Western musical instruments, which it has long seen as decadent and corrupt, a newspaper said on Wednesday. The moderate Iran newspaper said a state organization affiliated with the culture ministry had given the green light for the import of ... flutes, pianos, classical guitars, harps, drums, saxophones and organs.
I was pleased to see that the ban on accordions remains in effect.
Just below, I spied this unlikely headline:
African Queen Plies Michigan Waters
BAY CITY, MICH. (AP) -- The boat that once carted Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn around on the silver screen is plying Michigan waters. The African Queen, from the movie of the same name, will offer rides on the Saginaw River as a fund-raiser for the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum Committee ...
My reading was interrupted by two customs guards, who approached a member of our group with apologetic smiles. The officers muttered something to Ali, our local guide, who translated for our unfortunate companion.
"The agents wish to inform you that they found a bottle of Absolut Citron in your luggage. They invite you to watch them pouring it into the toilet, to assure yourself they are not stealing it."
"No problem." His eyes lit up. "Can I take a picture?"
This was a stroke of genius. I could already envision the billboard, easily visible on the Bay Bridge approach into San Francisco: "Absolut Islam." Predictably, however, the answer was no.
Most of us have read or heard the recent reports of student riots in Tehran, the worst since the fundamentalist revolution that installed the late Ayatollah Khomeini 20 years ago. The students were protesting the closure of a liberal newspaper, Salam (which means "hello," or "howdy"). The newspaper was not publishing op-ed pieces urging men to run out and rent "Basic Instinct," or inciting women to storm the segregated swimming pools. The publisher was merely supporting the agenda of Iran's reformist president, Muhammad Ali Khatami, who has excited the popular imagination with his policies favoring personal privacy and a more lenient interpretation of Islamic law. Khatami himself is a former journalist. But the unfortunate truth is that, though he was elected with 40 percent of the vote, Khatami has little real power. It might help to imagine him as the head of a small medieval fiefdom, promising to reform the will of a pope.
Be that as it may, it was a shock to walk down the streets of Tehran on Friday -- the Muslim Sabbath -- and feel no sense of threat or menace at all. Everyone I met was helpful and hospitable, and quite willing to talk about Iran-America relations -- within limits. Even my taxi driver, who spoke perhaps 10 words of English, pumped my hand when he heard where I was from.
"Oh, America! Very good! JFK, very good!" Then he frowned, and with his right palm pantomimed an airplane nose-diving into a turbulent sea. We mourned together in silence.
I then ventured, "What about Bill Clinton?"
"Very good, very good!"
"Sorry ..." he shrugged. "No English."
I spent much of the day just strolling around. There isn't much to see in Tehran -- the museums are about the only things open on Friday -- but it's a good day for protests, and I was hoping to run into some kind of trouble. No such luck. The closest I came was outside the defunct American Embassy (now a military training school), where I tried to photograph a gaily lettered mural saying, "Down With U.S.A." A guard politely hurried me along. It's a good thing he did, or I probably would have missed all the other anti-American murals along the side of the building. I was especially moved by one plaintive message, illustrated by a scowling Khomeini: "On the Day the U.S. Praises Us We Should Mourn."
I did manage to pick up a bit of the flavor of the place, and when it's all said and done -- once you've seen Salam Nuts (which I filed away in my file of great band names), Peoples' Park and a few kids hanging freshly baked bread on the fences -- the one thing that sticks in my mind is the movie posters. Think about it: How many films in developing countries, from Cambodia to Mexico to India, rely on the thinly disguised charms of a buxom love interest? In Iran, of course, you see nothing of the sort. The women wear rusaris, even in the movies. This leaves little with which to inveigle the typical male viewer, so the same formula is repeated time and again. The six or seven films I saw advertised showed remarkably similar images: a single man poised heroically against an unseen obstacle, as a helpless-looking woman cowered beneath her scarf.
Come to think of it, maybe it was the same movie.
I dined alone, typing up my notes in an ill-lit kebab salon as my fellow travelers painted the town. As I sat at my lonely table, a group of handsome Iranian men approached me. They were burdened with heavy gear: lights, cameras, cables.
"Excuse me, sir." Those three simple words, ever concealing a hidden agenda!
"How may I help you?" I was overly keen, owing to my fascination with the film posters.
"We are with Iranian International Television. We would like to make a film here, of you working on your computer. For the TV. It will show that Americans are welcome in Iran. May we shoot you?"
"Why, yes," I replied. "I'm touched. No one has offered to shoot me all day."
The producer smiled, and signaled to his crew. "Just one thing, though," I amended.
"No close-ups of the screen."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Dropping into bed, jet-lagged to the point where a toothbrush weighs eight pounds, I finally noticed it: the golden arrow on my hotel room ceiling. It was, inexplicably, a comfort to me. I shifted my pillow a bit, and slept with my head pointing toward Mecca.