Why I’m hoping against hope the US won’t go to war with Iran.
One of my greatest travel experiences was a month in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005.
Getting a visa was a hassle — it involved waiting around in an uninspiring eastern Turkish city for 13 days while consular officials mulled over my passport — but once I was in I experienced extraordinary kindness and hospitality.
I expected the sights, like the mosques covered in shimmering blue tiles or the 2500-year-old ruins of Persepolis where the carvings are so crisp they could have been done yesterday, but I didn’t expect the people.
I didn’t expect the first taxi driver, when I was lost at night in a strange city where I couldn’t read a single street sign, to refuse the 10,000 rial fare and say, with tears glistening in his eyes, “You are my friend”. And then, “I am very happy”.
I didn’t expect a mullah — one of Iran’s supposedly fanatical Muslim clerics — to insist on paying for my bus ticket to Qom before spending the rest of the day showing me around the holy city.
I didn’t expect young women to engage me in conversation and invite me to cafés for cups of tea. And I certainly didn’t expect to find crowds of teenagers in Shiraz sitting around a 14th century poet’s grave reciting verse to each other.
I saw another side of the country too, an Iran of fiery religious rhetoric, flag-burnings and murals calling for the destruction of the USA, but it was never personal.
Once I stumbled on a protest march in Yazd, in the country’s searing centre, with columns of soldiers punching the air and chanting Marg bar Amrika! (Death to America).
I remembered what I’d read about avoiding demonstrations but decided to sneak a couple of photos, making sure I had an escape route if things got ugly.
The soldiers spotted me, puffed out their chests and chanted even more angrily. It was deeply unnerving.
What if they thought I was American, and would it even matter? Aren’t all westerners the enemy?
As they drew nearer I realised the crowd had swollen behind me and I no longer had an easy escape. At that moment the soldiers dropped their fists and waved.
“Hello mister,” they called. “Welcome to Iran!”
Another surprising thing about Iranians, young city dwellers anyway, is how educated they are. They are well informed, frustrated by their isolation and eager for contact with the outside world.
So eager, in fact, it’s hard to go anywhere without someone wanting to practice English with you, engage you in conversation about global issues or just be your friend. I was invited to English classes, a football match, homes, tea houses and — during the fasting month of Ramadan — illicit cafes with blacked-out windows where the kebabs were still sizzling.
For a solitary person like me it was exhausting. I’d regularly have to retreat to a hotel room and lock the door just to be alone for a while.
Another thing that struck me was how little support the government has among the young. That’s important because Iran is a young country where most citizens weren’t even born when the Shah was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The mullah who befriended me in Qom told me the country’s leaders weren’t universally liked but they had the support of 80 per cent of the population. My conversations with young Iranians, however, convinced me he had his numbers the wrong way around. Of the people I met, at least 80 per cent were opposed to their religious rulers.
That said, Iranians are patriotic and fiercely proud of their nation’s millennia of history. They see themselves as inheritors of one of the world’s first great civilisations and it saddens them to be isolated and scorned today. And however much they dislike their government I’m certain Iranians would unite behind it if attacked.
That’s just one of the reasons I fervently hope US President Donald Trump and Iran’s almost equally bellicose Revolutionary Guard – an elite, hard-line branch of the military, answering to the Supreme Leader — will restrain themselves.
When I visited in 2005 the scars of the Iran-Iraq War, which killed at least half a million people, still felt fresh. I’d hate to see those people who were so kind to me have to suffer, again.
Even a limited bombing campaign would be disastrous in cultural as well as humanitarian terms. Iran’s nuclear research facility, surely one of the first targets, is in Esfahan, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen.
Esfahan’s main square is more than half a kilometre long and lined with 17th century buildings, fountains and mosques considered to be some of the great masterpieces of Persian architecture. Nearby a series of remarkable bridges over the Zayanderud River date back as far as the 3rd century.
The other reason I’m hoping for an end to this seemingly inexorable slide towards war with Iran is more selfish.
Along with a cousin’s four-day-long wedding in Rwanda and three weeks in Albania’s post-communist chaos in the 1990s, visiting Iran was one of best travel experiences of my life. I’d dearly love to go back.
So boys, put down those rockets. Please.