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June 19, 2008

After Iran: A Chat with Rick Steves

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Rick Steves in Iran

Just a week after Rick Steves' return from a ten-day shoot in Iran, the Daily Traveler's Julia Bainbridge chatted with the travel guidebook writer and television host about what he calls "the most poorly understood yet fascinating land" he's ever visited. His upcoming hour-long public television special will air in January 2009.

CNT: So, why Iran?

Rick Steves: The whole mission of a travel writer is to help his countrymen better understand the world. Our understanding of Iran is miserable; [it's] stuck in 1978. We can learn a lot by going there.

When I teach about Iran, I'm not saying we're right and they're wrong or we're wrong and they're right or anything like that. We have to deal with Iran; it's a powerful, rich culture that's been a leader in its corner of the world for years. We have to learn more about it. I went in there with all sorts of misperceptions and had a fascinating ten days.

CNT: You mentioned earlier that you found the country full of paradoxes. Can you describe some of the more striking ones?

RS: You go to church and they're praising God, and then you walk outside to find a big poster that says "Death to Israel"--that sort of contradiction, that angry defensiveness. "Death to Israel" is a defense mechanism. In 1978, they had a revolution of values, driven by the silent countryside equivalent of our Midwest people who wanted prayer in school--didn't want Britney Spears or drugs or sex, but wanted people with faith. We find it scary and horrible; it's not our value . . . well, it is our value, but on Muslim terms. They willingly trade away democracy for theocracy. They don't have freedom, but they have a government that dictates a certain modesty and morality they like. They've got legislative morality.

You would expect people to be super religious, but I felt a thin spirituality in the country. It was hard to even see people praying. There are posters everywhere, and the government is run by clerics, but, oddly, I didn't feel it. But the people are Muslim--as Muslim as the Irish and Italians are Catholic.

In Turkey, I found a thriving spirituality. There, there's a secular government, a very clear distinction between church and government. There's certainly a spiritual boom going on in that country; you cannot walk down the sidewalks because mosques are overflowing with people praying. And it came up in a natural, grassroots kind of way. But in Iran, the most powerful person is a spiritual leader. There's a lesson there.

Another paradox: Women are covered up, but they are very sexy. They can't show the shape of the body, can't have a neckline in the shirt, but they really know how to flaunt what they can flaunt. [For a tourist/viewer], it's some of the most enjoyable strolling in the world. All this action is going on within their parameter--eye contact, how they doll up their faces. Just like here, it's fun to look at the "bad girls"--how they dress, how they act--at the mall, where they go to get away from their parents. It's the same thing in Iran.

CNT: I have to ask: How was the food?

RS: Persian food didn't do a lot for me. It was great when in people's homes, but I found the restaurants pretty utilitarian.

It's a poor country; the economy's not looking so great--no taxes, free college, subsidized this and that. I didn't feel a lot of energy or driving force; they have endless oil wells [to rely on]. It's like the country's metabolism is on Valium. They want tourism, but they're very proud.

And they act very proud because they've been taken advantage of by Western cultures. When I went to the museum, for example, expecting a great collection of antiquities, I found it [unimpressive]. "Where is everything?" I asked a museum worker. "Hmm . . . mostly in Western countries," he replied. Americans don't get this. But [Iranians] have an understandable chip on their shoulder.

CNT: Can you tell me about how the guide system works? Why, exactly, are Americans required to travel with guides and how did this affect your experience?

RS: Americans are required to have guides unless they're visiting relatives. The [Iranian government] likes to keep track; the Soviet Union used to do that. I met a lot of Europeans, and everyone had a guide. They were thankful that their guides were lax, stopping for tea and making plans to go off alone and meet up in an hour or whatever. It's not heavy-handed. I went anywhere alone I wanted. [The guide] baby-sat our cameraman, really.  In the U.S., we wouldn't even let an Iranian crew in our country. I had no agenda; I just wanted to go see the tombs of the great poets and mosques and check it out. I wouldn't have been able to do our work without my guide. It's a cash society--a difficult country--and there's not a lot of tourist infrastructure. You don't find the kind of information you'd expect.

CNT: Did you find people receptive to you? How did you interact with Iranians, and what did you talk about?

RS: I'd go to a teahouse and talk about how to suck on one of those hubbly-bubbly things. Or talk to girls about how to meet boys. I went to the university expecting to find free spirits, but all the professors are proponents of the system; all so compliant. No one was edgy at all. That's on the surface, though. Behind the scenes, there's a lot going on. Local people are smart enough to [cover up for the camera, though]. If a teahouse is serving a woman without a scarf, which some of them do, you're gonna be out of business in a hurry. So they straightened up for the cameras.

CNT: What are their feelings toward American travelers?

RS: Every time--and this happened 60 to 80 times--there was shock, then warmth, and then welcome. I was a little surprised by that. I thought they would be victimized by propaganda as much as us, and think I was bad. But they were happy I was checking out the country. When they found out I was a journalist, they thought I would take photos of them and splice them together in some [unflattering] way. They have a lot of experience with that. But then I showed them I was a travel writer.

CNT: In a time of tension between Iran and the U.S., how do you think travel will bridge the gap between the two countries?

RS: Travel is all about exploring countries different from our own. . . . I'm a big fan of people-to-people connections.

For more on Rick's trip, check out his Iran slideshow and blog.

Further reading:
* The Middle East: Traveling Outside the Comfort Zone (CNT)
* Gods, Kings, Mystics, and Mullahs (CNT)

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