The name of the small, pretty town nestled at the foot of snowy mountains rang a bell, but my garden-scholar friends and I were in full and happy tourist mode. Past a shady traffic circle where a man was selling watermelons from the back of his pickup, we came to our goal, the oldest plane tree in Iran. The impressive, well-watered specimen stood in front of the imposing entryway to the remains of a mosque from 1317, a 40-foot-high gateway decorated with an intricate tile design of turquoise and cobalt. The familiar blue on blue, which we’d seen in mosques in Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd, and Isfahan, seemed a worship of water. Now we had come on the 12th day to Natanz, a green town blessed by melting snow.
Later that day, after tea and date cookies by the roadside, we passed Iran’s main nuclear facility just outside town, the primary target in plans for U.S. airstrikes—and the reason the name Natanz had rung a bell. Guard towers and barbed wire surrounded the place, though the work goes on 70 feet underground, and of course satellite pictures give much more detail than we could see from the road. Police cars patrolled the highway, and we were told not to take photos. The same snowmelt that waters the elderly plane tree is used there for cooling.
“You’re going there for pleasure?” friends had asked incredulously, when I’d said I was going to spend most of April in Iran. In the United States, particularly in circles of power, Iran is rarely mentioned without high emotion. Likewise in the public stance of Iranian rulers, America is the source of all things toxic and threatening. The Islamic Republic holds power by way of the revolutionary myth centered on confrontation with the United States. And many Americans still hold an image of angry young Muslims burning American flags in the streets.
I wanted to go there with consciously lowered emotions, simply to see what it felt like, so I signed up for a tour advertised in the British glossy magazine Gardens Illustrated, led by Penelope Hobhouse, author of Gardens of Persia. Why visit the gardens of Iran? The word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word for an enclosed garden, and the art of landscaping is one of Iran’s gifts to the world. You see what are essentially Persian gardens at the Alhambra in Spain, at the Taj Mahal, and in Beverly Hills.
The first surprise is that Iran is beautiful, though you have to be willing to see the charm in contrast. Much of the country looks like the high rocky desert of West Texas. On the bus from Kerman to Yazd, I kept thinking how familiar the scrubby sages and desert poppies would look to George W. Bush. Where there is water, the contrast is astounding—electric-green fields of alfalfa; bright blossoming orchards of pomegranate, almond, pistachio, apricot, and peach trees; hillsides covered with hundreds of fig trees leafing out, fruit just starting, the size of a baby’s fingernail.
The second surprise is that many people really like Americans. Locals would cross the street, smiling, and ask, “Are you American?” If I sat down outside a mosque or museum, young people would come up to talk about culture and life in the States. They all had satellite dishes. “Sure, they’re illegal,” they’d say, “but everyone on my street has one.” One young bearded man told me he particularly enjoyed The Simpsons but was baffled by Fox News. Students gave me their e-mail addresses—Yahoo and Hotmail—wondering if I would help with their English homework. “Can you tell me what American writers to read?” asked one youth.
Late one afternoon in Isfahan, I was approached by a college student named Elam, who said her professor wanted her to practice her English. She launched immediately into a complaint about her parents being overly protective and warning her about her excessively Western appearance. Elam had obvious, though artfully applied, eye makeup and a tailored black coat that showed her slim waist. She hoped, she said, to get away and to do graduate work in the United States: “If I keep my grades up, the U.S. school will pay my tuition, and then I can get a job teaching.” I told her that might be difficult.
“I’m only a freshman,” she said. “In four years everything will be different.”
This year, 58 percent of the freshman classes in Iranian universities are women, said our Iranian tour guide, Ali Sadrnia. Elam was one of the 70 percent of Iran’s 70 million population under the age of 30. In the 1980s the ruling religious leaders encouraged large families; now the mosques hand out condoms. This is a generation with no direct memory of the Shah, the U.S. hostages, or America as the Great Satan. They cruise the Internet with ease; when the advisory “Access Denied” pops up, they figure out a way to use a proxy. It’s a very hard time to be an authoritarian theocracy.
At the flower-bedecked tomb in Shiraz of the medieval poet Saadi, one of my fellow travelers, Michael from Norfolk, England, complained about a haranguing voice coming over loudspeakers. “It’s a garden; it’s supposed to be serene,” he said to Ali. The voice turned out to be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was not far away, making his first visit as president to Shiraz.
“Keep a low profile,” Ali joked, “or you will all get nice new gray suits.”
All I could take in from the speech was “Allah” repeated again and again, so I asked an English-speaking Iranian man I’d chatted with what the speech was about. “He’s telling us that we should live as good Muslims and be like the Prophet,” the man said, and added, to my surprise, “You know, the president shouldn’t be talking about the Prophet. He is political, and politics and religion are separate things.”
Though trying for pure tourist-hood, I had to notice that this April marked a moment in history as well as a pleasant season. Shortly before our 17-day trip started, President Ahmadinejad released the 15 British Royal Navy hostages who’d been plucked off their boat by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and returned wearing Ahmadinejad-like garb, thus Ali’s reference to the gray suits.
Around the middle of the tour, back in the United States, Sen. John McCain casually sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” But, just after my return to the United States, Condoleezza Rice exchanged greetings with Iran’s foreign minister, and then it was announced that our ambassador in Iraq would speak to the Iranian ambassador there, breaking a diplomatic freeze of 28 years.
In case things really thaw and Iran becomes as fashionable a tourist destination as Hanoi, let me advise that April is the time to go. Back in the 13th century, Saadi wrote of the month, “God has told the chamberlain of the wafting breeze to spread an emerald-green carpet and has ordered the nourisher of the spring clouds to bring to fruition the daughters of the plants in the cradle of the earth.”
The formal gardens, where you’ll find the daughters of the plants being coaxed by irrigation to come out of the cradle of the earth, have a central pool in the middle of four sections divided by channels of water. In a typical plan, each quarter would have a fruit tree under-planted with tulips in the spring, roses in summer.
In Iranian cities, as the sun goes down, families and groups of friends come out to parks and gardens carrying carpets. There are wooden platforms where you can unroll a rug and sit or recline in the shade, listening to the water and drinking tea. It’s the perfect occasion for a glass of wine. Shiraz, perhaps. But now the Shiraz grapes are used to make raisins. Despite the hip global vision of Iran’s youth, the laws of Islam still hold; alcohol is illegal, and we were very strongly advised not to try to hide a flask somewhere.
Also in keeping with Islamic mandates, men and women go into separate lines for security at the Tehran airport, where I got a fierce frisking from an unsmiling woman in full chador. A half hour before our flight to London, a middle-aged woman approached me in the departures area and asked, as so many had, “Are you American?” Her face, rather mild and kind, was easy to see because every strand of hair was pushed back under her black headscarf. (My hair was under a printed silk scarf—the Nancy Pelosi-in-Syria look.)
The woman asked if I’d mind watching her black leather satchel, a hand gesture indicating she was on her way to the ladies’ room. “Sure,” I said, and tucked what looked like an old-fashioned doctor’s bag next to my feet. Camilla, one of my companions on the tour and the mistress of one of the great gardens of Somerset raised an eyebrow and said coolly, “If she doesn’t come back, we’re moving.”
The woman did come back; it turned out she had lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. Iranians and Westerners have a habit of mistrust, reinforced by plenty of history. Is it foolish to trust? The woman had been through security, after all, and so had we.