The Magazine

Persian Reverie

Seeing Iran while wearing blinders.

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By GRAEME WOOD
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The Lonely Planet Guide to Iran

by Andrew Burke, Mark Elliot, and Kamin Mohammadi

Lonely Planet, 408 pp., $24.99

IN TABOOS on Intercourse with Strangers (1922) J.G. Frazer informs us that Persians and Afghans once greeted foreigners with fire. The fire preemptively burnt away the magic that strangers might bring into Persian territory and use to bewitch the locals.

"Sometimes," Frazer continues, "a tray of lighted embers is thrown under the hoofs of the traveler's horse, with the words, 'You are welcome.'"

This schizophrenic salutation--half sincere greeting, half pelting with burning coals--is something any tourist guidebook to Iran, past or present, must struggle to explain. Few modern countries present a more perplexing mix of smothering hospitality and smothering suspicion. Toward guests, Iranians show chivalry so grandiose that Westerners mistake it for mockery. And yet that generosity coexists with constant and malevolent official scrutiny: In Tehran, one traveler told me, a telephone operator interrupted his call home to Paris and politely asked for him to wait while the government switched eavesdroppers.

Lonely Planet publishes a guidebook for travelers who thrive on these contradictions, or at least do not mind them. The Lonely Planet Guide to Iran has insinuated itself into the backpack of nearly every young French or German holidaymaker in Iran, and the books are now as ubiquitous as Baedeker's among the traveling classes a century ago. To Americans (whom Tehran bars from independent tourism, and whose collective imagination sees Iran as full of howling religious crazies and plutonium fetishists), the European impulse to make a pleasure tour to the Islamic Republic begs for an explanation. Lonely Planet's guidebook provides one.

The Melbourne-based publisher researched its fourth edition in late 2003 and early 2004, and the finished product bears the marks of the anticlerical sentiment that was, by then, general among Iranians. The guide acknowledges Iranians' eagerness for change, their government's brutal efforts to suppress it, and Mohammad Khatami's craven betrayal in not implementing his promised reforms. The authors shroud the word "pious" with well-earned scare quotes when it refers to the dubious pieties of sharia, as interpreted by the mullahs. For a book whose sales would plummet to zero if banned in Iran, these whiffs of defiance deserve appreciation.

Less forgivable is the guide's unwillingness to educate its readers minimally about Iran's dissidents and its most execrable political crimes. It neglects to mention Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the esteemed mullah who called for Tehran's turbaned tyrants to explain themselves to the Iranian people and to God. The guide leaves out Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian journalist raped and murdered by regime thugs; the few European travelers who know her name have learnt it only because reproachful Canadian travelers sometimes bring the subject up. These are sins of omission, but they are not minor omissions, and there is something rotten about any guidebook to Iran that is guilty of them.

From one standpoint, the silence on these matters is venial, since the book is meant to guide vacationers, not take political sides. But it is difficult to imagine how any book about Iran, whatever its purpose, could present a morally scrupulous portrait of the country without reference to the clerical wickedness that poisons every aspect of Iranian life. And it is troubling to hear tourists of the European persuasion excuse their own political ignorance by self-identifying as "just a tourist." How many visitors to the Soviet Union were ignorant of the name Andrei Sakharov? How many who made holidays to apartheid South Africa had never heard of Nelson Mandela or Steven Biko? Traveling at its best helps one lose illusions, and in this case, a guidebook is helping travelers sustain one.

What makes Lonely Planet's embarrassment at frank political discussion all the more stunning is that few countries have recent politics as thrilling or as high-stakes as Iran's. Iran is, after all, a mullahocracy with living memory of mass millenarianism; it bursts with frustrated democratic zeal; it kills and tortures internationally and has all but clinched second place (after Pakistan) in the Islamic nuclear derby. Many Iranians still harbor a Khomeinist death wish held over from the 1980s. The 65-year-old hotelier in Shiraz who put me up for a week in 2004 told me he sincerely wished the Americans would invade, so he could don again his battle dress, rush tanks, and eventually find the martyrdom that had eluded him so cruelly during the Iran-Iraq war.