(Host) For many Americans, the Islamic Republic of Iran conjures images of a hard-line theocracy at bitter odds with our own government. Because of the tense relations between our two countries, relatively few Americans have visited Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
But VPR’s Steve Zind is descended from the eighteenth century dynasty that ruled Iran, so he went in search of his family history. In the process he discovered another side of Iran. All this week, Steve Zind shares the experience in his series: “Iran Journal.” Today: arrival and first impressions.
(Zind) It’s 2 a.m. and I’m standing in Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. The high ceiling and tiled floors and walls of the cavernous old terminal reverberate with the voices of the passengers on my crowded flight from Frankfurt. They disappear somewhere up ahead while I’m trying to answer the questions of a sullen Iranian customs official. His English, like my Farsi, is limited to a handful of words. He tires of my attempts to answer his questions, and waves me on.
Large photos of Iran’s Supreme Leaders, Ayotollah Khomeini and his successor Seyyed Ali Khamenei, hang on the walls. Their eyes seem to follow me as I walk through the cavernous old terminal.
I rouse the sleeping man behind the exchange counter and trade a one-hundred dollar bill for a thick stack of worn Iranian ten-thousand rial notes. I drag my luggage into the bathroom. There is only a squat toilet – a porcelain encircled hole in the floor.
Everything is so profoundly foreign. The thought crosses my mind that I may have made a terrible mistake coming here.
A minute later, I step out of the terminal and suddenly I’m surrounded. Here, at this ungodly hour, are hundreds of Iranians waiting to welcome loved ones. There are tears and flowers, hugs and laughter. A policeman is trying to clear a path for passengers. I hear a voice calling, “Mr. Zand, Mr. Zand.” It’s my brother, Rick, who flew in a day earlier. It takes a moment for the name to register. My brother is using my family’s original, Persian name – Zand. My father had changed the spelling to Zind.
(Rick Zind) “Hey, how’s it going? How was the trip?” (Greetings continue.)
(Zind) My grandfather, Mohammad Ali Zand, was Iranian. Because he was born in 1845, I know him only through a handful of stories my father told me. Our Persian forebears had once been powerful people. Telling me how one princely ancestor died at the hands of his enemies, my father would widen his eyes and draw a finger across his throat.
In fact the Zands have a place in Iranian history. Led by a man named Karim Khan Zand, they ruled Persia in the 1700s. Now that we’re here in this newer Iran – the Islamic Republic of Iran – I’m anxious to see what I can discover about my ancestors. After more than a year of planning, my odyssey to find the answer has begun. We’ll spend our first few days visiting our cousin here in Iran’s capitol.
The faces of young men who died in Iran’s war with Iraq gaze from billboards along the streets. There are giant murals of the Supreme Leaders. Walls are painted with religious slogans and passages from the Koran. The call to prayer drifts from the mosques.
On one tall building there is a mural of a huge American flag. Each stripe ends in a bomb. A hollow-eyed Statue of Liberty with a skeleton face stares from the wall of the former U.S. Embassy. I’m warned away by an armed soldier when I get out of the car to take a picture. In my hotel room, I watch the daily news in English on state-run television. Images from the war in Iraq play across the screen.
(TV Announcer) “…The Supreme Leader stressed that the United States backed by the Zionist capitalists have targeted the entire world of Islam and the vast natural resources of the region…”
(Zind) The governments of the United States and Iran have long been engaged in verbal combat. But I find a different attitude in the people I meet – one free of politics. In stores and restaurants Iranians are quick to ask where we are from and the response is always positive.
(Zind) “Salaam. Half kilo?”
(Storekeeper) “Half kilo?”
(Zind) “Bali.” (Yes.)
(Storekeeper) “What is your nationality?”
(Storekeeper) “American? Okay! Good!”
(Zind) Time after time we are greeted with a warm smile, a hand placed over the heart in a gesture of sincerity and the words, “Welcome to Iran.” I feel as if a door has been opened and a culture that seemed so forbidding from a distance is inviting me in to learn about the people and the country of my grandfather.
(Host) Tuesday in his “Iran Journal,” VPR’s Steve Zind explores Tehran and the way modern realities blend with ancient customs.