The year is 1993. I’m 19 years old and have just returned to Australia after taking a gap year in Israel. I’m supposed to start university in a fortnight but the only thing on my mind is more travel. I want to go everywhere and have developed a particular interest in Iran, but my father is not impressed.
“Why do you want to go to Iran?” he says. “They’re a bunch of crazy Muslims. They’ll hang you if they find out you’re Jewish.”
“They don’t hang Jews in Iran,” I tell him. “Not anymore. And you shouldn’t believe everything you hear on CNN. How can an entire country be crazy? It’s just crap the media make up to sell newspapers.”
Ironically, I would go on to become a member of the media and work for CNN in batshit crazy places like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. But I never did make it to Iran until last year when I received an out-of-the-blue email from the marketing manager of AirAsia saying the airline was adding Tehran to its schedule – with an invite to accompany the CEO on the inaugural flight. “Fuck, yes!” I replied, deleting the expletive before hitting send, only to cop an earful from the ball-and-chain when I told her the news. “Why do you want to go to Iran? They’re a bunch of crazy...”
WOGS AND CASH
It looks me dead in the eyes the moment I walk out of the subway station in downtown Tehran: a mural of the Statue of Liberty backdropped by red and white. But in place of the warm and welcoming face of Lady Liberty is the menacing face of the Angel of the Death. More demented murals appear as I stroll past the outer wall of the former US Embassy: a red and blue mushroom cloud, an American flag in the shape of a revolver and a massive block text reading: “DOWN WITH USA”.
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
As I pause to snap a few photos, a woman in a headscarf and long loose dress – the minimum mandatory dress code for women in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution that culminated with Iranian students storming the US embassy and holding its diplomats hostage for 444 days – gives me a solid dressing down. “Why do tourists always photograph this?” she demands. “It isn’t us. This happened nearly 40 years. It’s not who we are anymore.”
I mumble an apology and shuffle off. She has a point. Following the inking of a landmark deal between Iran and the UN Security Council in 2015, Iran signalled it was ready to play nice with the West and curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions. Yet, on the other hand, there’s no way those murals would look the way they do after 38 years of rain, hail and shine without regular touch-ups. Someone out there with a bunch of spray cans and a government paycheque still reckons the murals are an accurate depiction of the political zeitgeist.
I spend the rest of the morning exploring the city and the labyrinthine alleyways of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar: a city in itself with mosques, restaurants, teahouses, bathhouses, banks, schools, gardens and stallholders selling just about every consumer item imaginable. But when hunger pains start biting at around midday, I learn every restaurant, cafe and takeaway shop in town is shut because of Ramadan – the holy month when observant Muslims don’t allow food or drink to touch lips between sunup and sundown. I solve the problem by buying a bag of sultanas and a bottle of water from a food cart and sneak down an alleyway to wolf it down. But I’m not the only one with the same idea. There’s an old man with a sandwich wrapped in a brown paper bag as if it were a gun doing exactly the same thing. He throws me a suspicious glance as I approach before retreating deeper into the alleyway to finish his lunch.
The next problem the Islamic Republic throws at me is not so easily – or cheaply – solved. I can’t get any cash. ATMs won’t accept my credit card because Iranian banks are still locked out of the global financial system due to the US-led sanctions imposed to deter Iran’s bankrolling of terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. With only a few bucks left in my wallet, I’m left with two bad choices: leave Iran the very day I arrived or break the law and venture into the black market. I opt for the latter, though it gives me a bitter taste of the undue hardships and supersonic expense everyday Iranians face whenever they need to transfer funds abroad or travel overseas. I end up paying a whopping 18 percent fee to some dude around the back of a currency exchange house who uses a handheld Paypal device to transfer $1,000 from my MasterCard to a mate’s bank account in Dubai before giving me the balance. Night has fallen by the time I get my hands on enough Iranian rials to buy a square meal – a flame-grilled lamb kebab dusted with Arabic spices and served with piping hot flatbread, roasted tomatoes, raw onion and yoghurt.
With my stomach full, I return to the subway and squeeze into a train carriage full to the brim with hairy, smelly, sweaty, politically and sexually repressed men who probably want nothing more than to sit in a titty bar and sink a few beers, both of which are highly illegal in Iran. Yet the carriage behind is reserved for women and practically empty – possibly the only advantage of being a member of the fairer sex in this city of no-sin.
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
REGULAR JEWS ARE O.K.
From Tehran, I catch a bus 125km south to the holy city of Qom.
Qom is famous for two things. In 1963, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of Iran as an Islamic state, kickstarted his rebellion by issuing a manifesto against the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy’s plan to liberalise Iran from his home in Qom.
Qom is also home to the Shrine of Fatimah, an extraordinary chamber of mirrors capped with a golden onion-shaped dome that rises like a phoenix from the desert. It holds the coffin of Fatimah Masumeh, a 9th-century saint who was poisoned in Qom that is now one of Iran’s most important pilgrimage sites.
Access to the shrine is highly restricted. Infidels must apply in writing at least two weeks in advance, be accompanied by an accredited guide and are banned during Ramadan. But I never got the memo and simply walk right in like I own the joint. Surprisingly, no one bats an eyelid as I spend hour upon hour photographing the shrine’s vast courtyards, soaring minarets, intricately detailed prayer niches and stunning mosaics.
At one stage I find myself in a prayer hall the size of a football stadium where thousands of disciples sit in rows reading the Koran and chanting prayers. I’m looking over the shoulder of a man sitting on the floor with his two young sons when he glances around and invites me to sit with them. We are instant friends. One of his kids plonks himself on my lap, and I start chanting along – a Jew with strong ties to Israel, praying to Allah inside the Ayatollah’s hometown mosque.
Everyone’s singing along having a gay old time when I cop a tap on the shoulder from a serious looking dude with a long flowing beard and white skull cup. Wagging his finger, he motions for me stand up. I do as he commands, half expecting him to slap on a pair of cuffs. But he simply links an arm around one of mine, walks me to the front gate and sends me on my way with a friendly pat on the back. When I get back to my hotel room, I use Facebook Messenger to call my best friend in Israel. “Tammy,” I say. “You would not believe where the fuck I am!”
From Qom, I buy a seat in a share taxi to the oasis city of Karam. The landscape is mind-blowing – vast stretches of desert and towering razorback ridges that follow each other like the teeth of a dragon. After an hour on the road, we pass Fordow, an underground uranium enrichment facility surrounded by a razor wire fence and “no-photo” signs. I snap a picture all the same, but it comes out as a blur because the mad bastard behind the wheel is doing 150km/h while texting on his phone and paying no heed whatsoever to the burned-out shells of overturned cars and trucks on the side of the road. According to World Health Organization, Iran has the highest numbers of fatal road accidents in the world – 20 times higher than the global average.
Kasham is hot as hell but has these supercool self-ventilating mud-brick homes with sand-coloured domes that look exactly like the moisture farms on Tatooine where Luke Skywalker grew up. I check out an archaeological site where pottery dating back more than 7,000 years was recently found, and I’m made subject to a Q&A by two clerics, both named Ahmed, at the Ustad Haj Sa’ban-Ali Mosque. “Where are you from? What do you think of Iran? Did you see Iran play Australia at the World Cup?” And then the clincher: “What is your religion?”
Until now, I’ve told every single Iranian who asked me the same question that I’m a “free thinker”. But something about Ahmed and Ahmed makes me think they can handle the truth.
Their reply blows me away. Ahmed One says Jews have a special place in Iran and they’re honoured by my visit. Ahmed Two tells me with no small measure of pride Iran is the only Muslim country on Earth where Jews can live and worship freely, and they even have a Jewish member of parliament in Iran. Both Ahmeds say they don’t like Israel because of their understanding of the conflict with the Palestinians but insist regular Jews are O.K. “You must come to my house tonight to break the fast,” says Ahmad One. Ahmad Two slaps him on the back of the head. “He’s Jewish – he doesn’t fast for Ramadan, you fool! And he already said he’s eating at my house tonight. He can eat at yours tomorrow night.”
From Kashar, a six-hour bus ride takes me to Isfahan, the former capital of Persia. At its height, Isfahan was bigger than London, more cosmopolitan than Paris and grander than Istanbul. “Isfahan is half the world,” reads the 16th-century proverb of the city’s resplendent palaces, colossal quadrangles, botanical gardens, ornamental bridges and blue mosques. Isfahan is also home to one of the world’s oldest accommodation properties – the 300-year-old Abbasi Hotel – a luxury resort that blends the grace and grandeur of Isfahan’s golden age with air conditioning and cable TV.
The Abbasi is a little out of my budget. Instead, I check-in to the Amir Kabir Hostel – or I try to check in. But when I reach for my passport – SHIT. It’s gone.
I haven’t lost it, however. I know where it is. Tourists in Iran must not only show their passport when they check into hotels but hand them over for the length of their stay. As there was no one at the reception of my hotel in Kashar when I checked-out early that morning, I simply walked out and forgot all about my passport. And now I’ve got to waste two days travelling all the way back to Kashar to get it.
Or I would have if Isfahan’s Wonder Woman hadn’t come to my aid. Her name is Zahra, a pretty young thing with porcelain white skin and big brown eyes who works at a currency exchange booth in the hostel lobby. She’s overheard my conversation with the receptionist and offers to help. I gladly accept. I want to spend two more days on Iran’s dog-dead-dangerous roads like Pauline Hanson wants a Halal butcher to open in her cul-de-sac.
Zahra calls my hotel in Kashar and confirms they have my passport. Next, she calls a cousin in Kashar and asks him to collect my passport, take it to the bus station and hand it over to the ticket booth. Zahra then calls the ticket booth and asks a lady working there to put my passport in an envelope, write her name cell-phone number on the front and put it on the next bus bound for Isfahan. When that bus arrives at Isfahan later that evening, the driver calls Zahra to let her know the envelope has arrived. Zahra then drives me to the bus station in Isfahan to collect my passport. I pay the driver for the fare along with a nice tip but he refuses to accept it, saying my gratitude is enough.
With my passport back in my hands, Zahra takes me to dinner at a kebab joint and then to a teahouse to smoke a few water pipes. When the bill arrives, I try to pay but Zahra won’t have a bar of it. “You are a guest in Iran,” she explains. “You would insult me by paying.”
The following day, Zahra takes me to see some of Isfahan’s old synagogues. We have no trouble finding the central synagogue in Palestine Square where many members of Isfahan’s 1,500-member strong Jewish community pray every day. But finding the really old synagogues in Isfahan’s Jewish Quarter – in particular, a 300-year-old temple called Mushi Haja – proves more challenging. After driving around the same block three or four times, Zahra asks a taxi driver if he knows where it is. He says he does, starts his engine and tells us to follow him. But after 15 minutes of driving around in circles, he admits defeat, pulls over and asks a couple of cops if they know where it is. They say they do, the driver starts his engine and tells the taxi driver to follow. We are now a convoy of three cars, four Muslims and a Jew on the hunt for a 300-year-old synagogue in Iran. When we finally find Mushi Haja there’s nothing much to see: a small whitewashed semi-attached building with the Jewish insignia – the Star of David – carved onto the front door. According to a cleric who emerges from an Ayatollah seminary school next door, no one’s been inside the synagogue for years. But like everyone else in Iran he’s “honoured” by my visit and invites the lot of us in for tea and cake. Once again, I’m blown away by the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the Iranian people. And from speaking to other tourists in Iran, I know my experience isn’t unique. “My Iranian friends at home told me they would be welcoming,” says Nael, a backpacker from Paris. “But I never thought they’d be so welcoming. They give constantly without ever asking anything in return.”
From Isfahan, I travel west to the Zagros Mountains near the Iraqi border to see the only glaciers found in the subtropics outside of the Himalayas, and spend three days living with Bakhtiari nomads in the tent camp of Chama Qar Yakhi. From there I head south-east to the desert city of Yazd, a key trading route for caravans travelling between Central Asia and India that Marco Polo visited in the thirteenth century. After two days in Yazd, I head south-west to Persepolis, Iran’s most important archaeological site, a sprawling complex of sandstone staircases, giant stone bulls with eagle wings, Roman columns and towering rampart walls. Everywhere I go, I get the red-carpet treatment, and when the locals learn I’m Jewish, that red carpet turns into gold.
My final stop is Shiraz, a city famous for its poets, literature, flowers, gardens and wine. The rich, earthy red grape varietal called Shiraz originated in this city as did Sherry.
On my second day in Shiraz, I head out to see Arg-e-Karim Khani, a medieval citadel in the heart of the city. But I never reach the citadel because it happens to be Al-Quds or Jerusalem Day – an annual protest event held all over Iran on the last Friday of Ramadan in support of the Palestinian’s claim to the Israeli capital city. More than 100,000 protestors have turned up this year, and in moments I find myself swept along in a crowd of bearded men, women in burqas, teenagers and kids.
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
“DOWN WITH ISRAEL! DOWN WITH AMERICA!” they chant in both Farsi and English.
Despite the fiery rhetoric, I don’t feel intimidated or in the slightest bit unwelcome as the only white guy in the crowd. Several protestors ask to take selfies with me, posing with beaming smiles at what appears to be a legitimate political protest.
Then I turn the corner and scream a silent scream as I’m confronted by the one thing Jews fear more than anything else: inverted swastikas – the symbol of the Third Reich.
To my right is a massive billboard featuring a cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a big fat Jewish nose wearing the uniform of an SS Stormtrooper. On the left side of the road is a billboard of a cartoon rabbi, also with a big Jewish nose, peering into a mirror where he sees a reflection of Adolf Hitler. Another rabbi on another billboard uses a spoon to stir a cauldron while reading from a “Holocaust” cookbook.
A massive dose of adrenaline courses through my veins. I can feel my heartbeat in my hands. Breathing becomes a labour. My muscles tremble. A couple of protestors try talking to me; I can see their lips moving but can no longer hear what anyone is saying over the death chants that my mind is now interpreting as ‘SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL!’ With flight-mode now activated, I elbow my way through to the relative safety of its edge. There, I see a big top tent where hundreds of children watch a play featuring a witch with a yellow Star of David on its chest chasing a bumblebee around the stage in circles. The children shriek with fright. I nearly faint.
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Later that evening, as I sit in a train heading back to Tehran, I strike up a conversation with an Iranian journalist called Soroush. He compares Al-Quds Day to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian novel in which a manipulative totalitarian regime promotes a constant state of war to justify its grip on power and distract the people from the real issues. “The Iranian Government needs an enemy so it has an excuse for using so much of the country’s resources for the army and its own enrichment,” Soroush explains. “They use Israel as an excuse to rob us.
“Most of the people you would have seen at that protest,” he continues, “are poor villagers the government busses into the city. It’s also mandatory for government employees and school students to attend. There would have been some people from Shiraz there, maybe five or 10 percent of the population, but they are a minority and not in tune with mainstream beliefs. All most of us want is a better economy and jobs.”
After speaking with Soroush, I feel less disgusted and more disappointed by the spectacle in Shiraz given the incredible hospitality and regard I received from Zahra, the Ahmeds, Soroush and so many other people who befriended me in Iran and didn’t make it into this story. Yet it’s beyond my comprehension how any Jew can live in a country where Nazi rallies are kosher, even if it’s only one day per year.