Iran Up Close

Owen Freeman

A firsthand perspective on traveling the complicated country during nuclear-deal negotiations. 

I don’t know who came first, the shah, the ayatollah, or Stuart Cary Welch, a towering scholar in the fields of Islamic and Indian art, but between 1977 and 1979, all three made a deep impression on me as a college girl. So did Shahnameh, or “The Book of Kings,” the voluminous poem by Iranian poet Ferdowsi that narrates the story of Iran from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest of the country in the seventh century. Individually or collectively they ignited my decades-long obsession with Iran. 

Last year I set out to go. I soon learned that a person inclined to visit Iran needs most to know about how to get there. After all, it’s not a place anyone looking for a simple holiday would even consider. In the lead-up to my trip, all anyone asked was, “How do you plan to get a visa?” Since I’ve returned, all anyone has asked is, “How did you get a visa?” Well, here’s a glimpse into how I got there and a little of what it’s like on the ground for a DEPARTURES reader. 

Securing a visa as an American is an uncertain and opaque process that often takes two to three months and results in unexplained failure or last-minute success, making long-contemplated trip organization chaotic and expensive. In April 2015 I contacted Jerry Dekker, stating my desire to visit in mid-June as a tourist traveling alone. From friends I had heard that the San Francisco–based Dekker, a professor who lived in Iran for 13 years and in 2008 launched Iran Traveler, is the go-to person for intelligent travel to the country. 

Going as a tourist seems straightforward, except in my case it was not. I possess a U.S. passport with journalist visas for entry into Pakistan, required for work on an ongoing documentary film project. And I have already directed another documentary, on Russian politics, as well as having contributed to DEPARTURES. Plus, Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American journalist, was sitting in Evin Prison, in Tehran (he’s now back in the U.S., having been released as part of a prisoner exchange accompanying the sealing of the nuclear accord mid-January). Essentially, the Iranian government alleged his stated purpose for being in Iran was a cover for illegal activities. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me. Dekker shared my confusing but easily accessible and transparent Web profile with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Tehran, which is responsible for vetting Americans seeking visas (to determine if one will be granted the right to apply). I was approved, but on the condition that I secure a U.S. passport free of journalist visas, which I did.

On June 14, I flew to Tehran and was welcomed by Malihe, my guide, and Arash, my driver. From then on, I’d never travel alone: One or both would be with me, except while I was sleeping or in my hotel. (An Iranian guide is required for all visiting Americans.) Even more, Malihe knew me inside out, from I Pezzi Dipinti, my knitwear business, and my film projects, to my work for DEPARTURES and my interest in architectural conservation and my being a vegetarian. But she also knew about everything I saw, asked about, and didn’t know to ask about.

My nine-day stay was jam-packed; the illuminated Shahnameh became reality. The blue-green-tiled mosques, ancient gardens, and bustling bazaars were kaleidoscopic and dizzyingly refined. I started and ended my stay in Tehran (sights included Golestan Palace and Milad Tower) and went as far south as Shiraz, where I saw the Hafez and Saadi tombs and Eram Garden. We stopped in Yazd (for sunken alcoves of the Amir Chakhmaq complex), Persepolis (for ruins and temples), Isfahan (for two days of superb architecture), and Kashan (for more architecture, more gardens) on the way back up. Ramadan began more or less as I arrived, limiting my contact with the food. I never made it to the contemporary-art galleries of Tehran—a trip ideally to be made as relations between Iran and the U.S. become (I hope) more fluid and restrictions on American travelers’ movements ease up or vanish, making wandering and interacting in cosmopolitan Tehran as easy as it is in Paris or London. Because Iran is everything I dreamt it to be. 

I was commissioned to write my account on December 16, 2015, six months after I left Iran. I went not as a journalist but am happy to have become one to encourage all to try to visit. 

See our complete special report, Traveling in Troubled Times »