Weekly Standard

Persian Reverie

The Weekly Standard

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.


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