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.

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.

But the guidebook sidesteps before every type of fanaticism, except when circumstances leave it no choice. Its write-up of Bushehr, for example, tiptoes gracefully around the subject of the city’s nuclear reactor. But Lonely Planet must work in a mention somehow, since Sassanian ruins are nearby, and curious tourists who point their cameras in the wrong direction are almost certain to face arrest as potential Israeli spies. The guidebook notes this awkwardly, and then moves on.

Moves on to what? What could be more intriguing than a forbidden nuclear site and bloodthirsty sexagenarians sworn to defend it? The answer is predictable: more Sassanian ruins. In lieu of teaching tourists about Iran’s endlessly fascinating politics, Lonely Planet devotes its thickest chunks of text to Iran’s endlessly fascinating ancient and pre-modern history. The retellings are a bit drab, but they are not ignorant. And they serve the main purpose, which is to fill a guidebook with literate prose about Iran’s past in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about Iran’s present.

The backpacker who arrives in Iran caring for nothing but the distant past will find an informed and nonjudgmental confidant in the Lonely Planet guide. It is only too willing to transport backpackers into an Achaemenid fantasy land, a Persian reverie in which thoughts of ripped-out fingernails and creepy Basij goons are painlessly banished. Perhaps the guide’s users truly dig Persian history; I cannot know. But I do know that in months of travel in Iran, I met not one Lonely Planet traveler who could tell me the difference between Persepolis and Ctesiphon, either before or after visiting the former of the two sites. That legions of tourists care not a whit about Persian history, and yet carry a guidebook replete with trivia about it, suggests that among some of them, the interest in premodern Persia is a grand evasion of modern Iran.

The irony is that the most lavish modern patron of ancient Persian kingship was the Shah–one of the few historical players who get no kind words in Lonely Planet’s potted history. And yet in the guidebook’s pages, his obsessions are duplicated, and so are his fatal inattentions. In the late 1970s, the Shah invoked the permanence of the peacock throne to fool the United States into thinking popular discontent at his dictatorship was the passing obsession of a few religious loons. Now, invocation of the same past is taking the place of honest discussion of another regime’s excesses–and another populace’s revolutionary fervor.

Edward Said’s school of cultural criticism scolded Orientalists for treating foreign lands as permanently stunted, stagnant troves of exotica, pleasure-museums for historians eager to subdue the East by studying it. For these travelers and scholars, a swath of Earth was frozen in the age of Xenophon; they adduced Frazerian ancient customs more seriously than I, as if the Persian character had not changed in a thousand years–or, indeed, as if it ever really existed in the first place. The misguided belief that nothing novel could spring from the deserts of Persia left us shocked by the novel evils that suddenly did arise in 1979.

It is a mildly cheering thought that the same errors are being made again, and that the next ingenuity to bloom out of the Iranian desert could be still be a robust democratic revolt against the mullahs, rather than, say, an Iranian mushroom cloud.


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