Smart Set

Greetings from Abkhazia

The Smart Set

The forlorn seaside resort where Soviet rulers once frolicked.

The Republic of Abkhazia is one of the few countries, if you can call it that, where every tourist who shows up gets a handshake and a friendly chat with the deputy foreign minister. Or rather, it would be such a country, if it were a country at all. A wee seaside strip in the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia hasn’t yet persuaded anyone to recognize its independence, even though it boasts many of the trappings of nationhood — a president, a parliament, and an army that guards the border in case the government in Tbilisi wants to invade again.


Still Standing in Iraq

02138, May/June 2007

On the day I crossed the Iran-Iraq border in February 2004, you could get through immigration twice as fast if you were a Shiite zealot. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were surging into Iraq to observe the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala. Saddam had barred them from Ashura for more than 25 years, but now the dictator was on the lam, and Iranian triumphalists flooded in to inaugurate a new  period of Shiite dominance. On the Iranian side, I glommed onto a pilgrimage group and told the immigration officer I was Karbala-bound. He let me through without a hitch.

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.