David Lynch Reporting from Iran

In Fall 2008, David Lynch reported from Iran for six days for USA TODAY.

Getting into the country is not half the fun

Day 1: For a first-time visitor, there’s nothing quite like arriving in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few minutes before our plane touched down at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport this weekend, all the women aboard started digging in their bags for head scarves and long-sleeved jackets called manteaus to comply with the country’s strict Islamic code. Dozens of Iranians who had been happily drinking alcohol and displaying skin-baring tops now covered up faster than you can say “the Great Satan.”

Once on the ground, I waited for several minutes in a long line before an immigration officer glanced at my U.S. passport and curtly pointed me to a different queue. There’s no sign that tells arriving Americans where to go (tip for future travelers: it’s the line on the far right), but it seemed pointless to complain.

The officer in the second booth took my passport and disappeared into a side room. Several minutes passed and soon I was the only one of the several hundred passengers from our plane still waiting in the dilapidated terminal. A parade of uniforms periodically offered reassuring gestures or grunts before going on their way. Meanwhile, I continued to sit.

I’ve been in plenty of Third World countries, so travel headaches are nothing new. But after about 45 minutes, worried that the driver I’d arranged to meet me would give up and leave, I was struggling not to lose patience. By now, it had been 21 hours since I’d arisen at 4:20 am to catch my first flight at Dulles airport and I was beat.

My thoughts were interrupted by yet another officer. “Mister, mister,” he said, indicating I should follow him to a chest-high wooden shelf behind his desk. And it was there that I was slowly, clumsily and quite sloppily fingerprinted. At one point he yanked my thumb so awkwardly I grumbled: “if you bend it any farther than that it breaks.” He didn’t understand English but I think he caught my drift.

I’d been warned by a colleague to expect this treatment, which is how Iran retaliates for the United States fingerprinting Iranian visitors. But understanding why this pointlessness was occurring didn’t make it any more enjoyable.

Suddenly, another officer nudged me with an elbow. Pointing to the man doing the fingerprinting, whose back was to us, the second officer pantomimed smearing my ink-covered hand across the his back. The young Iranian officer’s smile was so genuine, and his giggle so infectious, that it was impossible to remain irritated. And just like that, I was glad to be in Iran.

And you think your traffic is bad….

Day 2: My driver Kamran bites his nails. All the time. There’s one in particular, the thumbnail on his right hand, that he beavers away at like a piece of raw meat. Which oddly enough is what it’s starting to look like.

I suspect Tehran’s traffic is to blame. At almost all hours of the day and night, Kamran and a couple million other poor souls fight a losing battle with the city’s clogged roadways. Getting anywhere here can be a real problem. Getting downtown during rush hour from north Tehran, where I’m staying, can be a soul-crushing ordeal.

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Where Iranian road builders paved three lanes of asphalt, four, five or even six lines of cars jockey, jostle, nudge and creep toward the city center. Thanks to generous government subsidies, gasoline is cheap here (less than 40 cents a gallon), so everybody drives pretty much everywhere. Turbaned mullahs, young men in shirtsleeves, women shrouded in black chadors. This fractious society is united in its mobile misery.

In a failing attempt to keep the heart of the capital from seizing up entirely, the government has clamped limits on the number of cars allowed downtown. The city administration sells the requisite permits for several hundred dollars, a princely sum here.

Today, Kamran didn’t have a permit. He just hoped the traffic police wouldn’t notice. They stand beneath an overpass at the side of the road in the southbound lane, wearing white facemasks against the murky brown pollution, and point at offenders. This morning, one cop pointed at Kamran.

We pulled over. Kamran half-heartedly argued. The cop ignored him and wrote a ticket. Some things are the same everywhere.

The damages came to about $15, which is roughly what I spent yesterday on a wonderful lunch for three. It’s a big enough tab to cast a sudden shadow over Kamran’s normally pleasant face.

I felt bad that he should get nicked on my account. So I’m going to slip him the fifteen bucks tomorrow. (Note to accounting department: I’m unlikely to get a receipt for this — you’ll just have to trust me.)

Tomorrow is a public holiday here, commemorating the day Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. I’m planning to visit Tehran’s Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, a good place to see the price Iranians have paid throughout history in dictatorship, revolution and war. Kamran no doubt will ruin what’s left of his nails along the way.

Posted 8/21/2006 11:38 AM ET

At Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, a lesson of faith and sacrifice

Day 3: I found Hassan Mohbi standing in the shade with his wife and two young boys. He’d come to the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery to visit his best friend, Hussein Mirzai, who died as a 17-year-old soldier in Iran’s grinding eight-year war with Iraq.

“What was your friend like?” I asked Hassan. There was a long pause. Finally, he said simply, “He was a very nice guy.” You wouldn’t think that was faint praise if you’d seen the look on his face.

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Behesht-e-Zahra, on the southern outskirts of Tehran, is simply enormous. The dead are cataloged here according to the particular national trauma that struck them down: victims of the Shah’s repression in one place; those who died in the revolutionary terror that followed his fall in another; and the numberless casualties of the 1980-88 war in their own sanctuary.

Hassan said he often dreams about his friend, often pulls out faded photographs of him. After I’d interviewed him for a while, Hassan turned the tables. He quizzed me for several minutes about Americans’ knowledge of his war and his country. Then he asked me a tough one. Did I agree, he asked, that the best people were those who died in battle?

I told him what I believe, that all countries rightly honor the sacrifice of those who died so the rest of us can enjoy life, but that I found it impossible to look at the graves spreading out in every direction and not feel an overpowering sense of waste and tragedy.

Hassan nodded non-committally. But he didn’t say anything about waste and tragedy. Instead, he spoke about the religious faith that propelled his generation to volunteer for a savage war. He became a soldier when he was just 15. As for the danger of a new conflict, Hassan was untroubled. “Maybe the politicians will make a mistake and people will die,” he said. “…For us, what’s important is to live in a good and proper way. It’s not important if we die or are killed.”

Only an idiot would generalize about a nation of 68 million people from one conversation. But as I walked away, I couldn’t help feeling the lessons of the Iran-Iraq war are worth remembering. The Iranians kept fighting the Iraqis long past the point when it made much military sense. When the war finally ground to a halt in 1988, the front lines weren’t a heck of a lot different than they’d been six years earlier.

Hassan doesn’t want the war forgotten either. That’s why he brought his boys, 16-year-old Abbas and 11-year-old Ali, to his friend’s grave. To learn the lessons of faith and sacrifice.

Posted 8/22/2006 12:58 PM ET

Meeting Iran’s first female stockbroker shatters several misperceptions

Day 4: I was immediately intrigued when my translator, Pejman, suggested a meeting with Mahnaz Sadeghnobari. All he had to tell me was that she is a stockbroker. A female broker isn’t a big deal back home. But in Iran? I had to meet this woman.

We drove to her office a few blocks from the Tehran Stock Exchange. Inside a nondescript building is a modern suite of blond wood, sleek silver light fixtures and flat-panel screens.

Right away, Sadeghnobari did something unusual: She reached out to shake my hand. A westerner doesn’t initiate a handshake with an Iranian woman; in some circles, it’s still considered forward.

Sadeghnobari, 54, told me she was watching TV one day in 1990 and saw that the Islamic government, which had shuttered the stock exchange after the 1979 revolution, was reopening it. “I told myself this is a good business for me,” she said as a male waiter poured us coffee.

So she went down to the exchange the next day to make sure it was okay for a woman to work as a stockbroker. No problem, she was told. After the required apprenticeship, Sadeghnobari opened her own shop and became Iran’s first female broker.

I was having a hard time getting my mind around the idea of a woman financial adviser in this very male-dominated part of the world. But if she faced resistance, it didn’t seem to have left any marks. About 60% of her clients are men.

“These limitations they (in the west) think we have in Iran, actually we don’t have,” she said. “…I see in your eyes (you think) I’m a feminist. But I’m not.”

In the U.S., we’re pretty much past the point where there’s any purpose in remarking upon a professional woman’s clothes (although it happens all the time.) Here, it’s not so simple.

Iran isn’t a land of burkas like next-door Afghanistan. In the trendier precincts of north Tehran, instead of funereal chadors — those billowing black head-to-toe coverings — young women wear coats called manteaus and cover their heads with colorful scarves. The manteaus vary in length, like western hemlines, as well as fit. Some are roomy and unflattering. Others are shorter and stylishly snug. The bottom line is there’s plenty of room for individual choice, even if it isn’t exactly what we are accustomed to.

My stockbroker friend covers her head with a black scarf called a rousari. But today she was pairing it with a fashionable tan manteau and peach fingernail polish. Still, she waved away talk about what it all means. “It’s not important what I’m wearing,” she said. “It’s important what I’m thinking, and what I can do for my country.”

Maybe a female Iranian stockbroker isn’t such a foreign concept after all.

Posted 8/23/2006 1:37 PM ET

A mullah takes the long view at Persepolis

Day 5: I finally met a mullah — the title given to an Islamic scholar or religious leader. No trip to Iran would be complete without a mullah meeting. And today I had one.

His name was Mahdi Atashkar and he was touring the ruins of Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian Empire.

In 518 B.C., the Persian King Darius built himself a network of palaces designed to awe subjects from every corner of an empire that ran from India to Ethiopia. The walls were flecked with gold and turquoise. The surviving carvings on the limestone blocks are so detailed, you can read the expressions on the faces of courtiers and tell a Phoenician from a Cappadocian. It’s honestly hard to do the place justice with mere words.

Atashkar, sporting a white turban and a thick, black upswept beard, pronounced himself impressed, but offered the sort of long-range perspective you’d expect from a man of God. “Where are those that built these places? Where are they now?” he asked. “Despite the beauty of the architecture, none of them exist anymore. They left this world with empty hands.”

They weren’t the only ones. The former Shah liked Persepolis so much that in 1971 he staged an absurdly lavish celebration here. He invited kings and queens from all over the world, housed them in luxurious tents at the base of the ruins and flew in their food daily from Maxim’s of Paris.

The Shah figured his subjects, most of whom had a better chance of seeing the moon than visiting Paris, would get a kick out of how important he was. Instead, they fumed at the extravagance and began plotting his demise. He was gone by 1979 and dead a little more than a year later.

Standing at Persepolis, I had the same feeling I always get when I’m seeing one of the ancient world’s treasures. The people who lived long before us once were just as proud of their accomplishments, just as certain they had life all figured out, as some of us are today. The 10,000 bodyguards who ringed Darius wherever he went were known as “The Immortals.”

In the end, they proved pretty mortal. The Persian Empire’s day of reckoning, like the Shah’s, inevitably arrived. Alexander the Great swept in from Macedonia in 330 B.C., burned anything flammable and wrecked or looted whatever wouldn’t burn.

By now, the young mullah and I had been talking for awhile about the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, Islam and Christianity, you name it. About a dozen of his students, all girls, all wearing black chadors, stood nearby, gawking and giggling like teenagers anywhere.

As I prepared to leave, Atashkar said he had one more thing to say. “I want you to inform the American people,” he said, “…that there is no difference between a true Muslim and a true Christian.”

We all face that day of reckoning.

Posted 8/24/2006 1:42 PM ET

In Isfahan: A warm greeting for (the other) David Lynch

Day 6: They were happy to see me at the mosque today. Surprisingly happy, in fact. It turned out they thought the famous filmmaker David Lynch had come to Friday prayers in Isfahan. But I’ll take a warm welcome however I can get one.

I used to get a lot of “are you the David Lynch?” when I lived in California. But that was the O.C. and this was Isfahan, for Pete’s sake. I mention this because I think the fact that a mosque attendant in central Iran is familiar with the avant garde director of “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive” says something about the omnipresence of American culture. It probably also speaks volumes about the futility of hardliners’ efforts to segregate their people from the infidels’ influence.

The U.S. has done plenty in recent years to make itself unpopular in this part of the world. Our support for Israel is seen as intensely one-sided and consciously anti-Muslim by millions in Iran and its Arab neighbors. Sanctions have limited U.S. commercial involvement in Iran to a trickle instead of the flood that a market of 68 million people — more than France — would command under more normal circumstances.

This week, I spoke to scores of Iranians from different segments of society: university graduates in tony north Tehran; businessmen outside Shiraz; and staunch supporters of the populist President Ahmadinejad in Isfahan. I didn’t hear a good word about the U.S. government or U.S. policy in the Middle East from a single person. But even the harshest critic of President Bush or Secretary of State Rice had good things to say about “America” — the lifestyle, the people, the state of mind.

“We don’t like the policies of the government of America. But we like the people of America. We think they are very friendly,” a young jewelry salesman named Mehrdad Salali told me in a coffeehouse earlier this week.

Whether Muslims will continue to hold such a nuanced view indefinitely is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, plenty of Iranians, including officials in the current government, were educated in the U.S. and retain fond memories of Los Angeles, New York, even Baton Rouge.

For a visiting American, it’s great that people here distinguish between me and my government. But I wonder whether that attitude doesn’t reflect an unfortunate and inaccurate form of “mirror imaging.” In other words, since Mehrdad doesn’t have any control over what the Iranian government does, he probably figures I don’t have much influence over what my government does.

He’s partly right, of course. Though I sit by the phone, Condi Rice never calls. On the other hand, the United States — unlike Iran — is a democracy. So when the U.S. government acts, I am somewhat responsible for the consequences. Aren’t I?

Posted 8/25/2006 10:44 AM ET