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Adventure Travel 2007:
Iran
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Iran: Travels Hostile Territory

On a month-long expedition, Kira Salak examines the ancient cities and remotest corners of this harsh land. Her reward: a rare glimpse into the heart of a nation on the brink.  Photograph by Bobby Model

Photo: Mural
SNAPSHOT OF TEHRAN: One of the "Great Satan" murals outside the former United States Embassy

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Iran Photo Gallery

Writers like to say that it's impossible for Westerners to understand Iran. I can believe it, looking at a full-page story in the Tehran Times, "Iran's Leading International Daily," announcing that the Holocaust never happened. That the concentration camps and gas chambers never existed. I try to imagine the equivalent back home: an entire page in the New York Times devoted to the idea that several million people were never slaughtered.

The real question is, How many Iranians actually believe this?

I walk around Tehran. Everywhere: the rising of steel girders, the mortaring of brick. Teams of laborers work ceaselessly in the hot desert sun, building high-rises for the rich in the shadow of nearby 18,606-foot (5,671-meter) Mount Damavand, while cheap apartments for the poor reach farther into the southern wastelands. This feverish city is fueled by expediency and profit, feeding on a materialism that smacks of the forbidden West. Levi's and Samsung phones. Peugeot cars. Madonna CDs. Any conceivable thing you could find in the land of the Great Satan exists here.

The latest prize is enriched uranium. Under a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council, I've arrived in Tehran at a time when the United Nations Security Council is attempting to entice Iran with economic incentives to discontinue its nuclear program. The country's conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has argued that uranium enrichment is only meant to serve civilian energy needs. Yet many experts, such as former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, believe it's a cover for the secret production of nuclear weapons.

There are myriad implications of this difference of opinion—thankfully it would be mostly theory and rhetoric during my month-long stay, this past May and June—but one tangible result is that a country just opening to Western tourism has now been clamped shut and braced for an international showdown. (Most planned trips to Iran that were not postponed because of nuclear tensions were put on hold indefinitely after conflict erupted between Israeli forces and Iran-backed Hezbollah in July.)

I walk through Imam Khomeini Square, named after the man himself, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose fierce, omnipresent stare defines modern Iran. He was the country's first supreme leader, who died in 1989, a man who brought about the collapse of the iron-fisted dictatorship of the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and effectively ended 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. Khomeini replaced it with the world's first fundamentalist Shiite Muslim regime, based on official interpretations of the Koran. Pictured beside Khomeini, one often sees the incongruously dazed, bespectacled face of his successor, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. An autocrat, this bemused-looking figure wields absolute and often brutal control over all aspects of Iranian government and society.

Khamenei and his hard-line colleagues are the reason why all the women I see, including foreigners and non-Muslims like myself, are required by law to wear hejab, or Muslim women's attire, over their normal clothes. Hejab consists of either a chador—a long, baggy black cloak that covers the entire body except for the face and hands—or a dark-colored manteau, a kind of long trench coat worn with a maghnaeh, or head scarf. Teams of the infamous "morality police" patrol the streets of Tehran in search of straying hair or exposed ankles, but they have their work cut out for them these days. Most women I see do their utmost to shirk the laws. They wear skin-tight manteaus in bright colors that stop mid-thigh. They show painted toenails and bare necks. Right after the revolution, to reveal a few strands of hair might have resulted in beatings or arrest, but some bangs are acceptable now. Still, expose more than an inch or two (3 to 5 centimeters) and you're pushing it. Then you're defeating the purpose of the head scarf, scoffing at Islamic modesty, and you could be seen as one of the silent, new-generation revolutionaries seduced by the corrupting tentacles of the West.

You could be someone like Farhnaz, say, whom I meet in a coffeehouse. She wears a tight manteau and a bright blue head scarf revealing bleached-blond hair. "I think we should gradually do without hejab," she says. "It shouldn't be a law. It should be a woman's choice."

An older woman, Batu, disagrees. She wears a full-length black chador, not a single hair revealed. "It's the duty of a Muslim woman to cover herself," she says. "It's taboo for me to be seen by strangers."

"Why is that?" I ask.

She thinks about it for a moment. "Tradition," she says finally. "I'd be a bad Muslim woman."

In some ways, the head scarf in Iran has become both a symbol of religious piety and a benchmark of an individual's political ideology. How a person wears it, what color it is, how much it exposes or covers, tells you much about what this person thinks about the current government and its policies.

Such varying opinions might have something to do with the fact that about 70 percent of the Iranian population is under 30. Many in this new generation have grown up with illegal satellite dishes, watching Sex and the City, and surfing the Web. Looking forward instead of back, they have turned Tehran into a dynamic, cosmopolitan city, with coffeehouses and art studios, vegan restaurants and shopping malls. Yet some things are still conspicuously absent: bars and nightclubs. It's illegal to sell or drink alcohol, to dance, to listen to most Western music. Such forbidden fruits have been pushed underground, surfacing regularly at secret parties. In Iran one thing is clear: Public and private are two vastly different universes. You never know what a woman is wearing beneath her chador.

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Iran Photo Gallery

Cover: Adventure magazine

Our November 2006 issue features the best new adventure travel trips; an exclusive look inside Iran; a Greenland global warming report; backcountry spas; digital cameras; travel Web sites; weekend getaways; and more.

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