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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: Forbidden cafe
FOREIGN GROUND: Entering a forbidden café

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Iran Photo Gallery

We return to Tehran. It's time now to say goodbye to Abbas, who hates us, and to try our hand with a new guide, a Mr. Soufi, for the remaining days of our trip.

And how to describe Mr. Soufi? Such infectious exuberance. Such enthusiasm and joy. I have never in my life met anyone like him. He lived in the U.K. for six years, mastered English, and now his brain, full to the brim with arcane Western knowledge, seeks constant release. On the plane ride from Tehran to Shiraz, we discuss Lacan and Jung, quantum mechanics, the Gospel of Thomas. It's a torrent of theorizing, questioning, and conjecturing that continues en route to the hotel and picks up the next morning on the way to the ancient ruins of Persepolis.

One imagines, talking with Mr. Soufi, that everything can be, ultimately, understood. I want him to explain Iran. The contradictions. Why, for example, fervent anti-American mullahs send their children to U.S. Ivy League schools. But we arrive at Persepolis, and Mr. Soufi can barely contain himself. Here, he tells me, was the spectacular capital of Darius the Great, dating from 520 B.C. A generation before, Darius's father-in-law, Cyrus the Great, founded the Persian Empire—the largest kingdom the world had ever known, spanning from Libya to India. It survived until 330 B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered it and burned Persepolis to the ground. Now, 2,500 years later, little remains for the imagination, but Mr. Soufi is not dismayed.

We walk through the Gate of All Nations, which is flanked by gigantic sculptures of winged, bearded men with the bodies of bulls. Old Western travelers cut their initials into the stone, the earliest signature dating from 1522. In the center of Persepolis is a well-preserved staircase, leading to the former palace, that is decorated with carvings of the different peoples conquered and assimilated into the empire. Arians, Babylonians, Parthians, Ethiopians. Each man carries something unique from his homeland, as a tribute to Darius the Great, king of kings, believed by the ancient Zoroastrians to be God's chosen ruler of the Earth.

Mr. Soufi pulls me aside, out of earshot of the other tourists, and points to a statue of a bull. When he speaks to me, it is in a whisper. "I was here at this spot for a week. Morning and night I came. I nearly slept here." He points excitedly at the bull. "Look at it!"

I look. The bull has ornate spirals for nostrils, bold eyes, a strong brow. "Yes?" I say.

"I watched it in all types of light," Mr. Soufi whispers. "Morning. Evening." Tourists come near, and he ushers me quickly out of their range of hearing. "Look at the bull!" he says, gesturing emphatically. "Look at it! Do you know what I discovered?"

I look closely. I shake my head.

Mr. Soufi's face erupts into unbridled excitement. But Bobby is approaching now. "Come. It's not for others to hear," he says, ushering me farther away. We stand at a safe distance from everyone, but Mr. Soufi takes one more look over his shoulder just to be sure. At last, he turns to face me. I am ready to hear his answer to the great, enigmatic bull—to Persepolis—perhaps even to life itself. Yes, here will be the meaning I've sought. Iran. The West. The answer to all of it, to everything, and I can go home.

"Do you want to know the answer?" Mr. Soufi asks.

"Yes," I say. I realize I'm also looking over my shoulder.

He points to the bull. Beckons me close to him so he can whisper into my ear: "Conceit!"

Perhaps the most liberal place in all of Iran is Shiraz. The city of poets. Hafez, one of the world's greatest Persian poets, lived and died here in the 14th century. He is beloved in the East and West alike, and it has been said that more copies of Hafez's poetry have been sold in Iran than copies of the Koran. As Hafez is one of my favorite poets, I make a pilgrimage to his tomb.

His grave rests in the midst of a fragrant park, full of rosebushes and birdsong. Soothsayers stand at the entranceway with their boxes of fortunes containing lines from Hafez's poetry, their parakeets pulling out fortunes with their beaks. We enter the park and walk toward the blue-tile cupola of the grave site. Immediately, I see that there's something different about this place. Unmarried couples stroll—illegally—hand-in-hand. Young lovers lay beside each other on blankets. Women wear short, tight manteaus and see-through head scarves. Here are Sufi dervishes in white with long beards and shoulder-length hair. Western hippies with dreadlocks. Arab women covered in black burkas, their eyes greeting the world through tiny slits. Everywhere: Easterner and Westerner, young and old, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shiite. All gathered to pay homage to the man who spoke of the universality of love.

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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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