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Adventure Travel 2007:
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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: Imam Mosque
FOREIGN GROUND: the Imam Mosque, in Isfahan

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Iran Photo Gallery

Mr. Soufi is inspired to song. He sings Hafez's poetry aloud to passersby, who receive his joy with hesitant, fearful eyes. I open my book of Hafez randomly, to receive my own oracle:

I understand the wounds that have not healed in you. / They exist because God and love have yet to become real enough / To allow you to forgive the dream.

I place my fingers on Hafez's polished marble grave. An old dervish sits nearby, watching. He tells me he is 83 and has practiced Sufism, a mystical offshoot of Islam, for over 60 years. He offers me a yogurt ball to suck on, and we sit together, watching the crowds. I want to ask him about what Hafez said. About forgiving the dream.

"Our government is awful," he muses. "All the problems we have in the world now are caused by religion, because there are people who believe that their religion is better than others."
I stand in the Jameh, or Friday Mosque, in Isfahan, among dim, empty corridors first built in the 11th century. A man named Majid is talking to me; he sought me out when he heard I was an American. He is 43 now, wants me to know that he fought in the Iran-Iraq war for four years, breathed in Saddam's poison gas, and is now crippled for life. He wants to give me a history lesson about this mosque and about Isfahan itself, one of Iran's holiest cities. How the Mongols attacked first, followed by the Ottoman Turks, then the Afghans. Spilled Iranian blood has stained the floors of this mosque several times over. Did I know that? So much blood.

I am waiting for his point. Which comes finally, circuitously. How countries have a history of invading and exploiting Iran. How the U.S. would like to do the same and is starting wars against Muslim people around the world. How Iranians, at any cost, must resist the U.S. and develop their nuclear program.

"What do you see as America's greatest threat to your country?" I ask him.

He doesn't need to think about it. "America's poor morality," he says immediately.

Not bombs. Not planes flying into buildings. Morality.

"We don't want to be like you in the West," Majid insists.

We say goodbye. Mr. Soufi badly wants to show me the Imam Mosque, built in the early 17th century, Iran's equivalent of Notre Dame, but I'm not really in the mood to see it anymore. Something to do with my talk with Majid. With some point that occurred to me but was immediately lost.

But we go to the mosque anyway. Mr. Soufi has me walk inside, close my eyes, and then open them to the sight of the dome. Above me rises a whirl of ornate turquoise-colored tiles tapering to a gleaming yellow apex that is struck by a single ray of sunlight. It's an exotic beauty unlike anything I've seen. Beauty neither of the East nor West—something uniquely and purely Iranian.

"If you have any ideas, I'd like to know," Mr. Soufi says, pointing at the dome. He has studied it incessantly and has his theories. He waits a moment but the frenetic, insatiable workings of his mind can no longer be contained. Do I know that the spiraling of the designs on the arabesque tiles along the length of the room mathematically equals the wavelength of sound at 33 hertz? That this expresses the law of the alternation of sound? That this matches exactly the human heartbeat?

He is utterly, unabashedly transfixed. "Look at it!" he insists. "Look!" The arabesque motif. The curves of its leaves, its stems. The secret pulsing of life itself.

His voice echoes off the dome, and some Iranian tourists stare at him in curiosity and alarm. I exit the labyrinth of Mr. Soufi's world, come up for air in my own. Sparrows fly round  the dome and, watching them, I remember what Majid told me in the Friday Mosque: "We don't want to be like you." And what I failed to say to him, and should have, was that we already were one and the same. My "immorality" was really his unowned guilt. And his "intolerance" revealed only my own self-judgment.

"No one really knows anything," I say to Mr. Soufi.

In a day I'll be returning to the U.S. The sun sets over Isfahan's main square, and crowds of people take advantage of the gentle light and cool breezes. The tiled dome of Imam Mosque gleams in the departing light, and a great white horse with a kingly stride races round and round the square, pulling a black carriage.

I want to see it all better. Take it in. The best place for this, I'm told, is a little-known yet ancient coffeehouse just to the left above the entrance to the bazaar. I search for the place, find some narrow stairs that wind upward to it. At the top of them, just before the entranceway, is a posted sign in English: "For women service is forbidden."

I consider this. The manager watches me from a nearby desk, taking slow puffs from his water pipe. Over the coffeehouse's patio, I see flocks of doves rising in the purple light. I shrug. I climb the last few stairs and enter the place, walking past his desk and taking a seat on a cushion on the patio. He follows me immediately, of course. He's not happy. Not happy one bit. Starts to accost me in Persian.

Forgive the dream.

I turn my back to him and order some tea. Imam Square looks softened by the coming night, families sitting on blankets, children clutching balloons. There is the feel of a festival to the evening. Every night here, at just the right time, this communal peace.

The manager reappears, strides over to me, his face livid with rage. I am ready for a showdown, if that's what it'll take. But I see he's carrying a tray: my tea. It's the first time I have understood this country.

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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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