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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: Author overlooking valley
SOLITUDE AMONG ASSASSINS: The author, dressed in the required hejab, overlooks Alamut Valley, in northern Iran.  See more photos >>

If you are an American traveling to Iran, of course you want to visit the former United States Embassy. You must see it. Consider it. It was the place overrun by young Islamic revolutionaries in 1979. The place where 52 blindfolded, manacled embassy personnel were paraded in front of the international community for 444 days by student militants. It's the place that saw the end to all diplomatic relations between the two countries, ruining President Jimmy Carter's chances for reelection and ushering in the Reagan Era. It's here where, as an American in Iran, you realize how special you are—that you're a member of that oddly intriguing fraternity known as the Great Satan.

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Iran Photo Gallery

"My European clients don't ask to see this place," my guide says to me unhappily.

He doesn't understand the reason for my coming here. To him it's merely an inconvenient, unpleasant place to visit, crowded with secret police who don't appreciate tourist calls—especially not by Americans. Should I get out of the van to take a photo, there's a chance my camera would be confiscated and I might even get arrested. In which case he'd be obligated, as my official keeper, to try to extricate me from the mess. I'm aware of my vulnerability in coming to Iran, a police state where hating America is the official policy. Have problems here as an American, and you're on your own.

We slip past the embassy grounds, the driver not wanting to stop. We pass a government slogan painted on a wall that calls the U.S. "the most hated state before our nation." And farther down, in bold letters: "We will make America face a severe defeat." And now the embassy itself, which is an unattractive place. A nondescript brick building, surrounded by an unkempt yard. An iron fence. An old eagle seal chipped away over the years but still visible on the front gate. It's home to a Revolutionary Guard headquarters now and is known as "The U.S. Den of Espionage"—ludicrous and surreal-sounding, like something out of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It's here where a reported 52,000 Iranians have voluntarily signed up for "martyrdom missions" against U.S. and British interests around the world, merely awaiting orders to mobilize.

Seeing the embassy and thinking of its history, I wonder what really lies in Iranians' hearts. And in my own. I've come to travel Iran as a foreigner and a woman, much like my inspiration, the 1930s-era writer and explorer Freya Stark, and as I move from Tehran into the remotest corners of the country, my goal is to keep an open mind. Still, it takes a small feat of equanimity for me to see this place, to read these slogans, without shuddering in disappointment.

The photographer with me, Bobby Model, cracks the car window and sticks his telephoto lens outside. The driver, nervous about this transgression, picks up speed. We pass the famous murals painted beside the embassy gates: the Statue of Liberty with a skull's face; the American flag in the shape of a gun. Bobby asks the driver to slow down, his camera on autofocus and shooting away while I stay on the lookout.

A uniformed policeman takes notice of our creeping van and starts to walk steadily toward us.

"Someone's coming!" I say to Bobby.

He snaps back from the window and hides his camera. Our van speeds away around the block. After a few moments, we look over our shoulders: no one.
Our guide is shaking his head. "Why do Americans always want to see the embassy?" he laments.

Here is where the Iranians go: Tehran's Martyrs' Museum. It's just around the corner and commemorates the estimated 750,000 Iranians who died
during the ten-year Iran-Iraq war, as well as the reported 60,000 killed during the Islamic revolution in 1978-79.

On the walls of the museum, I see many of the dead pictured. In Iran they're always called "martyrs," to remind people of their unique sacrifice in the name of Islam—and of the rewards their spirits are supposedly enjoying in Paradise.
Among the exhibits: A black-and-white photo of an Iranian boy, perhaps nine years old, a member of a unit called the basijis (composed mostly of young children and elderly who were used, among other things, as human minesweepers), "martyred" by blowing himself up with a grenade beneath an Iraqi tank. Saddam Hussein started the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, and with Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime being fervently anti-American, the U.S. government made the unsavory decision to assist him. As a result, Iranian mullahs—those religious leaders largely responsible for spreading anti-American sentiment—blame both Hussein and the U.S. for the deaths of three-quarters of a million Iranians.

A lone man looks at a pile of bloody uniforms and incriminating papers on display, clutching himself and sobbing. The bloodshed still traumatizes the country. Painted on the sides of buildings, flashed and reflashed across television screens endlessly, are the faces of the dead—so that no one will forget.

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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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