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Excerpts from Travel as a Political Act

9. Mission: Understand IranFriday: Let us Pray

Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with stars of skulls and dropping bombs painting the stripes.

Esfahan, Iran’s “second city” with over 3 million people, is a showcase of ancient Persian splendor. One of the finest cities in Islam, and famous for its dazzling blue-tiled domes and romantic bridges, the city is also just plain enjoyable. I’m not surprised that in Iran, this is the number-one honeymoon destination.

Everything in Esfahan seems to radiate from the grand Imam Square, dominated by the Imam Mosque—one of holiest in Iran. Dating from the early 1600s, its towering facade is as striking as the grandest cathedrals of Europe.

We were in Iran for just one Friday, the Muslim “Sabbath.” Fortunately, we were in Esfahan, so we could attend (and film) a prayer service at this colossal house of worship.

Filming in a mosque filled with thousands of worshippers required permission. Explaining our needs to administrators there, it hit me that the Islamic Revolution employs strategies similar to a communist takeover: Both maintain power by installing partisans in key positions. But the ideology Iran is enforcing is not economic (as it was in the USSR), but religious.

Learn More About Iran

Rick Steves’ Iran
His one hour TV special on Iran

The Commonwealth Club
Rick's one hour talk on his experience in Iran

Los Angeles Times
Rick Steves: 'Iran, the most fascinating land' he’s ever visited

BBC Radio: “The World”
What it was like to film in Iran?

USA Today
Rick’s op-ed on “Iranians you don’t know”

Rick’s article on “Iran: The people and the politics”

President Ahmadinejad has inspired a fashion trend in Iran: simple dark suit, white shirt, no tie, light black beard. Reminiscent of apparatchiks in Soviet times, it seemed to me that all the mosque administrators dressed the part and looked like the president.
To film the service—which was already well underway—we were escorted in front of 5,000 people praying. When we had visited this huge mosque the day before, all I had seen was a lifeless shell with fine tiles for tourists to photograph. An old man had stood in the center of the floor and demonstrated the haunting echoes created by the perfect construction. Old carpets had been rolled up and were strewn about like dusty cars in a haphazard parking lot. Today the carpets were rolled out, cozy, orderly, and lined with worshippers.

I felt self-conscious—a tall, pale American tiptoeing gingerly over the little tablets Shia Muslim men place their heads on when they bend down to pray. Planting our tripod in the corner, we observed.

As my brain wandered (just like it sometimes does at home when listening to a sermon), I felt many of those worshippers were looking at me rather than listening to their cleric speaking. Soldiers were posted throughout the mosque, standing like statues in their desert-colored fatigues. When the congregation stood, I didn’t notice them, but when all bowed, the soldiers remained standing—a reminder of the tension within the Islamic world. I asked Seyed to translate a brightly painted banner above the worshippers. He answered, “Death to Israel.”

Despite this disturbing detail, I closed my eyes and let the smell of socks remind me of mosques I’d visited in other Muslim countries. I pulled out my little Mecca compass, the only souvenir I’ve purchased so far. Sure enough, everyone was facing exactly the right way.

Watching all the worshippers bow and stand, and pray in unison, at first seemed threatening to me. Then I caught the eye of a worshipper having a tough time focusing. He winked. Another man’s cell phone rang. He struggled with it as if thinking, “Dang, I should have turned that thing off.” The mosaics above—Turkish blue and darker Persian blue—added a harmony and calmness to the atmosphere.

I made a point to view the service as if it were my own church, back in Seattle. I was struck by the similarities: the too-long sermon, responsive readings, lots of getting up and getting down, the “passing of the peace” (when everyone greets the people around them), the convivial atmosphere as people line up to shake the hand of the cleric after the service, and the fellowship afterwards as everyone hangs out in the courtyard. On our way out, I shook the hand of the young cleric—he had a short, slight build, a tight white turban, a trim Ahmadinejad-style beard, big teeth, and a playful smile. He reminded me of Rafsanjani, Iran’s moderate former president. In the courtyard, a man hit the branches of a mulberry tree with a pole as kids scrambled for the treasured little berries.

Esfahan TV, which had televised the prayer service, saw us and wanted an interview. It was exciting to be on local TV. They asked why we were here, how I saw Iranian people, and why I thought there was a problem between the US and Iran. (I pointed out the “Death to Israel” banner, for starters.) They fixated on whether our show would actually air...and if we’d spin our report to make Iran look evil.

Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with stars of skulls and dropping bombs painting the stripes.

Leaving the mosque, our crew pondered how easily the footage we’d just shot could be cut and edited to appear either menacing or heartwarming, depending on our agenda. Our mosque shots could be juxtaposed with guerillas leaping over barbed wire and accompanied by jihadist music to be frightening. Instead, we planned to edit it to match our actual experience: showing the guards and “Death to Israel” banner, but focusing on the men with warm faces praying with their sons at their sides, and the children outside scrambling for mulberries.

It occurred to me that the segregation of the sexes—men in the center and women behind a giant hanging carpet at the side—contributes to the negative image many Western Christians have of Islam. Then, playing the old anthropologist’s game of changing my perspective, I considered how the predominantly male-led Christian services that I’m so comfortable with could also be edited to look ominous to those unfamiliar with the rituals. At important Roman Catholic Masses, you’ll see a dozen priests—all male—in robes before a bowing audience. The leader of a billion Catholics is chosen by a secretive, ritual-filled gathering of old men in strange hats and robes with chanting, incense, and the ceremonial drinking of human blood. It could be filled with majesty, or with menace...depending on what you show and how you show it.

We set up to film across the vast square from the mosque. My lines were memorized and I was ready to go. Then, suddenly, the cleric with the beaming smile came toward us with a platter of desserts—the local ice cream specialty, like frozen shredded wheat sprinkled with coconut. I felt like Rafsanjani himself was serving us ice cream. We had a lively conversation, joking about how it might help if his president went to my town for a prayer service, and my president came here.


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