Yesterday morning, our tour guide for Shiraz, Ashkan, picked us up at the hotel. He was very interested not only in showing us around, but in learning about the work we are doing to bring peace and helping us spread that message while we traveled throughout the city. Ashkan originally studied electrical engineering in school, but later changed his major to tourism management because he believes cultural exchange can help bring about peace, while also pleasing politicians by stimulating the economy. The told me he is working on his thesis entitled “Sustainable Tourism as a Means to Achieve Sustainable Peace.” He said he has given tours to people from all over the world, and he thinks Americans are the most similar people to Iranians that he has met. Ashkan was full of ideas about more actively promoting our peace work while we are in Iran, and while we are at lunch, he put together a miniature flag pole with an Iranian and American flag on it to help demonstrate our work to promote friendship between our countries. He was a great help in finding young people and students in Shiraz to record messages of peace to share with you.
We started off the day seeing some of the beautiful monuments of Shiraz. The city is especially well known for housing the tombs of two of Iran’s most famous poets: Hafez and Sa’di. Sa’di is the poet President Barack Obama quoted in his Norooz message to the Iranian people: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” Ashkan, like many Iranians, was able to recite their poetry from memory. Visitors place their fingers on the tombs and recite verses from the Koran as a blessing to the great poets.
In the early evening, we went to a museum that also held an exhibition of local crafts and foods. We got such a warm reception from all the local artisans who were excited to have us as guests. I went home with gifts of dried cherries, nuts, CDs, and posters, and many people wanted to get their picture taken with us. We discussed our work here to promote peace and I passed out my business card with our website and encouraged people to go listen to your peace messages.
At our next stop, we met a British archaeology student named Sophy who joined us for tea and shopping in the bazaar. Sophy decided to buck the trend in her university and study Iran rather than Greece, and was getting ready to head to Persepolis the next day for her work. This is her third trip to Iran, and she is traveling alone. She said it’s one of the easiest countries to travel in. I can definitely understand why she would feel comfortable here as the times I have been by myself walking around I’ve always felt safe and welcomed, and I’m sure that defies many people’s expectations of Iran.
For our last stop of the evening, Ashkan suggested we go to the massive shopping mall to find young people to record messages of peace. He said it was one of the main “modern” parts of Shiraz, though he said he was sure we had seen things more modern. I pointed out to him that he grew up in Shiraz, a city of more than one million people, while I grew up in a town of 20,000 in Maine, so I’m sure he’s as familiar with “modern living” as I am.
The mall was indeed massive, with an arcade, a bowling alley, and many clothing stores. It was just like any mall in the US (which I generally try to avoid, though I enjoyed hanging out at the mall in my high school days). There were many young Iranians in more western-influenced dress, with women sporting lots of makeup and showing dyed, puffy hair under their head scarves. Ashkan went on a mission finding people who spoke English and we stopped in some stores and talked to Iranians about what they want people in the US to know about Iran and what they hope for in our future relationship. In the food court, I learned that Iranians douse their pizza in ketchup, an interesting custom I decided to forgo. I wish we could have spent more time in Shiraz, a beautiful city that lived up to its reputation for friendliness. Due to a mistake in the length of our visas, I will be returning three days early, but I have had a wonderful taste of Iran and I am looking forward to our last few days here in Tehran.