Wednesday, July 27th, 2016...4:18 pm

Jeremy visits Iran

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A visitor from Minneapolis finds the Iranians — including members of a remnant Jewish community — to be friendly and hospitable

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

For many, or most, Jews, arriving in an airliner at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport would be something akin to a waking nightmare.

Not so for Jeremy Iggers, an accomplished journalist from Minneapolis, who seeks out adventurous travel destinations. In fact, prior to his weeklong journey to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in late June and early July, Iggers had visited the country twice before, in 1971 and 2001.

Jeremy Iggers visited with the Jewish proprietor (right) of a haberdashery in the Jewish Passage, in Isfahan, Iran. (Photo by Jeremy Iggers)

Jeremy Iggers visited with the Jewish proprietor (right) of a haberdashery in the Jewish Passage, in Isfahan, Iran. (Photo: Jeremy Iggers)

“This was just something that had been on my bucket list for a very long time,” said Iggers, regarding his recent trip to Iran. “When I was there in 2001, I found it to be just a fascinating place and I had always wanted to go back.”

During an interview at Gigi’s Café in south Minneapolis, Iggers explained that he traveled in Iran, in 2001, for a post-9/11 series on Muslim countries for the Star Tribune, where he worked from 1984 to 2007. He also reported from Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan for the series, which included photos by Jeff Wheeler.

His earlier visit to Iran, during the reign of the Shah, came after a sophomore year overseas semester, in Normandy, France. Iggers joined a group traveling in a VW bus from France to Nepal. The 1971 road trip traversed Iran; Iggers wasn’t enjoying his fellow travellers and got out at the border with India.

“I’m sort of an adventure traveller,” Iggers commented, and noted that earlier this year, he and his wife, Carol, visited Senegal, in West Africa. “We’ve gone to northeastern Brazil, we’ve gone to Vietnam… Sumatra, Indonesia.”

Regarding Iran, Iggers, 64, suggested that the country is “kind of misunderstood by a lot of Americans.”

It should be mentioned that United States citizens can visit Iran only as part of an organized tour. Iggers traveled on a German passport, which he acquired because his father had to flee Hitler.

“There’s an article in the German constitution that says, if you were forced to give up your German citizenship as a result of racial, religious or ethnic persecution, you are entitled to reclaim that citizenship and your descendants are entitled to German citizenship,” explained Iggers, who got his German passport a dozen years ago.

After a stop in Vienna, Austria, to visit his son from a previous relationship, Iggers traveled on to Tehran with Austrian Airlines.

Jeremy Iggers: They wanted to know how I liked Iran. (Photo by Mordecai Specktor)

Jeremy Iggers: They wanted to know how I liked Iran. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

“They didn’t ask me any questions,” recalled Iggers, regarding passport control at Imam Khomeini airport. He had pre-applied for a visa through an Iranian travel agency, and had been approved prior to his arrival. Most visitors “don’t even need to do that,” he said, and can just get a visa upon arrival.

Iggers stressed that he went to Iran as a tourist, not as a journalist.

After arriving in Tehran, Iggers took a bus south to Kashan. The following day, Iggers met some Italian tourists, and they visited some sights near Kashan, then traveled on to Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran, which is renowned for its blue-tiled mosques.

It helps to know people in a foreign country; and prior to Iggers’ departure for Iran, a chef in Minneapolis put him in touch with his nieces living in Isfahan. “They met me at my hotel that night, drove me all over the city, took me to a restaurant,” recalled Iggers. “They were just incredible. They had me over for lunch at their parents’ house.”

Iggers was impressed by the seeming affluence of Iran, such as his visit to a huge shopping mall, City Center, in suburban Isfahan, which was well-stocked with luxury goods — “kind of like the Mall of America, but nicer.”

Iggers had heard about a shopping complex in Isfahan known as the Jewish Passage, and his hosts took him there. The upscale arcade has many clothing shops for men that are owned by Jews.

The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan is one of the oldest mosques in Iran, 771 C.E. (Photo by Jeremy Iggers)

The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan is one of the oldest mosques in Iran, 771 C.E. (Photo: Jeremy Iggers)

According to the online Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish settlement in Isfahan dates back about 2,500 years. When the Arabs conquered Persia, in 641 C.E., they found a strong Jewish community in Isfahan: “Under the caliphate, the Jewish quarter in Isfahan, known as Jayy, had grown to such a degree in number and size that Arab and Persian geographers called it al-Yahūdiyya, ‘the city of the Jews.’”

A CNN report last year from the Jewish community in Isfahan noted that there are 13 synagogues in the city, and showed a group of about 20 men davening in one of them. CNN put the size of the Jewish community in the city at 1,500; many Jews fled Iran after the 1979 revolution. Of course, relations between Israel and Iran are quite tense, and Iranian Jews prefer to avoid that topic.

Iggers tried to visit a synagogue in Isfahan. “Services were just ending, and the person who answered the door seemed kind of suspicious,” and asked to see Iggers’ passport, which he did not have with him.

On his Facebook page, Iggers posted a series of photos and commentary about his travels in Iran. Iggers is a former restaurant reviewer for the Star Tribune, so his photos of meal spreads look quite appetizing.

After two days in Isfahan, Iggers traveled south to Shiraz. Bill Beeman, a University of Minnesota professor, put Iggers in touch with some friends there, who invited him into their home. In Shiraz, Iggers enjoyed an Iftar dinner, the evening meal during the monthlong Ramadan fast. He also visited the nearby ruins at Persepolis.

In his conversations with Iranians, Iggers found them to be “very open” on a variety of topics. “It was clear they liked Americans,” he commented. They repeatedly distanced themselves from the positions of the Iranian government, and also told Iggers that they are not like how they are “portrayed in your media.”

“And they wanted to know how I liked Iran,” said Iggers.

It’s no secret that Iranians chafe under the restrictions imposed by the ruling clerical regime.

“Women have to wear the hijab [head scarf],” Iggers points out. “There’s periodic [official] enforcement; but a lot of women seem to show as much hair as they can get away with.”

Iggers also remarked that Iranians “have amazing access to media,” with many homes having satellite dishes to bring in TV broadcasts from around the world. Regarding the internet, the Iranian government blocks Facebook and other sites, but people have found ways to skirt the censorship.

In response to a question about government surveillance, or being arrested, during his visit, Iggers said he wasn’t worried, and found no evidence that he ever was under surveillance. He mentioned that some “high-profile American journalists” have been imprisoned in Iran, but that those cases involved power struggles between competing factions of the government.

Iran is receiving about five million tourists a year, according to Iggers.

“I would love to go back,” he said. “People were incredibly warm and hospitable.”

(American Jewish World, 7.29.16)

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