Photo: Brother Island, the Philippines. Credit: Vicki Pettifer.
We were still a half-mile away from the island when our expedition leader shouted, “There he is!”
We all strained to look where he was pointing. There was nothing but blue waves. But then I saw something bobbing in the water, and we all agreed it was a buoy, because what else could it be, this far out? But then we saw the buoy was bobbing toward us. And then it resolved into the head of a golden-haired dog.
Many years ago, an Austrian professor named Alfred Hofer bought an island in the Philippines and built a beautiful retreat there. Then he got in a motorcycle accident. He hasn’t been back since. Tao Philippines and its crews started taking care of the dog, making a point to stop by on its island-hopping tours to feed him. They’re the only ones keeping him alive now.
The dog paddled in circles around our catamaran until the crew had filled a basin with our leftovers from lunch, which, once onboard, he inhaled. Then he swam with us back to the island, and then romped onto the beach as if to show us around. The house was locked. Through the windows, I could see zoology textbooks gathering dust on the shelves. I flipped a light switch, and red ants poured out of the box.
We took a trail up the side of the island, past a white cross and altar, up to a small house built on a banyan tree. The doors were made of glass and faced in every direction. Past the verandah was a drop to boulders and crashing waves. I imagined it must have been the professor’s study, and that I could move in and write there, and my bed would be in one corner, and my coffeemaker here, and my desk there, and a bed for the dog right next to it.
He knew when we were leaving. I didn’t want to, but there was nothing we could do. His ears drooped and his shoulders caved in. I sat down on the sand with him to say goodbye and told him that if we ever crossed paths again, he would have to let me know.
But maybe we had said just the same thing in a previous life. And now, here we were.
Photo: at the Gate of Nations at Persepolis, Iran.
I just published an op-ed on Lobelog, an Iranian-U.S. policy blog, about my travels in Iran. The bottom line is that our peoples have been estranged for long enough. While the nation states do their thing, let’s open the doors of peacemaking that are available to us, yes? One is mindful travel, and Iran is an absolutely extraordinary place to visit. (If you need evidence, start with an album of my trip.)
First, the “safety” issue. I was lucky to know Iranians who’d (graciously) corrected my worries that the country would not be safe for me as a U.S. citizen; when I was actually there, those fears seemed downright absurd. I never felt unsafe. Iranians themselves generally have very warm feelings toward the U.S.; they received me with nothing but kindness, grace, and curiosity throughout my travels.
So…is Iran safe to travel in? I can say that it definitely was for me. (I do need to say that I’m a white cis woman, and that’s probably significant to my positive experience, but being other than that should not be a deterrent. I saw tourists of all phenotypes in Iran.)
Step 1. Contact a travel agency within Iran, which will sponsor you for a visa and, in effect, be responsible for you while you’re in the country. I highly recommend Setareh Elahiyeh—translated “Goddess who Shines like a Star” (!)—run by Ms. Elnaz Aslanian. They work closely with the Boomgardi Institute for Sustainable Tourism, a network of gorgeous traditional houses across the country, several of which I stayed in. Elnaz is fluent in English and can be reached at email@example.com.
Step 2. On your behalf, Setareh Elahiyeh will apply to the Iranian government for a tourist visa authorization code. This is not the visa itself, only a code that says you have permission to get a visa. Setareh Elahiyeh will charge a fee to handle this paperwork for you—about $100 USD. It’s difficult to say how long it’ll take for the authorization code to come through, but plan for at least a month.
Step 3. Once the authorization code comes through, Setareh Elahiyeh will notify you. Fill out Form 101 from the Iranian Embassy web site and send it with your passport to the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington D.C., which has a “Special Interests of Iran” department. (If you’re a woman, you’ll need to get a passport photo taken in a headscarf.) You can pay an extra fee to expedite processing—I did, about $60—and followed up daily by phone. I got my passport back in only a week.
Step 4. Once you have your visa, Setareh Elahiyeh will find a guide for you. Note that currently, U.S. citizens must be accompanied by a guide in Iran at all times, except in the hotel. There are only 130 guides in the country specifically licensed to accompany U.S. citizens. This sounds onerous—and inshallah, that rule will change someday soon—but I found it easy to negotiate the need for space with my guide. The trip is still so-damn-worth-it.
As for price, it’s pretty reasonable if you go with one or more people. (It was really expensive for me, but that’s because I hate traveling with a group.)
Step 5. Pack! You’re SO LUCKY you’re going to Iran! A good place to get oriented is Lonely Planet’s guide. (I don’t recommend the Bradt guide, which reads like a phone book.) It’s up to you exactly when to buy your plane tickets, but I bought mine well in advance of having the visa in hand—I had a layover in Istanbul, and told myself that if the visa fell through, I’d stay in Turkey instead.
And finally, instead of buying plane tickets yourself, I highly recommend emailing Susi at World Travellers’ Club. She’s consistently found prices for me that have made my jaw drop.
Questions? Email Elnaz at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s great.
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About a year ago, I named Bora Zivkovic, the blogs editor at Scientific American, as the man who’d sexually harassed me at what I set up as a business meeting. A lot of things went down in the immediate wake of that. Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan School of Public Health wrote me privately, asking me to un-name Bora, so as to protect his reputation for the greater good. I reported so on Twitter (because wow, dude). Twitter exploded. HuffPo covered the community’s reluctance to believe me, or to take action. Then another woman came forward, Hannah Waters, with a story about Bora much worse in scope. Slate covered it. Twitter exploded again. Gawker covered it. Then Kathleen Raven‘s account went viral, too, and that was the nail in the coffin. By the end of the week, Bora had resigned from his post at both Scientific American and the ScienceOnline conference.
So what was it like on my end?
I pose that question because the “calculus of survival” prevents so many women from coming forward. There seem to be lots of high-profile horror stories from fields controlled by men; for example, that of Richard Dawkins being awful to Rebecca Watson in the skeptic community and Edward Champion harassing Porochista Khakpour in the literary community. These stories are true, and the women’s experiences of them are true. But I worry that the high visibility of these stories give the impression that it’s the only narrative in town—that speaking up is necessarily dangerous, psychologically damaging, career-threatening, or even life-threatening.
So I’d like to share my story: that the aftermath of speaking up was, on the whole, a very positive experience. I hasten to emphasize that this is my experience and no one else’s, leavened by a number of factors: first, that I was a relative outsider in the science journalism community, which granted me a kind of long-term immunity from consequence, and also a clarity free from sentimental attachment to Bora or any other figure in the field. Second, that I had a wonderful support network of family and friends. Third, that I was already financially secure from having a contract for my first novel. Fourth, that I benefit enormously from racial, class, and cisgender privilege. And fifth, that I’d been educated from years of reading about, talking about, and living through these exact situations.
I knew I’d been right to speak up. I knew my interpretation of the event was correct. Nothing would change that.
There were dozens of comments on the original post. They’re an imperfect proxy for the experience, but here are the data (n=82) in those terms.
“Supporting” means the commenter expressed gratitude, solidarity, or told a similar story. “Trolling and/or Victim-Blaming” means the commenter tried to tell me I’d somehow invited the harassment, overreacted, misinterpreted, and so on. (I deleted those because, surprise!, it’s my blog.) “Derailing” means the commenter glommed onto an irrelevant detail and tried to redirect the reader to their pet peeve. “Neutral” means the commenter made some inconsequential observation. “Hate Speech” is what it sounds like. There were only two of those. One of them was posted by “Hugs4Hitler.” I laughed and then deleted them.
On Twitter, the direct responses I got were overwhelmingly supportive. Those that weren’t? I blocked. Because life is short.
My day-to-day life was largely unchanged. I made new friends in Hannah, Kathleen, Martin, Aatish, David, and many others, and counted myself lucky. When I met people in real life who had knowledge of the situation, they greeted me with warm gratitude and appreciation. I had a happy autumn with my friends and theatre company. I looked forward to research trips to Belize and the UK, my new play going into rehearsals in April, and my novel getting published in May. There was a kerfuffle around the New Year, with Bora staging a deeply misguided “comeback” (now deleted) and his friend Anton Zuiker posting an essay that was ostensibly a meditation on the meaning of friendship, but really a plea to sympathize with Bora (also now deleted). I was delighted to see that both were shut down quickly by the same members of the scientific community who’d been hesitant to respond in October. To me, that demonstrated that true change had occurred. I can’t speak for them more than that; I was, and remain, mostly an outsider. Others can describe what changes they’ve observed if they’d like.
But as for me, when the one-year anniversary came around, I didn’t even register it, because I was happily traveling in Iran, researching my second novel. I want to say publicly that, while the horror stories are true and valid, so is this one: speaking up was a deeply constructive, positive, and affirming experience—and then I forgot about it. This is as it should be. And I’d love for my narrative to be the usual one.
If you’re in a similar situation, you’re not alone. Trust yourself. The culture is changing.
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Photo: two pressed flowers from my friend Babak in Iran.
It was strange to be in Turkey after Iran. Just the sound of speech was disorienting. After the gentle swish of Farsi, Turkish sounded angular, unwieldy, as if its speakers were extracting rectangles from their mouths.
I’m interested in travel as a spiritual practice. I mean travel in the modern sense, with its airports, neck pillows, and veils of forgetting. Mystics from every tradition recognize the powers of sleep deprivation to induce altered states of mind. At Atatürk International Airport, in that half-exhausted and half-lucid state, I met people slinging from Greece to Riga…from Serbia to Dubai…from Tashkent to London. I sat at a restaurant in the crossroads and watched them all go by.
The human pageant is so bright.
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Photo: a Muharram procession in Tehran. Source here.
I finished The Persian Boy in the courtyard of my guesthouse in Shiraz. For the last ten pages, I was crying pretty openly, while my tea got cold. Later Mohamad told me that his friends at the next table were shocked; but he knew me, and told them to just let me be. It couldn’t be helped. I’ve been in love with Alexander—and especially Renault’s creation of Alexander—since I first read The Persian Boy when I was seventeen.
But at seventeen, I hadn’t yet seen death. Now I have. And my mother died in a very similar way to Alexander, over a period of days, moving back and forth between this world and the next, with the many changes of breathing, first shallow and rattling, then sharp inhales, then deep sighs, and then, nothing more.
Outside the guesthouse, the funeral drums beat all night. It’s Muharram in Iran now, the ten-day commemoration of the death of the third imam Hossein and his family—including his six-month-old son—at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. During the day, you can see the funeral trappings parked by the side of the street—cages threaded with flowers and lights, banners of a baby wrapped in green, pennants colored black, with Farsi writing in neon pink and orange—and at night, men take up the enormous alam’ha, which resemble giant menorahs, each weighing four hundred kilograms, and carry them on their shoulders down the street with the funeral parade, only a minute at a time, with a retinue of spotters; followed by the drummers beating full moons, and the grids of men in black turning ninety degrees with every boom, lashing their backs with zanjir. The marches bring the entire city to a halt, stretching for ten kilometers or more. From the courtyard it sounded like a great black caterpillar of noise, drums and lamentations rippling up and down the city, sounding like ten tapes played backwards on a psychedelic Beatles track.
I went back to my room and messaged a friend in Pakistan. We wondered at so much grief for someone so long dead, and the specific burden carried by those who traced their lineage back to that family, and what the martyrs themselves would think of these displays of grief for their sake.
But then I thought of my mother, thirteen years dead; and of Alexander, two thousand years dead, and how hard I cried for them, and I know it’s not for their sake at all.
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Photo: at the tomb of Hafez, the greatest Persian poet, in Shiraz.
First, I walked around the tomb seven times, and noticed that my breathing had become as slow and soft as if I were sleeping.
Then I ascended the stairs and touched my fingers to the tomb, as I’d seen Iranians do.
Then I sat down with my back to one of the pillars, asked a question in my mind, and opened The Divan of Hafez to a random page.
The question, I’ll keep to myself. But this was the answer:
Whoever holds a cup in hand
forever will rule over the land.
The Water of Life that Elias found
seek in the tavern where the cups stand.
The essence of soul, submit to the cup;
rules of the cup are in command.
We and the wine, pious and virtue—
let’s see which ones He will demand.
It is but a word from His lips
for he who has wished and planned.
Narcissus’s ways of drunkenness
were borrowed from His eye’s gland.
My heart pictures Your face and hair;
this prayer my day and night spanned.
It is the pain in the heart
who Your sweet lips understand.
Your features, Your goodness, O soul,
like HAFIZ, two hundred slaves command.
(Translated by Shahriar Shahriari.)
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Photo: Mohamad and I reading in a coffee shop in Isfahan; Tolstoy for him, Renault for me.
I remembered pretty late in this trip that one of my favorite books of all time, The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, is set in present-day Iran. I was reminded when touring a palace in Kashan and thought, “This is the kind of place Bagoas grew up in.” So I sat down by a column and reread the first few pages. Now I can’t put it down, even though I know everything that happens.
Bagoas was the name of a eunuch of legendary beauty who became Alexander the Great’s lover, close friend, and confidante during his conquest of Persia. The book begins with Alexander being only a distant rumor that filters in through harem gossip in the court of Darius. But when Alexander defeats Darius in three successive battles, and Darius is murdered by his own men, Bagoas gives himself over to the Macedonians. Then begins one of the greatest love stories of all time.
As for Mary Renault…there aren’t many writers whose work I feel like I wouldn’t be capable of producing, but she’s one of them. Each sentence of hers is like a perfectly distilled crystal that dissolves and expands once you drop it in water. When I’m reading her, I forget to eat, because I feel so full.
Here Bagoas describes the character of Alexander:
“He needed love as a palm tree needs water, all his life long: from armies, from cities, from conquered enemies, nothing was enough. It laid him open to false friends, as anyone will tell you. Well, for all that, no man is made a god when he is dead and can do no harm, without love. He needed love and never forgave its betrayal, which he had no understanding of. For he himself, if it was given with a whole heart, never misused it, nor despised the giver. He took it gratefully, and felt bound by it. I should know.”
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